25. Burma: "Munching a Porcupine Quill by Quill"

Chiang Kai-shek took the news of Buccaneer's cancellation as an opportunity to get money from President Roosevelt. China's greatest danger, he said, was not military weakness but "our critical economic condition" which threatened the "sudden collapse of the entire front." The only way this could be alleviated, Chiang maintained, was for Roosevelt immediately to advance to China a billion dollars in gold.1

China's economic troubles were caused by the Nationalist habit of printing money to pay bills and by the extreme shortage of goods on the blockaded Chinese market. The government covered less than half of its expenditures with tax and other income. The regime paid the rest with unsecured paper money.2 The real purpose for the "loan" was not to back the Chinese currency but to extort money Chiang could use after the war however he chose. The implication was that, unless he got a billion dollars, he might sign a separate peace with Japan.

However Chiang's attempt played to an extremely critical American audience and, despite a number of threats by Chiang, got nowhere. The U.S. also finally worked out an agreement for an exchange rate of 100 yuan to the U.S. dollar, still too low, but better than Chiang's old 20-to-1 rate.3

Though Chiang wanted to remain on the defensive, Stilwell finally talked Chiang into honoring part of the Burma campaign, despite the Western Allies abandonment of Buccaneer. Chiang authorized the Ledo X-force (now called the New First Army) to fight its way southeastward as planned and also gave Stilwell command. But he refused to use the Y-force, which had developed into an eleven-division army deployed along the great Salween river gorge in western Yunnan. Stilwell turned his back on Chiang and his conniving and abandoned Chongqing for the jungles of Burma on December 20, 1943. Except for a few quick flights to Delhi or Chongqing, he remained there for seven months.4

Stilwell devoted himself to opening the Ledo road. The chief prospective beneficiaries, the Generalissimo and his government, were slow and hesitant. And the British positively tried to bring Stilwell's campaign to a halt. Lord Mountbatten renewed Churchill's idea of landing on northern Sumatra and recapturing Singapore and Malaya and wanted to call off the Burma campaign in 1944. He and Churchill sought to restore Britain's imperial glory in southeast Asia and also share in some of the credit in the Pacific victory which they realized was now about to go almost entirely to the Americans.5

Admiral Chester Nimitz and his highly mobile fleet and amphibious forces were about to pounce on the Marshall islands immediately to the north of the Gilberts. If successful, this move would crack Japan's eastern defensive barrier and open up fast carrier strikes at Japan's huge base at Truk in the Carolines and also lay bare the Marianas. The Americans, under General MacArthur also were advancing along New Guinea's northern coast toward the Philippines. The British pointedly remarked that the Americans seemed to be as eager to recapture their former possession as the British were to raise the Union Jack over Singapore and Malaya again.6 It was true but capture of the Philippines would choke the flow of oil and raw materials from the East Indies. Capture of Singapore would be only a nibbling at the periphery of Japan's war-won empire.

When General Stilwell left Chongqing, he went straight to the front in northern Burma where he had about 30,000 well-equipped Chinese troops.7 Stilwell supervised operations of this small force down to the most minute detail. Behind his back he got jibes about being "the best three-star company commander in the U.S. Army."8 But Stilwell was convinced there would be no advance in north Burma unless he was there to push and he was right.

The Chinese had been stalled by 7,000 men of the Japanese 18th Division ever since they had commenced operations the previous October. Now the Chinese were concentrated in the vicinity of Shingbwiyang in the upper Hukawng valley, about fifty-five air miles southeast of Ledo.9 Stilwell's immediate aim was to push the Japanese out of the Hukawng valley and the Mogaung valley immediately to the south and thereby capture Myitkyina (pronounced Mit-chee-na), the biggest town in northern Burma (8,000 people) on the upper Irrawaddy river and site of a Japanese airfield. The only road to it was a thin, trail-like unimproved track that ran about 130 miles down the valleys. In the mountains roundabout were only a few paths. The route went through some of the most jungle-ridden and rugged land on earth, infested with parasites and mosquitos which brought on amoebic dysentery, scrub typhus and malaria and other diseases. Yet Myitkyina was a prize. To avoid Japanese fighter planes based there, American transports had to fly a higher and longer route over the Hump far to the north. If Stilwell could capture Myitkyina, he could shorten the Hump route. He also could connect through Myitkyina with the Burma road some 150 miles beyond.10

Stilwell began a series of difficult frontal assaults and encircling movements by his Chinese forces and "Merrill's Marauders," the 3,000-man force General Marshall authorized to operate with General Orde Wingate's Chindits but which Stilwell grabbed soon after arriving in Burma. Stilwell gave command to Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill. The attacks began December 24, 1943, and in three months of gruesome, slow and expensive fights against the Japanese, were able to advance only seventy-five miles from their starting point.11

