to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

23.0 CBI theater

The stated purpose of the TBR was to safely move necessary personnel, supplies and equipment to the IJA forces fighting in Burma. So to place that effort in context we should briefly explore the Burma Campaign. That story can be found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Burma_India_Theater

Strangely enough this summary makes no mention of the TBR.

In early 1942, IJA forces moved quickly from Malaya and Thailand to attempt to drive the British forces out of Burma. A long-term strategy was to link up with the Nazi forces somewhere in the Middle East: either those attacking across North Africa or those moving into the Caucuses. With its military forces under great duress in Europe and having just suffered the loss of Singapore (15 FEB 42), the Imperial Forces in Burma (and to a slightly lesser extent in India) were ill-prepared, Ill-supplied and Ill-trained. The IJA quickly drove them into retreat.  

Geography playing an important role in the IJA invasion and then the subsequent Allied counter-offensive. The main landmass of Burma has a horse-shoe shaped series of mountains forming its borders. These feed three main rivers and many tributaries that make the central plains an agricultural wonder. But those mountains and rivers were severe obstacles to military forces. The IJA quickly moved up the central plains using both roads and rivers. They drove the British westward into the craggy mountains. There were also considerable numbers of Chinese troops in northern Burma. They were there to protect and maintain the Burma Road.

The Burma Road was a vital link for moving supplies overland to Chang Kai Shek’s army fighting the IJA in southern China. His forces had been driven steadily westward over the ensuring years since the 1937 invasion. Allied supplies were vital to his survival. It is said that as many as 200,000 Chinese laborers had built and maintained that link through the mountains in NE Burma. When the IJA reached Myitkina, they cut off access to the Burma Road.

The AAF initiated an attempt to fly in supplies ‘over the hump’ of the Himalayas, but the IJA established an airstrip at Myitkina from which they could harass those flights. This, plus the technical difficulties of these high-altitude flights, severely limited the amount of supplies reaching southern China by air.

It took until mid-August 1943 for the Allies to be able to mount a counter-offensive. The initial objective was to push through a new road link from Ledo India to NE Burma and reopen the Burma Road near Myitkina. The Allies mounted a three-pronged attack. A mixed British Imperial force established an air strip in north-central Burma. From there, the Chindits moved north towards Myitkina. LTG Stilwell’s US-Chinese force went in overland from the NW. Their spearhead was a small volunteer force known as Merrill’s Marauders. A large Chinese force simultaneously attacked from the east at Yunnan. All were aimed at Myitkina. Merrill’s men arrived first and captured the airfield outside the city. Within hours, US Engineers had arrived by gliders and refurbished the airstrip to allow for transport landings. Re-enforcements and supplies flooded in. Within a few weeks, Myitkina City fell and soon thereafter the region was cleared of IJA troops as the three prongs converged.

Meanwhile, a force of mainly African-American Engineers was building a new road from Ledo across Burma. They were augmented by tens of thousands of Asian Laborers from many nations. Ledo_Road

This is but the briefest summary of the efforts to link Calcutta to Kunming China. The first leg to Ledo was by an existing rail link. The 1700 mile Ledo (aka the Stillwell Road) Road went over mountains and across the width of Burma to Myitkina.

It is presented here as a major contrast to the IJA effort to build the mere 250 mile-long TBR. The Allies utilized huge numbers of Asian laborers from multiple nations in the Ledo-Burma Road effort. Although there were undoubtedly deaths from accidents and disease, the conditions were nothing like those imposed on the TBR.

[also see Section 8.2]

Elsewhere in Burma, British units moved south and east in a multi-pronged counter-attack aimed at driving the Japanese completely out of Burma. The IJA was in full retreat went the atomic bombs brought an end to the war.