Skip to main content

The Retreat From Burma

July 2024
28min read

In this final installment from our series on General Joseph W. Stilwell, Barbara W. Tuchman recounts the story of the old soldier’s finest hour

“I claim we got a hall of a beating”

The almost antique heroism and perseverance that Joseph W. Stilwell was to display in the grim, losing battle for Burma m 1942 is the subject of this, the last of a three-part series by Barbara W. Tuchman from her forthcoming book, now entitled Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 . During 1940-41, the years of America’s dying neutrality and frantic (when it was not lethargic)preparation, Stilwell’s training of the Jth Division and his use of blitzkrieg methods m maneuvers had earned him both a reputation as an outstanding tactician and a second star within a year of his first. At the time of Pearl Harbor he was rated Number One of the nine corps commanders in the U.S. Army. Summoned to Washington on December 22, he learned he had been chosen to command the first American offensive of the war, a landing in North Africa, code-named GYMNAST . It is at this point that we pick up Mrs. Tuchman’s story.

While Stilwell was wrestling with the plans for GYMNAST, the Japanese were crashing through in one astounding victory after another. Guam and Wake fell on December 23. On Christmas day, after a hundred years as a British stronghold, Hongkong surrendered. In the Philippines, belying first reports, the Japanese had made good their landing and, with 200,000 troops ashore, were driving the American-Filipino force into the bottleneck of the Bataan Peninsula. On January 2 they captured Manila. Parachute troops had invaded the Netherlands Indies, Thailand was occupied, and Indochina was opened up by the acquiescent Vichy regime, bringing the Japanese forward to the eastern frontier of Burma. They had also landed on the Malay Peninsula at its waist, seized the British airfield there, and were advancing southward toward Singapore through the jungle. On land and sea their dive bombers and torpedo planes had air superiority. Under the “hideous efficiency” of the Japanese war machine, as Churchill called it, white prestige in Asia was crumbling in ruins.

For China the long-awaited advent of Western allies brought debacle instead of assistance. The Europe-first strategy on which the British and Americans had agreed added to her bitterness and isolation, giving rise to mutterings about a separate peace. Roosevelt was beset by the fear, if China should give up resistance, of all Asia’s gravitating to Japan; the Joint Chiefs feared the Japanese divisions that would be released if China capitulated. They were as persuaded as the President of the need to keep China in the war and for that reason of the vital importance of holding Burma, China’s supply line. Although Burma was British territory, its chief importance to the British was as a buffer to protect India. Lying between India and China, Burma was seen strategically by the Allies from two different angles of view, and the split focus was never to be resolved.


To conserve China as a base for air operations and ultimately for counterofiensive against Japan, and meanwhile to encourage the Generalissimo, the United States proposed to send an American commander to Chungking. His primary mission would be to raise the combat efficiency of the Chinese troops with equipment and training so that they might operate more effectively against the Japanese. Simultaneously Chiang Kai-shek, who was anxious to enhance his claim to Lend-Lease war material, asked for a high-ranking U.S. officer to serve as his Allied chief of staff and to take a not very precisely worded command, or “executive control,” of two Chinese armies assigned to join the British in the defense of Burma.

GYMNAST at this time was running into deepening confusion of plans and resources. On January 14 the Allies agreed to postpone the operation. On the evening of the same day Stilwell was told by Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson that “the finger of destiny is pointing at you,” and that its direction was China. General Marshall [the Chief of Staff], who wanted him for a field command no less than Stilwell wanted it for himself, tried to avert the sacrifice: “Joe, you have 24 hours to think up a better candidate, otherwise it’s you.” The first American combat command of the war and of his career had been in Stilwell’s grasp, and he could fairly expect to lead whatever action replaced GYMNAST . “For God’s sake, think hard or we’re hooked.” he urged his aide Colonel Frank Dorn, but he knew the hook was lodged.

While he prepared for the new assignment, the Japanese penetrated Burma in the south, over supposedly uncrossable mountain passes from Thailand. They closed in on Moulmein where, in the words of a British historian, they “did not come down the road in a straightforward manner” but infiltrated through the jungle in small parties. Here as in Malaya their mobility and progress were astonishing. Lightly equipped, using bicycles or animals for transport, carrying their own ammunition for small-caliber weapons, they were not road-bound. They wore sneakers and shorts and gym shirts and were trained to live on restricted rations, of which they could carry enough in their packs for four days. The British, though using troops native to the area, moved in trucks with full equipment of large weapons, tinned foods, helmets, gas masks, and heavy boots and suffered the same disadvantages as had General Braddock’s redcoats in the forests of North America.

Marshall was not encouraging. He doubted if the British could hold Singapore or Rangoon, admitted the China mission was a gamble, and reiterated his warning that Stilwell might end up in Australia. Stilwell was hardly more optimistic. “Will the Chinese play ball? Or will they sit back and let us do it? W?ill the Limeys cooperate? Will we arrive to find Rangoon gone?”

