The triumvirate of countries that composed the disdained CBI had much in common. They were all dependent largely on an agrarian economy bolstered by the exploitation of raw materials useful to the industrialized nations. Two of them, India and Burma, were subjects of the British Empire. As World War II dawned, the indigenous people clamored for independence, and rebellion simmered. China, while independent, was racked by internal forces struggling for dominance. Furthermore, the Western countries, along with Japan, had obtained economic and political concessions beyond the control of whatever faction governed.
The military-industrial juggernaut of Imperial Japan coveted China as a great warehouse of substances vital to fuel the economy, as a great bazaar for its goods, and as a buffer against the Soviet Union, where memories of the 1904 war still rankled. The largest entity in CBI, China proper covered 4.27 million square miles (the continental United States at that time was 3 million) and was home to 400 million people (U.S. census figures in 1940 counted 133 million). So large a land naturally encompassed a broad spectrum of climates. The topography ranged from broad river valleys-natural boulevards for military forces-that dominated middle and southeastern China, to high mountains, which marked the colder west and northwest. Seaports such as Shanghai, Tsingtao, Canton, and Amoy served maritime interests. China bordered Burma to the south, India to the southwest, and Japan's fief of Manchuria to the northeast.
Southeast Asia beckoned to the Japanese with shipping hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Burma's Rangoon, along with vast stores of rubber, oil, ores, and farm products in the Dutch East Indies, the French possession of Indochina (today Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), and the British colonial outposts of Malaya and Burma, and independent Siam (now Thailand). For the Japanese, the problem in Southeast Asia would become that every expansion required more troops, pushing their flag ever farther. Conquest of Indochina and Siam meant a secured military presence in neighboring Burma. That step in turn would bring the Nipponese to the Indian border, inevitably leading to still another confrontation. The Western powers would meet the Japanese most squarely in Burma. U.S. and British ground units saw no service in China, and the combat that intruded into India overflowed from Burma.
Burma (now known as Myanmar), with about 263,000 square miles, was roughly the size of the state of Texas. The population was about 17 million, composed of 10 million Burmese, 4 million Karens, 2 million Shans, and more than 1 million residents of the hill country, who were from ethnic strains known as Nagas, Chins, and Kachins. A sizable minority of noncitizens-Indians and Chinese-worked or plied professions in the cities. While various branches of Christianity deployed missionaries, the prevailing religions were Buddhism and Islam. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, Burma had been part of the British Empire, and as World War II neared, a strong independence movement gathered steam.
The best-known cities were Mandalay, which lay in a relatively dry triangle in the interior, and the port of Rangoon. The residents of a typical ga or village lived off crops. The five-month monsoon season and the intense tropical sun grew an astonishingly lush flora that in turn nourished a zoological cornucopia of animal and insect life. The latter, unfortunately, also bore a textbook of infectious diseases.
Four rivers flowed mostly north to south, following the elongated shape of the country. During the monsoon season these and smaller streams, known as chaungs (often arid ditches during dry periods), turned into swift-moving, even white-water torrents. The mighty Irrawaddy, 1,300 miles long and as many as 3 miles wide at some points, originated in northern Burma near Fort Hertz and traveled through the central portions of the land all the way to Rangoon, on the Gulf of Martaban. The Chindwin, a tributary of the Irrawaddy, approached the border with India. In 1941 both of these waterways were navigable by shallow-draft vessels, and a few bridges enabled vehicles and trains to cross them. The Sittang, between the two, was shorter, and its tidal currents made it difficult for boats and to build bridges. The Salween, the longest of the four, originated in China but was considered unnavigable; the only way to cross it was by ferry.
Burma's abundant stretches of mountains (bum in Burmese) mirrored the courses of the rivers and steep hills that also tended to stretch in north-to-south axes. These geological formations tended to completely wall off Burma from its neighbors India, China, and Siam. Siam and Indochina lay to the east, India to the west, and China was north.
A western, coastal sliver of Burma, the Arakan, along the Bay of Bengal, was almost totally shut off from interior Burma by mountains and the Irrawaddy. It was best reachable by boats from India or Rangoon. Not until the Japanese showed up did anyone realize that a determined military could push through overland. For that matter, there were few decent roads throughout the entire country.
