Posts Tagged ‘Burma’

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

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When last we talked about Eric Sevareid, he had jumped from a C-46 moments before it crashed into the Burmese jungles.  Twenty-two days later, on August 24, 1943, he was reunited with civilization.  And in between, there was quite a story for the young correspondant to tell.

With a plane still burning nearby, Sevareid and his fellow passengers had just gathered their wits when they found themselves in the company of natives.  There was some immediate consternation as several tribes in the area (most notably the Ponyo) were known head-hunters.  But their fears were short-lived…these short, dark-skinned men were Nagas, and they had helped Stilwell’s people in the past.

The Nagas took the men to their village, where they were fed and tended.  That evening, more survivors from the crash were brought into camp (remember, only the flight officer had been killed).  As they tended to their wounds, the drone of another plane overhead was heard.  From it parachuted Lt. Col. Don Flickinger, a surgeon, and two more medics.  The broken bones and other injuries could now be treated with proper care.

For nearly two weeks, the group stayed at the Naga camp, waiting for the rescue party and regularly supplied by air drops.  On the 14th, the rescue party arrived and, after a couple of rest days, they departed the Naga camp on the 18th.

The next six days were not much different that General Joe Stilwell’s evacuation from Burma more than a year before:  Up hills, down hills, torrential rains, incredible heat and humidity, leeches, and ubiquitous mosquitoes.  But with the advantage of continual supply by air, the trip was far more bearable.

Eric Sevareid and the others reached the bungalow of Philip Adams (who was not only the sahib of Mokokchung, but was also the leader of the rescue party) on the 24th, and that evening was spent eating a hot meal, imbibing adult libations, and listening to the incomparable crooning of Frank Sinatra.

Other than being with his wife and two children, life probably couldn’t have gotten much better for Sevareid than it was right then.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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When assessing the success of the Chindits’ missions, The Times of India concluded that Orde Wingate’s 3,000-man force had dealt the Imperial Japanese Army a deadly blow in the Burmese jungles, ripping the aura of Japanese invincibility to shreds while scoring significant triumphs over the invaders.

Propaganda is a wonderful thing.

The truth of the matter is that, while Wingate’s charges were able to disrupt Japanese communications and rail services to some degree, they weren’t nearly as successful as The Times of India made them out to be.  It didn’t take long for the Japanese to figure out that these Long-Range Penetration groups were supplied solely from the air, and once they did, the soldiers searching for supply lines to attack were recalled and the hunt for the groups intensified significantly.

Towards the end of March (a little more than one month into the mission), the Chindits were recalled from Burma but, at this point, several of the groups (there were seven in total) were more than a 1,000 miles deep, and had an arduous journey of extraction ahead.  And the return trip was more dangerous, with the Japanese in hot pursuit from both the front and rear.

One by one, each group crossed the Chindwin River and made their escapes.  The group with Wingate was actually the first to reach safety.  Three days later, Fergusson’s Column Five reached India with the Japanese just six hours behind them.  The last of the Chindit groups (Column One), led by Lieutenant Dominic Neill, didn’t arrive until June 6, 1943.  As they crossed the Chindwin, they were told that Japanese pursuers, which had been dogging them for days, were but thirty minutes behind.  Operation Longcloth had ended.

Of the 3,000 men that began the expedition, fewer than 2,200 returned.  And of those, only 600 were ever fit to serve in the military again.  An estimated 205 Japanese soldiers had been killed.  Neill, reading the newspaper accounts, probably chuckled at the reports as he said, “I killed a lot of lice…not too many Japs.”  Mike Calvert’s Column Three probably saw the most action, and not all that much overall.

But in southeast Asia in 1943, any positive news was pounced on.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster gives a good summation when he writes, “Still, having seeped into Burma, smashed a spoke of Japan’s defensive wheel, and emerged to tell about it, Orde Wingate and his Chindits – no matter what the reality – were heroes worldwide.”  In fact, Prime Minister Churchill was so impressed with the results, fact or fiction, that he seriously considered putting Wingate in charge of all British and Indian troops in India.  The idea was quickly (and probably wisely, given Wingate’s extreme eccentricity) quashed by senior commanders.

