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The Burma Road

Converted for the Web from “The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II” by Donovan Webster, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2003; 0-374-11740-3. The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1.

The jungle was everywhere. Its vines grabbed their ankles as they walked. Its steamy heat sapped their strength. And every time they reached the summit of yet another six-thousand-foot mountain, they could only stare across the quilted green rain forest below and let their gazes lift slowly toward the horizon. Ahead of them, looming in the distance, they could finally see the next hogback ridge between them and safety. They would, of course, have to climb over that one, too.

They were a ragged line of 114 tired and hungry people — Americans, British, Indians, and Burmese; civilians and soldiers alike — and they were now on the run from several thousand Japanese troops that were clawing through the jungle after them, only fifteen or twenty miles behind.

The year was 1942. It was May, always the steamiest month in south Asia’s nation of Burma, where — in the late spring — daily temperatures surpass one hundred degrees and the humidity hovers near 100 percent, day and night.

And yet, each morning at dawn, they awoke, packed their few possessions, and pushed on along a network of trails heading roughly to the northwest toward India. At the column’s front — leading the way — was a short, spindly, nearly blind man of fifty-nine years. He wore canvas puttees laced around his ankles, and a battered, flat-brimmed World War I campaign hat crimped on his head, covering his thatch of scrubby gray hair. Ahead of him, he carried a stumpy, black-steel Thompson submachine gun at the ready. With each step — despite his somewhat feeble appearance — the man’s movements were quick and nimble. And despite being a three-star general in the U.S. Army and the commanding American officer in World War II’s China theater of operations, he wore no insignias or badges of rank on his government-issue khakis.

His name was Lt. General Joseph W. Stilwell — though he was better known to his troops as “Vinegar Joe” — and at the moment he was in full retreat from Burma, hurrying overland toward free India as two divisions of imperial Japanese soldiers pounded after him in pursuit. Although Stilwell was a career soldier, Burma was his first combat command — and he’d had the job for just three months. During that time, since his arrival in late February 1942, he had watched the situation around him skid from delicate to disastrous.

Earlier that very week, Stilwell and his closest aides and officers had stayed behind in central Burma after a roomy C-47 transport aircraft had arrived to whisk them away to safety in India. Believing he would be abandoning members of his staff — plus several divisions of Nationalist Chinese troops under his command in Burma — were he flown to India in retreat, Stilwell, with characteristic resolve, loaded the transport with as many officers and headquarters personnel as it could hold, then flatly declined the assistance for himself, informing the pilots that he “preferred to walk.”

As the flight departed — leaving behind Stilwell, a hard corps of advisers, and those without authority to board — the general described his plan. He and those who remained would travel north, where they would join thousands of Chinese troops under his command in the safety of northern Burma. But even as Stilwell was laying out his strategy, fast-invading tendrils of the Japanese infantry were encircling him and his group from the south, the east, and the northeast. In a matter of days, these enemy forces — plus a string of vehicle breakdowns caused by Burma’s rutted, dry-mud roads — left Stilwell and his group cut off from the Chinese and without transportation of any kind. Stilwell and his crew were on their own. The only way out, Stilwell understood, was to walk. He and his group would have to hack their way to safety in India across 140 miles of mountains and jungles, with the Japanese chasing them all the way.

On the evening of May 6,1942, Stilwell sent one last radio message to headquarters in India:

Heading for Homalin and Imphal with party of one hundred. Includes H.Q. Group, Seagrave’s Surgical Unit and strays.

We are armed, have food and map, and are now on foot fifty miles west of Indaw.

No occasion for worry. Chinese troops coming to India on this general route.

Control has entirely passed to small units in this area. Hopeless to try to handle the mob. Will endeavor to carry radio farther, but believe this is probably last message for a while.



After his dispatch (and another one requesting airborne food drops made by Stilwell’s aide, Frank Dorn), Stilwell ordered the bulky, two-hundred-pound radio smashed — its files and codes burned — so communications wouldn’t fall into enemy hands. Then, at dawn on the morning of May 7, with the Japanese only miles to his south and pushing north with fretful speed, Stilwell labored to defeat the impression that his command had collapsed by walking out of Burma, all the while planning for his return.

Vinegar Joe had, in truth, already laid groundwork for Burma’s reconquest using existing British and Indian Army troops, plus his American forces (once they arrived), and one hundred thousand Chinese soldiers already granted to him by China’s nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek. But before he could reinvade Burma and drive the Japanese out, Stilwell knew the job at hand was to hike to safety in India.

