Vinegar Joe’s Long Walk

He was an abrasive man, as his nickname suggests – and had very little of soothing diplomacy in him. A soft-spoken and conciliatory manner might have served him better over the long run through the duration of his tour as the American commander of Chinese troops in Burma during WWII, but considering the dire situation there in March of 1942, perhaps irascible and decisive better served the immediate situation. A 1904 graduate of the US Military Academy, General Joseph Warren Stilwell had a particular talent for languages – to include blistering invective, written and spoken Chinese, field tactics and the training of soldiers. He had come to Burma to take charge of reorganizing the nationalist Chinese military forces there … just the Allied defense of South-east Asia crumbled under a vigorous Japanese offensive. The invasion of Burma was intended to cut off the land route which supplied China, blockaded along the coast by the Japanese. War materiel for China reached there only by ship via the Burmese port of Rangoon and thence by truck, traveling 700 miles over the Burma Road. This ran from Lashio to Kunming and Yunnan; a perilous track hacked out by hand labor through jungle and over steep mountains several years earlier.

The defense of Burma rested primarily on British, Commonwealth, and Chinese forces – all supplied with difficulty as the Japanese launched their great offensive in December, 1941. About the only thing that the fractious Allied command in Burma possessed in quantity was distrust, suspicion, and an awareness of impending defeat at the hands of triumphant Japanese pushing north along a line from Rangoon to Mandalay. Stilwell, nominally in command of the Chinese armies, was constantly back-bitten by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, who was reluctant to gamble troops and materiel, preferring to conserve them against future needs – fighting the Japanese in short term and Chinese Communists in the long. The Generalissimo also did not repose much trust in the British, either – suspecting them of imperialist designs on China. This was a distaste shared with Stilwell, although for a slightly different reason. Stilwell abhorred pomp, circumstance, military ritual, jazzy uniforms, many privileges of rank, and swagger sticks, in no particular order – some or all of which were delighted in by the British military establishment. (To be fair, some American officers delighted in them as well.)

Stilwell, who if anything was an active and hands-on commander, had two small field HQs – one at Lashio, and the other at a small town called Shwebo, just north of Mandalay – where Stilwell was when the commander of British forces in Burma, General Harold Alexander ordered evacuation of Burma. Allied defense of Burma had collapsed utterly; Alexander’s evacuation order was merely confirmation of the dire situation on the ground. British, Indian, Chinese, Burmese troops and civilians were already making a mad dash along any route leading to India and safety.
General Alexander had experience in military disaster and withdrawal, having covered, as a divisional commander in France in 1940, the evacuation of British forces at Dunkirk. Alexander had left on the last destroyer out of Dunkirk; Stilwell had much more strenuous plans. Even in defeat, and with a disinclination to pull rank for his own advantage, Stilwell had pull. An American transport aircraft arrived on May the 1st. Stilwell refused to get on it himself – he sent out fifteen members of his HQ staff instead, and set off north by truck and jeep, on a route which paralleled the railway between Mandalay and the strategic town of Myitkyina, where the airfield was still in operation. He started with a group of about eighty, with the intent of traveling by train to Myitkyina, evacuating all but a few by air and trying to rally the Chinese troops.

The railway turned out to be useless to them, blocked by damage to the rails beyond the power of Stilwell’s party to clear it. The best way of reaching India and safety, in Stilwell’s judgement, was to turn westerly, and head for the valley of the Chindwin River, and cross the mountains beyond on foot. This had the advantage of avoiding mobs of the defeated Allied troops and frantic civilian evacuees clogging the well-traveled routes out of Burma; the Japanese advance leap-frogging ahead … and with luck, would skim through before torrential rains of the seasonal monsoon. On the 5th of May, the general ordered several trucks of his convoy abandoned when they bogged down in a river ford. They carried on westwards toward the Chindwin with the remaining trucks, the lighter jeeps carrying the most critical supplies, and the radio van.

The party had grown since leaving Shwebo; by the morning of May 6th it was a multinational and civilian-military affair: nearly thirty US Army personnel – most of them officers of Stillwell’s staff, fifteen ragged British soldiers and fourteen Chinese, a volunteer medical unit commanded by Dr. Gordon Seagrave (the son of long-time American missionaries in Burma and fluent in the Karen language), including 19 Christian Burmese nurses, a small British Quaker ambulance unit, Jack Beldon, civilian correspondent for Time and Life Magazines, some native Burmese, Indian and Malayan cooks, and the Reverend Breedham Case, another missionary with extensive knowledge of upper Burma and the various dialects spoken there. One of the British officers, a Major Barton had also spent many years in up-country Burma. The knowledge of the country and languages possessed by those three – Major Barton, the Reverend Case, and Dr. Seagrave would prove invaluable to the party over the course of their long walk to India and safety.
(To be continued, on Friday)

16 thoughts on “Vinegar Joe’s Long Walk”

  1. The worst thing Stilwell ever did was learn Chinese. He was a great tactician at the Infantry School at Benning. He DID NOT want to go to China but FDR had a bee in his bonnet.

