It was a horrifying sight in a war filled with horrifying sights. But the other atrocities were just stories that 10-year-old Little Red had heard. This was real. A bloated corpse, barely recognizable as a Japanese sailor but for the anchor symbol on its sleeve and a scarf with Japanese characters pressing into its swollen grey neck, floating gently in the emerald blue waves washing on Krabi’s Andaman shore. And what was that bobbing in the waves another fifty meters out? Another body? And this flotsam on the shore…it looked like a ship’s signal lamp. And there a wrecked wooden box, also with the strange stenciled strokes of Japanese characters. What had happened? The monsoons that may have claimed another ship had not yet come; it was the usual clear tropical sky full of sun. But Little Red was too afraid of dead sailor ghosts to find out more. He quickly turned to run back to his home to report this shocking news, careful to avoid the occupying soldiers who always wanted to make your business their business.
Which Side To Fight For? Thailand’s Entry Into WWII
World War II had come as a surprise to Thailand’s shores at the same time it had come as a surprise to the US fleet in Pearl Harbor. Japanese troops stormed ashore along strategic spots on the Gulf of Thailand in the wee hours of December 8th, 1941, making rapid progress toward their British Malaya and Burma targets when Phibun’s fascist regime quickly capitulated to the imperial force he had been courting for years anyway.
But not every Thai was satisfied with the dictator and his decision. They had seen Phibun’s government usurp a nascent democratic movement that had started when the king was forced to agree to a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Instead of heralding a free democratic era, Phibun had ridden a global wave of hyper-nationalist and fascist tactics to power. Like Hitler had used the Jews, Phibun isolated and targeted the Chinese to rally a nation against a common enemy, consolidating his power with draconian laws in the process. Phibun had his portrait hung everywhere across the kingdom as “The Leader,” and made nagging pronouncements on cultural habits that he wished to control, such as the wearing of hats and western clothes, or the cessation of eating betel nuts. His intrusive edicts even told people how long to sleep and when to call their relatives.
But many Thais, both of the elite and common class, saw Phibun’s power as restrictive and anti-democratic. Public sentiment regarding the Japanese was divided as well. Some, such as a number of the military leaders, saw a chance to secure territorial gains against the French colonizers in Laos and Cambodia and British-controlled areas in Burma. A smaller group, but with some powerful influencers such as the aristocratic Thai ambassador to the US Seni Pramoj, vehemently opposed a devilish deal with the Japanese.
The Free Thais Arise
Resistance to the occupation and the puppet government began immediately, including in the south. In Hat Yai, for example, shortly after the Japanese had stormed the coast at Songkhla, resistors had planted bombs in a Japanese barracks to impede their march down to the Malay border. But such attacks were scattered, and the Thai government’s cooperation with Japan made it a complicated and dangerous matter to resist. Eventually, a more organized underground movement emerged known as the Seri Thai, or “Free Thai.” While Ambassador Seni organized forces overseas, several anti-Japanese officials in Bangkok, eventually headed by the regent Pridi, furtively put together a national network to gather valuable intelligence and execute the occasional attack.
The war gradually infiltrated through the rough jungle to Thailand’s western coast facing the Andaman Sea, and creeped up from Timor and Indonesia, as the Japanese slowly worked their way toward a Burmese invasion. Krabi’s peaceful waters, bejeweled with towering limestone karst islands, would become a crucial part of Japan’s logistics trail from Singapore to Rangoon in their pursuit of empire and a Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. After Japanese troops captured Rangoon (now called Yangon) on March 8th, 1942, backwater Krabi’s role in the story of a world at war became a bit more important.
The Japanese Occupation Generation in Krabi
Major Obura established his Krabi headquarters in the Ammat Pha Nit Kun School (โรงเรียนอำมาตย์พานิชนุกูล), while troops encamped near Ban Tha Daeng (บ้านท่าแดง) and Ban Khlong Hin (บ้านคลองหิน near the current Isaranusorn School), forcing out school children like Little Red, who would come to be called the “Japanese Occupation Generation” (รุ่นญี่ปุ่นขึ้น). A small detachment of Japanese soldiers sheltered in Khao Khanab Nam Caves, overseeing the logistics of shipping operations running out of Krabi.
It may be difficult today to envision the Krabi of the World War II era. Long before the arrival of tourists seeking its natural beauty, or wealth-producing palm oil and rubber tree plantations, it was a sleepy hinterland with a simple lifestyle. The government building was an unornamented building with a thatched roof. The mix of Muslim fishermen, Thai farmers, and Chinese townsmen all lived a very traditional life, centered on the abundance of the sea. A careful look at a 1910 photograph of the local people in their hand-crafted boats, awaiting the arrival of the newly-crowned king Rama VI, shows a people that probably looked much the same when the Japanese arrived. In such a rural setting, the presence of armed foreign troops, even in small numbers, must have had a significant impact.
The convoluted inlets hidden among endless mangrove forests had been a shelter for seafarers since at least Roman times, when Arab and Indian traders blew in with the monsoon trade winds. Now these protected shores would be a depot of supplies and troops engaged in modern warfare which raged not far from the serene shores.
The Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean areas were the only theater where the two Axis powers of Germany and Japan held joint operations. The Germans, eager to disrupt and distract the British war effort by attacking supply lines to India, joined with the Japanese, fervent for expanding their western front. The Germans established the Monsun Gruppe, or Monsoon Group, of U-boats stationed in Penang, Malaya by 1943. Along with Japanese submarines and warships, these forces plied the Andaman Sea through the critical Malacca Straits and off of Krabi’s coast up to Burma, picking off Allied shipping and protecting their troop and material movements up the Malay Isthmus. As Allied strength recovered, however, they were able to make their own counterattacks, patrolling the Malacca Straits with submarines and sending aerial bombardment missions over the Andaman. It was a fierce back-and-forth battle on the seas from 1942 onwards.
To those who objected to the Japanese presence, it was a risky venture. If caught by Japanese, resistors were likely to be shot, or sent to work in slave labor conditions on the Thai-Burma death railway. And one never knew where his countrymen’s loyalty lay, given the complex political situation between Thailand and Japan. At least the Seri Thai contingent in Krabi had high level connections…the Provincial Governor, Mr. Wijarn Wijarnnigongit(วิจารณ์ วิจารณ์นิกรกิจ), headed the movement, laying out plans and monitoring when Japanese units were out in the villages or in their base. While the Governor secretly plotted, on-the-ground forces were constantly moving to secure their location.
Fortunately, the towering karsts provided many caves and cover for covert operations, and the Seri Thai in the jungle managed to carry on their work by moving between two remote areas codenamed Khao Khwang (เขาขวาง) and Khao Samnuay (เขาสามหน่วย). The Japanese were aware of their presence, and continuously sent patrols out in search of their operations, frightening and threatening villagers who themselves often fled into the forest.
The Unsung Heroes’ Work
There were successes, and surprises. On at least one occasion, weapons and critical medicine were airdropped in. It turned out to be the city police, sent by the Governor, who recovered the needed supplies. The most critical work of the Seri Thai was providing intelligence on troop movements and weather patterns to the Allies via Seri Thai headquarters in Bangkok. Allied bombing campaigns out of India and unoccupied Burma were operating over Thailand, Burma, and Malaya to hinder or destroy Japan’s war-making capabilities there, and the weather reports were critical for the campaign success. Seri Thai tracking of troop and ship movements was another huge help for the Allies. Practically no Japanese unit or ship left or passed by Krabi without watchful eyes recording their passing.
Nonetheless, there were gaps in knowledge, with resulting tragedies. On 15 January 1943, long-range B-24 Liberators of the 7th Bombardment Group, flying out of India, found the Japanese transport Nichimei Maru in the Andaman Sea and sent it to the bottom of the sea with their accurate and devastating bombs. The aircrews had no idea that they had also just sent over 500 Allied prisoners-of-war to their graves as well.
It was likely valuable intelligence from the Krabi Seri Thai group that informed the Allies about the steamship Thawng Ho (ถ่องโห), which had served as a transport between Phuket, Krabi, Trang, and Penang. The Japanese had seized this vessel as part of their war effort and enlisted its service for moving troops and supplies along the coast. This was exactly the type of movement the Allied forces intended to stop. While a galaxy of tropical fish glided among the coral, an anonymous Allied submarine patiently awaited its prey off of the charming island Koh Hua Khwan (เกาะหัวขวาน, today known as Chicken Island for its long-necked rock formation). The unsuspecting Thawng Ho came into its sites. Torpedoes away! And the ship was quickly sunk. These were the hapless bodies that Little Red had seen washing upon the shore near Krabi Town.
Little Red, of the “Japanese Occupation Generation,” would suffer greatly along with his compatriots through these difficult years, overcoming by many original means the war shortages caused by Japanese confiscations and merchant hoarding. Locals learned to boil parts of banana trees for food, to make sugar from coconut trees, or to extract salt from the sea water to keep from starving. There are stories of husband and wife pairs getting down to only one cloth wrap to wear, so that only one at a time could venture out into the public. Others found creative ways to work resources from the mangrove forests to make improvised clothing.
Any dreams of recovered Siamese glory or good feelings toward the Japanese quickly faded over the tiresome war years. It turned out that the Seri Thai had been right, and Little Red’s work as one of thousands of pairs of ears and eyes reporting to the Resistance finally started to bear fruit, as he saw more of his fellow Thais take hope in a Thailand free of occupation. Their brave work in backwater Krabi, though little noticed then and long forgotten now, illustrates that it sometimes takes going against the crowd to stand for what one believes. And no matter how far removed one may be from the centers of power, it’s still possible to make a worthy contribution to a better society.
The last action of the British Eastern Fleet that patrolled the Andaman Sea area, and the region’s only successful kamikaze attack, took place not far from Krabi and Phuket. In July 1945, Operation Livery deployed a minesweeping flotilla off the coast of Phuket. An escort carrier, the HMS Empress accompanied the group to provide air cover for the operation, which was intended to send a false flag to the Japanese that offensive landings were about to take place. On July 26th, a kamikaze Mitsubishi Ki-51 successfully disabled the minesweeper Vestal, which had to be scuttled. No further actions took place in the region after this, as the war soon ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August.
