The Forgotten War in Burma, Part 2


Because the previous episode of the podcast came out a week late, I put the pedal to the metal and got Episode 49 done in twelve days, so I’m starting to catch up!

Today we look at the climax of World War II in the China-Burma-India theater.  Here in 1944, Japan invaded India, and launched its last offensive in China, while the American general Joseph Stilwell led a campaign to take back northern Burma.


(Transcript, added 09/19/2020.)


Episode 49: The Forgotten War in Burma, Part 2

or, Operation U-Go

Greetings, dear listeners! The last time we got together, I didn’t leave you with a cliff-hanger, but I left you with a lot of loose ends dangling, so now we will start tying them up. But not all of them. Remember when I said that the Burma campaign lasted for more than three and a half years, or the whole period where Japan fought the British and the Americans? Because of that, when we get finished with the Burma campaign, we will also be done with World War II. So are we ready to get started with today’s narrative?


I knew you were!

If this is the first episode you have listened to in the podcast, I recommend you also check out some of the other recent episodes, from Episode 36 onward, because we are more than halfway through World War II in the narrative. If you’re just interested in the part of the war about Burma, or as we now call it, Myanmar, Episode 42 covers the Japanese conquest of Burma in early 1942, Episode 44 covers what life was like while Japan was in charge, and Episode 48 covers the see-saw struggle from late 1942 to early 1944. At the point where the last episode ended, Japan still had a firm grip on most of Burma, but this had been challenged by the Allies introducing guerrilla units, who like the Japanese, could fight and win in the jungle. Along the Burma-India frontier, General William Slim and the British 14th Army had managed to capture part of Arakan Province. Although this doesn’t sound like much, it hindered the Japanese offensive we will talk about today. The plans for this offensive called for a Japanese strike upwards from the south, to take the city of Chittagong, in modern-day Bangladesh; now’s Slim’s success forced the Japanese to forget about making this move. And late in 1943, the American general Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell invaded northern Burma from India, leading a Chinese force that had received American equipment and training. Finally, the British guerrilla force, the Chindits, were preparing to embark on their second mission into central Burma, which was called Operation Thursday.

Kohima and Imphal, Part 1

In early 1944 it was clear to the casual observer that the Axis powers – Germany, Japan and their partners – were losing the war. On the western fronts, North Africa was free, the Soviets had driven the Germans one thousand miles back from Stalingrad, the Allies had taken one third of Italy, and the Allies were now getting ready for D Day, the amphibious assault that would liberate France. In the Pacific Japan had been losing battles since the middle of 1942, as we have seen so far in this podcast. General Douglas MacArthur was driving the Japanese out of New Guinea, and the fleets of Admiral Chester Nimitz and Admiral William Halsey were taking the smaller Japanese-ruled islands of the Pacific one by one. And in the previous episode, where we looked at four operations the Allies launched in Burma, they lost the first one and came out ahead in the other three. So the score in Burma for 1943 and early 1944 is 3-1 in the Allies’ favor.

Still, there was one theater of the war where the Japanese were not losing, and that was China. Here the war had been going on for nearly seven years, with the two sides stuck in a stalemate for five of those years. The Chinese army was many times larger than that of Japan, but it was so poorly equipped, trained, and led that it rarely won battles; the one thing it was good at was halting the Japanese advance. Now the Japanese would try to break the deadlock by launching an all-out offensive to conquer as much of central and southern China as possible. If successful, they would not only finish off the Chinese, they would also link up their landholdings in China with Southeast Asia, and they would capture the airfields that the Americans were using in China to bomb Japan itself. And with China out of the war, Japan would have enough soldiers and tanks available to win battles elsewhere.

