Starting from 1937 Chiang Kai Shek was leading a 8 year war which was termed as the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in history. His comrades in arms in this patriotic war were the Communists who were supported by the USSR. Chairman Mao of CPC and Marshall Stalin termed the war as Oriental Theater of World Anti Fascist War. Chiang Kai Shek could master the support of USA and Britain for his Chinese cause. These two powers, leaders of Imperialism and Capitalism in the world were keen not to let any new Hero(Japan in this case)emerge on the horizon.
They did not wish to share their piece of cake. Supply line for China was established through British held Burma. Military and other supplies from British and American sources were using the seaport of Rangoon and then transported upto railhead in Lashio. In 1937 the Burma Road was constructed from Lashio to Kunming by hard work of 200000 Chinese and Burmese workers. Virtually all the supplies the Chinese received from outside to fight the Japanese reached them through this road. The theater of operations was huge. Hence manpower on both the sides was colossal.
On the Chinese side there were around 1.5 million Nationalists and their allies and 100000 Communist fighters. On the Japanese side there were 600000 Japanese soldiers and 900000 of their allies (being armies of puppet regimes that they have put up in the Far East following their expansionist strategies). Till 1941 it continued as 2nd Sino Japanese War. But Japan under the Military mastermind Gen Tojo took certain drastic measures in 1941 to achieve supremacy in Asia and Pacific.
He overestimated his capabilities and drew USA into war by a sudden unexpected attack on the US base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In the same year Japan attacked the British forces in Malaya. By then they took control of Indo China and Thailand. Tojo joined the WW2 as a partner of Axis forces, Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy being its partner. Story of Japanese Fascism, similar to Nazi Fascism is beyond the scope of this article but in short, reign of terror ruled the region for the next few years. China automatically was on the side of the Allied forces of USA, USSR, Britain and French Resistance.
Supply route from their Allied Partners to China remained to be the Rangoon port to Lashio by rail and there onwards by Old Burma Road. Malayan peninsula was taken over by the Japanese forces from the British and they were on the retreat. Japanese Army was about to start its Burma campaign to stop the supply route to their arch enemy, the Chinese. British forces in the area consisted of British, East African and mainly British Indian forces. Some American Divisions and Units also joined, since they were already in war with Japan on the Allied Forces side. China was desperate to help the British held Burma.
Otherwise, their supply line will be cut. Chiang Kai Shek sent an enormously big contingent of 15 Divisions to protect Burma and his lifeline, the Burma Road. This force was named as Chinese Expeditionary Force(Y Force) under Chinese South East Asian Command. Unfortunately for this combined force, the Japanese (helped by their puppet Thai Divisions of soldiers) Forces proved to be more efficient and victory hungry.
The Allied bases started falling like nine pins and they had to retreat after being routed by superior tactics of the Japanese. The British, British Indian, American and East Africans retreated more than 1000 miles of treacherous Burmese territories to apparently safe places in Assam. 2 of the Chinese Divisions and parts of 3 others followed them. Other Chinese, who survived, went back to China.
Now that the supply route to China via Burma Road was cut off by the Japanese, Chiang Kai Shek found it to be an uphill task to carry on with his campaign of getting his Chinese land liberated from the occupation fascist forces of Japan. Success in any warfare depends vastly on how well the Army's supplies are organized. Right at that moment there was the only possibility of airlifting the supplies. Americans took up the responsibility.
Using Calcutta and Chittagong ports supplies used to be brought to Ledo in Assam, the nearest railhead to the war frontline. Then the only option left was to send the supplies by air from airstrips in Assam and nearby Arunachal Pradesh (then known as NEFA) to China and the Burmese front. The cargo carriers had to cross the Eastern Himalayan Ranges and fly over thick rainforests of Burma/China borderline to avoid enemy fire into designated air fields in China. This route earned the famous name of"Flights over the Hump", meaning the hops over the Himalayan Cliffs.
As one would imagine, these sorties had limitations and the Allied forces found it extremely expensive, painfully time consuming and literally insufficient to feed such a large Army as the Chinese. Here came the necessity of the Ledo Road. British Army Engineers have earlier made a feasibility study of construction of a road crossing the Hump. They opined that it was possible. General Stilwell was the Commander of all US forces in this Theater. Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek desperately urged his counterparts to increase supplies so that his Armies could compete with better equipped Japanese.
British forces were desperately fighting to protect the invasion of India by the Japanese from Burma. Americans were fighting the Japanese in the Philippines, Guam, Marianas and many islands of the Pacific region. So it was necessary and imperative that a large number of Japanese soldiers remain engaged in fighting the Chinese along a very very long frontline.
The Supreme Commander of the Allies in the Far Eastern Theatre Sir Archibald Wavell and General Slim, both from the British Armed forces had discussions with Gen Stilwell and decision was taken to construct a fall weather road connecting Ledo to the old Burma Road at a junction point named Mong Yu near the China border.