One of Stilwell’s last interviews before he left was with Harry Hopkins, who offered the huge Normandie as a transport for the theater. “Great stuff,” wrote Stilwell, who was concerned that shipping was going to be the great problem. Hardly had he left the White House when news came, too pat not to seem an omen, that the Normandie , a victim of sabotage, was burning at her docks in New York. “Is that fate?” Stilwell wondered.

He was heading into a collapsing situation. In Burma, as the Japanese advanced against a muddled British defense, Rangoon was emptying in panic. On February 15 while Stilwell was en route, Singapore surrendered, marking the “worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history” in Churchill’s words. On February 23 the British Indian brigades in Burma were defeated in a shambles in front of the Sittang River. Nothing but a broken army now remained between the Japanese and Rangoon. (“The world is crashing,” wrote Stilwell in Cairo.) From February 26 to 28 as Stilwell reached India, the Battle of the Java Sea was fought, ending in defeat for the Allied naval forces. The loss of Java was now inevitable and the coast of Australia exposed.

Whether Burma could be held to keep open the door to China or whether it would go the way of Singapore was now the crucial question. Although Stilwell’s command of the two Chinese armies in Burma was intended by Chiang Kai-shek as no more than a complimentary gesture, the opportunity was one he was anxious to seize. He believed Burma could be saved by offensive action, but he knew the Chinese would not take the offensive if left to themselves. Reaching Chungking on March 6, he found to his relief that Chiang did intend to give him command in Burma and that he seemed willing to fight. He was “extremely suspicious” of British motives and intentions and “fed up with British retreat and lethargy.” But the next dav and the dav after were blank, summed up in the word which in one exasperated form or another was to follow every conference with the Chinese—“waiting.” At the end of the third day the plan of command was delivered and proved to be “just stooge stuff, no authority.” It put Stilwell on a level with the Chinese commanders. From that moment a struggle began that was never to be settled until the final crisis.


During a two-hour discussion of the campaign Stilwell listened to a discourse of “amateur tactics by CKS” of which the gist was “caution.” It was clear that Chiang regarded the Fifth and Sixth armies as his best divisions and hesitated to risk them because the British might “run away.” Further, he said, concentration of forces must be avoided because several divisions might be defeated at once, but if only one is wiped out the others remain. Maintain chung shen p’ei pei (“defense in depth”), meaning a column of divisions strung out fifty miles apart. These were Chiang’s principles, exactly contrary to Stilwell’s.

“What a directive. What a mess. How they hate the Limeys and what a sucker I am,” Stilwell wrote, and added with some foresight, “Maybe the Japs will go at us and solve it for us.” In a further talk next day he acknowledged that Chiang made “a lot of good sense” on the subject of Chinese temperament and military limitations. Stilwell did his best to be diplomatic: “1 repeated instructions and went over all the points he made.”

On March 11, the day Stilwell left for Burma, Chiang assured him verbally that “this morning I have issued orders to place the Fifth and Sixth armies under your command.” Their commanders, Generals Tu Li-ming and Kan Li-chu, and General Lin Wei representing the general staff, had been told “to take orders from you absolutely.” Stilwell realized that his command was “under wraps, of course, which I may or may not be able to cast off. In all probability not.” It was his habit to write down the most pessimistic case but, like most of humanity, not to believe it.


“We are about to take a beating, I think,” Stilwell wrote to his wife on April 16. To be defeated in this first active command was a bitter prospect that filled him with rage for revenge and vindication. He was already planning a campaign to recapture Burma, which remained for him the essential corridor to China. In the midst of catastrophe he drew up the plan that was to be his vehicle of return. It called for the transfer of Chinese troops to India where they could be trained and equipped under American direction as the task force for reconquest. He never proclaimed to the public, “I shall return,” but this became a determination fixed in iron. He intended to beat the enemy who was now beating him and prove that the Chinese, properly led, could do it and become their own saviors. He took the crucial question—How were the troops to reach India?—in a wild leap, proposing that they should march across north Burma (which he still hoped to hold) “with such assistance from the U.S. Air Freight Line as may be practicable.” On April 16 he sent the plan by one of his staff to Chungking for the Generalissimo’s approval.

On April 20 came the decisive stroke: the Japanese broke through below Lashio, completely scattering the Chinese 55th Division and threatening envelopment from the east. The turning of the Allied flank ended any hope of prolonging the campaign. With unbelievable speed, the Japanese, using motorized transport, had already bypassed Taunggyi and were well north of it on the road to Lashio. Every effort to concentrate the Sixth Army failed. Summoned to send a hundred and fifty trucks, the Chinese Service of Supply at Lashio delivered twenty-two. On the central front the Fifth Army was being heavily attacked, and farther west the Japanese were advancing toward the Chindwin in a drive to come up between the Allies and India. Envelopment threatened on both sides.

