Vinegar Joe’s Long Walk (Conclusion)

(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.

10 thoughts on “Vinegar Joe’s Long Walk (Conclusion)”

  1. Stilwell was outspoken even for the time and everyone in earshot knew his opinions.

    Gordon Seagrave later became famous as a missionary doctor in Burma. He was known as The Burma Surgeon and I recall a TV show on him and his work.

  2. In About Face , David hackworth commends average soldiers for their willingness to speak their minds. Regular army officers with a career to protect have to follow orders and beware of what is said and how it said. Draftees and volunteer infantry are more likely speak the truth as they see it. BTW, that is the best book on the Vietnam war I ever read. And LBJ and his minions and Obama and his minions seem to share a lot of character traits. Pathological lying being one of the primary.

  3. Today, if we had an officer like Stilwell, he would be purposely left behind in a Benghazi situation. And those currently serving know something similar would happen to them if they spoke out or exhibited that kind of discipline combined with leadership, I would surmise. Which is going to have an interesting effect in our next conflict.

  4. “Which is going to have an interesting effect in our next conflict.”

    Pearl Harbor is on example. Clark Field was another. The North African invasion was not much better. Fredendall was another example of an officer promoted beyond his ability.

    Truscott, a great general said of Fredendall, “Fredendall rarely left his command post for personal visits and reconnaissance, yet he was impatient with the recommendations of subordinates more familiar with the terrain and other conditions than he.”

    I think Mark Clark was another although that seems to be a minority opinion. Marshall was ruthless on cashiering officers but liked Clark for some unknown reason.

    I have never liked Clark after reading quite a bit about the Italian campaign.

    During World War II, he commanded the United States Fifth Army, and later the Fifteenth Army Group, in the Italian campaign. He is known for leading the Fifth Army in its capture of Rome in June 1944.

    Clark has been heavily criticized for ignoring the orders of his superior officer, British General Sir Harold Alexander, and allowing the German 10th Army to slip away, in his drive to take Rome, the capital of Italy, a strategically unimportant city. The German 10th Army then joined with their brother forces at the Trasimene Line.[3] In March 1945 Clark became the youngest American to be promoted to general.

    Clark was all about glory, a trait seen in generals in Vietnam.

    American military historian Carlo D’Este called Clark’s choice to take Rome, after Operation Diadem and the Breakout from the Anzio beachhead, rather than focusing on the destruction of the German Tenth Army, “as militarily stupid as it was insubordinate”

    It was announced on 20 January 1946, that the US 36th Division Veteran’s Association had unanimously called for a Congressional inquiry into Clark’s actions during the 36th Infantry Division’s disastrous crossing of the Gari River (erroneously identified as the Rapido) on the night of 20 January 1944. Two resolutions were heard in the House of Representatives, one of which claimed the incident was “one of the most colossal blunders of the Second World War…a murderous blunder” that “every man connected with this undertaking knew…was doomed to failure.”[20]

    Clark was absolved of blame by the House of Representatives, but never commented on the Rapido River episode following World War II

  5. This is the reason I have always rather liked Stilwell, in a totally historical way; he would get the mission done, protect his people. do or die, speak his mind, and damn the consequences. He was a rare one, when it comes to general officers, even of the WWII breed, I think.

    Yeah – I would have liked to have worked for him, back in the day. He would have been as tough as nails … but one who would have never tossed you out for the jackals, if you had done your best in support of the mission.

  6. America has been fortunate to have a few generals who got the job done, no matter what. Sherman, Patton, Ridgeway, McChrystal, Petraeus.

    Grant was a butcher but got the job done. Sherman was hit and run and did as well but was loved by his men.

    Patton was famed for Bill Mauldin’s hatred of him. Still, without him, Bastogne might have fallen.

    MacArthur I have never been able to decide. Maybe we would have done better to follow the Nimitz strategy, Peleliu was a disaster. Leyte was almost a disaster as Halsey went north on a futile quest for fame.

    Spruance was a hero but it would have been futile without Wade McClusky, who won the battle for him.

    America has been fortunate. I can only hope it continues.

  7. David hackworth commends average soldiers for their willingness to speak their minds. Regular army officers with a career to protect have to follow orders and beware of what is said and how it said. Draftees and volunteer infantry are more likely speak the truth as they see it. BTW, that is the best book on the Vietnam war I ever read. And LBJ and his minions and Obama and his minions seem to share a lot of character traits. Pathological lying being one of the primary.

    That was an excellent book. I’ll bet I read it 10-15 years ago – maybe longer. I remember a lot of details but one thing seemed to stick out – his comparison of the M16 to the AK-47.

    I think there’ll always be officers who try to cover their ass and hard chargers.

    Do you think the officer who made the decision to charge Bergdahl was some CYA wimp?

    BTW this General Abrams is the son of Creighton Abrams, another hard charger.

  8. Stillwell was a perfect theater general. He knew his military arts but was well aware of the political issues in the China theater. In a war like WWII some theaters needed little political nuance so Patton could be Patton, while Ike dealt with the bigger picture. The art lies in getting Pattons to think a little like Ike.

  9. Mike K
    Gordon Seagrave later became famous as a missionary doctor in Burma. He was known as The Burma Surgeon and I recall a TV show on him and his work.

    Which is another book related to the China Burma India Theater that my father had- he was stationed with the Army Air Corps in India- which I never read. Or haven’t read yet. Oh well, I saw his slides on India often enough growing up.

  10. This reminds me of the supposed crack about Stillwell – that “he was the best 3-star battalion commander in the US Army”

    Its too bad Vinegar Joe wasn’t made a Combat Corps Commander instead of having to play Diplomat/Theater commander – a post he wasn’t suited for.

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