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.
The American GI is really fighting, because he wants to get his job done and get back home
–Gen. Joseph Stillwell–
As you were having warm weather in March you should be having real nice weather now in April. You are probably really busy hauling manure and probably plowing by the time this letter reaches you.
I’m glad to hear the cattle are doing so good. Maybe you’ll make a little money on them this time.
Uncle Pete will have a time this year, if he doesn’t find a man. Olin Trill [Uncle Pete’s bro.-in-law?] can be forced to come back to the farm, though, can’t he? I thought agricultural workers were frozen for the duration. Of course, if Uncle Pete released him in the fall it might make a difference.
I’m glad to hear that you were able to get the car fixed up in fair condition. How’s the condition of the motor? Does it use much oil yet?
If you had the tractor fixed up last year, it shouldn’t give you too much trouble this year as you won’t use it only half as much. Do you still have trouble with the gear on the steering working loose? I don’t suppose it gets as bad now, since it’s on rubber tires.
Vintage 1936 Case tractor on steel wheels
It’s a good thing we got you convinced that rubber was the best on the tractor before I got in the army. Otherwise, it would have been much harder to operate and would have cost some more to operate and repair. Someday, I hope to have all my farm equipment mounted on rubber. The main thing to make the tires last longer, is to keep them properly inflated. Don’t run them too low, because they puncture more easily and also weaken the side walls. It isn’t even good for them to sit flat.
Editor’s note: These words spoken like a true mechanic. When Dad later farmed, he did most of his own repairs–with the exception of welding. He passed along knowledge of basic maintenance to me and my brothers. Only one of us turned out to be a good mechanic.
It doesn’t look like I’ll get home before June at the soonest. I was hoping that I could get home in May. I sure hope that when I do get home, I won’t have to come back overseas anymore. I guess I’ll sure find out what I’ll have to do when I get back to the states.
I guess I’ll have to get one of those loans when I get out of the army and set up for myself. I might as well set up good at the start, and then I can benefit from the few good years that’ll follow the war. It’ll be my only chance to get off to a good start.
Well,, I’ve about run down for this time. Don’t work too hard. Do what you can and let the rest go.
I’m feeling fine. The heat is getting bad, but I’m looking forward to getting out of here.
PS: I cancelled the 20 dollar allotment coming to you this month, so you won’t get it next month. I did that because when I get back to the States, I’ll lose that much in pay. I’ll need the rest to get by on as I want Dorothy to stay near me as long as I’m in the States. Instead of getting $97.50 minus allotments, as I am now, I’ll only get $81.90 minus allotments, because of the 20% overseas pay. I should have between 6 & 700 dollars by this time. That should help some day.
Editor’s note: The GI newspaper was now the “India–Burma Theater Roundup.” Soldiers in China had “The Lantern” The following is transcribed from the March 8, 1945 edition of the “India-Burma Theater Roundup.” It described where my Dad worked.
World’s Largest Service Station Operates Along Ledo Road
Today, the world’s most unusual and largest super-service station operates along the Ledo Road, American-built highway between India and Burma.
No neon lights or brightly colored signs clamor for patronage nor do white-coated attendants hover about. Rude, bulldozered driveways lead to this jungle garage squatting in the shadows of the Patkai hills of upper Assam, where open-sided bamboo sheds house an impressive array of both modern and ingeniously improvised automotive equipment.
Beneath these tall shelter, roofed with Jeng leaves from the nearby wilderness, sweating, coverall-clad American soldiers and Indian workers are keeping a never-ending stream of Uncle Sam’s trucks rolling to the Burma front with vital war supplies.
Nowhere else does the Army run a localized maintenance system on such a large-scale. It is, in fact, an innovation, an example of American initiative and resourcefulness, resulting from exceptional circumstances and conditions. It grew out of a need to lick, and to lick immediately, a motor maintenance problem which is the hardest, toughest, most heart breaking in the world.
Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Pick, Base Commander, and himself a producer of miracles, called upon his Ordnance Officer to produce a maintenance miracle. Lt. Col. A. A. Kaufman, a hard-hitting Texan, knew what the General meant. A firm believer in the Army’s time-tried “echelon” system of maintenance, he swiftly set about making work under almost unbelievable conditions.
Kaufman planned something similar to a mass-production assembly line whereby each vehicle could enter a shop, roadworn and dirty, and emerge completely washed, checked serviced, and repaired. The normal maintenance personnel and tools of all truck companies would be pooled. Indian mechanics and laborers would be employed as needed. Every branch of the Army would be called upon to furnish the best of equipment that could be used.
With whole-hearted cooperation of Col J. A. Stewart, Chief of Transportation, the plan was quickly approved. On Gen. Pick’s order, the Engineers started clearing the jungles, and Transportation Service Shop No. 1 was officially born.
Covering an area of between four and five jungle-cleared acres, this shop consists of a series of bamboo structures set in a square pattern around a parking lot, which is capable of holding 300 trucks. Designed to support a vehicle population of 1,000, it can, on a 20-hour operational basis clear up to 300 vehicles.
It is operated by 110 Army soldiers, 140 Indian mechanics and laborers, and a transportation Service staff of five officers, headed by Major R. J. Keefer. An Ordnance Warrant Officer, Motor Specialist, and an Ordnance Sergeant give technical advice and assistance.
Every effort is made to finish a repair job on the same day it enters the shop, with a driver on call at all times to deliver the vehicle to the proper organization.
The shop has its own supply room, and once parts stockage is maintained, where there might otherwise be 16 or 20 in separate companies, 16 or 20 parts clerks tied up, 16 or 20 supply vehicles going to and from the Ordnance Depot.
