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Farewell to a Hidden Hero

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America just lost a real war hero. But few know his name. That's because Pete Lutken's heroics took place in the remote jungles of Burma during World War II as part of covert Allied efforts to defeat the Japanese.

Pete Lutken died last week at the age of 93, but what he did for his country should not be forgotten. He was given the nickname "the meanest man in Burma," not because he was a cruel man, far from it, but because he operated behind the enemy lines for more than two years, longer than any of the other Allied intelligence agents, and survived through sheer grit.

He had arrived in the China-Burma-India theater as a 22-year-old farm boy from Mississippi, fresh out of college. He was smart, tall, and lean as a hoe handle. The only time he had been out of state before was to go to the Boy Scout Jamboree. After Pearl Harbor, Lutken was sent to India to train Chinese artillery troops that were going to help take back Burma from the Japanese. An officer mentioned to him that someone was needed to go behind the lines as a scout. It was as dangerous an assignment as there could be. The scout would be alone in the jungle with little to protect him but his wits. With typical straightforwardness, Lutken replied, "All right. What do you want me to do?"

He ended up a member of the V force, a British-American espionage force scouting out enemy locations, which soon was merged into Detachment 101, the first unit of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA. Lutken's assignment included recruiting local villagers to help fight the Japanese because there simply weren't enough Allied soldiers available. Their shared mission was to blow up supply lines, railroad bridges, and ammunition stores; intercept messages; plant disinformation; rescue downed airmen; provide locations for aerial attacks -- and somehow manage to survive the Japanese, the monsoon rains, the leeches, the snakes, and the malaria that were constant threats.

At times, Lutken was reduced to eating roots when airdrops of supplies didn't arrive. His boots fell apart from the extreme conditions, so he spent months tramping through tropical forests and mountains wearing burlap sacks wrapped on his size-12 feet. When he was wounded so badly by machine gun fire that he couldn't walk, he continued to lead his Chinese troops from a stretcher.

By war's end, Lutken had been promoted to Major and had 1,200 to 1,500 men and a small herd of elephants under his command. The native Kachin troops had proven their mettle and helped the Allies to victory in Burma (later renamed Myanmar). As they parted, the Kachins who fought with Lutken gave him the title, Ka'Ang Zhau Lai - "He who was in from the beginning to the end."

The records would later show that the accomplishments of Detachment 101, which only included 800 Americans throughout the war, were remarkable. Together with the native forces the covert forces:
  • Scouted and provided security patrols for American, British and Chinese forces.
  • Rescued 425 U.S. airmen.
  • Provided 85 percent of the intelligence for the Northern Combat Command (NCAC), 76 percent of 10th Air Force targets, and 100 percent of ground damage assessment.
  • Killed 5,428 Japanese, wounded an estimated 10,000, captured 78 Japanese, and identified 922 Japanese agents.
  • Circulated leaflets and rumors to undermine the enemy and produced radio broadcasts to counter Japanese propaganda.
  • Demolished 57 bridges, derailed nine trains, destroyed or captured 272 trucks or other vehicles, and destroyed 15,000 tons of Japanese supplies.
  • Delivered 4,000 tons of arms and supplies by air.

After the war, Pete Lutken was one of the many soldiers from the "Greatest Generation" who came home to pursue the American Dream -- in his case, a pretty wife who was the love of his life for 62 years and four children. He was a Boy Scout leader and Sunday School teacher. To talk to the courtly Southern gentleman with the droopy white moustache later in life, you would never imagine he was once a fierce jungle fighter.

Yet over the years, Lutken never forgot the Kachin tribesmen who taught Detachment 101 guerrilla war techniques and often saved their lives. When the war had ended, the natives had received a token medal and little more. Families who lost a son or father were given the same amount as for losing a mule. That bothered Lutken and many of his OSS friends. They felt those villagers who had risked their lives to help the Allies were owed a "debt of honor." The veterans raised money to support a school and an orphanage, print a health care manual, and buy seeds for the Kachin to grow crops other than opium to support their families. Over time, that crop program grew to 269 villages, 147 cooperatives, and more than 4,800 farming units.

For a while, funding was provided by Congress and the State Department, but in recent years, budget cuts meant the end of that support. Though they were well into their 80s and 90s, Lutken and the other survivors pitched in what they could to make sure seeds arrived in time for planting, knowing families might go hungry if they did not. Just a month before he died in his sleep, Pete Lutken was still making calls to find funding.

As word circulated of his death, remaining survivors from Detachment 101 sent out emails about Lutken, the man who had stayed to the end. One remembered that when Lutken revisited Burma in 1995, he had walked over to some Kachin girls and spoke to them in their language. Though they were much too young to have experienced World War II, when he told the girls his bush name, they beamed in recognition. They all knew his name. It has passed into the oral history of the Kachin people.

Two Congressmen, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois and Rep. Robert E. Latta, R-Ohio, recently proposed a bill to award the Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress, to all the members of the OSS who served in secret around the world. Similar awards have gone to the Navajo code-talkers and Tuskegee Airmen.

It's late, but well deserved recognition.