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Joseph Stilwell's Escape from Burma During World War II

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Lieutenant General Joseph 'Vinegar Joe' Stilwell did not give up a fight easily. As long as there was the slightest possibility of salvaging a situation, the irascible infantryman saw himself duty-bound to try. In Burma during the dark days of May 1942, Stilwell's stubborn insistence that an attempt be made to re-establish control over retreating Chinese troops put the general and his small staff directly in harm's way. In the midst of the chaos of a complete Allied military collapse, Stilwell finally was forced to undergo a long march to India with the Japanese snapping at his heels.

By the end of April 1942, it was obvious that Lt. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander's Burma army could no longer hold a defensive line against the Japanese, who were pushing northward from Rangoon to Mandalay. Three Chinese armies had moved into Burma from the province of Yunnan between February and April in an effort to restore the situation. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had placed Stilwell in command of this Chinese Expeditionary Force. Unfortunately for the Allies, however, Stilwell found his Chinese subordinates recalcitrant in following his instructions, which were frequently contradicted by Chiang's own direct communications with his generals. The command situation was further complicated when Chinese forces were placed under Alexander's overall command.

As Alexander attempted to hold a defensive line from Prome in the west to Toungoo in the east, in late April the Japanese smashed the Chinese 55th Division on the Toungoo front and rapidly pushed northward toward Lashio (the starting point of the crucial Burma Road) and Myitkyina. This action panicked the Allied troops, who also gave ground along the Irrawaddy River and commenced a general retreat toward Mandalay.

Stilwell himself had arrived in Burma in March, thinking to use his Chinese troops to launch a counteroffensive against the Japanese. In February he had been dispatched to the Chinese capital of Chungking with the task of improving the fighting efficiency of the Chinese army, which was already deeply involved in fighting the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek was the supreme Allied commander for the China theater, and Stilwell had been designated his Allied chief of staff. The Chinese had been obtaining supplies from the United States through the port of Rangoon; these were then trucked into China over the treacherous Burma Road. A major Japanese aim was to cut off this means of supply to Chiang by invading Burma and seizing that route. Because of the direct threat to Chinese interests, Chiang was willing to send troops into Burma, and Stilwell sought and eventually received command of this Chinese Expeditionary Force. But Chiang refused to permit Stilwell to use the Chinese without strings attached, and this interference made Chinese armies in the field less effective than they otherwise might have been.

With the general collapse of the entire Allied position in late April, Stilwell found himself unable to control the movements of his troops. Chiang, from his headquarters in Chungking, persisted in issuing contradictory orders both to Stilwell and the Chinese generals in Burma. In one instance, Chiang sent word to Stilwell on April 29 that Mandalay (a militarily undefendable city) was to be held at all costs. The next day Chiang reversed this edict.

Frustrating as such intrusions were, Chiang's mercurial temperament was the least of Stilwell's problems. In late April, Stilwell had two forward headquarters in Burma–one at Shwebo (north of Mandalay) and one at Lashio. There were small American staffs at each of these headquarters, but on April 25 the Lashio headquarters was abandoned and its staff sent on to China via the Burma Road. Stilwell was at Shwebo when Alexander ordered the evacuation of all Burma. The order was simply a confirmation of what was already taking place, as British, Indian, Burmese and Chinese troops were engaged in a chaotic scramble along escape routes to India and China.

Despite the anarchy that surrounded him, Stilwell remained calm, even after the Japanese attempted to bomb his headquarters (a traitorous Buddhist priest had divulged its location to the enemy). On April 30, Stilwell wrote in his diary: 'Imminent danger of disintegration and collapse. We are sending 40 people to Myitkyina, 12 to Katha and leaving 20 here.' Stilwell planned to fly to Loiwing, near Lashio, the next day in an effort to re-establish some control on the eastern front. But events were moving too fast. Loiwing, which had been a base used by Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group, the famous 'Flying Tigers,' was by then already evacuated.

Stilwell had also requested a plane at Shwebo to evacuate part of his staff to India. That plane, piloted by Colonel Caleb V. Haynes of the U.S. Tenth Air Force, arrived at Shwebo around noon on May 1, and Stilwell put 15 members of his staff on the aircraft, which flew to Calcutta. Other planes were due in later, but Stilwell had no intention of remaining at Shwebo until they arrived. Instead, he led his small party north by truck and jeep along rough trails and roads that paralleled the Mandalay-Myitkyina railroad tracks. Initially, this group consisted of about 80 people, but it would eventually grow to 114.

