- Historic Sites
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
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.”