The Oral History of Seri Thai – Part Two

In Thailand, there was a thriving resistance movement headed by then-regent Pridi Banomyong. Allies to the resistance included such powerful figures as Police Chief Adul Aduldejajaras (Luang Adul) and Tawee Bunyaket. These efforts helped protect Seri Thai members who infiltrated into Thailand to carry out their reconnaissance missions and drop arms. 

US Ambassador Michael G. DeSombre (GD): When The Free Thai movement in the US was formed, we weren’t sure that there was a resistance in Thailand, actually. It was only in 1944 when we got Free Thais [members from the US base] into Thailand, and when the OSS (Office of Strategic Alliance) also came into Thailand that we discovered there was a resistance led by Pridi Banomyong. 

We were then able to connect the Free Thais with the resistance and with OSS support during the last years of the war, [which] really allowed for much greater intelligence gathering on Japanese troop movements and otherwise in Thailand – so that was a critical aspect of the relationship.

Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram’s Cabinet, December, 1937

Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): The true leader of Seri Thai was Pridi Banomyong – the center of the movement in Thailand.

After the Cabinet meeting on December 8, 1941, Pridi returned home to find a group of people waiting for him — Khun Chamkad Balankura and other friends.

The discussion was: Are we going to accept the Japanese invasion, which violates our neutrality and independence, or are we willing to fight for our neutrality?

The group agreed to fight, and asked Pridi to be their chief and organise the secret resistance movement. 

Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): Initially, Pridi was the Minister of Finance, but the Japanese disliked Pridi. Everyone knew that Pridi was a great diplomat and had expressed his leanings towards the Allies and Great Powers. They didn’t know how to get rid of Pridi, so they proposed Pridi as Regent. Pridi agreed. He was relocated to Tha Chang residence, and used Thammasat University, situated nearby as the headquarters of the movement.

Pridi was assigned as Regent on December 16, 1941. On the 25 of January of the following year, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Jompon Por) declared war against the Allies (primarily the US and UK). 

The mission of the resistance was thus revised. Apart from resisting the Japanese invasion, they now had to try to absolve the Thai declaration of war and try to keep the Allies on their side to retain Thailand’s independence in the post-war settlement.

Pridi Banomyong during a Seri Thai meeting at his residence in Tha Chang, the headquarter of the underground movement

Dr Charivat Santaputra (CS): The movement’s latter mission then became diplomatic and political, for Thailand to be accepted by the Allies and to make Jompon Por’s declaration null and void. 

Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): To sign anything of such importance as a military alliance with Japan, all three of the Regents at the time have to sign it. But on the day he needed to sign, Pridi wasn’t there. He was in Ayutthaya. 

After the war was over, we could say that the alliance and declaration of war was null and void, because it wasn’t signed by all the Regents.

I never asked him about it, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that my father was gone that day.

Dr. Charivat Santaputra CS: Pridi was accustomed to secret missions (like Khana Ratsadon), so he was able to successfully manage people – what they were responsible for, and so forth.

Puchong Kanthatham (PK): Initially Luang Adul was hesitant – he was very close to Jompon Por. It was not clear if Jompon Por knew at the time, but Seri Thai people did not trust him to keep the secret or cooperate with them since he had already thrown his lot in with the Japanese. In the end, Luang Adul decided to come and work with Dr. Pridi.

Police Chief Adul Aduldejajaras (Luang Adul)

Thada Savetsila (TS1): Jom Pon Por [Phibulsongkram] might have known, anyway, his hands were tied.

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): They wouldn’t let Jompon Por know.

Pridi Banomyong during a meeting with other Seri Thai leaders at Sala Rim Nam, Tha Chang

Thailand’s Free Thais

Seri Thai Branch leaders were established across the country, and coordinated different aspects of resistance with Pridi’s orchestration. 

Professor Dutsadee Banomyong (DB): Seri Thai had many members all over the country. They built many airfields across the country, so that the Allies’ planes could fly in and out with people and arms.

British plane carrying arms landing on a secret airfield in Loei province, Thailand

Teachers and assemblymen became local leaders of the resistance movement, such as Tiang Sirikhant (Sakhon Nakhon) and minister Tong Kanthatham (Phrae). 