The Marauders especially suffered heavy losses not only from battle but from dysentery, malaria and other tropical diseases. The incredible difficulty of routing out determined Japanese defenders from mountains and jungles proved that fighting in Burma was, as Winston Churchill described it, like "munching a porcupine quill by quill."12

While Stilwell was struggling up the Hukawng valley, Lord Mountbatten sent a deputation to London and Washington in February, 1944, to try to talk the British and American chiefs of staff into abandoning Burma operations in 1944 and preserving British and empire forces for a major offensive in the fall of 1944 or spring of 1945 against northern Sumatra (operation Culverin).13

Stilwell dispatched his own counter deputation to Washington to press for the Burma campaign.14 He didn't tell Mountbatten he was going to do so, which led Mountbatten to ask that Stilwell be removed as Southeast Asia command deputy commander. General Marshall smoothed over the lord's ruffled feelings somewhat by pointing out that the American chiefs had already decided to oppose Mountbatten's idea before Stilwell's deputation arrived.15

Although Churchill naturally endorsed Culverin, the British chiefs of staff objected because it would delay defeat of Japan by half a year. However the British were perfectly willing to cancel Burma operations for 1944.16

Nimitz meanwhile had just bypassed the easterly Marshall atolls, where most of the Japanese forces were concentrated, and seized Kwajalein, 400 miles to the west. On February 17, the Americans struck simultaneously at two new targets. One was a descent upon Eniwetok, over three-hundred miles northwest of Kwajalein and only a thousand miles from the Marianas. The other was a shattering air bombardment of Truk, Japan's "Gibraltar of the Pacific" in the Carolines, a thousand miles west of Kwajalein. The Japanese commander, Admiral Koga Mineichi, had got the fleet out but U.S. pilots sank or destroyed most of fifty merchant ships in the lagoon and 365 aircraft on the fields. Truk that day ceased to be a strategic factor in the Pacific war. Admiral Koga transferred the fleet to Singapore where it was close to its oil supply and safe from American airplanes.17 It was Koga's move to Singapore that put the quietus on Culverin, since his fleet could have blocked any amphibious attack on Sumatra.18

The Japanese, however, were about to mount a spoiling attack of their own against India and force the British to fight for Burma whether they wanted to or not. The Japanese plan was to strike toward Imphal and northeast India and perhaps sever the Calcutta-Assam supply lines carrying war materiel to the air transports flying over the Hump.19

The Japanese attacked on March 8, 1944, and moved with stunning speed. They used three of their own divisions plus former Indian prisoners of war organized into a division. All told, 155,000 Japanese combat and supply troops took part in the Imphal offensive.

The offensive frightened Mountbatten. Like Field Marshal Wavell in 1942, he suddenly discovered that a Japanese offensive made the despised Chinese look much more attractive. On March 17 Mountbatten implored both Roosevelt and Churchill to impress upon Chiang Kai-shek the need to launch Yoke or Y-force against the lone Japanese 56th Division guarding the Salween in order to relieve pressure on the British. FDR complied but Chiang clutched at any excuse to keep Y-force in place: Communists in north China threatened to rise, the Japanese were preparing an offensive north of the Yangzi, Xinjiang was in danger of Soviet invasion and, besides, China was too weak. FDR no longer possessed the patience he once had with Chiang. He responded sharply: "It is inconceivable to me that your Yoke forces, with their American equipment, would be unable to advance against the Japanese 56th Division." The U.S. could not justify all its efforts to equip and train these troops, Roosevelt said, "if they are not to be used in the common cause."20

Chiang's failure to respond finally brought about the policy Stilwell had been pressing for all along: that Chiang be required to perform specified projects in order to get lend-lease aid. On April 10 Marshall radioed Stilwell's chief of staff in Chongqing that unless Y-force moved lend-lease shipments for it should end. This galvanized Nationalist military leaders into action. On April 14, Chief of Staff He Yingqin got Chiang's approval to send Y-force across the Salween, though he put no date on when it would take place.21

Fortunately the Japanese advance into India stalled because of difficult terrain and lack of supplies and thus a threat to the Hump airfields and Stilwell's campaign never developed. Even so, the Japanese commanders foolishly kept troops pressing until July 15, by which time the monsoon had turned jungle trails into muddy morasses and weakened further the already inadequate Japanese supply system. The long retreat started through relentless rainfall back to the Chindwin river. Over 17,000 horses and 65,000 men died in the Imphal campaign, most of the deaths caused by disease. The Imphal debacle demonstrated that Japan had no hope of anything but delay in Burma.

