Cover image for The Burma road : the epic story of the China-Burma-India theater in World War II
The Burma road : the epic story of the China-Burma-India theater in World War II
Webster, Donovan.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2003]

Physical Description:
370 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
D767.6 .W44 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
D767.6 .W44 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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The harrowing story of one of the greatest chapters of World War II---the building and defense of the Burma Road The Burma Road tells the extraordinary story of the China-Burma-India theater of operations during World War II. As the Imperial Japanese Army swept across China and South Asia at the war's outset--closing all of China's seaports--more than 200,000 Chinese laborers embarked on a seemingly impossible task: to cut a seven-hundred-mile overland route--which would be called the Burma Road--from the southwest Chinese city of Kunming to Lashio, Burma. But with the fall of Burma in early 1942, the Burma Road was severed, and it became the task of the newly arrived American General Stilwell to re-open it, while, at the same time, keeping China supplied by air-lift from India and simultaneously driving the Japanese out of Burma as the first step of the Allied offensive toward Japan. In gripping prose, Donovan Webster follows the breathtaking adventures of the American "Hump" pilots who flew hair-raising missions over the Himalayas to make food-drops in China; tells the true story of the mission that inspired the famous film The Bridge on the River Kwai; and recounts the grueling jungle operations of Merrill's Marauders and the British Chindit Brigades. Interspersed with vivid portraits of the American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the exceedingly eccentric British General Orde Wingate, and the mercurial Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, The Burma Road vividly re-creates the sprawling, sometimes hilarious, often harrowing, and still largely unknown stories of one of the greatest chapters of World War II.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Mountainous and malarial, northern Burma is terrible terrain for war, but the Allies resolved to fight there to keep China in World War II. The effort's executant, American general Joseph Stilwell, occupies center stage of Webster's chronicle, which benefits from the author's visits to battle sites and remnants of a supply road. Applying concrete visualization of the mud, leeches, and heat of tropical combat, Webster renders the misery experienced by soldiers on both Japanese and Allied sides, blending them with the tactical details of the war's ebb and flood in Burma. These flow into Webster's accounts of Merrill's Marauders, Wingate's Chindits, Chennault's Flying Tigers, and other such colorful objects of Eric Sevareid's and Theodore White's reportage, all under Stilwell's nominal control, as was, on paper but infrequently in fact, the military of Chiang Kai-shek. Stilwell's headaches running such a sprawling theater, while previously researched by Barbara Tuchman (Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45, 1970), are ably integrated by Webster into the infantryman's viewpoint: the result is a high-quality overview. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2003 Booklist

Library Journal Review

The story of the 700-mile supply route running from Burma to China, which took only a year to build-and was promptly overwhelmed by the Japanese. From a former senior editor for Outside. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This is a well-written retelling of the battle for Burma in WW II. At its center is the story of Gen. Joseph Stillwell trying to accomplish impossible tasks with insufficient military resources and men, and inadequate political support. Webster also examines the importance of technological changes during a long war and their impact on the results. Asia may have been a major theater of war but was never treated as an equal to Europe and the Pacific. In 1942, China was central to winning the war in Asia, and Burma was important to keep China supplied; but by 1944 the long-distance bomber and naval developments made it possible to bypass the Asian mainland. Webster uses new information from interviews with surviving participants in Japan, Burma, and elsewhere, thus adding to the accounts of Tuchman, Belden, and White and the official history by Charles F. Romanus and Riley Sunderland, Stillwell's Command Problems (1956). Although written for the general public, it would make an excellent introductory assignment for a course on WW II as it points beyond the battlefields to show how war plans are made and remade, how governments' actions away from the fighting and the competition between military leaders often play larger roles in affecting the outcome. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Lower-division undergraduate through graduate collections. J. Silverstein emeritus, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick



