Dredging up the past in Manipur’s capital, Imphal, is turning up not pottery, bricks and bones but bayonets, bullets and bombs. This World War II memorabilia and the museum that houses it are part of an effort to make sure that the pitched and bloody battles fought in Imphal and Kohima, between the Japanese and the Allied forces during the Second World War, are not forgotten.
Leading this initiative is a Manipur resident, Arambam Angamba Singh, who is conducting battlefield tours to help war veterans revisit their past and heal; recovering the remains of soldiers for repatriation, and excavating WW II paraphernalia and putting it on display in the Imphal Peace Museum set up by an organisation he co-founded.
Some of the fiercest fighting of World War II (1939-45) took place in Imphal and Kohima, the capital of Nagaland, and Singh is dedicating his work to all those who lost their lives in this theatre of war. Nationality, he says, does not matter. It is a cathartic experience and one that holds a lot of meaning for the locals as well as the veterans and their families whose lives were irrevocably changed by the war.
The Japanese Offensive
In the summer of 1944, the Imperial Japanese Army came rolling down the hills of Northern Myanmar into the Indian states of Nagaland and Manipur. Along with them came Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. For the Japanese, this was to be the “furthest battle” in the words of author Leslie Edwards, and for British India, this was their Thermopylae. Instead, the Japanese invasion was called the ‘U Go Offensive’, a series of fierce battles where the Allies, comprising British, Indian and American soldiers, managed to hold back the Japanese.
The Empire of Japan entered World War II with the attack on the American Naval Base of Pearl Harbour on 7th December 1941. By 1942, the Japanese had captured most of South East Asia, including what is now Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. This was followed by the invasion of Burma, and by March 1942, Rangoon had fallen. With the Japanese approaching, the Burma Corps of the British army had withdrawn to Manipur, in British India. For a year and a half, there was a lull in the warfare as the Japanese focused on the Pacific front against the United States (US).
The U Go Offensive was the Japanese plan to capture Imphal and Kohima, important towns on the army logistics route from Dimapur in Assam to the Yunan province of China. On 15th March 1944, the Japanese’s 31st Division crossed the Chindwin River in Myanmar and moved north-west along jungle trails in an arduous march. They clashed with Indian troops guarding the northern route to Imphal on the 20th of March.
The siege of Kohima began on the 6th of April as the Japanese began shelling British-Indian defenders and slowly driving them into a small area around Garrison Hill. Kohima was strategically important to the Japanese since it was at the summit of a pass that allowed the best access into India from Myanmar.
Some of the fiercest fighting took place in the north of Kohima Ridge, around the Deputy Commissioner's bungalow and tennis court. This is now called the Battle of the Tennis Court. Meanwhile, Japanese tanks clashed with the defending allies on the 20th of March, as another Japanese advance moved towards attacking Imphal from the East. However, all Japanese advances towards Imphal came to a grinding halt by the 1st of May.
By the 20th of April, Garrison Hill had been relieved by fresh British troops of the British 6th Brigade. The British plan originally had been to withdraw into the plains and force the Japanese to fight with impossibly stretched supply lines. The plan finally began to take effect as starving Japanese units began their retreat on the 31st of May. The Japanese had suffered huge losses in their campaign to try and capture Imphal and Kohima, and these would weaken their defence of Myanmar, when the Allies counter-attacked the following year.
For the last decade or more, this battle in and around Imphal and Kohima has been an obsession for Arambam Angamba Singh. Not only has Singh researched the battle thoroughly, but he has also explored and mapped the battlefields, helped foreign governments find remains of soldiers and has now turned his obsession into a business.
Singh grew up in Imphal, the eldest of three siblings. His father served in the Indian Army, which is what sparked his interest in the battles of Imphal and Kohima. “I was well aware of the twin battles long, long ago. Since my father had served in the army, he had many books on military and war history in the house. It was always an exciting pastime to flip through those black-and-white photographs in these books on the twin battles. My father was another source of inspiring stories from the battle and he told me stories about Ganju Lama, the Victoria Cross recipient, who joined from my father’s unit after independence. There were also the memories of my father’s family fleeing Imphal in the wake of the Japanese air raid.”
During the war, Manipur became the battleground between two antagonists – the Allies and the Japanese – in a tide-turning event during WWII. The Japanese advanced into Manipur and Kohima, the forward advance bases of the Allies, with a plan to capture and proceed further into the Indian subcontinent with strong support from the Indian National Army led by Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
The campaign lasted around four months. From an Indian’s perspective, the need to remember this part of our history is of paramount importance. Manipur changed forever after the war. In the words of historian Saroj Nalini Arambam Paratt, “Manipur was forcefully dragged into the modern world”. A small example of this would be the restaurant chain ‘Ok Chicken’ of Manipur. The name originates in the Second World War. As American and British trucks rolled through the then mud roads of Imphal, they would often get stuck and local help would be needed to push them out. Once the truck was free, the driver would yell, “Ok”. The word caught on with the locals and ‘Ok Chicken’ started up in the wake of the war.
