One day during the monsoon when mountbatten was
flying over the Hukawng Valley on a visit to Stilwell, he inquired the
name of the river that lay beneath. “That's not a river," said
an American officer who accompanied him," it's the Ledo Road."
The water covered the road, and some surveyors considered this to be proof of their perspicacity when they had said of the Ledo Road project: " It is impossible." On the other hand, Stilwell's favourite file contained an estimate, which stated that the job could be done with 200 men and three bulldozers. Over this particular stretch of swamp the American engineers constructed a two-mile wooden causeway within 40 days and nights, so that the road rose again above the flood, and the stores of war rolled forward without halt to the front.
The Ledo Road begins at the village of that name, which is one of the railheads of the Bengal Assam railway in the valley of the Upper Brahmaputra. It winds up the passes of the 5,000-foot Patkai Range and emerges at Shingbwiyang. It crosses the broad bowl of the Upper Chindwin, threads the Hukawng and Mogaung valleys, and so goes down to Bhamo and the Burma Road.
Even before the war the British had prospected the Patkai Mountains for a road from Assam into North Burma. The need for building a line of communication to the Allied armies in Burma in 1942 revived interest in these plans, but it was not until Wavell agreed with Stilwell to make the Ledo Road an American task that the drive of a great engineering organisation was applied. That occurred on December Ist, 1942, when almost all Burma had already passed into the hands of the Japanese. There was no time left then to acquire information as to the topography, soils, and river behaviour. The road makers found out these things for themselves.
No drumbeats heralded the start of the Ledo Road.
Though it has not lacked recognition since, it was long before security
permitted the mention of it. What existed previously was a path for
mules, the refugee trail along which the exodus front Burma had stumbled
two years earlier. The Americans would bring to these wild hills
bulldozers, power-shovels, caterpillars, cranes, steam-rollers, in massive
mechanised procession from the United States production-lines 12,000 miles
away, across two oceans and past three continents. They would hack
a path through the tangle of swamp and forest, climb the clouds and carve
a ledge along the cliffs above them. They would build a road there,
more majestic than the Romans made, 30 feet wide, double-tracked, metalled,
trenched, banked and bridged. Under the blazing sun, in dust, in
mud and mist and rain, building even by moonlight and paraffin-flare, the
road makers would advance at the rate of a mile a day.
Mountains, malaria, and the monsoon were the angry gods who fought the road makers, and water was their master-weapon. In 1944, the year of completion, 175 inches of rain fell in Northern Burma. It not only submerged long stretches of the valley road; in the hills it piled up behind the culverts and pushed the entire roadway over the shelf. It flooded the rivers 30 feet in a night, and swept away the bridges (there is one every three miles from Ledo to Yunnan). Worst of all, the rain churned the loam of the Naga Hills into a mud sea. The " rock " there is no more than shale, which grinds to powder under the wheels of traffic, making more material for mud. The only surfacing material available is the gravel scooped from the rivers.
The Road demanded much, some said it demanded all. Yet the engineer's concept did not dictate the soldier's strategy. They interacted, or if you prefer it, merged. In jungle war, despite Wingate's brilliant diversions, the grand campaigns, at that time, still moved along the narrow ribbons of the landward lines of communication. The adjacent wilderness was commanded by the possession of the milestones. There is, as we have seen, one variation of these logistics-unlimited air supply. We had good air supply in the northern campaign, but though it can serve emergency perfectly, it is in general the least economical method and we never had it unlimited. To liberate North Burma and reopen an enduring line of communication with China there had to be a Ledo Road.
The operational plan was that Fourteenth Army should develop pressure along the Manipur front, besides pushing on in Arakan. Wingate's airborne Chindits would disrupt the rear of the enemy troops facing Stilwell. Later, as Stilwell's advance deepened into North Burma, the Chinese " Y " Force from Yunnan would cross the Salween River and attack from the east. Stilwell was to be supported in the air by Brigadier-General John F. Egan's Northern Air Sector Force (a part of 3rd Tactical Air Force), and the bombers of the Allied Strategic Air Force (Major-General Howard C. Davidson). Aircraft supply remained in the hands of Brigadier-General Old.
The available troops for immediate employment were Stilwell's American-trained Chinese 22nd and 38th divisions, and a new all-American infantry formation, This had been originally offered to Mountbatten by General Marshall at Quebec, but after being trained in Long Range Penetration with Wingate's Force they were turned over by Mountbatten to Stilwell's Northern Combat Area Command. All the men were volunteers for the job. Following a call from the President of the United States in the autumn of 1943 " for experienced jungle troops, for a dangerous and hazardous mission-somewhere," they had flocked in from General MacArthur's Command, the Pacific theatre, and the jungle training centres in the United States.
