ALLIES PLOT TO EXPEL JAPAN FROM BURMA

New Delhi, India February 1, 1943

On this date in 1943 in New Delhi, delegates from Great Britain, the U.S., and China opened a con­fer­ence to develop a cam­paign plan (codenamed Ana­kim) for the recon­quest of Burma (also called Myan­mar), then a British colony, and to reopen the land supply route to China. The Bur­mese capi­tal Ran­goon (now Yan­gon) had suc­cumbed to Japa­nese in­vaders on March 8, 1942, nearly seven weeks after the Japa­nese had crossed into Bur­ma from Thai­land. After taking the Bur­mese capi­tal and sea­port, more enemy troops arrived to push the remaining British forces into Eastern India and to threaten that colony.

That August the Japa­nese asked Bur­mese nation­alist Ba Maw, a Catho­lic, a law­yer, and poli­ti­cian whom the Brit­ish had once jailed, to head a pro­vi­sional civil­ian ad­min­is­tra­tion reporting to the Japa­nese military. The next year, on August 1, 1943, the Japa­nese declared Burma nom­i­nally inde­pen­dent and in­stalled a pup­pet govern­ment headed by the same Ba Maw. The new state quickly declared war on Great Britain and the United States.

The 717‑mile-long Burma Road, which 200,000 Bur­mese and Chi­nese la­borers had built across North­ern Burma during the Second Sino-Japa­nese War in 1937–1938, fun­neled supplies from the Burma coast to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chi­nese Nation­alists until the Japa­nese over­ran Burma in March 1942. Deter­mined to keep China in the war and pres­sure on the Japa­nese, the Allies were forced to supply the Nation­alists by air, flying day-and-night mis­sions from airfields in Eastern India over the Hima­layan up­lift known as the “Hump.” The 500‑mile air route to Kunming in China was also known as the “alu­mi­num trail” on account of the more than 1,600 air­men and 640 trans­port planes lost in the moun­tains or in the jungles on either side. (Almost 1,200 men were for­tunate to be rescued or walked out to safety.) Mean­while, the Burma Road would remain shut until Janu­ary 28, 1945, three months before British, Indian, and other Common­wealth troops expelled the Japanese from Rangoon on May 3, 1945.

Taking and holding Burma proved costly in Japa­nese lives. Sixty per­cent of Japa­nese troops died during the Burma cam­paign, mostly from tro­pical dis­eases. The equi­va­lent figure for the Allies was about ten percent, including those who perished as prisoners of war.


When I interviewed nurses who had served in the China-Burma-India Theater for my book No Time for Fear: Voices of Ameri­can Military Nurses in World War II, I noted they all talked about the strange­ness of the climate, people, patients, and dis­eases. While the dangers were mostly from dis­abling dis­eases, including mala­ria, typhus, and dysen­tery, there were also com­bat situa­tions that resulted in patients being brought to the field hos­pi­tals after fighting the Japa­nese. A flight nurse with the 803rd Medi­cal Air Evacu­ation Squa­dron was awarded a Purple Heart after being wounded while evacu­ating patients on May 18, 1944, when a Japa­nese war­plane strafed the air­field at Myitkyina, Burma. In Barbara Tomblin’s book, G.I. Nightingales: The Army Nurse Corps in World War II, there is an inter­esting chapter about the CBI medi­cal units that cared for Gen. Joseph Stil­well’s Ameri­can and Chinese troops, Merrill’s Marauders, and the men building the Ledo Road. Lingering Fever: A World War II Nurse’s Memoir, by LaVonne Telshaw Camp, gives a per­sonal look by a young Army nurse recounting the frustra­tions the medi­cal staff dealt with when their patients spoke only Chin­ese and serious dis­eases filled the wards of the 14th Evacu­a­tion Hospi­tal. I heartily recom­mend the memoirs of Dr. Gordon Sea­graves, a civil­ian medi­cal mission­ary in Burma who joined the U.S. Army Medi­cal Corps and was given the mili­tary rank of major by Gen. Stilwell. Burma Surgeon and Burma Surgeon Returns tell of his training young Burmese girls as nurses, building a hospi­tal that was bombed by the enemy, and con­tinuing his efforts despite the most exas­perating obstacles.—Diane Burke Fessler