Stilwell and the British commander in Burma, General Sir Harold Alexander, held a conference with General Tu and General Lo Cho-ying, the representative of the Chinese General Staff, twenty-five miles south of Mandalay, on the night of April 25. Stilwell in his World War I campaign hat and government-issue khakis, which in a kind of inverse snobbery he wore without insignia or decorations, looked “terribly tired” to Dr. Gordon Seagrave [American missionary surgeon who had joined Stilwell’s command as medical officer]. Lo looked “plump and unhappy” and Tu “uncertain and sulky.” It was agreed that a general retreat was the only course, and once this had been acknowledged the campaign now became a race to withdraw before being trapped. In the east the fragmented Sixth Army, plus the 200th Division at Taunggyi and two new Chinese divisions that were just then entering via the Burma Road, could retreat toward the Chinese border. The main problem for Alexander and Stilwell was to get the Burma Corps and the 38th, 22nd, and g6th Chinese divisions out through Mandalay and over to the west bank of the Irrawaddy, from where the British could retreat to India and the Chinese northward via Myitkyina. The only place where tanks and large numbers of troops could cross the river was the Ava rail and highway bridge at Mandalay. When all were across, the bridge was to be destroyed. The British had prepared it for demolition as long ago as February.


As he watched Alexander dictate the general order for retreat, Stilwell recalled a Chinese saying about “eating bitterness.” The only shred of consolation was that the orders did not call for surrender, as at Singapore and Java. Underlining defeat, six enemy bombers roared over the site of the conference. While officers scrambled for cover, a 500-pounder hit with a deafening blast within one hundred yards. Through the raid Alexander, performing the commander’s role, stood stiff and defiant in the garden, and Stilwell, not to be outdone, leaned against the porch railing with his amber cigarette holder cocked at a Rooseveltian angle.

Headquarters was moved fifty miles north of Mandalay to Shwebo, where the Japanese planes pursued. Among the staffs a sense was rising not only of military disaster but of personal danger. Some self-reportedly were in “a state of funk”; others relapsed into passivity, not knowing what to do. The railroad was the worst problem. Stilwell was determined to get troop trains down to bring out the 22nd Division, but Chinese organization was lax or nonfunctioning. Because none of his staff was technically authorized to issue orders to the Chinese, he went back to Mandalay himself to try to stir up action. He returned over the bridge among the stream of retiring troops, while below in the river others were crossing in ferryboats. On the road to Shwebo, which was clogged with trucks and caissons and the piled carts of refugees, the mass of retreat moved in dust and heat and the sour smell of fear. Once-proud Sikhs were dirty and dishevelled in ragged turbans. Chinese soldiers marched with frightened eyes in a strange land where they could not shed uniforms and slip away into the countryside. Yellowrobed bodies of Buddhist monks lay on the ground, shot by the Chinese who believed them to be spies in disguise. Japanese Zeros flew over, strafing the road with machinegun fire. Chinese generals in their cars, and British officers conscious of the “natives,” were concerned not to lose face, but everyone was conscious that all had lost face, in the eyes of Asia, the world, and “worst of all,” as Dorn wrote, “in our own.”

On April 29 the trap narrowed: on the east the Japanese took Lashio, cutting the Burma Road, and on the west they took Monywa on the Chindwin, only sixty miles below Shwebo, endangering the path of the British retreat to India. It was now urgent for the British to reach the crossing of the Chindwin at Kalewa before the Japanese. Last-minute efforts to stock the lines of retreat with food and water had to be cut short. The blowing of the Ava bridge was set for midnight on April 30. Stilwell had intended to move his headquarters to Myitkyina in order to stay in contact with the Chinese as long as possible, but the fall of Lashio, opening the Japanese way to Myitkyina over the hills, made this impossible. He decided to send the bulk of his staff out to India by plane while he would go to Loiwing on the Lashio front, taking General Lo with him. He radioed for a plane to take him out on May i. His staff, sweltering in the heat and eating boiled rice while canned goods were saved for an unpredictable future, were growling restlessly. Angry at the repeated Chinese failure to fulfill agreements and carry out orders, they agreed that “the Boss should tell the Chinese to go to hell and get out while the getting was good.” Heat, defeat, and fear, disgust with allies, and a general sense of desertion were not bringing out the best in them.

