- 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
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.