Excerpt from The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II by Donovan Webster. Copyright (c) 2003 by Donovan Webster. Published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. Prologue WHEN I MEET THEM at their reunions and in their homes, the Old Soldiers warn me not even to go looking. To a man, every one of them believes the road they hacked across India's steep Himalayan passes and down through the steaming jungles of Burma into China during World War II has disappeared, destroyed by time. They say the route itself exists only as a memory, that the road's two stringy lanes-now more than sixty years old-certainly have been devoured by landslides and rain and swampy jungle vegetation. But now, step after step-and in the cool of a mid-January morning-my feet are moving up the same gravel pike the Old Soldiers have cautioned me about. I'm walking between walls of jungle that rise from the roadside like green tapestries a hundred feet tall; setting off for the places where the Old Soldiers' friends died, their own sweat fell, and-perhaps more than anything-where the nightmares that still find them were seared into place so firmly that, when they're jolted awake in their beds at night, they can still taste the acrid gunpowder smoke and feel the jungle's leeches beneath their damp cotton uniforms. In the morning light, the pavement ahead crooks hard right, twisting back on itself and disappearing over the brow of the next forested hill. Here, near the road's beginning, just a few miles northeast of the crowded Indian ghetto of Ledo, the road's original gravel and asphalt is pitted and broken. Its shoulders disintegrate at the forest's edges, and in some places potholes stretch across the pavement's width, leaving it striped with breaks. Still-contrary to what the Old Soldiers believe-the road exists. Thirty feet wide and snaking ahead beneath mature trees dripping with vines, it bends uphill toward green-draped mountains. It slides past barracks for Indian army border patrols and the jungle huts of tribal natives, its course run by motorbikes, buses full of coalfield workers, and trucks hauling illegal harvests of teakwood, despite such cutting having been outlawed years ago. This place is so far at the world's edge, it seems, nobody cares what goes on here. FRIDAY MORNING, ten o'clock. Above me, inside a cloudless sky, the sun is clearing the treetops, its yellow footfall dapples the roadbed. The air is moist and sixty-five degrees. Jungle mists spill from the forest, their faint fog softening the sunlight around me. Through the surrounding trees, gray parakeets dart among branches. An oxcart creaks past, carrying sections of a teak trunk lashed to its bed. One of India's sacred bulls wanders the road just ahead: it's white furred-with one of its horns painted glossy green, the other yellow-and it seems supremely unconcerned by the vehicles that swerve to avoid it. I stretch my back, having spent last night on a plywood bed in the Hotel Raj, a toilet-and-cold-shower-down-the-hall cell off a cobblestone bazaar in Ledo's crowded downtown. All night the locals came out to stare at the hotel's second-floor balcony from the plaza below, shouting greetings to me, the visitor. "Hello, American!" they'd yell. Then they'd stand on the cobblestones and gaze upward, expecting me to step onto the narrow balcony and wave. Across the alley, in a small and dingy restaurant, a fire flickered in the mud oven, heating curries and illuminating the restaurant's soot-blackened walls. A handful of kids shouted to me as they played netless badminton in the alley. For a half-hour, my only response to the welcome squad below curled from the air vents of my room, as smoke from burning mosquito coils drifted into the night sky. Finally, realizing I couldn't ignore them and expect much peace, I went downstairs and played badminton with a twelve-year-old girl named Djela. She was four feet tall and skinny, her shiny black hair cropped at her jaw. She had dark skin and deep black eyes, and she was all smiles and "Where you come from?" Djela and her family were also new to town, she said. Six months earlier, they'd moved into a room up the street from Bangladesh. Djela's father, she said, had relocated to Ledo to be a laborer in the town's coal mine. Then she handed me one of the two broken-stringed badminton racquets she was carrying, and we began to smack a little plastic shuttlecock up and down the alley over an imaginary net. After a few minutes, I thanked Djela for the game. Then I walked through the spice shop that was the Hotel Raj's ground floor-watched like a zoo animal the whole time-and returned to my second-floor room. "Hello, American" continued to ring in the alley for hours after I'd slid tight the bolt on my door, climbed beneath my mosquito net, and blown out the candle that was my room's only light. NOW, IN THE MORNING, I stare up the road, then lift my pack to continue on. Wooden telephone and electric poles from World War II-glass insulators still in place-hopscotch the pavement, their webs of wires long gone. Back in late 1942, when this road was first being laid by American engineer battalions, no Allied commander or soldier would have believed that, over the coming twenty-seven months, as they chiseled this track over mountains and slapped it across swamps at a mile per day, the Japanese would devil them for most every foot. Before the road was complete, Japanese snipers and artillery shells (and disease and accidents) would kill more than one American soldier for each of the road's eleven hundred miles. Back at the road's beginnings in 1942 and '43, they also wouldn't have believed that for every Allied combat casualty in the war's China-Burma-India theater of operations, fourteen more soldiers would be evacuated sick or dead from malaria, dysentery, cholera, infections, jungle rot, and a previously unknown infection called brush typhus. They wouldn't have believed that, before the road's journey was over, the theater's beloved but irascible commander-the American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell-would be removed; that their eccentric and death-defying special-forces leader-Lt. General Orde Wingate of the British army-would be killed in a shocking accident; and that, perhaps worst of all, the road they fought for and died to build would be deemed obsolete even as it was being finished. Before he was done there, Stilwell could do little more than lean on the scrap of dog-Latin he'd made famous as his motto: Illegitimati non Carborundum. He translated it as "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Excerpted from The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II by Donovan Webster All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.