Amessage came through on April 29 reporting Chiang lY Kai-shek’s approval in principle of the training program in India. Stilwell’s mind was now fixed on this like a mariner’s on the North Star. “God, if we can only get those hundred thousand Chinese to India, we’ll have something .” He at once wired George Marshall for assurance of support and matériel; otherwise the plan would have to depend on British support, “which would be fatal.” While everyone around him wanted only to see the last of Burma, he sat under a tattered punkah telling Darrell Berrigan of the United Press about his strategy for return and for reopening the door to China—the springboard, he said, from which the Allies could strike Japan. Marshall passed his telegram on to the President, who, now that the loss of Burma loomed, was once again afflicted by fear that China would withdraw from the war. “Ways will be found,” Roosevelt announced on April 28, “to deliver airplanes and munitions of war to the armies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.” As if to reassure himself as much as Chiang, Roosevelt repeated his theme that in the future “an unconquerable China will play its proper role in maintaining peace and prosperity not only in Eastern Asia but in the whole world.”

On May 1 Stilwell woke to discover that General Lo had decamped for Myitkyina and its airfield. He had commandeered at gunpoint a locomotive with seventeen cars, and after proceeding twenty-five miles had run his unscheduled train into collision with another, blocking the railroad for two days. “Unfortunately he was not killed.” His defection soured even Stilwell’s chief infantry officer, Brigadier General Franklin Sibert, hitherto a holdout among the disaffected. “Christ, Joe, let’s go home,” he pleaded. Loiwing was closed down, but Stilwell still felt obliged to do what he could to insure that the Chinese escape routes were stocked with rice. The staff argued that his place was at headquarters in Delhi. “No,” he said, “and I will tell you why.” With one defeat after another, including American defeat in the Philippines, Western prestige had never been so low. It was his job to take care of the Chinese whom he commanded, at least on paper. “If I run out now that will be one more defeat, one more surrender. I could not command the Chinese again.”

He sat down to draw up his list of who among the staff was to go to Delhi and who to stay with him. Alexander came in “very worried.” It was their last meeting in Burma. The final order for the British retreat was issued the following day, and Alexander departed by car on the loy-mile trek to the Chindwin, a six days’ march for those on foot. They crossed the Chindwin ahead of the Japanese but were forced to abandon tanks, guns, and many vehicles. Arrangements for transport and food had been made on the other side. Twelve thousand of the Burma Corps straggled into India between May 12 and 20, leaving behind 13,500 casualties in killed, wounded, and missing during their four months’ campaign. “Of course we shall take Burma back; it’s part of the British Empire,” Alexander said in farewell on terminating his command on May 20. Shortly afterward he returned to London and went on to command the English share of GYMNAST and win renown in Tunisia. He did not return to Burma.

Alexander and Lo were gone; Stil well was left. By now the Japanese had taken Mandalay, and the sound of their advancing artillery could be heard. Before the day was over, an American transport plane came in, flown by Colonels Caleb Haynes and Robert Scott, commander and executive officer of the new Assam-Burma-China Ferry Command, which had begun operations ten days previously. The transports were unarmed Douglas C-47’s (DC-3’s), which the pilots, who hated the job and the route, called “gooney birds,” for a species said to flybackward to see where they came from. Haynes and Scott had received a message from General Hap Arnold instructing them to “proceed immediately vicinity Shwebo effect evacuation Stilwell and staff most urgent.”


Ushered into the tea planter’s house where Stilwell had his headquarters, they found the general in his ancient hat, writing at a desk. Scott, a heroic type who was later to join Brigadier General Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers” and claim a notable score of Japanese kills, announced with fitting drama if not tact, “General Arnold sent us to rescue you, sir.” Gaunt and haggard from the strain of the last days, Stilwell looked through his rimless glasses at the “fly boys” and declined the privilege. The aviators gaped. They told him they had sighted enemy units within twenty miles of Shwebo on the way in. Stilwell was not to be shaken. From the beginning of the collapse his sole idea was to go out with the Chinese troops. This was his duty as commander, which, for him, allowed no deviation. He welcomed the plane to take out the staff, but he intended himself to reach Myitkyina, by train or truck or jeep or whatever means possible, where he expected to make contact with the Chinese.

He offered no reasons for his decision, a kind of negation that was part of his temperament, like not wearing insignia. As a three-star general he felt no obligation to explain himself to a couple of air-force colonels; but more than that, he had no wish to talk of what he felt deeply to brash and uncomprehending strangers. To the aviators this refusal to be rescued by the air arm, expressed by an old man in a battered World War I hat sitting behind a desk within twenty miles of the enemy, was virtually an insult. Richly elaborated by Scott, it was to become evidence for the future contention of the Chennault cult that “Walking Joe” did not understand air power.

