Smack in the middle of Jharkhand, a 10-minute ride along a dusty road from the cantonment town of Ramgarh, is one of history’s tragic oddities. It’s a cemetery of Chinese ‘X Men’ who were led by a superhero dressed not in a shimmering cape but military fatigues. The sun has long since set on the war that brought these Chinese soldiers to Ramgarh but their stranded souls, thousands of miles from home, tell a powerful story.
But why Ramgarh, a rural backwater that was never a theatre of war, nor home to a Chinese population? I visited the cemetery recently and persuaded the middle-aged caretaker to let me in. After some persuasion, he obliged and there I was, about to step into an important chapter in world history.
The Ramgarh Chinese cemetery has a tall, triple-arched gate painted in pastel colours. Inside, there’s a memorial and a two-storey Chinese-style Buddhist temple with two huts next to it. On the ground floor is a memorial tablet inscribed with the names of fallen soldiers and the flags of India and the Republic of China (Taiwan).
Many of the larger tombstones have been painted in recent times. Each one has a memorial stone inscribed in Chinese. However, a large number of unpainted graves with a single stone have ‘Unknown Soldier’ inscribed on them. Of the 600-odd graves in the cemetery, only 40 have been identified.
The Chinese cemetery at Ramgarh itself has never been a secret but the reason the soldiers were here had been concealed from the world for years. Here’s the fascinating story.
PoW Camp To Training Ground
The town of Ramgarh had been a camp for Italian and German Prisoners of War (PoWs) during World War II and was converted, in August 1942, into a camp to train Chinese soldiers financed by the British and trained by the Americans to fight the Japanese on the Burma front during World War II.
At the entrance gate to the cemetery, a plaque states: “This cemetery is a permanent home to the heroes of the Republic of China who sacrificed their lives and died with honour in a combined operation with British and American forces to build the China-India highway and successfully prevent the Japanese forces from occupying India and not allow them to join the German forces in the Middle East.”
But it still begs the question: If they were all fighting for the same cause, why a war cemetery exclusively for the Chinese in Ramgarh?
To answer this question, we must travel back to December 7, 1941, when Japan stunned the United States (US) and the world by launching a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, thus dragging America into World War II. The Americans now wanted to pay back the Japanese as well as stop their aggression in the war. They figured the most effective way to do this was by bombing Japan after building bases with their ally, the Chinese.
But there was a problem. China was already engaged in a conflict of its own, an all-out war with Japan that predated World War II. A major part of eastern China had fallen into Japanese hands but Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek refused to surrender. It was clear that China could not win the war and the US turned this into a golden opportunity. It realized that, together, they could defeat their common enemy.
But the Americans faced another unexpected challenge. As mentioned by Eric Setzekorn in his book The Rise and Fall of an Officer Corps: The Republic of China Military, 1942–1955, they found Chinese soldiers to be “politically fractured, poorly trained and tactically passive”. Thus, the Americans were skeptical about direct military involvement with China.
The British too had doubts about the Chinese army’s capabilities. Frantically looking for options, US Army Chief of Staff, George Catlett Marshall, appointed his old friend, General Joseph Stilwell, as the commander of American forces in the China-Burma-India Theatre and more importantly chief of staff to Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.
Enter Joseph Stilwell
Stilwell had been a battalion commander in Northern China in the 1920s. He was fluent in Chinese and in the role of military attaché in Beijing, he had observed firsthand the military operations of the Japanese.
Initially, Stilwell’s mission suffered a setback. Shortly after his arrival in Burma in April 1942, the country fell to the Japanese. As a result, the Burma Road, China’s vital connection to the outer world, was closed, severing China's supply routes on land and sea. One of the difficulties Stilwell faced was that his Chinese subordinates were reluctant in following his orders, as they were frequently contradicted by Chiang’s own direct communications with his generals.
Stilwell was thus forced to retreat. He led a party of 115 men through the jungle on foot into Assam in India, marching at what became known as the ‘Stilwell Stride’. It is said that Stilwell walked 105 paces per minute. A true leader, Stilwell refused to board the last available plane sent to rescue him. He also did not lose a single one of the 115 soldiers who accompanied him in this retreat. Reporter Jack Belden, a part of this group, told the remarkable story in his bestseller Retreat With Stilwell (1943).
By the middle of 1942 Burma was in Japanese hands and China was miserably isolated. The only way supplies could reach the Chinese was by air, flying over the Himalayas, which were popularly referred to as ‘The Hump’. Worse, India was exposed to the danger of a Japanese invasion through Burma.
A significant number of soldiers from the National Revolutionary Army's Chinese Expeditionary Force had crossed rivers and mountains to retreat to India. They had been rushed into Burma to help stave off Japanese advances. After three months of rigorous fighting, they marched 200 miles, deprived of food, water or medical care.