On arriving in India they had been given these eight weeks'
further intensive preparation in jungle weapons and tactics and taught
to work in harmony with the aircraft, which were to supply and support
them. They were formed into 5307 Composite Regiment, but before many
weeks they became known as Merrill's Marauders, after the name of their
This was Brigadier-General Frank Merrill, a 39-year-old ex-ranker, who had subsequently passed via West Point to a U.S. Army staff post in Japan. There, at first hand, he had studied the Japanese Army on maneuvers. In 1942 he served with Stilwell in Burma, so that he knew both the enemy and the country he was to fight in.
This was the method of Stilwell's march. First went his American-trained Chinese divisions. They drove the Japanese before them. On either side, in flanking movements, which swept deep into the hills, moved Chinese and American patrols. These forces deceived the enemy, distracted him, cut into his rear, threw roadblocks across his retreat. On the heels of the fighters-often alongside them-came the trailblazers, engineer recce. parties hacking a trace with axes, working out gradients as they went. Behind them came the first bulldozer, often armour-plated, shoving its way forward wherever it could get, scraping out the “combat road” for immediate battle supply. Mine-detecting crews worked a few yards ahead of the bulldozers. Last came the main highway builders, blasting their track, metalling it, constructing steel bridges that would hold against the floods, cutting a swathe twice as wide as the road on either side of it to let the sun come in and dry the surface. All were armed, for the Japanese never wearied of sneak flank raids. Then men would drop the pick and seize the bayonet, or perhaps fight it out with the pick.
Chinese, Chins, Kachins, Indians, Nepalese, Nagas, Garos,
slashed, hauled and piled. In one camp 2,000 labourers spoke 200
different dialects. Negroes drove machines. Black, brown, yellow,
white men toiled shoulder-deep in the streams, belt-deep in the red mud.
Bulldozers were buried when rain-soaked shelves collapsed and slid into
the streams 1,000 feet below. After a cloudburst in some places the
road would literally be lost. A mule one day sank into the mud out
of sight. In these early days when the engineers were sometimes barely
hanging on to what they had won, the traffic information would come back:
" The road is jeepable by pushing . . . the road is now open to foot passengers." Incessant toil in storm and heat played havoc with men's health. Eighty per cent of the engineer company at the spearhead of the road went sick. Said Colonel Hirschfield, the officer in charge of the jungle base at Shingbwiyang, " You have not got to be insane to do this job, but it helps."
It coiled like a river out of the Ledo hills to run straight through the thick forests of the plains. It was thirty feet wide, double-tracked, metalled, banked and bridged. It was built by black, brown, yellow and white men, toiling together. As Stilwell drove ahead, pushing the enemy back on Myitkyina, the road sprang up behind him.
The road makers on their march constructed four airfields and many liaison strips to support combat and supply operations. Some of these were made under artillery fire. They built two large jungle bases, with hospitals, repair shops, garages and warehouses to stock an army. They shifted hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and timber. Ten engineer battalions accomplished these tasks.
Stilwell's march began towards the end of 1943. He was over the mountains by the New Year, and building up his base at Shingbwiyang. He had to fight his way forward from this point. His advance was often a maneuver of double encirclement. Behind the Japanese front he had inserted a layer of Allied troops, and beyond the enemy opposing these there would be a still farther advanced Stilwell echelon. Vinegar Joe had some other surprises for the Japanese.
Held up by a road-block, he sought to strengthen his attack
with armour and accordingly signaled Colonel Rothwell Brown's Chinese tank
unit, which was finishing its training at Ledo, " Will your outfit work
? " The word came back, " Most of them can drive a bit and most can shoot
a bit." Stilwell ordered, " Send lem down as fast as they'll travel.
If they only drive behind our lines it'll be a helluva help to morale.
" The tanks came slithering over the unmetalled road, driven by peasant
boys who three months before had hardly seen a railway train. A couple
of tanks went over the khud in the storm and darkness. The rest got
safely down the steepest gradients on the road, lashed to a bulldozer,
which dug its blade into the surface to act as brake.
