- 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
Shan and Kachin bearers were now exchanged for dark, unkempt Nagas and Tangkhuls with a crest of hair down the middle of their shaved heads like Iroquois and pierced ears holding cartridges or cigarettes or flowers. They were good-humored and friendly, drank rice beer, and could carry fifty-pound loads on wooden yokes. As the party dragged itself up a climb of three thousand feet on May 14, the rains came down heavily, almost cause for despair. But that day they were met by the help that had failed at Homalin in the person of a British district official named Sharpe with a supply of live pigs for a roast dinner and the announcement that ponies, food, a doctor, whiskey, cigarettes, and four hundred porters were just behind him. “Quite a relief,” Stilwell recorded mildly. Sharpe was to guide the party into Imphal. The message to expect him had been enclosed in the lost R.A.F. food sacks. Asked by Stilwell how he had known on which of four routes through the mountains to find the party, Sharpe replied, “I called Delhi to find out what kind of man you were. Delhi said you were very intelligent. This is the only trail it makes common sense to take so I figured you would be on it.” He assured Stilwell that the other trails were being stocked, and he brought sad word, too, of the surrender of Corregidor.
Five more days of continued climbing followed, with the pace pushed to fifteen and sixteen miles a day and on the downhill side to seventeen and more in a race against the monsoon. Preliminary rains had already begun, making the trails so slippery that men fell repeatedly, stumbling and cursing, and often had to climb sideways, edging their feet into the hill. Seagrave, suffering from leg infections, was so worn at the end of a day that he could do nothing “but roll up in my blanket and pray for a sudden and easy death.” But the party now had food, and the invalids could ride, except for one who was too ill with malaria to sit a pony and had to be carried in a sedan chair by shifts of bearers. The “cream puffs” and “sissies” were doing better, and the unfaltering nurses sang Christian hymns and American popular songs. “What a picture … Chinese soldiers, Burmese girls, Americans and Limeys, all in the brook washing and shaving and soaking feet.” A local headman in a brilliant red blanket presented Stilwell with a goat, and welcoming Nagas offered rice wine and chickens.
Imphal was reached on May 20. Through careful planning and relentless leadership Stilwell had brought his party out without a single person missing—the only group, military or civilian, to reach India without loss of life. Many of those who walked out under his command did hate his guts, but all 114 knew they owed him their lives. He recorded himself “feeling like hell with a cold,” something of an understatement. He had lost twenty pounds; his already spare frame was worn down to a minimum, his hands trembled, his skin was yellowish with jaundice, his eyes sunk in their sockets. Dorn had lost thirty-two pounds, Colonel Holcombe, one of those invalided most of the way, was “emaciated, resembles Gandhi.” The Chinese troops had not been heard from.
Stilwell found a “nice message” from George Marshall waiting for him expressing the commendation of “Secwar, President and entire War Department.” Conscious only of the defeat of all his purposes, he wrote the one-word comment, “Why?” Humiliation as a soldier required justification, and his subsequent report to the War Department on the campaign (written by Dorn with StilwelPs additions) was so blistering with regard to British and Chinese failures that all copies were ordered destroyed—with the incomplete success that such orders naturally attain. The implication of his report was that the British performance allowed only one interpretation: that they had never intended from the beginning to hold Burma and deliberately scuttled it in order to weaken China. What is true in history is often less important than what people believe to be true. Elsewhere Stilwell summarized the causes of defeat as technical inferiority—in air force, tanks, artillery, machine guns, trench mortars, ammunition, and transport—hostile population, Japanese initiative, and “stupid gutless command, interference by CKS, Br. mess on RR, rotten communications, Br. defeatist attitude, vulnerable tactical situation.” The list gave too little credit to the enemy, for whom the physical difficulties of campaigning in Burma were no less and the tactical difficulties greater. The essential difference was one of intent, as between the invader who had planned, prepared, and moved under his own power, and defenders who had neither planned nor prepared nor were determined in purpose.
While Stilwell was walking out, the Japanese invaded China along the Burma Road. After badly defeating the incoming zgth Division, they took Wanting on May 8 and reached the deep gorge of the Salween just after the retreating Chinese destroyed the bridge. The Chinese armies in Yunnan, strongly supported by Chennault’s American Volunteer Group, fought in real alarm to stem the invasion. Here in the southern mountains, having run out of momentum and accomplished the main object of blockading China from the south, the Japanese came to a halt.