* * * * * * * * * *

The odd, messianic commander of the long-range penetration group, Major General Orde Wingate, had talked Mountbatten into allowing him and his Chindits to fly into the Burmese interior to establish operational bases.22 In early March, 1944, two Chindit brigades, totaling 9,250 men, dropped into Broadway, an airstrip about fifty miles northeast of Indaw, and quickly cut the rail line supporting the Japanese fighting Stilwell's forces in the north. Other Chindits kept breaking the road from Indaw to Tamu on the Indian-Burma border southeast of Imphal, forcing the Japanese to stop using it.

Mountbatten authorized Wingate to fly in two more Chindit brigades, this time to a new stronghold, Aberdeen, near Manhton, about fifteen miles northwest of Mawlu. Meanwhile, in an unbelievably difficult march, a fifth Chindit brigade walked cross-country to the Chindit bases around Mawlu. On March 24, however, General Wingate died when his airplane crashed into a mountainside. The loss threw the Chindit leadership into confusion. Mountbatten's headquarters felt Chindit endurance was limited to about ninety days and ordered the brigades to withdraw from Burma by mid-June. But Stilwell wanted the Chindits to stay in place blocking the rail line north.23

* * * * * * * * * *

The refusal of the Combined Chiefs to approve a landing in northern Sumatra plus the experience of Stilwell's slow march southward and the Japanese offensive against Imphal brought into sharp focus Allied strategy in Burma. On April 14 the Southeast Asia command committed itself symbolically to a sea strategy by moving its headquarters from Delhi 1,500 miles south to Kandy in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). At the same time, Mountbatten wanted to abandon the attack on Myitkyina and proposed that the British wait until after the Americans had completed their main thrust in the central Pacific before moving in Burma.24

On May 3 General Marshall rejected this do-nothing plan and tacitly separated American and British policies in Asia. From this point on, the United States held as its policy a direct thrust through the Pacific. Efforts in Burma and China were henceforth to support this policy whatever the British decided to do. Marshall ordered Stilwell to build up Hump deliveries, link the Ledo road and the oil pipeline with the Burma road and thereby permit U.S. air power in China to give maximum assistance to American advances in the Pacific.

Stilwell flew to Chongqing and urged Chiang Kai-shek to send two more Chinese divisions to the northern Burma campaign. Surprisingly, Chiang agreed and by mid-April the two divisions arrived at Hump airfields in Assam.

Stilwell now faced the monsoon, which he knew would stop his offensive, and conceived an ambitious movement, appropriately code-named End Run, to capture Myitkyina quickly. He planned for the remaining Merrill's Marauders, plus two Chinese regiments and a screen of friendly Kachin tribesmen (directed by U.S. Office of Strategic Services officers)25 to slip over the 8,000-foot Kumon mountain range forming the Mogaung valley's eastern boundary and strike directly for Myitkyina some sixty air miles southeast of Shaduzup. Meanwhile, the remaining Chinese forces would demonstrate down the Mogaung valley to convince the Japanese this was the main Allied effort.26

* * * * * * * * * *

At last, after appallingly slow preparations, the Y-force, renamed the Chinese expeditionary force, with 72,000 men, 244 American-issued artillery pieces and under the command of Wei Lihuang, crossed the Salween on May 9 and began a cautious advance. The defending Japanese 56th Division was down to about 11,000 soldiers and only thirty-six artillery pieces.27

Instead of using his large superiority of force to maneuver around and behind the Japanese, General Wei launched one direct attack after another against Japanese defensive positions, causing enormous casualties, not made up by any replacements. The Japanese established four key defensive positions and completely stalled Wei Lihuang's advance.

* * * * * * * * * *

Meanwhile Stilwell put operation End Run into motion. The Marauders were now down to only 1,400 of their original 3,000 men and in low spirits. Stilwell told the Marauders that, if they could rush on to capture Myitkyina, he would immediately evacuate them from Burma. This gave the Americans tremendous incentive. Even so, Stilwell felt the force was too small to operate independently and, for End Run, he melded Chinese, Kachin tribesmen and Americans into combined forces.28

Beginning April 28 the American, Chinese and Kachin soldiers moved out. Overcoming incredibly difficult terrain, disease and a number of Japanese defending units, the troops arrived at Myitkyina on May 17, 1944, but were unable to capture it and were drawn into a long and agonizing siege that endured straight through the monsoon. There was no evacuation of the Marauders. Instead, Stilwell sent in every American replacement he could find. It was August 3 before the Allies finally overcame the last sick or wounded Japanese defenders and captured the town. The cost was high: 972 Chinese killed, 3,184 wounded, 188 sick; 272 Americans killed, 955 wounded and an astonishing 980 ill. The Chinese proved by their low sickness rate that their sanitary practices, though ancient by American standards, were more effective. They insisted on drinking only boiled water and eating only cooked food.29

