Burma Star Association
Burma Star Association

Stilwell Advances from Ledo

Now we must turn to the primary object of all these operations, the Supreme Allied Commander’s directive to the Fourteenth Army:—to clear North Burma and advance to the line Mogaung-Myitkyina. This brings us to the remarkable soldier, US General Joseph W. Stilwell, Deputy Supreme Commander under Lord Louis Mountbatten, who bore the main part in this enterprise.

 

General Stilwell is a West Pointer who fought in World War I, and thereafter spent many years of service in the Philippines and China. He is 61 years old, shrewd, caustic and as craggy as they come. He can march 30 miles a day, as he very frequently has, urging his officers and troops forward with picturesque adjurations and many stratgems. As Stilwell closed his 60th year he gave up chain-smoking. He had scaled a one-in-two gradient in the Mogaung Valley, and paused for breath half-way up. Stilwell is known to the world as ‘Vinegar Joe’ though his troops call him “Uncle Joe” and equally mean it. There are scores of stories about him, not suited to this chronicle.

 

In early 1942 Stilwell was in China, charged with the mission of improv­ing the training and combat-methods of twenty Chinese divisions. An Am­erican Lieut-General, he held the appointment of Chief of Staff to Generalisglmo Chiang Kai-Shek. Before he could start work his task had already changed. The Japanese had changed it. Driving westward across the mouth of the Salween River they captured Rangoon, closing the great port of the Burma Road. They streamed up the valley towards Mandalay and beyond, seizing the Road itself.

 

General Alexander’s outnumbered forces withdrew, fighting a long rear-guard battle. With them went the Chinese divisions under Stilwell which had been hurried in to try and stem the invasion. “We were damned well licked” said Stilwell, “the Japs ran us out of Burma.”

 

The withdrawal became a retreat’,’ redeemed from disaster by the fortitude and courage of the Allied soldier. Most of the Chinese troops in Alexander’s command pulled back across the Salween. His British forces he brought back into India. Lieut-Gene­ral Slim commanded the Burma Corps in this long retreat. It included the 17 and 39 Indian Divs, and, for a time, the 38 Chinese Div. They were in rags, hungry, short of weapons and ammunition, sick of malaria and dysentery, dog-tired, but still on their feet and fighting. From this indomitable rearguard arose the conquering host of the Fourteenth Army.

 

Stilwell could have flown out. He marched by the soldiers’ road.

 

“Many of you will think I am a b— before we get out’ he told his party of men and women of five nationalities, “but you will all get out alive.” So they did, climbing the Chin Hills -as the last lap. Of those who continued northward and sought escape by the dreaded Hukawng Valley, thousands perished by the roadside.

 

For Stilwell three big jobs waited:

 

(i) to re-build into an army the Chinese troop’s who had been evacuated into India;

 

(ii) to create a chain of airfields in north east India to supply the Chinese Army in China, and keep her in the war. This called for co­operation of a high order, and it was freely given. So the soldiers of one ‘nation were trained by the officers of a second nation, within the frontiers a third. With the aid of the British and Indian Army and civilians, and the labour of the Assam tea-planters and the Nepalese, Naga and Kachiri hillfolk, the airfields were construct­ed. and aerial traffic over the perilous Hump to Kunming raised until it ex­ceeded the total military tonnage ever shipped along the Burma Road.

 

(iii) Here came the greatest project of all, the building of the Ledo Road. This is the impassible” highway which starting from Ledo at the railhead of the Bengal-Assam railway, climbs the 5,000-feet ranges of Patkai Bum and emerges at Shingbwiyang. From there it crosses the broad bowl of the Upper Chindwin, mounts the Hukawng Valley to its watershed and descends again into the Mogaung Valley. This road was the axis of Stilwell’s ad­vance.

 

No drum-beats heralded the start of the giant project of the Ledo Road. Tho’ 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 historic refugee trail along which - the exodus from Burma had stumbled two years earlier. The Yanks would make of it a 30-foot, standard double tracked highway,  meta1led, trenched,

 

banked, bridged and inclined. Bull-dozers, power-shovels, cranes, steam-rollers, trucks would roll in massive mechanized procession from the American production-lines, 15,000 miles away, across two oceans and past three continents to the wild Naga Hi1ls. Thousands of men would drive the road and bridge the fords, pushing through forests of solid bamboo, scaling cliffs, edging along precipices. Under the blazing sun, in the choking dust, in mud, mist, monsoon and blizzard, building by the moon and by searchlight’s beam.

