The Phibun government declared war on Great Britain and the United States on January 25, 1942. Various members of the government who disagreed with the decision were removed from office. Among them were Direk Chaiyanam, the prominent foreign minister who advocated resistance against the Japanese, and Pridi Phanomyong, who was appointed to the apparently powerless post of regent to the absent King Ananda Mahidol.
While the Thai ambassador in London delivered Thailand's declaration of war to the British government, Mom Rajawongse Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador to Washington, refused to do so. Instead, he considered organising a resistance movement in the United States.
Following a late morning interview with Secretary Cordell Hull on December 8, Seni returned to his legation to confer with his staff. He stated that he hoped for an Allied victory in the war. Aware that other Washington-based diplomats of similarly occupied countries had chosen to stay and cooperate with the US Government, and possibly influenced by the presence in Washington and relative safety of his wife and three children, Seni opted to do likewise.
The ambassador and his staff unanimously decided to cast their lot with the Allies. Late the same afternoon, he returned to the State Department to offer their services to the Allied cause. Blaming pro-Japanese elements for the early Thai surrender, he spoke to Hull of unfreezing Thai assets in the United States for further prosecution of the war and suggested that the Thais in the country might “organise and preserve a government of true patriotic, liberty-loving Thais while his government is in the clutches of Japan.”
The State Department decided to pretend that Seni continued to represent Thailand. This enabled him to tap into the frozen Thai assets. When asked to draw up a list of “reliable and influential Thai nationals known to be definitely patriotic and anti-Japanese” by the State Department (at the suggestion of John P. Davies), Seni named Regent Pridi, politicians Khuang Aphaiwong and Wilat Osathanon, and diplomats Phraya Sisena and Direk Chaiyanam “reliables”. Others Seni suggested as potential opponents of the ruling Phibun clique included his brother, Mom Rajawongse Kukrit Pramoj, and his brother-in-law, Phra Phinit.
Seni advanced plans to mobilise Thai volunteers in support of the Allies. Beyond the legation staffers and their families, most of the other Thai residents were students enrolled at a range of college and universities, including such institutions as Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Cornell. Many chose to stay in the wake of Thai declaration of war in January, refusing repatriation. Most, like Seni, saw their nation as a victim of Japanese aggression.
Despite the reciprocal British declaration of war, a parallel resistance movement was formed by the Thais in Britain. Beyond the legation staff, some of whom sympathised with the students but were afraid to speak out, the natural leaders of the Thai community in England were three high-ranking members of the royal family, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, a dashing and popular grandson of King Chulalongkorn; Queen Ramphaiphanni, the widow of the late, self-exiled King Prajadhipok; and the Queen’s brother, Prince Suphasawatwongsanit Sawatdiwat, a former Thai army officer who had accompanied the royal couple into exile. Prince Chula declined involvement in Free Thai activities, opting instead for wartime services with the British Home Guard. In contrast, the Queen and her brother made clear their Free Thai sympathies and used their connections to assist like-minded students.
Prince Suphasawat had reacted to the Japanese invasion by dispatching a letter to Prime Minister Churchill volunteering his services to the Allied cause. On January 1, 1942, he was asked to assist the geographical section of the General Staff in developing maps of Thailand, a project which, through an all-out effort, he completed in six weeks. He also produced an insightful 59 page analysis of Thai politics for the British Ministry of Information. The Prince hoped that by proving his value he could gain a military position.
Suphasawat wrote to Seni in January expressing his desire to join in a united Free Thai front. Aware from a correspondence with an acquaintance among the Thai students in England, Snoh Ninhamhaeng that many of the students there feared being branded pro-royalist if they associated too closely with Prince Suphasawat and Queen Ramphai, Seni sent a cautious reply. Suphawasat himself well understood the student concern, as he made clear in the political analysis he produced for the British. The People’s Party had repeatedly used the term “royalist” to tar anyone who disagreed with their policies, he explained. It had become “a bogey word of which everyone is afraid”, despite the absence of significant support in Thailand for a revival of the absolute monarchy.
