Stilwell Road is a military highway built during the Second World War. It is not one road, but two. There is the Burma Road from Lashio in north Burma to Kunming. Then there is the Ledo Road, that goes from Ledo in northeastern India to meet the Burma Road.
The Burma Road was "scratched out of the mountainsides" by the Chinese, so that Allied military supplies could be brought into China from Rangoon to help them in the war against the Japanese. To keep the Japanese fighting in Asia and prevent their forces from being deployed in other theaters of the war.
Tens of thousands of Chinese, equipped with nothing more than rude picks and shovels, clawed a shoulder out of the steep mountainsides of south Yunnan. Then, with stone rollers that would take three dozen strong men (or women) to pull, they levelled out a road. The end of the Road - in north Kunming - is marked by just such a roller.
Keep China fighting
The Japanese had attacked Manchuria, in northeastern China, in 1931, a good eight years before Hitler's armies fisted into Poland. Their pretext was a "bomb" that had apparently damaged a Japanese railway. Then, in 1938, they claimed that a soldier had gone missing, and attacked Beijing - at the Marco Polo bridge. (The soldier was later reported to have fought in Burma.)
The same year, they blockaded all ports on China's eastern seaboard, leaving the Burma Road as the only option left open. They briefly forced Britain to close the road in 1940.
The United States was not in the war then, but was helping China anyway, though its Lend Lease program signed in March 1941. Till March 1942, the Americans helped China’s war effort through a supply chain that lay along the Burma Road. Supplies were landed in Rangoon, and moved up by rail to Lashio, where the Burma Road began. These were then moved along this road - Ruili, Longling, Baoshan, Dali - to Kunming.
Then the Japanese attacked Rangoon, and proceeded to briskly sweep up northwards,taking Lashio in April that year, effectively cutting off the lifeline to China as they did so. It was vital that the flow of arms and men to China be kept up. Otherwise – if their victory in Asia was complete – the Japanese could free up their military machinery, to be redeployed in some other theater of the war.
The second road
That is when the second road - the Ledo Road - was built, by the United states military. It started in Ledo in northeastern India, and proceeded to wind its way through the monsoon-drenched tropical hills of northern Burma, to connect to the old Burma Road. They also knocked the old Burma Road into somewhat better shape.
Chiang Kai Shek, leader of China's Nationalist armies, suggested that the entire road be called Stilwell Road, after General Joseph Warren Stilwell, the commander of American forces in the China-Burma-India theater of the Second World War; second on command of the Chinese armies and a few other things besides. (The funny thing was, they did not really like each other.)
It is hard to say which was the more difficult exercise of human will. If the older road was fantastic because of the numbers of people whose muscle and backs went into it, and the rudimentary tools they used, the newer one was an epic too. The Americans had the machines, to they dindt need the masses, but they were building a road through some of the most formidable terrain in the world.
It took 15,000 army engineers and over 35,000 laborers well over two monsoons to cut and scramble through the mountain and jungle of southeast Asia, fighting not just the Japanese, but the mud, the mosquitoes, malaria, mountain and madness. From October 1, 1942, when work on the road began in Ledo, to May 20, 1945, when it was officially declared open, the roadbuilders fought a constant battle to open a road where there wasn't any, and keep it open.
On ground it is 1,097 miles along its path from Ledo to Kunming. A Man a Mile Road, they called the Ledo Road, because the US Army alone lost 1,133 men building it. They were not alone in giving up their lives in that terrific effort to build the road and drive the Japanese out of north Burma. Thousands of Chinese, Burmese and Indians laid down theirs’ too, bringing the average up to something much higher than a man a mile.
A trace had to be cut out of the jungle, and cleared to make way for the bulldozers – bulletproofed bulldozers. These would come shortly, and clear out a roadbed. At their heels would be another company, whose task was to grade the road to a width of a hundred feet. Still others would place culverts, and build bridges. The gravel would have to be laid.
Then the battle to maintain it would begin. The never ending effort, to simply ensure that the road would justify its own existance.
The length of the road is liberally punctuated with bridges. By the time it gets to Kunming, it has crossed well over a dozen big rivers, and hundreds of smaller ones. The engineers would have barely finished making one bridge, before it would be time to build the next. Seven hundred bridges had were built along the length of the road. On an average, there was one bridge for every three miles of the road or so.
And 13 culverts for every mile of it. Because, in engineering the road into life, drainage proved as big a challenge as the roadbuilding effort itself – it was necessary to get all that water out of the way, and keep it out. The roadbuilding had, in short, evolved into a massive drainage project. At least they had the right man in charge. They said of General Lewis A Pick, Chief Road Engineer and base commander, that "drainage was his business": before he came to the Ledo Road he had been divisional engineer on the Missouri River Basin project, where he devised the Pick Plan, a system of dams and reservoirs for flood control and irrigation.
The first convoy to roll along the road reached Kunming in February 1945, after a
Then the atom bombs dropped down on two Japanese cities and the war was over.
24-day journey. Over the next seven months, about 5,000 vehicles carried 35,000
tons of supplies over it. But by then the focus had shifted to the war in the Pacific.