It had taken seven exhausting and costly months to advance down the Hukawng and Mogaung valleys and close to three tormented months for the Americans and Chinese to root the Japanese out of the little town of Myitkyina. Yet they were still 150 miles from the Burma road. Y-force was stalled only a few miles beyond the Salween. Between Y-force and Myitkyina remained a big stretch of Japanese-occupied territory. The year 1945 was the earliest projected time for ousting the remaining enemy from the path of the road and completing an all-weather Ledo road from Assam to the Burma road. By then, even under the most conservative timetable, the United States would no longer need China to win the war. The Japanese had won in Burma after all.30

Chapter 26: 1944: Year of Nationalist Decline >>

1. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 74-75; Davies, p. 297.

2. FRUS, China, 1944, pp. 864, 870, 874-7.

3. FRUS, China, 1943, pp. 476; Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 298-301; FRUS, China, 1944, pp. 834-9, 843-7, 863, 867-70, 873, 879-81, 900, 909, 914, 915-7, 921-4, 926-32, 936-7, 941-2, 948-51; Tuchman, pp. 528-9.

4. Tuchman, pp. 527, 530-1; Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 119-21.

5. Churchill wrote that Burma "was remote from Japan, and for our forces to to become sidetracked and entangled there would deny us our rightful share in a Far Eastern victory." See Churchill, Ring, p. 561.

6. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, p. 162.

7. Tuchman, p. 533.

8. Ibid., p. 531.

9. A chronicle of the Chinese operations October-December, 1943, is given in Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 45-48, 121-4.

10. Ibid., p. 121.

11. Ibid., pp. 34-36, 90-91, 124-38, 130-1, 142-58, 175-91, 285; Tuchman, pp. 531-46, 553-4.

12. Bryant, pp. 494-5.

13. Ibid., pp. 160-5, 171-2; Davies, pp. 300, 303.

14. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, p. 161; Davies, pp. 300-03; Schaller, pp. 155-6.

15. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 169-71; Tuchman, pp. 558-9.

16. Triumph, pp. 107, 109, 112-5.

17. Morison, pp. 306-17; Liddell Hart, World War, pp. 511-3.

18. Churchill, however, did not give up his Sumatra idea easily. See Triumph, pp. 120-5.

19. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 119, 164-9, 172-5, 191-6; Tuchman, pp. 560-2.

20. Tuchman, pp. 562, 564; Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 304-11; Davies, p. 298-9.

21. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 312-4; Tuchman, pp. 567-8; Schaller, p. 158.

22. Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 196-9, 201.

23. Mountbatten's headquarters thus furthered a belief that had developed and flowered among both the Chindits and Merrill's Marauders that, "after ninety days we get out of this fucking place [Burma]." The Chindit officers, seconded by Wingate and Southeast Asia command, held as doctrine that, after three months behind enemy lines, soldiers automatically were exhausted and should be withdrawn from the field. Stilwell faced a far more familiar fact that most military commanders on both sides had to deal with in World War II: however much they might like to relieve exhausted troops, they needed them, sometimes for years on end, to carry out vital military duties. Thus a hit-and-run military outfit that returned after ninety days to comfortable garrison life or perhaps long leave was simply too extravagant an organization to have around, especially as the Chindits, on moving to evacuate, would have to pass through Chinese troops who had had no relief since moving into northern Burma in the fall of 1943. See ibid., pp. 220-1.

24. Ibid., pp. 200-04; Tuchman, pp. 570-2.

25. OSS Detachment 101 under Captain William R. Peers dropped behind Japanese lines in northern Burma in mid-1943 and recruited Kachin tribesmen with silver rupees, cloth, raw opium and medicines. The "Kachin Rangers" formed an intelligence net and guerrilla force which continued to operate behind enemy lies. See Romanus & Sunderland, Command, pp. 36-37.

26. Ibid., pp. 204-56.

27. Ibid., pp. 309, 329-60; Tuchman, pp. 578-9.

28. Romanus and Sunderland, Command, p. 223.

29. Malaria represented a substantial (and preventable) cause of sickness among soldiers in Burma. By June 4, 1944, the Marauders had sustained 296 reported cases (and more cases not approved for evacuation). Atabrine was available to the men in Burma and prevented malaria if taken regularly. Therefore, the general appearance of malaria represented a breakdown of morale. Total sickness figures of Marauders are deceiving because a number of men suffered more than one illness. See ibid., pp. 240-1.

30. Ibid., pp. 387-9; Triumph, p. 185.