Stilwell sent out his headquarters group on the plane with orders to his intelligence officer, Colonel Frank Roberts, “to find me a place to train the Chinese. You know what I want.” With the remainder of his staff he moved sixty miles north to Wuntho, hoping to get past the block on the railroad. Every American was now thinking of his own chances of escape and survival. Their vehicles, overheating and breaking down, struggled over the rutted cart track through dry, desolate, burning-hot country, past overloaded Chinese Army trucks with men clinging to them like swarmed bees. At Wuntho, Paul Jones, the transportation officer, who had been devoted to Stilwell ever since training under him with the reserves at San Diego in 1934, went out on the tracks to try personally with a crowbar to moved stalled cars. Stilwell went to “talk supply” to a Fifth Army commander who had no plan and was not interested. Three garbled radio messages from Chiang Kai-shek were no help. Lo was found, but he asked if Stilwell would return to see him at 8 P.M. At the appointed time Stilwell found the house dark and everybody gone. He realized he could keep trying too long. “It is now apparent that we can no longer be of much use.” He decided the time had come to go- by train to Myitkyina if possible; if not, west across country to India. “Chinese control very weak. Believe collapse near,” he radioed Marshall and gave his plans.

He had with him now a collection of tatterdemalion vehicles and a party of about one hundred, consisting of eighteen American officers and six enlisted men; Seagrave’s unit of two doctors and nineteen Burmese nurses; an escort of sixteen Chinese guards; a British Quaker ambulance unit of seven members; nine Indian, Malayan, and Burmese cooks and porters; several stray British officers and civilian refugees; an American missionary, Mr. Chase, president of the agricultural college at Pyinmana, who spoke the dialects of the hill tribes; Jack Beiden, who had refused to leave when all other correspondents were ordered out by the British; and assorted stragglers. Among the American officers were Merrill, Sibert, Sliney, McCabe, Wyman, Ferris, Williams the medical officer, the two aides Dorn and Young, Paul Jones, and another reserve officer, Fred Eldridge, who had served as public relations officer at Fort Ord and accompanied the unit in the same capacity.

Sent ahead to reconnoitre, Jones reported the railroad hopelessly jammed. Stilwell determined to continue north, parallel to the railway, for one more day, then turn west and head overland, not toward the Tamu Pass, but by a more northerly route in order to cross the Chindwin as far ahead of the Japanese as possible. The party would go by road as far as it lasted, then by trail to the Uyu, a tributary of the Chindwin, then by raft downstream to the confluence. After crossing the Chindwin at Homalin they would continue over the mountains to Imphal in India. Stilwell had been warned that this route was little used and difficult, and he chose it for that reason to avoid the stream of refugees and the escaping Chinese. Shortage of food was the overriding fear that made fellow refugees as great a danger as the enemy. Three divisions of Chinese would be making for the escape routes west of the Irrawaddy in addition to the fleeing population. A million Indians had left or were trying to leave Burma, many of them already out or dead of privation along the way. Thousands were still pushing toward the mountains, and the whitened bones of those who failed were to be found beside the trails at the time of the return. Two British brigadiers leading a party of twelve tried strenuously to persuade Stilwell to join them on the more direct route, but he refused and was to learn weeks later that their party had been ambushed by Japanese and several of them killed.

Burned-out motors, flat tires, and reports of the enemy in the vicinity harassed progress on May 4 and 5. Stilwell agonized at every delay. The coming monsoon added to the need for haste. The mood of the group was “growing mean. Seagrave overheard talk of “paying the nurses off and leaving them so they wouldn’t be a drag on the party as we marched over the mountains.” On being informed of this Stilwell “squelched it at once.” “Everyone is losing faith in himself,” Beiden recorded. “The defeat is producing an enormous impression.” General Lo reappeared, having failed to make it to Myitkyina, and dejectedly joined a party of Chinese refugees. At Indaw a last grasp for a train proved futile. In the town all vestige of order was gone, soldiers were looting, civilians dying; a few dazed British officials helplessly witnessed the end of empire. Chinese soldiers in trucks beat off the clutching hands of their fellows with rifle butts. Stilwell said afterward the chaos in Indaw was the worst sight he had ever seen in the Far East. He warned his group they might have to fight for it. “Keep moving. Don’t stop for anything.”

At this point the final decision to walk was taken, and the turn away from the railway line into the unknown forest was made. Except for one radio sending set, communications with the outside world were severed; isolation was closing in. Stilwell did not know where the enemy was and for one dreadful moment thought a column of soldiers coming down the road was Japanese. “God, I was never so scared in my life.” After continuing delays (“Christ, if I can only get them around the corner ”) the party was assembled by evening. Seagrave led the nurses in singing Onward, Christian Soldiers . At the sound of their pure, thin voices everyone fell still; cursing and griping stopped. Stilwell, about to climb into a jeep, stood motionless. After a silence the convoy headed west in the darkness under huge trees. Elephants trumpeted in the woods. At a ford, when trucks stuck in the mud, a group of Chinese “went right through us like Red Grange.” Desperate to keep going, Stilwell ordered the stalled trucks abandoned. He made camp at 11 P.M. , “I think still ahead of the deluge.”

