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Letters from Readers
THAILAND AND THE AXIS IN WORLD WAR II
July 24, 1999

With due respect to Amb. [Ronald] Palmer, I intend to read his entire article [“Globalism Vs. Economic Nationalism: The Southeast Asian Case” in the present issue] which is of interest to me. However, I found at the beginning a statement on which I need to comment. The statement avers that “Thailand sided with Japan and the Axis for most of the war” (WWII). While not necessarily untrue, I believe it deserves to be stated in a slightly different way, like: “Being occupied during the war by Japan, Thailand was forced to take sides with the Axis.”

It so happens that my wife was a little Thai girl during WWII, and her father was an officer in the Thai army. When the Japanese entered his base, he happened to be in the North fighting other Japanese units. The Japanese troops who invaded his base forced all Thai families living there to leave. My wife’s mother took her several small children to a Buddhist temple where they stayed for the remainder of the war. Many years later I visited that base and the temple. There was an old American missionary school on the base which my wife attended during primary years. I accompanied a brother of my wife, an army general, to the temple. He had been one of the children who spent WWII in the temple. He told the monks the whole story, and left a gift for the temple.

A friend of mine in the Foreign Service used to tell me stories of his WWII years when he planned targets for US bombs in Thailand. He said there was a strict rule not to harm anything that was important or sacred to the Thais.

When I left Thailand at the end of an AID tour in 1973, Renoo, the Chairman of the National Economic and Social Development Board, hosted a farewell luncheon and told the following story, which he said was known by villagers all over Thailand, a reason Thais were so friendly to Americans:

During WWII Seni Pramoj was Thai Ambassador to the United States. After Japan succeeded in occupying his country, it attempted to force the country to align itself against Japan’s enemies. One day Seni Pramoj presented himself in the office of Secretary of State Cordell Hull. “Your Excellency, ” lamented Seni Pramoj. “I regret that I have a most distasteful duty to perform here today.”

“Oh, Seni, what can be as bad as all that?” replied Mr. Hull.

“Sir, I am forced to deliver my Government’s instruments of warfare.”

“Forget it, Seni, I will not accept them.”

[Continued above, Column 2]

Puey Ungphakorn, later head of the Thai Central Bank, and still later a visiting professor at Princeton U., gave a modest account of his wartime activities in a booklet entitled “Temporary Soldiers.” It tells of a Free Thai operation which went on in occupied Thailand. The main Thai group, known as “The White Elephants” was taken in Nov. 1942 to a British training center in India for instruction in guerilla warfare. In Sept. 1943, Puey was a member of the first party of three Thais to be put ashore off the coast of Siam from a submarine with wireless equipment to establish radio contact with the British in India for intelligence purposes.

Later, Puey was apprehended when mistakenly dropped in a field near a village, as were many others, members of a number of infiltration teams. While interrogated by the Japanese, the Siamese police gave them protectioin and gave them a certain amount of freedom, closing their eyes to their nighttime activities.

In the following months these Thai “prisoners” made daily sanitary arrangements in the police compounds, and made nocturnal “escapes.” They succeeded in enlisting prominent Thais into the resistance movement, and the police network cooperated. Partisans were identified within all branches of the Thai armed forces.

By June 1945 Puey had become a major in the British army and was later decorated an M.B.E. before returning to the UK to resume his interrupted doctoral study at the London School of Economics.

So, while Thailand was forced to cooperate with the Japanese during the occupation of WWII, it is not true that they supported the Axis cause willingly.

Carl R. Fritz
Chapel Hill, NC
Email:crfritz@AOL.com

POSTSCRIPT (July 27, 1999):

I’ve completed my reading of the article, and found it to be a very scholarly piece of work on South Asia. Though most of his article covered years when I resided and worked in Southeast Asia, I learned much more from his article than I knew before. In fact, I liked it so much I think I shall read it once again!

Carl Fritz serves on the board of directors of American Diplomacy’s parent organization, American Diplomacy Publishers. He is a frequent contributor to the pages of the journal. His memoir Overland by Jeep to Kabul appeared in the Spring 1999 issue.


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