By Robb Edmonds "Basha" defined and described for they that... From various sources, combined and intermixed. One says, "The word basha is definitely Assamese." (Assam is a state in north India, bordered on the east by Burma). "As that is they only place the structures exist." The Ex-CBI Roundup had a photo with the caption, "Typical basha at Camp Angus near Calcutta." That's many miles south of Assam. It is defined as a hut that can range from tool shed size dwellings with a low ceiling, to warehouses, headquarters buildings and field hospitals. They are made with a bamboo or small-diameter trees frame, thatched roof and 4 foot by 4 foot chata mat walls, which are made of half inch woven strips of bamboo smeared outside and sometimes inside with mud or crude cement. The roofs leaked only when it rained, but were safe havens for rats and, sometimes, snakes. Another source says, "This is the way houses were built in England 1000 years ago." (We assume not with bamboo). "Why the CBIVA chose to name their chapters bashas is odd because only a percentage of us ever lived in one, as we were stationed all over the Subcontinent, says another "I was there" veteran. Remember, Laurel and Hardy in the movie "Sons of the Desert" were members of a fraternal organization of that name, and their chapters were called Tents. So it's OK for us to call ours Bashas. For no reason, even.
The CBI From A to Z- April 2010
Despite 11 months in wartime China, I still have a liking for Chinese food. However, we were served American-type meals. Our mess buildings (in most cases) were built in the shape of a capital H, with one leg of our dining area and the other for the native civilian employees on the base or field. The bar between legs was the kitchen, where separate menus were prepared. I remember asking the mess boy for jee tau fahn, and one or more of my companions in cuisine said, "Are you nuts?" To which I replied, probably, "I happen to like chicken fried rice." They were probably thinking, "Sanitation, man, sanitation!" My yearning was satisfied and my ignorant self survived. Burp! Excuse it.
How many times, in a fast food shack (where it sometimes comes up faster than it went down) have you inhaled a ration and, "Blecchhh!" It tasted like the grounds were from a chicken coop? For true: China, World War the Second: Sugar was raw with splinters of cane and evidence that large rodents had roamed the rafters above the pre-shipping bins. The first week or so when the debris surfaced we had a mess boy dump it and we learned to drink that fiendish brew black. However, for we who were addicted to sugar, in time we merely skimmed the surface with a spoon and flicked the debris onto the floor, trying not to give it a second thought as we satisfied our craving for caffeine. Swami Rivah says, "When you get an unexpected mouthful of hot coffee, whatever you do next-is going to be WRONG!!" If I've caused anyone distress, I've succeeded.
And, that's how they got the name. In Burma, the 80th Group of the 89th Fighter Squadron P-40's had a death's head painted on each side of the engine cowling, which was intended to send a message to the Japanese ground forces. A belly mounted air siren was sometimes used, which created what the Group members called the "Banshee wail". The 80th Fighter Group thus acquired the name, "The Burma Banshees". When they flew over, I'll bet the neighbors complained.
At Tulihal Air Strip in Assam, the HQ and mess hall/night time movie palace were on the only low hill in the area. At the base was a shelter with 5 or 6 shower heads with cold water (felt good on a hot day) which was fed to them via a pipe that disappeared into the distance along the base of that mini-Hump. Four of us went by jeep to the site, got into a shower and slathered ourselves (can that be done?) and the water ceased to flow. Our eyes followed the pipeline (they soon returned) to where three workmen were at a valve some 50 yards away. They were assaulted with four voices in concert, "Pani, dammit, Pani!" ("Water, cuss word, water"). It took a few m ore shouts til they restored the flow, then squatted to wait for our OK to resume whatever they had been doing. I'm glad now that it happened. It's been a slow 20th century day here in the 21st century.
Not all of my humorous (to me) off-beat episodes occurred en route or in CBI. I got my Signal Corps training at Camp (now Fort) Crowder, Missouri. The huge reservation, which also was headquarters for the Second Army, covered vast farmland. The tenants had been relocated during the wartime expansion, and the houses and out buildings remained. Doors, windows, frames and all had been removed, along with everything else, inside and out. For one of our practical final exams we were taken to one of those farmhouses to climb the pole outside, connect a wire to the junction box, then run it to the lightning protector on the side of the house, hook it up. Inside we attached the phone and tested to be sure we contacted the switchboard elsewhere. If successful, we detached everything and the next student repeated the process. When I finished, I stood on the porch and watched the next guy climb the pole. Just as he started to connect the wire, the heavens opened up without so much as a "How-dee-do" and rain came down quite a bit more plentiful than somewhat. The man looked at me and his expression seemed to say, "Very funny, you S.O.B!"" My spontaneous laughter didn't help any and I apologized. Twice. Once while he was on top of the pole and once when he was within striking distance.