Assembling the group on the morning of May 6, he discovered a party of fifteen newcomers, British commandos, unshaven, dirty, half-starved, led by an officer, Colonel Davidson-Huston. “Where’d you come from?” he snarled. “Got any rations?” They shook their heads. He glared and agreed to let them stay. They included a useful addition, Major Barton, who had lived most of his life in the jungle areas and many years in Burma. The party now numbered 114. At the end of that day’s trek the road gave out, and all vehicles except jeeps for carrying supplies had to be abandoned, including the radio truck and the radio set itself, which weighed two hundred pounds. Last messages were sent. The sergeant bent to his work, tapping, listening anxiously, and tapping again. The message to Major General Lewis Brereton of the American Tenth Air Force, which was based in India, advised him of the route and stated, “We are running low on food with none in sight.” He was asked to send food and bearers and medicines to meet the party at Homalin and to alert the Indian government that tens of thousands of refugees and Chinese troops were heading for India along the various trails as far north as the Hukawng Valley and that it was urgent to stock the trails with rice and to send police and doctors “or thousands will die. … Large numbers on way. All control gone. Catastrophe possible.” The Stilwell party should reach the Uyu in three days. “This is our last message.” To the War Department via Chungking, Stilwell did not admit the worst, since they could not help anyway. “We are armed have food and map and are now on foot 50 miles west of Indaw. No occasion for worry. Chinese troops coming to India this general route. … Believe this is probably our last message for a while. Cheerio. Stilwell.” The radio was then smashed with an axe and codes and file copies burned.


That evening the first piece of good luck appeared in the shape of a Chinese pack train of twenty tiny mules and two raffish and ruffianly drivers who were on their way unloaded from the “northern mountains” to India, probably, Stilwell suspected, to smuggle opium back into China. They were hired, and arrangements were also made with the local headman at a nearby village for sixty carriers (the local people were “good eggs”).

Standing on a truck at daylight to address the company, Stilwell explained the plan of march and laid down his rules. All food was to be pooled and all personal belongings discarded except for what each person could carry in addition to weapon and ammunition. A journey of some 140 miles lay ahead, with a river and mountain range to cross. The pass lay at seven thousand feet. They must make fourteen miles a day; any slowing of progress would require more food than they had and would risk their being caught by the rains. He warned that the party could only survive through discipline. Anyone who did not wish to accept his orders could leave now with a week’s rations and make his own way. He looked around; no one moved. “By the time we get out of here,” he finished, “many of you will hate my guts but I’ll tell you one thing: you’ll all get out.”

At the head of the column he set the pace at the regulation Army rate of 105 steps a minute. The ghost of General Castner from his Tientsin days walked with him, but Stilwell himself was the only veteran of those long-ago forced marches of the 15th Infantry. From the first day many among the Americans lagged and fell out, suffering from heat exhaustion. May in Burma, just before the monsoon, was the hottest time of year. Stilwell raged at the softness and the “damn poor show of physique.” He allowed a five-minute rest every hour but otherwise would not slow or stop. Coming to a river, he plunged in without a break in his stride, “obstinately scrutinizing his watch and counting out 105 steps to the minute” while he slogged steadily through the water with the long column stretching out behind in a single file. As malaria and dysentery attacked the marchers, weakness spread and slowed the pace. Stilwell had to increase the rest to ten minutes, conscious that every extra hour lengthened the odds. Two officers collapsed from sunstroke and had to be loaded onto the overburdened pack mules. Colonel Williams’ box of medicines was stolen at one encampment, “a terrible loss.” Ants, thorns, broken packs, vanishing bearers, a rogue elephant, insects, leeches, leg sores, blisters, infections, and the blazing sun plagued the march and shredded what was left of good will and fellowship. One officer was discovered to have added a bedroll containing a mattress and all his clothing to the porters’ loads. Without mentioning the individual by name, Stilwell excoriated him before the whole company for taking up the space that might have carried one of the sick. His voice shook with rage, and his eyes filled with tears. “Jesus, even his campaign hat looks madder than hell,” whispered one awed listener.


Merrill fainted in the river from a sunstroke complicated by a weak heart and had to be pulled over on an air mattress and afterward carried by bearers. He was unconscious for two hours. Others faltered and dropped. Williams pleaded for halts for the sick. “This column can’t stop,” Stilwell answered. “Dammit, Williams, you and I can stand it. We’re both older than any of them. Why can’t they take it?” He kept the column moving by tongue-lashing and implacable example. In constant anxiety about the food supply for over one hundred people, he ordered half rations and appointed Dorn mess officer to prevent cheating. He himself insisted on standing last in the chow line. He required the men to take turns standing guard every night and forming vanguards by day to guard against Japanese ambush.

