They came from the south. Quietly. Hundreds of them. Japanese soldiers who marched for days. Till they reached Maibam Lokpaching or the Red Hill (as the British called it) under the cover of darkness. It was May 20,1944. The hill lay in their path,resting like a humped camel. Unbeknown to the Japanese,on the other side of the hill the 17th division of the British Indian Army had established its headquarters. Both sides caught each other unawares and,for the next nine days,the Red Hill was to witness some of the fiercest fighting either of the forces had ever seen.
As the sun rose over the hill the morning of the tenth day,just 40 of the 500 Japanese white tigers had survived,only to beat a hasty retreat. Dozens lay dead on the other side too.
A Japanese memorial of grey stone and an ill-kept garden are what mark the fighting today. Another smaller shrine dedicated to the battle stands at the bottom of the Red Hill that some say the Japanese built in 1977the only Japanese memorials of WWII in India. The men who died fighting for the British are buried in the Imphal War Cemetery at Dewlahland and the Indian Army War Cemetery at Hatta,in the city.
The anonymity surrounding this chapter of World War II is now set to end. In April this year,the victories over the Japanese in Imphal and another in Kohima were together voted Britains Greatest Battle in a contest by the UK National Army Museum. A select audience of more than 100 voted overwhelmingly for the victories ahead of D-Day and Normandy (1944),Waterloo (1815),Rorkes Drift (during the Zulu War,1879),and Aliwal (during the First Sikh War,1846).
Historians made their case for the battles to the audience over a 40-minute presentation. The case for Imphal and Kohima was made by Dr Robert Lyman,an author and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
The Red Hill is quiet now,flanked by paddy fields and an even quieter Maibam village. Head bowed in deep prayer,a lone figure in front of the Japanese memorial stands out in the still afternoon. Mitsunori Hasuda,33,from Japan is here as part of the newly launched Battle of Imphal tours.
This is Hasudas third visit to India but only the first to the Northeast. I have always had a very keen interest in WWII since my country was involved in it, he says,adding that he has travelled to war sites in the Solomon islands,Singapore,Laos,Cambodia,Indonesia and Yangon (Myanmar). He has also visited river Kwai where the Japanese used 30,000 prisoners of war to construct a bridge. For the past two years,he has been working in Bangkok.
Hasuda says he read up about the Battle of Imphal before visiting Manipur but was surprised when he got here. The people here look like usMongoloidI did not expect this in India.
Talking about the battle,he notes that it was really a turning point in the World War from a Japanese perspective. I know that many Japanese will be interested in coming to Manipur and visiting the sites.