Stilwell reached Zigon (headquarters of the Chinese Fifth Army) late on May 1. According to his aide, Lt. Col. Frank Dorn: 'The floundering troops of the Chinese army were his most immediate concern. His plan was to go to Myitkyina where the airfield was still in operation. From there he could fly out all Americans but a small staff and a few doctors, who would stay with the Chinese, evacuate the sick and wounded by air, and establish a base in the Hukawng Valley from which he could launch a counteroffensive to retake Burma.' Even at that late date, and in the face of a total Allied collapse, Stilwell was still thinking in offensive terms.

The plan for getting to Myitkyina, however, depended on the availability of rail transportation. Stilwell's transportation officer, Captain Paul Jones, scouted the rail line to the north and discovered that a collision had blocked travel both north and south. Stilwell's party would have to continue northward by road and trail. The general remained hopeful that the tracks to Myitkyina would eventually be cleared. His party reached Pintha on the evening of May 2 and Wuntho on May 3.

At Wuntho, additional Americans joined the general's party. 'It is now apparent that we can no longer be of much use' Stilwell wrote. 'Decided to send our crowd out.' Frustrated that he could learn little of the real situation, Stilwell came to realize that the military situation was completely lost and that his primary duty now was to get his small party to safety.

The next day, on the morning of May 4, Stilwell wrote in his diary: 'Disintegration at Shwebo….Japs going up Chindwin River. Civil war conditions all over again. Chinese out of control. [Fifth] column busy.' He was still looking to take a train north to Mogaung or Myitkyina, but Jones reported that the railroad was hopelessly jammed. It would be impossible to go much farther north. There were no roads to Myitkyina that could carry vehicles. The general and his growing party would have to turn west and head for the Chindwin River. From there the group could cross the mountains and eventually reach the British base at Imphal, in India's Manipur state. Stilwell was unsure how far he could take his vehicles after turning westward, but he knew a trek over the mountains to India would require that they be abandoned at some point.

Despite the anticipated difficulties, Stilwell was also well aware of the need to get his people ahead of the mob of retreating Chinese troops, British stragglers and refugees who were trudging northward along the only good road. His frustration with the situation was evident in his diary entry for May 5: 'If I can only get them around the corner….Battled all P.M. to get them forward, ahead of Chinese rush….Everybody fooled around, and sure enough the Chinese began to come up and pour through. They went right thru us like Red Grange.'

Late on May 5, Stilwell ordered the abandonment of all his trucks, which were continually bogging down along the primitive roads and slowing the column. After reaching the overcrowded town of Indaw on the 5th, Stilwell's party turned west toward the Chindwin. Although he abandoned his trucks, Stilwell retained all his stalwart jeeps to transport his most critical supplies. The general believed he was 'ahead of the deluge' by the time he made camp on the evening of May 5.

The multinational party now consisted of 26 members of the U.S. Army (mostly officers), 15 British soldiers and 14 Chinese soldiers; a hospital unit under the command of Gordon S. Seagrave (the famous 'Burma Surgeon'), which included 19 Burmese nurses; a small Quaker ambulance unit; and a handful of civilians, including correspondent Jack Belden of Time and Life and the Reverend Breedham C. Case. Case had long experience as a missionary working with the natives of upper Burma and could speak a number of hill tribe languages. Because of this, Stilwell let Case undertake the negotiations for the porters who would be necessary along the route.

The Stilwell group had certain advantages over the other soldiers and refugees seeking a way out of Burma. First, Stilwell himself was utterly determined to bring every member of his party out alive, regardless of the hardship involved. Second, the soldiers were still armed and knew how to use their weapons. Third, medical personnel made up a significant portion of the group, and a limited amount of medical supplies continued to be carried even after all vehicles were abandoned. The Burmese nurses also would make a strong contribution to the morale of the entire group through their singing of hymns such as 'Onward Christian Soldiers' and 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' during the march. Finally, the Stilwell party possessed sufficient money to permit the purchase of anything worth buying en route.