This road will start from Ledo the railhead in Assam via Nampong in Arunachal, cross Pangsau Pass (Patkai Crest of Eastern Himalayas) in the Indo Burma border and connect Shingbwiyang, Mytkina, Bhamo, Manshi, Namkham and connect to the Burma Road at Mong Yu. Then it could proceed to Kunming via Burma-China border at Wanting.
From Kunming supplies could proceed to Chongqing, the wartime Capital of China. The first 60 km of the road was to be inside British Indian territory and 632 km inside China. The balance 1033 km was in the hands of the hostile enemy. So, the Allied forces had to construct the road and wage war to free the built area from the Japanese.
A difficult task indeed. Lt Gen Stilwell was put in charge of the operation. He started forthwith. It was in the December of 1942. The first part of the road upto crossing the Pangsau pass was the most difficult engineering feat. It was full of steep slopes, hairpin bends and thick jungle. Gen Stilwell appointed his deputy Maj Gen Wheeler an American Army engineer in charge of road construction.15000 Americans and 35000 Chinese and Indians were deputed for the construction.
Being requested by Chiang Kai Shek, Gen Stilwell took up the job of retraining and rearming the Chinese Divisions that retreated to India with them after the Burma campaign. The road was designed to follow a route as close as Chinese border as possible to avert Japanese aggression. Meantime, Gen Stilwell kept fighting the Japanese and freeing Northern Burma as the construction of the road progressed.
The Chinese forces under Gen Stilwell was also called X- force. By 1943 it was evident that the Japanese will not be able to penetrate into India and their losing battle on the Imphal Kohima axis sealed their fate in this Sector. Northern part of Burma was also being liberated from the Japanese by Gen Stilwell's forces.
Meantime Burmese National Army has also worked out strategies to fight the Japanese together with the Allies. Generalissimo Chiang sent in his Expeditionary Y - force again to fight the Japanese in Burma. He made plans that his X and Y forces will defeat the enemy and meet at a point to secure his supply line. We all know that the course of WW2 had changed in 1943-44.
Earlier it was all Axis victories but after that the Allies took over the momentum in their favor. The American Air force also increased and improvised on their fleet and much more supplies could be delivered over the Hump by then. Sorties faced lesser danger of being fired at from the ground as the Japanese were on the retreat now. Within 1944 the construction was almost over. The Allied Army had supply in abundance to fight the Japanese through the Ledo Road as it progressed.
The further the road was constructed the better was the supply situation and maneuvering capacity of the Allies. The Japanese were pushed further south. The Chinese Y-force re-entered Burma from Yunnan and the British and British Indian forces tightened their grip from Imphal-Kohima Sector and along Chittagong- Dohazari- Teknaf route (Arakan Road) proceeding towards South. After the Ledo Road reached its junction point at Mong Yu the first convoy of113 military vehicles started from Ledo on 12 January1945 under the command of US General Pick.
They reached Kunming on 4 February 1945 and the Mission taken up by Gen Stilwell was accomplished. It was almost a Mission Impossible which was made possible under extenuating circumstances in an adverse terrain. In the 1700plus kilometer stretch, the Road had 10 rivers and 150 streams to be abridged.
The Pangsau pass which was also called Hell pass (due to the difficulty in crossing it) had to be tamed. And all these had to be done under enemy fire and bombing. Still it was achieved in a shortest possible time of little over 2 years. The expenditure made by the US Government for this Road was USD150 million which is about USD 2.5 billion in today's money.
From the first convoy upto the end of war the Road carried 129000tonnes of supplies in 26000 trucks for the Chinese Army. By the middle of 1945 the importance of this route was no more there because the fate of WW2 was sealed by then taking into consideration the Axis forces retreat in the Far East, Africa and Europe.
As desired by Chinese Supremo (till then, but soon he was overpowered by the CPC led by Chairman Mao and had to leave mainland China to consolidate his powers in Taiwan in 1949) Chiang Kai Shek, the Allied powers renamed Ledo Road as Stilwell Road honoring the General for his enormous contribution towards building this road and shaping the fate of the war in the Far East.
Most part of the vital road has now become extinct due to lack of its importance and disrepair. The Indian part and the part connecting Lashio to Kunming is in good shape as these parts of the road are still in use for business. People between Patkai range of Myanmar and Nampong of Arunachal use it for border trade.
The Burma to China part is heavily used and has been hugely developed. It accounts for large part of the business between the two countries. About 500km of the road inside Burma is in very bad shape and according to latest reports most part of it is not motorable. Still, the name of General Joseph Stilwell goes down in history associated with this Road. (Concluded)
lEngr Debashis Das, Margherita, Assam, India.
The writer is a travel enthusiast and history buff
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