Another experience for just two of us from our detachment was after we had been befriended by Lance Corporal J.T. "Blondie" Ashford, BWAAF (British West African Frontier Force) which had British officers and non-coms and African privates. Walt Tegan and I were taken to a tent area and visited some of the EM (Enlisted Men). We weren't advised in advance how to behave, so I sat on a charpoy (bunk) next to its owner to indulge in some small talk. Incidentally, his name was Theopolis and, later, I asked Blondie how he got such an unusual name. He said that the mothers-to-be sometimes go to the nearest Christian churchyard with a piece of charcoal and a slab of tree bark, copy a name off of a tombstone, then ask someone to tell them what they have written. Thus, in this case, Theopolis. But, to un-digress, Blondie told us the solder would forever be more important because a friendly white man (me) had sat on his bunk for a chat. Gave me something to think about, even unto this day.
Recalling the perennial TV rerun of the Dirty Dozen, we wonder (occasionally) if it was inspired by the real Merrill's Marauders? Many of the men in Burma were there because they really wanted to see combat, and others because there was pressure on them in their pre-CBI unit. Many commanders were happy to have these men transferred without having to court martial them. A lot of the volunteers had been through all of that one or more times. They turned out to be great combat troops. Another plus, they were on our side.
Militrivia: After the 5307 CUP (Combat Unit Provisional) was deactivated in early August, 1944, personnel that were left began to receive men back that had been hospitalized with wounds, illness, and tropical diseases, augmented by fresh troops from the States, providing the foundation of combat troops for a new unit. After training, the end result was a strong, well equipped, well trained fighting force. Joining the 475th Infantry Regiment was a Texas National Guard Unit, the 124th Cavalry Regiment. The two units combined to become a Brigade, the only one in our Army in WWII. More "I'll bet you a beer" ammunition.
When we were advised we'd be leaving the U.S. "for awhile" (yeah, right!), I decided wherever we went I'd see and experience as much as I could for later recall to enthrall my kids (if any) and interested eavesdroppers. At Tulihal, Upper Assam, our tents were set up next to a bamboo grove with a cleared area for three tool shed-sized bashas, in which lived Poppa, Momma, and eldest daughter, Patumbi, and #2 and #3 occupied by their sons and families. "Blondie" Ashford, a British army friend, took Walt Tegan and me to introduce us to the elders. We entered the basha carefully and sat on a mat on the dirt floor. A cow-chip fueled fire smoked up the interior from the middle of the single room. Our host offered us a cup or "char" (tea) and as it had been brewed with boiled water, was deemed OK to drink. Milk, or something resembling it, was added and Blondie warned us, "Don't pull a face." (Hide any adverse reaction). The taste was different but not totally ghastly, and, fortunately, the dirt floor was nearby when Poppa wasn't looking. The other 26 guys in our detachment didn't know what they were missing by sticking to poker and other non-educational stuff. And, today, they have no regrets because they weren't offered the opportunity to write for the Ex-CBI Roundup, and now this website. Probably.
Ugly American became a postwar title or description of tourists, mainly in Europe, from the way they behaved. After a few months in Bengal while awaiting assignment, we picked up a few Hindi words and phrases. Some of them we would use in mixed company. At Tulihal, in Manipur State, the language was Manipuri- about like the difference between California and Texas? At our first breakfast, served by local men, one smiled and said to me, "Kees wasti?" I returned the smile and ugly-Americaned, "Kiss mine, too". Then moved on, thinking his limited English was flawed. In due time I figured out, on my own, that he was merely greeting me with a "How's things?" sort of salute. Whenever he served me in the future, I greeted him was "Kees wasti?" and he answered, "Kiss mine, too." No, no, that part is an untrue falsehood. I made that up, but the rest is an honest statement of fact in the matter. November 3, 2009: Today Pat and I were at a refreshment stand operated by Satien Patel, an acquaintance who was born in Imphal, 10 miles or so from Tulihal. I asked him if Kees wasti is a greeting and he said, "No, that means 'what for'". Now I'm really confused, more than usual. Why would he say that? I can't think of anything I could say to the Tulihal lad that would elicit that reply to me. "Two eggs, please?" "Lend me Rs 5?" "Do you have a sister?"