Success of the project, the result of foresight, improvisation, and cooperation among all branches concerned, is proved. While many other factors contributed, it can be fairly stated that Transportation Service Shop No. 1 was largely responsible for (1) reducing vehicle deadline in this area 83%; (2) increasing by almost 100% the average vehicle life-time, thus enabling hundreds of vehicles to continue operation at a time when they are vitally needed and, (3) conserving costly replacement parts.
by S/Sgt. I. M. Sohureman and Sgt. C. M. Buchanan, Roundup Field Correspondents
Dad, at duty section, front row, right
Constructing Ledo road through mountainsFirst Ledo road convoy Jan. 28, 1945First convoy commemorative marker in English & Chinese
Editor’s note: The following from the Feb. 8, 1945 issue of the “India-Burma Theater Roundup.”
STATISTICS OF WAR DEPARTMENT SHOW LEDO ROAD TOUGHEST JOB
Washington (ANS) The War Department this week backed up with statistics the proud boasts of G. I.’s who built the Ledo road that theirs was “the toughest road construction job ever undertaken.”
In an official release, the following facts about the road were disclosed: the 478 mile highway was built at a rate of about one mile per day through some of the worst jungle in the world and over 4,000-foot mountain passes. During one seven-month period, 175 inches of rain fell to hamper the work. By comparison, Eastern states of the U. S. average less that 45 inches per year.
Approximately 70 acres of airstrips were built at points near the Ledo road. The road’s builders moved a total of 13,500,000 cubic yards of earth–it would take a string of railroad cars 470 miles long to transport the 1,303,000 cubic yards of gravel spread on the road. To top it off, there’s an average of one bridge to every three miles of the road. So, take a well deserved bow, boys.
Editor’s note: Road building was a cooperative effort of American, Chinese, and Indian workers. Chinese soldiers fought alongside Americans to drive the Japanese out of Burma. The following is a souvenir Chinese 10 Yuan bank-note with an inscription [front and back], found among Dad’s effects. The inscription written by a Chinese Lieutenant: “[Back] Have you hear [heard] the Victory Voice of China? Help China some more!” “[Front] We advance side by side and gloriously occupe Japs capital–Tokio! Victory for you! Souvenir from Chinese Army in India 2nd Tank Bn. Lt. Yuan.”
Up in the pervasive wet of Assam, where a thousand streams empty the melted snows of the Himalayas into the erratic serpentine of the Brahmaputra and the jungle hills of Burma crowd upon white-flowered gardens of green tea, American Negro boys are completing a spectacular motor road which will ultimately link India and China for the first time in history.
Ledo road construction
The Army engineers who are directing the work call it the Ledo road, but the markers just say “Tokyo Road.” And some of our men with but hazy ideas of geography literally believe that beyond the mud and undergrowth lies Japan. And so it does–a little more than 2,000 miles beyond
We have already been working on this one project for about a year and it was conceived as part of a plan to recover Burma. Think it over and you’ll see what kind of war we’re fighting out there. When it becomes necessary to pause and build nearly 200 miles of road through malarious swamp and jungle, leading to eventual contact with an enemy himself 2,000 miles from home–well it’s hardly like Russia, where along a vast front, the Nazis are seldom out of sight.
It gives you a rough idea of the trouble we’re taking to aid China and build a base from which to attack Japan. For supplying China is our sole mission in India–or so I’ve been told–as part of our main mission of “improving the combat efficiency of the Chinese army.”
It gives you an idea too, of the sick headaches our chief engineer out there, Major General Raymond Albert Wheeler, better known as Speck, ought to suffer from, but doesn’t. Because he and his Army Service Force are making that road and other roads over which we hope to ride to Japan through China. As a young engineer, Wheeler served with Goethals, immortalized as the builder of the Panama Canal. Now he has a good chance of being remembered in the Hall of Fame himself, as the man who equipped–or tried to equip–an army at the end of the longest bridge of supply known to military history. This bridge was 25,000 miles from point to farthest point, before the recent reopening of the Mediterranean improved matters. By the most commonly used route, goods had to travel thirty-six days before they reached what is still the only gate to China we hold–the air gate into Yunnan.
I said advisedly, “tried to equip,” for we’re far yet from answering the minimum needs of the Chinese army. But that isn’t Speck Wheeler’s fault, that we aren’t nearer the goal today. On the contrary, It, despite the dusty answers they’ve been getting to calls for help in restoring China’s life lines, they should succeed sometime this winter in driving the Nips out of upper Burma, they ought to rank high among the workers of modern miracles. (Maj. Gen. R. A. “Speck ” Wheeler’s picture, courtesy of Wikipedia.)
Whatever happens, a lot of credit should go to Speck Wheeler, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, self-effacing man from Peoria, who is today apparently liked by everybody who ever worked for him. Which for a general handling one of the toughest and most thankless assignments of the war, is saying a lot. But, it’s a fact. Everybody likes to see his tall, somewhat bent figure, his greying head, come into the scene–and despite his popularity he’s good.
“Wheeler hasn’t got an awful lot of hate in him,” one man told me, “So he saves it all for the Japs.” “That’s why you never hear him say anything unkind about anybody.” No mollycoddle or Pollyanna, he simply believes that seeing the good in people is the best in long-view policy for working with them.
“I believe in promotions, not demotions,” he told me in his flat, nasal Illinois drawl. “Maybe it’s a weakness with me, but, golly, I never saw anyone get anything out of a man by cussing him, so I don’t try it.” No Prussian or hell-and-leather general, this!