What Was The X Force?
Since the Japanese win had upset Stilwell’s plans, he came up with an alternative idea. He decided to train 1,00,000 Chinese soldiers with the help of American war experts at Ramgarh. He chose this site as it had been a large PoW camp and it was also on a railroad.
These soldiers would form Stilwell’s ‘A Team’ to win his battle against the Japanese. Initially, only Chinese soldiers who had fled the Burma front made it to this camp. They were known as the ‘X Force’. But, as soon as Chiang Kai-shek approved Sitwell’s Ramgarh plan, thousands of Chinese soldiers started being flown in over ‘The Hump’ (Himalayas) and then transported by train to be trained at Ramgarh.
The first trainload arrived in July 1942 from Burma via Imphal and Ledo in Assam, and more troops kept arriving from China on a regular basis. Together, they were named the ‘X Force’ alias CAI (Chinese Army in India) and were used by Stilwell to open a land route to China – the Ledo Road.
The Chinese at the camp were overjoyed as they were given hot meals, they were regularly checked by doctors, they practiced with live bullets and shells, and most importantly they were paid in cash. But the Americans were not impressed. Apart from it being hot, dusty and itchy, the food did not meet their standards and it seemed impossible to train soldiers who had only primitive knowledge of warfare.
The Ramgarh Training Center was established in utmost secrecy and its existence not disclosed until after the war. It was the only US Army training centre on foreign soil until another one modelled on it was set up at Kunming in China, later in the war. As of December 1943, the Ramgarh Training Center had trained 5,368 officers and 48,124 enlisted men of the Chinese Army in India. For the first time in history, a foreigner had been given full command and full control of Chinese troops, without any strings attached!
But the British Government in India was uncomfortable with having so many Chinese soldiers being trained on Indian soil. Besides, the Viceroy was miffed that Chiang Kai-shek was trying to develop a relationship with Congress. In the end, Commander-in-Chief in India, Field Marshal Archibald Wavell stuck a bargain with Joseph Stilwell to accommodate around 50,000 troops. Stilwell actually wanted 1,00,000 Chinese Soldiers, but Wavell was uncomfortable with so many Chinese soldiers secretly being trained on Indian soil. He started with allowing 25000 Chinese soldiers and ultimately around 50,000 troops were allowed.
There was another problem. Although the Chinese army was vital to reclaim the land route from China, yet very few trusted their capabilities, and Stilwell was one of them. After so many months of rigorous training, he was not worried about the technical proficiency of the CAI; rather the lack of aggressiveness on the part of the Chinese officers.
Road To China Reopens
It was time to call in the really big guns. This was the US Army’s 5307, the Composite Unit (Provisional), which specialized in jungle warfare. The unit, also called ‘Merrill’s Marauders’, was attached to Stilwell’s field command on 7th January 1943 and they were to move to Ledo by 7th February.
Their first operation, aided by the Kachin natives of Burma, led to the death of over 800 Japanese soldiers. But their joy was short-lived due to a series of setbacks they faced. One was an attack by the Japanese at an airstrip near Nhpum Ga in Burma, which left many Allied soldiers dead and wounded. Equally deadly was the threat of pestilence caused by decaying animal carcasses and human bodies in the villages around Nhpum Ga, which had also turned the water foul. Malaria and diarrhoea were rampant, there wasn’t enough food and the soldiers were starving.
Despite their dire predicament, Stilwell was under pressure from the American President to capture at least the Mytikyina airfield. This put pressure on Chiang Kai-shek to send his ‘Y Force’ from China to accelerate the battle. The Y Force was the Second Chinese Expeditionary Force and its mission was to assist Allied operations.
Despite heavy causalities, Stilwell could not let the 5307th Composite Unit retire as they were still the driving force of this battle. What’s more, the local Kachins did not like the Chinese, so the war was to be led by the Americans. The Chinese and Kachins’ numbers were important as Merrill’s Marauders were reduced to half their original strength.
Mytikyina was finally captured but it took a heavy toll on both the Chinese Force as well as Merrill’s Marauders. But the victory was theirs and the Ledo Road, which connected the old Burma Road with China, was finally opened.
Soon after, America would build more airbases in China but when Japan would not surrender, President Truman would order the dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus bringing an end to World War II.
What Happened To The Dead?
In the Journal of Chinese Military History, Linh D Vu of Arizona State University mentions in the article Bones of Contention: China’s World War II Military Graves in India, Burma, and Papua New Guinea (2019): “Nationalist China did not establish an office similar to the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) and the British Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC), which handle war cemeteries in domestic and foreign territories. Furthermore, as China was not a party to the international legal agreements over foreign military burials developed during World War I, the Euro-American Allies were not obligated to make final arrangements for fallen Chinese soldiers.”
