Lake of no Return
“ You will, of course, go and see the Lake of No Return?” said Bhattacharjee, the Forest Officer at Deban in the Namdapha National Park. We were sitting in his bungalow fortifying ourselves with rum against the December night’s chill, and I had just been telling him about my sudden impulsive plan to try to follow the Ledo Road and reach the famous Pangsau Pass on the India-Myanmar border.
“ What?” I responded.
“ The Lake of No Return, near Pangsau Pass?”
“ I haven’t heard of it. I will try to see it if I can, but why is it called the Lake of No Return?”
“That I do not know. It’s supposed to be because of something that happened during World War 2.”
Two days later I was looking down at the Lake of No Return from Pangsau village, about two kilometres on the Myanmarese side of the Pangsau Pass (see my article Beyond Ledo). It looked like a peaceful body of water, surrounded by cultivated fields, with thick white smoke rising into the still air from a couple of fires. Nothing about it readily suggested a reason for it’s ominous, mysterious sobriquet.
Before investigating the various theories about how the Lake of No Return got it’s name, we have to look at the historical background.
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The current name of the ‘Lake of No Return’ is Nawng Yang Lake. Earlier it was called Nonyong or Nongyong Lake by the British. It does not appear in the 1875 map of Assam, which shows the area East of Jagun as Unsurveyed. Survey work was done later, possibly during the course of the railway survey by Mr. R.A. Way in 1895-96 to assess the feasibility of building a line from Ledo to Myanmar. Colonel Shakespear’s sketch map circa 1914 showed Nonyong Lake, though the position is clearly wrong. In the winter of 1917-18 Mr. Stevenson, Executive Engineer of the Assam-Bengal Railway, explored the Patkai crest near the Pangsau Pass and discovered the Sympana Saddle, 3080 feet high. A subsequent railway survey by Mr. F.W. Allum in 1921-22 proposed that the Assam-Burma railway should traverse the Patkai by means of a tunnel below the Sympana Saddle.
Nawng Yang Lake is semi-circular in shape and looks somewhat like a tilted military helmet. It is located about 3 km. South-West of the Pangsau Pass at an altitude of c.2900 feet. It used to measure 2 km by 1.3 km in the 1940s but may have shrunk since then (it’s 1.5 km by 800 metres according to Wikipedia). The lake is partially surrounded by marshes and lies in a long narrow plain abutting the Patkai Range which forms the India-Myanmar border. This plain has hills on all sides. A number of small streams coming from the Patkai falls into the lake. The outflow of the lake joins the marshy Takyen Hka stream coming from the South-West to form the Nawngyang Hka which flows East into the Loglai Hka coming from the North-East. Below the junction the Loglai Hka flows South, and the Ledo Road follows the Loglai valley towards Shinbwiyang.
Pursuant to the renewal of interest in the railway project in 1921-22, Mr. B.A. Blenkinsop, officer-in-charge of Hydro-electric surveys, Assam, reported favourably in 1923 on the potential of Nongyong Lake for generating hydel power. His plan called for water from the lake to flow down a tunnel dug through the Patkai Range to a Power House site in Assam at the foot of the Patkai to exploit the altitude difference between the lake (some 2900 ft above MSL) and the Assam plains abutting the Patkai (less than 1000 ft above MSL). In the event neither the railway project nor the hydel project were taken up, and interest in this remote part of the empire died down.
The outbreak of the war with Japan in December 1941 was speedily followed by the Japanese invasion of Burma in January 1942. Unable to resist the Japanese, the Burma Corps and the Chinese 38th Division crossed the Chindwin and retreated towards Imphal, reached in mid-May 1942.The Japanese advance continued Northward. Myitkyina, where the British Civil Government had relocated to, fell on May 8th. Ahead of the Japanese retreated the remnants of the Chinese armies that Chiang had sent into Burma, and a chaotic wrack of civilians and fragmented military units who took the Hukawng Valley- Pangsau Pass- Ledo route to escape to India. Major Muir, a Canadian serving in the Indian Medical Service, was handed a printed itinerary at Mogaung by a Burma Civil Service official that went something like this:
Muir started from Mogaung on or about May 7,1942 and succeeded in marching out, having had the luck to get truck lifts to beyond Shaduzup and fall in with groups who fed him. After descending from Pangsau Pass he found a relief camp run by the Indian Tea Association, probably at Nampong. He was luckier than most of the civilian refugees who took this trail. The story of this harrowing exodus has not been properly told, particularly from the point of view of the Indians who formed the bulk of the civilian refugees. They had co-existed uneasily with envious and resentful Burmans under Pax Brittanica, and the collapse of British administration drove them from their homes more in fear of their neighbour Burmans than the Japanese. Felicity Goodall in Exodus Burma claims half-a-million people fled before the Japanese, but there is no reliable estimate of how many died on the trails leading to Manipur and Nagaland and Arunachal.