Although Little Red is fictional, all other facts about Seri Thai and WWII operations are true accounts.
Sources and Further Reading:
วัฒนธรรม พัฒนาการทางประวัติศาสตร์ เอกลักษณ์และภูมิปัญญา จังหวัดกระบี่
คณะกรรมการฝ่ายประมวลเอกสารและจดหมายเหตุ ในคณะกรรมการอำนวยการจัดงานเฉลิมพระเกียรติพระบาทสมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวฯ ๕ ธันวาคม ๒๕๔๒ Krabi Province Culture, Historical Development, Identity and Knowledge. Committee on Document Processing and Archives, in the Organizing Committee for the Celebration of His Majesty the King, 5 December 1999.
Wimon Wiriyawit, compiler. Free Thai: Personal Recollections and Official Documents. Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1997.
Selected Chronological List of Naval Actions Along the Andaman Coast
21 January 1942: I-66 sank the freighter Nord off Rangoon.
7 March 1942: Allied naval forces covered the withdrawal of Allied troops from Rangoon.
8 March 1942: Japanese troops captured Rangoon.
23 March 1942: Japan invaded and captured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as Operation D.
25 March 1942: A troop convoy delivered the 56th Division (Imperial Japanese Army) to Rangoon as Operation U.
HMS Truant sank Yae Maru and Shunsei Maru in the Strait of Malacca.
7 April 1942: A troop convoy delivered the 18th Division (Imperial Japanese Army) to Rangoon as Operation U.
2 June 1942: Kofuku Maru was mined off Rangoon.
Axis submarine patrols of Indian Ocean trade routes were expanded with establishment of a Kriegsmarine base in Penang as Allied anti-submarine patrols became increasingly effective in the Atlantic. Allied submarines and aircraft began patrolling the Strait of Malacca and Andaman Sea to intercept shipping supporting Japanese forces in Burma.
15 January 1943: Five-hundred Allied prisoners of war drowned when Tenth Air Force B-24 Liberators sank the Nichimei Maru in the Andaman Sea.
27 February 1943: Tenth Air Force B-24s sank Asakasan Maru in the Andaman Sea.
28 July 1943: Tenth Air Force B-24s sank Tamishima Maru in the Andaman Sea.
23 August 1943: Tenth Air Force B-24s sank Heito Maru in the Andaman Sea.
27 August 1943: German U-boat base established at Penang Sea.
13 November 1943: HMS Taurus sank Japanese submarine I-34 in the Strait of Malacca.
3 December 1943: Allied aircraft sank the steamer Assam near Rangoon.
7 December 1943: Operation Ratchet Allied at Regu Creek, Burma.
Use of Ultra intelligence information increased successful interceptions by Allied submarines and reduced Axis resupply opportunities in the Indian Ocean. Surrender of the Regia Marina and destruction of Kriegsmarine battleships made Royal Navy aircraft carriers available for raids of the Andaman Sea.
11 January 1944: HMS Tally-Ho sank the Japanese cruiser Kuma in the Strait of Malacca.
15 January 1944: HMS Tally-Ho sank Ryuko Maru in the Strait of Malacca.
23 January 1944: Tenth Air Force B-24 Liberators sank Seikai Maru in the Andaman Sea.
14 February 1944: HMS Tally-Ho sank the German submarine UIT-23 in the Strait of Malacca.
18 February 1944: HMS Trespasser sank Eifuku Maru off Burma.
17 July 1944: HMS Telemachus sank Japanese submarine I-166 in the Strait of Malacca.
10 September 1944: Royal Air Force Beaufighters sank Misago Maru in the Andaman Sea.
Allied aircraft sank Tatayama Maru in the Andaman Sea.
22 November 1944: HMS Stratagem was sunk by Japanese destroyers in the Strait of Malacca.
Allied focus was on amphibious operations along the Burma coast of the Andaman Sea. Axis submarine operations were restricted by fuel shortage and maintenance difficulties.
7 February 1945: HMS Subtle sank Nanei Maru in the Andaman Sea.
24 February 1945: Operation Stacy air raid against Andaman Sea shipping by HMS Ameer and Empress.
8 March 1945: Tenth Air Force B-24 Liberators sank Hoyo Maru in the Andaman Sea.
26 March 1945: The Royal Navy 26th Destroyer Flotilla sank Risui Maru and Teshio Maru in the Andaman Sea.
No. 203 Squadron RAF B-24 Liberators sank Agata Maru in the Andaman Sea.
1 May 1945: Operation Dracula amphibious landing near Rangoon.
16 May 1945: The Royal Navy 26th Destroyer Flotilla sank the cruiser Haguro in the Battle of the Malacca Strait.
26 July 1945: The first Indian Ocean kamikaze strike sank HMS Vestal and damaged HMS Ameer during Operation Livery.
2 comments on “Freedom Fighters in Backwater Krabi: The World War II Experience”
What a fascinating, entertaining and well researched post regarding a little mentioned part of Thai history. I also greatly enjoyed the historical photographs.
Thank you Philip!