The territory of India spread over a landmass slightly smaller than the continental United States at that time. As in Burma, India's 300 million people also splintered into a number of ethnic divisions and religions. The Hindus, with their caste system, created an additional divisive factor. The struggle for independence, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi, roiled the political and civil scene far more than in Burma. The India brought into World War II by its colonial master was something less than a willing partner. In fact, as in Burma, there were those who openly sided with the Japanese and even fought against the British forces. For the most part, the legions of soldiers drawn from various parts of India (Pakistan would not separate from India until independence in 1947 and Bangladesh was even farther up the historical timeline) remained loyal and fought for the crown not only in CBI but also in various other theaters.
In World War II the most important area of India was the province of Assam, which bordered northwestern Burma. An area marked by hills and mountains, it culminated in the towering Himalayas, the fabled "Hump" over which flew aircraft bound for China. The hot, moist climate of Assam favored tea plantations and fauna ranging from elephants and tigers to wee moles, as well as pestiferous insects loaded with tropical illnesses.
The Generalissimo and the First Americans
In CBI, World War II began in China, a country also beset by internecine strife. The contest for control of China pitted the Nationalist forces under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, a hardened survivor of years of brutal internal bloodshed, and the equally determined and blowtorch-tested Communists. Hanging around like jackals were a galaxy of freebooting Chinese generals who acted like warlords hoping to preserve their private fiefs.
Western sympathy for China and antipathy toward Japan, an ally of the United States and Britain during World War I, dated back to September 1931, when the Japanese staged an incident near Mukden, Manchuria, and subsequently assumed control over Manchuria. Fewer than six months later, a Japanese expeditionary force sought to capture Shanghai, but the resistance of Chinese troops and the displeasure of world opinion forced the Nipponese to abandon the project.
During the following years, while Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang Party solidified their leadership and unified China in spite of opposition from the country's Communists, the Japanese nibbled away at their nearby neighbor. In 1937, with the militarist and expansionist elements of Japan in the ascendancy, that nation's armed forces began a full-scale but undeclared war against China. In response, the factions within China declared an internal truce and vowed to present a united front against the aggressor.
Chiang Kai-shek's soldiers-many, ironically, trained by Japan's World War II partners Germany and Italy-mounted some resistance, but they were overmatched. They committed basic errors in strategy and tactics, failed to appreciate the need for intelligence, had little understanding of how to deploy supporting weapons, and lacked enough vehicles or firepower. The contribution of their fledgling air force was negligible.
The invaders captured major cities, including the capital of Nanking, from where news of massacres and terrible atrocities inflamed world antagonism toward the conquerors. Savage behavior aside, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, who possessed colonies in the region, and the United States-like them, having vast economic interests in the Far East-naturally regarded the extension of Japan's reach with alarm.
There had long been a highly visible American presence in China. Aside from the commercial interests, a substantial number of U.S. citizens inhabited the International Settlement in Shanghai, and China was a regular port of call for the U.S. Navy. As the government of Chiang Kai-shek skirmished with the Communist movement led by Mao Tse-tung, bickered with warlords, and faced Japanese aggressiveness, the figure of the U.S. military attaché at the embassy grew in importance and political stature.
In 1934, Colonel Joseph Stilwell received an appointment to that post from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of state, Cordell Hull. As a precocious adolescent, Stilwell had graduated from Yonkers High School, in New York's Westchester County, at sixteen, but a year later, as a postgraduate student, he engineered a series of pranks-smearing Limburger cheese over desks, roughing up the principal, and stealing ice cream tubs and cakes. Nevertheless, his father, a lawyer and physician, secured him an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, Class of 1904.
A good student, Stilwell, in his diary, railed against the hazing and regimentation of plebe (freshman) life, collecting demerits because of his disdain for regulations. Stilwell never donned the persona of a spit-and-polish disciplinarian. However, he demonstrated an aptitude for languages; performed creditably in other classes; and enthusiastically engaged in football, track, and basketball, a sport he allegedly introduced to the academy.