I told you previously that the Allies saw China and Burma as part of the same theater of war – the Americans called it CBI, or China-Burma-India – and that is where Burma comes into this. Japan planned to coordinate the China offensive with another offensive launched from Burma, to conquer the eastern part of British-held India. Back in 1942 the Japanese had conquered Burma to give their empire a defensive buffer on its western border. You can say that mission creep had set in, for now the Japanese wanted a defensive buffer for Burma’s western border. Since at least mid-1943 they knew that the British were regaining their confidence, and that some day they would make an all-out effort to take back Burma. Instead the Japanese would strike first, running on the idea that the best defense is a good offense. They called this Operation U-Go. For the short run their only objective was to conquer Manipur, India’s easternmost state, by taking its two most important towns, Kohima and Imphal. If that succeeded, they would next go for the town of Dimapur; capturing that would give them the airfields used to lift supplies to China, cut off the supply line to General Stilwell’s force in northern Burma, and render the Ledo Road useless. And from Dimapur, they would probably go on to conquer the rest of Assam, putting all of India east of the Ganges and Bramaputra Rivers in Japanese hands. Most important of all, the British had long considered India their most valuable colony; in the nineteenth century they imagined it as the biggest jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown. As long as India was under attack, the British would make saving India their top priority, and not bother the Japanese anywhere else.

Not everyone in the Japanese camp thought an invasion of India was feasible. One of the skeptics was Shojiro Iida, the general who had conquered Burma in 1942. He was called back to Tokyo in 1943 and assigned to the General Defense Command, and Masakazu Kawabe took his place as commander in Burma. Under Kawabe an old associate of his, Renya Mutaguchi, became commander of the 15th Army, and Mutaguchi enthusiastically called for the invasion of India. This general was a veteran of the campaigns in China, Singapore and the Philippines before coming to Burma, and he had come to believe he would be a leader in the battle that won the war for Japan. The strategy followed in Operation U-Go was mainly Mutaguchi’s.

Another big promoter of the invasion was Subhas Chandra Bose, the leading Indian nationalist on Japan’s side. We met him in earlier episodes of this podcast; Bose wanted the Japanese to help him drive the British out of India, after which he would set up an independent Indian state with himself in charge of it. For that purpose, he recruited Indian soldiers for his own army unit, which he called the Indian National Army. Today historians don’t agree on how much influence he had on the Japanese decision to invade India. Of course he wanted to see the offensive capture much more than just Assam and Manipur, so at this point he had to be optimistic that the Japanese would keep advancing after they took all the objectives mentioned a few minutes ago. And by setting up a state in India run by pro-Japanese natives, the Japanese could claim they were doing their part to liberate Asia from Western colonialism.

The British suspected the Japanese were up to something, so they placed the 17th and 20th Indian Divisions along the Chindwin River, while the 23rd Indian Division was held in reserve at Imphal. In the event of an attack, the British would not try to defend the riverbank, but withdraw to the neighborhood of Imphal, where they had more of an advantage, being on their “home ground.” The Japanese in turn would try to surround and destroy the two forward divisions, then rush on Kohima and Imphal. Speed was of the essence; for the Japanese offensive to succeed, they had to take both towns by May, when the notorious rainy season started. Likewise, it was equally vital for the Allies that they hold onto both Kohima and Imphal, for each town depended on the other for its defense.

Operation U-Go began on March 6, 1944, about the same time as the second Chindit mission that we covered in the previous episode. The Allies did not know about the invasion until March 8, so General Slim gave the order to pull back from the Chindwin River too late. Crossing the border about 800 miles south of Imphal, the Japanese 33rd Division took the 17th Indian Division by surprise and surrounded it at Tiddim. The 17th was eventually able to fight its way out, after the 23rd Indian Division came to the rescue. Another part of the 33rd tried to surround the 20th Indian Division at Tamu, but it escaped. Now the 17th, 20th and 23rd Divisions all withdrew to Imphal. The Japanese 33rd Division followed them, while to the north, the Japanese 15th Division marched directly to Imphal and the 31st Division made a beeline to Kohima.

Both Imphal and Kohima were surrounded by April 4, and the situation in the two towns quickly grew desperate. Slim had to use airlifts to bring in supplies and additional troops, and to take out civilians and the wounded. The only Allied troops defending Kohima were the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade, a force of about 1,500 men, and the next town to the north, Dimapur, had no troops at all. Fortunately for the Allies, the Japanese concentrated their efforts on besieging Kohima instead of taking Dimapur, until the 2nd Indian Division was airlifted to Dimapur in mid-April. Part of the 2nd Division, the 5th Brigade, smashed two Japanese strongholds northwest of Kohima, Zubza and Jotsoma, by April 18, but the Japanese defensive positions were too strong for it to break through to Kohima, and it ended up camping outside Kohima.