On the morning of May 6, Stilwell gathered his group around him and gave them a pep talk. The party set out by foot, except for the 11 jeep drivers. The route took them through the village of Mansi and on to Magyigan. They were off the main refugee route by this time–a great relief to all concerned. British authorities had warned Stilwell that the route he proposed taking through the mountains was very difficult due to the steepness of trails on the far side of the Chindwin. A more southerly route had been suggested, but Stilwell knew the Japanese were closing in on all exits from Burma, and the easier route to Imphal, through Sittaung and Tamu, was very vulnerable to ambush from Japanese patrols. Vinegar Joe knew he would have to push his people hard, despite their suffering from a variety of ailments. Seagrave, for example, had written on April 30: 'This talk of our tramping out of Burma has me worried. It has been a long, long time since I have had to do much footwork in the jungles, and I feel much older than forty-five, with this confounded malaria that keeps returning. And no treatment of any sort helps these four sores on my feet.'

A victorious enemy was not the general's only concern. Stilwell was not only racing the Japanese but also the monsoon. The season was fast approaching, and torrential rains could pose another challenge to escape. Despite this Stilwell believed that with a determined effort, he could beat both. In order to succeed, he figured that the group must make at least 14 miles of progress per day, regardless of conditions. If the monsoon arrived early, the trail to India would become a muddy quagmire and streams would turn into raging torrents. The party had enough food for several days' march, but after that it would be dependent on scavenging from the jungle, or possibly obtaining some from native villages. Stilwell had radioed India of his circumstances, but had had no confirmation that his messages had been received. As far as he knew, his group was entirely on its own.

The heavy radio that Stilwell possessed could only be transported by vehicle. When the jeeps had gone as far as possible, they too were abandoned, and the radio was destroyed. Stilwell sent his last message on May 6: 'Gen. Brereton, New Delhi–Am heading for Homalin and Imphal, with party of one hundred. Hope to make Homalin May Tenth. If possible, send five hundred lbs of food from Imphal by carriers to meet us at Homalin. Indian govt. should be warned rice, police, and doctors urgently needed by refugees on all routes to India from Burma. Large numbers on way. All control gone. Catastrophe quite possible. End.'

Stilwell knew that food and other supplies might be obtained at Homalin, but he also knew there was the possibility that the Japanese might beat him there. If so, Vinegar Joe was prepared to go down swinging. '[I]f we do meet [the Japanese], they'll have a fight on their hands,' he told Dorn. 'I'm not going to let them grab these people without putting up a scrap.'

Early on May 7, the real hike began. Fortunately for the column, a chance encounter with a Chinese mule train the previous day eased the burden of the party tremendously. The muleteers had been returning empty-handed from India to China when the Stilwell group spotted and captured them. From that point on, the mules would carry the heaviest loads. In addition, 60 native bearers had been requisitioned by a pair of British Forestry Service guides with Stilwell.

The column started from Magyigan with Stilwell in the lead at what the general described as an 'easy pace'–the army regulation rate of 105 steps per minute–down the Chaunggyi River toward the village of Saingkyu. Stilwell marched his group right down the middle of the stream, which was not particularly deep, because the heavy vegetation on the riverbanks would have made overland travel difficult. Still, the midday heat was appalling, and the already weakened condition of the party began to tell as the day wore on. Several people fell out with heatstroke, or worse. When Colonel William H. Holcombe fell out of line he had to be revived with ammonia crystals. Major Frank D. Merrill, who would later command the famous 'Merrill's Marauders,' staggered over to the riverbank and dropped facedown into the vegetation, having apparently suffered a heart attack. He was towed downstream on top of an air mattress while still unconscious. Stilwell commented, 'Christ, but we are a poor lot.'

To save strength, Stilwell announced that each member of his group would personally carry no more than 10 pounds. In addition, at the prodding of his chief medical officer, Colonel Robert P. Williams, the general agreed thereafter to avoid marching during the hottest period of the day. Captain Jones recorded that 'our rations were then porridge, rice, corned beef, and tea. Not much but it kept us going.'

The routine was now 50 minutes of marching followed by 10 minutes of rest, repeated until the midday break. After the break, Stilwell would keep his column moving, allowing for the short breaks, until he was comfortable that enough progress had been made for the day. The trek was already beginning to wear on even the hardiest members of the group, and Stilwell knew that the most difficult part of the journey lay ahead. On May 8, Japanese bombers flew overhead, causing the party to scatter for cover and reminding everyone that they were still far from safety. The hardship was not all negative; by May 9, Stilwell noted that the party was 'gradually getting some discipline.' Often if a person fell from exhaustion, Vinegar Joe kept trudging forward, trusting that the medical personnel in the group would administer to the ill, putting them on mules if necessary, but keeping them moving until they caught up with the rest of the column during a break period or at the nightly bivouac.