Their political reservations notwithstanding, two leaders of the pro-Allied students, Snoh Tambuyen and Puey Ungphakorn, called on Prince Suphasawat in March 1942 to explain their desire to participate in the Allied war effort. Impressed by their determination, the Prince promised to help. He again contacted Churchill’s office proposing that Thai volunteers could infiltrate into their homeland to organise anti-Japanese activities. He astutely pinpointed Pridi as the most probable leader of the newly-formed underground movement in the country.
In late June, British foreign secretary Anthony Eden at last gave his seal of approval to plans to utilise Thai volunteers. Eden suggested that they be organised into a military unit from which “individuals could at a later date be chosen when required for any particular purpose.”
British authorities advised the men to join the Pioneer Corps, a military labour unit open to enemy aliens, with the understanding that “special qualifications possessed by individuals should be made use of in other branches of the armed forces later on.” The latter was a critical inducement because the Thai students, most of them from the upper crust of society, considered the Pioneer Corps very low and dishonourable. Thirty five males passed physicals and entered military service on August 7; one additional volunteer joined later. Prince Suphasawat, who continued to work actively behind the scenes, secured a major’s commission in the British army. Sixteen other Thai, including Queen Ramphaiphanni and three other women, volunteered for non-military tasks. The Queen also sponsored a send-off party for the military volunteers at a London Chinese restaurant.
In the United States, when members of the first Thai military group, their number increased to twenty by additional volunteers, completed training they were formally commissioned as Free Thai officers by Colonel Mom Luang Khap Khunchon, the military attaché, at an early December ceremony in the Thai legation. Captains Phon and Chamrat and first lieutenants Karawek and Bunliang Tamthai headed the group. Among the sixteen second lieutenants were three men with particularly notable family connections: Prince Yuthisathian Sawatdiwat, a student of dentistry and brother to Queen Ramphai and Prince Suphasawat; Anond na Phomphet, brother in law of regent Pridi; and Karun Kengradomying, son of Luang Katsongkhram, an air force officer and prominent political force.
In Thailand itself, those skeptics who disagreed with Phibun's optimism towards the alliance with Japan looked to the Field Marshal's chief political rival Pridi Phanomyong for leadership. Immediately after the Japanese army arrived in Thailand on December 8, 1941, Pridi had discussed the possibility of resistance with some of his associates who had congregated at his residence. They discussed plans for the formation of a secret organisation to oppose the Japanese and to inform the Allies of the true sentiments of the Thai people. They considered retreating to northern Thailand where they would establish an opposition government, rally the Phayap Army and create an anti-Japanese base area. The plan was discarded as being unrealistic, and the alternative was adopted - a resistance movement, one that would gradually draw political and military strength from both inside and outside the kingdom, was to be created.
This small group that formed the Free Thai's core organisation became known as the X-O Group, and included in its membership the populist assemblymen Tiang Sirikhanth and Thawin Udon, the able bureaucrat Tawee Boonyaket, Direk Jayanama, Sanguan Tularaksa, and Admiral Sangvara Suwannacheep, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Navy.
By 1945, preparations were being made for a rising against the Japanese occupiers. Thousands of Seri Thai volunteers were now under arms and eager to drive the invaders from their nation. Phibun had been forced to resign, and the new prime minister, Khuang Abhaiwongse, was himself a member of the Seri Thai. Thai air force officers were performing liaison duties with South East Asia Command in Kandy and Calcutta.
Thai plans for an anti-Japanese uprising relied heavily on the success of a quick, surprise strike by a special police unit against the Japanese command structure. The residences of ten leading officers and Japanese communications facilities were under surveillance. The police assault would be coordinated with a general attack by the partly-mechanised Thai 1st Army against the Japanese army in Bangkok. Fortifications, in the guise of air raid shelters, had been dug at key street intersections in the city and additional troops had been transferred to the capital in small groups, dressed in civilian clothes. The task of Thai forces elsewhere in the country would be to interfere with Japanese efforts to reinforce their Bangkok garrison by cutting communications lines and seizing airfields.
Given this reliance on surprise, Pridi had to take into account the fact that the Japanese were building up their forces in Thailand, which figured to become a battlefront in the near future. Although previously most of the Japanese forces stationed permanently in Thailand had been support troops, the local command had been upgraded from garrison status to field army in December 1944. The Japanese had begun accumulating supplies and constructing fortifications in preparation for a last ditch defensive effort at Nakhon Nayok, approximately a hundred kilometres northeast of Bangkok.