    It wrecked his career and he died soon after 1945,.

    Just prior to World War II, Stilwell was recognized as the top corps commander in the Army and was initially selected to plan and command the Allied invasion of North Africa.[10] However, when it became necessary to send a senior officer to China to keep that country in the War, Stilwell was selected, over his personal objections, by President Franklin Roosevelt and his old friend, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall.

    He hated Chiang and called him “Peanut.”

  2. He hated Chiang, indeed — but he loved the ordinary Chinese soldiers – and thought that they would be capable of anything, if properly led, supported and equipped. I think his failing was that he didn’t really grasp what a snake-pit China was under Chiang, or that being at least some part a diplomat was required of the position that he got booted into. But he was just a capable and blunt-talking soldier, whose heart-deep responsibility was to those that he led.

  3. Not comprehending Chinese politics, history, and society was the norm for pretty much all Westerners then. Stilwell was far from alone. And some of the problem was that Americans had this naive belief that because they did not take a direct part in the partitions of China in the mid-1800’s to early 1900’s; that somehow they were regarded as “different” from the imperialist Brits, French, Germans, Japanese, etc.

    A line I have used for years, was in this case true. “All y’all round-eyes look alike.” [Family comes from South China]

    I think that at the time there were probably fewer than 6 Americans who had any idea of what was going on in China. And I knew one of them, who was once my professor. He had spent the late 1920’s and 30’s as a teacher at Whampoa Academy where he personally knew Chiang, Mao, and Chou En-lai. But he was busy in the period we are discussing, joining Carlson’s Raiders. The other 5 [at most] probably did not work for the US government.

  4. A wonderful book about WWII in China is “Herman the German: Just lucky I guess,” which was recommended here, I think.

    The author, who spent the war working on Flying Tigers fighter plans, spent additional time working on Chinese generals limousines. Some insight into Stilwell’s troubles.

    The first of WEB Griffin’s novels about the Marine Corps is set in China before the war. I wonder who told him the stories ? Most of his early books are very accurate as he had many friends among retired military. His series on Army aviation came from his own life,.

  5. One wonders why we coveted Chiang Kai-Shek. How did he help us?

    I think Gen Stilwell had a son in the Army who became a General. At the same time I was a Pvt in 1973 my mother met him as a General (at least that is my flaky recollection)

    I have read that one of the most underrated British Generals was in that same area – William Slim – who did some amazing tactical maneuvers. But I think he was towards the end of the war.

  6. Good story Sgt Mom. Looking forward to seeing how they get to India.

    Another notable Brit in Burma was Orde Wingate, who was very innovative with organizing and leading guerrillas deep behind enemy lines and living off the land. He was very crazy, almost like a Col Kurtz type of character, but he knew his business well.

  7. My father served in India in WW2 as a weatherman helping planes fly supplies over the Hump[Himalayas]. He had Barbara Tuchman’s book on Stillwell in his library. Which is one more book I need to read.

    Regarding Subotai Bahadur’s crack about there being only 6 Americans who understood China- which as far as I know is correct- I am reminded of the missionaries. The mother of a childhood friend spent part of her childhood in China, courtesy of her missionary father. I have some Chinese embroidery inherited from my grandparents who got it from a friend who had spent time as a missionary in China.

  8. Bill, one often wondered about the inclination of Americans to look on China with such favor, during the late thirties and into the war years. I have read some speculation that it was the missionary connection; there were so many American church missions in China that had been there for decades, that there were all these personal connections. Henry Luce, the magnate who was the editor in chief of Time Magazine (and the owner of a good few others, to include Life) was the son of missionaries, and hugely influential when it came to favoring Nationalist China.

    Then there were other pop-cultural influencers like Milt Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates – very pro-China, in their war against Japan.

    In some ways, I wonder if it isn’t somewhat like the Palestinians being the favorited group in certain circles today; a mixture of wishful thinking, heavy media favor, and not much inclination to look at reality on the ground. I am not drawing a parallel between the nationalist Chinese, and the Palestinians – just the way in which they both are perceived.

    I have the Tuchman biography of Stilwell, Gringo – it is very readable, and I have drawn on it for this re-telling.

