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Posted on Oct 17, 2007 in Front Page Features, War College

Detachment 101: The OSS In Burma

By Sterling Rock Johnson

Detachment 101 was the brainchild of Millard Preston Goodfellow, a former Brooklyn newspaper publisher and Boys Club executive. As part of OSS activities, he prepared staff studies for intelligence and irregular warfare operations in Asia. Strategically located Burma was given special study. The OSS proposed a guerilla operation to Stilwell, and at first was turned down cold by the general. Stilwell, an orthodox officer was not alone in his rigid opposition to guerilla activities. General Douglas MacArthur would not permit the OSS to work in any area commanded by him during the war.

After continued entreaties from Goodfellow and Donovan, Stilwell reluctantly approved an OSS operation in Burma, particularly after they agreed to his choice as commander of the unit, Carl Eifler. Eifler was an army major and former border patrol officer who matched Donovan in girth and loudness, if not in fame. Donovan told him he was to head the first American unit ever assembled to conduct guerilla warfare, espionage, and sabotage behind enemy lines. They first named it Detachment 1, but didn’t want the British to know it was the only unit, so added the extra digits.


On April 14, 1942, Detachment 101 of the OSS was activated, although Stilwell was still skeptical about its future. He gave Eifler ninety days to get a guerilla warfare operation started behind the lines in Burma. "All I want to hear are booms from the jungle," he told Eifler.

The twenty-one original members of 101 established their base at Nazira in Assam, India, in May of 1942, and began to make initial probes into Japanese areas. Stilwell gave the unit a multiple assignment–deny the Japanese the use of Myitkyina airport and the roads and railways leading to it from the south, and closely coordinate operations with the British and Chinese.

A few 101 probes went overland into Burma in late 1942 with discouraging results, so it was decided to switch to parachute drops. On January 26, 1943, the first OSS men were dropped into northern Burma, and ten more went in soon after. By March, Eifler’s men were spreading out over the north, and the first landings had taken place in central Burma.

The Americans soon discovered that they would be fighting in one of the world’s worst climates and on some of its most forbidding terrain. They were forced to scale jagged mountains, hack their way through almost impenetrable jungles, and cross dusty plains where temperatures reached as high as 130 degrees. It sometimes rained as much as fifteen inches in a single day. Clothes and boots rotted off their bodies in the sweltering humidity. Malaria, dengue fever, cholera, scabies, yaws, typhus, and dysentery racked them. Spiders, scorpions, foot-long centipedes, and elephant leeches bedeviled their daily existence.

Clearly, a couple dozen Americans would have little effect in such an atmosphere against a hardened Japanese army. But, unwittingly, the Japanese themselves had sown the seeds for their ultimate defeat in Southeast Asia.

At first, the Japanese were seen as liberators freeing the Burmese from the British colonial yoke. But the Japanese treated the Burmese as they had the Chinese, brutally attacking the people and butchering entire villages. A tribe of hill people called the Kachins bore the brunt of the atrocities. As a result, the Kachins hated the Japanese, and many of them joined with Detachment 101 in fighting against the invaders.

The Kachin tribesmen were short, rugged men and born fighters, equally at home crossing mountain peaks and following virtually invisible tracks through the jungle. They had an uncanny ability to shadow their foes through the jungle for miles without being seen or heard, and in time, the Japanese came to fear and dread them. Detachment 101 eventually grew to a force of more than 10,000 guerillas.

From a string of outposts established along a 600-mile front, Detachment 101 units mounted repeated attacks on Japanese supply lines, blowing up bridges and railroads, disrupting communications, and providing intelligence for the Allies. Detachment 101’s patrols ferreted out Japanese camps and supply installations concealed in the jungle; providing such exact descriptions of local landmarks for pilots of the U.S. Tenth Air Force, that the Americans were able to bomb and strafe targets they couldn’t even see.

The presence of Detachment 101 patrols in the jungle also lifted the morale of American and British aircrews flying supplies over the "Hump" of the Himalayas from India to China. Now, for the first time, the fliers knew that if they crashed and survived, expert trackers would be coming to their aid. Detachment 101 even had its own air force—a ramshackle assortment of light planes used to supply its men in the field and to bring out wounded.

Detachment 101’s support of Major General Orde Wingate’s Chindits and Major General Frank Merrill’s Marauders was crucial to the Allied success in Burma and to eventual victory in Southeast Asia. The regular forces came to depend on the support of irregular units perhaps more than in any other theater of the war.

The Americans represented the peaks of industrialization, modernization, and education. The Kachins were from the other end of the spectrum—backward, primitive, and mostly illiterate. However, mutual respect bound them together. Men from both groups were usually loyal, dependable, and courageous. And they were all determined to run the Japanese out of Burma.

During three years of jungle warfare, Detachment 101 claimed to have killed 5,447 Japanese, while another 10,000 Japanese soldiers were wounded or reported missing. But the unit’s importance went beyond its kill rate alone. The constant possibility of ambush made the Japanese edgy and cautious, and ate away at their spirit and morale. When asked, Japanese prisoners rated each Kachin as equal to ten Japanese soldiers. The OSS estimated, in reality, the Kachins were even more effective—inflicting twenty-five casualties on the enemy for every casualty of their own. During its operations, Detachment 101 also destroyed fifty-one bridges and 277 military vehicles, while suffering the loss of 184 Kachins and only eighteen Americans killed in action.

Detachment 101 was deactivated on July 12, 1945. Skeptical to the end, Stilwell was dubious of the Kachin kill rate. "How can you be so sure of the numbers?," he asked a guerilla leader.

Dropping a bundle on Stilwell’s desk, the diminutive warrior said, "Count these ears and divide by two."

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  1. Armchair General staff cannot respond here. Please read
    disclaimer just above this text box before posting.Thank you for
    the information this site provides. My father, Bertram Kreis, was
    in Detachment 101 in Burma and since he rarely spoke of the
    challenges they bravely accomplished, it’s wonderful to read
    what the men and women did during these hard times of WWII.
    Jane Kreis, Hibbing, MN

  2. Great article! So cool to see you refer to your dad Jane! He was a great person. I still have the information Aunt Pat wrote about him!