In recruiting young men for underground work, Pridi turned to the sons of trusted supporters. Among them was Chulalongkorn University student Piya Chakkaphak, son of Luang Bannakonkovit. He underwent initial training at the OSS station at Chan Bunnak’s house, then participated in receiving a supply drop near Hua Hin. Having proved his mettle, he received a call to Thammasat University where he and six others were received by the Regent. He told them that they were being honoured by their selection to undertake a mission for the nation and gave them a last chance to back out. The group would leave via seaplane on March 24. Five, including Piya, would train with the OSS as radio operators in Ceylon. Nineteen other trainees would eventually joined them in the OSS camp Y at Trincomalee, where they were supervised by Free Thai officer Phon Intharathat.
Only a relatively few trainees could be sent out of the country, however, and the underground needed officers to lead guerrilla forces in the field. To meet this need, Pridi and his allies devised a clever plan for an officer-training programme, taking advantage of a desire on the part of the feared Japanese Kempeitai to have the Thai set up a parallel military police unit. Pridi assigned a loyal supporter, Admiral Sangvara Suwannacheep, to head this organization in January 1945. In march, Sangvara recruited a contagion of approximately three hundred male students, including his own son, from Chulalongkorn University. The school, which had suspended regular classes because of the bombing raids, had offered military training courses, so the recruits had a degree of experience. Sangwon, who spoke some Japanese and frequently met with Kempeitai officers, sold the new training programme to his counterparts as preparation to resist an Allied invasion. Japanese dignitaries, including the local commander, General Akeo Nakamura, participated in the launching of the programme in April. Japanese propagandists shot film of the recruits, who were ostensibly preparing to defend Greater East Asia.
In addition to Pridi's urgent pleas that the Americans help the Thais avert trouble with the British in the Shan States, which was being occupied by the Thai Phayap Army, OSS Major John Wester, for a time the sole American agent in Bangkok, also had to cope with strong complaints that Allied bombs routinely missed Japanese facilities and inflicted death, injury, and property loss on Thai civilians. For example, during a March 5 raid on the Bangkok Noi train station in Thonburi many stray bombs landed on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River. The errant bombing and strafing killed seventy-eight people. Not only was Pridi's residence damaged and the house of his aide-de-camp destroyed, but hospitals, temples, and buildings at Thammasat University were hit. Two European inmates of the Thammasat internment camp sustained injuries, causing the authorities to move the internees to a safer location at Vajiravhud College.
The next problematic bombing came on March 22 when Allied planes hit a train carrying Thai troops on the railway line near Paknampo. The attack came despite a Thai request that the line be left intact to facilitate the transfer of troops to the northeast in preparation for a potential showdown with the Japanese.
One of the first OSS-trained Free Thai officers to reach the country's outlying provinces was Sunthon Khantalaksa. On March 2, 1945, the RAF Catalina carrying Sunthon banged down onto a rough sea off the forested islands of Ko Surin Tai and Ko Surin Nua, damaging its hull in the process. Supply offloading took an hour due to the difficult conditions, but finally the plane took off successfully, leaving a very seasick Free Thai officer behind.
Finally on the mainland, Sunthon pretended to be the nephew of Chan Sombunkhun, the Governor of Ranong and a close ally of Pridi. He moved into the Governor's official residence and set up his radio there. It took him a month to rig a workable antenna, but thereafter he was able to transmit intelligence information. In July he would organise the transfer of equipment to fellow officer Chua Hoonchamlong at Chumphon and the receipt of a load of arms sent in by seaplane. Sunthon sometimes relaxed by playing badminton with unsuspecting Japanese soldiers stationed in the town.
Three additional OSS Thai officers, Prayun Attachinda, Amnuai Phunphiphat, and Charoen Wattanapanit, entered Thailand on RAF seaplanes in the early morning of March 23. The two Catalinas landed near Sattakut Island in the Gulf of Thailand, unloaded a ton of supplies, and picked up the seven young men sent out by Pridi for training in India. Five mornings later a fourth Free Thai officer, Charok Losuwan, and thirteen supply chutes were dropped from a B-24 in a remote area between Phrae and Lampang.