Goethals was the fellow he watched when, shortly after graduating from West Point in 1911, he was commissioned to run concrete mixers and locomotives in Panama. “I liked the way he handled people,” said Wheeler, “and he had a big influence on me.” “He was a great executive because he made every man feel that what he was doing was important.” “In this way he became the driving force that linked them all together.” Thirty years later, Wheeler was to return to become chief engineer in charge of the Panama Canal. There he guarded the throat of our nation until the General Staff called him back, and, just before the outbreak of war, sent him to Asia.
Wheeler’s theater of operations became the biggest one on the map, China, Burma, and India is the official of our East Asia command under Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell. But the theater supply route takes in Persia and Russia as well.
To reach his objectives, General Wheeler leaves no possibilities unturned. One thing explored was another route from Kashmir to Kashgar, in Chinese Turkestan, via the Hindu Kush. The idea had to be scrapped when it was found that our planes would have to fly at approximately 25,000 feet to make the jump in safety, permitting a pay load of only a few pounds.
But recently a supply line was opened across the roof of Tibet–probably the first time that country has served in that capacity. Only caravans negotiate the trail at present, and cargo is supposed to be limited to medical supplies. But someday a motor highway will follow and bring Tibet finally into the orbit of power politics–otherwise known as modern civilization.
Another route established by Wheeler last spring is of more practical value. Starting at Karachi, India, it passes through Iran and Russian Turkestan to enter Sinkiang, and is alone 8,000 miles long. Wheeler laid the early groundwork for this roundabout, but useful way into China when, before Pearl Harbor, he was sent to Iran by the President to negotiate for a southern supply route to Russia. As part of the job, American engineers improved and completed and now maintain, the Iranian side of the Karachi-Teheran road.
Some of the heaviest cargo pullers inside Wheeler’s area are the fleet of Douglas’s, Curtiss Commandos and converted Liberators which operate across the infamous hump–the mountainous divide that separates India and China. To get goods across the hump we needed a lot of airdromes and fields that didn’t exist, and they had to be built right under the enemies nose. And built they were, with primitive labor working almost entirely without machinery.
I first went to Assam in May, 1942, when we were still hauling people out of the jungle in the flight from Burma. We had only a squat-tag airfield up there then and in heavy rains it became a lake. Pan American and C. N. A. C.–China National Aviation Corporation–pilots had preceded the Army, but not that far behind came Col.–now Brigadier General–Caleb V. Haynes, who established our northernmost air base in India.
It had been touch and go whether we could hold that airfield, which then represented our remaining link with China. It lay a few minutes’ flight from Japanese fields in Northern Burma, and the weather saved us from being bombed off the map. We had only two fighters up there then and we had little protection on the ground. A few battalions of Japs might have had upper Assam for a bargain price. But they didn’t bother, chiefly for one reason. They were convinced we could never establish an important base of any kind here in time to affect the outcome of the war.
A lot of our own people thought the same thing–even some of those working hardest to prove other wise. They thought the whole effort was at best a political gesture–an appeasement to keep the Chinese quiet until we could turn our main fleet into the blue pasture of the Pacific. But the fact is that in a year and a half, Americans have established here in the wilds one of the world’s greatest air-transport lines. Today, our big planes are as familiar as the birds to aboriginal tribesmen who, three years ago, had never seen a combustion engine of any kind. And someday soon the Japs may regret their mistake.
But in 1942, when I drove out with Caleb Haynes to see the site of the large new field in the midst of tea gardens, I was ready to agree with the skeptics after I saw the materials with which we were working against time. That new field and its satellites, which were to supply the army of China and our own Air Force there for the next two years, were being put together rock on rock by Indian hand labor–nearly all women and children.
An unforgettable sight: long lines of barefoot women wearing their heavy silver and gold anklets and bracelets–and some with rings of gold in their noses–stretching as far as you could see, coming from rock piles in the distance. Their gay saris seemed weird costumes for the work, with their dragging skirts and mantles draped around their heads, but graceful and colorful against their dark Indian skin. There were young women with babes clinging to their breasts; others, advanced in pregnancy, plodded along with expressionless faces. And there were older women with white hair, their lips moving incessantly, while naked infants wheeled along beside them.
On and on they came, and each woman, reaching the appointed spot, repeated the same act. A brief pause in the stately walk, a nod of the head, and off rolled the single stone balanced on the top of her head. In my mind’s eye I saw 400,000,000 Chinese patiently watching as those stones fell, one by one, to pave the way for help we had promised them. It was slow going, for these people had no interest in the outcome of the war. They wouldn’t work in the rain–and it rains about half the time in Assam–nor on religious holidays, which may or may not coincide with the rain. What’s more, they won’t work up in the these regions when the devil’s don’t approve. In witness whereof, consider a letter in the hands of one of General Wheeler’s engineers, Maj. R. H. Klossner, which was written to Captain Andre by an Indian foreman of a labor gang, assigned to dig a hole in the ground.
Dear Captain: In connection with the tube well at DC III, I write to inform you that I myself with 25 of my men and one Fakir (well versed in the terms etc. to deal with the unnatural powers) worked until 2 A. M. but could not do anything else as the evil spirit dwelling in that particular area does not wish to have his place interfered with. If you want us to bore a well immediately beyond we hope to give you satisfaction and on showing us your suitable place, we will be able to locate if we are beyond this evil area. Your most obedient servant, J. N. Duff
Nevertheless, despite rain, devils, lack of machines, and primitive labor jobs get done. Nearly all the military buildings, we use in India grow up the same way as the airfields–rising literally from thousands of nodding heads.
Back in the mud of Assam again recently, I found other big changes. Where there had been but a few dozen Douglas transports, now not only the big field was completed but so were the others, reassuringly filled with planes properly dispersed on hard standings. And after a dangerous experience with Jap bombers, we had finally got the fighters we need. Between our fields and the enemy today range American–trained Chinese defense troops. Fear of invasion has gone. We are thinking and talking in terms of attack.
