WWII veteran turned to God in Burma Road crash

CUMMING, Ga. (BP) -- Like many of his generation, Master Sgt. Thomas Musselwhite Jr. doesn't see his World War II military intelligence work as heroic.

But two Hollywood-produced movies have told a much different story of how a reconnaissance team -- Musselwhite was one of its three members -- derailed Japanese advancements while behind enemy lines.

And Musselwhite's two Bronze Stars and other military honors make the epic storylines all the more believable.

Thomas Musselwhite, in uniform, entered WWII at age 19.
 
"You did what you had to do," the 94-year-old Army veteran said while retracing his exploits on a world map spread across his dining room table in Cumming, Ga.

Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen starred in the 1959 film "Never So Few" which recounts, albeit with Hollywood embellishment, how a small U.S. military intelligence group stationed in Burma partnered with about a thousand Burmese Kachins to hold back the advance of 40,000 Japanese soldiers in northern Burma in the early years of World War II.

And "Merrill's Marauders" in 1962 chronicled how U.S. combat forces, also acting on information provided by the reconnaissance team, drove the Japanese from northern Burma, enabling U.S. Army engineers to build a key road that connected northeastern India with the strategic Burma Road.

Surviving mostly on bamboo shoots, wild bananas and wild rice, Musselwhite's three-member unit spent about 180 days in enemy territory over the span of five different spy missions.

Musselwhite said he and his two comrades often would hike 30 miles a day through the Burmese jungles, across the treacherous Salween River and 16,000-foot Himalayan mountain range.

A money pouch full of "small bills" helped endear the Americans to the native Nepalese Gurkhas and Burmese Kachins who aided the reconnaissance team's raids of strategic Japanese ammunition dumps, supply centers and vehicle concentrations. "The money pouch," as Musselwhite put it, "was one of our best weapons."

In a letter accompanying his Legion of Merit Medal, Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell credited Musselwhite's reconnaissance team with providing strategic information that enabled U.S. and Chinese forces to drive the Japanese from northern Burma.

Stilwell wrote that Musselwhite's missions behind enemy lines helped save at least 200 Allied lives and advanced the war effort by six months.

Although his hearing has greatly diminished over the years, Musselwhite's memory remains vivid.

When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, for example, Musselwhite wasn't entirely surprised.

"We were aware that nuclear weapons had been developed and the war would be over soon when they were used," said Musselwhite, who provided military security at a biological weapons production facility in Terre Haute, Ind., after returning from overseas deployment.

In the summer of 1944, on the same day he received military orders to return stateside from the war, Musselwhite nearly drowned in a mountain stream under the 150-pound weight of his survival gear before one of his comrades pulled him to safety.

"I thought it was a very shallow stream," recalled Musselwhite, who also was suffering from malaria at the time. "That was one of the few times, I thought I wasn't going to make it. That was a bad day."

Then there was the time he drove a truck with faulty brakes over the side of a mountain on the Burma Road in China. "That was a definite act of God because I should have been gone long years ago," he said.

Musselwhite grew up attending First Baptist Church in Thomasville, Ga., but it was his near-death experience in China that convinced him of his need for Christ. "Lord, if I ever need You, I need You now," he said he cried out to God. "I had gone to church all my life, but when I really became a believer I was in China."

Several years later after returning home from the war, Musselwhite was baptized with his fiancé Ramona -- now wife of 65 years -- at Virginia Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta. "I've been real fortunate," he said. "She's been around ever since."

Musselwhite enlisted in the Army National Guard after graduating from high school and soon found himself on a fast track to wartime deployment in January 1942 at age 19.

A specialist in mortar, rifles and machine gun techniques, he trained hundreds of Chinese soldiers at a training camp in India, about 200 miles from Pakistan.

As Japanese forces advanced across Burma, Musselwhite was transferred to Kunming, China -- the Allied headquarters for Southeast Asia -- where he again trained Chinese officers to use American weapons.

Six months later, when American forces needed information about Japanese war strategy, Musselwhite was appointed to a three-man reconnaissance team to penetrate enemy lines.

When Musselwhite, now a member of First Baptist Church in Cumming, Ga., thinks about the nearly 50 million Allied lives that were given in the bloodiest war in history, he is all the more appreciative of the eternal freedom in Christ he discovered while serving on the battlefield.

"It was always something, but God took care of me alright and I've tried to stay out of trouble since then," he said.

Musselwhite said his marriage, three children, five grandchildren and 30-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, all while living in the greatest country on earth, is better than any movie Hollywood might produce.

"I've been real fortunate," he once again said.

Lee Weeks is a writer based in the Atlanta area.
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