Tim Slessor in First Overland (1956) states that 4000 died in 1942 on the 230 mile route between Myitkyina and Ledo, and those who received the survivors like Major Muir at the relief camp at Nampong called the Nampong area ‘Hell’s Gate’, because to them it seemed these pitiful humans had emerged from the mouth of hell. The majority of the dead were Indian civilians. The eyewitness account of Capt. G.J.K. Stapleton of the Burma Frontier Force gives an idea of the scale of the tragedy:
“……The road leading out of (Myitkyina) was choked with a mass of refugees, many driving bullock carts. Nowhere was there any sign of discipline. It was a complete and utter rout, the very dregs of defeat. ….On the road leading North out of Maingkwan we encontered the long line of the dead and dying which was to last till we came to safety in Assam, weeks later. Some were lying in the watery mud, some on drier spots where they had lain to rest, and with this terrible, macabre, heart-rending line came the stench of corpses. …At one village called cholera camp, everywhere we looked we saw the dead and dying from this terrible sickness.
There was a hut in the village full of rice in bags, but on the bags were corpses, so few would take the food…..After crossing the (Chindwin) river by canoe,…we continued north. We were now out of the swamp area and the paths were much drier, though the stream of dead and dying grew every day more terrible…”
Stapleton remembers Shingbwiyang, where the bigger and stronger men among the 3000 refugees rushed to corner the food that was airdropped , and even set up shops to sell it at exorbitant prices, while the poor, the weak, the sick and the women and children starved and died. He put a stop to this with the 300 Chins of his Frontier Force, and set up a proper food distribution system, but despite this there were deaths every day, many from cholera. As he pushed on higher towards the Patkai, the terrible scenes he had seen before and at Shingbwiyang were repeated. Stopped for six days at a raging 200 yard wide river (possibly the Namyang Hka) with some 3000 refugees, and on the verge of starvation, he collected white clothing from everyone and set out a large sign on the hillside 3000 SICK STARVING SOS which resulted in the arrival of five plane-loads of food when the clouds lifted. With the help of 12 Lushais (i.e.Mizos), magnificent hillmen, Stapleton was able to rig a rope bridge across a narrower gorge downstream, cross the river, and reach Assam after several more days of hard travel. He was awarded the King’s Police Medal for his efforts to help and save the refugees.
Stapleton found his own hero at Shingbwiyang, a medical orderly named Katz who was travelling with Stapleton’s column and performing yeoman service. As the Frontier Force moved out, Katz volunteered to stay back and look after the sick, despite knowing that monsoon was imminent and once the rains broke airdrops would be few and escape nearly impossible. Felicity Goodall’s Exodus Burma has detailed coverage of the adventures of Sergeant ‘Bunny’ Katz, who she describes as a ‘23 year old Liverpudlian’. Stapleton reckoned Katz’s chance of survival at less than one in ten, but Katz’s luck held, and he was rescued a few months later. For his selfless heroism Katz won the George Medal. [Note: The award of the George Medal to Katz is mentioned in Stapleton’s account but I have not been able to verify it independently.]
Not everyone behaved like Stapleton or Katz. It must also be recorded that Indian civilian refugees arriving in their own country were, in many cases, detained in border camps whereas British and Eurasians were allowed to proceed further into India. Many died in these camps, one of which was the Burma Camp at Dimapur, whose name still endures : the famous Bengali actress Supriya Chaudhuri, who escaped from Myitkyina as a young girl, spent some time at this camp. This inexcusable behaviour towards the loyal subjects of the Empire does not square well with the self-proclaimed ‘British’ virtues of justice and fair play. Hitler, who advocated shooting Gandhi and carried the British Boer War innovation of ‘concentration camp’ to new heights, might have nodded in approval.