On April 4, OSS Majors Richard Greenlee and Howard Palmer, who had reached Bangkok on April 1, got their first taste of the pressure to which Wester had been subjected when Colonel Samroeng Netrayon, attached to the Thai general staff and the officer in charge of carrying liaison with the German and Japanese military attachés, arrived in the evening, greatly agitated about a recent Allied air attack on a railroad station that the Thais had specifically requested be exempted from bombing because of troop movements toward the Korat area. Claiming that four hundred civilians and fifty Thai military personnel had died in the raid, Samroeng threatened to stop providing military information if such actions continued. The American officers sent a message to Kandy warning that “indiscriminate bombing and strafing” were destroying good will toward the United States.
They had little success, and the bombing continued. On April 7, American planes attacked the main Bangkok airport at Don Muang, causing considerable damage to the Thai air force. Two planes that had just arrived with the Phayap Army commander and members of his staff were among the aircraft destroyed.
This incident pushed Wester, who had been displaying symptoms of malaria, over the edge. His condition deteriorated each day, despite the best efforts of a Thai doctor.
On the evening of April 12, the American officers changed location, a move motivated both by the concern that they had been in the same place too long and a desire for roomier quarters. They relocated to Maliwan Palace on the Chao Phraya River, most recently the official residence of the late regent Chao Phraya Pichayenyothin who had died in 1942.
The OSS officers now occupied more comfortable second-floor quarters overlooking a large first-floor ballroom. The palace also offered a pleasant veranda facing the river. Five Free Thai officers moved in to operate the communications gear. Under the pretext that a high-ranking official was occupying the palace, two police guards were stationed at the gate, while six additional civilian security men patrolled the compound. The absence of kitchen staff, however, meant that food had to be catered: Chinese food for breakfast and lunch, and Thai curries for dinner. Police activities would be cited as the reason for radio transmissions from the house in case they were discovered by the Japanese.
The shocking news of President Roosevelt’s death was followed by an alarming incident on April 14. Despite doses of sedatives, Wester turned violent. He was “screaming loud enough to be heard for a block”, had the strength of a “maniac”, and had to be subdued by everyone else in the room. Greenlee quickly dispatched a message for a Catalina to transport him out of the country.
Pridi dispatched two doctors, instructing that one should remain with Wester at all times. A third doctor later reinforced them so the three could alternate on eight-hour shifts. Yet more nerve-wracking excitement lay in store. At three in the afternoon, British and American B-24s bore in on Bangkok for a two-hour air raid that further unhinged Wester. In addition to killing two hundred civilians, the bombs virtually destroyed the Samsen power plant and badly damaged the city’s other power facility, leaving most of Bangkok without power and water. Palmer described it as a “useless piece of work” because the Japanese Army had its own facilities.
Greenlee requested a special seaplane pickup, scheduled for April 21. In the interim, Detachment 404 headquarters instructed him to take all necessary measures, including gagging to keep Wester quiet. The Thai doctors repeatedly injected sedatives, but with limited effect.
Radio problems created further worries for the party. With no electrical power they were forced to rely on batteries that had to be recharged by the Thai Army Signal Corps.
On April 21, the party boarded a seaplane. Accompanying them were four Thai air force officers sent by Pridi in the hopes that their advice on bomb targeting would be heeded. The senior officer, Wing Commander Thawee Junlasap, was an old hand at foreign liaison work. He had been part of a November 1941 Thai military mission to British Malaya and subsequently attached to the Japanese army during the Malayan Campaign, during which time he presumably shared intelligence on British dispositions gained on the earlier trip.
The party arrived in Madras some hours later, and Thawee continued on to Colombo, where he met Sanguan Tularak, an ally of Pridi. The sojourn in Ceylonese capital did not last long, however, as the Wing Commander was taken by Colonel John Coughlin of the OSS to meet Lord Mountbatten at Kandy. There Thawee received his OSS codename, "Dicky Stone". Wing Commander Thawee spent his time at Kandy studying aerial photographs of Thailand and assisting the bombing planners at South East Asia Command in selecting accurate Japanese military targets as opposed to Thai civilian ones. Thawee also received lessons in espionage and sabotage, and was forced to attend an intensive week-long OSS training course in Maryland. A posting to Calcutta saw Thawee acting as a liaison officer at Mountbatten's American deputy, General Raymond B. Wheeler's headquarters. The Thai again acted as a consultant to various USAAF bombing-run plans. He returned to Thailand a while later via seaplane. Thawee was to collect intelligence regarding Japanese troop dispositions, and to aid in the establishment of secret airfields for which the Allies could fly in agents and supplies to reinforce the Seri Thai.
