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

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.

part 2: The Wrath of Burma by Fred Eldridge

My intention was to summarize this excellent book, but it then took on a life of its own and morphed into a virtual high school book report. I offer no apologies!

In recounting the history of WW 2, the CBI is usually often glossed over if it is mentioned at all. Indeed it was a small wedge of the war effort but it was perhaps more full of intrigue and political maneuvering than either of the two more famous theaters of operations. As the name suggests, Burma was the all-important link or bridge between China and India. For the British, it was their last line of defense to keep the Japanese out of India. For Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Army it was the life-line of the Burma Road that they were interested in.

After the fall of Singapore, Japanese troops were quickly shifted north and captured Rangoon and moved up the central valley into the interior. But then the CBI turned into a political battle-ground much more than an active battle field.

For centuries the British Colonial Authorities had maintained Burma as a buffer between themselves and the French in Indo-China. Actually, Thailand was that buffer and Burma the British controlled border area and bread-basket. As the Japanese invaded from the south and east (Thailand) the Burmese portion of the British forces melted away. There was way too much talk of independence and revolution for the British to allow a strong Burmese military. What existed as such was more of a poorly-trained and poorly-equipped police force. But in 1942, they were buying the Japanese propaganda of an All-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Like their Javanese neighbors to the south, they welcomed the Japanese as liberators who would help them shrug off the European ‘oppressors’. They had not learned their lesson by watching China to their north.

For the most part the British just needed to keep the Japanese out of India and the severe mountains of western Burma would help do that.  Under GEN Alexander, they established a defensive line with their backs to the mountains. He commanded a force of largely native Indian troops whose loyalty was also sometimes suspect.

The Burma Road was Chiang Kai-Shek’s life-line. Without it, his army could not exist. He and FDR had a particular bond and under the Lend-Lease arrangements tons of equipment and supplies were traversing that road. But his was a precarious position. He held a small section of territory in south-central China. To his east were the IJA armies and to his north, the Communists. It is a debate as to which he hated or feared more. His clear, if unwritten, unstated, policy was to fight as hard as necessary in the east while stockpiling supplies and equipment for the future fight with the Communists. He was wholly content to sit back and let the US Forces win the war in the Pacific so he could then win the next war for China. As such, he dispatched two fully armies of Chinese troops into Northern and Eastern Burma to protect the Burma Road.

But the US War Dept had its own agenda. It needed GEN Chiang to keep the IJA occupied in China and not divert those troops to fight on the Pacific islands,

The British could do little to keep the Chinese out of Burma and frankly needed their help to control the Japanese. But England was not sure that once there the Chinese would even leave. In early 1942, the main British effort was simply not to lose control of western Burma.

We now add to this mix the volatile US LTG Joseph Stilwell. [] He was dispatched to China as a token of FDR’s support for Kai-Shek. He brought with him a few dozen US officers whose stated task was to train the Chinese on the US-provided equipment. But as a reciprocal  action, GEN Chiang appointed him as commander of the Chinese troops in Burma. This was supposed to be an ‘honorific’ position, but, much to the chagrin of both the British and Chinese commanders,  Stilwell took it to heart!

Once arriving in Burma, Stillwell quickly assessed the situation and proposed a more offensive strategy. He never seemed to fully note that he was actually being exiled to Burma to get him out of China. His first action was to try to close the gap between the Chinese right flank and the British left (a bit to the south). From his point of view, this went at a strangely slow pace = no one moved! His only means of communication within Burma was the British-controlled, Indian-staffed telegraph and postal service. Oddly, his movement orders were often not acknowledged by their intended recipients. He then shocked everyone by doing something that no British or Chinese general would ever do = he moved his HQ close to the front line. Alexander spent much of his time in either India or China hardly ever in Burma. Stilwell quickly figured out that the ‘battle reports’ that the Chinese generals were sending to their commander in Chungking were nothing but face-saving, self-promotion and were heavily inflated as to the level of supplies needed to sustain them. “Stilwell was infuriated also by the rampant corruption of Chiang’s regime. Stilwell faithfully kept a diary in which he began to note the corruption and the amount of money ($380,584,000 in 1944 dollars) being wasted on the procrastinating Chiang and his government.” (WIKI) Stilwell’s disdain for Chiang was reflected in the code name he used in his official communiques to the War Dept = ‘Peanut’.

Stilwell’s main ally in all of this was British General William Slim who had under his command a small contingent of US soldiers under MAJ Frank Merrill. Together they hatched a plan for an offensive to free Burma of the Japanese; to push them ultimately back into Thailand.

Although Stilwell spoke fluent Chinese and understood the Oriental psyche as well as any American could, he never seemed to grasp – or at least did not accept – that the CBI was a back-water theater of operations. Stilwell requested at least a brigade of US troops. None were forth-coming; the War Dept was not going to commit US lives to assist the British in maintaining their South Asian empire. American planes and submarines operated out of bases across South Asia but few ground troops were in evidence.  

