Please remember his name: Captain Sein Tun
Please remember the name of this man – Captain Sein Tun, 2nd Battalion Burma Rifles, killed in action at Myitkyina on 18 January 1945.
In a recent post I put up the citation to Lieutenant George Knowland VC. My friend and fellow author Harry Fecitt immediately reminded me, quite correctly, that the award of a VC is very much dependent on the quality of the citation’s write-up. He sent me that of this remarkable man, Sein Tun. It’s a name that has been forgotten to history, but doesn’t deserve to be. Its also a reminder that heroism of the most extraordinary kind can in fact receive a perfect write-up in the citation, and yet fall at the final hurdle – the prejudice of the senior officer giving it final approval, or otherwise.
Captain Sein Tun was a member of the Burma Army, commissioned into the Burma Rifles and serving with them before the war. He took part in the retreat from Burma in 1942. He was a Shan.
Here he is, fourth from left in the middle row, in a photograph of the officers of 2 Burma Rifles (‘2 Burifs’) at Dehra Dun in 1944.
Sein Tun served in Wingate’s abortive first Chindit operation (Operation Longcloth) and in 1944 found himself posted to India Command’s equivalent to MI9, known as the Escape Group, or ‘E Group’. This extraordinary team of men was responsible for finding and helping Allied evaders make a successful home run back to China or India if they were shot down in or over Burma. This was a complex and dangerous task, dependent on friendly tribespeople for its success. In Burma the simple rule was that a village situated in the hills was more likely to provide help than those on the plains and valleys. This was born out by experience, and the Chins, Nagas and Karens gave valuable support to evaders and to escape organizations. Graham Pitchfork’s book ‘Shot Down and on the Run’ described the how it worked:
E Group Establishment 1 had specific responsibility for the Burma region, and had very close links with Headquarters 14th Army. An advanced E Group headquarters at Comilla in Assam controlled the operations of four forward headquarters, each located with an Army corps — the one located with 15 Corps had a special section to deal with evacuations by sea. Each forward headquarters organized a system of village watchers and guides within its sector who were responsible for contacting any evaders Who came into their area. Once in the hands of these field sections, an evader was taken to a prearranged rendezvous point before being evacuated down a 'rat line' through the enemy lines or to a rough airstrip for evacuation by a light aircraft. Also available were two teams of trained and well-armed agents, led by an officer, who were prepared to rescue, by force if necessary, POWs held in forward areas or evaders in a dangerous situation. In the period 1 February to 31 July 1944, 675 escapers and 119 evaders, including seventeen aircrew, succeeded in reaching Allied lines. Arrangements made by E Group with their watchers and other clandestine organizations were responsible for the rescue of ten of the aircrew.
Comprehensive details of E Group activities can be found in the National Archives at WO 208/3251 and 3252. Likewise MRD Foot’s book MI9: Escape and Evasion contains stories of some of the E Group adventures.
Captain Sein Tun was the leader of one such team. Michael Foot recounts his story:
The Americans ran some Air Jungle Rescue Detachments which did lively work in Burma in the last winter of the war. The Kalagwe incident, as it was called—Kalagwe is a village ninety miles WSW of Lashio—took place in January and February 1945 and illustrates the form. A B-25 Mitchell light bomber was shot down on 5 January. The navigator bailed out separately from the rest, and took six weeks to pick his own way back to safety through friendly villages where he was hidden from the Japanese. The other four of the crew were collected, again by friendly villagers; and an air jungle rescue team caught up with them several days later. The team cleared a small airstrip. Three successive L-1 light aircraft summoned by wireless flew into the strip; all crashed, on landing or take-off, though without casualties. E Group thereupon lent Captain Sein Tun, one of its most promising and experienced Burmese members. He parachuted in to join the party, now numbering seven besides himself. He had a cheerful and commanding presence, and at once took charge. They all set out on a westward march through the hills to the Irrawaddy, nearly forty miles away. He organised the making of bamboo rafts for the river crossing, in which one of the airmen was drowned. Just before the rest finally got through to safety, they stumbled on a hidden Japanese machine gun team. The airmen ran for it; Sein Tun took on the enemy single-handed, and was killed in action. As one of the L-1 pilots put it, 'He had more guts than any man I have ever seen.'
