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Historic Stilwell Calling
By Prasanta Talukdar
The historic Stilwell Road was constructed by the US during World War II. It was a strategic military route, so that the Western Allies could supply the Chinese as an alternative to the Burma Road which had been cut by the Japanese in 1942. The valley of the Upper Brahmaputra during that time to Burma Road connecting to Kunming, China passes through Lekhapani, Jairampur, Nampong and Pangsau pass, India- Burma (Myanmar) border. It winds up the passes of 9000 feet Patkai Range and emerges at Shindbwiyang and then Myitkyina. Originally it was called ‘Ledo Road’. Initially, this project was prospected by British long before the Second World War and could not implement until the agreement between the British and US.
British railway builders had surveyed the Pangsau Pass, which is 3,727 feet high on the India-Burma border, on the Patkai crest, above Nampong of Arunachal Pradesh and Ledo of Assam. They concluded that a track could be pushed through to Burma (Myanmar) and down the Hukawng Valley. Although the proposal was dropped, the British prospected the Patkai Range for a road from Assam into northern Myanmar. British engineers had surveyed the route for a road for the first 130 kms. Then British Premier Winston Churchill dismissed it as ‘an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished before the need for it has passed’.
After the British had been pushed back out of most of Burma (Myanmar) by the Japanese, building this road became a priority for the US. Ledo was chosen as the starting point for this important road because it was close to the northern terminus of a rail line from the ports of Kolkata and Karachi. Lend-lease supplies destined for China typically travelled from the west coast of the United States by ship across the Pacific before being transferred to railway wagons and shipped to northeast India. Its objective was to provide an overland military supply route to Yunnan in China where forces under Chiang Kai-shek the then revolutionary and military leader who served as the leader of the Republic of China were seeking to push back the Japanese advance. But not everyone was convinced of its utility.
A charismatic, though somewhat unorthodox commander, he wore a tattered old army hat and uniform with no insignia of rank while in the field. His blunt candour and willingness to share the hardships of the common soldiers earned him the nickname, ‘Vinegar Joe’. US Army General Joseph Stilwell was a West Point graduate with extensive experience in China and most importantly, someone who was willing to stand up to the recalcitrant and corrupt Chiang Kai-shek. On his desk was a motto inscribed with the words — Illegitimi non carborundum, a form of fractured Latin that translates as ‘Don’t let the bastards grind you down’. During the First Burma Campaign, which ended in the Allied defeat of May 1942, Stilwell led the retreat of a group of about one hundred soldiers and civilians on a hazardous 210 kms march through the Burmese jungle and safely into India. On his arrival in Imphal, he told reporters, ‘We got a hell of a beating. We ought to find out why it happened and go back!’
The 19,000 kms supply line was the longest in the war — and the most dangerous. After arriving in Ledo, ammunition, machinery, fuel and other essentials were loaded on to C-46 aircraft for the perilous fight across what was known as ‘The Hump’ — the eastern most spur of the Himalayan Range to Kunming. The air route, which passed over 4,500 meter high ridges, was so hazardous it came to be known as ‘Skyway to Hell’ and ‘the Aluminum Trail’ by the remains of downed aircraft on the ground. Averages of eight planes a month were lost because of the 300 kph winds, blinding rains, snow, ice and enemy re.
According to the US Defence Department, more than 500 aircraft and 1,200 crew members who flew ‘The Hump’ are unaccounted with 416 Americans missing in India alone. The hazards and logistical limitations of the air route to China made the construction of a land route more urgent. Pushing hardest for its construction was the American General Joseph Stilwell, the first Deputy Supreme Commander of the South-East Asia Command and head of the China-India- Burma (Myanmar) theatre. But this road is important. It is a reminder of the time when Upper Assam was the headquarters of the Northern Area Command — known as the China- India- Burma (Myanmar) theatre of the war — and evidence of this can be seen in Ledo and its surrounding towns. Bailey’s bridges, Nissen huts and disused airstrips dot the landscape.
On December 1, 1942 during the Second World War when Burma (Myanmar) was fully under seize by the Japanese forces, General Stilwell had organized a ‘Service of Supply’ (SOS) under the command of Major General Raymond A. Wheeler, a high-profile US Army engineer and assigned him to look after the construction of the Ledo Road. Major General Wheeler, in turn, assigned responsibility of base commander for the road construction to Colonel John C. Arrowsmith. The road construction work started on the first 166 kms section of the road in December 1942.
The road followed a steep, narrow trail from Ledo, across the Patkai Range through the Pangsau Pass also known as ‘Hell Pass’ for its difficult terrain, and down to Shingbwiyang of Myanmar (Burma). Sometimes rising as high as 4,600 feet, the road required the removal of earth. Steep gradients, hairpin curves and sheer drops of 200 feets, all surrounded by a thick rain forest were the norm for this first section.
Then US President Franklin Roosevelt gave it his personal blessing, promising thousands of troops to aid in its construction. At the time, the intended route of the road had been only partially explored so engineers had only a vague idea about the topography they would encounter.