In the last episode we saw the 5th Indian Division fighting in Arakan; because it had been successful there, it was now airlifted to Imphal as reinforcements for the troops defending that city. Most of the fighting took place on the plains outside Imphal, and it was savage, with both sides taking heavy casualties and suffering from shortages of food. The Japanese launched attack after attack, but for all of April no one could tell how the battle was going. With the Japanese was Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army. Bose thought he could persuade the Indian soldiers fighting for the British to switch sides, but this didn’t happen because many of the soldiers in the “Indian” units were really black Africans from British colonies like Nigeria, and thus were immune to Indian propaganda.

Ichigo, Part 1

It was at this point, on April 19, 1944, that the final Japanese offensive in China got underway. This was called Ichigo, meaning Operation One. The attacking Japanese were organized into seventeen divisions; estimates of the number of Japanese troops involved range from 400,000 to 620,000. With them came 12,000 vehicles, 800 tanks, 6,000 artillery pieces and 70,000 horses. Over the course of late April and May they moved out from the cities of Hankow and Kaifeng, captured the portion of the Peiping-Hankow Railway they did not hold already, and conquered the rest of Henan Province, in the middle of the North China Plain. Those of you familiar with ancient Chinese history will know this territory is where the Chinese civilization got started, more than 4,000 years ago. The Japanese traveled at night to avoid attacks from American planes, the famous Flying Tigers, which constantly bombed their lines of march.

The main thing the Ichigo offensive showed was how weak and inefficient the Nationalist Chinese armies were, after nearly seven years of war. Every time a Chinese force opposed the Japanese, it was overcome. Some of the Chinese soldiers were even attacked by their own countrymen, who were enraged by the heavyhanded behavior of other soldiers. According to The Cambridge History of China, starving peasants disarmed retreating Nationalist troops, shot them, and welcomed the Japanese.

May 27 saw the beginning of Ichigo’s second phase, as 360,000 Japanese troops rode the railway south of the Yangtze River, going from Hankow to Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. Up to this point, Changsha was one of the few Nationalist triumphs; it had been successfully defended three times against Japanese attacks, in 1939, 1941 and 1943. However, the overwhelming force coming up against Changsha meant that this time it was quickly taken, along with its American airfield. The next city after Changsha, Hengyang, put up an unexpectedly strong resistance, from June 6 to August 8, before the Japanese were able to take it and its airfield, too. Thus, it was the middle of August before the Japanese entered the province immediately south of Hunan, Guangxi. But now we need to go back to India and see what was happening there.

Kohima and Imphal, Part 2

In May the Japanese offensive against India ran out of steam, and nature intervened. Those of you who listened to Episodes 42 and 48 can guess what happened – the rainy season began, making movement and combat extremely difficult. The British counter-attacked in the middle of the month, but they could not dislodge the Japanese from the ridges between Kohima and Imphal; the Japanese were too well dug-in, and fought fanatically to hold their positions.

The fighting was especially bloody at Kohima, which was turned into a charnel house of ruin before it was all over. I will read you the description of the battle given by one of my sources, Bear with me, this quote is longer than the ones I usually read. Quote:

The Japanese immediately encircled Kohima and began to drive the British and Indian troops out of their position, forcing them to withdraw into a small enclosure with only the width of a tennis court in the garden of the Deputy Commissioner separating the opposing forces. So close was the fighting that soldiers threw grenades directly into each other’s trenches. Mortar and sniper fire in such a small space restricted movement, such that men couldn’t even leave to fill their water containers. Medical dressing stations were exposed to Japanese fire, and wounded men were often hit again as they waited for treatment.

When the British 6th Brigade arrived to relieve the original garrison after two weeks of fighting, they were taken aback by the condition of the garrison. One battle hardened officer commentated: “They looked like aged, bloodstained scarecrows, dropping with fatigue; the only clean thing about them was their weapons, and they smelt of blood, sweat and death.”

After more than a month of fighting, the British cut a path to the summit above the tennis court, dragged a tank up the slope and poured a hail of fire into the Japanese bunkers from no more than 20 yards away. After the battlefield was cleared of the enemy, the once beautiful tennis court was reduced to a fly and rat-infested wilderness, with half-buried human remains everywhere.

