The Ledo road can still be seen on Google Earth. What a massive undertaking it was–to restore lost supply routes to China. Some engineers had credentials dating back to construction of the Panama Canal.
East met West in a colossal clash of cultures. It’s a miracle the Ledo road was ever completed. Myriad languages, superstitions, traditions, and religions complicated matters at hand. Right of way delays due to evil spirits in boulders and trees were not uncommon.
At first, my father found, life in faraway Assam province, strange and new. It challenged core values; if God were merciful, why had he been sent there? Two years later, none of it mattered. I was taken by father’s humble humanness reflected in letters home. Quite different from the strict, everything by the Good Book patriarch, I remembered as a child.
War’s indelible stains tainted everything–same then, as now. To survive, some bargained with Beelzebub. Gambled, selectively followed orders, traded goods on the black market. My father, like most soldiers, questioned everything–the mission, the war–absurdities of life. Breaks from work afforded time to think about everything. Some of it due to extended stays in sick bay from tropical maladies.
Home sweet home was a woven bamboo hut called a basha. My father’s basha had a bamboo floor. Brigadier General Anna Mae Hayes, C-I-B, WWII Medical Corps veteran, described Ledo, Assam living conditions as follows.
Now you may not know what a basha is, but it’s a building made of bamboo and, as I mentioned, the roof was made of palm fronds. Our nurses’ quarters had mud floors–dry at times–just the same as the wards. Each building had four swinging doors through which anything could enter. It might be a jackal at night, or a cow during the day because the cow was a sacred animal. At one time I wrote a letter home to my mother about how I was awakened by two cows at my bedside.
We slept on rope beds…had no bedside tables. Crates taken from the mess hall or medical supply were used for bedside tables. Clothes hung on ropes by their beds and they would iron them by sleeping on them at night. It was rather rough living. I remember that during the first few weeks everyone had diarrhea and, of course, we didn’t have toilets. We just had holes in the ground. And then, when we did get those little “johns,” one would have to be very, very careful of the leeches. Leeches were very hard to pull out of one’s skin so we’d have to carry matches with us so we could burn them out. On balance, we really didn’t have too much, but we were still in it together.
Living in the basha wasn’t easy. Insect control was a tremendous problem, especially mosquitoes and flying roaches. I can remember one time when washing in my helmet, and that’s how we washed in the first year or so, I looked down and I saw a mouse or rat in the bottom of the water. Later on we got better living arrangements. New bashas were built with cement floors. I can remember going into the basha one afternoon and finding a huge snake wound around my mosquito netting. We were more or less used to seeing snakes. When one lives in the jungle, one can expect that sort of thing, even though the immediate area was cleared.
The jungle was a strange dichotomy of beauty and hardship–feast and famine. My father, being a Midwestern farm boy, attempted growing jungle corn. It was a gigantic failure. For my father and thousands of young men and women, the long road home passed through India, Burma, and China along the Ledo Road.
Father’s WWII military insignia. The Air Force insignia is mine from the Vietnam era.
Brigadier General Anna Mae Hay’s oral history, WWII and beyond, is part of the Army Heritage Center Foundation’s Education Series–“Voices of the Past.” Further information is available at www.armyheritage.org–a fascinating read, well worth one’s time.