The Ledo Road and Burma Road

The Ledo Road, (from Ledo, Assam, India to Kunming, China) was built during World War II so that the Western Allies could supply the Chinese as an alternative to the Burma Road which had been cut by the Japanese in 1942. It was renamed the Stilwell Road in early 1945 at the suggestion of Chiang Kai-shek. After Rangoon was captured by the Japanese and before the Ledo Road was finished, the majority of supplies to the Chinese were delivered via airlift over the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains. In the nineteenth century British railway builders had surveyed the Pangsau Pass, which is 3,727 feet (1,136 meters) high on the India-Burma border, on the Patkai crest, above Nampong, Arunachal Pradesh (then part of Assam). They concluded that a track could be pushed through to Burma and down the Hukaung Valley. Although the proposal was dropped, the British prospected the Patkai Range for a road from Assam into northern Burma. British engineers had surveyed the route for a road for the first eighty miles. After the British had been pushed back out of most of Burma by the Japanese building this road became a priority for the United States.

Ledo Road and Burma Road
On the December 1, 1942, British General Sir Archibald Wavell, the supreme commander of the Far Eastern Theatre, agreed with American General Stilwell to make the Ledo Road an American NCAC operation. It was built under the direction of General Stilwell from the railhead at Ledo (Assam, India) location to Bhamo on the Burma Road so that supplies could reach the railhead at Mogaung. It was built by 15,000 American soldiers (60% of whom were African-Americans) and 35,000 local workers at a cost of US$150 Million. 1,100 Americans died during the construction and many more locals. As most of Burma was in Japanese hands it was not possible to acquire information as to the topography, soils, and river behavior before construction started. This information had to be acquired as the road was constructed.

A U.S. Army soldier and a Chinese soldier place the flag of their ally on the front of their jeep just before the first truck convoy in almost three years crossed the China border en route from Ledo, India, to Kunming, China, over the Stilwell road in 1945. General Stilwell had organized a 'Service of Supply' (SOS) under the command of Major General Raymond A. Wheeler, a high profile US Army Engineer and assigned him to look after the construction of the Ledo Road. Major General Wheeler in turn, assigned responsibility of base commander for the road construction to Colonel John C. Arrowsmith. Later, he was replaced by Colonel Lewis A. Pick, an expert US Army engineer. Work started on the first 103 mile (166 km) section of the road in December 1942, followed a steep, narrow trail through territory from Ledo, across the Patkai Range through the Pangsau Pass, nicknamed "Hell Pass" for its difficulty, and down to Shingbwiyang, Burma. Sometimes rising as high as 4,500 feet (1400 m), the road required the removal of earth at the rate of 100,000 cubic feet per mile (1800 m/km). Steep gradients, hairpin curves and sheer drops of 200 feet (60 m), all surrounded by a thick rain forest was the norm for this first section. The first bulldozer reached Shingbwiyang on 27 December 1943, three days ahead of schedule.

The building of this section allowed much-needed supplies to flow to the troops engaged in attacking the Japanese 18th Division, which was defending the Northern area of Burma with their strongest forces around the towns of Kamaing, Mogaung and Myitkyina. Before the Ledo road reached Shingbwiyang, Allied troops (the majority of whom were American-trained Chinese Divisions of the X Force) had been totally dependent on supplies flown in over the Patkai Range. As the Japanese were forced to retreat south so the Ledo road was extended. This was made considerably easier from Shingbwiyang by the presence of a fair weather road built by the Japanese, and the Ledo road generally followed the Japanese trace. As the road was built, two 10 cm (4 inch) fuel pipe lines were laid side by side so that fuel could be piped instead of trucked along the road.

After the initial section to Shingbwiyang, more sections followed: Warazup, Myitkyina and Bhamo, 372 miles (600 km) from Ledo. At that point the road joined a spur of the old Burma road and although improvements to further sections followed the road was passable. The spur passed through Namkham 439 miles (558 km) from Ledo and finally at the Mong-Yu road junction, 465 miles (748 km) from Ledo, the Ledo road met the Burma road. To get to the Mong-Yu junction the Ledo road had to span 10 major rivers and 155 secondary streams, averaging one bridge every 2.8 miles (4.5 km). For the first convoys, if they turned right, they were on their way to Lashio 100 miles (160 km) to the South through Japanese-occupied Burma, if they turned left Wanting lay 60 miles (100 km) to the North just over the China-Burma border.

