“Someday when the war is only a filthy memory, the whole story of Stilwell in Asia will be told, the epic of an unpretentious man who went forth sword in hand and slew the dragons of adversity in their dens”.
The story of General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in Burma – a cantankerous, acerbic and ruthless American general – is still not one regularly told.
However it is one that Sampan Travel is attempting to tell.
History-wonks travelling in Myanmar today are likely to visit sites such as Mandalay Hill, Mawlamyine, and maybe even Meiktila – places where the exploits of British, Indian, and Gurkha soldiers, and their Japanese adversaries shifted the tide of the Second World War.
Tourism in Myanmar does not often include towns such as Myitkyina, today capital of Kachin State. It was here in Myitkyina that American, Chinese and Kachin troops, under the direction of Vinegar Joe, fought to open the route (often called the “Ledo” or “Stilwell Road”, or sometimes simply“The Burma Road”) that ran from Ledo in India to Kunming in China, so to allow American support to reach the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.
The cemetery at Jaw Bum prayer mount is filled with the graves local Kachin residents, with a special section set aside for Kachin patriots who died fighting the Tatmadaw over the last several decades.
Closing off the route that connected the Allies in the West and China was a principal reason for Japan’s invasion of Burma in 1942. Stilwell arrived in the country in March that year, just in time to see the British and Indian Armies collapse in the face of the Japanese advance. Retreating from Myitkyina, Stilwell himself led a small band of evacuees by foot into India with the Japanese in pursuit.
After arriving safely, in front of a crowd of reporters in Delhi, Stilwell said:
“No military commander in history ever made a voluntary retreat. All are ignominious as hell. 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.”
Raging waterfalls can be found in the jungles.
Stilwell was soon commanded to return into Burma and to reopen the Burma Road.
In 1943 one of the most famous American forces of the Second World War entered the Burma theatre. Battle-hardened and blooded, this was a screwball collection of soldiers, many of who had been recruited from army jails and psychiatric units. They were tasked with marching down to the current end of the Burma Road at Shinbwiyaung and once there split of into three battalions, cause disruption behind enemy lines and begin to liberate the route to the East.
Officially called Galahad Force, this rag-tag, elite band of troops came to be known as Merill’s Marauders after their commander Brigadier-General Frank Merill.
On 24th February 1944 the Marauders began there 1000-mile march into the heart of Burma where they soon became entrenched in some of the toughest fighting of the Burma Campaign, hunkering down and repelling attacks from the Japanese over days and days that later in memory would smudge into one long stretch of mud, blood, and dehydration.
After severing the Japanese communication lines in the Hukawng Valley, the Marauders took a rest near the Kachin village of Janpan. On March 19th, Northern Burma for the Marauders turned magical as the Kachin treated the Americans to the finest local hospitality. Water buffalo were slaughtered, butchered, and roasted over fires, native dances were performed in costumes of bearskins and feathers; Brigadier-General Merill himself was presented with his own freshly-slaughtered goat, and the Kachin traditional rice wine began to flow.
The lapse in fighting was however not to last long. The siege of Myitkyina loomed and Stilwell planned to use Galahad Force.
Plaque for General Mitzukami. Photo – Sampan Travel
Off Piste Myanmar Travel
Those travelling in Myitkyina today can visit the city’s university which was once the military airbase and where the Americans commenced their attack on the city at 10AM on May 17th. The Marauders, along with the Chinese X Force, had taken the airstrip by 3.30PM and across the airwaves it was prematurely announced that Vinegar Joe had vanquished the Japanese and taken the city.
In actual fact, a long battle of attrition had begun. The Marauders were suffering so poorly from dysentery at the time that they had taken to cutting out the seat of the trousers so that they would not be slowed down in the battle. One Captain Lyons later recalled “I was so sick I didn’t care whether the Japs broke through or not. All I wanted was unconsciousness.”
As the siege dragged on and on, Stilwell himself became a hugely unpopular figure to the Marauders, with the mention of his name becoming like a red flag to a bull.
By the end of July, under horrific conditions Japanese soldiers had begun to desert Myitkyina. At dawn on August 1st, the Japanese commander of Myitkyina General Mitzukami, ordered the remainder of his troops south, washed and dressed into his cleanest uniform, sat down behind a tree facing Japan, lifted his service pistol to his temple and pulled the trigger.
On August the 4th Stillwell and the Marauders drove out the last of the Japanese defenses of the city. In his diary for that day the American General simply wrote: “Myitkyina – over at last. Thank God. Not a worry in the world this morning. For five minutes anyway.”
Over 70 years later, the general assessment of Stilwell’s character remains divided. But the story of his time in Burma, and of the Marauders in Myitkyina, is certainly one that is worth being told.