And up near the big field, I was not surprised to see Speck Wheeler, A ubiquitous man, he spends as little time as possible in headquarters at New Delhi. Of a dozen offices, the one he prefers is a desk in his sturdy Douglas plane. There he does a lot of business between hops from one project to another, feeding on C and D rations, washed down with a swig from a canteen. On one such hop with him I saw how he got his reputation for patience, and why, as his deputy, Colonel Coughlin, put it to me, “his men feel they’d rather die than let him down.”
We were taxiing out to the runway when a service truck came down the opposite side. Our young pilot, Capt. Ollie Lanstead, veered to avoid it and one of our wheels touched the soft shoulder beside the cement strip. In a second we were fast in the mud. With us we had a British brigadier and ahead of us was a schedule including visits to three airfields that day. A profane top-kick blow-off seemed in order.
Wheeler got out and carefully inspected the position of the plane, assuring himself it was undamaged. Ollie and his co-pilot Martin Lowell, looked on glumly and expectantly.
“Lanstead,” Wheeler finally commented, with a smile and a voice of sweet reason, “Next time we won’t get out of a truck’s way, will we? We’ll just make it get out of our way.” Turning to me, he said, “You know, Lanstead is one of the best pilots I ever saw.” After that, how could Ollie fail to deliver?
Destiny seems to have peculiarly fitted this even-tempered Peorian for work with men of the Orient. Dyspeptic British colonials, Indians, Chinese, Burmese and others, all have their own ways of doing things. But the tactful Wheeler manages to work with them all and keep their respect and friendship.
“The human approach is the one that wins out,” he says. “I don’t think of people as parts of a military machine, but as individuals, each working a little bit different from the other. I’m no more indispensable than any man on my staff. What’s important is to get the job done, with the means at hand today, not tomorrow. I’m a Presbyterian, you know, and a perennial optimist. I believe in the good old Presbyterian saying, ‘Everything works out for the best.’ ”
You wouldn’t think that in fighting a war the factor of time would permit that attitude, but Wheeler that out there tolerance is a short cut to performance. A man who believed otherwise–who tried to Americanize everybody overnight–couldn’t have survived long in a climate proverbially hard on the apoplectic.
Take, for example, the difficulties Wheeler faced in getting locations for airfields. In Assam he found that invariably the most suitable sites were already planted in tea. Owners were horrified when we wanted them for building a means of defense. They stuck to their rights of private property–in India still very formidable–and in some cases never budged. In the end, many of our barracks stood on swampy land, often flooded and full of malaria, while choicer spots were reserved for tea. But we got the freight flying.
Wheeler’s authority ends, of course, where flying begins–except that during Stilwell’s absence from Asia he was first in theater command. Yet, he feels responsible when criticisms are made of our deliveries to China. He says mildly that these critics ought to come and take a look for themselves. When they do, they go back pretty humbled.
C-47 Flying the Hump
Even in the dry season, bad weather holds up flights over the hump for days at a time. But the odds are slightly better than even, the lads tie on their oxygen masks and shove off, over the highest air-transport line the Army has.
Down at a new airport I saw again the commander of our transport fleet, the hard-working and beloved Colonel Joplin, who has been up on the hump since the beginning, sweating in pilots lost in storm and sleet. As far as I’m concerned, nothing os too good to say about the boys–and a lot of them are just like that, coming onto this job with only a few hour’s flying time behind them–who make the thing work. As a month-to-month proposition, it is one of the worst spots a man can be sunk in. Most of them eventually get dengue, malaria, or dysentery, if no worse; and the odds pile up against them with the trips they make over the hump, where we lose as many planes as in combat there with the Japs.
All fields used by us in India–as in China–are temporarily our property. We pay the British in goods, and they build for us under Lend-Lease arrangements. This fact wasn’t widely understood at first, but, as are the British become convinced we weren’t muscling in for deeps, cooperation improved. Now many buildings have been turned over to us for the duration and planters have mobilized their labor to make new landing strips. But the average Indian still doesn’t believe we intend to get out later on. The British have been telling them that for half a century, they say, and they’re still running the place. they figure the Americans have now been taken in as junior partners.
Actually, Wheeler told me, his orders specifically forbid him to acquire any permanent holding in India. While this puts us in the clear, politically, it means negotiation over every project we undertake, and negotiation means delay. Even the Ledo Road reverts to the paramount power after the war. Britain will thus retain complete control of land communications between China and India, once they are established, as also will be the case with Burma, of course.
Which is okay by most Americans up in Assam; they want nothing out of the place, except to get out, and if the shortest route home leads behind bulldozers smashing through the hills of Burma, they’re all for getting on past the elephants. But a lot of skeptics, including some of our Allies, didn’t think much of the whole idea, probably unique in our military history, of attacking an enemy by building a road to him. How did we get started on the business and what is its logic? In May 1942, when General Stilwell and his staff went out of Burma, subsequently followed by the Chinese 5th Army, he said, “We got licked, but we are going back again.” How? Obviously, we couldn’t invade via the narrow trails over which he had retreated. And up to that time the British had never attempted to break open the western frontier of Burma and establish landways of supply from India.
A Policy That Comes Home to Roost: That omission was no accident, but was a policy dictated by political as well as economic interests. Among the latter, the big British-controlled steamship companies predominated; they opposed land communications because they feared roads and railways would ruin their profitable monopoly of Indo-Burmese water transport. It proved disastrous. Once Rangoon was lost, the Allied military position became hopeless. Without a seaport, the defending forces had no bases, no line of supply but the jungle. We were lucky to withdraw as many men as we did. The undeveloped frontier has since then admirably accommodated the Japanese, enabling them to hold Burma with a skeleton force while concentrating on offensives and defensives in the Pacific.