 

The Road demanded much, some said it demanded All. Yet the concept of its engineering did not dictate the strategy of the Campaign. They inter­acted, or if you prefer it, merged. In jungle war the grand campaigns, at any rate, still move along the narrow spearheads of the L of C. The adja­cent wilderness is 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 tho’ it can serve emergency perfectly, it is in general the least economical method and we never had it unlimited.

 

This was the method of the march. First went Stilwell’s US trained Chinese divisions. They drove the enemy before them. On either side, in flanking movements which swept deep into the hills, moved Chinese patrols and Brig-General Merrill’s Marauders, which included veteran infantry assault troops from Guadalcanal. These forces deceived the Jap, distracted him, cut into his rear, threw  road-blocks across his retreat. On the heels of the fighters —often alongside them

 

—came the trail-blazers, engineer recce-parties hacking a “trace” with axes across virgin jungle, working out gradients as they went. Behind them came the first bull-dozer, shoving its way forward wherever it could get, scraping out the urgent “combat road” for immediate battle supply. Last came the main highway builders, blasting their track, metalling it, constructing a hundred bridges that would hold against the floods, cutting a swathe twice as wide on either side of the road to let the sun come in and dry the surface. All were armed, for the Jap 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, Indians, Nepalese, Nagas, slashed, hauled and piled. Negroes drove machines. Black, brown, yellow, white men toiled shoulder deep in the rushing streams, belt deep in the mud, Stilwell moved on; the road followed a mile a day. Down it flowed wagons, weapon-carriers, guns and tanks. The maker of the Road was the slow-speaking silver-haired Virginian, Brig-General Louis Pick, who designed the Missouri dam to Irrigate a million acres. He had more water than he wanted on the Ledo Road.

 

The aircraft supply of US Tenth Air Force (Maj-General Howard C. Davidson) roared in between the jungle and the ceiling of the rain clouds. Airstrips were made in 12 hours under artillery fire. The advance of the army was often a manoeuvre of double encirclement. There was the Allied front. Then behind the Japs another Allied layer, more Japs, and further on still more advanced Allied units. Kamaing was encircled by a long flanking march, and Mogaung, 16 miles beyond simultaneously threatened, for another allied force was approaching from the south where they had inserted themselves by airborne :invasion. This was the brigade of Mad Mike Calvert.

 

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 horn this point. Held up by a road block, Uncle Joe sought to strengthen his attack with armour and accordingly signalled 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.’ The next signal was an order “Send them down as fast as they ii travel. If they only drive behind our lines it’ll be a helluva help to morale.” The tanks came slithering over the still unmetalled mountain road, driven by boys who three months before had never seen a train. A couple of tanks went over the khud in the storm and darkness. Others went down the steepest gradients on the road, lashed by cable to a bulldozer which dug its blade into the surface to act as brake.

 

Until they came to Shingbwiyang this unit s action had been confined to hunting water buffalo. They went into the jungle to rustle up the Jap patrols and crashed straight into the main base of a Jap Division preparing for a counter-offensive. One tank went headlong through it in the night and plunged into the river, where it was instantly swallowed by the muddy water. A second overturn­ed and the Japs swarmed over it like ants to butcher the crew. But the rest formed a defensive league with the Chinese 22 Div infantry scraping fox-holes between the tanks to complete the ring. They dragged their wounded inside it and the operators wirelessed to Stilwell their vital information. A few days later 22 Div. reinforced by Marauders and supported by these tanks, broke the front of the Japanese 18 Div. the conquerors of Singapore, at Walawbum. They collected jeeps, armoured cars and trucks of U.S. origin that the Japs had won at Rangoon and Manda­lay. They also acquired a purely Japanese trophy—the official seal of the Jap 18 Division.

 

Stilwell shoved on up the Hukawng, his Chinese 22 Div sweeping the western slopes, 38 Div the eastern. It took him nineteen weeks of hard fighting. The Road followed him like his shadow. All was going well. To the south, a British column had passed the Chindwin after a hundred mile march.  An eye­witness who reccied the area by plane and alighted on the sandy bank on the east side of the Chind­win described how this LRP column emerged from the dense jungle in single-file, weary and weighted down with their full equipment. They trudged to the water’s edge and as dusk fell camp fires sprang up all along the fringe of the jungle.

