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Burma Rifles: A Story of Merrill's Marauders (book)

Creators: Frank Bonham


Book for young readers by Frank Bonham centering on a Nisei intelligence soldier in Burma during World War II. Published in 1960, it is among the first children's books to depict the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans.

Synopsis

The protagonist of the novel is Jerry Harada, a Nisei farm kid from Southern California, nineteen years old as the story begins just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. His family runs a successful flower farm. Fiercely patriotic, Jerry is in the ROTC and is also a radio enthusiast with an elaborate home-built unit, a hobby he shares with his best friend, Russ Bennett. Though white, Russ attends Japanese language school with Jerry and other Nisei at the urging of his father, an insurance agent with many Japanese American clients. After the attack, Russ rushes to enlist, while Jerry and his family are harassed by local bigots who also destroy his radio set. Inevitably, the family is forcibly removed, ending up at the Topaz , Utah, concentration camp. Bored there, he perks up when recruiters for the Military Intelligence Service arrive in the fall; Jerry is surprised to find that Russ is one of the recruiters. Jerry signs up, passes the relevant tests the is assigned to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Camp Savage , Minnesota.

Despite the rigorous course of study—and a rampant curiosity that gets Jerry in trouble—he makes it through the schooling ranking among the top students and is among those asked to volunteer for a dangerous assignment: to become one of the fourteen Nisei to become part of the 5307th Composite Unit, popularly known as "Merrill's Marauders" after their commander Frank Merrill. Assigned to the jungles of Burma, the Marauders played a key role in the war by opening up a passage from India to China while battling disease and jungle conditions in addition to a numerically superior Japanese enemy. Burma Rifles follows Jerry, Russ, and the other Nisei Marauders through the war. Wounded in a special assignment that saw him interrogate a downed Japanese pilot, Jerry does other interrogations in Australia while he recovers. Rejoining his battalion, he is involved in harrowing battles at Nhpum Ga and Myitkyina, using his Japanese language skills both to translate key documents taken from felled Japanese soldiers and memorably impersonating Japanese officers.

Background and Historical Accuracy

Author Frank Bonham (1914–89) was a prolific writer who specialized in Westerns and mystery novels in the first half of his career before turning to children's books in the second. A native Californian, he attended Glendale Junior College and UCLA in the '30s and served in World War II. Plagued by asthma, he took to writing as a profession, publishing some 500 stories and twenty-one books from 1948 to 1964 and also wrote teleplays for Western-themed TV shows such as Wells Fargo and Restless Gun . He later turned to adventure books for young people, many of which focused on ethnic minorities. His best known work was likely Durango Street (1965), on youth gangs in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Bonham later published a second book on Japanese Americans, Mystery in Little Tokyo (1966). [1]

While Bonham was doing research for the book that would become Mystery in Little Tokyo he came across the story of Nisei in the Marauders. In the foreword to the book, Bonham credits former Marauder Stanley Uno, then a Los Angeles police sergeant, for sparking the idea for the book. The book was based on interviews with Uno and several other Nisei and Kibei , along with existing literature on the Marauders. Though Jerry is a composite fictional character, real Nisei Marauders including Edward Mitsukado, Ben Sugata (misspelled Sugeta), and Henry Gosho, and Roy Matsumoto appear in the book.

The depiction of the Haradas' wartime incarceration is relatively brief and contains a number of errors. In the foreword, Bonham refers to "nine relocation centers" rather than ten (page x). Rather than being forced to gather at a central location for transport to a concentration camp, the Haradas are picked up by a truck at their home (33–34). They are also sent to Topaz—seemingly without going to an " assembly center "—where they are settled in by July 1942 (35). As Southern Californians from the South Bay, they would likely have gone either directly to Manzanar or to the Gila River , Arizona, via the Tulare Assembly Center . Additionally, Topaz, which was almost entirely populated by Japanese Americans from the San Francisco Bay, did not take in its first inmates until September of 1942. Later, when Jerry leaves Topaz to join the army, his family gives him a camera as a going away present (43); but cameras were not allowed in the concentration camps.

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho

Might also like Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury; Hunt for the Bamboo Rat by Graham Salisbury; Missing in Action by Dean Hughtes

Footnotes

  1. Something about the Author: Facts and Pictures about Authors and Illustrators of Books for Young People , Volume 49, edited by Anne Commire (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1987), 57–62; Something about the Author: Facts and Pictures about Authors and Illustrators of Books for Young People , Volume 62 edited by Anne Commire (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1990), 7. Mystery in Little Tokyo is about missing samurai swords and a feud between two Issei men; despite being set in 1960s Los Angeles and having a young Sansei protagonist, there is no mention of the wartime incarceration or of racism in general.
Media Details
Author Frank Bonham
Pages 260
Publication Date 1960
Reviews

Reviews

Kirkus Reviews , Oct. 17, 1960. ["While the part of the book dealing with the campaign reads too much like a division history, and may prove hard sledding for the uninitiates, as a whole the book is absorbing reading. Mr. Bonham spices his story with amusing comments on army life, and leaves a warm sense of the contribution made by American- born Japanese to the winning of the Second World War."]