- The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II
This is one of those rarities among military histories—a book that is both informative and a delight to read. Webster pans his attention back and [End Page 997] forth over a vast and complex theater of land combat (map, p. 27). In the process, he pauses to examine personalities and events in a manner that allows the full extent of the horror, heroism, and humor to emerge. The maps are clear and the photographs of high quality, but woefully lacking in number. The book is not definitive by any means, but deserves reading by anybody even faintly interested in the period.
Webster's retelling of events is lucid and frequently riveting. Memorable among these is the battle of Nhpum Gam, a thirteen-day siege by more than eight hundred Japanese marines of a Merrill's Marauders battalion. Surrounded atop an exposed hill, short of almost everything except courage and disease, the Marauders slaughtered enemy at all ranges under appalling conditions marked by the overwhelming stench of dead animals and humans decomposing in the jungle heat. In the midst of this horror the Raiders received and consumed an airdrop of fried chicken.
The central and dominant personality is General Joseph Warren Stillwell. As American commander in the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI), "Vinegar Joe" demonstrated a genius for tactics, including use of unconventional forces, rivaling any general officer in the war. Despite exhibiting a "dark and vituperative side" (p. 148) he began and "remained [Gen. George C.] Marshall's favorite field general" (p. 329). Stillwell was Marshall's first choice to lead U.S. forces in Europe. But it also was Marshall who cancelled that greatest of all assignments and handed him "the most-impossible job of the war" (p. 29). And it was Stillwell, victorious in battle, defeated politically and probably fatally ill, whom Marshall chose to command an invasion of Korea as part of the planned assault on Japan.
Other colorful personalities too numerous to list here include:
• Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, "a leader more interested in American lend-lease goods than American partnership" (p. 30) who was protected by President Roosevelt's determination to keep him at hand for a land-based invasion of Japan while that strategy was in play. Chiang detested Stillwell, who referred to him as the "Peanut" (p. 77), and finally leveraged Stillwell's removal.
• British Major General Ord C. Wingate, one of those three-quarters mad Englishmen who make British history sparkle. His Long Range Penetration Group—the Chindits—along with Merrill's Marauders, OSS Detachment 101, and the lethal North Kachin Levies—were precursors of most special operations units currently in action.
Yet another now standard procedure developed in CBI was air supply. Tens of thousands of troops were successfully inserted into or removed from combat by glider and transport. Most spectacular was the air bridge known as The Hump. Making the high-altitude, six-hundred-mile run as often as three times a day, Hump pilots (a thousand of whom were killed) delivered up to three thousand tons of supplies a month to the Chinese.
Finally, there is The Road, more precisely the Ledo-Burma Road, eventually the Stilwell Road, all thousand-plus miles of it dug out of jungle mountains by American and native workers under constant threat from disease [End Page 998] and enemies for two years. It remains a monument to engineering genius and human perseverance. But to this reviewer The Road is a metaphor for the CBI Theater. A fundamental shift to a sea-based strategy had diminished the importance of both even before deployment of nuclear weapons ended the conflict.