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Sunday, November 7, 2010

An Interview with a Japanese WW II Veterinary Officer

We were only informed that we were heading south, and it was not disclosed how many days it would take to reach our destination.” So began the five-year war journey of a young Japanese veterinary officer in December 1941, as he disembarked from a port in occupied China with 300 horses under his care.

This afternoon, I had the privilege to interview 93-year-old Dr. Takehiko Takahashi, one of the few remaining veterans of the China-Burma-India conflict. Tall and erect, with a surprisingly facile command of the English language, this distinguished gentleman would later in life become president of the Japanese Small Animal Association. With the assistance of a young Japanese veterinary student named Junya Yasuda, Dr. Takahashi shared with me details of how he transported a boat-load of horses through the South China Sea to Thailand, and from there to the front lines in the jungles and mountains of Burma.
Dr. Takehiko Takahashi, November 7, 2010

The horses were secured in tightly-packed quarters in the ship's hold for the journey. Lack of ventilation and the tropical heat became serious health hazards as they coursed south into the tropical sea. The horses that became sick with respiratory disease were helped by treatment with anti-Strangles serum delivered to their boat while en route. Dr. Takahashi was also successful in convincing the ship’s captain to periodically hoist horses by crane onto the upper deck for fresh air and exercise.

Amazingly, the 25-day trip ended in Bangkok without the loss of a single animal. Dr. Takahashi supervised the unloading of the horses and then started the long and brutal trek into Burma. The horses hauled heavy artillery for mountain warfare, and carried munitions and supplies as they coursed through primitive pathways in the parasite-infested jungle. Often subject to British fire from the skies above, all of the horses succumbed from battle, disease or starvation during the next four years. Two-thirds of the 300,000 Japanese men were also lost in the campaign.

At the end of the war on August 1945, Dr. Takahashi and remnant of his 33rd Division were interred in a prisoner-of-war camp. Finally released eight months later, he returned to Japan to discover that his former hometown was in ruinous ashes. It would take until 1951 before he was finally able to open a veterinary clinic and embark on the career for which he had qualified over a decade earlier.

Later in life, Dr. Takahashi hosted and served as Tokyo tour guide for former British soldiers who had once been his enemy in Burma. He regularly exchanged Christmas cards with them as well, though most have now died. “I only received one card last year”, he said sadly.

I marvel at the similarity of this story and that of American Dr. Kenneth Gumaer, Sr., who transported mules from the U.S. to Burma, then fought as a member of the U.S. army’s famed Merrill’s Marauders. Two veterinarians, two boats loaded with equidae, two sides of military conflict, but to some extent, the same mission with respect to caring for the animals.

The guidance and friendship of Junya Yasuda, veterinary student at Nippon Veterinary and Life Science University, is gratefully acknowledged. This story would not have been possible without the assistance of him and his family.

Dr. Takahashi died on September 6, 2011.