“On January 12, 1945, World War II’s first overland-vehicle convoy from India to China fired up its engines and, with a slow and jerky rumble, began to organize along the road leading northeast out of Ledo, in northeast India.” So begins the final chapter of Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road. Led by General Lewis Pick, more than 100 vehicles were beginning the 1,100 mile trip to the supply warehouses in Kunming, China. From the lowlands of the Irrawaddy to the Tibetan Plateau’s 10,000-foot peaks, this journey was slated to see it all.
It’s the convoy that General Joe Stilwell would probably have loved to lead. It was he that, way back in 1942, had refused to be airlifted out of Burma as it was being overrun by the Japanese, choosing instead to lead a band of refugees out on foot 140 miles to Imphal. And it was Stilwell who had brought the fight back to the Japanese in 1943 and 44, enduring the blazing heat, suffocating humidity, relentless rain, disease, and hunger.
However, Stilwell was no longer in Burma. In fact, he wasn’t even in-theater anymore. His ongoing battles with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek had gotten to the point that President Roosevelt had to do something or risk losing his ally in China. So as a diplomatic move, he recalled Stilwell in October of 1944.
But Vinegar Joe probably chuckled out the trip’s outcome.
A week into it, Pick’s “First Convoy” was forced to halt while the area ahead was cleared of the remnants of the Japanese army. In the meantime, a much smaller convoy (just a couple of cargo trucks and a tow truck) had used part of the old Marco Polo Trail from Myitkyina and reached Kunming on January 22nd. Immediately the “yeah, but’s” began in full force. Lt. Hugh Pock’s little convoy hadn’t actually used the Ledo Road. It didn’t follow the Burma Road in China. The convoy, while carrying supplies, had no Lend-Lease provisions. The arguing went back and forth. Even with Stilwell gone, the same song and dance continued, just as it had for nearly 4 years.
But Pick’s large convoy eventually did get to move…only to be stopped again for three days for more mop-up work by the guys clearing the way ahead. And on January 28, 1945, General Lewis Pick arrived at the China-Burma border, finding a red ribbon stretched across it. With some degree of fanfare, he cut the ribbon. The Burma Road, which had been declared open just the day before, had now seen its first “official” convoy.
In some sense, it was a sad occasion as well. The efforts made to open the road to China and to keep her supplied (and thereby in the war against Japan) were largely negated by American successes in the Pacific campaign. The original plan of attacking Japan through China had already been superceded by the advances made on the far-flung islands well off China’s coasts. Webster writes that “the Burma Road had become obsolete even as it was being opened. The war had evolved past an overland supply route from India to China. Time had simply run out.”
Pick’s convoy continued the last half of its journey to Kunming, arriving there after another week of travel…and too late to make a noticeable difference.
Recommended Reading: The Burma Road