 

Suddenly came the drone of a multi-engined plane and at a sharp order every fire was extinguished. The plane circled overhead, flashed a message to which a lamp from the river bank sent an answer. Then petrol fires blazed up in the form of a huge letter ‘L.’ The plane now swept low and from its dark hull dropped bundle after bundle containing bread, mail, am­munition and even spectacles and a dozen different articles for which the men had asked. Throughout the whole of the epic hundred-mile march there had been only 18 casualties in the column. After a brief rest the men crossed the Chindwin in rubber dinghies dropped by air and continued their march right across the enemy’s L of C. Meanwhile, far away to the east one more mixed force of Gurkhas and Kachin Levies were making steady ground from Fort Hertz towards Myitkyina.

 

It was at this moment that the entire front (that is. both the Allies and the Japs) was galvanized by the news of Wingate’s skytroops landing in Burma, then the greatest airborne enterprise in history.

 

On 19th March, his 61st birthday. Stilwell crossed the pass from Hukawng valley into the Mogaung valley. The same day the Gurkha-­Kachjn column slashed their way in a hand-to-hand battle into Sumprabum. The HQ cook produced a chocolate-iced cake which, read “Happy Birthday Uncle Joe!’ and Joe himself sport­ed a smart clean uniform and even put on his badges of rank. His troops claimed a total of 4.000 Japanese killed.

 

Thunder on the right. The scene suddenly changed. The Japs were pouring over the Chindwin, heading towards Dimapur and the Bengal-Assam railway that was Stilwell’s lifeline. Joe looked over his shoulder, and he would have been crazy not to do so. He had been instructed by General Slim, under whose command at that time he still served, to occupy the Mogaung-Myitkyina area. Should he now halt and detach one of his Chinese divisions to guard his L of C?

 

Slim weighed the same pro­blem and reached two bold deci­sions. First he ordered Stilwell to continue his advance, relying on the arrival of 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 by cutting the Jap L .of C? Slim ordered them to carry on with their original task, which they did, immensely facilitating operations in the Mogaung-Myitkyina area.

 

So, while Imphal-Kohima’s com­manders parried the enemy’s blows, Stilwell punched him. At Shadazup and Laban his infantry cut tip the Jap garrisons - at Inkangtang he flung in heavier tanks, manned by Chinese crews, and overran their well-entrenched gun emplacements. Some of the Ailled tanks got lost in the dense jungle and their crews would probably have been forced to abandon them but aircraft carrying out photographic reconnaissance took photographs of the surrounding coun­try, which they dropped to the tank crews to show them the best way home to the main forces. Two years to the day that he had been “run out of Burma” Uncle Joe came marching back.

 

The Japs bore their reverses with less fortitude. In many a fox-hole captured during the Allied advance our troops found them hanging by the neck with their own belts. Others had chosen the traditional method of hara-kiri: in one place our men unwittingly interrupted a pair of Japs about to cut their throats.

 

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 very great credit. The Chinese infantryman moves about his business in his own way and at his own pace. His courage and endurance are exemplary Stillwell rates their capacity high. Colonel Brown’s Chinese tank column killed more than 2.000 enemy between Maingkwan and Walawbum with less than 10 weeks training. Most of the troops are youthful by our 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 famous Eighth Route Army walked 6,000, miles across China in twelve months fighting most of the way. And “Joe Chinese” carries all he possesses a pole balanced on his shoulder.

 

On 17 May, as Stilwell’s main forces closed in on Kamaing came the unexpected, electrifying news that another American-Chinese column had seized Myitkyina airfield. On reaching the watershed of Mogaung Valley Stilwell had detached Merrill’s Marauders and Chinese forces for an outflanking attack on Myitkyina, rail­head of the Burma railway. They scaled the 7.000-foot Naun Hykit Pass, and by a forced march of 20 days, along secret paths appeared suddenly on the Myitkyina airstrip. The Chinese actually seized the greater part of the town by surprise 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 station, and thus isolated Myitkyina from all communication with Mogaung, the next big station down the line.

 

The besiegers were, of course, themselves cut off from all land communication. But—they had the Air - Five hours after the Marauders seized the airstrip gliders loaded with air­borne engineers and their equipment came sailing in. By next morning the strip had been shaped up well enough for transports to land with their vital cargoes of supplies and reinforcements. The enemy artillery, of course, had the -range of the strip, and all day they played upon It. At night, their snipers crawled’ as near’ as they dared and fired into the main camp.

 

In the town, which stands in a loop of the Upper Irrawaddy, the Japs had 1,500 determined fighters, deeply dug-in. They reinforced this garrison to many over its original strength before the town could be enveloped. Beyond the river, north and south, General Lentaigne’s Long Range Penetration troops operat­ed, cutting main Jap communica­tion with the garrison. By night, how­ever, the enemy managed to ferry fresh troops across the river. West­ward, Mad Mike Calvert’s troops stormed Mogaung, promptly effecting a junction there with the Chinese division which had taken Kamang. Thus all Jap rail communication with the south was finally severed. So worn and battle-stained had become the uniforms of all the armies fighting in this jungle that the Chinese and Chindits tied orange strips to their hats and arms to distinguish each other from the Japs.