The Uyu was reached in the three days he had allowed. Rafts, ordered by messengers sent ahead, were ready. The mule train, escorted by an American officer and a group of the Chinese guards, went ahead by land. Seagrave’s nurses, “always willing,” made roofs of leaves to shield the rafts against the sun and a hospital shelter of grass matting for Merrill and other invalids. As the convoy moved out to pole downstream toward the Chindwin, an unspoken fear of their destination was in many minds. “Could this be an appointment in Samarra?” asked Paul Jones. Progress was “too damn slow,” and Stilwell kept them poling and pushing all night. Ominous rain showers fell next day. A bomber flew over, passed upriver, circled, and came back. Everyone cowered; then, as they saw the red and blue markings of the R.A.F., broke into cheers and frantic waving. Circling in three low sweeps, the plane opened its bomb bays to drop food sacks on the beach. Half-naked dark mountain people rushed from the jungle to seize the first drops before the raft contingent, howling with wrath, could reach the banks and collect the rest. The drop included a sack of medical supplies, enabling Colonel Williams to start quinine doses. This sudden recognition from outside of their plight raised hopes that rescue would be waiting at Homalin. On his raft Stilwell discoursed to Beiden of his plan for reconquest: if the United States provided planes and supplies—, if the British could reorganize—, if the Chinese would co-operate—. “We’ve got to get out first,” said Beiden. Again they poled through the night. The rafts were hitting snags and breaking up, and Stilwell was “dead beat all night.”

Hiking into Homalin from the river, they met a shock of disappointment: no one waiting for them, no food, no messages. The failure strained Stilwell’s leadership thin; murmurs of anger and criticism grew audible, and some members began to scheme for private survival. Preparing for the crossing of the Chindwin and a possible meeting with the enemy next day, Stilwell ordered an arms inspection. At the Chindwin no Japanese were met, and the party crossed safely in dugouts and freight boats.

Shan and Kachin bearers were now exchanged for dark, unkempt Nagas and Tangkhuls with a crest of hair down the middle of their shaved heads like Iroquois and pierced ears holding cartridges or cigarettes or flowers. They were good-humored and friendly, drank rice beer, and could carry fifty-pound loads on wooden yokes. As the party dragged itself up a climb of three thousand feet on May 14, the rains came down heavily, almost cause for despair. But that day they were met by the help that had failed at Homalin in the person of a British district official named Sharpe with a supply of live pigs for a roast dinner and the announcement that ponies, food, a doctor, whiskey, cigarettes, and four hundred porters were just behind him. “Quite a relief,” Stilwell recorded mildly. Sharpe was to guide the party into Imphal. The message to expect him had been enclosed in the lost R.A.F. food sacks. Asked by Stilwell how he had known on which of four routes through the mountains to find the party, Sharpe replied, “I called Delhi to find out what kind of man you were. Delhi said you were very intelligent. This is the only trail it makes common sense to take so I figured you would be on it.” He assured Stilwell that the other trails were being stocked, and he brought sad word, too, of the surrender of Corregidor.

Five more days of continued climbing followed, with the pace pushed to fifteen and sixteen miles a day and on the downhill side to seventeen and more in a race against the monsoon. Preliminary rains had already begun, making the trails so slippery that men fell repeatedly, stumbling and cursing, and often had to climb sideways, edging their feet into the hill. Seagrave, suffering from leg infections, was so worn at the end of a day that he could do nothing “but roll up in my blanket and pray for a sudden and easy death.” But the party now had food, and the invalids could ride, except for one who was too ill with malaria to sit a pony and had to be carried in a sedan chair by shifts of bearers. The “cream puffs” and “sissies” were doing better, and the unfaltering nurses sang Christian hymns and American popular songs. “What a picture … Chinese soldiers, Burmese girls, Americans and Limeys, all in the brook washing and shaving and soaking feet.” A local headman in a brilliant red blanket presented Stilwell with a goat, and welcoming Nagas offered rice wine and chickens.


Imphal was reached on May 20. Through careful planning and relentless leadership Stilwell had brought his party out without a single person missing—the only group, military or civilian, to reach India without loss of life. Many of those who walked out under his command did hate his guts, but all 114 knew they owed him their lives. He recorded himself “feeling like hell with a cold,” something of an understatement. He had lost twenty pounds; his already spare frame was worn down to a minimum, his hands trembled, his skin was yellowish with jaundice, his eyes sunk in their sockets. Dorn had lost thirty-two pounds, Colonel Holcombe, one of those invalided most of the way, was “emaciated, resembles Gandhi.” The Chinese troops had not been heard from.