But the Chindits had proven that, given good supply logistics and extreme dedication to task, the Long-Range Penetration mission had potential, and Operation Longcloth was a mission that verified that potential.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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Good news…a laptop has been ordered to replace the dead one and should be here next week.  I’ve never purchased a “whole” computer from Newegg because I usually just buy all the parts and assemble it myself.  But assembling a laptop?  Due to their fragility, I would have preferred to buy a laptop locally, but Newegg has been such an awesome company for everything else, I figured why not.  And the machine was what us computer nerds refer to as a “smokin’ deal.” Anyways…

When we last left General Stilwell, he was making his way out of Burma with more than 100 others.  Their destination:  Imphal, India.  But with nearly 150 miles of the worst jungle terrain in the world in front of them, and Japanese soldiers behind them, this was about as much a “frying-pan-and-fire” scenario as one could create.  And what’s more, Stilwell’s group was doing it on foot, aided by a few pack mules.

As they hacked their way through vine and branch, unwelcome friends began showing up.  First came the oppressive heat and humidity.  Temperatures and humidity percentages hovered around 100, and the thick canopy of trees blocked nearly all the relief any breezes could have given.  Some of the less experienced cut the sleeves and legs off their clothes for improved ventilation, which provided little relief but offered perfect attachment points for mosquitoes, leeches, and other insects.

Stilwell continued to push.  Of course, the insects brought their friends as well.  Dysentary and malaria started making their presence known, slowing the group and putting lives in danger.  As the 11th of May rolled into the 12th, the rains came.  These first opening salvos of the monsoon season drenched the men and women as they poled bamboo rafts down the Uyu River.  But the skies cleared sufficiently that afternoon for a supply plane to spot them and drop supplies, including desperately needed meat and medicines, particularly quinine (to fight malaria).

On May 14, 1942, the skies opened up again, but in the distance, a group of huts could be seen.  Stilwell had reached the town of Kawlun.  Located on the Burmese-Indian border, it was the first real sign that safety was at hand.  A British district official had been sent to meet them, bringing with him doctors, pigs to slaughter and roast, and food carried on fresh pack mules.

It would be another six-day journey on foot to finally make it to Imphal, but in Kawlun, the danger was behind them.  The exodus from Burma had been completed, but even as Stilwell left, he was already plotting his return.  Though beset with dangers and debilitating illness, not a single person had been lost (as Stilwell had promised).

And among the recovering was Major Frank Merrill.  His exploits in this week-long journey amounted to merely following Joe Stilwell, but he would be back as well, and the “crystal ball” used by Today’s History Lesson sees him in the future.  But while we might view their escape as a success, for Stilwell it was a retreat of defeat.  Victory would only come via a return to drive the Japanese from the jungles.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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“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

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General Orde Wingate was a rather mysterious man.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster describes him as “brilliant and blazingly eccentric“, simultaneously “the British army’s most respected – and most distrusted – officer“. 

He was a fourth-generation military man and, having been born to devoutly Christian parents, he himself was also deeply religious, having memorized large passages of the Bible’s Old Testament.

His Gideon Force (named after his favorite Bible character) accomplished great things in Ethiopia in 1941 (and we’ll likely visit those exploits in the future), but his lack of communication got him into tremendous difficulty with his commanders, so much so that, despite his victories, he was packed off to Cairo and summarily demoted from the rank of colonel to major.

Depression set in and, combined with malaria, had a devastating effect on Wingate.  On July 4, 1941, Major Wingate unsuccessfully attempted suicide, but for his efforts earned six months of rehab and psychiatric treatments.

Deemed fit to command again, Wingate returned to action…this time to Burma.  He arrived in February of 1942, and it was already too late to salvage what, to this point, was a Japanese rout.  But Wingate foresaw the usefulness of a group of men not unlike the Gideon Force – guerillas going behind enemy lines in deep penetration missions, and so he went to work with the 77th Indian Brigade.

