As a whole, the Henrietta Thompson Collection at Fogler Library provides a uniquely detailed picture of the escape of a group of civilians, soldiers, and medical staff fleeing Burma, now Myanmar, in May 1942. These 114 led by American General Joseph Stilwell were among the hundreds of thousands of refugees and soldiers attempting to escape what was to become the British colony most completely destroyed in WWII. The collection, which consists mainly of files of correspondence and cassette tapes of interviews, includes interviews of American and British military, the “FAU boys” (the Friends Ambulance Unit of British conscientious objectors), a surgeon, a group of Burmese and Karen nurses, war-correspondents, and mechanics, all of whom were on the “Walkout.” As the group reached Nanantun, it became clear that they would have to abandon their trucks and walk. General Stilwell proposed that they stay together, and over the next thirteen days they walked approximately two hundred miles through the jungle, west from Nanantun, across the Uyu River, and over the Naga hills to Litan.
Among the participants in the Walkout, the nurses from Burma emerged as particular heroines. Though some soldiers initially wanted to prevent the nurses from joining the walk, the nurses were invaluable to the group, singing to lift the spirits of their fellow walkers and tending to the many sick members of the party, including, as Nurse Lulu remembers, the very soldier who had been most opposed to their joining the Walkout.
Research materials compiled by Henrietta Thompson were deposited with Fogler Library Special Collections following the submission of her thesis to Maine’s history department in 1992. The collection became the focus of an East Asian History MA candidate’s internship in the Spring of 2018, and selected items were scanned and made available in this digital collection. These items are drawn from participants who have left behind materials and stories of particular interest. Letters, notes and corresponding sections from Thompson’s thesis have been drawn out to highlight certain participants. For more information on the digitized items available here or additional materials in Henrietta Thompson's papers, contact Special Collections, Raymond H. Fogler Library.
A letter from Henrietta Thompson to Tun Shein, which is evidently in response to a letter Tun Shein had sent her. Thompson mentions some of their mutual acquaintances and asks whether either Tun Shein or his wife Lulu recognize any of the names on a list of Walkout participants who were then presumably still living in Burma, but whom she had been unable to meet during her brief visit.
Henrietta Thompson and Hla Sein
Hla Sein was twenty-two when she participated in the 1942 Walkout from Burma to India led by General Joseph Stilwell. Hla Sein had studied nursing at the hospital run by Gordon Seagrave in Namkham, and in 1942 she volunteered to work with Seagrave’s mobile surgical unit. Most of the wounded soldiers the unit saw were Chinese, from among the troops sent by Chiang Kai-shek, who were in retreat by the time Stilwell, the general sent to command them, arrived in Burma. The nurses and surgeons were frequently forced to hurriedly abandon their site as the British and Chinese troops retreated north. The Friends Ambulance Unit of British conscientious objectors worked with Seagrave’s mobile surgical unit, delivering the wounded by truck. Nurses such as Hla Sein and Ruby Johnson refer to the horror of tending to the mutilated soldiers. It seems indicative of the difficulty of her nursing work that, when talking to Henrietta Thompson in 1972, Hla Sein remembered that she experienced the thirteen days of walking of approximately two hundred miles barefoot as a welcome reprieve: “It was wonderful to get away from all the hard work we had been doing with the Chinese wounded.”
In the summer of 1971, Henrietta Thompson began her interviews of Walkout participants by interviewing the nurse Ruby Johnson. At Johnson’s recommendation, Thompson wrote to Hla Sein proposing a meeting and an interview. Hla Sein responded, as Thompson recalls, “that she did not want to see me or to be reminded of that part of her life.” However, in November, 1972, Thompson invited Ruby Johnson and her husband and another Walkout participant, Sargent Ray Chesley, and his wife to dinner. Thompson's guests brought Hla Sein with them, and she agreed then to talk to Thompson about her experiences in 1942.
Henrietta Thompson's thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Master of Arts in History from the University of Maine, December, 1992.
Thompson's abstract: This paper describes why and how from 1971 to 1974 I traced the members of a group of 114 men and women who, like hundreds of thousands of others, were fleeing from Burma after the Japanese invasion of that country in January, 1942. The group walked approximately two hundred and fifty miles from Burma to safety in India under the leadership of Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell of the United States Army in May, 1942. This event became known as the Walkout.
Woven in to the narrative of my search are the recollections of those I interviewed, the Walkout participants and others even remotely connnected with the event. How the participants happened to be with General Stilwell, what the Walkout was like, and what became of them are described in their own words.
The paper includes a comparison of their journey with that of others who also walked out of Burma, and a comparison with other historical marches is made. The meaning of the Walkout to history, and its meaning to the participants are described, as well as what my search meant to me.