The Chinese 22nd Division commanded by General Liao was part of the Chinese 5th Army, which got split up. Part of this army, the 200th Division and one regiment from the 22nd , were blocked by the Japanese at Lashio but made their way to China from Mogok. The 96th Division, forced Westwards, managed to retreat North to Fort Hertz and then turn West to reach China, but the remainder of the 22nd was blocked by the Japanese. It tried to circle around the block and head North through the Irrawaddy Valley, but was pushed West towards the Chindwin. On May14, 1942, with the monsoon about to break, the 22nd burnt their trucks at Singkalin Hkamti on the Chindwin and headed North up the river towards India. Struggling through trackless jungles and slippery,muddy hills, bitten by leeches and pelted by unending torrential rain, they made their painful way, losing men continually to exhaustion, jungle sores and malaria. After six days food began to run out, but they kept moving, driven by the will to survive. What saved them were the radio sets: at Taro in the Hukawng Valley, when their endurance was almost at an end, the planes found them and dropped food. Further drops came at Shingbwiyang, and on August 4, 2 months and 17 days after they had burned their trucks at Singkalin, three-fourths of the men who had started the march reached Ledo. No man came out without his rifle. They were the last major military unit to come to India over the Pangsau Pass.
By the time the rains stopped in 1942, big plans were in the air. General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell of the US Army was eager to reopen the land route to China by building a road through Northern Burma to connect up with the old Burma Road, the famous Ledo Road across the Pangsau Pass and down the Hukawng Valley. Till this could be done, the Americans sustained the Nationalist Chinese war effort by the world’s first and biggest airlift . This air route to China was flown from airbases in Assam to fields in and around Kunming. To avoid interception by Japanese fighters out of Myitkyina, the aircraft had to fly a Northerly track across an enormous stretch of mountains where peaks soared to 16000 feet – even 20000 feet at the Northern end. This was the infamous Hump which gave the route it’s name – the Hump Route. The Hump Route was also cursed with some of the most savage weather on Earth – during the monsoon (May to October) there was blinding rain, thunderclouds rising to over 30000 feet, air turbulence strong enough to cause structural damage, and violent updrafts and downdrafts. Winter was more benign, except for 100 mph jetstreams at high altitude, heavy ground fogs and the odd thunderstorm. There were no navigational aids in the Hump. Even outside the Hump area the terrain was forbidding – steep forested hills and mountains inhabited by wild tribesmen.
Hump flights commenced in May 1942. In August 1942 the first of the newly-constructed airfields (Chabua, Mohanbari, Sookerating) began to function. The bulk of the flights were flown by the Air Transport Command and the China National Air Corporation. Troop Carrier Command occasionally lent a hand. Despite losses the operations continued and things began improving in 1943. Fixed air routes were established for aircraft to follow on their outward and inward flights. Tonnage delivered went up steadily. The cost was fearful – according to The Aluminium Trail (1989), the authoritative compilation of Hump route losses by Chic Marrs Quinn (1921-2004), more than 700 aircraft and over 3000 men were lost. Many aircraft and crewmen are still missing, and efforts to locate them are still going on.
On the ground, work on constructing the Ledo Road began in December 1942. The climb to the Patkai crest started from ‘Hell’s Gate’ at Nampong, and the Pangsau Pass (‘Hell’s Pass’ or ‘Hell Pass’) was reached on 28th February 1943. The monsoon broke unusually early, on March 17th, and work on the road ground to a halt.
As the rains abated in October and work on the road resumed, Stilwell pushed forward the crack Chinese 38th Division, fresh out of training at Ramgarh Cantonment, down the Hukawng Valley to clear out the Japanese. The 1st battalion of the 112th Regiment (112/1) advanced through the macabre human debris of the 1942 retreat, met the first Japanese troops a little North of Shingbwiyang, and took Shingbwiyang on 30th October. The Japanese troops were from the 18th Division which had opened a fair weather road upto Shingbwiyang as part of their preparation for the invasion of India.
Engineer detachments were sent forward to Shingbwiyang to work on the road, set up a base and prepare an airfield. At Kumkidu near Tagap Ga (mile 88.8), a 1200 foot airstrip became operational from 16th December. By the time the road reached Shingbwiyang ,117 miles from Ledo, on 27th December 1943, the base was nearly ready, and the big airfield, capable of handling large transport aircraft, started functioning by end December 1943. Shingbwiyang was equipped with a navigational aids including a radio beacon.
For the limited purpose of this article, this is all the history we need to know.
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The Wikipedia article on the Lake of No Return in it’s current avatar (23rd July 2013) nicely sums up the various reasons advanced for Nawng Yang Lake to have become known as ‘The Lake of No Return’. These may be conveniently summarised here:
- During World War Two many Allied aircraft flying the Hump route crashed into the lake and their wreckages are concealed in it’s depths.