For their part, the British had no reasons to want to assist the Chinese. Although they never seemed to do anything to openly impede the delivery of supplies from the Indian posts through Burma to China, they never added to them either. Their singular contribution to the effort was that they deigned to provide Chennault’s American Volunteer Force with some obsolete P-40 planes. Churchill is said to have referred to it as the ‘cheap war’ or war on the cheap = do what was necessary not to lose, but little more! The 1100 Km-long Burma Road was not without its inherent faults as well. It passed through many regions controlled by ‘governors’ who was in actuality war lords and they extracted their share of those supplies as a ‘transit tax’. The Chinese in Chungking had to be content with whatever survived the journey. [] When the US began to ferry supplies by air ‘over the hump’ at least that trickle was not subject to those ‘taxes’.

Stilwell learned that he was not going to be able to launch a coordinated British-Chinese offensive to retake Burma. He turned to a series of smaller actions using like-minded men like Merrill and the British-led Chindits (the Burmese word for lion) under BG Wingate. In this way they were able to mount successful offensive operations while largely circumventing the British high command. []

But even these were not brought about until after months of shucking and jiving during which the Japanese had built their forces to sufficient strength to attack, driving the ‘allies’ in all directions. Even after these defeats, the Chinese and British commanders were quite happy to settle back and enjoy the bounty of Burma rather than strike against the Japanese. Those 1942 attacks nearly drove the ‘allies’ out of Burma entirely. Stilwell and a small party of Americans was nearly surrounded and captured and trekked for 3 weeks across the mountains (Chin Hills) to Imphal India. Tens of thousands of Chinese who tried to escape north to China were not as fortunate. The defenders of Burma had collapsed in a rout.

Predictably, the British blamed the Chinese and vice versa. All blamed Stilwell. The British all the up to Churchill saw this as an opportunity to rid themselves of the ‘China Problem’. They called for the cessation of delivery of the Lend-Lease supplies to China – of course they’d be happy to accept those already en route! They still harbored hopes of re-building their South Asian (Burma, Malaya, Singapore) empire post-war and didn’t need a armed and ready China looming over them. They were playing the long-game! One British officer is said to have noted that the British Army in Burma had been exposed for the “polo-playing, tea-sipping police force” that they had become over generations.

To compound the defeat, Ghandi had only just begun his campaign for independence and the British Colonial Authorities used the newly developing “Indian Problem” as an excuse to ignore Burma for the immediate future. India had to remain as the jewel in their South Asia empire.

Wingate and Stilwell often clashed over tactics but agreed that the Japanese could not be allowed to keep Burma. Their offensive had severed the Burma Road connection to China and necessitated the air lifting of supplies ‘over the hump’. The British High Command finally settled on one critical factor that prevented them from mounting any military operation in Burma = Logistics. To obviate the need for the Burma Road, Stilwell wanted to bring Chinese troop to India for training. This proposal met with stiff British resistance citing Logistics. More out of disgust than military necessity, Stilwell returned to Chungking. Seemingly it took a direct discussion between FDR and Churchill to get permission for the US contingent to set up a training base at a dis-used EPW base in northern India and fly in Chinese recruits on the returning ‘logistics’ planes[1]. Stilwell’s small US staff were now back in the training business, but none of them were happy. Most thought that this interlude under Stilwell had destroyed their careers.

In answer to the Logistics problem, caused by the loss of the Burma Road, Stilwell campaigned for a replacement: the Ledo Road aka the Stilwell Road. [] The British High Command found every possible reason to oppose it. Amidst all this squabbling among the ‘allies’, any thoughts of military operations were buried deep under inter-national, inter-service and inter-personal animosity. Stilwell was constantly at loggerheads with the commander of the 10th US Air Force, GEN Brereton whose planes were now simply a Logistics operation. Brereton technically out-ranked Stilwell and never accepted his ‘subordinate’ position in the US command hierarchy. Most of his official communiques addressed his desire to attain an equal if not a superior level of command as Stilwell.

The US War Dept fell in with full support for the Stilwell Road. They offered up Construction Battalions to ’make it so’. It was one way of avoiding sending combat troops into the CBI Theater. Most of these turned out to be Black (Afro-American) units. They still viewed the greatest value of the Chinese Nationalist Army as pinning down Japanese troops who otherwise would be in the eastern Pacific or attacking Australia. Later, with the advent of the B-29s, the 14th Air Force was established in southern China poised to bomb Japan. They would also need massive amounts of logistical support. Stilwell planned to use the newly-trained India-based Chinese troops to clear the ‘trace’ of the road across northern Burma; a place that the Japanese would have a hard time supporting logistically.

At a strategic planning meeting in Cairo, Stilwell told his superiors that he could arrange to re-take Hong Kong and then Formosa (Taiwan) by the spring of 1945! The sheer thought of Chinese troops ‘liberating’ Hong Kong (second only to Singapore as a major defeat for the British King) sent the British High Command into a frenzy! That Stilwell would get the credit was just too much to bear!

In an ill-camouflaged slap at the British, the Chiang designated the troops trained by the Americans in India under the wary and watchful eye of the British as the 22nd and 38th Divisions = the ones who had been annihilated in Burma. Their commanding generals were veterans (survivors) of the Burma campaign. One was the product of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and the other had been trained in France. Both were well-educated and cooperation with Stilwell; with the British less so. The American staff officers responsible for the training also had a modicum of combat experience (albeit unintended) from their time in Burma so were afforded a level of esteem by the Chinese officers.

