By February 1942, it was becoming impossible to get tickets. In early March a complete evacuation of Rangoon was ordered. Civil servants and their families joined those moving up to Mandalay and heading for the last planes and for routes out across the mountains to Manipur.
‘You could see women carrying their little children – whole families – and sometimes they even took their pets with them; they didn’t want to leave them behind. . . And those columns of people, and the evacuation camps that were set up for them, were targets for the Japanese bombers, you see. So a lot of them died on the way. Sitting ducks. Terrible.’
Bobby, Goodbye Burma, page 25
As the Japanese bombed and advanced on Mandalay at the end of April, the last evacuees emptied the city. With the Tamu road now blocked for the military, evacuees went north to Myitkyina, and set out, as the monsoon began, into the jungles across the Hukawng valley and the Chaukan Pass. The exact figures are not known but it is estimated that some half a million people evacuated from Burma during that time, with many tens of thousands dying on the way from starvation and disease.
Read more about the Hazlewoods in Burma
About Goodbye Burma
This book is based on real events, and is inspired by the story of the Hazlewood family, who left their home and everything they had when World War II came to Burma at the end of 1941. It tracks events as the Japanese did the inconceivable – invaded the country from the south, bombed Rangoon and pushed the British forces into Upper Burma. Hundreds of thousands of civilians evacuated – at first, those who could by sea and plane; then crowding onto the roads and into insanitary refugee camps. They walked out on treacherous routes across the mountains into Manipur in India, or finally were pushed further north and across the notorious Hukawng Valley where they suffered starvation and disease, trekking through the jungles in the monsoon rains. Many thousands perished on the way.
I wanted to tell my family’s story, recreating it in fiction, knowing that it will have parallels in the stories of many others. I began writing Goodbye Burma many years ago, when I was given a cousin’s diary, started when Singapore fell in February 1942. I set my cousin’s diary alongside an account of those months as told to me by my uncle who, as a young man, served with the newly-formed Burma Army Signals. Finally, I was inspired by the story of another cousin, one of many women who crossed the mountains on foot into Manipur in groups, until the route was blocked off for the military retreat. These stories remain at the heart of the novel. The diary that runs through the book is my cousin’s diary, heavily edited, but essentially as it was written. The rest is what happened, but reimagined, fictionalised, to bring the story to life.
Evacuation from Burma, 1942
Even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the British remained unprepared for the invasion of Lower Burma. Things changed quickly after the first bombing of Rangoon over Christmas 1941. Tens of thousands of people, mostly the Indian workers on whom the administration relied, set out northwards along the Arakan road (now Rakhine) and across the treacherous jungle-covered mountains that encircled the Bay of Bengal, heading for India, many dying from cholera along the way. When the Arakan route was blocked, people were driven north into refugee camps and into Upper Burma. Those with money and influence rushed to get the families out by boat and plane.