“In other words, Chinese soldiers’ graves in various towns in Burma and India and in Rabaul (Papua New Guinea) were not covered by the international law concerning overseas graves, which required complying nations to administer war graves of foreign nationals within their boundaries. In addition, because of ‘legal Orientalism’, which implies the lack of so-called universal and natural law in non-Western societies, minimal effort to establish legal measures for the Chinese war dead was made during World War II.”
“Due to military clashes, disease and accidents, Chinese soldiers’ graves and other smaller burial sites sprouted along the Burma Road, stretching from Kunming to Lashio. In India, another 20 Chinese officers and soldiers were buried in five main sites and in scattered gravesites (one in Tistamukh Ghat).”
Under these circumstances, the Nationalist Chinese military command in India wanted to build a military cemetery in Ramgarh, which would cost an estimated Rs 70,000 or USD 23,000. Stilwell was requested to bear the cost but both the US and Britain kept passing the buck to each other.
Finally, in 1945, Zheng Dongguo (alias Cheng Tung–Kuo), field commander of the Republic of China’s National Revolutionary Army, requested that the Nationalist government in China to fork out Rs 80,000 and that too before the departure of the Chinese New First Army from India. This was because as soon as the Chinese army would have left India, the issue of building the cemetery would have become irrelevant. So the Chinese needed to hurry.In addition to Zheng’s effort, in February 1945, Brigadier General John A Warden of the US Army telegraphed the Chinese Commissioner to India, to request further instructions concerning the Chinese war dead in Burma and India.
Finally, the Chinese Ministry of Military Administration approved the plan to cremate the bodies, place the remains in earthen urns and add signage to their graves. The Chinese and American sides were to accomplish the task together and a priest or army chaplain was to officiate at the time of burial.
This arrangement gave a new meaning to China being a ‘third-rank ally’; its dead received a minimal courtesy. Initially, the Chinese Buddhist monks living at the cemetery were to maintain the burial ground on a monthly salary of Rs 150.
Meanwhile, the US government was simultaneously making arrangements to collect the bodies of their own soldiers, and 2,028 bodies of American soldiers were transported to Shanghai, and from there to the US. This is why there is no American war cemetery in Ramgarh, only one for Chinese soldiers.
Ramgarh Cemetery Today
After India’s independence, maintenance of the cemetery changed hands and it was in pretty bad shape until in 1983, when the station commander of Ramgarh Cantonment, Brigadier S C Puri, made a valiant effort to renovate it. At present, it is maintained by the Taiwanese Embassy in New Delhi, and the Ambassador of Taiwan (Republic of China) and other prominent authorities from Taiwan have periodically planted trees here.
It is not certain exactly when the cemetery was completed. While December 1944 is mentioned on the memorial, that is perhaps the date on which the plan for its construction was approved. It is very clear from several communications between the Chinese, British and the Americans that the cemetery was not completed before mid-1945.
The tall memorial inside the cemetery has text on its four sides in Chinese, but there is also some text in English. A little confusing, it suggests that the cemetery has four sections – north, south, east and west. Tombstones erected in each section were constructed either under supervision or financed by four different individuals from the Chinese Army.
The North side was under Ho Ying Chin, General Commander of the Chinese Army (1890-1987); Chiang Kai-shek Generalisimo (1887-1975) took care of the East side; Zheng Dongguo (pronounced Cheng Tung-Kuo, 1903-1991), Field Commander in the Republic of China National Revolutionary Army erected monuments on the South side; and General Lo Cho Ying (1896-1961), Chief of Staff to American General Stillwell, was responsible for construction of the tombs on the West side.
The text on the memorial reads like this:
On 12th January 2017, Consul-General at the Chinese Consulate in Kolkata, Ma Zhanwu, along with a team of five Chinese officials paid a visit to this cemetery at Ramgarh. He said a request had been made to the Indian Government to turn the cemetery into a tourist spot.
This request was contested by Tien Chung-kwang, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre (TECC) in India, as the Chinese soldiers buried there were soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China and were in no way related to the People’s Republic of China. They were not amused with the idea proposed by Beijing and have been protesting vehemently.
Personally, I like the attention that the cemetery of the Chinese Expeditionary Forces is getting. The role played by the long-forgotten allies of the Americans in halting the near-invincible Japanese from entering India and in reopening the Burma Road does not have to be a forgotten chapter for the present generation.
– ABOUT AUTHOR
Amitabha Gupta is a heritage enthusiast, travel writer, photographer and blogger who has been writing on the heritage of Eastern India for travel magazines and publications.