Probably the same today. Why change it? The harbor at Bombay (now Mumbai) is different from most around the world in that it is divided into two sections. The outer harbor is at sea level. (My high school grades were, too. At C level). The inner harbor can be entered only at high tide through large gates or locks, which then close to hold the water inside. Why? To keep boat bottoms from dragging, that's why. Our detachment on the MS Maloja arrived at Bombay at low tide and had to anchor offshore and wait. We weren't told why but probably didn't give it much thought, if any. Just another "Hurry up and wait."
Some fortunate Signal Corps phone linemen in India and Burma were able to eliminate the use of a safety belt and uncomfortable "climbers", which strapped to the inside of a lower leg which a sharp gizmo to dig into the pole. The fortunate ones had the luxury of making installation of wire and repairs from elephant-back. And they didn't have to climb down, then back up the next pole or tree, where available. Patel's Rent-a-Pachyderm hadn't yet established the business. In fact, I saw just one of the beasts during my India experience. LeRoy, our lieutenant, drove the jeep and I rode along to Imphal for business now forgotten. En route we espied Jumbo sauntering along the highway with mahout (driver) aboard and we stopped on the shoulder (of the road) to observe the rare spectacle. "Tis said, an elephant never forgets. Neither do I, so far. I can picture the scene deep inside my pointy head, vivid-like.
While biding my time waiting for a ship with room for just one more….me, to be available, I was assigned to the large phone switchboard (the PBX was large, the phones normal size) on the Jukong docks on the banks of the Whangpoo River. On a break I was outside watching the boats go by and a local business stopped to chat. He was a regular visitor and he taught me the phrase, which was useless, but that didn't occur to me til much later. Phonetically it was "Ching, koang nok quoy wah", which I would use when answering a call and received a barrage of Chinese talk. It means "Please speak English", which, if they could, I could say it in English. Useless phrase. He told me that sometime when I was off duty and he was in the area with time, he'd show me around Shanghai. Unfortunately, in a way, I returned to the processing center (wayside) because a ship was ready and I missed out on a personally guided tour of the largest city in China, possibly in the entire world. I had to settle for Hollywood and LA, my home towns.
"Back in April, 1944, we were in the Hukawng Valley (Burma). The Japanese had just been driven from the valley and there was a sense of urgency to get the (Ledo) Road as far as possible before the monsoon rains began. Back then we had no idea of the amount of rain that would fall and the havoc the huge amounts of water could cause on our roadbeds, bridges, culverts, supply system and our living conditions. Nothing in our life experience could prepare us for the amount of water we'd be dealing with. "In April of last year we still suspected that the warnings from native Kachins, who built their little homes 7 feet above the ground on stilts, were largely exaggerated. How foolish of us!" This is from the daily log of the 1905 Aviation Engineer Battalion, O.J. Taylor, Fresno, California, Editor.
Bill Stump, who was our teletype operator, and Tommy Totleben, who occupation I don't recall, asked for a pass to visit Calcutta so they could get information about transferring to a paratrooper unit. When they returned and told the C.O., he refused to release them on the grounds he wouldn't be able to replace them. I recently wrote to Bill, one of the two remaining men of our 28 man detachment with whom I still have contact by mail, and asked him what prompted them to request a transfer. I had read of the escapade in our Historical (read: "Hysterical") Record and he wrote back and said, "We must have been out of our minds because of the heat and humidity." I can accept that as being logical. About the only hazardous part of being a teletype operator and whatever Tom was is to go to sleep from boredom and falling out of your chair. Paratroopers, yet!
Does India have a statute of limitations for petit theft ft it was for a good cause? If it wasn't for a good cause? If not, I hope a law guardian doesn't get wind of this. The Rajah of Manipur, in whose bailiwick we were in residence for a little while, decreed that his subjects could buy any bamboo they needed for construction, even though it grew wild almost everywhere. The amount was somewhere around 50 cents (our money), as I recall, and pitifully few had that kind of cash. We had to drive a mile or so to and from the mess hall and noticed a dozen or so stalks of that tall grass (yes, bamboo is of the grass family but hardly like our lawns back home) stacked neatly in a drainage ditch beside the road. Under the cover of darkness we returned ("we")...I had a snake in my pocket…with a 6-by, liberated a stalk or two, and gave them to "Poppa". We told his English speaking daughter, Patumbi, to tell him we bought them for him. A fib that made us feel good.