- A group of Japanese soldiers returning from battle lost their way and ended up at the lake, where they died of malaria.
- US Army soldiers working on the Ledo Road were sent to examine the lake, and they perished when they were trapped in the undergrowth and could not escape.
- British soldiers retreating in 1942 got sucked in by quicksand in the lake.
None of the Wikipedia references for these stories are authoritative – they are all of the “It is said that…” type that inspires great mistrust. The oldest reference is the Changlang District website set up in 2003, which states version no.1. This is after I first heard the name of the Lake of No Return in Dec.2002. At Pangsau village in Myanmar no one I talked to knew about the Lake of No Return – it seemed the name was current only in India.
Let us now examine the four theories advanced above one by one.
During World War Two many Allied aircraft flying the Hump route crashed into the lake and their wreckage lie concealed in it’s depths.
The exact wording in the Changlang district website is:
During World War Two large numbers of Aircrafts were reported to have perished into this lake. Perhaps the lake served the Allied Pilots for soft landing into the lake water during return mission when the Aircrafts got hit by the enemy or out of mechanical snags in the Aircrafts. The Pilots had chosen this lake for emergency landing in case of imminent Air crush and therefore, many aircrafts were reported to have crashed into the lake.
To deal with this apparently cogent theory, we must first see a detailed map of the lake and it’s environs.
The ‘Changlang theory’ has got one thing right: if at all there were any crashes, they must have happened when the aircraft was returning from a mission, i.e. flying from East to West. It would beggar belief to be told an aircraft which crosses the Patkai at 8000 feet or more has to crashland less than a minute later into the lake!
My observations are as follows:
A] To avoid the Japanese fighters based at Myitkyina, pilots flying the Hump usually flew far to the North of the Hukawng Valley in both their outward and return legs. Route Able (which was a both-way route) went like this on the return leg: Chinese airfield – Hsichang – Likiang – Fort Hertz (Putao, North Myanmar) – Sadiya – destination airfield in Assam (the intermediate points are navigation beacons the aircraft would pass over). An aircraft in trouble returning on Route Able would not crashland in the Nawng Yang Lake; it would wind up as a pile of debris in the mountains of China or North Burma or the Mishmi Hills. This is amply borne out by the trend of recent wreck discoveries by Clayton Kuhles and others.
B] The lake, as can be seen from the map, is surrounded by hills on all sides which are between 4100 and 5300 feet high, so to approach it an aircraft will have to be flying in clear weather at a height in excess of 5000 feet at least (otherwise the aircraft would almost certainly fly into a hill). If that is so, why would any pilot in his right mind opt to crash into the lake instead of crossing the Patkai at the Pangsau Pass, at 3727 feet only about 900 feet higher than the lake and below the aircraft’s altitude, or at the nearby Sympana Saddle, at 3080 feet only 200 feet higher than the lake?
C] From 1944 onwards airfields were functioning at Kumkidu and Shingbwiyang in the Hukawng Valley. Pilots in trouble would obviously land there rather than crash into the lake after flying the extra distance.
D] There is also a negative proof of sorts : experts like Clayton Kuhles are working tirelessly on finding Hump Route wreck and MIA personnel. If there was any chance of Nawng Yang Lake, which is easily accessible, being a repository of aircraft wrecks, these people would have gone on a treasure hunt with metal detectors and sonar and found them all.
I do not deny that one or two aircraft – like combat aircraft returning from a mission against Mogaung or Myitkyina, or transport aircraft coming back from a para-drop to the Chindits, may have pancaked near the lake, but one swallow does not make a summer, and neither does the odd crashlanding make Nawng Yang the Lake of No Return.
A group of Japanese soldiers returning from battle lost their way and ended up at the lake, where they died of malaria.
A] A group of Japanese soldiers returning from battle could not have arrived at the lake simply because there was no battle anywhere near the lake. The nearest battle that occurred was near Shingbwiyang in October 1943, some 70 or 80 miles away, and since there was a Chinese Division blocking routes towards Pangsau Pass surely even ‘lost’ Japanese soldiers would find it difficult to get to the lake! However ‘lost’ a soldier of the Rising Sun may have been, it is difficult to believe that he did not know that the sun rises in the East (this is winter, remember, and the skies are clear), and that is the way to go to reach Japanese-held territory!