Late on the afternoon of May 9, Stilwell reached the village of Maingkaing, on the Uyu River. The Uyu was bigger than the Chaunggyi, and Stilwell hoped to be able to send his people down it by boat or raft until they reached the vicinity of Homalin on the Chindwin. Traveling by watercraft, it was thought, would be a welcome respite from walking. The village chief at Maingkaing had been apprised of the need for water transportation, but when Stilwell arrived only a few rafts had been prepared. By the next morning, however, an adequate number were ready.

The party set out down the river in five groups. An advance guard of four American officers occupied a single raft, which was about 20 feet long by 10 feet wide. The other four groups each had three rafts lashed together, so that the overall length was roughly 60 feet for each. All the vessels were rather loosely constructed of bamboo and vines, and each raft section had a thatched hut for protection from the sun. Colonel Williams commented: 'On the rafts we were organized into three shifts, each of us on duty for one hour, off duty for two hours, throughout the 24. On duty we poled, paddled and steered. Off duty we slept, ate occasionally (usually once a day) and were always ready to go over the side to push the raft off a snag.' Unfortunately, what Stilwell had intended as a somewhat relaxing experience proved to be an arduous one. Captain Jones noted that: 'We had to pole in many places to get any forward momentum at all. Poling a boxy, homemade raft on a sluggish river under the hot, Burmese sun, is the kind of work that could cause a man to give up soldiering.'

While the bulk of Stilwell's party would spend two solid days negotiating the Uyu River by raft, the general had sent his mule train and porters overland to Homalin, under the care of his 14-member Chinese army bodyguard and commanded by American Lieutenant Eugene Laybourn. Stilwell and the mules would rendezvous near Homalin on May 12.

In the meantime, the rafts began falling apart in the river. On the 11th, it began raining, a sign of the coming monsoon that could unleash itself in full force at any moment. The party continued moving toward Homalin day and night. At one point a lone British bomber passed low overhead, returned and dropped wrapped packages of food onto a sandbar. It was the first indication that anyone in India had received Stilwell's messages requesting assistance.

When Homalin was finally reached, Stilwell discovered that it had been hastily abandoned by British officials and much of the native population. No news of the Japanese was available, and no food had been left for Stilwell's party by the retreating British. The telegraph office was shut. When Laybourn arrived with the mules, Stilwell ordered him to swim the animals across the Chindwin and link up again with the main group on the other side of the river. The general led the rest of his party through the town to a Buddhist temple a few miles north, where they spent the night, much to the disapproval of the unfriendly priests who lived there.

On May 13, it was finally time for Stilwell to cross the mighty Chindwin, which marked the last major water barrier to the party's successful escape from the Japanese. After a two-mile walk from the temple to the river, the general and a handful of American officers stood on the bank trying to figure out how to cross it. Colonel Dorn recounted: 'Stilwell bit down on his cigarette holder and frowned, glaring at the river as if by sheer force of will he could compel some form of river craft to appear. Suddenly, five dugout canoes and a freight boat nosed around a bend half a mile up the angry surge of water.' The general's Kachin guide hailed the boatmen, who immediately responded by turning toward the shore. Stilwell directed that six lines be formed, and the boats transported the group piecemeal to the west bank of the river. Once there, Stilwell waited for the mules to arrive and the porters to get organized, describing the latter activity as a 'hell of a mess.' Finally, the whole party moved out into the steep Naga Hills. Stilwell remained unimpressed by the efforts of some of his officers. 'Took it easy over good trail,' a frustrated general noted, 'but the sissies are pooped out. They can't take it.'

After crossing the Chindwin, for the first time the members of Stilwell's party knew they were probably safe from the Japanese. But it was a near-run thing. Less than 36 hours after Stilwell left Homalin, a large detachment of Japanese cavalry entered the town. Curiously, Stilwell's group felt no real elation at the thought of having escaped from the enemy's grasp. As Colonel Dorn noted, 'Apathy and physical weariness seemed to pervade the entire party–that and a certain element of fear at the thought of the mountains to be crossed, the peaks and high ridges to be scaled.'