Stilwell found a “nice message” from George Marshall waiting for him expressing the commendation of “Secwar, President and entire War Department.” Conscious only of the defeat of all his purposes, he wrote the one-word comment, “Why?” Humiliation as a soldier required justification, and his subsequent report to the War Department on the campaign (written by Dorn with StilwelPs additions) was so blistering with regard to British and Chinese failures that all copies were ordered destroyed—with the incomplete success that such orders naturally attain. The implication of his report was that the British performance allowed only one interpretation: that they had never intended from the beginning to hold Burma and deliberately scuttled it in order to weaken China. What is true in history is often less important than what people believe to be true. Elsewhere Stilwell summarized the causes of defeat as technical inferiority—in air force, tanks, artillery, machine guns, trench mortars, ammunition, and transport—hostile population, Japanese initiative, and “stupid gutless command, interference by CKS, Br. mess on RR, rotten communications, Br. defeatist attitude, vulnerable tactical situation.” The list gave too little credit to the enemy, for whom the physical difficulties of campaigning in Burma were no less and the tactical difficulties greater. The essential difference was one of intent, as between the invader who had planned, prepared, and moved under his own power, and defenders who had neither planned nor prepared nor were determined in purpose.

While Stilwell was walking out, the Japanese invaded China along the Burma Road. After badly defeating the incoming zgth Division, they took Wanting on May 8 and reached the deep gorge of the Salween just after the retreating Chinese destroyed the bridge. The Chinese armies in Yunnan, strongly supported by Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, fought in real alarm to stem the invasion. Here in the southern mountains, having run out of momentum and accomplished the main object of blockading China from the south, the Japanese came to a halt.

Anxiety in Washington about the attitude of China, now isolated, was extreme. Marshall on May 9 dispatched a stern instruction to AMMISCA [the American Military Mission to China] in Chungking in Stilwell’s absence, warning all officers on duty in China to maintain an “attitude of calm optimism with respect to Chinese future.” Plans and conversations must not “imply any thought of helplessness in situation.” Movements must be so regulated “that they can not possibly be construed as an evacuation by Americans.”

The fate of the Chinese units in Burma varied. Sun Li-jen brought the 38th Division out through great hardships but in good order by a route somewhat to the south of Stilwell’s, reaching India May 25-30. The 200th Division of the Fifth Army fought its way out, along with the remnants of the Sixth Army, to Yunnan. The 22nd and 96th divisions of the Fifth Army struggled northward in veering directions and redoubled traces caused by changing orders from Chiang Kai-shek. Caught by the monsoon in the high jungle of the northwest, they were kept alive on food drops by the R.A.F. and American airforce. Survivors of the 22nd reached India through Ledo in July and August, while those of the g6th after an epic of endurance eventually made their way over mountains to China via Fort Hertz.

Chinese communiqués reported the last days of the Burma campaign in characteristic style, duly elaborated by American correspondents in Chungking and rewrite men at home. For May 10-11 the Chungking communiqué reported one Japanese column in Yunnan “completely wiped out,” another “also annihilated,” and the invasion force “trapped” from behind by the Chinese in Burma, who had “recaptured” Maymyo and were “closing in on Mandalay from east and west with the object of recapture.” The A.P. correspondent transmitted this as a “smashing defeat” of the Japanese invasion force, while his U.P. colleague even more vigorously described Japanese “reeling” back from China, “liquidated … fleeing in disorder.” Desk editors in America, on the patriotic assumption that all Chinese were under Stilwell’s command, presented these dispatches to their readers under such headlines as INVADING JAP FORCE CRUSHED BY STILWELL , or on May 11, STILWELL’S CHINA TROOPS TRAP JAPS , “Invasion Army in Full Retreat. Enemy Cut Off as ‘Uncle Joe’ Slams China’s Back Door. Bulletin!!!” On that day Uncle Joe was on a raft on the Uyu.

From the hill station at Imphal, Stilwell and his party travelled by truck to the Assam railroad and by train past the endless rows of glossy tea shrubs to .Dinjan and Tinsukia, where the airfields of Air Transport Command were. He flew to Delhi and fame on May 24. Followed from the airport to the Imperial Hotel by a crowd of newspapermen, he agreed to hold a press conference. After an hour’s questions and answers about the campaign, in which he stressed Japanese air superiority as the most damaging factor, he concluded with one of the historic statements of the war: “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.”

The impact of the words was clean and hard. Stilwell’s honesty cut through the pap and plush prose of Army public relations, as the San Francisco Chronicle recalled at a later time, like “a sharp salt wind.” The New York Times in a lead editorial stated that Churchill and Roosevelt, for all their magnificent rhetoric, “each … could learn something from General Stilwell,” and lesser officialdom could heed him “both as to diction and as to policy.” His statement became synonymous with his name, quoted every time he made news. He had chosen to do a simple thing: tell the public the truth.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.