Major R.A. Simpson, Officer Commanding No. 3 Forward HQ ‘E’ Group, HQ Fourteenth Army immediately wrote up a citation for Captain Sein Tun to receive a posthumous Victoria Cross, which went all the way up to Lieutenant General Bill Slim, commanding 14 Army. Slim agreed, and forwarded the citation to the final authority, his boss, General Oliver Leese. The citation reads:
Captain SEIN TUN is an ‘E’ Group Officer of 3 Forward HQ ‘E’ Group, attached to Fourteenth Army. At the time of this action he was on special leave and had gone to MYITKYINA and District for the purpose of investigating the alleged death of his father who was believed to have been murdered by the Japanese. More than a week before this action four American airmen had been forces to bale out of a stricken B-25 aircraft over Japanese occupied territory. All attempts to rescue them by air pick up had failed. One of the rescue aircraft had crashed but the pilot was safe and had increased the stranded party to five. Captain SEIN TUN, on hearing of the stranded airmen, despite his preoccupation concerning the fate of his father, volunteered to parachute in to the rescue of the American aircrew. Captain SEIN TUN’s readiness to be dropped in to hazardous and enemy infested territory showed outstanding courage.
As the airmen had been stranded for more than a week, and as considerable attention was being drawn to their presence by numerous aircraft constantly flying overhead, it was vital that no further time be lost in rescuing them. The arrangements for Captain SEIN TUN’s jump, therefore, could be only hurriedly and sketchily made. Captain SEIN TUN (fully recognising the urgency of his self-imposed mission) jumped in the early afternoon of 13 January 1945 without wireless transmission equipment for air or ground liaison.
Captain SEIN TUN had planned two courses of action, firstly, to make a further attempt to make an air pick up, and secondly, in the event of the air pick up proving unsuccessful, to guide the party out westwards towards the British lines on the IRRAWADDY. The air pick up again failed, and as a result of an aircraft crashing when making the attempt, two more American pilots were added to the party making seven airmen in all.
Captain SEIN TUN then began the march to guide the party through Japanese infested country which would finally entail infiltration through the enemy’s lines. He had no information of the dispositions of the enemy, and more difficult country would be hard to imagine. Captain SEIN TUN brought the party safely to the East bank of the IRRAWADDY and near to our lines. The party then met, on the night of 18 January 1945, a Japanese position strongly held by not less than 50 of the enemy with machine guns and mortars. The enemy attacked the party with machine gun and small arms fire and grenades. Captain SEIN TUN, who was in the lead, was immediately wounded in the shoulder. Showing superb courage, leadership and devotion to duty he had voluntarily set himself, Captain SEIN TUN gave orders for the Americans to withdraw and cross the IRRAWADDY while he engaged the enemy force. One airman was killed and one drowned, but so effectively did Captain SEIN TUN hold the Japanese that the remainder were able to withdraw to safety. To make their withdrawal possible Captain SEIN TUN gave his life it being confirmed that he was killed on the spot at which he had elected to make his courageous stand.
Throughout, Captain SEIN TUN’s conduct and leadership was beyond all praise. This gallant officer, knowing that his chances of success were slender showed the very highest personal courage, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice.
I don’t want to think ill of Lieutenant General Oliver Leese, Commander in Chief Allied Land Forces South-East Asia, but I can’t help thinking that this recommendation for a VC should have gone though. Instead, it was downgraded to the lowest award possible, a Mention in Despatches.
On this occasion I fear a remarkably brave man was particularly ill-served. We can’t change history, sadly, but the least we can do is to remember his name: Captain Sein Tun MiD.
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