Traveling with Stilwell was Gordon Seagrave, a chain-smoking missionary and humanitarian surgeon known to the Burmese — who often had trouble with Anglo names – as “Dr. Cigarette.” Behind were nineteen of Seagrave’s seemingly delicate Burmese nurses; a favored news correspondent, Jack Belden; nineteen of Stilwell’s officers; five enlisted men carrying carbines and tommy guns; twelve British commandos left behind after their army’s withdrawal; seven from Seagrave’s ambulance team; thirteen members of the Chinese military; and a train of twenty mules whose use Stilwell had rented the evening before from the opium and jade smuggler who owned them.

At sunrise on May 7, once the mules were packed, Stilwell stood in a jungle clearing and addressed the group. He advised them that, due to limited supplies of food, a minimum of fourteen miles per day had to be traveled. He then reminded everyone that only personal discipline would ensure their survival, and — as he had the evening before — offered that anyone believing that he couldn’t follow orders should speak up, so he could be issued a week’s rations to find safety on his own. No one lifted a hand. “By the time we get out of here,” Stilwell concluded, “many of you will hate my guts. But I’ll tell you one thing: You’ll get out.”

Then, while the sky was still pink, Stilwell turned and started walking; moving through the jungle at the army’s prescribed marching pace of 105 steps per minute. Within hours, they came upon a small river, the Chaung Gyi, and the faint trail Stilwell had been following disappeared completely. Not missing a step, Stilwell strode into the water and kept going, picking up the path again on the river’s far bank and slightly downstream.

That morning, Stilwell’s column crossed and recrossed the river nine times, and by 10 a.m. several members of the group were beginning to lag. One Burmese woman, a nurse of Dr. Seagrave’s named Than Shwe, was so weakened by tuberculosis she soon was being dragged up the trail and across the Chaung Gyi on an inflated air mattress. Another group member, Stilwell’s own aide — Major Frank Merrill — collapsed in the late morning. He, too, had to be dragged up the trail and across the water on an air mattress. To stay cooler in the jungle’s heat, several members of the column cut the arms and legs from their clothes, only to discover their mistake: they’d given the mosquitoes and grayish-green jungle leeches easier access to their skin, forcing them to slap and pluck off vermin nonstop as they walked. By 1 p.m., only a few miles into the 140-mile trip, the line following Stilwell through the jungle was stretched so chaotically behind him that he was forced to concede a ten-minute rest per hour just to keep everyone together.

Ahead lay two weeks and 140 miles of impenetrable bamboo thickets, demoralizing switchbacks, steep and jungled mountainsides, biting ants, bloodthirsty bugs and leeches, dehydration, hunger, brakes of thorny vines, muddy bivouacs, itchy sand flies, broken packs, deserting porters, withering sun, wild elephants, ingrown toenails, blistered heels, devastating bouts of food poisoning, and several cases of malaria. And yet, even on this first morning, Stilwell kept his larger objective fixed unwaveringly in his mind. Once he’d guided his group safely to India, he would turn around, go back into Burma, and complete his real job: running the Japanese off the Asian mainland and into the sea.

Despite a military career already characterized by tenacious victory over lousy odds and shifty fortune, May 7,1942, must have been the darkest and most frustrating day Vinegar Joe Stilwell had ever endured.

He was born on his father’s Florida pine plantation in 1883. Raised in a mansion overlooking the Hudson River at Yonkers, New York, Joseph Warren Stilwell was a blue-blood Yankee, West Point graduate, and redoubtable human ramrod of a man. At 5 feet, 7 3/4 inches, he was storied to be technically a quarter-inch too short to have been admitted to the U.S. Military Academy. At seventeen, the whip-smart cadet had graduated a year early with honors from Yonkers High School, and — according to Stilwell’s biographer and the recollections of a neighbor — he spent the week before his West Point physical in bed, hoping a lack of vertical gravity might “stretch” him. This story, however, is untrue, as the minimum height requirement for seventeen-year-olds at West Point in 1900 was five three — a threshold Stilwell easily cleared — making a week’s stay in bed pointless. (Still, the story handsomely illustrates how legends attached themselves to Stilwell’s force of personality, even as a young man.) In 1900 the academy allowed Stilwell to take entrance exams after his father appealed to President McKinley for a cadet’s appointment through a mutual friend.

Copyright © 2003 Donovan Webster. Converted for the Web with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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