 

The battle for Myitkyina continued. A long, grim, foot-by-foot struggle. The garrison were prepared to fight it out to the last man 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 them. They lay doggo until the bar­rage lifted and the assault went in. Then up rose the enemy machine gun­ners and did their deadly work, holding their fire until almost the last moment, the Jap machine gunners indeed behaved with very great resolution and skill. Stilwell energetical­ly pressed the assault, throwing-in companies of U.S. combat engineers from the Ledo Road as infantry. They acquitted themselves most gallantly.

 

The besiegers however, were being rapidly reinforced while the besieged steadily diminished. The problem of supply became the main one. Throughout the entire 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, food, medical supplies, all were carried on to the strip in every kind of weather.

 

American fliers final­ly crowned their previous supply efforts by transporting, in pieces, a 155-mm howitzer. Transport planes landed in darkness, under fire (the enemy line was 3,000 yards away), in a cyclone of mud created by their own propellers. They evacuated both Myitkyina and Mogaung wounded, who had been flown in by light recce plane. Doc Seagrave’s surgeons and nurses, stationed in a revetment just oft the runway, operated on a hundred men a day.

 

Enemy-held Myitkyina was dive-bombed repeatedly by Davidson’s planes. In return, the Japs brought up a 150 mm gun (“Pistol Pete”) on the railway to shell the strip every night.

 

But now the ring had closed round the doomed garrison. Lentaigne’s troops (they had passed under the overall command of Stilwell on 17 May, the day the airstrip had been seized) now completely barred escape towards the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy. Parties of Japs who made the attempt by raft were spotted and wiped ‘out. ‘

 

A fresh Chinese column arrived to reinforce the final assault on Myit­kyina. Brig-General T. F. Wessel’s forces made no mistakes; this was the pay-off and he had set his time-limit. At 3-45 p.m. 3 August the last enemy post fell, and Myitkyina was ours. The siege had lasted 78 days.

 

Uncle Joe 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. 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 giant mechanical road makers. But the dynamo that drove this massive apparatus forward had been the will of a man—Stilwell.

 

The strategic values of Myitkyina are considerable. It was already before the Jap war a station on the old China­-India air route, avoiding the more hazardous route over the higher Hump. Its airfield is capable of immense expansion. Already this capi­tal town of North Burma is assuming the appearance of a second Croydon or Halifax, 12-ton power shovels are biting into the mountain sides, crushers and steam rollers are length­ening the runway so that even Super-forts can land and take off. By the first week in Sept, as many as 250 planes were landing and leaving daily. Secondly, Myitkyina is a fur­ther giant stride along the Ledo­-Burma road to China, tho’ the Ledo road has yet to be carried forward from the Mogaung Valley. Thirdly, Myitkyina stands on the broad Irra­waddy below where the river rushes out from the narrow gorges of the Kachin Hills, becoming navigable for barges and rafts. From this river port, as from Mogaung, stores can be shipped downstream to the Allied armies already marching far south­ward. Finally, Mogaung-Myitkyina line may be described as the fighter-bomber start line for the attack on Central Burma.

 

While Wessell’s men mopped-up Myitkyina the British 36 Division, under the command of Maj-General F. W. Festing, D.S.O., arrived by air and at once took up the pursuit of the Japs down the railway towards Mogaung. In the nearby hills the re­treating enemy linked up with the remnants of the expelled garrison of that place. The first, major engage­ment of 36 Div was at Hill 60. Its capture considerably accelerated the advance along the rai1way corridor towards Hopin and Katha.

 

Within a, few weeks of arriving on the Myitkyina front the new division had captured Pinbaw and Hopin. Five hundred Japs were found dead or dying in Hopin, convincing  testimony to the accuracy of Allied bombers and artillery.

 

As these words are written (10 Oct) the Allied Armies of the North are fanning out as they advance, to weld a unified front together with General Slim’s troops on the Chind­win sector to’ the west and the Chinese “Salween Force” moving in from Tengchung on the east.

 

North Burma has been liberated, and the way is paved for the Ledo Road to link with the Burma Road.

When you go home

tell them of us and say,

For your tomorrow,

we gave our today

Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945 Lt Gen Slim at Fort Dufferin, Mandalay, in March 1945
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