When he graduated in 1904, one year after Douglas MacArthur, Stilwell elected the infantry and traveled to the Philippines to help suppress the last vestiges of the "insurrection." In line with the USMA's policy of using graduates as academic instructors, Stilwell then taught English, French, and Spanish, plus tactics. He spent his leaves traveling in Europe and South America. In 1911, detailed to the 12th Infantry Regiment, he visited China for the first time.
Fate brought him to Shanghai, where he embarked on a seventeenday odyssey as an eyewitness to the turmoil caused by the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty. Soldiers, bandits, villagers, and refugees driven from their homes by the conflict fought using everything from rifles and muskets to hoes, pitchforks, and staves. Gangs sacked and plundered towns in scattered orgies of terror and killing. Stilwell traveled about, soaking up a firsthand view of incredibly crowded slums with narrow streets or alleys; coolie labor; sewage-stuffed canals; opium smokers and bejeweled but slatternly prostitutes; shrines and pagodas; pirate traffic on the inland waters; and, more ominously, rivers strewn with corpses. He also became infected with his lifelong aversion to the British. While he admired their drill sergeants, saying, "their commands, appearance, and results beat our average officer 500 percent," he characterized the English officers as "a mess.... Untidy, grouchy, sloppy, fooling around with canes, a bad example for the men." Their traditional swagger stick became a symbol to him of all that was wrong with the British military.
The United States, like other industrialized nations, had imposed its commercial desires upon China in the forms of business concessions, bank loans, extraterritorial rights in the courts, and settlements immune to local control. American diplomats, however, had gained the country some goodwill by using the compensation money owed for the ill-fated Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900 to educate Chinese students in the States.
None of that meant anything to Stilwell when the United States entered World War I. In 1917 he had been assigned to an overseas infantry division. His knowledge of French soon elevated him to the staff of General John J. Pershing, commander of the U.S. Expeditionary Force, as an intelligence officer. A brief tour with the British 58th Division, during which he prowled trenches, dugouts, and observation posts, only confirmed his Anglophobia. "These English are beyond me-most of them so very pleasant and some of them so damn snotty ... too goddamned indifferent and high and mighty to bother about an American officer." (This Stilwell observation, along with many others from his early career, comes from Barbara Tuchman's Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911-1945.)
While he came under artillery fire and observed at close hand death and destruction, he never commanded any troops in the field. After the Armistice and a brief tour as an occupation soldier, Stilwell returned to the United States, soured by the spectacle of politicians and generals bickering over the peace terms. He arranged for an assignment to China as an adjunct to the military attaché.
With his wife, he took up residence in Peiping (later named Peking and still later Beijing), where he immersed himself in a study of the host nation's military forces, including the warlords. As an agent of the military attaché, he traveled widely in the Far East, touring Manchuria, Siberia, Korea, and even Japan. Certainly aware of the grim life of the poor of the cities and the peasants of the countryside, Stilwell became enamored of the finer aspects of Chinese culture and the people who manifested them.
He added the Japanese to another of his dislikes. In Siberia, invaded by the Nipponese after the Bolshevik Revolution, he found the Japanese dilatory in carrying out the mandate for them to evacuate. Stilwell snarled, "The arrogant little bastards were ... all over town this A.M. in American cars, posting M.P.s and sticking out their guts.... They need a kick in the slats in the worst way. They have systematically bothered and annoyed Americans about passports ... and seem to go out of their way to make people despise and hate them." While visiting Japan he angrily observed the residents treating foreigners as inferiors. He compared them with the Teutons, "pale imitations of the Germans without the latter's brains and ability. Patriotic, well organized, brave, artistic, swellheaded [sic], and stupid." Underestimation of Japanese intelligence and ability would cost Stilwell in the future, but in this regard he was hardly alone.
Stilwell, in 1923, brought his growing family home and attended first the infantry course at Fort Benning and then, in 1925 and 1926, attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Among his classmates was a 1915 West Pointer, Dwight D. Eisenhower. By 1926, Stilwell, now a major, had returned to China as a battalion commander in the 15th Infantry Regiment, stationed in Tientsin. To his dismay, the regiment hewed to customs that were anathema to Stilwell. The rules prescribed that officers when in uniform and not under arms would carry the abhorred swagger stick or a riding crop.
Excerpted from The Jungle War by Gerald Astor Excerpted by permission.
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