While the Chinese were ostensibly still in full ‘command’ of their troops, they generally allowed the training to proceed unhindered. Besides, India was a much better posting than anywhere in China! The officers enjoyed this to the fullest while their soldiers trained. Despite eons of history stacked against them, Stilwell’s staff produced a reasonably effective fighting force. Freed from the corruption and indolence usually seen in the Chinese Officers, the common Chinese soldiers proved willing and able students. To combat one of the most common of Chinese practices of inflating the rolls and pocketing the difference, Stilwell instituted a system of direct payment into the hands of the students. Interspersed among the new recruits were veterans of the old 38th Division who had made it into India as well – unlike their colleagues who had fled via the northernmost route. They proved invaluable as NCO leaders and trainers. One major question remained: would their leaders allow them to fight when the time came to attack the Japanese in North Burma? The hollow hopes of using every available means to defeat the Communists after America defeated the Japanese hung like the proverbial sword of Damocles.

There is a report of a 1944 encounter between a group of Stilwell-trained soldiers and their counter-parts moving down from China in which the former reported: “The American’s pay us and see that we get plenty of rice. They give us fine weapons and plenty of ammunition and all they ask us to do is fight.”

In early 1943, Stilwell was ready to launch the movement to clear the path of the proposed Ledo Road. His plan of attack had his 2 Chinese divisions tasked to do so. They would be supported by a similar force moving down from China. The British would screen the right flank to keep the Japanese from reinforcing their northern garrisons. The British High Command immediately bawled at committing troops to such an endeavor. In truth, their Indian Army was a hollow shell of ill-trained and perhaps dis-loyal indigenous soldiers. By Stilwell’s accounting. The combined ‘allied’ strength was 18 combat divisions while the Japanese had only 4 spread across all of Burma. Stilwell shuttled between India and southern China trying to cobble together a force to clear a path for the road. But even the previously agreed upon route was now being questioned at both ends! Stilwell resorted to a tried and true if hated (particularly by him) tactic; he went to the press: “the Allies were now in a position to kill some Japs in Burma.” In early 1943, overall Allied successes were still some time away. The Press ate this up as a chance to humble the enemy. Under severe pressure to defeat some enemy somewhere, the British High Command agreed to commit some forces to limited strikes on the flanks of the Ledo Road path.

Stilwell’s adversary / ally Wingate was green-lighted to fly forces into Burma. The newly trained 38th started east. The total combined strength of 8,000 US personnel of all services in the Theater was mobilized on this objective. The new commander of the 10th AF – replacing Brereton who had been sent to Cairo – committed (reluctantly) his few fighters and bombers to the effort with BG Chennault leading enthusiastically. Stilwell and Chennault continued to clash over priorities, tactics and logistics but at least bombs were falling on Burma! Chennault’s impact in the 10th AF was somewhat reduced by the later arrival of B-29s forward-based in China and able to reach the Japanese Mainlands; something the 10th’s older medium bombers were incapable of.

The entire US contingent went into a mode of promising much but delivering little; a tactic they learned well from the British. Seemingly a myriad of ‘logistical problems’ plagued the delivery of promised goods ‘over the hump’ while the land route was being re-opened. One thing Stilwell was able to deliver was his experience in the India-based training. He established multiple training centers in China staffed by carefully selected veteran Chinese cadre who were ‘schooled’ in the process of keeping the Chinese officers at bay while producing a credible fighting force. Stilwell’s dream of fielding a 30-Division force was off to a reasonable start.

Actual construction, by US Engineer Battalions was begun in India in late 1942. The British rail system running across India was falling into step as well. The first 75 miles of the Stilwell Road were completed rapidly and without severe incidents; the Afro-American troops were highly skilled operators of their heavy equipment. By mid-FEB 43, troops were moving on the Japanese garrisons. The 38th moved rapidly, the British not so much. Plagued by doubts and a defeatist mentality, despite heavily out-numbering the IJA forces, they moved warily. On paper the Japanese were doomed; in the jungles not so much!

The race was on to get as many miles of tarmac laid before the monsoon season (beginning about May) slowed or even halted progress. Construction proceeded apace. Mainly because the Japanese decided that terrain was against them and they concentrated their opposition to the British force moving from India. Even though they had only a regiment standing in front of a British division, the movement stalled. US observers lamented that the British officers had learned absolutely nothing from their earlier defeats in Malaya and Burma and allowed this small force to stymie them. A rapid flanking movement almost allowed the Japanese to encircle them and forced a fighting withdrawal. However, even this set-back in the plan worked in Stilwell’s favor. IJA forces attacking the British to his south were not attacking his engineers! Then, true to form, the Chinese 38th division received orders to halt. Orders from Chungking, not Stilwell. Just weeks in and the plan was in tatters.

