A year ago, we discussed the death of General Simon Bolivar Buckner. In command of the U.S. Tenth Army (comprised of both Army and Marine Divisions), the General had been killed in the closing days of the Battle of Okinawa (on June 18, 1945 to be precise). He had gone out to visit the front and see a bit of the closing action, but was felled by shell-fire from one of the few remaining Japanese artillery units.
Marine General Roy Geiger took over for the fallen General as a temporary replacement until an Army General could be brought in. The man chosen was a bit of a surprise. General Joe Stilwell. Stilwell had gained fame (or infamy, depending on who one asked) in the jungles of Burma. In May of 1942, he led (on foot) the exodus from Burma as it was being overrun by the Japanese. And over the next two-and-a-half years, he worked to retake it and open the Burma Road in order to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in China.
There was no questioning his military prowess. In fact, his acceptance of the responsibilities in Southeast Asia probably cost him the chance to have General Dwight Eisenhower’s role in the Mediterranean and Europe…he was that capable. But Stilwell didn’t mix politics and warfare (a trait sorely needed in Ike’s position), and it got him into immense trouble.
General Stilwell clashed (and clashed badly) with Chiang Kai-shek, considering him to be a corrupt leader with no idea of how to lead an army and no real desire to do so. Kai-shek constantly hounded President Roosevelt to sack his intolerable subordinate, and get “Vinegar” Joe’s thorn out of his side. And Roosevelt resisted…until October of 1944.
The President needed to assuage the growing hostility between the two and, since he couldn’t replace the Chinese leader, he replaced his own and Stilwell was out.
Now usually, when a General loses his command, his career is largely over. He still serves in some capacity, but it usually involves a desk, and the chance at major command is gone. Stilwell, however, hadn’t lost his job because he had made grievous mistakes as a General. So when Buckner was killed, Stilwell was the “unnatural” choice to be brought in. He took over command on June 23, 1945, and served the remainder of the War.
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road – Webster’s book is a concise, well-written account of the much-ignored, but important theater.