The Forgotten Jungle War

Anne Lovett author photoRelevant History welcomes Anne Lovett, a native Georgian descended from generations of cotton farmers, as well as teachers, preachers, and pioneer women from the Wiregrass region. She has published literary short stories, personal essays, journalism, and poetry. She lives in Atlanta with her husband and rescue cat. Rubies from Burma, a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Competition, is her first novel, and has recently earned a Kirkus-starred review. For more information about her and her books, visit her web site, and follow her on Facebook.


“Did Americans really serve in Burma in World War II?” someone asked recently. “That is, besides the Flying Tigers?” The legendary group of American fighter pilots flew for China before Pearl Harbor, gaining fame from a 1942 movie about their exploits. (There’s talk of another film in the works.)

“Have you heard of Merrill’s Marauders?” I countered. “The Burma Road? The Army Corps of Engineers helped to build that. And,” I said, “the movie Francis, the Talking Mule, was set in Burma.”

“Oh, yes!” was the answer. But how quickly we forget.

American soldiers cross river with mulesSome people think that Vietnam was American’s first taste of jungle warfare. While researching Burma’s involvement in World War II, it struck me that if our military could have taken what was learned in Burma and applied those lessons in Indochina, lives might have been saved.

Of course, Burma wasn’t America’s main interest as we struggled in Europe and the Pacific. The country was then a colony of the British, and the Burmese had been clamoring for independence. Did America really want to save Britain’s colonial presence? But the Japanese plan was to create their own empire. Our interest was in driving out the Japanese and ending their plans of conquest.

OSS and Detachment 101
An important part of this American strategy was Detachment 101 of the OSS. The Department of Information, later to become the Office of Strategic Services, was President Roosevelt’s brainchild, a way for him to get clandestine information about the enemy firsthand. That office found the supremely able Captain Carl Eifler, who’d headed a successful spy mission in Mexico, and appointed him to lead a contingent of well-trained officers and enlisted men into Burma, behind the lines, for information-gathering, sabotage, and rescue missions.

Why did I choose that service for my hero, an honest, upright guy? Doing so gave me a poignant question to explore in my novel. What would happen if a soldier found that to do his duty, to use his talents to help win the war, he had to take actions that went against his core values? I wanted to tell that story. As well, I had a logistical reason to choose Detachment 101.

All I knew about my character when I began writing Rubies from Burma was that he served in Burma, had come back with “battle fatigue”, what we now call PTSD, and brought rubies. I had to come up with the details. I didn’t see him building a road, I didn’t want him to be a pilot, and Merrill’s raid came at the wrong time in the war for my purposes. That left Detachment 101, its mission, and its question for my hero.

Research for Rubies from Burma
My research involved reading as much about that war as I could. History class was far behind me, so to brush up my knowledge, I watched both the mini-series “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance,” based on the novels by Herman Wouk. I then plunged into reading books. (See bibliography at the end of this essay). After I finished my reading, I felt I had a good enough window into the mind of my soldier to allow me to write his war diary.

JungleI found during my reading that the Burmese nation consisted of many different tribes or ethnic groups, some with customs which might seem primitive, such as cutting off the heads of their enemies and drying them. They had no love for the British, but they wanted badly to drive out the Japanese, and were willing to help the Americans fight them. The Kachins, for instance, knew the jungle, and were willing to lead those who parachuted there to safety. They had their price, and it wasn’t American dollars. What they wanted was opium.

Whatever it takes, was the attitude. Opium was acquired. What was not so easy to come by was weaponry other than spears and knives to fight the invaders. They wanted guns. How to arm these fierce fighters? The officers in charge sent back to the U.S. and found, with the war raging in Europe and the Pacific, that there were no guns to be spared for this mission.

Eifler, by then a colonel, insisted that they had to have some kind of weapon. Finally crates arrived from America. Opening them, the Americans were stunned to see muzzle-loaders left over from the Civil War. A large cache had been had been found in an Army warehouse.

The locals happily put them to use.