During 1943, the entire British High Command in India underwent radical changes. Admiral Lord Mountbatten was now in charge, GEN Wavell was replaced by GEN Auchinlek (of North Africa fame). Wingate was slogging across the Burmese mountains and Merrill was training his Marauders. In Casablanca (Jan 43), the main topic was the North Africa to Southern Europe (Sicily) campaign. FDR and Churchill held to the minimalistic strategy of keeping as many Japanese in China and South Asia (Burma, Malaya and Singapore) as possible and away from MacArthur. The British High Command from India argued for more Lend-Lease materials to be sent their way rather than into the ‘black hole’ of China. It was as if Logistics were the only thing holding them back from routing the IJA! While FDR still had a soft spot for China – some say as a result of efforts of Ms Kai-Shek – the US War Dept Logisticians were more realistic in terms of how much could possibly be moved without an overland route. Compared to the combat support materials being consumed in the two major theaters, the CBI was at write-off levels as far as the logisticians were concerned. It was, however, decided to scale back the Ledo Road’s width to permit one-way traffic only, sacrificing the transports in favor of getting a roadway laid down.

Despite the fact that Chiang was not actually fighting anywhere in eastern China, the IJA were maintaining their large force there. Having lost the Philippines and Singapore, China was the closest the allies could get to Mainland Japan. Chiang had to remain engaged and happy! Yet, there would be no more US troops deployed into the CBI until the B-29s became available. The proposal to shift the four divisions of ANZAC troops from MacArthur to India was vetoed as well. Native Indians and Chinese troops would have to carry on whatever fighting there was to be. Every effort would be made (promised?) to increase the ‘over the hump’ tonnage; full stop! Chief of the Joint Chiefs, GEN Marshall lamented Stilwell’s position at the end of a trickle of supplies and sandwiched between to (warring) Allies! MacArthur and Nimitz were often at odds but nothing like the British and Chinese.

The same time-tested excuses were employed by the British to delay any military action: logistics, training, reliability[2], the weather, etc. Chiang echoed these. Stilwell continued to submit extraordinarily detailed plans for the road construction and subsequent actions that the increase in supplies would allow. One Logistician compared them to the Eisenhower’s D-Day plans in detail and ambitiousness. Stilwell’s staff knew how to prepare documents even if the decisions did not always go their way. Within the over CBI, individual fiefdoms developed each (like Chennault) arguing for a bigger piece of the material trains come their way. Almost the entire tonnage moving ‘over the hump’ was now being consumed by Stilwell’s China-based training based. No one was happy with that. Chennault shifted strategy somewhat and argued that given more of everything, he could support the re-taking of the PI. Perhaps a simple ploy to garner GEN Mac’s support! He was partially successful in that FDR himself directed a larger share of the materials available be allocated to the 10th AF. Was it also just a coincidence that Chennault was using the same arguments for the prioritization of air activity that Air Vice Marshal Goering had used on Hitler and GENs ‘Hap’ Arnold and Curtis LeMay was using in the Pacific Theater? Capitalizing on his close association to Ms. Kai-Shek[3], Chennault not only shouldered Bissell out of his job as commander of the 10th AF in India, but managed to get himself appointed as the new CDR of the 14th in China! He finally also managed to place himself on equal terms with Stilwell within the Chinese Nationalist Army command structure as Chief of Staff for Air Operations. 1943 was an eventful year.

The Ledo Road – aka Stilwell’s Road – gained the new nickname of ‘Pick’s Pike’ when COL (later MG) Lewis Pike was placed in charge of construction. He was working the India end but construction from China had yet to begin. This was blamed on delays in training the protective combat force in China. Once again a naked cry for more’ stuff for me not thee’! Some of this obstinacy was based on the fact that Stilwell’s training schemes were working better than anything the Minister of War GEN Ho could hope to achieve. This then was read to reflect badly on Chiang himself. Meanwhile by early 1944, Stilwell’s India-based camps churned out a second new division designated as the 30th, but it somehow proved inferior to the 38th.

By that time, Stilwell found himself trying to manage 4 different HQs of his own as well as his cantankerous ‘allies’. Ike only had to keep with Patton and Montgomery from killing each other! Stilwell was still the only American that truly held any sway with Chiang (Ms. Chiang not withstanding) and the only one who seemed able to prod the Brits into action of any kind. He spent his time flying from country to country putting out fires – and starting a few. Finally, MG Dan Sultan was assigned to the CBI as Stilwell’s official Deputy Commander and assumed most of the administrative duties that Stilwell hated so much. Sultan brought with him his West Point football training and blocked and bullied his way to success and Stilwell’s full confidence and gratitude.

August 1944 also produced a command re-alignment in which the majority of Stilwell’s British ‘adversary/allies’ in the India Command were relegated to an administrative role and Lord Mountbatten was named Supreme Allied Commander with Stilwell as a Deputy. On paper, at least, Stilwell had won out! It was under this new command and Mountbatten’s persistence that Merrill’s Marauders was finally activated for combat. He also imported the first US women (WACs and WRNs) into the theater. Like Merrill, Wingate’s Chindits went off into battle in Burma. Neither command accomplished much of a tactical or strategic importance, but both garners press headlines for their ‘action’. Gen Sir George Giffard was the new commander of all Commonwealth Ground Forces[4]. Air Chief Marshal Sir Richard Peirse and Admiral Sir James Somerville completed the new South East Asia Command senior staff officers. Each of these men had their own (backdoor?) channels to London and could (would) at times simply circumvent Mountbatten. But all had come to fight; a welcome change!