Even before we “got runout,” as Uncle Joe [Stilwell] put it, Americans were searching for an auxiliary route to support the Burma road, which some optimists tought we might hold even if Lower Burma fell. General Wheeler on one survey walked more than fifty miles into the jungle, until he was stopped by waist-deep mud and a column of Japs. He came back, advocating pretty much the route that was eventually followed.
But even after the debacle of Burma there was opposition to the northern road. Americans were more anxious to speed up a return to Burma than the British seemed to be. Our Allies had their own problems over in Europe and were determined not to go after the colonies till they could do so with impressive power. They were reconciled to a longer wait than we were, too, because we had an assignment they didn’t. It was the President, not Churchill, who had promised the Generalissimo [Chiang Kai-Shek] to supply his army, and supply it before the downfall of Hitler we must.
As an act of good faith, then, and as a means of applying pressure in certain quarters, as much as anything else, we undertook the Ledo project late last year, shortly after the arrival in India of our engineering service troops. Maybe the road would prove of practical military value, too, leading us eventually to Myitikyina, far up in Burma. From there, connections exist with the old Burma road. If we retook even that much territory we could then reopen a land line of supply to China. In one respect, at least, the project worked. The British themselves began pushing a highway out of Imphal, farther south, which may eventually carry a column of troops into Mandalay. A friendly building competition is now on between the two groups.From the air I saw the Ledo road stand our against the Naga Hills like a white tape on a tennis green. Jap reconnaissance planes, flying over, see the same thing. And the Nip is building, too roads intended to outflank ours. Increasing suspense hangs over the work.
Through much of the Ledo Road story is still under ban, it can be said now that our engineers are already well inside Burma. On a recent rip over the worst of the jeep-deep mud I managed to get into former no man’s land myself. Anti-aircraft guns pointed up from well-camouflaged positions, manned by our men. Ahead of us and around us were Chinese troops, part of two divisions armed and trained in India, and here under the command of young, tough and able Brig. Gen Haydon L. Boatner, of Stilwell’s staff. Already these troops had met and defeated Japanese skirmishing parties, Boatner was rightfully proud of them.
Our Negro troops had brought with them from home, the dump trucks, steam shovels, bulldozers and tractors needed for the job, but not their rubber boots. The oversight wasn’t theirs, as they were about to leave San Francisco, somebody happily thought of relieving them of excess baggage. “You won’t need these boots,” said he; “you’re going to India, where it’s hot and dry.” They had been vainly trying to get boots in Assam, one of two or three of the wettest spots in the world, and had been working with wet feet ever since they arrived.Despite that, and the malaria, and the wilderness, where natives are and not out for anybody’s vote,and despite the food, which was steady corned beef and rice for three months, the morale of these colored boys was praised by every officer I met. Wheeler himself said they were as good as any engineering troops he ever had on a job, and Wheeler has had plenty.
The strength of Black Americans is becoming legendary among the natives who work as laborers under them. One story that spread through Assam tell how an American Negro watched four underfed Indian coolies trying to move a huge log from one side of the road to the other. Presently he interrupted their struggle, spat on his hands, pushed them aside, lifted the log on his shoulders and tossed it over their heads. Then he grinned and said, “Rest yourselves, brothers, You’ve just done four days work.”
With stunts, wisecracks, and kidding, our dusky sergeants get more work out of the slow-moving Assamese, it is said, than any white master ever did.
American engineers are road building over in China too, I learned, after General Wheeler invited me on a trip across the hump to visit some projects there. the China side of the Burma Road itself was being widened for two-lane traffic. Work has gone far on the roadbed of the Burma-Yunnan railway too. No other place in China, so far, has benefitted from the war as much as Yunnan, which a decade ago was the most backward province in the country, but is now becoming our main military base.
Many new airfields and landing strips have been partly or wholly completed, with many barracks and quarters for our men, in the year of my absence. Several fields I visited were in towns through which, twelve years ago, I traveled by caravan, then the only means available down into Burma. It’s a routine one day’s flight from Kumming to Calcutta now–a trip that took me two months to cover by caravan and steamer.
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker carried me around with him to visit American bomber and fighter crews in Western Yunnan. On one trip we left Kumming for a certain point which it had taken me just ten days to reach on my early trek through Yunnan. This time I went there and back in the smaller part of the afternoon.
Of what supplies we do get into China, we manage to confine the greater part of munitions, weapons and gasoline, utilizing local markets to feed our troops. They live on Chinese food, except for a few rationed items like coffee, butter and baking powder. Don’t feel too sorry about it. Some of them spread the best mess you can find overseas and they know it.
New Streets of the World: Though the stuff coming in is not yet in the volume some optimists imagine, the construction of airfields and roads under reverse Lend-Lease arrangements is already an achievement of permanent importance. They’re all built with Chinese labor, in accordance with our specifications, and under American engineering supervision. but here, even more than in India, it is man’s hand unaided by the machine that is opening new streets of the world. Chinese work a lot faster than Indians do, incidentally. One great handmade field I saw was completed in six weeks after 40,000 farmers–mostly women who had never seen an airplane–were mobilized for the task.
In many southern provinces now our engineers are building advance headquarters and locating future supply bases. New fields are being laid out, and new means of communication. New sources of supply are being organized inside China, too. Someday down the highways and skyways America will unroll a noisy parade of trucks and airplanes, tanks and cars, say the Chinese. For the first time in history white men are coming into Eastern Asia not to conquer men but to liberate them.