Supply Routes Between India and China: The Ledo and Burma Roads and the Air Bridge Over the “Hump”

Ledo-Burma land route and the "Hump" air route to Kunming, China

Above: Japanese forces held all important points in Eastern China, including cities, railways, rivers, and ports. Land-based transport from the Burmese port of Ran­goon to Lashio in Northern Burma, and from there over the Burma Road to Kun­ming, China, emerged as the principal means of delivering war materials, medicines, and other supplies to the beleaguered Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek during the initial years of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). After the Japanese seized most of Burma in the first half of 1942, air convoys from India over the “Hump” formed by the Himalaya Mountains replaced land convoys.

Building Burma road Building Ledo road

Left: The Burma Road was largely built by the Chinese themselves—160,000 workers using mostly hand tools to carve a 700-mile-long road through the moun­tains of Western Yunnan to reach the northern Burmese railhead at Lashio near the Chinese border. Before the Japanese conquest of Burma, war materiel and munitions passed from the port at Rangoon to Lashio, and from there across the Himalaya Mountains to Kun­ming, China. From Kun­ming supplies were transported to Chong­qing (Chung­king), the Nationalist government’s southwestern base and wartime capital.

Right: Another road used during the war was originally built by the British and Indians, starting in the 1920s, from Ledo in Assam over the moun­tains toward Lashio, 465 miles to the south. Beginning in 1942 the Ledo Road (some­times appearing on maps as the “Still­well Road”) was heavily upgraded by U.S. forces. It was finished in January 1945. The first American convoy of 113 vehicles using the Ledo Road reached Kun­ming, 1,100 miles from the starting point, on Febru­ary 4, 1945. Over the next seven months, 35,000 tons of supplies moved over the Burma Road in 5,000 vehicles.

"24 Turns" Two &quot:Hump" routes to Kunming, China

Left: The Burma Road from Lashio to Kunming consisted of hairpin bends winding through mountain passes. The hair-raising “24 Turns,” often mis­taken for a seg­ment of the Burma Road, is actually beyond Kunming in the Chinese province of Guizhou.

Right: Air transports from India became the chief means of delivering supplies to the Chinese. Regular opera­tions over the Hump began in May 1942 with 27 air­craft, mostly Douglas C‑47 Skytrains. Over time C‑47s were aug­mented by Curtis C‑46 Com­mandos, four-engine Douglas C‑54 Sky­masters based in Calcutta (today’s Kolkata), and accident-prone Consoli­dated C‑87 Liberator Expresses. Even B‑24 Liberators, no longer needed in their primary bombing mission, were assigned as cargo haulers. Air trans­ports flew through moun­tain passes that were 14,000 ft high, flanked by peaks rising to 16,500 ft. Eleva­tions were lower at the southern end—the so-called “Low Hump”—but patrols by Japa­nese fighters forced most flights farther north until late in the war. Flying time was four to six hours, depending on the weather. The airlift ultimately operated from 13 bases in India. In China there were six bases, with the main terminus at Kun­ming, which became one of the busiest airports in the world.

C-47s on a runway Three C-47s flying over the "Hump"

Above: In the left frame, Douglas C-47s line an airstrip in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater in 1945. By July 1945, on average 332 air­planes a day flew over the Hump, a far cry from the hard-pressed 62 on the route in January 1943. During its 42‑month history, the Hump trans­port fleet carried 650,000 tons of gaso­line, supplies, and men to China, more than half of that total in the first nine months of 1945. Mili­tary com­manders con­sidered flights over the Hump to be more hazardous than bombing missions over Europe. For its efforts and sacri­fices, the India-China Wing of the Air Trans­port Com­mand was awarded the Presi­den­tial Unit Citation on Janu­ary 29, 1944, the first such award made to a noncombat organization.

U.S. Army Signal Corps: Building the Stilwell (Ledo) Road, Flying the “Hump,” and the Allies’ Burma Campaign


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