Although equally wary of the other, Mountbatten and Stilwell seemed to get along amicably most of the time. But ‘flying the hump’ was still the only means of supply to China and was always Stilwell’s biggest headache. Early on, Mountbatten tried to wrest control but since the vast majority of the materials were US-made, GEN Marshall was able to keep it with Stilwell. Along with the new command structure came new aircraft; so new in fact that they presented a myriad of maintenance and logistical issues in and of themselves. C-54s were replacing the worn out, smaller C-47s but no trained ground support personnel accompanied them. The old C-47 crews learned by doing. More than a few graves were plowed into the Himalayas while they learned. This period was punctuated by a near mutiny among the experienced C-47 pilots who had survived many trips and were now being asked to fly an unproven plane on which they had zero flying hours. Morale, tonnage and the health of the command plummeted. Stilwell’s duties did not permit him to visit individual bases, but when he was made aware of the horrendous conditions and demands at one 10th AF base, he took immediate direct action to rectify them. He was clearly over stepping his bounds into ‘Air Activities’ but their commanders had let things slip too far. The US Air Commander was replaced by BG Hoag who had had extensive commercial airline experience before the war. He corrected much of the morale problem with a points / rotational policy to allow pilots to be replaced before they simply ran out of luck or fuel and crashed. BG Hardin arrived to fix much of the maintenance issues with the new planes and the hump tonnage soared! Earlier goals of 20,000 tons per month hit a peak of 78,000 ! Once again comparisons are needed. The US Air Transport Command (10th AF) was consuming 139,000 tons of fuel/mo compared to 1.9 Million tons in Europe before D-Day!

The new SEAC brought a new emphasis to completing the Ledo Road. With this renewed interest came more press. It was being heralded as the “greatest engineering project in the history of the US ARMY[5]. Combat operations to sweep away the IJA commenced with Wingate’s Chindits and Merrill’s Marauder aimed at Japanese Myitkyina garrison and airfield. It capture would allow air infiltration of supplies and reinforcements via gliders. Once again, even the new British ground commanders dragged their feet. They did seem to think that it was an impossible mission and feared even more that Stilwell could pull it off. Wary, but with a renewed fervor to erase past defeats the British Commonwealth Forces in 1944 opened a series of fronts within Burma most aimed at keeping the IJA from moving north. Interestingly enough, post-war revelations showed Japanese China Command monitoring the road’s progress assuming they the Allies were building their invasion route into India! The IJA presence in Burma had swelled from 4 to 9 divisions facing off against the 16 Commonwealth and 3 Chinese plus the ‘irregular’ forces of Wingate and Merrill. The Chinese also ‘anted up’ an additional 16 divisions based in southern China that truly had no hope of moving into place. Mountbatten is said to have finally prodded Wavell (still the in country commander) into action by pointing out that the IJA had found 5 divisions during the Allies’ period of complacency and inactivity. How many more would there be if and when Wavell finally thought that he was actually ready to fight? The Japanese further fed the British reluctance to fight by staging a largely symbolic raid on the port of Calcutta on the western coast of India. Indians dock workers were thrown into a frenzy of inactivity as a result. 500,000 people moved to evacuate the city causing widespread and unmanageable traffic jams! By NOV 1943, Stilwell’s logisticians came up with a solution. They’d replace the Indian coolies with US Port battalions and revamped the operations of the British Rail System feeding into the Ledo Road plan. But with the road not yet linked to China, huge caches of material were accumulating in supply depots. This unfortunately occurred at the same time as the ATC morale / plane issues noted above. Amazingly, Stilwell got the War Dept’s endorse-ment of these additional troops = anything but combat troops!

Recognizing that the IJA supply trains all came from the south; either via ship from Singapore or the Thai-Burma Railway, Mountbatten devised a plan to make an amphibious landing and starve the IJA. Unfortunately, he had no landing craft to make that happen. The plan was endorsed at all levels. But he ran afoul of the landing at Anzio that siphoned off any craft that might have made their way to India. By the time his 52,000 Commonwealth troops landed in southern Burma in mis-1945, the Japanese had already admitted defeat and withdrawn to Thailand!

Meanwhile the 38th Chinese Division was moving east to secure the path of the Ledo Road. In an attempt to better ‘control’ (read delay) the situation, the Chinese troops in India were shifted from Stilwell to GEN William Slim’s 14th Army. In order to try to maintain better control of the situation, Stilwell was spending most of his time in China not India. In reality, Slim never took tactical control of the Chinese forces from Stilwell despite what the order of battle stated on paper. The two men had an understanding; Slim was one of the few British generals that commanded Stilwell’s respect; the feeling was mutual. Stilwell ordered the road construction to resume post-monsoon despite the foot dragging by the SEAC. Every military maxim of the era spoke against building that road in that place at that time, yet Stilwell proceeded. Ever the IJA defied (ignored?) the British threat and sent troops north. Stilwell’s engineers might well be walking into a well-laid trap. The initial success of the advancement likely even surprised Stilwell. In NOV 43, he accompanied Gen and Ms. Kai-shek to Cairo. At that same time, the advance of the 38th ran into stiff opposition and bogged down into a stalemate. At Cairo, seemingly for the first time, FDR was apprised of the true situation of the Nationalist Army ‘intentions and capabilities’. But FDR held fast to his determination to continue to flow supplies their way[6]. But upon their return to Asia, Stilwell sat down with the Generalissimo and related that he had had a ‘long talk with FDR’ and that things were going to be different now. Stilwell’s bluff worked and he was given carte blanche to throw the 3 Chinese divisions into the fight and get the road completed. By Jan 44, Stilwell embarked on a relentless 10-month campaign to get it done by getting the Chinese to fight as he had taught them!   

