It was known as the ‘mile a man’ road because of the number of soldiers who died in its construction. It was also the largest, costliest and most controversial engineering project of the Second World War.
It was known as the ‘mile a man’ road because of the number of soldiers who died in its construction
When it was finally completed in January 1945, the Ledo Road stretched for 748 km through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. From Ledo in Upper Assam, it crossed the Paktai range at the 1136m Pangsau Pass and on to Myitkiyina in central Burma (now known as Myanmar), before linking up with the Burma Road.
Its objective was to provide an overland military supply route to Yunnan in China where forces under the command of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek were seeking to push back the Japanese advance. But not everyone was convinced of its utility. Winston Churchill dismissed it as ‘an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished before the need for it has passed’.
Today what is known as the Stilwell Road is motorable for barely 60km up to the Pangsau Pass that marks the border between India and Myanmar. On the other side of the frontier, what was once a 10m wide, double-lane, all-weather highway, degenerates into an overgrown track. What could have been a vital trade and transport link between northeast India and the rest of Asia has suffered from decades of neglect.
The Stilwell Road is motorable for barely 60km up to the Pangsau Pass that marks the border between India and Myanmar
But this road is important. It is a reminder of the time when Upper Assam was the headquarters of the Northern Area Command - known as the China-Burma-India theatre of the war - and evidence of this can be seen in Ledo and its surrounding towns. Baileys bridges, Nissen huts and disused airstrips dot the landscape. Tens of thousands of American, British, Australian, Indian, Chinese and Nepalese troops were stationed there from 1942 to 1945. A Commonwealth war graves cemetery near the oil town of Digboi contains the graves of 200 soldiers.
Ledo was chosen as the starting point for this important road because it was close to the northern terminus of a rail line from the ports of Calcutta and Karachi. Lend-lease supplies destined for China typically travelled from the west coast of the United States by ship across the Pacific before being transferred to railway wagons and shipped to northeast India.
The 19,000km supply line was the longest in the war—and the most dangerous. After arriving in Ledo, ammunition, machinery, fuel and other essentials were loaded on to C-46 aircraft for the perilous flight across what was known as ‘The Hump’—the eastern-most spur of the Himalayan Range to Kunming.
The air route was so hazardous, it came to be known as ‘Skyway to Hell’
The air route, which passed over 4,500m high ridges, was so hazardous it came to be known as ‘Skyway to Hell’ and ‘the Aluminum Trail’ by the remains of downed aircraft on the ground. An average of eight planes a month were lost because of the 300kph winds, blinding rains, snow, ice and enemy fire. According to the US Defence Department, more than 500 aircraft and 1,200 crew members who flew ‘The Hump’ are unaccounted for, with 416 Americans missing in India alone.
The hazards and logistical limitations of the air route to China made the construction of a land route more urgent. Pushing hardest for its construction was the American General Joseph Stilwell, the first Deputy Supreme Commander of the South-East Asia Command and head of the China-India-Burma theatre.
Stilwell was a West Point graduate with extensive experience in China and most importantly, someone who was willing to stand up to the recalcitrant and corrupt Chiang Kai-shek. On his desk was a motto inscribed with the words: Illegitimi non carborundum, a form of fractured Latin that translates as ‘Don't let the bastards grind you down’.
During the First Burma Campaign, which ended in the Allied defeat of May 1942, Stilwell led the retreat of a group of about one hundred soldiers and civilians on a hazardous 210km march through the Burmese jungle and safely into India. On his arrival in Imphal, he told reporters:
’We got a hell of a beating. We ought to find out why it happened and go back!’
A charismatic, though somewhat unorthodox commander, he wore a tattered old army hat and uniform with no insignia of rank while in the field. His blunt candour and willingness to share the hardships of the common soldiers earned him the nickname, ’Vinegar Joe’.
The Ledo Road was approved on 10 November 1942. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave it his personal blessing, promising thousands of troops to aid in its construction. At the time, the intended route of the road had been only partially explored so engineers had only a vague idea about the topography they would encounter.
The road was opposed by the operators of tea estates in Upper Assam who feared their laborers would be diverted to its construction and their facilities requisitioned for the war effort. They were right.
The Ledo Road was approved on 10 November 1942
For more than two years, as many as 17,000 mainly American engineers oversaw up to 60,000 labourers who worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to convert what had been a jungle track, into a trans-Asian highway. The labourers included the North Burmese Kachin warriors, Bihari tea plantation workers, Travancore coolies, porters from the Garo Hills and Darjeeling as well as troops from the Indian Pioneer Corps. Chinese mule pack trains augmented the inadequate fleet of trucks.
Along the way, engineers encountered vertical rain-forests, receiving 150 inches of rain a year and frequent earth tremors that triggered landslides. Malaria, typhus, dysentery, skin diseases, leeches, forty species of poisonous snakes, ticks, wasps, scorpions and sand flies took a huge toll on the health of workers.
Hundreds of bridges were required to span creeks that turned into raging torrents during the monsoon. Charles Gleam, Commander of America’s 330th Engineers famously said that the road would stand as the ‘toughest engineering job on the planet’.
The first convoy departed Ledo on 12 January 1945 and arrived in Kunming, 1736 kms away on 4th February 1945. Although Stilwell had been dismissed from his command following pressure by Chiang Kai-shek in October 1944, the Chinese leader renamed the road after the American general shortly after its opening. In the end, the road which cost $US150 million in the currency of the time was used for just seven months, with Japan surrendering on 28 August 1945. Churchill was almost right.
Just outside Ledo, a signpost stands as a reminder of the Ledo Road’s importance. It marks the distances to towns along and way and carries the slogan ‘Rejuvenate our life line, revitalise our relationship, reach out beyond borders’.
Last year China’s state-run Global Times newspaper noted the economic benefits that would flow from having the road repaired. As recently as April this year, the Arunachal Pradesh Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein called for its reopening, saying it would facilitate the growth of trade between his state and Myanmar.
Though it may no longer be ‘the toughest job on the planet’, restoring the Ledo Road to its former glory will take plenty of political resolve, financial commitment and above all common purpose, something that will be difficult given the friction between India and China, the most recent being over the Doklam issue and the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis on the borderlands between India and Myanmar.
The Ledo road meanwhile remains broken and as is. A silent tribute to all those who laid down their lives to build it, at a time when the world was at war.
John Zubrzycki is the author of The Last Nizam: The Rise and Fall of India’s Greatest Princely State (Picador) and The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy (PenguinRandom House). He is currently doctoral candidate at the University of New South Wales working on links between Indian and Western stage music.
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