- 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
Anxiety in Washington about the attitude of China, now isolated, was extreme. Marshall on May 9 dispatched a stern instruction to AMMISCA [the American Military Mission to China] in Chungking in Stilwell’s absence, warning all officers on duty in China to maintain an “attitude of calm optimism with respect to Chinese future.” Plans and conversations must not “imply any thought of helplessness in situation.” Movements must be so regulated “that they can not possibly be construed as an evacuation by Americans.”
The fate of the Chinese units in Burma varied. Sun Li-jen brought the 38th Division out through great hardships but in good order by a route somewhat to the south of Stilwell’s, reaching India May 25-30. The 200th Division of the Fifth Army fought its way out, along with the remnants of the Sixth Army, to Yunnan. The 22nd and 96th divisions of the Fifth Army struggled northward in veering directions and redoubled traces caused by changing orders from Chiang Kai-shek. Caught by the monsoon in the high jungle of the northwest, they were kept alive on food drops by the R.A.F. and American airforce. Survivors of the 22nd reached India through Ledo in July and August, while those of the g6th after an epic of endurance eventually made their way over mountains to China via Fort Hertz.
Chinese communiqués reported the last days of the Burma campaign in characteristic style, duly elaborated by American correspondents in Chungking and rewrite men at home. For May 10-11 the Chungking communiqué reported one Japanese column in Yunnan “completely wiped out,” another “also annihilated,” and the invasion force “trapped” from behind by the Chinese in Burma, who had “recaptured” Maymyo and were “closing in on Mandalay from east and west with the object of recapture.” The A.P. correspondent transmitted this as a “smashing defeat” of the Japanese invasion force, while his U.P. colleague even more vigorously described Japanese “reeling” back from China, “liquidated … fleeing in disorder.” Desk editors in America, on the patriotic assumption that all Chinese were under Stilwell’s command, presented these dispatches to their readers under such headlines as INVADING JAP FORCE CRUSHED BY STILWELL , or on May 11, STILWELL’S CHINA TROOPS TRAP JAPS , “Invasion Army in Full Retreat. Enemy Cut Off as ‘Uncle Joe’ Slams China’s Back Door. Bulletin!!!” On that day Uncle Joe was on a raft on the Uyu.
From the hill station at Imphal, Stilwell and his party travelled by truck to the Assam railroad and by train past the endless rows of glossy tea shrubs to .Dinjan and Tinsukia, where the airfields of Air Transport Command were. He flew to Delhi and fame on May 24. Followed from the airport to the Imperial Hotel by a crowd of newspapermen, he agreed to hold a press conference. After an hour’s questions and answers about the campaign, in which he stressed Japanese air superiority as the most damaging factor, he concluded with one of the historic statements of the war: “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”
The impact of the words was clean and hard. Stilwell’s honesty cut through the pap and plush prose of Army public relations, as the San Francisco Chronicle recalled at a later time, like “a sharp salt wind.” The New York Times in a lead editorial stated that Churchill and Roosevelt, for all their magnificent rhetoric, “each … could learn something from General Stilwell,” and lesser officialdom could heed him “both as to diction and as to policy.” His statement became synonymous with his name, quoted every time he made news. He had chosen to do a simple thing: tell the public the truth.