Until they came to Shingbwiyang this unit's experience of action had been confined to hunting water-buffalo. They went into the jungle to rustic up the Japanese patrols and crashed straight into the base of a Japanese division preparing for a counter-offensive. In the dark one tank went headlong through it and plunged into the river, where it instantly disappeared. A second tank overturned, and the Japanese swarmed over it like ants to butcher the crew. But the rest formed a defensive leaguer with the Chinese infantry scraping foxholes between the armoured vehicles to complete the ring. They dragged their wounded inside it, and the operators wirelessed to Stilwell their information. A few days later, at Walawbum, the Chinese 22nd Division, reinforced by Marauders and supported by these tanks, broke the front of the Japanese 18th Division, the conquerors of Singapore. They regained jeeps, armoured cars and trucks of American origin that the enemy had captured at Rangoon. They also acquired a purely Japanese trophy-the official seal of their 18th Division.
Stilwell pushed on up the Hukawng, his Chinese 22nd Division sweeping the western slopes, his 38th Chinese Division the eastern. It took him several weeks of hard fighting. The road followed him as his shadow, and alongside it came a four-inch oil pipeline. All was going well. Fergusson had passed the Chindwin guarding his far right flank. On his near left marched Merrill's Marauders. On his far left a mixed force of Gurkhas and Kachin levies operated southward from Fort Hertz against Sumprabum. It was at this moment that Wingate set fire to the Japanese rear.
On March 19th, his 61st birthday, Stilwell crossed the pass from Hukawng Valley into the Mogauiig Valley. His troops claimed a total of 4,000 Japanese killed. Then-thunder on the right ! The scene suddenly changed. The Japanese were pouring over the Chindwin, heading towards Dimapur and the Bengal-Assam railway that was Stilwell's lifeline. Vinegar Joe looked over his shoulder, and he would have been crazy not to do so. He had been instructed by General Slim, under whose tactical command at that time he had agreed to serve, to occupy the Mogaung-Myitkyina area. Should he now halt and detach one of his Chinese divisions to guard his line of communication?
Slim debated the same problem and reached two bold decisions. First, he instructed Stilwell to continue his advance, for Mountbatten had ordered up reinforcements from Arakan and India to hold the invaders in check. Secondly, what should be done about the Chindits, who had been airborne into Burma with the purpose of assisting Stilwell's plans? Slim ordered them to carry on with their original task, which they did, much facilitating operations in the Mogaung-Myitkyina area.
So while the Fourteenth Army commanders parried the enemy's blows, Stilwell punched him. At Shadazup and Laban his infantry cut up the Japanese garrisons; at Inkan.-tang he had flung in heavier tanks, manned by Chinese crews, and overrun their well-entrenched gun emplacements. Some of his tanks got lost in the undergrowth and their crews would probably have been forced to abandon them, but aircraft on reconnaissance took photographs of the surrounding country, which they dropped to the tank crews to show them the best way home.
The Japanese bore their reverses with less fortitude than was expected. In many a bunker captured during the Allied advance they were found hanging by the neck with their own belts. Others had chosen the traditional method of hara-kiri; in one place Stilwell's men unwittingly interrupted a pair of the enemy about to cut their throats. Other prisoners, being brought in to Command post to be interrogated, and being treated decently and even given a cigarette where they had expected torture, burst into tears and bowed their thanks with hand; clasped together in servile gratitude.
It would not be proper to leave the Mogaung Valley campaign
without a word about Stilwell's Chinese troops. They had been marching
and fighting now for six months and had acquitted themselves with considerable
credit. The Chinese infantryman moves about his business in his own
way and at his own pace. Stilwell rates their quality as soldiers
as high as that of the Japanese, and that level commands respect.
Colonel Brown's Chinese tank column killed more than 2,000 enemy between
Maingkwan and Walawbum with less than ten weeks' training. Most of
the troops are Youthful by Western standards; some were as young as 15
and few in the ranks are older than 25. One determined adventurer
who smuggled himself over the Hump in a rice barrel was nine years old.
The Chinese are surely the best walkers in the world. The Eighth Route Army walked 6,000 miles across China in twelve months, fighting most of the way. And "John Chinaman" carries all he possesses on a pole balanced on his shoulder.
There were some other magnificent marching troops in Stilwell's
Command, and they were the Americans led by Brigadier-General Merrill.
