Peter Lutken (1920-2014), tall and thin with protruding ears, grew up in Mississippi and was an experienced outdoorsman and hunter. Commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant on his 21st birthday, he fought in Burma for three years during World War II and reached the rank of major. In 2007 his son recorded and transcribed his frequently-told adventures. Recently, his daughter shaped his still-vivid memories into a clear narrative. He borrowed his title from Kipling’s “The Return” in A Thousand Places Left Behind: One Soldier’s Account of Jungle Warfare (University Press of Mississippi), and included many good photos and maps from his scrapbook.
This book contains a series of short, lively scenes about his unusual exploits, with headings such as Naga Hospitality, Feast of Lights, Leaving Udang Bum and Deadly Air Drop. Lutken has an engaging, country-boy colloquial style. He often uses the euphemistic “dadgum” for “God damn,” as well as “dang hot,” “the dangest thing,” “fixing to go,” “eating on it” and “real whipper do,” combined with the formal “to my knowledge” and “unbeknownst to him.” The native women “were pretty free to mess around before marriage,” but “they didn’t believe much in smooching.”
After training in military bases in Illinois and Texas, Lutken sailed for 58 days from South Carolina to Sierra Leone in West Africa, around the stormy Cape of Good Hope to Durban, South Africa, and finally disembarked in Karachi, India. He was immediately shocked to see a man and woman with wild hair, covered with ashes and completely naked. They were fakirs, “holy people who do nothing but contemplate.” He tried to kill goat-eating crocodiles in a pond, but they escaped by swimming between the legs of the men trying to herd them toward his shot, and were in danger of being eaten alive.
Lutken entered Burma from Assam in northeast India in September 1942, after the Allies had been disastrously defeated by the Japanese and the Americans under General Joseph Stilwell had assumed command of the northern sector of the country. The Kachins, an ethnic group in northern Burma, were longtime enemies of the Burmese people allied to the Japanese, and bravely fought under Lutken throughout the war. (The Burmese Army officially switched sides in March 1945 when it was clear the Allies would win the war.) Lutken learned the Kachin language, which was essential, picked up some Urdu and Chinese, and spoke them all with a southern drawl. His main duty, sometimes after parachuting as many as 200 miles behind enemy lines, was to find information about navigable rivers and possible airfields, about the Japanese locations, trails, patrol patterns, weapons and strengths, and send it by radio to headquarters. Many refugees died while fleeing from the brutal Japanese army and their skulls were put on sticks to mark the trail.
On October 31, 1943, Lutken said he suddenly “felt like somebody had hit me with a hammer right in my tail.” The doctors later told him he was lucky: “An eighth of an inch higher and the bullet would have hit you in the tailbone and wrecked your spine. Half an inch or so lower, it would have torn all your plumbing to pieces, and you probably wouldn’t have lived at all.” His wound wouldn’t heal, but he was able to walk.
In the same action his Chinese troops, mindlessly following orders of their officer, charged into Japanese machine guns and were mowed down at a range of 25 yards. Their avoidable casualties were 48 dead and 200 wounded. By contrast, Lutken’s men avoided pitched battles, fought a hit-and-run war, blew up bridges, set up ambushes and disappeared into the jungle before the enemy could react. Diseases—dysentery, malaria, typhus and smallpox—were rampant. Forced to be a medic, Lutken pulled a rotten tooth and sucked out the venom from a snakebite. His other formidable opponents were the jungle, monsoons, raging rivers and earthquakes, as well as leeches, mosquitoes, lice, fleas, rats, unruly elephants and man-eating tigers. To relieve the tension, his Kachins stuffed a dead tiger and put it in his lean-to. When he saw it and thought it was real, he “scrambled back out of that hut in a big fat hurry.”
When he managed to kill a buffalo from an abandoned village and wanted to fly the precious meat back to his base, the pilot wasn’t sure he could lift the extra 800 pounds off the ground. Lutken held the bloody haunch out of the open door and onto the wing strut so he could drop it if the pilot signaled that he couldn’t take off. Blowing up bridges in Burma was very like the demolition work on the notorious River Kwai in Thailand: “The main line supplying the Japanese was a meter gauge railroad track running north and south. It extended from Rangoon up to Myitkyina. From our position at Nadawng, in late August of ’44, we began blowing up that railroad at intervals. The standard procedure was to scout out a bridge in daylight, see how many piers were under it and figure out the best place to plant the charges.” Like Frederic Henry in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Lutken also paddled a dugout canoe for 20 miles all through the night and part of the next day until he finally got to the end of a lake. He’d been isolated in the jungle for a very long time and headquarters heard that, like Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, he “had gone mad, gone native, didn’t even talk English.”
In one of their bloody attacks, “the Japanese at the nearby campsite came out like they were coming out of a hornet’s nest, barreling out onto the track. There were probably close to a dozen in that particular spot, serving as an outpost to defend against people like us. Too bad for them, because our folks were there in a bunch and mopped up on them very quickly.” As he moved south in the summer of 1944 the Allies under General William Slim, who began as a private and rose through the ranks, broke the back of the Japanese army in Burma. The enemy had invaded the country with 325,000 troops and were reduced to 100,000 before their final retreat. At the end of the war Lutken’s men had “killed something over 5,000 Japanese and lost 328 Kachins and 20 some-odd Americans. That’s the way guerrilla warfare works. You kill them, but when they get to where they can kill you, you leave.”
Lutken had walked about 4,000 miles through the jungles of northern Burma. A natural leader, tough and resourceful, he bravely continued to fight even when wounded and seriously ill. Lutken didn’t have the same glamour and fame as Orde Wingate, who led the Chindits in Burma, but he survived the war and left a valuable record of his campaigns.
Jeffrey Meyers followed Orwell’s footsteps in Burma in 2000. His book on his novelist-friend James Salter will be out in the spring of 2024. His book Parallel Lives, from Freud and Mann to Arbus and Plath, will also be published, in 2025, by Louisiana State University Press.
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