Stilwell was back in his element; directing, if not leading, men into battle. No more sitting behind a desk; no more negotiating; no more playing nice. Kill Japs and build a road! He unpacked his boots and WW 1-era campaign hat and slept in a tent. He had placed American officers and NCOs as far into the Chinese units as he had men. They reported regularly on the status of operations, supply and morale. He found that he could predict and often circumvent the latest ‘obstacle’ that the Chinese staff would invent to explain their action or more often, inaction. Progress was being made in spite of their leadership. Ignoring his staff’s concerns and the likelihood of snipers, he visited forward outposts to get things moving. In fact, he had initially established his field HQ ahead of the engineers, so that they were working their way to him while he directed the clearing of the path. He knew the route better than the surveyors and knew when really weren’t problems. Photos of him often showed his muddy canvas leggings, batter hat and insignia-less field jacket. He often had a gaggle of press in his wake. He slept on a cot; shaved out of a helmet (which he seldom wore) and carried a carbine. He had an American aid MAJ Young and a Chinese orderly nicknamed Buttercup. He usually ate with whatever unit he was visiting out of his own mess kit and bamboo cup. He listened a lot; talked little; learned a lot about the true situation of fight being fought. He wasn’t getting briefing or prepared summaries, he was seeing it in the raw. He out-paced any staff who tried to isolate him under the guise of comfort, by simply moving farther along the route; deeper into enemy held territory. His carbine was his only security detail.

For some inexplicable reason, While Mac Arthur and Nimitz were island hopping, the SEAC operations people were putting together a plan to retake The Dutch East Indies in lieu of any further operations in Burma. They were prepared to jump from India to Sumatra and forget Burma, Thailand and China. He so hated the obvious ploy to cut him out of all military operations that he stormed out of the SEAC HQ, vowing never to return. It was the end of any working relationship he had with Mountbatten or any of the British staff. They somehow remained friends, but were no longer ‘allies’.

To his credit, Stilwell refused to go over Mountbatten’s head and seek out GEN Marshall much less attempt to speak again to FDR. He vowed to make do with what he had and accomplish the mission in spite of any adversity or obstacles. One adversity that was hard to overcome was the early arrival of spring monsoon. In early 1944, the Chinese were learning that they could hold their own against the IJA in the jungles and mountain passes, but then they began to drown in mud. Some of the worse terrain had been paved over. The route ahead overlapped an existing old Japanese-built road that was only passable in the dry season. The engineers needed to rectify that by improving the surface or re-routing the path to higher ground. It was child’s play compared to what they had already accomplished. Another obstacle was distance. They were far enough from the base camps in India that must supplies had to be air-dropped rather than trucked in. Some were shot down by marauding Zeros.

Early on, as his position within the SEAC was being written placing him under British Generals, he worked a deal whereby at a certain point of progress near the China border command and control would revert directly to him since the distances were too far for effective control from their rear area. Those arm chair, tea drinkers agreed because they firmly believed that the road would never get that far! They underestimated him again! That point was attained in early 1944 and Stilwell took direct command of all allied forces in northeastern Burma to include Wingate’s Chindits. In deference, he allowed his staff to cobble together a ‘security detail’ headed by a Punjabi boxer who was now a colonel in Chiang’s army. The man traipsed thru the jungle armed with two pistols, a carbine and a Tommy gun slung over his shoulder as well as ammo for all of those. He was a one-man army.

On one excursion to the front, Stilwell came upon an aid station that was under artillery attack. He was met there by the Chinese Regimental commander.  Knowing that his life would be much shorter if anything happened to ‘The Boss’ as Stilwell had been tagged by the front line soldiers- a name that even Stilwell liked – the commander immediately sent troops to silence those cannons. It was vindication of Stilwell’s firm belief that given proper motivation the Chinese could accomplish any mission. From then on, he made a habit of showing up unexpectedly at placed where the fighting has seemed to bog down.

Stilwell proved to be an excellent tactician. He’d find a point where the Chinese were facing off with a dug-in IJA force. He’d take a map and show the commander where to send his troops to out-flank them. Then he’d sit and wait until the reports of success came back; sometimes that took 3-4 days. That commander would never fail to accomplish the objective laid out by his ‘Boss’.

The improved road allowed a newly formed unit of Chinese tanks to be brought forward, but they were too confined to the open road way and vulnerable to artillery fire. Fortunately, the IJA never learned to use forward observers to adjust fire. But the American NCOs in the tank unit cadre devised a means to get the tanks into the jungle. They mounted machine guns on heavy bulldozers ‘borrowed’ from the engineers and carved trails into the jungle for the tanks to follow[7].