Merrill's Marauders included infantry (with heavy weapon platoons), engineers, signalers, medical units and muleteers. The force comprised three battalions, each being divided into two combat teams of about 400 men. Roughly, these combat teams equaled in strength the columns into which Wingate organized his Chindits. Seven hundred mules accompanied the march, which began from Margharita, near Ledo, on February 7th, 1944. The 2nd Troop Carrier Squadron was assigned the task of air supply, and they carried it out in all weathers, dropping an average of 15 tons a day. The marching teams set out in high spirits. As a private wrote to his wife, " My pack is on my back, my gun is oiled and loaded, and as I walk in the shadow of death I fear no son-of-a-bitch. "
They walked 18 days before they sighted their first Japanese, and that was in an ambush at Lanem Ga. The opening volley killed the Marauders' lead scout, Private Robert Landes. He was the first American infantryman to be killed in war on the continent of Asia since the Boxer Rising. From this point onward it was a four months' campaign of ambush, counter ambush, encirclement, siege, and slogging it out along hand-cut trails through the jungle and up and down hillsides. In some areas the Japanese stood and fought every few 'hundred yards. Driven out of one bunker stronghold, they retired to another, meanwhile laying the lost position under prearranged mortar fire. Merrill's advance was slowed down on occasion to a mile a day. He was never late, however, when Stilwell counted on him to appear in flank or rear of the Japanese whom the general was driving in front of him down the Mogaung Valley. In this close and often confused fighting one of the difficulties for the Marauders was to distinguish their allies from their enemies, for the Japanese frequently appeared in Chinese uniforms.
The local Kachin tribesmen gave Merrill's men much help in this matter. They had suffered long enough under the Japanese to have developed an uncanny sense of them. Some claimed they could smell them. Their knowledge of the jungle, and of the habits of the Japanese, was invaluable in laying or averting an ambush. Their spirit is illustrated by the smiling urchin of 13 who appeared at Merrill's headquarters with a Lee Enfield rifle and bandolier, which he had taken from a dead Japanese, and asked for ammunition. " I want to fight the Japanese, " he pleaded; "I am not afraid of them, but there are only two of us left in our home now, and I am afraid of the dark."
On May 17th, as Stilwell's main forces closed in on Kamaing, came the electrifying news that Merrill's Marauders, brigaded with a Chinese regiment, had seized Myitkyina airfield, 50 miles away across the mountains. They had scaled the 7,000-foot Nauri Hykit Pass, and by a forced march of 20 days along secret paths, appeared suddenly on the airstrip. The enemy had no glimmering of this approach. His intelligence seems to have advised that Mogaung was the threatened point and his troops were reinforced there. Meantime at Myitkyina the Chinese seized part of the town by assault, but in the confusion of the night some units came under the fire of their own machine-gunners and a withdrawal was ordered. They continued to dominate the railway, thus interrupting all communication with Mogaung, the next big station down the line.
The besiegers were themselves cut off from all land communication. But-they had the air. Five hours after the Marauders occupied the airstrip, gliders loaded with airborne engineers and their equipment came sailing in. First to appear was the inevitable General Old, coming to see for himself if his big transport aircraft could land in that flood of mud. Shortly afterwards came another familiar figure, Vinegar Joe himself, whistling softly and musing: " Well, well, it seems we are at Myitkyina. " By next morning the strip had been shaped up well enough for transports to land with their cargoes of supplies and reinforcements. Among the first troops to arrive there were British ack-ack gunners from the Fourteenth Army. The enemy artillery had the range of the strip, and by day they played upon it. At night their snipers crawled as near as they dared and fired into the Allied camp.
In the town, which stands in a loop of the Upper Irrawaddy,
the Japanese had 1,500 determined defenders, deeply dug-in. Beyond
the Irrawaddy a column of Lentaigne's 111thBrigade known as " Morris Force
" (Lieutenant-Colonel J. R. Morris, D.S.O.) Operated from the east, cutting
the main Japanese communication with the garrison. By night, however,
the enemy managed to ferry fresh troops across the river. To the
west, Calvert's brigade stormed Mogaung, affecting a junction there with
the Chinese troops advancing from Kamaing. Mogaung had been the great
Japanese base in North Burma; it was desolation when Calvert claimed it.
The Mustangs and Tomahawks of 10th U.S.A.A.F. had done a thorough job.
When the Chindits went in with bayonet and grenade hardly a wall was standing
or a branch remained on a tree. There was nothing living, not a dog
or a cat, and no Japanese escaped from this ruin.
Thus enemy rail communication with the south was finally severed. So worn and battle-stained had become the uniforms of all the armies fighting in this wilderness that the Chinese and Chindits tied orange strips to their hats and arms to distinguish each other from the Japanese.
