Veterans repay their wartime debt of thanks
Updated: 2012-03-24 09:03
They're in their 80s and 90s, and it all happened a very long time ago and far away, but American World War II veterans are still repaying "debts" to their comrades-in-arms in northern Myanmar - because without them they might never have returned home.
Instead of retelling war stories as old soldiers are prone to do, these survivors of some of the war's harshest campaigns have set up education, health and other programs in this remote region to help the Kachin, an ethnic group they fought alongside with against the Japanese.
The brotherly bonds, both sides say, have not been severed despite the passing of 70 years.
"We were all for one and one for all," remembers American Sam Spector of his days as an 18-year-old combat radio operator.
Among the ravishing mountains and valleys, the Kachin remember the Americans in a legendary light, as part of their folklore.
It was an improbable but remarkable partnership. The Americans came from the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA. Young and inexperienced, most had only seen jungles in the movies. Some of the Kachin, then a largely illiterate people, had never seen a wheel. The Kachin tutored the newcomers in jungle survival and in turn were taught modern warfare.
They formed a guerrilla force, the Kachin Rangers, which numbered 10,800 at its peak and killed 5,400 Japanese while losing only 202 of their own - one of the highest kill-loss ratios in US military history. They demolished Japanese bridges and trains, provided intelligence and rescued 425 downed airmen.
Experts at ambush, the Kachin terrorized the enemy with stealth and ferocity. When one general questioned the high body counts, a Kachin fighter dropped a bundle on his desk and said, "Count the ears and divide by two."
Peter Lutken, a battalion commander who fought with the Kachin behind Japanese lines, learned their language and culture around campfires.
"They loved him and he probably would not be alive today without their friendship - neither would most other American and British soldiers in that part of the war," said his son, Peter Lutken III.
The elder Lutken, a retired businessman who lives in Dallas, was among a group of veterans who made a return trip to Myanmar in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II.
"When the war ended, we walked off and left them with a few medals, a few presents and nothing else," he said before that trip. "It wasn't right."
He spoke of "a debt of honor" owed by his unit, Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services.
An initial effort right after the war failed, and subsequent ones were stalled by Myanmar's government, which was trying to suppress the Kachin insurgency and also growing more hostile to the United States.
In 1996 the veterans began Project Old Soldier, training impoverished villagers to plant corn, buckwheat and other crops instead of opium, sending nurses to visit ailing Kachin veterans and aiding orphans.
Eight years later they started 101 Schools, which teaches mathematics and English to classes of up to 500 students in open-sided sheds, barns and church outbuildings in the largely Christian community.
The veterans have not been to Kachin State since the 1990s but continue to funnel in funds from the United States.
Among the few foreign aid groups allowed to operate in northern Myanmar, the two organizations have funded the translation and printing of healthcare manuals and hope to assist some of the more than 75,000 refugees from fighting which erupted again last year.
The Kachin first took up arms against the regime in 1961 and Kachin State remains a patchwork of areas, some controlled by the government and others by the rebel Kachin Independence Organization.
Dan Tarter, a retired U.S. Army colonel who administers 101 Schools, says that after some initial wariness the government has not interfered in the veterans' efforts, even inviting them to expand the projects. He ascribes this to the low profile and nonpolitical, nonreligious nature of the aid.
"We operate like a program named for 0SS 101 should operate - quietly," he says.
The Kachin insurgents welcome the assistance.
"American veterans and their children are grateful to us. We are also grateful to them, because they have tried to help the children of the Kachin veterans," says La Nan, a spokesman at rebel headquarters in Laiza.
But he regretted that "this spirit only applies to the old generation of Americans" while the United States appears to have forgotten the once strong ties at a time when the Kachin are embroiled in another conflict.
The US is pressuring Myanmar to resolve its ethnic wars, but the Kachin hope for even greater diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. Some of the US veterans agree, recalling the friendships and mutual trust.
"I was accepted fully by the Kachins and I respected their life, their ethics, their innocence, which was not much different from mine," says Spector.
After the war he moved to Rome, Georgia, and became a lawyer, businessman and university professor.
He was among those who returned in 1995. During an emotional reunion, Lutken spoke to a group of young Kachin women in their language, mentioning the name by which he was known during the war: Ka'Ang Zau Lai, or "He who went through it from beginning to end."
"The girls all knew it. Pete had become a part of the living history of the Kachin people. The girls started to cry at meeting this old warrior and hero of the Kachin," says Barry Broman, a retired US diplomat, who hosted a party for the group in Yangon.