In March 1944, Stilwell’s forces scored a major victory over the IJA opponents via a coordinated US (Merrill) and Chinese attack. So momentous was the occasion that Mountbatten himself fly up to congratulate them. No British troops were involved. Chinese tank units played a major role. The SEAC now controlled 1500 sq miles of northern Burma stretching 150 miles from India. In that last battle alone, over 4,000 Japanese were killed, wounded or captured. Stilwell wrote a rare press release citing the efforts of 50,000 US troops who supported his 15,000 mile-long supply trail from the USA nearly into China! He also recognized the extraordinary efforts of the US medical teams that treated and evacuated the sick and wounded. Death among those who made it to an aid station were lower at 3.5% than any staffers had predicted and the Chinese Army had ever dreamed of. Ever the greatest plague of malaria proved to be lower (at about 10%) among the Chinese than predicted rates. The presence of the impossible-to-build road behind the combat forces permitted rapid evacuation and the forward movement of adequate supplies. Over 50,000 US personnel were committed to this effort, only a handful of them were in combat units. There were another 30,000 Indian and Chinese coolies involved in construction effort. At times, those coolies were drafted as evacuation personnel for the wounded, especially when the rains made the roads less passable for ambulances. Still not linked into China, the Stilwell Road[8] was 180 miles long at this point and hosted one bridge that was 1100 feet long. At one point, they had built 54 miles in 57 days.

The ultimate aim was to push 60,000 tons of supplies into China per month; 2000 tons per day over a road that was nearly 1000 miles long – not counting the portion that crossed the Indian sub-continent from Calcutta, the major entry port.  From Assam, India to Kunming, China, the finished road would be 1,079 miles[9] in length.

March 1944 brought some of the darkest days to the SEAC since the initial invasion that chased the British forces almost completely out of Burma. First, in mid-month, the IJA launched a retaliatory attack into India. Strategically, it seemed to be an attempt to offset the gains that Stilwell’s Chinese forces were making in the north. Tactically, they caused havoc and nearly encircled and annihilated the largely Indian forces at Kohima. Reluctantly, and perhaps much too slowly, SEAC mobilized more Indian forces from the far side of the continent to rescue their comrades.

On 24 March, the plane carrying Gen Wingate crashed on a mountain side. This was followed 4 days later by Merrill having to be evacuated due to a severe heart attack. On one hand, Kohima forced the SEAC to actually fight the IJA; on the other Stilwell was being deprived of those who were willing to take the fight to the enemy. During this same time period, the most intense battles were being found within the SEAC and the press. The narrowly averted debacle at Kohima had shown a light on the hollowness of the SEAC troops. The monsoon rains that impeded IJA logistics were a greater factor in the SEAC ‘victory’ than any military moves.

Meanwhile, Stilwell’s antics continued to rub the SEAC the wrong way. It was the US 10th AF’s air drops that had kept the forces at Imphal and Kohima alive. Merrill’s bold move to capture the airfield at Myitkynina – a plan that had been intentionally hidden from the SEAC HQ staff – further pointed out the ineffectiveness of Wingate’s Chindits who were trudging around in the jungles but having no impact on the actual military situation. Mountbatten’s PR offices worked overtime to lie, deny and obfuscate the role of the British forces versus that of Stilwell and the Chinese.  One press release went so far as to plainly that the British had so firmly beat the IJA that even the Chinese could now enter the fray!

A look at any map would make it clear that the IJA ‘excursion’ into India had nothing to do with the presence of SEAC forces in the area and everything to do with cutting Stilwell’s rail link to the supplies coming north to feed and fuel his push across northern Burma. British prestige in the theater was under severe threat which had blow-back potential all across India. Indian Nationalism was on the rise as Gandhi became more widely known. One slip of the ‘wrong information’ to the press – perhaps out of the Chinese Nationalist HQ — could have blown the cover off the farce that the SEAC really was. Due to ‘incomprehensible mix ups’ within the SEAC, the reinforcements destine for Myitkynina arrived in exactly reverse order. Hence, when the IJA counter-attacked the needed infantry support was still sitting on the airfield in India! Engineers who hardly knew one end of the rifle from the other were pressed into service to defend the vital airstrip. Once again logistics issues and a seeming lack of intel by the IJA as to how thinly the area was defended, kept the airfield in Allied hands. The failure of the Chindits to add any punch to this battle ate further into their reputation.

During all this, Mountbatten had rather inexplicably move his entire SEAC HQ and himself to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Perhaps it had something to do with the growing nationalist threats. Not that their physical location had any true effect – coded radio messages reached Ceylon as easily a Delhi – but it displayed a rather Freudian distancing of Mountbatten from the whole ’Indian Problem’.  