The building of this section allowed much-needed supplies to flow to the troops engaged in attacking the Japanese 18th Division, which was defending the northern area of Myanmar (Burma) with their strongest forces around the towns of Kamaing, Mogaung and Myitkyina. Before the Ledo road reached Shingbwiyang, Allied troops (the majority of whom were American-trained Chinese divisions of the X- Force) had been totally dependent on supplies flown in over the Patkai Range.
As the Japanese were forced to retreat south, the Ledo Road was extended. This was made considerably easier from Shingbwiyang by the presence of a fair weather road built by the Japanese, and the Ledo Road generally followed the Japanese trace. As the road was built, two 10 cms fuel pipe lines were laid side-by-side so that fuel for the supply vehicles could be piped instead of trucked along the road. After the initial section to Shingbwiyang, more sections followed: Warazup, Myitkyina and Bhamo, 600 kms from Ledo. At that point the road joined a spur of the old Burma Road and, although improvements to further sections followed, the road was passable. The spur passed through Namkham 558 kms from Ledo and finally at the Mong-Yu Road junction, 748 kms from Ledo, the Ledo Road met the Burma Road. To get to the Mong-Yu junction the Ledo Road had to span 10 major rivers and 155 secondary streams, averaging one bridge every 4.5 kms.
In late 1944, barely two years after Stilwell accepted responsibility for building the Ledo Road; it connected to the Burma Road though some sections of the road beyond Myitkyina at Hukawng Valley were under repair due to heavy monsoon rains. It became a highway stretching from Assam, India to Kunming, China 1,736 kms length.
On 12 January 1945, the first convoy of 113 vehicles, led by General Pick, departed from Ledo; they reached Kunming, China on 4 February 1945. In the six months following its opening, trucks carried 129,000 tons of supplies from India to China. 26 thousand trucks that carried the cargo (one way) were handed over to the Chinese. The highway crossed into Burma (Myanmar) through the difficult Pangsau Pass of the Patkai Range and was known as the Ledo Road until January 1945, when a connection via Myitkyina and Bhamo was completed to the Burma Road at Mu-se.
For more than two years, as many as 17,000 mainly American engineers oversaw up to 60,000 labourers who worked twenty-four hours a day; seven days a week to convert what had been a jungle track, into a trans-Asian highway. The labourers included the North Burmese Kachin warriors, Bihari tea plantation workers, Travancore coolies, porters from the Garo Hills and Darjeeling as well as troops from the Indian Pioneer Corps. Chinese mule pack trains augmented the inadequate feet of trucks. Along the way, engineers encountered vertical rain-forests, receiving 150 inches of rain a year and frequent earth tremors that triggered landslides.
Malaria, typhoid, dysentery, skin diseases, leeches, forty species of poisonous snakes, ticks, wasps, scorpions and sand flies took a huge toll on the health of workers. Hundreds of bridges were required to span creeks that turned into raging torrents during the monsoon. Charles Gleam, Commander of America’s 330th Engineers famously said that the road would stand as the ‘toughest engineering job on the planet’. It was also the largest, costliest and most controversial engineering project of the Second World War. The road was finally built at an estimated cost of US dollar 150 million. The costs also included the loss of over 1,100 Americans lives, as many died during the construction, as well as the loss of many locals’ lives. The human cost of the 1,079 mile road was therefore described as ‘A man a mile’. On May 20, 1945, newly promoted Major General Lewis A. Pick formally announced the completion of the Ledo road, a task he called toughest job ever given to US Army Engineers in Wartime.
The road was renamed the Stilwell Road in honour of General Joseph Stilwell. It was officially abandoned by the United States in October 1945, but it remains a major internal route. In the course of time, the Stilwell Road had virtually disappeared due to the road lies in the lands of three different nations that are China, Myanmar and India and due to non-maintenance by the respective nations. However, of the 1,736 kms long road, 61 km of the road lies in India, 1,033 kms in Myanmar and 632 kms in China. In India out of 71 kms, 37 kms lies in Assam and 34 kms in Arunachal Pradesh.
Just outside Ledo, a signpost stands as a reminder of the Stilwell Road’s importance. It marks the distances to towns along and way and carries the slogan ‘Rejuvenate our life line, revitalize our relationship, and reach out beyond borders’. Today what is known as the Stilwell Road is motorable for barely 60 kms up to the Pangsau Pass that marks the border between India and Myanmar. On the other side of the frontier, what was once a 10 m wide, double-lane, all-weather highway, degenerates into an overgrown track? What could have been a vital trade and transport link between northeast India and the rest of Asia has suffered from decades of neglect.
Though it may no longer be ‘the toughest job on the planet’, restoring the Stilwell Road to its former glory will take plenty of political resolve, financial commitment and above all common purpose, something that will be difficult given the friction between India and China. The Ledo Road alias Stilwell Road meanwhile remains broken and as is. A silent tribute to all those who laid down their lives to build this road, at a time when the world was at war.