More lasting, perhaps, than the defeat of Japan will be the economic, social, and political effects of new communications opened by the necessity of supplying forces for war in these hitherto-inaccessible regions. It amounts to adding a good-sized nation to world intercourse.
By the time Japan is pushed out of Eastern Asia, highways and railways will exist connecting Siberia to China, India and the Persian Gulf. Using the new Alaska-Canadian highway, a man ought to be able to drive from anywhere in this country right through to Delhi, India, with the short ferry ride at the Bering Strait forming the only water gap.
India and China inevitably will be thrown closer by these dramatic developments. Tribal peoples lying in between them will quickly be brought into the fold of modern society. Indians will turn their eyes more toward the east and toward the Pacific, rather than toward Europe. It is significant that at a recent conference of Indian educators far-reaching changes were discussed which would introduce into the curricula of Indian schools the compulsory study of Chinese history, geography and culture, and put Chinese-language study on a par with English.
Wheeler sees enough post-war tasks–engineering and construction work–growing out of all the possibilities opened by the war to keep us busy out there for a long time to come. Immense power resources all over lower Asia need to be harnessed to the service of man; drainage projects and irrigation works could be built, new land cleared, new roads, and railways constructed, and, after them, modern cities and factories.
So the war isn’t all waste. But there must be somehow a cheaper way than this of opening up new doors to release the historical energies of man.
4-27-43: Worked at 85th. Rained some this morning. Went to show and saw “It Happened In Flatbush.”
4-28-43: Latrine detail today–easy job. Worked around basha remainder of the time.
4-29-43: Worked at 85th.
4-30-43: Worked at 85th again. Helped G. K. on Intern. truck. Payday received $11.10 (36 R.) 1a. On guard.
5-1-43: Stood guard all day because of alert. Had first beer at supper since I left States. Indian beer at 1 R per quart. Drank 2 of them.
5-2-43: Sunday, but we have to work on our own equipment. We checked over all our trucks. Went to church this morning. Bought a woven bamboo seat.
5-3-43: Worked at 85th all day. Very hot. Had very dusty ride back. Took good bath and felt better. Always feel worn out during afternoon and evening. Wrote to folks and Carl Getz.
5-5-43: Went with Hartke & Kinzel to unload crated motorcycle, but rained us out. Had cherry pie for supper [Dad’s favorite]. What a rare treat.
5-6-43: Went to 85th again and helped Les on International truck. Had to scuffle a drive line ran into some grief. Very hot. Game tonight 2nd shift Showers. Wrote letter to Dot.
5-7-43: No day guard, but got moving off to wash clothes. Native came around and washed my coveralls, paid him a couple of annas and gave him a cigarette. He wanted my GI soap, but I gave him a piece of Sunlight soap instead to get rid of him. Worked on own trucks this afternoon. Goldbricked mostly though. Played horseshoe with Peck as my partner. Lost 2 games to small arms, but won 2 from Instr. section. cigarettes & PX supplies given 3 R’s worth at a time today and yesterday.
5-8-43: Went to **Dibruggarth on pass. Hitchhiked up. Got Chev. at 12. *Ordered a ring for myself & Fred. Rode in car with four nurses. Got back about 9:30.
*Dad’s ring with C-I-B [China, India, Burma] shield
5-9-43: Sunday–Late breakfast. Cleaned up around basha this morning and went to church. Pitched a few horseshoes this afternoon and then laid around the rest of the afternoon.
5-10-43: Worked at 85th.
5-11-43: Worked at 85th.
5-12-43: Guard. D. S. boys return.
5-13-43: Washed this morning and made me a shelf to put some of my stuff. Rained all afternoon so I cleaned my gun (disassembled) and took it easy. Wrote a letter.
5-14-43: Received 4 letters 1 from Dot, 1 from folks, V-Mail from Carl Getz and an Easter card from Laura Cooper, Lakeside. Wrote V-mail to Carl and started air mail to folks. Went to show at 48th Evac. Double feature, “The Hard Way” and “Life Begins at 8:30.” Got to bed shortly after 12.
5-15-43: Saturday, worked at 80th. Helped put in a transmission in International Truck on dead line. Put up drive line. Took good bath and talked to Fred about Fords, etc. in the basha until bed time.
5-16-43: Sunday–8 o’clock breakfast. Washed in morning. Went to church. Shined shoes after chow and cleaned up in basha. Laid around about an hour till inspection at 4.
**Main street in Dibigarh with sacred cows
5-17-43: Worked at 85th with Les on International truck again. Almost finished it. Shop trucks came in today.
5-18-43: Stayed here today and checked over tools in Automotive tool truck. Guard tonight 3rd shift (10 till 12 & 4 till 6). Have been reading some of old mail. Sure wish I could write back and tell them just what I’m doing. (eight lines marked out)
5-19-43: Worked here again today, placing tools and parts in the spare parts truck. Checked tools in the 2nd Echelon set #2.
5-20-43: Checked over tools again today. Received 3 letters today noon, 2 air mail from my wife, and one from my folks. Received 2 V-mail letters tonight. One was from Mr. Bucholtz and the other from folks written about April 11th. Last letter from folks mailed April 27th. Last letter from Dot mailed Apr. 26th. Wrote nice long letter to Dorothy tonight.
5-21-43: Checked over tool boxes and spare parts truck. C. O. came back from inspecting new area. Expects us to move out next week some time. Finished writing V-mail to my folks.
5-22-43: Rained all morning and the ground is very sloppy. My feet have been wet all day. Have been checking and re checking tool boxes. Finally got 5 completed as near as I could with what we have. Have to make out a list of tools in them tomorrow. This kind of work is about as hard on a fellow as anything a person can do, I believe. We probably (some of us) will be moving out of here Mon. morn.