Partial Bibliography for Rubies from Burma:

  • This Grim and Savage Game: O.S.S. and the Beginning of U.S Covert Operations in WWII, Tom Moon, Burning Gate Press, Los Angeles, 1991
  • A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurkha Rifles: A Burma Memoir, Scott Gilmore with Patrick Davis, Brassey’s, Washington, 1995
  • Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma, George MacDonald Fraser, HarperCollins, London, 1995
  • Battle for Burma, E.D. Smith, Holmes & Meyer, New York, 1979
  • The Stilwell Papers, Joseph W. Stilwell, Willian Sloane Associates, New York, 1948
  • Burma Surgeon, Gordon S. Seagrave. M.D, W.W. Norton, 1943
  • Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, Paul Fussell, Oxford University Press, 1989


Rubies from Burma book coverA big thanks to Anne Lovett. She’ll give away an ebook copy of Rubies from Burma to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Making a War Cake

Sarah Shaber author photoRelevant History welcomes historical mystery author Sarah Shaber. She’s the author of the Professor Simon Shaw mystery series. Simon Said, first book of the series, won the St. Malice Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery award. Louise’s War is the first book in her new mystery series set in Washington DC during World War II. The sequel, Louise’s Gamble, is scheduled for publication in May 2012. Sarah also edited Tar Heel Dead, a collection of short stories by North Carolina mystery writers. Sarah lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with her husband Steve and an autocratic miniature schnauzer. For more information, check her web site, and follow her on Facebook.


WW2 rationing stampDuring World War II rationing was a fact of life. We’ve heard all about the shortages, ration books, and sacrifices made by Americans on the home front. But what exactly did it mean to make do with so much less of everything?

Of all the shortages that tested American tempers, food restrictions had the greatest daily impact. Butter, meat, canned goods, chocolate, coffee, eggs, and sugar were in short supply even before formal rationing began. Not just because the troops needed them, but because the government needed to conserve the fuel needed to transport these commodities.

Americans were accustomed to eating dessert every day, enjoying beef most nights for dinner, eggs every morning for breakfast, and consuming all the butter and coffee they wanted. Chicken and fish weren’t rationed, but at the time Americans thought of them as lesser sources of protein. Margarine and artificial sweeteners hadn’t been invented.

Sugar was the first item to be rationed officially, in May of 1942. A butter shortage followed shortly, and the average American cook wondered what in heaven’s name she was supposed to fix for dinner. New recipes crowded the women’s magazines and newspapers. Mashed potato, bacon and cheese casserole, macaroni and cheese, and Welsh rarebit became main dishes, much to the shock of those who wanted their roast beef or steak!’

War cakeDessert might have been the hardest loss to take. The American housewife usually baked a cake, a pie, or cookies every single day. She was expected to keep making those cakes, pies, and cookies! And prune whip wasn’t an acceptable alternative.

Louise Pearlie, the heroine of Louise’s War, my World War II novel set in Washington, DC, missed her sugar and butter as much as anyone. She and her fellow boarders did have eggs, because they had chickens in the back yard, but otherwise they dealt with the same restrictions as anyone else, complicated by the fact that Dellaphine, the boarding house cook, had all their ration books and kept them under lock and key! Dellaphine didn’t cook on the weekends, except for Sunday dinner, so on a Saturday Louise often found herself in the kitchen baking one of the many war cakes from the recipes in Recipes for Today, the WWII ration cookbook published by the General Foods Corporation. It was a nice break from a long week working at the spy agency OSS.

I decided to bake a war cake myself, to see what it was like to cook with such meager ingredients, and especially, to see what a war cake tasted like! I got my recipe, called the One Egg Wonder Cake, from the same cookbook Louise did, and started with the same paltry ingredients. Flour, baking powder, vegetable shortening, one cup of sugar (could have used a half cup sugar and a half cup of corn syrup), one measly egg, and a little milk and vanilla. I added some maple syrup, cinnamon and raisins to make the “spice” variation. The batter was thin and unappetizing, only about an inch deep in the baking dish. Tasting the batter did not make me optimistic about the outcome of my experiment!

War ration couponI baked the cake at 375 degrees for about 35 minutes. It came out of the oven golden brown, maybe an inch and a half high. I couldn’t frost it, of course. Louise wouldn’t have had enough sugar and butter to do that.

So how did it taste? Not half bad! It wasn’t as moist and rich as a “real” cake, but it wasn’t dry either. It tasted sort of like a spiced tea cake, and would have been good as an afternoon snack with milk or coffee, if there was enough of either to go around.

I’m sure Louise and her fellow boarders appreciated having this cake for dessert after a predictable meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cabbage, and iced tea. I’m just as sure they’d rather have had brownies!


Louise's War book coverA big thanks to Sarah Shaber. She’ll give away one hardback copy of Louise’s War to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Sunday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery in the U.S. and Canada is available.


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