The Youngest Operative: A
Tale of Initiative Behind Enemy Lines During WW II
Panomyong, the leader of World War II’s anti-Japanese Free Thai Movement once
said that the Free Thai were not only those formally inducted into the
movement, but all Thai who helped in the effort against the Japanese occupiers.
This is the story of one such Free Thai, perhaps the youngest of them all.
Orachun Tanaphong was a 12-year old in 1944 when he became a courier and carried
medicines and messages to Allied POWs held in a temple compound in Northern
Thailand. This story of his adventures is based on his recollections of those
By mid-1943, Allied aircraft bombed targets in Thailand with regularity,
striking at concentrations of Japanese troops. The city of Chiang Mai became a
primary target. It was close to Burma, and the city’s railroad station was the
northern terminus of Thailand’s railroad system that extended out from Bangkok
and its port. The railroad became the primary means for the Japanese to move
troops, weapons and supplies around Thailand, and most importantly, north to
Chiang Mai to support the Japanese Army’s campaign in Burma.
On 21 December
1943, Allied bombers hit Chiang Mai’s railway station in a massive raid. The
station and the neighborhoods around it were destroyed. More than 300 Thai
civilians were killed. Among the dead and injured were Orachun’s relatives. The
city’s hospitals were crowded with the injured, and Buddhist temples were used
to treat the overflow. More bombings followed, and Orachun’s father decided to
move the family into the countryside, where they could live in relative safety
until the situation improved.
It was almost
a year before Orachun’s family returned to Chiang Mai. They found their house
damaged, its roof holed by strafing fighters. They also found that a
neighboring building, a motor vehicle repair shop known as the best in town,
was now regularly servicing Japanese Army vehicles.
Japanese appeared at the shop, they often brought with them POWs they used as
drivers and mechanics. Most of the POWs were British, but there were also Dutch
and Australians. From the start there was a communications problem. Neither the
Japanese nor the POWs spoke much Thai, while the shop personnel spoke only
Thai. Someone remembered that Orachun’s father spoke English. He was a graduate
of Prince Royal College, an American missionary school. His father was pressed
to serve as an interpreter between the POWs and the shop mechanics. Every time
his father was called next door to the repair shop, Orachun went along.
interpreter, his father’s job was to help the workers in the shop understand
the problems of a particular truck. At first, when he spoke with the POWs, the
Japanese soldiers watched closely, but after awhile—as they understood no
English and little Thai—they became bored and paid little attention. As his
father worked with the POWs and got to know them, he started sliding in
questions about their situation and their treatment by the Japanese.
Orachun’s father learned that life had become very spartan for the POWs.
Each man had a single pair of shorts and a pair of sandals; none had shirts. He
noted that one POW, an Englishman named Tom, had numerous small pits in the
skin on his back. Asked about that, Tom said that he had been working in the
POW camp’s kitchen cooking rice, when he got in a quarrel with one of the
Japanese. The Japanese settled the argument by pouring the boiling rice over
his back. Many months later his skin was scarred like someone who had had small
When some of
the POWs who had regularly visited the shop dropped out of sight, Orachun’s
father learned that they were sick and were left behind in the camp. Malaria
was rife in Chiang Mai at that time. It could be controlled with quinine, but
the POWS were getting nothing to keep them healthy. Orachun’s father decided to
try to get medicine, some fruit, and even some cigarettes into the camp. It
would have to be done secretly. The obvious choice of a courier was the
It was known
that the POW camp was located in a temple compound on the other side of town.
There were actually two temples, down a small road from one another. One was
used as the POW camp, the other continued to be used as a temple. The Japanese
frequently used Thai schools and temples to house their installations, knowing
that American aircraft would not target them. The area was a long way from
Orachun’s home. He would have to ride his bicycle almost an hour to get there.
mother prepared a small basket-like container. Inside was medicine, some fruit,
and cigarettes hand-rolled by Orachun’s father. There was already a basket
fixed to the handlebars of Orachun’s bicycle, and the container for the POWs
was placed inside that. His father could not describe how the POW compound was
laid out. Orachun would have to improvise once he got there.
Thailand are public places, and Orachun thought that once he got there, he
would simply sneak into the area in which the POWs were kept. When he saw the
temple camp, he realized that was not going to work. Japanese soldiers stood at
the entrance and all along its perimeter. They seemed to be everywhere, and
they all carried guns.
a place to sit where he would be inconspicuous while he watched for a while. He
could see the POWs easily enough, and among them he recognized visitors to the
repair shop. When they noticed Orachun, it was evident to him that they knew
who he was, and that seeing him there, they suspected he was up to something.