5-23-43: Work all day trying to get truck in order.
5-24-43: Move up road about 24 miles [30 MP]. Lt. Br. commanding. Shop area in very bad shape. Sloppy mud axle deep in places. Spend afternoon digging ditches and trying to drain area. Tents with electric lights hooked up to generator on truck. Awful hot. (exhausted).
Editor’s note: Road construction moved eastward in sections. Sections were marked with mile posts [MP] starting from Ledo. Some mile post markers had colorful names that only GI’s could give. As the road moved, so did those providing support.
Brahmaputra River in Assam Province
5-25-43: Got up at 20 till 7 this morning. Breakfast at 7. Good. Work at 8. Worked on truck today. Morris & I. Parts came in this evening. Took bath in river tonight. Water cold and refreshing. Wrote 2 letters. 1 to Mrs. Cooper, Lakeside and one to Mr Buchholz, Had coffee. I believe I’m going to like this place.
5-30-43: A lot of parts have been coming in the last few days. Been very busy. Area is improving with a lot of work. Today has been the hottest yet. If it gets any hotter I’m done for. I’m all in tonight. Took a bath in the river again tonight and stopped at the Chinese camp to see if there was to be a show, but the projector was broke. Pay day today. I received 26 Rupees and 2 annas ($7.90) $3.20 out for statement of charges.
6-7-43: Has been rather warm today. Moved the two parts trucks today behind the shop. Put the rear ends together and stretched the canvas cover. Some of the boys were issued boots today. Went up river tonight to wash clothes and take a bath. Took monkey with us and she hung around my neck all the way up there. Got a letter from my Dad tonight mailed on the 2nd of May. The first letter that I ever received from him when he wrote by himself.
6-10-43: It has been a busy daylike most days are now. Went on sick call this morning with feet and had them treated. Painted them with a solution for ring worm. Lt. B. went with me. We drove a weapons carrier and had to go back down the road about 4 miles to Horse medics. Picked up some Chinese soldiers on the way back. We are to hear the Articles of War tonight at 7 o’clock. The area is getting a lot better now since the boys have hauled in so much gravel. I think of home a great deal during my spare moments. I don’t have too much time to think of such. Fred B. [Bratton]. Went back up the road to the company this morning after spending a week here with us. I hope Fred and I don’t get too far apart. I hope we can go home together like we did when we went home on our last furlough 7 mo. ago.
Dad and Fred Bratton
6-11-43: Went on sick call again with my feet. They feel worst. My left foot pains me some and I have a headache. I think I’ll go to bed early.
6-12-43: Admitted to 73rd Evac. Hosp. in the evening. Find the “Doc” medics from the company in my ward (D-3). Lots of malaria patients.
6-13-43: Three boys leave this morning. “Doc” one of them. Harry Grant comes in this afternoon with malaria. Soaked my feet this morning in a solution of potassium permanganate and water. And and then powdered them afterwards. Found a book to read about nature–Australia.
6-15-43: About the same today. Nothing unusual except heard them practice firing guns up in the hills this morning. Still no mail. Read a book today. Captain North in “Exile Murders in Singapore.”
6-16-43: Barton brought Harry G. and I some cookies and candy from our PX have been reading about how the hardier varieties of wheat were introduced in our midwestern states and Canada. The title of the book is “Hunger Fighters” by Paul DeKruf. There are several good articles that I yet have to read. It is interesting as well as educational. I think I’ll write a few lines to my folks as I haven’t written for over a week.
6-17-43: Received 6 letters this morning written all the way from May 9th to May 22nd. Saw Gorski last night and (Pismo Pete) Merlin Peterson a little while ago. I think I’ll answer some of these letters now while I have the inspiration to write.
6-18-43: I am still reading “Hunger Fighters.” Very interesting and educational. I found out how hybrid corn was discovered. Some colored boys came in this afternoon to visit some of their buddies and I was quite amused at their speech. Played three games of checkers with Keelong, the fellow next to me, this morning. My toes are almost dried up. I think a few more days will be all that it’ll take.
6-19-43: Had slight fever this afternoon.
6-20-43: Felt OK today.
6-21-43: Had temperature about 101 this afternoon and a slight chill. Beginning to look like malaria. Blood smears showed no malaria.
6-22-43: Feel all right today. Doctor says I can leave soon.
6-23-43: Felt fine this morn. Doc said I could leave tomorrow. This aft. had a bad chill and run a fever close to 105. Blood smear still shows negative.
6-24-43: I was supposed to have left today, but they started giving me quinine. I felt fairly good this morn. outside of being weak.
Editor’s note: It wasn’t like Dad to miss diary entries. Soldiers suffered from fungal infections and various mosquito-borne illnesses.
7-2-43: I’m taking atribine [atropine?] now and have been for 4 or 5 days. I’m ready to leave, but may have to stay another week. Have been in hosp. for 20 days now. Finished reading “A Blind Man’s Eyes.” A very interesting book. Returned to Chaplain Hurt’s office and got another. Wrote a V-mail to Wendell D. yesterday. Wrote an air mail to my wife yesterday and a V-mail to my folks. Received a V-mail from folks yesterday morning dated June 14th and an airmail dated June 7. Heard today that I’ve been made T/5. I’ve waited quite a while for that. Hope I can keep it.
7-4-43: Here it is 4th of July and I’m in the hospital. I wonder what they are doing back home today? We had a nice fried chicken dinner today.
7-8-43: This is my third on Plasma pills. I finish on the 10th. I should leave here on the 11th for my company. Wrote a V-mail to my wife. Hard to write letters as there is so little to say. Haven’t heard from her for week or more.