“Nowhere in World War II—even on the Eastern Front—did the combatants fight with more mindless savagery,” wrote American historians Alan Millet and Williamson Murray.

End quote.

Another one of my sources compared Kohima with one of the bloodiest battles on the Russian front, calling it, quote, “the Stalingrad of the east.” Unquote. When Dan Carlin talked about the battle of Stalingrad in his “Ghosts of the Ostfront” podcast series, he went on for quite a while about the unbelievable death and destruction that took place around that city. Those of you who listen to Dan Carlin, try to imagine Kohima as the Asian version of Stalingrad. Before the battle Kohima was an attractive small community; afterwards every building was destroyed and the surrounding hills were covered with broken trees. As the historian Frank McLynn described it, quote: “Every inch of ground were disputed in the bloodiest and most desperate hand-to-hand fighting.” End quote.

On May 25, General Kawabe visited the front, and while the officers he met swore up and down that they had not been beaten, they also made it clear that they could not win without major reinforcements. In fact, General Kotoku Sato, the commander of the 31st Division, declared that if his unit did not receive food by June 1, it would have no choice but to retreat. The food was not sent, and on May 31st the 31st Division withdrew from Naga Village, the point it held just north of Kohima, thereby ending Kohima’s siege. This was the first time a full Japanese division retreated without orders or even permission from higher up. General Mutaguchi tried to stop the retreat by ordering the starving 31st and 15th Divisions to make another attack on Imphal from the north. Neither division obeyed the order.

Now the 2nd Indian Division marched south from Kohima and part of the 5th Indian Division marched north from Imphal on the same road. They met at Milestone 107 on June 22, knocked aside the Japanese troops between them, and the siege of Imphal was lifted as well. The Japanese had been defeated by both Allied endurance and supply problems.

Podcast footnote: None of my sources told what U-Go means in Japanese. That’s spelled U-hyphen-G-O. Until I hear otherwise, I will be thinking that U-Go means “You’re going to lose!” End footnote.

General Mutaguchi kept ordering new attacks in late June, but the starving, disease-wracked troops simply stopped listening to him. On July 4, General Kawabe ordered the operation to end, and the Japanese units, now little more than a rabble, began pulling back to the Chindwin River. Behind them they left artillery, broken vehicles, and any soldier unable to walk. Overall, Japanese losses were 30,000 killed, 23,000 wounded or sick, meaning that the battles of Kohima and Imphal were the biggest defeat that the Japanese had suffered so far in the war. Sato was fired immediately for his insubordination, and Mutaguchi and Kawabe were dismissed and recalled to Tokyo on August 30.

On the Allied side, casualties were at 17,000 dead, wounded, diseased and missing, and may be as high as 21,500, depending on who you’re reading. In December Sir Archibald Wavell, the viceroy of India, came to Imphal and knighted both General Slim and the three generals immediately under him, for their successful defense of India’s eastern frontier. Later, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British commander in chief in Southeast Asia, described the Allied victory at Imphal and Kohima as, quote, “probably one of the greatest battles in history,… in effect the Battle of Burma…. [It was] the British-Indian Thermopylae.” Unquote.

I will assume you’re familiar with the battle of Thermopylae, where in 480 B.C., three hundred Spartans and a little over one thousand other Greeks kept the entire Persian army from advancing until they were all dead. After all, if you’re listening to this you’re probably interested in history, and a fanciful movie about Thermopylae, The 300, came out a few years ago. After the battle of Kohima, a monument was raised there, with an epitaph that will remind you of the memorial for the Spartans at Thermopylae; it says, quote, “When you go home, tell them of us and say: for your Tomorrow, we gave our Today.” End quote.

Opening China’s Back Door

In the previous episode we saw the leading American in the China-Burma-India theater, General Joseph Stilwell, invade northern Burma with the Chinese units under his command and an American guerrilla unit, “Merrill’s Marauders.” Officially he did this to clear out a path for the building of the Ledo Road from India to China; with that road completed, it would be possible to deliver aid to China, without flying on the dangerous air route over the Himalayas. In addition, the main city in northern Burma, Myitkyina, had a major airfield, from which Japanese fighters took off to attack Allied planes, so Stilwell planned to capture that as well. Finally, Stilwell was prejudiced against the British; he thought they lost Burma in 1942 because their commanders had a defeatist attitude, and wanted the Americans to win a victory in Burma without British help.

