(OK – finally the last of the history post I started earlier this week. Things to do, places to, things to write about. I said I would have this second part on Friday, but … real world, you know?)
Towards the end of that day, May 6th, 1942, the road petered out. Stilwell abandoned the last of the trucks and the radio van – the radio set weighed 200 pounds alone. Last messages were sent, one advising General Brereton, in New Delhi that Stilwell and his party were on foot, heading for Homalin and then Imphal, and asking for them to be met at Homalin by resupply and medical aid. “Indian govt. should be warned rice, police, and doctors urgently needed by refugees on all routes to India from Burma. Large numbers on way. All control gone. Catastrophe quite possible. End.” Another, to the US War Department via Chunking, ended, “We are armed, have food and map and are on foot 50 miles west of Indaw … believe this is probably our last message for a while. Cheerio. Stilwell.”
The radio set was smashed to splinters, the code books and copies of all messages sent were destroyed. That would be the last heard in the outside world from Stilwell and his party for nearly two weeks. Sometime on that day, Stilwell gathered the party together for a briefing, laying out the rules and route for the march. All food to be pooled, personal belongings limited to what each could carry, along with weapons and ammunition. They faced a hundred and forty mile long journey through tropical jungle, with at least one river, and a tall mountain range in their way. They would have to make at least fourteen miles per day, no matter what – for there was not sufficient food to last the party going at a leisurely pace … and the monsoon would begin any day, making conditions even more difficult. At the last, Stilwell made an offer; anyone who didn’t want to travel any farther under his iron discipline could leave the party with a week’s worth of rations and make their own way. Finally, he predicted, “By the time we get out of here, many of you may hate my guts – but I’ll tell you one thing: you’ll all get out.”
No one took the offer to leave. Some small pieces of fortune favored them; that day, they encountered a couple of scruffy Chinese with a pack-train of twenty mules, returning from what Stilwell suspected was an opium-smuggling trip. The muleteers and their animals were hired forthwith, along with sixty porters from a nearby village. When the party set out, abandoning the last trucks and jeeps, it was Stilwell himself setting the pace, going by the standard Army rate of 105 steps a minute, uphill, downhill, or wading through a shallow river. He counted them out by his watch, permitting only a rest period of five minutes in an hour – although he later relented, allowing a ten minute break per hour. At the age of 59, he was fitter than men half his age, certainly fitter than most of his own officers, a good few of whom fell out of the march through exhaustion on the first day, leading Stilwell to fume to his medical officer, “Dammit … you and I can stand it. We’re both older than any of them – why can’t they take it!”
It was the brutal heat, of course – the last few weeks before the monsoon began were the hottest of the year in Burma. And humidity, malaria, insect bites, blisters turning to running, infected sores, sunstroke all hit the column hard. Major Frank Merrill, latter to command “Merrill’s Marauders” collapsed in mid-march one day – sunstroke or heart attack, possibly both – and had to be floated along the river on an air mattress. He was unconscious for hours. Seagrave, the volunteer surgeon, was plagued by infected sores on his feet and legs; exhausted, he rolled up in his blankets at the end of every day’s march and wished for an easy, comfortable death. At one point, Stilwell discovered that one officer – whose name was not mentioned in the general ass-chewing of the entire company which followed – had disobeyed orders to abandon everything of personal possessions. That officer had kept his wardrobe and a bedroll with mattress, adding those items to the loads carried by the porters. Stilwell was infuriated and his remarks were sulfurous; one of the sick could have been carried instead. Even his campaign hat looked mad, according to one impressed witness to the scene.
The first substantial river, a tributary of the Chindwin was reached in good time in accordance with Stilwell’s march. He had sent messengers ahead, asking for rafts to be made available for the next leg of travel, down to Homalin, the next town of any significance. They were, but the travel was not any easier, for the rafts had to be poled; they struck snags and shallow places. While in mid-journey, an RAF bomber flew over, spotted the party, and made three passes overhead – dropping supplies on the riverbank. Local tribesmen made off with several bags, before Stilwell’s party could splash through the water and retrieve them. Mostly good, but sufficient medical supplies that the doctors among them could begin administering quinine, against the malaria which had so badly affected many. This was also the first indication that those in command were looking for them, and looking out for them. Many hoped that they would be met by a rescue party and more resupply in Homalin … others feared that they would be met instead by the Japanese. Stilwell held a weapons-inspection parade just before they reached the town against that possibility.
There was no one there to meet them at Homalin, with either hostile or friendly intent – a good-news, bad-news situation. No communication with the outside world – the telegraph office was closed, They hired new porters from among the local villages, and struggled on up into the Naga Hills, climbing now, climbing high after the level riverine bottomlands. A day and a half after their departure, a Japanese mobile force arrived in Homalin – it was an escape by the skin of their teeth and Stilwell’s determination to keep going. But on May 14, it began to rain. Morale plummeted to near zero; Stilwell was correct at the outset of the trek, in predicting that many in the party would hate his guts by the end of it. It was a miserable journey, unleavened by the hind-sight knowledge of their own relative good fortune in comparison with other parties making their way out of the Burma disaster. Stilwell’s party had a goodly ration of medical expertise among them, weapons and ammunition with the skill and willingness to use them, sufficient resources to hire porters to help with the burdens of food, gear, and sick, personal knowledgeable of local conditions , sufficiently diplomatic to ask for aid and receive it along the way, and the pull to call on assistance from higher military and receive it likewise … and Stilwell himself, with the iron determination to bring them all safe over the mountain, river, and jungle barriers to safety in India.
The day that the monsoon rains began to splatter the party and render the trail slippery – they were met by an advance relief party with orders to assist and guide them into Imphal, where the road passible to motor transport began on the other side of the mountains began. This relief party was led by a British district official named Tim Sharpe, who had been told nothing about Stilwell’s projected route by headquarters in Delhi. Tim Sharpe had deduced that from what he had been told by his superiors; Stilwell was an intelligent and stubborn man. By that, Sharpe gambled on the correct one of the four possible trails which that an intelligent and stubborn leader would have taken. According to the later testimony of Surgeon Seagrave, only half a dozen intrepid trekkers had gone over that trail ahead of Stilwell’s party in escaping from the disaster in Burma. Tim Sharpe was in advance of his main rescue party, although he had brought enough pigs with him for a proper barbeque feast. On the trail behind him were porters, draft ponies, more food supplies, medical assistance – all of it. They pushed on, energized – although the pace was picked up to over fifteen or sixteen miles a day – seventeen, on downhill stretches.
They reached Imphal about midday on May 20th. Stilwell had lost more than twenty pounds, and had a bad case of jaundice, but several of his party were even worse off, and had to be hospitalized at once. When he actually had to face newspaper correspondents some days later – of course, his escape was of top news interest, being a a general and all. He had personally led the very largest party out of Burma without loosing a single person.
He was – as anyone could have expected – blunt in replying to their questions. “I claim we got a hell of a beating! We got run out of Burma, and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”
It is saddening to look back on this, recalling those military officers in an earlier war, who did what they did, and spoke out in blunt and unmistakable fashion, not fearing for their careers. I do wonder what Joseph Warren Stilwell would have thought of the Benghazi imbroglio, where the powers that be appear to have sat back and allowed disaster to happen … and left their people twisting in the wind, waiting for relief.