  9. Gringo I must be only partially correct if he died in 1966 – my mother mentioned methinks about a Stilwell descendant and a conversation in the early 70s when I was in the Army. Must have either been another Stilwell or no Stilwell :-)

  10. Stilwell’s son died/disappeared flying a plane in the Pacific.

    China was an enigma but the Americans were very partial to China, partly as we did not consider ourselves colonialists.

  11. Bill Brandt Says:
    January 30th, 2016 at 2:19 am

    But didn’t Chaing rob us blind and his wife was a “witch” who played Congress like a violin?

    Why, yes. On both counts. Noting that Madame Chiang was herself a very shrewd politician knowledgeable in American politics too. And epitomized the concept of Dragon Lady. [Fair warning, frequently the sweetest, most self-effacing Asian woman in appearance has a will of iron and one crosses them at your own risk.] It is a talent necessary for able women in a real patriarchal society [our SJW’s have no concept of what a real patriarchy is].

    Everyone in China stole everything that was not nailed down. There was not only no rule of law in all of China, there had not been any concept of such intact there since the 1850 Taiping Rebellion.

    The Imperial order of thousands of years fell formally in 1911, but had been rendered moot in most of China since 1850. There was governmental and moral chaos. Law, for generations since 1850, had been based on force. Morality, legitimacy, and everything derived from power and the wealth to create that power. China was not one country in any sense; but was actually at least three, and all but one of those was divided amongst what were functionally independent military dictators trying to become dynasts [“Warlords”]. All the “countries” were supported and to a degree controlled by foreign powers. And each was at war with the others. Add in that even today, Chinese culture regards non-Han people as barbarians who deserve even less consideration than Chinese, and right then they weren’t being all that nice to their own people. What they were going through could be rationally compared to the collapse of Rome with multiple claimants to the Inperial throne, foreign and domestic. But condense it into a century [1850-1950] instead of several centuries.

    As an example from my own family. My grandfather sent my father to this country when he was 12 years old just in time for the Depression. He earned his US citizenship in the Army in WW-II. In the 1950’s there was a legal matter here, that turned on something that happened in China in the early 1930’s, for which the legal documentation and records from China would have been helpful. They were not available because our small village had been conquered and everything burned repeatedly by Warlords repeatedly, Nationalists [Chiang’s troops several times], the Japanese, bandits, and the Communists. All in a couple of decades. Americans have never seen such widespread and repeated levels of chaos and destruction.

    And the naive Americans, for their own purposes [defeating the Japanese] stepped right into the middle of that when their main sources of knowledge were Christian missionaries [keeping in mind that China was far from Christian] who were not the most worldly people.

    Chiang was a spherical b*st*ard. A perfect one, no matter what angle you looked at him from. But compared to all alternatives, he was “better” as far as we were concerned. He did not want to be part of the Japanese Empire, he did not want to re-establish a form of the Empire, he did not want create a Marxist state, he did not want to divide China into a return of the Warring States period, and he had the largest, most modern military to ally with the US; although his command of parts of it was tenuous.

    He stole, primarily so as to deal with not only the Japanese, but also for the inevitable multi-sided Civil War that was both in progress concurrent with the war with Japan, and which was going to break out as the main conflict once Japan was dealt with. And he knew that the main thrust that would defeat Japan would not come from within China, but from across the Pacific. He was in the same position as Churchill after the US entered the war against Germany.

    Unlike the Warlords, he did not use what he stole to live a playboy lifestyle. He wasn’t poor, but he was not living a sybaritic lifestyle. He, in his own way, was trying to create a state following Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles [keeping in mind that the third, “Peoples’ Livelihood” involved a form of socialism].

    But he was ruthless. The famine in Henan Province in 1942-43 killed several million people, and was caused in large part due to his policies.

    I make no attempt to whitewash him, but judging him by modern, prosperous and peaceful, American standards may not be appropriate.

  12. For some reason people never grasp the fact that Chiang was the lesser of two evils. The choice in 1940s wasn’t between Chiang and Mr. Perfect, it was between Chiang and Mao. Its true that Mao turned against the USSR in the late 1960s, but that’s only after killing 20 or 30 thousand Americans in Korea and killing 20-30 million Chinese in his “Cultural Revolution” and various other purges and genocides.

    Chiang failed in part because he wasn’t a ruthless dictator like Mao.

    As for Stillwell, he was the worst person to send to China in 1942. He couldn’t get along with Chiang and either didn’t understand – or didn’t care – that Chiang had to fight the Commies and the Japanese. He could have accomplished more if he’d had a realistic view of China and Chiang instead of insulting and berating them.

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