That made it a bit easier. He could not get close enough to talk with them, but
he gestured, to let them know that he recognized them. Then he continued to
opportunity materialized. He saw one of the POWs, apparently a designated water
carrier, set off on a task. There was no water in the POW compound, but there
was a well in the other temple down the street. As water carrier, this POW’s
job was to walk from the POW compound to the second temple, draw water from the
well and carry it back to camp. It was a totally routine job that he had
obviously been doing for some time. The guards watched as he walked from one
temple to the other, but they were so used to his comings and goings that they
did not watch very closely.
carrier had two cutoff gasoline cans suspended from the ends of a pole slung
over his shoulder. When Orachun understood how the water carrier’s job worked,
he strolled into the second temple and placed his little container near the
well. There, it remained hidden but close to where the water carrier would have
to pass. As the water carrier approached him, he made little signs to make sure
the man would notice the container. The POW then casually filled just one of
his cans with water, leaving the other empty for Orachun’s container, which he
slipped in. He carried his load out through the temple gate and back to the POW
compound, right past the Japanese guards, who noticed nothing amiss.
mission was accomplished! He was elated. He mounted his bicycle and took off
like he was piloting an airplane. When he reached home he felt like he had
flown there. He had been afraid. He knew—as everyone did—how bad-tempered the
Japanese could be, and what they did to people for even minor offenses. If they
caught anyone stealing rice or sugar or gasoline, they would make him drink the
gasoline or cram the sugar or rice in his mouth until he choked. Orachun knew
that if he was going to do this again, he would not only have to be very
careful, but work out a system that would keep him safe.
On the many
visits that followed, Orachun refined the way he did things. He continued to
ride his bicycle to the temples and kept the container in the basket on the
handlebars. When he got to the two temples, he would take the bike into the one
with the well and park it where it would not be noticed. He feared that sooner
or later a Japanese soldier would wonder who he was and what he was doing here.
But Orachun had found a way to disappear. There was usually a gang of local
children who played in the area between the two temples, and Orachun would join
them. If they did not let him join directly in their games, he could just hang
around and watch. To any Japanese soldier he was just another kid, not worth
- Photo Courtesy of the author.
that the POW water carrier tried to keep to a schedule and visit the well at
the same time every day. So that his own arrival did not coincide with that, he
would come early and hang around in front of the temple, watching the other
children play. At times he would have to spend two or three hours there. His
little basket-like container was so common an item that no one ever displayed
the least bit of curiosity about it. Nor did the Japanese guards ever show the
least bit of interest in what might be in the basket mounted on the bicycle’s
watched the kids play, and when everything was just right, he would stroll past
the well, and leave the container concealed somewhere near it. He varied the
places where he put it, so as not to establish a detectable pattern. Then he
would go back and wait some more, until he saw the water carrier approaching.
With small gestures he would guide the man until he knew where the container
was. While doing this, Orachun often was afraid. Several times he was sure he
would get caught, but it never happened.
As time went
on and Orachun and his father became more confident about his ability to pass
things to the POWs without being detected, they started putting messages in the
basket. Most related to the development of the war, of which the POWs were kept
in complete ignorance. Orachun had a Harvard-educated cousin who was
surreptitiously listening to Allied radio broadcasts from outside the country.
Summaries of these broadcasts were written on paper and placed in the container
with the medicine, fruit and cigarettes.
- As seen today, the entrance to the temple grounds with the well from which the POW's drew their water and received Orachun's hidden messages.
visit to the temples was the most interesting of all. The container he
delivered had the news that war was ending. After he saw the water carrier pick
up the container, he waited until he was inside the POW camp. It did not take
long before the camp erupted with shouts and cheers and happy people jumping up
and down. The Japanese guards were completely taken aback. The POWs had news
that their guards had not yet heard: the Japanese had lost the war.
A year after
the war, Orachun’s family was awarded a plaque by the British government. (In
the picture to the right, the young Orachun is standing over his father’s left
shoulder, with his brother next to him.) Orachun finished his studies in
Bangkok and won a scholarship to study in Madrid. He returned to Thailand,
joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and went on to a distinguished career as
a diplomat. He served as Thailand’s ambassador to the People’s Republic of
China, North Korea, Portugal, Mexico, and Central America. Today he is an
associate judge at the Central Intellectual Property and International Trade
Court in Bangkok.
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