The first major clash occurred in December 1943, when Stilwell’s force met units of the Japanese 18th Division. The Chinese units hit the Japanese head-on, while the Marauders made a flanking attack. The result was an Allied victory, but an attempt to encircle the Japanese failed because the Chinese were too slow. The Japanese were shocked because these Chinese soldiers, unlike the ones they fought in China, were well-disciplined, and had the same equipment as the Americans. Most important of all, the Chinese units were led by an extremely competent general, Sun Li-Jen. Sun Li-Jen had gotten his training at the Virginia Military Institute, and he led the regiment that rescued the British at the battle of Yenangyaung, in April 1942, so Stilwell put him in charge of all the Chinese soldiers who had escaped to India afterwards.

The Nationalist Chinese leader, Chiang Kai-shek, was expected to assist Stilwell’s force by invading northern Burma from Yunnan with his army, a move that would force the Japanese to fight two opponents at the same time. He refused to do so at first, but in April 1944 he changed his mind and sent 75,000 Chinese troops across the border to attack the Japanese 56th Division. Soon that number was increased to 175,000.

Meanwhile, because of the extremely rough terrain, Stilwell’s Chinese-American force faced very slow going. Merrill’s Marauders had it especially rough, falling victim to disease as well as to the Japanese. Of the original 3,000 men in that unit, only 1,400 were left by April, and those men were exhausted, but Stilwell would not let them rest while they were in the middle of the jungle. Instead he promised them they would rest and be evacuated when they took Myitkyina.

Finally in the middle of May, Stilwell’s units reached the neighborhood of Myitkyina. The last leg of the journey was probably the toughest; I’ll read what the US Army’s website,, has to say about it. By the way, GALAHAD is another name used for Merrill’s Marauders. Quote:

Stilwell’s promise sustained the Marauders through the grueling 65-mile march over the 6,000-foot Kumon range to Myitkyina. Despite the efforts of an advance party of Kachins and coolies, the trail followed by the task force proved treacherous to negotiate. Mud transformed sections of the path into slides, and in places the Marauders had to cut steps out of the ground for their supply mules to obtain a foothold. Even so, a number of mules lost their footing and fell to their death. The smothering heat and humidity, the rugged terrain, and disease caused some Marauders to drop out of formation along the way. On 6 May advance patrols clashed with the Japanese garrison at Ritpong, leading GALAHAD’S commanders to worry that their task had been compromised. Nevertheless, the Marauders pressed on, finally reaching the vicinity of the airfield on 16 May.

End Quote.

A quick rush by these troops took the Japanese by surprise and allowed them to capture the Myitkyina airfield on May 17. In the confusion that followed, a rumor went out that Myitkyina had been captured as well. Figuring the British would be jealous, Stilwell did nothing to squelch the rumor, and wrote in his diary, quote: “BOY, WILL THIS BURN UP THE LIMEYS!” Unquote. However, the truth of the matter was that the Japanese got reinforcements into Myitkyina while they could. The Americans thought there were no more than 1,000 Japanese defending the town, when there were really 4,600. That and the rainy season meant a lengthy siege was required to take the town. Because of the typical stubborn Japanese defense, Myitkyina did not fall to the Allies until August 3. Meanwhile, Nationalist Chinese troops took Mogaung, an important railway junction southwest of Myitkyina, on June 26, and in a 3-month siege, from June to September 1944, the Nationalist Chinese succeeded in taking Mount Song, an important Japanese base near the point where the Burma Road crossed the Burma-Yunnan border; here it took 20,000 Chinese to overwhelm 1,300 Japanese defenders.

Ichigo, Part 2

As summer became fall, the Japanese continued to advance slowly, taking two and a half months, from mid-August to the end of October, to advance from Hengyang to Guilin, an important city in Guangxi Province. A battle was fought here that lasted for ten days, from November 1 to 11, which ended with the Japanese taking Guilin and Liuzhou, the next city to the south. From here the Japanese threatened Guiyang, the caital of Guizhou, the province to the west of Guangxi. If Guiyang fell, the door would be open for a Japanese invasion of southwest China; they could take Yunnan Province and establish a direct link by land with Burma, or they could go for Chungking, the capital of the Nationalist Chinese. By the end of the year, fear that the Japanese would march on Chungking had gotten so great that American and British civilians were evacuated from the city.