The battle for Myitkyina continued. A long, grim, foot-by-foot struggle. The garrison were prepared to fight it out to the last soldier in the last bunker-and to give them credit for their courage, they did. The task of the besiegers was to prise them out one by one, for the depth of their bunkers defied field artillery and all except direct hits by dive-bomber. Even flame-throwers did not shift the defenders. They lay doggo until the barrage lifted and the assault went in. Then up rose the machine-gunners and did their deadly work. Holding their fire until almost the last moment, these Japanese gunners indeed behaved with very great resolution and skill. So close was the fighting that at one time the besiegers held four out of eight railway cars coupled together in a siding. The Japanese held the other four. Stilwell energetically pressed the assault, throwing in companies of U.S. combat engineers from the Ledo Road as infantry. They acquitted themselves gallantly.
The besiegers were steadily reinforced while the besieged diminished. The problem of supply became the main one. Throughout the action everything was borne in, or out, by air. Artillery (the 75-mm. field-pieces were Chinese-manned, the ack-ack batteries British-manned), ammunition, rations, medical supplies, all were carried on to the strip in every kind of weather and under fire, for the enemy lines were 3,000 yards away. Their Zeros also attacked the transport planes. American fliers crowned their previous supply efforts by bringing in, in pieces, two 155-mm. howitzers.
Planes landed in darkness, in a cyclone of mud created
by their own propellers. They evacuated both the Myitkyina and Mogaung
wounded, who had been flown in by light recce. plane. Doctor Gordon
Seagrave's surgeons and nurses, stationed in a revetment just off the runway,
operated on 100 men a day.
Enemy-held Myitkyina was dive-bombed repeatedly by American planes. In return the Japanese brought up a medium artillery piece, " Pistol Pete," which shelled the strip intermittently.
But now the ring had closed round the doomed garrison. Lentaigne's troops, who had passed under the over-all command of Stilwell on May 17th, the day the airstrip had been seized, now covered the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy. Parties of Japanese who made the attempt to escape by raft were spotted and wiped out.
Fresh Chinese troops arrived to reinforce the final attack on Myitkyina. Brigadier-General Theodore F. Wessels made no mistakes; this was the pay-off. In the night Chinese patrols infiltrated the enemny's positions, fanned out, and began to work back on the rear of his forward troops. The assault went in with bayonet and bazookas, while from the sky the American planes bombed 40 yards ahead of the infantry waves. " Nobody will ever tell me any more about close support, " said Wessels. At 3.45 p.m., August 3rd, the last enemy post fell, and Myitkyina was captured. The siege had lasted 78 days. In the eight months campaign, 22,000 Japanese had been killed, 3,650 at Myitkyina. The total number of prisoners was 200.
Stilwell took his bow before a world audience. He was given his fourth star, promoting him to the rank of full general. He had said " Myitkyina " and meant it when many considered it a pious hope. Until Stilwell came the Ledo Road and pipe-line had been an idea in a man's head; he made them a reality in stone and steel. He had employed on his task some of the finest fighting material of five nations, American, British, Chinese, Indian and West African; He had been backed by all-powerful Air, and an impressive park of mechanical roadmakers. He had seemingly a pipeline from the U.S. Treasury, too, for the road making cost 137,000,000 dollars. But the dynamo that drove this entire apparatus forward had been the will of a man-Stilwell.
The strategic values of Myitkyiiia were considerable. It was already before the war a station on the old China-India airline, avoiding the more hazardous route over the Hump. Its airfield is capable of great expansion.
Secondly, Myitkyina meant a further giant stride along the Ledo-Burma Road to China, though in fact that road now by-passes the town and goes straight down to Bhamo and thence to Wanting on the frontier. The pipe-line was more valuable than the road; but it could hardly have been laid without the road.
Thirdly, Myitkyina stands on the broad Irrawaddy below where the river rushes out from the gorges of the Kachin Hills, becoming navigable for barges and rafts. From this river port, as from Mogaung, it was possible to ship stores downstream to the Allied armies marching southward on the road to Mandalay.
Finally, Mogaung-Myitkyina, with the airfields the conquest brought, provided an advanced bomber line for the campaign against the enemy in Central Burma.
This followed almost at once, and one of its prime gains was the clearing of the Japanese from the remaining area, which lay between the Allied forces and China. Barely two years after Stilwell accepted responsibility for building the Ledo Road it joined hands with the Burma Road and become a highway stretching from Assam to Kunming, 1,040 miles in length.