Tiang was perhaps the most grassroots of all Seri Thai leaders. Born in Sakhon Nakhon, Isaan, Tiang finished his studies in Chulalongkorn and became a secondary school teacher in Bangkok. He later returned to his hometown in 1938, and was elected to the National Assembly as a representative of Sakhon Nakhon – a position he held until his forced disappearance and death.

Fortunately, Minister Tong Kanthatham managed to flee to Burma in time and stayed there for years until the threat subsided.

Puchong Kanthatham (PK): When Pridi started his shadow government in Bangkok, my father [Minister Tong Kanthatham] accepted the charge to set up this branch in the North – others were sent to the South, the East.

Minister Tong Kanthatham, leader of the Seri Thai Movement in Phrae Province, Thailand

MRW Saisavasdi Svasti (SS): There were partisans all over the country — in Isaan, Tak, and so forth. My father [Prince Suphasawat] trained those in Tak and Nakhon Sri Thammarat. There were Seri Thai troops in the North, South, East, and West of the country. They were all ready to fight for Thailand as soon as the Allies entered Malaya in 1944, and as Japan aggression was starting to wane.

Thai Seri Thai members at a secret airfield in Khon Kaen province, Thailand

Puchong Kanthatham (PK): Sarit Thanarat led the army unit in Lampang. It took some explanation to get him to work with Seri Thai, but eventually he came to help in earnest. 

My father asked him to send spies to the Japanese bases in various spots in Lampang, and received a lot of support. It meant that Seri Thai had intelligence on Japanese bases in Lampang at every point. After they received the information, they would radio the information from Phrae to the Americans using MORSE code, and then the Americans would bomb the Japanese bases more accurately.

Thai Seri Thai members in Phrae province, Thailand

Bombing happened with a lot of caution. They asked the OSS to avoid bombing areas closed to villages and locals in Phrae. 

Ultimately, fighting between Seri Thai and the Japanese was limited. They were able to damage the Japanese troops by bombing Japanese bases according to the plan.

The Seri Thai Phrae group, Sarit and the OSS coordinated the campaign together.

Infiltration into Thailand and a unified mission

Puchong Kanthatham (PK): Through the OSS, the Americans began to understand that the resistance in Thailand was strong. So the OSS secretly sent many Thais who had been trained by them to parachute into Thailand, including three into Phrae, to set up better communication and arms to Dr. Pridi Banomyong in Bangkok and the resistance movement in Thailand. 

Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila (ACM SS): I myself, Udomsak (Bhasavanich) and Chalerm (Chittinand) were selected and assigned for parachuting into the northern part of Thailand and supporting the secret operations of OSS in the country. 

During that time, Luang Dithakar (a Thai Foreign Ministry official) came to see us entrusting us with what more to do in Thailand beyond what the Americans had instructed us. I handed him my MIT’ 43 class ring to be given to my mother in case something happened to me. I thought of the movie ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ starring Gary Cooper, in which the hero went to fight in the Spanish Civil War and met his death. I was not certain if I would see my mother again.

On November 2, 1944, we parachuted down on Mount Inthanon, and landed at Ban Mae Soppoh in Chiang Mai province. Initially the villagers were frightened away, but soon began to filter back from the bushes. We told them we were soldiers from Bangkok on a survey mission, and at our request the villagers took us down to a valley 3-4km away.

Udomsak went to scour around. Two hours later, he came back in company with Police Sub-Lt. Prathan Chayabhand and 5-6 police officers. Prathan was my junior by one year at Suan Kularb college. He urged us to leave quickly because a company of Japanese soldiers were approaching. We hurriedly took off our American military uniform, changed into ordinary clothes and immediately moved on together with one of the police officers.

The group took a train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, on a train full of both Thais and Japanese soldiers. They were not searched by the soldiers, although later learned that passengers on every train from the North bound for Bangkok afterward were thoroughly searched by the Japanese. They made it safely to Bangkok and were able to successfully establish contact with the OSS back in Sri Lanka.

