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The Retreat From Burma
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
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
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.