He may have been a Christian, but his training espoused little grace and almost no mercy.  He wanted his men diamond-hard and chiseled on the anvil of toughness.  All training movements were performed on the double.  Men were required to forage for their own meals, which meant dinners of frogs, insects, lizards.  Illness ran rampant through the 3,000 trainees, but Wingate had little sympathy…there were no hospitals or pretty nurses behind enemy lines.

Donovan again records one of Wingate’s tirades.  “Everyone is taught to be doctor-minded.  Although it is all right in normal civilian life, where ample medical facilities are avialable, it will not apply to us in the jungle.  You have to diagnose your own complaints and then cure yourselves…We shall not stop for you, for our very lives may be jeopardized by waiting for stragglers.  If you are sick, you are of no use to us – you are an unwanted liability.  We shall leave you to effect your own salvation.”  Wingate didn’t mince words.

The training was brutal, but rather than cause bad blood and resentment in the men, it galvanized them.  They worked together to help one another eat, stay well, and stay alive.  They developed tactics with both precision and flexibility, to the point that there were very nearly telepathic in their actions.

And Orde Wingate had taken to calling his men “Chindits”, a mis-pronunciation of “Chinthe”, the half-man, half-lion statues that guarded the doors of Burma’s Buddhist temples.

At the end of 1942, Wingate’s men were ready, and then General Archibald Wavell delivered the news that circumstances had forced him to cancel the Chindits expedition into Burma.  Orde Wingate (now a colonel again) came unglued, castigating the General for nearly two hours until, unbelievably, Wavell relented.

And on February 13, 1943, Operation Longcloth got under way as the Chindit forces, broken into seven groups like tynes on a fork, began crossing the border from India into Burma to fight as guerillas behind enemy lines.

The next month or so would determine if Wingate’s Ethiopian success could be duplicated in the dense jungles of southeast Asia.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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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.

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As I’ve mentioned before (and as many of you know), the time from December of 1941 until May of the following year was pretty much Japan’s “time on top”.  They ran wild in southeast Asia.  Thailand was invaded on the 8th (along with Malaya) and quickly fell, formally aligning with the Japanese on December 14, 1941.  Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day, after a week-long siege, and Kuala Lumpur fell on January 11th.

And that doesn’t include their success in the Pacific.  Tarawa and Makin Atolls in the Gilbert Islands (which we discussed in some detail in November) were occupied at this time.  Wake Island was overrun, Guam captured, and Borneo invaded.  The biggest prize, the Philippine Islands, came into Japanese hands as a late Christmas gift, falling on December 26th.

All in all, a bunch of big-time victories for the island country desirous of an empire.

As mid-January rolled in, the Japan’s design on conquest continued largely unabated, with Burma taking on the roll of “next target”.  Thailand’s quick fall in December gave the Japanese freedom of movement through the country, allowing them to assemble on the Thai side of the Kra Isthmus (that long strip of land hangs on the east side of Burma and on Thailand’s western border).

Japan’s goals in Burma were largely focused on capturing Rangoon.  As the country’s most important seaport, it fed supply lines in that ran into China…supply lines that Japan really wanted cut.  In addition, the capture of Burma provided a western buffer that protected their gains in Malaya and Dutch East Indies.

On January 15, 1942, the hammer fell as Japan crossed the border and invaded Burma.  This marked the beginning of a battle that would last for more than three years, really only ending when the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered.

For me, the CBI (China/Burma/India) theater has been largely obscured by both the Pacific War and the War in Europe.  If you like to study WWII, maybe it’s been that way for you as well.  So hopefully, as time goes on, we’ll discuss this relatively unknown conflict, and shed more light on it.

Recommended Reading:  The Burma Road – I’ve just started Webster’s book and I’m already learning stuff, which tells you how little I actually know about the CBI.

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