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The exfiltration of Mac McGarry

By Bob Bergin

McGarry wandered the northern Thai hills for three weeks before Thai police found him. He was turned over to the Japanese Army, interrogated and brought to Bangkok. There his situation came to the attention of Pridi Phanomyong, founder of the Free Thai Movement, Thailand's anti-Japanese resistance.

Pridi was a powerful figure. He was the Regent, and acted on behalf of the Thai king, who was in Switzerland. Pridi was convinced from the start that the Japanese could not possibly win a war with the Americans. He was a primary contact of the occupying Japanese, and ostensibly cooperated with them. But his main interest was to help bring about Japan's defeat.

Pridi convinced the Japanese that as the Thai had "captured" him, McGarry should remain a Thai prisoner, albeit under Japanese supervision. He had a compound built on the grounds of Thammasat University - where he was the rector - and in line of sight of his office. Pridi wanted to assure that nothing would happen to Black Mac. He believed that a show of good will toward an American POW would pay dividends when the war ended.

The AVG had received no word of McGarry after he was shot down. In late 1944, Nicol Smith, the OSS officer in charge of Thai operations started to infiltrate Free Thai agents into Thailand from China. Smith was a travel writer before the war and had become acquainted with Chennault, who had become the commander of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force. Smith wanted Chennault's help in establishing an OSS radio station and jumping-off point for the agents at an airstrip at Szemao on China's border with Laos. Chennault agreed, and provided aircraft to move equipment and supplies. He told Smith that once Thai agents were successfully placed into Thailand, he would have a favor to ask.

In early 1945, with Free Thai agents established in Bangkok, Smith reported back to Chennault. In March 1942, Chennault told Smith, one of his AVG pilots, William "Black Mac" McGarry had parachuted into heavy jungle in North Thailand. Other AVG pilots had seen him land safely, and Chennailt thought there was a good chance that McGarry was now a POW. He asked Smith if the Free Thai underground might be able to locate him.

Chennault had his answer in four days. McGarry was a POW. He was being held in a compound on the grounds of Thammasat University. His guards were Thai, under Japanese supervision, but under Free Thai control. Chennualt asked if Smith could "find out from McGarry if he was fit and willing to attempt an escape." Word from Bangkok came back quickly: McGarry was fit, and ready for an escape attempt.

The Free Thai devised a plan: McGarry would feign illness, and be moved him from one hospital to another until he just disappeared. If his disappearance became an issue with the Japanese, it would be explained that McGarry had died, and - as was customary - had been cremated. McGarry would be taken by Customs Department boat to the Gulf of Siam where he would be picked up by an OSS PBY Catalina dispatched from Ceylon. (In the end two RAF Catalinas were used for the ex-filtration, which also would take a sick OSS officer, John Wester, and four Thai Air Force officers to Ceylon.)

There was some concern with this plan among the senior Free Thai. McGarry had become too well known; his absence would surely be noted by the Japanese on one of their periodic visits. That would mean trouble. The day before McGarry was to be moved from the compound, Police Director General Adun announced a better plan. He had arranged a fake release order that "purportedly" came from him. The order directed the Thai chief of the internment camp to turn McGarry over to the police officer who brought the order. If the Japanese later noted McGarry's absence - as was most likely - the Camp chief would explain that he had turned McGarry over at the request of the Director General, and then produce the release order to prove it. When the Japanese then came to Director General Adun to find out what was going on, Adun would show them that the release order was a forgery - and that it could not possibly have come from him.

On April 14, 1945, Pridi arrived at the OSS safe house at about 8:30, Adun about 30 minutes later with McGarry in tow. McGarry was stunned. He had no idea of what was happening to him until he was suddenly introduced to the OSS officers. He did not seem overjoyed, OSS Bangkok Chief, Howard Palmer wrote. "Understandably, he did not have two words to say all evening."

Free Thai officer Wimon Wirayawit, in charge of the exfiltration, described the run to the Gulf. McGarry and the others boarded a Thai Customs Department boat that had been docked on the Chao Phya River behind the house. To minimize the possibility of encounters with the Japanese, the boat crossed the Chao Phya river and entered the network of klongs or canals that crisscrossed the area and led south toward the Gulf of Siam.

Adding to the difficulty of the journey was OSS officer Wester's illness. In his delirium he would often shout out in English. Whenever a Japanese patrol boat came into sight, one of the Free Thai officers would get up on deck and dance the Ramwong, a traditional Thai dance in which the enthusiastic singing and musical accompaniment of the boat's crew would drown out the sick man's shouts. Below decks, Wimon and McGarry crouched with submachine guns ready, just in case the Japanese became curious and decided to come aboard.

The boat entered the Gulf of Siam and headed south to the vicinity of Prachuab Kiri Khan, where it lay hidden to await nightfall and the arrival of the Catalinas. The two aircraft arrived, a bit behind schedule, but the boarding of personnel and offloading of equipment was otherwise uneventful. The two Catalinas returned to Ceylon, where McGarry was transferred to a B-24 and flown over the Hump to Kunming. Waiting on the runway at Kunming were Chennault and two of McGarry's former AVG comrades, Chuck Older and Ed Rector who had flown on McGarry's wing on the day he was shot down. (Chennault had ordered the two to Kunming that day, and asked them to wait with him on the runway. He told them nothing about McGarry, wanted it to be a big surprise. "And it sure was," Ed Rector said.

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