Militarily, Stilwell’s advance had stalled near the Salween River as the IJA dug in to stop him at all costs. No one could point to any British-led successes that even approached that of Stilwell’s Chinese forces. Any arguments over the allocation of resources should have been mute but they continued unabated. The lie, deny, obfuscate efforts were now in overdrive as the British High Command wished to shift the emphasis away from anything and everything that was linked to Stilwell. Inter-service squabbling within the SEAC grew more and more bitter as the Army and Navy staffs jockeyed for recognition and resources. Even Mountbatten’s charm was working overtime to hold things together. When he banned Stilwell from releasing any info directly to the press, Stilwell countered by sending them to ChungKai where even Mountbatten had limited control of where they went next.

The IJA was not sleeping as the SEAC bickered. In eastern China, it was apparent that they were shifting some 16 divisions into what looked like an attack force. It was clearly to be focused on Kunming area that hosted the largest Nationalist Chinese training bases but also Chennault’s 14th AF B-29s. Later, it would be likened to the last-ditch Nazi Battle of the Bugle. It could not be allowed to succeed! Kunming was also the intended end of the Ledo Road in China. Chennault suddenly reversed course on his “our planes can win this war” propaganda and insisted that the Chinese mobilize in kind to thwart the IJA. It soon became apparent that anything the British has planned (their ill-conceived plan to retake the Dutch East Indies islands code named AXIOM) could now drop further down the list of supply priorities. All of the Lords and Sirs on the SEAC staff were appalled – appalled I say!

Farther out into the Pacific, the solely American effort was going so well that senior staffs were beginning the planning for the eventual landings on the Japanese Mainland. To their horror, the vaulted British Navy did not have a seat at that table! ADM Nimitz had no use for them despite offers from London to hand him the entire Indo-Pacific British fleet. As far away as London, the British were trying to regain any modicum of participation in the inevitable defeat of the Japanese. The Russians were likely to gain more credit than Whitehall! The prestige of the entire British Empire was in danger of faltering badly. Montgomery’s SEP 44 MARKET GARDEN debacle did not help the situation. From SEAC to London there was a scramble to remain relevant in post-war Asia. Mountbatten’s PR office used terms such as United Nations and Allied efforts as well as the carefully crafted ‘we’ to mask how little the British forces were contributing anywhere. They even had to invent a Japanese Fleet in the Andaman Sea to justify the presence of Admiral Sir Summerville’s Eastern Fleet. The rusty (British) gears of the well-oiled SEAC machine were never in evidence.

Panic swept across Ceylon when Stilwell actually agreed to sit in for Mountbatten while he was in London for ‘consultations’. The offer had been made to Stilwell since he still held the title of Deputy SEAC Commander on the assumption that he would refuse (as he had prior) to leave the battle front. Two things happened immediately after his arrival: meetings that usually lasted 2 hours were adjourned after 10 minutes; the workload of the various chiefs of staff sky rocketed as the staffs learned of Stilwell’s penchant to delegate authority and responsibility! In all reality, Stilwell knew that no ‘strategic’ changes he’d have tried to implement would have been countermanded as soon as Mountbatten returned, so he avoided ‘rocking the boat’. Mountbatten returned to find has staff tired but intact.

In the latter months of 1944, the US embarked on a major diplomatic effort to get GEN Chiang to bury the hatchet with the Communists and present a front against the Japanese. But Chiang and his staff learned a useful lesson in promises and procrastination from the British; they would indeed cross that paddy, some day when the circumstances were just right! Diplomatic arguments almost came to blows when as the Japanese continued to advance to the point of directly threatening some of the 14th AF’s bases, FDR threatened to withdraw that air power. Generalissmo Chiang placed one last demand before he agreed to work with Mao Tse-Tung, Stilwell needed to be removed from the theater. This came as quite a blow in that the US plan was to name him as overall commander of all force in China. Among the US diplomatic corps in China, Stilwell had few friends and soon the rug was being pulled out from under him. He received his recall orders in mid-OCT 1944! Stilwell delayed his departure as long as possible; making farewell calls on anyone he could think of; all the while hoping that cooler heads would prevail. He refused the offer of a number of awards from both SEAC and the Generalissmo. They all wanted him gone and he wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of rewarding (celebrating) his departure. His last message to Mountbatten spoke of future successes, of which he expected none. His old adversary, Chennault reveled in his departure. His friend LTG Dan Sultan was promoted into the vacant command. Following the death of LTG Simon Buckner, now GEN Stilwell soon found himself on Okinawa.      

In India, things were looking brighter with the arrival of General Sir Oliver Leese, fresh out of a successful campaign in Italy. Leese knew how to fight and win and immediately informed Mountbatten that he intended to retake Mandalay.

Chiang and Mao never seriously entertained an alliance of any kind.

[1] Stilwell succeeded in moving 13,000 Chinese this way; the single largest troop movement by air in history to date in 1943. {pre-D-Day).

[2] of the Indian troops

[3] She certainly seemed to have quite the influence on war policy

[4] Stilwell’s British equal

[5] Seemingly those journalist had forgotten PANAMA!

[6] Perhaps once again we see the wiles of Ms Kai-shek.

[7] This was reminiscent of the hedge buster blades that were welded to the tanks in the Bocage area near Normandy.


[9] By comparison, the Thai-Burma Railway was not quite 250 mile long. (412 Kms)

Other stories from the CBI:

The Fall of Singapore:

Although not technically part of the CBI, this is a good (if extremely short) summary of the fall of Singapore.