- 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
At the head of the column he set the pace at the regulation Army rate of 105 steps a minute. The ghost of General Castner from his Tientsin days walked with him, but Stilwell himself was the only veteran of those long-ago forced marches of the 15th Infantry. From the first day many among the Americans lagged and fell out, suffering from heat exhaustion. May in Burma, just before the monsoon, was the hottest time of year. Stilwell raged at the softness and the “damn poor show of physique.” He allowed a five-minute rest every hour but otherwise would not slow or stop. Coming to a river, he plunged in without a break in his stride, “obstinately scrutinizing his watch and counting out 105 steps to the minute” while he slogged steadily through the water with the long column stretching out behind in a single file. As malaria and dysentery attacked the marchers, weakness spread and slowed the pace. Stilwell had to increase the rest to ten minutes, conscious that every extra hour lengthened the odds. Two officers collapsed from sunstroke and had to be loaded onto the overburdened pack mules. Colonel Williams’ box of medicines was stolen at one encampment, “a terrible loss.” Ants, thorns, broken packs, vanishing bearers, a rogue elephant, insects, leeches, leg sores, blisters, infections, and the blazing sun plagued the march and shredded what was left of good will and fellowship. One officer was discovered to have added a bedroll containing a mattress and all his clothing to the porters’ loads. Without mentioning the individual by name, Stilwell excoriated him before the whole company for taking up the space that might have carried one of the sick. His voice shook with rage, and his eyes filled with tears. “Jesus, even his campaign hat looks madder than hell,” whispered one awed listener.
Merrill fainted in the river from a sunstroke complicated by a weak heart and had to be pulled over on an air mattress and afterward carried by bearers. He was unconscious for two hours. Others faltered and dropped. Williams pleaded for halts for the sick. “This column can’t stop,” Stilwell answered. “Dammit, Williams, you and I can stand it. We’re both older than any of them. Why can’t they take it?” He kept the column moving by tongue-lashing and implacable example. In constant anxiety about the food supply for over one hundred people, he ordered half rations and appointed Dorn mess officer to prevent cheating. He himself insisted on standing last in the chow line. He required the men to take turns standing guard every night and forming vanguards by day to guard against Japanese ambush.
The Uyu was reached in the three days he had allowed. Rafts, ordered by messengers sent ahead, were ready. The mule train, escorted by an American officer and a group of the Chinese guards, went ahead by land. Seagrave’s nurses, “always willing,” made roofs of leaves to shield the rafts against the sun and a hospital shelter of grass matting for Merrill and other invalids. As the convoy moved out to pole downstream toward the Chindwin, an unspoken fear of their destination was in many minds. “Could this be an appointment in Samarra?” asked Paul Jones. Progress was “too damn slow,” and Stilwell kept them poling and pushing all night. Ominous rain showers fell next day. A bomber flew over, passed upriver, circled, and came back. Everyone cowered; then, as they saw the red and blue markings of the R.A.F., broke into cheers and frantic waving. Circling in three low sweeps, the plane opened its bomb bays to drop food sacks on the beach. Half-naked dark mountain people rushed from the jungle to seize the first drops before the raft contingent, howling with wrath, could reach the banks and collect the rest. The drop included a sack of medical supplies, enabling Colonel Williams to start quinine doses. This sudden recognition from outside of their plight raised hopes that rescue would be waiting at Homalin. On his raft Stilwell discoursed to Beiden of his plan for reconquest: if the United States provided planes and supplies—, if the British could reorganize—, if the Chinese would co-operate—. “We’ve got to get out first,” said Beiden. Again they poled through the night. The rafts were hitting snags and breaking up, and Stilwell was “dead beat all night.”
Hiking into Homalin from the river, they met a shock of disappointment: no one waiting for them, no food, no messages. The failure strained Stilwell’s leadership thin; murmurs of anger and criticism grew audible, and some members began to scheme for private survival. Preparing for the crossing of the Chindwin and a possible meeting with the enemy next day, Stilwell ordered an arms inspection. At the Chindwin no Japanese were met, and the party crossed safely in dugouts and freight boats.