“Imagine trying to coax a mule up a steep wooden ramp into a Dakota aircraft! Some of them trotted up with no problem, but others just didn’t want to go. They would stop stock still with their hooves out and refuse to move an inch. It needed one man pulling from the front and two pushing from the back to get them to shift at all!” –Jack Burgin, Royal Air Force
During World War II, British soldiers were sent to the southeast Asian country of Burma (modern-day Myanmar) to fight the Japanese. Burma’s terrain was dominated by jungles and mountains, which made it nearly impossible to use modern vehicles to transport supplies. That’s were mules came in.
Mules (a donkey-horse hybrid) are hardy animals, well-known for their endurance, stamina, and sure-footedness. They work well as pack animals and can generally carry up to 200 pounds. They are also known for their strong sense of self-preservation, which is sometimes interpreted as stubbornness.
These qualities made mules ideal for transporting goods through Burma. The Army loaded the animals with everything from weapons, equipment, radios, and ammunition, to food, water, and medical supplies. Unfortunately, the mules could get quite loud, which risked giving away the men’s positions to the Japanese. So most mules were devoiced under anesthetic, and after a period of convalescence, the now silenced animals were sent on their way, apparently no worse for the wear.
Despite their hardiness, mules were occasionally lost along the way: some were killed in Japanese attacks, some fell to their deaths from steep mountain trails, and others simply escaped. But since mules were so vital, when they were lost the troops needed replacement animals. This meant flying more mules in. Four to six mules were loaded into a Dakota aircraft and placed in makeshift bamboo stalls. The mules were typically well-behaved on these flights (due to the sedatives they were sometimes given and to oxygen deprivation), but their urine would run through the floor and onto the plane’s wires. This meant that after the mules were delivered, the floor of the plane had to be taken up and all the wires cleaned to prevent rust and corrosion.
Sometimes, when troops needed more mules but there wasn’t anywhere for a plane to land, the mules would be parachuted in. This didn’t always end so well for the mules, as the jerk of the parachute opening could burst their mesentery artery. Eventually, a special parachute was created, consisting of an inflatable dinghy (into which the mule would be placed) attached to six parachutes.
But whether the mules were flown, parachuted, or walked in, without them, the British doubtless would’ve had a much harder time of it in Burma. As one soldier remarked, “We couldn’t have gone half the distances we did and gone half the places we did without the mules.”
For numerous stories about using mules in Burma during World War II, visit the BBC’s WW2 People’s War website.