“They were a ragged line of 114 tired and hungry people – Americans, British, Indians, and Burmese; civilians and soldiers alike – and they were now on the run from several thousand Japanese troops that were clawing through the jungle after them, only fifteen or twenty miles behind.
The year was 1942. It was May, always the steamiest month in south Asia’s nation of Burma, where – in the late spring – daily temperatures surpass one hundred degrees and the humidity hovers near 100 percent, day and night.”
Before them stood an army General, all signs of youth washed from his face by nearly 60 years of life experience, though not from his body. General Joe Stilwell didn’t play nice, he didn’t cater, and he certainly didn’t mince words. Maybe it was the environment in southeast Asia that did it to the generals. The extreme conditions of the jungle must have caused military leaders to sharpen their focus to a razor’s edge, such that all lesser issues became little more than a hindrance. We saw it with Wingate as well. Out here, it was about survival, and little else mattered. The scorching heat, the suffocating humidity, the brutally hostile terrain, all combined to form a deadly enemy.
In early 1942, another deadly foe entered the fray. The Japanese, bent on their conquest of southeast Asia and the Pacific, had entered Burma in mid-January and pushed relentlessly southward. The following month General Stilwell had arrived…Burma was his first command. But it was already too late, and Stilwell, a career soldier, knew it. He watched the disaster unfold in the steamy jungles as the enemy swept through.
The evacuation of officers and staff members began that first week of May, and when the last C-47 departed, Stilwell was not on it. Refusing to leave any of his men behind, he packed the plane with others, saying he “preferred to walk.” In truth, they possessed a handful of vehicles, but one-by-one, they had given up the ghost. As they did, Stilwell had each one fully scavenged and then burned. By the 6th, those were gone.
And as Corregidor and the Philippines were in the midst of surrender, Stilwell sent his final message to headquarters in India, saying he and the rest would be making their way on foot for Imphal, 140 miles away.
The following morning, which on the calendar read May 7, 1942, the group of more than 100 departed. With the Japanese bearing down, Donovan Webster describes the scene in his book The Burma Road. “…Stilwell stood in a jungle clearing and addressed the group. He advised them that, due to limited supplies of food, a minimum of fourteen miles per day had to be traveled. He then reminded everyone that only personal discipline would ensure their survival, and – as he had the evening before – offered that anyone believing that he couldn’t follow orders should speak up, so he could be issued a week’s rations to find safety on his own. No one lifted a hand. ‘By the time we get out of here,’ Stilwell concluded, ‘many of you will hate my guts. But I’ll tell you one thing: You’ll get out.'”
And with that they set off, Stilwell leading them at the army’s prescribed marching pace of 105 steps per minute. Only time, fortitude, and willpower would determine if they would survive. Stay tuned…
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road