7-11-43: Came back to station at 24 MP today. Got here in time for a chicken dinner. Very hot here this afternoon. I took my things out of my barracks bags and bring them out to dry as they were damp. Wore me out completely as I was weak anyway.
7-12-43: Went back to work and found that I was way behind on my knowledge of stock on hand.
7-17-43: Ate only supper. Off at stomach and bowels. Received 4 letters. One from Carl G.; and 2 air mail from Dorothy. Sent one wedding picture.
7-18-43: Sunday–8 o’clock breakfast. Pete S. went to Hell Gate. Going to write some letters today. Sort of expect Fred down.
7-31-43: Going to write to Dorothy tonight. Got a letter from her yesterday and answered it last night. Went to Chinese show last night. Couldn’t understand it. Didn’t make sense. It was my first and last.
8-8-43: Made my first trip to Hell Gate this morning with water trailer. It rained on my way up and part way back. Road was sort of slick. Saw Fred and he said he was coming down next Saturday.
I haven’t gotten any mail now since last Sunday. We just finished our noon chow. We are going to have duck for supper. Some of the boys cleaned them this morning. We’ve had them running around here for the last few days. It reminded me of home to have ducks around. They are the colored kind though.
We got our first ration of American beer last week. It sure tasted good in comparison to this Indian beer. We got 12 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Rupperts beer. We also got 24 pack of cigarettes this time.
I washed some of my clothes last night before dark. Coveralls are the hardest to wash as I wear them every day and they get dirty, greasy and sweaty. If I use a brush I can do a fairly good job, if not, grease spots will show. A person has to keep his clothes dry over here or they’ll mold if they lay around long.
On your last letter of July 11th you spoke of having the wheat cut. I don’t suppose that threshing will take as long this time. Probably by the time you read this it’ll be over. Did you have any oats this year or was it too wet to get them in? I hope that your corn crop turns out better this year than it did last. I imagine that it is rather hard to buy corn anymore and is rather high. A person can’t make much on hogs if he had to buy all their feed. The price of hogs has come down too hasn’t it?
I often get to thinking about things back there and it makes me eager to get back on the job again. I keep planning on what I’m going to do.
I am surprised to hear of Harvey Crowder getting married. When I was around home he was just a kid yet. He probably married some young thing that doesn’t realize what it is all about yet, but got married because everyone else seemed to be. Maybe I would have been better off if I had gotten married when I was a few years younger. If I could have found one with some money it might have worked. Ha!
One of the boys bought some souvenirs that look nice. He bought a little ivory goddess and a pair of red pajamas for his wife. He also has some silver pins that were made over here. Some of the fellows were buying stones such as rubies, etc. Until they found that they weren’t genuine. That sort of dampened their interest.
I would like to have a few things to take back, but I’m in no hurry and I sort of hate to let go of the money. I guess it would be all right to have a few things, but not too many. I’ll have to close for this time. Hope you are all well. Write often.
PS: I forgot to tell you that you might as well save the money that it costs to buy air mail stamps. The postal authorities sat that letters sent air mail seldom travel any faster than ordinary mail. When there is a bag of mail to go out they sent it whichever way there is room for regardless of whether it is by plane, train, or boat. I’m going to take advantage of the free postage from now on and save that 6 cents. I would write more V-mail but a person can’t write enough on them. If he could type a letter on them it would be all right. Even at that, after it is reproduced it makes small print. I think I’ll mix V-mail with regular mail. I told Dorothy the same thing as she has been sending all her letters air mail and has even been sending me air mail stamps. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in the length of time it takes the different types of letters to get here. It all depends on the mail service anyway.
8-10-43: Made 2nd trip to Hell Gate today. Stayed for dinner. Talked to Fred for quite a while.
8-11-43: Went to river tonight. Water was very swift and cool. Laid the windshield down on the weapons carrier. Shaved my chin whiskers off tonight after having over two weeks of growth. It was a good start. Maybe I’ll try again sometime. Got our PX supplies last night. Bought some peanuts, pencil leads and Kleenex. Handy to clean my glasses. Haven’t gotten any letter from Dorothy or folks since week ago Sunday. Should be getting some any day now. Received letter from Aunt Mary Trill yesterday.
8-12-43: Signed payroll this morning first thing. Made trip to Hell Gate today with water trailer. 3rd trip. No mail at all today–11 days now since I heard from folks or Dot. Corgialotti came back today from hospital. Road good. Sun shone all day–hot. In case I forget, we call the 24 MP [mile post]–Pissin’ Post Junction–sign along road where the drive is. Wrote V-mail to Dot. tellng her of Christmas parcels. Fred bought me 2 large bars of Palmolive soap today. Cost 3 R’s (96 cents) way too much to have to pay for soap–these robbing Hindus!
8-19-43: Wrote to Dorothy tonight. A couple of nights ago got our second ration of Am. beer and other supplies. Got 2 packs of gum and 1 carton of cigs. besides candy (Walnettos) and mints, etc. I have very urgent desire to be home tonight as I gaze at Dorothy and my wedding picture. I hope she realizes how much I miss her and would like to be back home. I suppose she misses me and wishes just as much that I were there.
8-21-43: Has been terribly warm today. Was on fatigue, but didn’t work very hard as was too hot. Went after sand from river and took a swim while we were there. 3 natives fishing. One swam across river with his fishing pole and fished on other side. Wrote 3 letters tonight. Got V-mail from folks dated Aug 3rd. Boys here played volleyball with team from above and got badly beaten last evening. Have felt tired and blue all day. I think I’m getting homesick.