When the Japanese Instrument of Surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay, General Joe Stilwell stood on the deck of the USS Missouri as the ranking army officer. We’ve talked about “Vinegar” Joe on several occasions, recounting some of his exploits throughout the Second World War. Having spent most of his time directing (and often leading) men through the jungles of Burma, he had finished his war experience in the Pacific, commanding the final days of battle on Okinawa.
But as pen was dragged on paper, it was time to go home.
Stilwell was assigned a desk job in Washington on the War Equipment Board, which was tasked with trying to figure out what to do with gobs of Lend-Lease equipment that was scattered all over the planet. But it wasn’t the type of work for a man of action, and by the January of the following year (1946), he’d been reassigned to the Western Defense Command in San Francisco.
Joe Stilwell wasn’t aging very well, and when he returned home from the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll in July, Winifred (his wife) couldn’t help but notice his frail appearance. He was all skin and bones, and he struggled mightily with extreme exhaustion, dizziness, and the chills. A visit to the doctor revealed, in Joe’s words, “…something suspicious in my liver.”
On September 28th, Joe was admitted to the hospital. As he closes out The Burma Road, Donovan Webster writes, “A week later, on October 3, he underwent exploratory abdominal surgery, which uncovered advanced, metastatic cancer in his stomach, liver, and trunk. He had been fighting his condition for years. He was in no pain, which confounded the doctors, but the prognosis was grim. The time had come for Vinegar Joe Stilwell – the ultimate survivor – to get his affairs in order.”
Stilwell had been decorated with nearly every major medal that could be given an officer, but one that he had really wanted was the Combat Infantryman Badge, a pin signifying an infantry soldier’s good work under fire. For a General, it was a strange request…for Stilwell (ever the foot soldier), it was perfectly understandable. The request was granted immediately.
Donovan concludes his book. “On October 11, 1946, in a bedside ceremony, a sleeping Joseph W. Stilwell was awarded his Combat Infantryman Badge. The following day, October 12, 1946, Stilwell stirred in his own bed, woke briefly, asked his nurse, ‘Say, isn’t it Saturday?’ Then he rolled back onto his side and drifted off to sleep for the last time, his newest medal still on a bedside table. A little after noon that day, Joseph W. Stilwell was declared dead.”
And it was a Saturday…
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road