- 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
Burned-out motors, flat tires, and reports of the enemy in the vicinity harassed progress on May 4 and 5. Stilwell agonized at every delay. The coming monsoon added to the need for haste. The mood of the group was “growing mean. Seagrave overheard talk of “paying the nurses off and leaving them so they wouldn’t be a drag on the party as we marched over the mountains.” On being informed of this Stilwell “squelched it at once.” “Everyone is losing faith in himself,” Beiden recorded. “The defeat is producing an enormous impression.” General Lo reappeared, having failed to make it to Myitkyina, and dejectedly joined a party of Chinese refugees. At Indaw a last grasp for a train proved futile. In the town all vestige of order was gone, soldiers were looting, civilians dying; a few dazed British officials helplessly witnessed the end of empire. Chinese soldiers in trucks beat off the clutching hands of their fellows with rifle butts. Stilwell said afterward the chaos in Indaw was the worst sight he had ever seen in the Far East. He warned his group they might have to fight for it. “Keep moving. Don’t stop for anything.”
At this point the final decision to walk was taken, and the turn away from the railway line into the unknown forest was made. Except for one radio sending set, communications with the outside world were severed; isolation was closing in. Stilwell did not know where the enemy was and for one dreadful moment thought a column of soldiers coming down the road was Japanese. “God, I was never so scared in my life.” After continuing delays (“Christ, if I can only get them around the corner ”) the party was assembled by evening. Seagrave led the nurses in singing Onward, Christian Soldiers . At the sound of their pure, thin voices everyone fell still; cursing and griping stopped. Stilwell, about to climb into a jeep, stood motionless. After a silence the convoy headed west in the darkness under huge trees. Elephants trumpeted in the woods. At a ford, when trucks stuck in the mud, a group of Chinese “went right through us like Red Grange.” Desperate to keep going, Stilwell ordered the stalled trucks abandoned. He made camp at 11 P.M. , “I think still ahead of the deluge.”
Assembling the group on the morning of May 6, he discovered a party of fifteen newcomers, British commandos, unshaven, dirty, half-starved, led by an officer, Colonel Davidson-Huston. “Where’d you come from?” he snarled. “Got any rations?” They shook their heads. He glared and agreed to let them stay. They included a useful addition, Major Barton, who had lived most of his life in the jungle areas and many years in Burma. The party now numbered 114. At the end of that day’s trek the road gave out, and all vehicles except jeeps for carrying supplies had to be abandoned, including the radio truck and the radio set itself, which weighed two hundred pounds. Last messages were sent. The sergeant bent to his work, tapping, listening anxiously, and tapping again. The message to Major General Lewis Brereton of the American Tenth Air Force, which was based in India, advised him of the route and stated, “We are running low on food with none in sight.” He was asked to send food and bearers and medicines to meet the party at Homalin and to alert the Indian government that tens of thousands of refugees and Chinese troops were heading for India along the various trails as far north as the Hukawng Valley and that it was urgent to stock the trails with rice and to send police and doctors “or thousands will die. … Large numbers on way. All control gone. Catastrophe possible.” The Stilwell party should reach the Uyu in three days. “This is our last message.” To the War Department via Chungking, Stilwell did not admit the worst, since they could not help anyway. “We are armed have food and map and are now on foot 50 miles west of Indaw. No occasion for worry. Chinese troops coming to India this general route. … Believe this is probably our last message for a while. Cheerio. Stilwell.” The radio was then smashed with an axe and codes and file copies burned.
That evening the first piece of good luck appeared in the shape of a Chinese pack train of twenty tiny mules and two raffish and ruffianly drivers who were on their way unloaded from the “northern mountains” to India, probably, Stilwell suspected, to smuggle opium back into China. They were hired, and arrangements were also made with the local headman at a nearby village for sixty carriers (the local people were “good eggs”).
Standing on a truck at daylight to address the company, Stilwell explained the plan of march and laid down his rules. All food was to be pooled and all personal belongings discarded except for what each person could carry in addition to weapon and ammunition. A journey of some 140 miles lay ahead, with a river and mountain range to cross. The pass lay at seven thousand feet. They must make fourteen miles a day; any slowing of progress would require more food than they had and would risk their being caught by the rains. He warned that the party could only survive through discipline. Anyone who did not wish to accept his orders could leave now with a week’s rations and make his own way. He looked around; no one moved. “By the time we get out of here,” he finished, “many of you will hate my guts but I’ll tell you one thing: you’ll all get out.”