Instead of striking southwest, the Japanese completed the conquest of Guangxi. A new army marched from Canton to take Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Province, in late November, and in December another army marched from Hanoi to link up with the others. Thus, by the end of the year the Japanese had the land route to Southeast Asia that they had wanted, and had captured all but three of the American airfields in south China. This was the high watermark of Japan’s war in China.

In the first four months of 1945 the Japanese staged some minor offensives to consolidate their 1944 gains. It wasn’t until after April 1945 that the Chinese began to recover some of their lost territory, and that was because the Japanese began to pull their troops out of south China. They did this because the Soviet Union had promised to declare war on Japan after the war in Europe was over, so the Japanese felt they needed to do whatever they could to strengthen their defenses in Manchuria, the territory they held on the border of the Soviet Union.

During Operation Ichigo, it seemed that the Nationalists could not do anything right, and that led to a falling out between Stillwell and Chiang Kai-shek. Stilwell had never cared much for the generalissimo, whom he nicknamed “Peanut.” At one of their early meetings, Chiang stunned Stilwell by telling him that Chinese divisions should not be deployed even in defensive positions unless they outnumbered the Japanese by at least five to one; in fact, the generalissimo continued, Chinese forces should never be massed, since that would be an invitation for the Japanese air force to destroy them wholesale. Though he was correct when he admitted that the Nationalist army was in terrible shape, an army that is not willing to take risks doesn’t win wars. Stilwell was so appalled by this strategy that he wrote in his diary, quote: “What a directive. What a mess.” Unquote.

The supplies sent by the Americans to Chiang kept his government and army from going under, but he never went on the offensive against the Japanese. His real intention here was to get the other Allies to win the war for him; if the Allies won, everything Japan had taken from China would be returned automatically. And then his forces would be at maximum strength to take on the group he saw as his real enemy, the Chinese Communists. In the early 1930s, Chiang compared the Japanese and the Communists to different kinds of diseases. Quote: “The Japanese are a disease of the skin. The Communists are a disease of the heart.” Unquote.

Naturally Stilwell didn’t care for any of this and in the fall of 1944 he persuaded US President Roosevelt to send an ultimatum to Chiang, in the form of a letter that threatened to cut off all US aid to China unless General Stilwell was made supreme commander of all Allied armed forces in China. Chiang balked at the idea of Stilwell outranking him, and sent back to Washington a demand that Stilwell be replaced by an American general he could get along with. To save the alliance, Washington called Stilwell back to the United States and sent Major General Albert Wedemeyer in his place. Previously there had been plans to have US forces recover land in south China, or to take back Taiwan; now the Americans were so disillusioned with Chiang’s government and army that they scrapped these plans. And now that the American B-29 bombers no longer had air bases in China, they were transferred to the Marianas Islands, and began regular bombing raids on Japan from there.


That’s enough for today. Do you see the end of the war in sight? Yes, spoiler alert, World War II will end in 1945. However, we’re still not done with Burma. After the Japanese invasion of India was turned back, and Stilwell liberated northern Burma, the central and southern parts of that land were still under Japanese control, though it was weakening Japanese control. Therefore we’ll need at least one more episode to finish the Burma campaign. And it won’t be the next episode. Did you notice how I jumped around between Burma and China, to keep the narrative moving in chronological order? Well, now I have to jump from the west side of Southeast Asia to the east side, because something very important happened there in late 1944 – General MacArthur returned to the Philippines! If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting patiently for this story, and the next episode will be the time to tell it. And once that story is done, we’ll be able to finish the Burma story and World War II once and for all.

For those who haven’t heard my announcements in the previous episodes, I am looking to do a question and answer episode, very soon, like the ones some other history podcasters have done. I don’t have enough questions from you to do it yet, and it would be nice if I could do the Q&A with Episode 50 or 51, to celebrate this podcast having half a hundred episodes. Now it’s your turn to speak up. Ask about any subject having to do with Southeast Asian history, whether or not it is a subject that has been already covered. You can post your questions on the History of Southeast Asia Podcast Facebook page, or email them to me. Again, my email address is That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, an “at” sign, and

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