Indeed, the most difficult hiking of the entire trek would be encountered west of the Chindwin. According to Seagrave, only six people had used this mountain trail ahead of the Stilwell party in making their way out of Burma. On the afternoon of May 14, Stilwell led the group on a long climb up to the Naga village of Kawlum. Because no food had been delivered at Homalin, the party's most immediate concern was nourishment. Upon reaching Kawlum, however, their worries ended. British administrator Tim Sharpe had led a relief expedition eastward from Imphal. After five days, he made contact with Stilwell at Kawlum. After seeing to the needs of his party, a proud Stilwell wrote: 'Food, doctor, ponies and everything. Quite a relief, though we could have gone on by ourselves.'

Much hard climbing remained, however. Fortunately, the sick and lame among the group could now ride on pony or horseback most of the way, until the motor road to Imphal was gained. But the mountain peaks that the trail crossed reached as high as 7,500 feet. At Chammu, Stilwell was greeted by a chieftain in a bright red blanket who offered the general a bottle of rice beer as a sign of friendship and respect. At another village, the general was presented with a goat–Stilwell offered cigarettes in return. As the party progressed toward Imphal, it was repeatedly stopped by various village chiefs offering the ubiquitous rice beer, for which the usual teetotaler Stilwell developed a strong liking. The general was impressed with the Naga porters, whom he described as 'good looking and tough, good-humored and friendly.' He was also taken with the magnificent mountain views the steep trail afforded. On May 18, at the large village of Ukhrul (which Stilwell compared favorably with the mountain retreat of Baguio in the Philippines), the Assam Rifles of the Indian army presented Stilwell with a formal salute in honor of his arrival. The next day, after a 21-mile march, the group reached the truck head at Litan, where two American officers met the party with war news, chocolate bars, American cigarettes and whiskey.

Imphal had been bombed by the Japanese, and the bomb craters were much in evidence when Stilwell finally arrived there in the midafternoon of May 20. The truck ride from Litan to Imphal had proved to be 16 miles of pushing and pulling through thick mud, followed by 10 miles of easier driving over gravel road. By this time, the monsoon was in full fury. Stilwell, at age 59, had pushed himself and his people relentlessly, but all 114 members of his party survived the march out of Burma. The general arrived at Imphal with a bad cold, had lost at least 25 pounds and was suffering from what later turned out to be a bad case of jaundice. Several members of the group needed to be hospitalized. After a brief stay at Imphal, however, Stilwell proceeded to Tinsukia in northern Assam, where he met with Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton of the Tenth Air Force, other American officers, and the British generals Sir Archibald Wavell and Sir Harold Alexander. From there, he flew on to his headquarters at New Delhi.

Stilwell's trek from Burma was epic. With thousands of troops and refugees fleeing from the Japanese, the Stilwell party may well have been the only sizable group to escape with no loss of life. For many days, its presence was unknown to the outside world, and the general was even listed as missing in action. On May 12, U.S. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall had radioed Stilwell: 'The President, the Secretary of War, and the entire War Department are filled with admiration for the courageous manner in which you have met the hazards of the past ten days.' At that point, Stilwell was at Homalin, barely ahead of the Japanese, and he had already destroyed his radio equipment, so the message did not reach him until May 20. In his diary entry for that date, Stilwell questioned why the War Department would send him what seemed like a congratulatory message in the face of a great military debacle. Concerning the loss of Burma, the general had already remarked to his aide, Colonel Dorn: 'What a bitter tragedy it's all been. Worse because it might have been avoided.'

When Stilwell arrived in New Delhi on May 24, he was greeted by a crowd of news correspondents anxious for comment on his ordeal and for his view of the military disaster. Later that evening, the general held a press conference at which he described the campaign in Burma.

'I claim we got a hell of a beating,' he snapped. '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.'



This article was written by Marc D. Bernstein and originally appeared in the November 2004 issue of World War II.

Marc D. Bernstein is the author of Hurricane at Biak: MacArthur Against the Japanese, May-August 1944. For further reading, see Walkout with Stilwell in Burma, by Frank Dorn.

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2 Responses to “Joseph Stilwell's Escape from Burma During World War II”


  1. 1
    ada says:

    thant 4 make me understand more history

  2. 2

    [...] invasion of Burma. He joined Lieut. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell in his famous march out of Burma, along with 19 of his nurses. Five years after the end of the war, he was prosecuted for treason by [...]



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