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Southern Maryland resident recalls escape from Burma during war

By Jason Babcock | The Enterprise,

When Crystal Dennis read in December that the remains of a World War II pilot, Capt. Walter Francis Duke of Leonardtown, might have been found after 68 years in the jungles of Burma, it struck a chord with her.

“They are my heroes,” she said of the Allied servicemen who fought in Burma. “That’s why I’m here.”

Dennis was born in Burma, now Myanmar, when it was a British colony. She was a child when her family had to flee from town to town to escape the invading Japanese during World War II.

“You can’t forget war. Even as a child, you can’t forget,” she said.

Her father, William James Pritchard, was British and took a job in Burma with the Burma Oil Co. He married Nora Patricia Davis, a native of Burma, in the early 1920s.

Burma was part of the British colonial empire, administered as part of the India colony, until 1937, when it became its own colony.

Well before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan was expanding its empire throughout the Pacific to exploit natural resources. The war machine needed oil.

China had been fighting against the Japanese to the north of Burma since 1937. By October 1940, the Burma Road was the last lifeline of supplies to China.

Just days after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese planes began bombing targets in Burma.

Dennis was the youngest of five children, schooled and housed by the Burma Oil Co. Her family was living in Rangoon, the old port capital of Burma.

“We saw these planes flying over,” she said. “The next day, they came and bombed us.”

Her father enlisted in the British military, while the children, their mother and grandmother were moved by British forces via rail to Mandalay, in central Burma, as part of a mass exodus to escape the Japanese. “We were well looked after; we were very fortunate,” she said. “Thousands and thousands of people were trying to get out.”

She remembers the train stopping several times along the way, and her mother explaining, “There are planes above us, and they might hurt us if we start moving.”

Rangoon fell to the Japanese in March 1942, before Dennis turned 8. The rest of the country would follow that year, as Japan extended its sphere of influence to most of Southeast Asia.

Eventually, Dennis’ family was flown out of Burma to Calcutta in the India colony. “That’s where all the refugees were at,” she said.

There, they were reunited with an aunt and her two children. Dennis’ great-grandmother refused to leave her native Burma and was never heard from again.

Her father eventually met them in Calcutta. He had joined Major Gen. Orde Charles Wingate’s Chindits, a group of jungle raiders who attacked Japanese targets. In February 1943, the Chindits slipped through enemy lines for three months of raids, relying on airdrops for supplies. Only about two-thirds of the force returned to India, and many of these were so debilitated, they could no longer serve in combat, according to an Army history.

“My father was missing in action quite a few times,” fighting in the jungles of Burma, Dennis said. When he came back from combat to the family, she said, “I thought, ‘Who on earth is this skinny little guy?’ ”

Pritchard’s left hand was paralyzed for the rest of his life from the fighting, she said.

The China-Burma-India Theater of war in World War II “would remain low on their priority list” for the Allies, the U.S. Army history states. “Allied strategy during the next phase of the war in the [China-Burma-India] theater would center on recapturing enough of Burma to reestablish a supply line into China,” the report says.

A post-war account in The Washington Post described the war effort in Burma. “Burma has felt war’s destructive might. The British in 1942 destroyed everything of military value as they retreated. The Japanese bled the country economically during the occupation. British and American forces made Burma a major objective for aerial bombardment throughout the war,” the Post reported on March 30, 1947.

“There was nothing there to go back to,” once the war was over, Dennis said.

The Associated Press reported in January that there are still about 730 Americans still missing in Burma from World War II.

One of those men is Capt. Duke, shot down over Burma on June 6, 1944, at age 21.

His next-of-kin were notified in December that his remains might have been located in Burma, 68 years after he went missing. If his remains are in fact identified, his surviving family requested that Duke be brought home to St. Mary’s County to be buried at the family plot in the old St. Aloysius Cemetery in Leonardtown. It could take several more months before the remains are positively identified, his family was told.

Dennis said she is grateful for those who gave their lives in the fight for Burma. “I somehow think he’s my son,” she said of Duke, “and he saved my life. I don’t know how to thank them. They will always remain my heroes.”

Pritchard moved his family from India to Scotland. Dennis moved to England when she was 19 and got married to an American in the Air Force. She moved to Nebraska in 1961 and then to Maryland in 1966. She remarried and has lived in Hughesville for the past 28 years.

Burma became independent in 1948, then came under the rule of a single general from 1962 to 1988, according to the CIA World Factbook. Relations with the United States have recently become more normalized, though there is still an embargo on items made in Burma. “The United States government remains deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in Burma’s investment environment and the military’s role in the economy,” the U.S. State Department states.

Dennis said once she lived in the United States, she wasn’t interested in traveling and never went back to Burma.

“After facing what I’ve seen, I thought, ‘No, I’m not leaving America,’ ” she said.

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