At the end of April Prince Suphasawat was inserted into Bangkok. To the relief of many, the Prince and Pridi hit it off well. They engaged in a long personal conversation on Suphasawat's first night. Pridi had by then already known that the Prince's foremost concern was the fate of the royalist political prisoners. Accordingly, he had already engineered their release the previous fall. Thus the two got off on the right foot with each other and had little difficulty concluding that they shared the goal of a democratic Thailand in the postwar era. With a relationship established, Suphasawat went off on his first assignment. He travelled to Sukhothai to meet Arun Sorathet, a veteran SOE-trained officer who had operated in the Shan States, and the young Prince Karawik, who had parachuted into the area on May 9.
On May 26 the British sent their first provincial liaison mission headed by a British officer. Major C. S. “Soapy” Hudson parachuted near Khon Kaen together with a grandson of King Chulalongkorn, Prince Waranonthawat, who served as an RAF Flight Lieutenant under the name of Nicky Varanand. In addition to providing a Thai presence, the Prince would carry out liaison with the Thai air force and evaluate the airfields in the area.
Thai airmen flew British officers to the Na An airfield near Loei, then to Phu Khieo. They conferred with local officials and were joined at Phu Khieo by three escaped British POWs who had been sheltered by the Thai and six Thai volunteers designated for training with Force 136. On May 31, the party flew back to Na An, where a C-47 picked them up the next morning. Its pilot ordered the plane’s cargo parachuted to reduce weight before making the first successful, planned landing by an Allied aircraft on Thai soil since the beginning of the war. Captain Snoh Ninhamhaeng, who had been spearheading Force 136 efforts in the area, accompanied the British party back to India.
Hudson returned to Kandy brimming with optimism, convinced that headquarters did not appreciate “the extent, enthusiasm or potentialities of the Free Siamese Movement.” He pointed out that the resistance enjoyed the full backing of provincial governors with “power to call up men and requisition labour and food throughout their provinces”.
While OSS Detachment 404 had been struggling to expand its Thailand operations in the face of Lieutenant General Sultan’s obstructionism, the British had been preparing Operation Roger, the planned invasion of Phuket Island. Force 136 planned to place ten radio-equipped operatives at six locations in peninsular Thailand. Prasoet Prathumanon, who had been operating a small training facility near Hua Hin, supported this effort from inside Thailand. Sawat Sisuk parachuted in to join him on May 9 after a stint in India. The two worked to establish camps in the Pranburi and Prachuap areas, near the southern railway line.
The British sent in six additional officers to lead the other peninsular operations at the end of April in a two-stage insertion. Wattana Chitwari and three British officers landed by seaplane off Ko Tarutao, then received two additional planes the following night. At the same time, twenty Thai soldiers were brought out for training in India. When SEAC cancelled Operation Roger, the men inserted took up intelligence-gathering duties and later set up small guerrilla training bases.
Although their supply deliveries to Thailand fell short of Pridi’s expectations, the British nonetheless held the early lead in the realm by default. With the OSS hobbled by Sultan, Force 136 delivered three times more material to Thailand than Detachment 404 between the beginning of April and mid-June 1945. Approximately half of 75000 pounds of British supplies went to Operation Candle near Sakon Nakhon.
On June 18 the Americans executed a long-planned drop of medical supplies into Bangkok, a scheme cooked up by Sanguan Tularaksa and Howard Palmer in early 1945. Nine P-38 fighters swept over the city escorting three B-24s at midday. The bombers dropped propaganda leaflets and parachuted twenty-five containers of medical supplies from 400 feet above the grounds in front of the Grand Palace. Resistance fighters and Thai army personnel under Thawee Junlasap stationed in the area grabbed the containers before the Japanese could intervene.