B] If we discount the ‘returning from battle’ bit, then is it possible that a patrol from the Jap 18th Division could have reached the lake? The lynx-eyed Singpho Nagas of the area were cooperating with the Allies and the British had set up V Force as a forward screen, so the chances of such a patrol reaching the lake undetected is almost zero. Even if they did, why would they become lost on a route only too well marked with the terrible debris of 1942 ? And why would they wait to die of malaria instead of trying to get back ? It defies common sense.
C] Since none of the Japanese troops survived, and no other Japanese reached the lake, who coined the term ‘Lake of No Return’? It cannot have been the Japanese, because there being no survivors, they could not know their men had died at the lake, and it cannot have been the Allies, who had better things to do than to go around saying idiotic things like “Now if I was a Japanese I would call Nawng Yang Lake the Lake of No Return.”
I am inescapably forced to conclude that there is no real basis to this story.
US Army soldiers working on the Ledo Road were sent to examine the lake, and they perished when they were trapped in the undergrowth and could not escape.
This ‘story’ is not even properly drafted. Undergrowth means low-growing vegetation on the floor of a forest. Clearly the lake cannot have undergrowth. What it can have are weeds in the water, which can concievably entangle a wader. It seems extremely unlikely that all the American soldiers would simultaneously get into the water. Even if they did, and got so entangled in the weeds that they could not get out, all they had to do was to wait. A search party would have set out as soon as they became overdue and rescued them; Pangsau Pass was just an hour away. I find this story to be an incredible concoction.
In 1942 retreating British troops got lost in quicksand (at the lake).
A] It is unbelievable that retreating British soldiers, presumably sane, would veer off route at the threshold of Pangsau Pass and safety after their harrowing march, and walk to the marshy lake to drown in it’s mud. I don’t think they were testing it’s fishing prospects, and it’s not as if they were short of water – if anything, excessive water was the bane of the Hukawng Valley! This sounds suspiciously like another specious bit of reasoning to prop up the ‘Lake of No Return’ story.
B] I am partially supported in my opinion by the absence of any ‘quicksand’ indication in the 1: 250,000 map of 1954, which does show marshes. This map was based on the 1 inch to the mile Military Survey map of 1943-44, prepared just after the ‘alleged’ tragedy, and would certainly have shown a quicksand warning had it been warranted by events.
So how did the name Lake of No Return originate? I think it is very unlikely that it originated in any of the events set out in Wikipedia. My theory is simple : Hobson-Jobsonism. I am not referring to Yule and Burnell’s 1886 dictionary, but to the Western habit of substituting unfamiliar and difficult Indian words with familiar words which sound somewhat similar. There are any number of examples, the most famous being the rendition of the Shia lament of Ya Hassan! Ya Hussain! during Muharram as Hobson-Jobson. US soldiers who came to India to work on the Ledo Road (African-Americans of limited education in the majority) were no better than the Tommies of the previous century. What could be more natural for them than to render the unfamiliar Nawng Yang as the familiar and phonetically similar No Return?
So, I think, the Lake of No Return was born, perhaps in March 1942 when the road came within sight of the lake. Now, those who had coined the name knew it was just a phonetic approximation. But the newcomers – and there were many – who first heard the name would naturally ask , as I did : Why is it called the Lake of No Return? The ‘veterans’, unwilling to confess their ignorance, would be tempted to invent a suitable story to go with the name to impress the newly-arrived. This is the reason, I think, why there are so many different versions. Had there been a central core of truth, this would not happened.
This is also the reason why the Lake of No Return finds no place in serious works about the Ledo Road. Tim Slessor’s Oxbridge overland expedition from London to Singapore crossed from India to Myanmar on 15th January 1956 at the Pangsau Pass, where they pinched the rusty top of an oil drum with ‘228 miles to Myitkyina’ written on it as a souvenir. Slessor is a meticulous observer, but though his team drove past the Lake of No Return he does not mention anything about it! Neither does Donovan Webster’s book-length study The Burma Road , or Carl Weidenbrenner’s very comprehensive China-Burma-India site.
The real mystery about the Lake of No Return is not that it was just smoke and mirrors, but how the undispersed smoke and the unbroken mirrors surfaced some 60 years afterwards to enthrall a new generation of Indians who know little about WW2. The way the stories are spreading through the net (with official patronage from the Arunachal Govt., I might add, who scent an opportunity to attract tourists), it could become canonical truth in the near future!
Siliguri, July 20 -25, 2013