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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
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.”