The Retreat From Burma

“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.