Although several attacks were made by the Seri Thai on isolated Japanese units, Pridi gave in to Mountbatten's wishes that the Seri Thai delay the rising in order to coordinate with a planned Allied invasion. However, the atomic bombings by the United States of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the surrender of Japan and the rising thus did not take place.
Nevertheless, the Seri Thai are remember as having preserved Thailand's honour by demonstrating that despite Phibun's actions, the Thais were not willing partners of Japanese imperialism. The British government demanded three million tons of rice from Thailand as reparations, but Thailand would have been treated much more harshly by the war's victors without the actions of the Seri Thai, and the efforts of Betty McKenzie, a citizen of the USA. Mrs. McKenzie worked for the State Department, in the Southeast Asia Department, target area Thailand, broadcasting news and commentaries to combat the Japanese propaganda. During their weekly meeting with the Southeast Asia department, State Department directors would tell the broadcasters which news areas to emphasize, but would also always urge them to say "America will help any people who will fight for their own freedom." A few months after the war ended, news came to the Southeast Asia Department that Thailand was being ceded to Britain. Mrs. McKenzie asked her department head to fight the treaty, but he refused, so she mounted a letter-writing campaign, to the President and Vice-President, Cabinet members, Senators and Congressmen, newspaper publishers and journalists, and asked all her friends and friends of friends to do the same. Hundreds of letters were sent within a few weeks. One paragraph of the letter to President Truman:
We have made many allowances for the sake of Allied unity. However, I cannot feel that our desire for such unity should take us to the point of sacrificing basic American principles, as set forth in your Navy Day address. It is time that we live up to our much-proclaimed role of leader toward a better world, and insist that the British live up to their commitments of "no territorial aggrandizement" and "respect for the rights of man."
Many of the letters were acknowledged, and several news stories and editorials were published. In time, the Southeast Asia Department received a wire on December 19, 1945, saying "Acting Secretary of State Acheson told his press converence today, that the United States had earnestly represented to Great Britain and Siam the hope that they would not conclude an agreement as long as American discussions with Britain are going forward. ... Acheson said that we had asked for delay several times when it appeared that final action seemed imminent."
On January 28, 1946, Mrs. McKenzie received a letter from John Carter Vincent, the Director of the Office of Far Eastern Affairs of the State Department, which indicated the successful completion of her effort. The text of the letter follows:
Dear Mrs. McKenzie:
I have received by reference from the Secretary of State and the President your letters of December 5 and 6, 1945 regarding the situation in Siam. I regret that this reply has been so long delayed.
As you are now doubtless aware, Great Britain and Siam signed an Agreement on January 1, 1946 terminating the state of war which existed between the two countries. On January 5 diplomatic relations between Siam and Great Britain and between Siam and the United States were resumed.
Concerning the terms of the British-Siamese Agreement, this Government had been in close contact with the British Government for a number of months with the result that certain of the original British terms were considerably modified to prevent any possible interpretation which might seem to place Great Britain in a position inimical to Siam's freedom and independence. It is believed that the final Agreement in no way infringes upon the complete sovereignty and independence of Siam.
Pridi Phanomyong, on his way to visit President Truman, stopped in Los Angeles to thank Mrs. McKenzie for her efforts. A dinner was held in her honour at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Several of the key figures in the wartime Free Thai underground – including Thawin Udom, Thawi Thawethikul, Chan Bunnak, and Tiang Sirikhanth – were subsequently eliminated in extra-legal fashion by the Thai police, run by Phibun’s ruthless associate Phao Sriyanond. Fortunately, most of the OSS and SOE Thai officers had returned to their studies in the USA and Britain shortly after the end of the war, so they avoided direct embroilment in the political violence of the late 1940s. Among the best and brightest of their generation, many went on to distinguished careers in bureaucratic service or in private business, often in both.
The most well known Free Thai veterans are Puey Ungphakorn from the British side and Siddhi Savetsila from the American. Puey gained renown for his economic expertise, heading the Bank of Thailand from 1959 to 1971. He subsequently served as rector of Thammasat university before being falsely accused of inciting student protesters during a violent right-wing coup in 1976. He found refuge in England, where he died in 1999. Air Chief Marshal Siddhi, meanwhile, rose through the national security bureaucracy to become foreign minister in the 1980s, under Prem. He still serves as a privy counselor.