(Above: Lieutenant George Cairns Winning the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Pagoda Hill, Burma, 13 March 1944 by David John Rowlands)
George Albert Cairns fought World War II in Asia for three years before the night of Mar. 16, 1944. This is the night he would lose an arm in a fight that would ultimately cost him his life.
He was a British officer, a lieutenant overseeing a joint British-Indian special operation reconnaissance force. The chindits, as they were called, were experts in long-range recon patrols and raiding operations in the Japanese-held jungles of southern Asia. On the night in question, he and his fellow chindit troops were operating in a region controlled by neither side when they ran into a Japanese contingent of troops. Suddenly, the hills came alive with a small arms exchange.
The British allies had unknowingly dug in right next to a fortified Japanese position.
Cairns’ commanding officer, Brigadier General Michael Calvert, later wrote a couple of books about their time in the Burmese jungles. He describes a pagoda, sitting on top of a nearby hill. Both sides made for the structure, no bigger than two tennis courts. On the hill before the pagoda, Japanese and British troops shot each other, threw grenades into the group, and fought each other with both fixed bayonets and hand-to-hand.
Brigadier Calvert described the scene as a carnage-filled hackfest, like ancient battles fought on open ground, except now with columns from the South Staffordshire Regiment and 3/6 Gurkha Rifles fighting Japanese infantry.
Though Calvert led the attack, he saw Lt. Cairns engage a Japanese officer, who cut his arm off with his sword. Cairns killed the Japanese officer and picked up the dead man’s sword. He then began to slice his way through the Japanese forces.
One eyewitness description has Cairns and the Japanese officer on the ground, choking each other. That’s when the witness says Cairns found his bayonet and stabbed the enemy officer repeatedly before getting up and leading his men to take the hill.
The Japanese broke eventually, with 42 Japanese killed and a number of wounded. Lieutenant Cairns himself died the next morning.
With three living witnesses, Cairns was recommended for the Victoria Cross, the UK’s equivalent to the Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, that recommendation was lost when the general carrying it was shot down. Cairns was awarded the medal eventually. In 1949, King George VI awarded the VC to Cairns posthumously.