Thai MIT students in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (From left) Tui Wutikul, Siddhi Savetsila, Bunmak Thesabutr, Wimon Wiriyawit, and Karavek Srivijarn

Thada Savetsila (TS1): Some Seri Thai fighters were shot by border police. The border police were acting on their own initiative. By mid-1944, the police under Police Chief Adul Aduldejajaras were working closely with the OSS, and were helping Free Thai operations around Thailand.

Karavek Srivijarn and Somphong Sanyaphong were among the first batch of Seri Thai students trained under the OSS for a total of nine months. They later boarded “Liberty”, a carrier ship to India for a total of 95 days, and eventually entered Thailand by foot from Simao in late February, 1944.

Karavek and Somphong were captured and killed by the Thai border police in Chiang Saen district later that June. Details emerged after the war that they were brutally shot while in custody at the police department by the Thai police, who actually wanted to kill them for gold.

Karavek (left), and Somphong (right), the first batch of Free Thai students from America who died during their mission

Professor Emeritus Asavin Chintakanand (AC): In this case, we can also see that among Thais, not everyone had the same loyalty for the country, some only for themselves. The police wanted the gold, and killed them both. 

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): So since they came on a secret mission, many Thais didn’t know about it, so they also brought their own personal gains. 

After their death and the end of the war, Karavek and Somphong were both appreciated and elevated to the title of Major. Their names are now engraved at the Victory Monument, and also received the Medal of Freedom from the United States.

Wimon Wiriyawit, another fellow Free Thai member from the United States, would later note in his autobiography that later investigations revealed how China and the UK may have alerted the border police about Karavek and Somphong’s arrival into Thailand — so as to steer the mission away from its purpose.

Air Chief Marshal Siddhi Savetsila (ACM SS): According to Prathan, the Japanese at the time already knew that we were in custody of the Thai authorities. They sent someone to see the Prime Minister, requesting the surrender of the three parachuters, but the Thai side refused saying that the three persons were to be looked after by Thai authorities but would be available for questioning by the Thai side.

We regretted not being able to help in any activities beyond the camp, but we were glad that the crystal and code-book which we had brought with us could be made use of by the Free Thai movement in Thailand.

Chalerm Chittinand (left), Udomsak Bhasavanich (center), and Siddhi Savetsila (right) during custody at the camp in Thammasat University

Wimon, who was previously a student at MIT, was also a key force in connecting the American Free Thais with the Free Thai underground movement led by Pridi. Wimon’s duty under the mission HOTFOOT, along with fellow Seri Thai member Bunmak Thesabutr, parachuted into Phrae in September 9, 1944.

Wimon Wiriyawit (WW): According to our orders, in the case that we get lost in the forest, we were only allowed five days to try to find one another. If unsuccessful, we would be off on our own, carrying on with the mission.

After searching unsuccessfully for his partner, Wimon followed a stream out of the forest. On September 17, he picked up Bunmak’s trail and came upon a village, where he proceeded to bury his gun, knife, and gold, then headed towards the settlement, encountering the head village.

In an effort to ease any suspicion, he claimed to be a police officer that had to report a secret government matter with the Police Chief, Luang Adul.

Wimon (left) and Bunmak (right), at their training ground in Langkawi, Malaya

Wimon Wiriyawit (WW): This was something that the United States was very impressed with, because if Luang Adul and the police didn’t cooperate with us then nothing would have been possible [with the American side]. Pridi’s mission wouldn’t have been possible. The police arrested the all Free Thais that infiltrated and confiscated all our tools and equipment, until I came into the picture.

Pridi’s efforts, although they reached America, were all in vain, and that was because they lacked any cooperation from Luang Adul.

Wimon was later sent to Bangkok. After spending a night locked in a cell, he was escorted to meet Luang Adul on the Thewakamrangrak Bridge over a canal in the Nangloeng area — after regular duty hours. Soon, Luang Adul’s black car approached, but the license plate had changed. Dressed in a suit and carrying an umbrella, the Police Chief laughed when the observant Wimon pointed out that the license plate on the car was different.