Around 15 years ago, Singh began collecting relics of the war. Much of the Manipur landscape remains unchanged. It is still possible to climb Red Hill, for example, the site of a major engagement, and find trenches dug by the Japanese and machine-gun positions overlooking roads that are still in use. Also surviving and still in its original form is the headquarters of the INA in Moirang. About 200 metres away is the spot where the Indian flag was raised for the second time on Indian soil (the first time on the Indian mainland), on 14th April 1944 by Colonel Shaukat Malik of the INA.
The spot is now occupied by the INA Museum, while the old Moirang police station, which used to stand on the opposite side of the road, has turned into a parking lot. Even the original memorial stone for Major John Richard Gerard Finch of the Bombay Sappers and Miners, who built a section of the old Ukhrul Road in 1942-43, still survives. The spot, in fact, is today known as ‘Finch’s Corner’.
Little surprise then that one would find relics of the war such as bullet casings, shells, guns, gas masks and even remains of aircraft and military vehicles. Among the more prized relics are articles of personal use belonging to soldiers, such as cutlery, uniforms and even shaving equipment. Among the collection in the Kohima WWII Museum are cups and plates of bone china used by British soldiers and made by Bengal Pottery in Kolkata!
Humanising The Conflict
In 2013, Singh co-founded the Second World War Imphal Campaign Foundation. The foundation received its first gift from a friend living in the United States – a pair of metal detectors. With all the relics he gathered, Singh was able to realise a long-cherished dream in 2019 – the setting up of the Imphal Peace Museum. He says, “It is dedicated to the memory of all those fallen soldiers, irrespective of colour, caste, creed and nation. It is also dedicated to all those civilians who perished as a direct fallout of the campaign. The museum now stands as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.”
The museum houses not just relics from the war, but gives visitors a complete overview of the campaign and how it affected the people of the region. Few people know, for instance, that in the early days of the Japanese campaign, soldiers ran out of food and were reduced to begging the locals for food. There is also the story of the Argentine mules. The Allies imported mules from Argentina as beasts of burden during their campaign against the Japanese. However, they were concerned that the braying of the mules would give away their positions. Each mule, therefore, had its voice box surgically removed! Singh recently unearthed a complete harness used on one such mule.
Naturally, his work has attracted the attention of the Japanese. Singh says he has been closely associated with the Japanese, starting with the early days of the formation of the Second World War Imphal Campaign Foundation. “I have also done extensive research on the Japanese Imphal Operation,” he says. “I have been fortunate enough to present on the Japanese war perspectives at the Military Literature Festival held recently in Chandigarh. I have personally helped many Japanese veteran families, war history enthusiasts, students and tourists in retracing the footsteps of their relatives and understanding the operation.” The Imphal Peace Museum now operates with financial support from the Nippon Foundation, Tokyo.
Singh recalls a Japanese veteran who he took on a tour, who pointed out a particular hill where he had had a terrible experience. “They were trying to escape from the Americans, who were beneath the hill. As they scrambled to escape, American machine gunners started picking them off, one after another. The unit was composed of this gentleman’s school seniors. He saw all of them die in a matter of minutes.”
At present, the foundation has an agreement with the Japan Association of Recovery and Repatriation of War Casualties in the mission to research and recover the remains of Japanese soldiers. Singh is unwilling to reveal details of his work for the Japanese government but says he has recently unearthed a mass grave.
About seven years ago, Singh decided to quit his full-time job to devote more time to his ever-exciting passion. As more and more tourists and veterans of the war kept coming to Manipur, Singh realised he needed the means to handle their trips professionally. This gave birth to the Imphal Battle Remembrance Tours, a company that strives to keep the rich WWII history of Manipur alive while helping visitors explore it.
Since Manipur receives many Japanese visitors, one wonders what the Japanese people think of the campaign. Officially, Japan has apologised dozens of times for the war and the suffering the Japanese Empire inflicted on its neighbours. However, unlike Germany, it has not included Japanese atrocities in China and Korea in its school syllabus. Singh, who has visited Japan many times, says, “Even as the Japanese population is divided on the opinion of the campaign, nevertheless it is generally taken as one of the most reckless military operations of all time, because it was absolutely ill-timed and not properly planned. But the Japanese are also pretty shocked at the average Manipuri’s fondness of the Japanese, and their present soft corner born out of pity, reflective of the sad WW2 debacle.”
Almost every major city in India today has heritage walks but battlefield tours are new. Nevertheless, Singh is upbeat. “I have high hopes for the future of battlefield tourism in this region. The local reactions and the response have been very encouraging.”
Cover Image: Imphal British War Cemetery by Author
Deepanjan Ghosh is a broadcast professional from Kolkata, India. A history buff, a landscape and architecture photographer and blogger, he has has been writing about heritage since 2013.