In late 1944, barely two years after Stilwell accepted responsibility for building the Ledo Road, it connected to the Burma Road though some sections of the road beyond Myitkyina at Hukaung Valley were under repair due to heavy monsoon rains, and it became a highway stretching from Assam, India to Kunming, China 1,079 miles (1736 km) length. On January 12, 1945, the first convoy of 113 vehicles led by General Pick from Ledo reached Kunming, China on February 4, 1945. Over the next seven months 35,000 tons of supplies in 5,000 vehicles were carried along it.

There was a mile sign at the start of the Ledo Road with the following information
When flying over the Hukaung Valley during the monsoon, Mountbatten asked his staff what was the name of the river below them. An American officer replied, "That's not a river, it's the Ledo Road."
[edit] American Army units assigned to the Ledo Road
The units initially assigned to the initial section were: [3]
45th Engineer General Service Regiment (An African-American Unit)
823rd Aviation Engineer Battalion (EAB) (An African-American Unit)
In 1943 they were joined by:

848th EAB (An African-American Unit)
849th EAB (An African-American Unit)
858th EAB (An African-American Unit)
1883rd EAB (An African-American Unit)

Work continued through 1944 in late December it was opened for the transport of logistics. In January 1945, four of the black EABs (along with three white battalions) continued working on the now renamed Stilwell Road, improving and widening it.

Views on the construction the road
Winston Churchill called the project "an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed".
The British Field Marshal William Slim who commanded the British Fourteenth Army in India/Burma wrote of the Ledo Road:
I agreed with Stilwell that the road could be built. I believed that, properly equipped and efficiently led, Chinese troops could defeat Japanese if, as would be the case with his Ledo force, they had a considerable numerical superiority. On the engineering side I had no doubts. We had built roads over country as difficult, with much less technical equipment than the Americans would have. My British engineers, who had surveyed the trace for the road for the first eighty miles [130 km], were quite confident about that. We were already, on the Central front, maintaining great labor forces over equally gimcrack lines of communication. Thus far Stilwell and I were in complete agreement, but I did not hold two articles of his faith. I doubted the overwhelming war-winning value of this road, and, in any case, I believed it was starting from the wrong place. The American amphibious strategy in the Pacific, of hopping from island to island would, I was sure, bring much quicker results than an overland advance across Asia with a Chinese army yet to be formed. In any case, if the road was to be really effective, its feeder railway should start from Rangoon, not Calcutta. [4]

After India and Burma were liberated the road fell into gradual disrepair. The last recorded vehicular journey from Ledo to Myitkyina and beyond (but not to China) was the Oxford-Cambridge Overland Expedition which in 1955 drove from London to Singapore and back. For many years, travel into the region was highly restricted because of an active insurgency against the government. Between 1962 and the mid 1990s, there were harsh restrictions on travel into Burma applied against all outsiders. Beginning in the 1990s, Mike Jenkins made a number of attempts to reach the road (cf Jenkins' article in OUTSIDE magazine cited below in external links). He had any number of difficulties with the government of Burma. In particular, the Burmese government at the time of his travels was fanatically suspicious of any professional writer or journalist.

Other and more recent attempts to travel the road have met with different results. The expedition book written by Tim Slessor reported that bridges were down in the section between Pangsau Pass and Shingbwiyang. At present the Nampong-Pangsau Pass section is passable in 4WD vehicles. The road on the Burmese side is reportedly fit for vehicular traffic. Donovan Webster reached Shingbwiyang on wheels in 2001, and in mid-2005 veterans of the Burma Star Association were invited to join a 'down memory lane' trip to Shingbwiyang organized by a politically well connected travel agent. None of these groups which successfully traveled the road made any comment on the political or human rights situation on Burma afterward. Burmese from Pangsau village saunter nonchalantly across Pangsau Pass down to Nampong in India for marketing, for the border is open despite the presence of insurgents on both sides. There are Assam Rifles and Burma Army posts at Nampong and Pangsau respectively. But the rules for locals in these border areas do not necessarily apply to westerners. The governments of both countries keep careful watch on the presence of westerners in the border areas and the land border is officially closed. Those who cross without permission risk arrest or problems with smugglers/insurgents in the area.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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