Wimon Wiriyawit on the Thewakamrangrak Bridge, where he first met with Luang Adul

Wimon was then chauffeured to a Chinese restaurant, where he and Luang Adul ordered food and ate in the back seat of the car. Then, he appealed to the Police Chief about their underground resistance movement, and pleaded to him — claiming that it would not be possible for Pridi’s mission in Thailand to be complete without his assistance. He told Luang Adul that with the Japanese doomed to defeat, he was sent to support the men in Thailand seen as potential leaders of the underground movement in Thailand – namely Pridi and Luang Adul – on the condition that they cooperate with each other. Otherwise, he warned, the United States would not help.

With his eyes piercing Wimon’s every word and move, Luang Adul later arranged Wimon to meet Pridi on September 22, at former foreign minister Direk Chayanam’s house, where he again urged for their cooperation — and succeeded.

Luang Adul and Pridi Banomyong

US Ambassador Michael G. DeSombre (GD): [When the OSS and Seri Thai Thailand eventually got into contact] Pridi wanted to give a sign to the United States that they were fighting and fighting together. So he presented this cigarette case to the OSS with instructions that it was to be brought back to the President of the United States as an indication of cooperation, as it were. This [cigarette case] was one of the exhibits put on display during the Good and Great Friends exhibition [celebrating Thai-US Cooperation].

(Left) Cigarette Case with Royal Cypher of King Ananda Mahidol which was a gift from Pridi Banomyong, then Regent of the King, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945
(Right) Correspondence between the Office of the White House and the Office of Strategic Service (OSS), 1945
Images Courtesy of the Great and Good Friends book from the United States Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand

Puchong Kanthatham (PK): Dr. Puey Ungpakorn also parachuted into Chai Nat, representing Seri Thai from the British side. He was surrounded by villagers, although he was eventually helped by the police. Once under the police’s control, they were comfortable and able to communicate back to their various bases.

MRW Saisavasdi Svasti (SS): Puey Ungpakorn was sent to the wrong place. He landed very far away from where he was supposed to land in Uthai Thani. He was tortured, beaten, and tied to a sala, accused of being a traitor.

Eventually, he was sent to Bangkok and was placed in the custody of the Police under Luang Adul, who was already secretly working with the Free Thai movement in Thailand with Pridi. At night, the police allowed Puey to deliver the letter sent by Lord Mountbatten [Allied Commander of South East Asia] to Pridi — that the UK side would now work together with the Thai side. 

Force136 in India would start sending in troops and weapons to work with the resistance movement.

The sala at Wang Nam Khao temple in Nakhon Pathom Province, where Puey Ungpakorn was captured and beaten

Dr. Charivat Santaputra (CS): When Luang Adul officially joined Seri Thai, he smoothed out the process significantly. He would capture Free Thais from abroad during the day at the Rose Garden Palace, and would allow them to work on their missions at night. He would bring them to Pridi and Free Thai leaders. He helped them communicate, determine where to bring in weapons, to make daily connections between the Allies and resistance movement. 

Pridi Banomyong (center) at his residence in Tha Chang, toasting with Luand Adul (right) and Allied officer (left)

US Ambassador Michael G. DeSombre (GD): When I was out at Wing 41, I saw the remains of the P40 that was crashed by an American pilot, one of the Flying Tigers. [The pilot] was actually rescued from a Prisoner of War camp by Seri Thai members. 

Beyond coordinating air drops of medical supplies and other supplies, Seri Thai helped out with rescuing and identifying our Prisoners of War (POWs) – this was a critical aspect of the war and resistance. 

POWs in Kanchanaburi Province, Thailand

On May 21, 1945, Pridi sent a telegram to the Allies informing the Allies that Thailand was under pressure from the Japanese occupation and that Seri Thai members were ready to break out into the open to fight against the Japanese.

The Allies hurriedly sent a telegram back in a matter of days, requesting Pridi not to do so as it would jeopardize their comprehensive plan to drive out the Japanese at a later period.

Few realise this — but this telegram was a critical turning point and Seri Thai’s final test for the Allies. They realized that the Thais were willing to put their own lives on the line to fight for their own freedom and alongside the Allies.

After that, the United States and Allies committed themselves to restoring Thailand’s independence as before the Japanese occupation and the declaration of war. However, disagreement among the Allies meant that the battle for Thai independence didn’t end at the close of WWII.

To be continued…

To read Part One, please click here.

To read Part Three (The Final), please click here.


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