Ignorance, Corruption, and Avarice: The Burma Campaign

4 Dec

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As the year 1941 rolled to a grueling halt, Europe and Africa sat ablaze as the armies of Nazi Germany, the United Soviet Socialists Republic, the Kingdom of Italy, and the United Kingdom combated for control of not only Europe and Africa, but for a postwar world. As the massive European giants locked one another in a vice-like death grip for supremacy over land, sea, and air, the situation across the Atlantic was much less severe. In fact, it was veiled in an air of uneasy calm. Americans knew the war was coming, yet they believed that President Franklin D. Roosevelt could follow in Woodrow Wilson’s footsteps in keep America independent from yet another tragic and devastating war that, as far as they were concerned, was a European affair. Yet Wilson had failed to keep American free from the First World War. And so would Roosevelt, only after the balmy still of a Sunday morning in December was shattered by the wail of dive bomber engines. Yet until then, America would remain at peace, albeit a vigilant, weary peace. With British and Canadian ships departing from the Labrador Coast and upper New England under American escort, and with American aircraft and aircrews being delivered in assistance of the outnumbered and outgunned Kuomintang Chinese, America’s “neutrality” was anything but neutral. In fact, with the passing of the Lend-Lease Act on March 11th, 1941, America ceased to exist a neutral noncombatant, and had effectively entered the Second World War on its own volition in direct, unconcealed support of the Allied powers. And up until the fateful Sunday morning of December 7th, 1941, American tanks, planes, and fuel were being utilized by British troops in North Africa and by Chinese guerrillas in Yunnan Province. Simultaneously, American warships were deployed round the Japanese Home Islands in support of an embargo levied against the Japanese following the infamous, and aptly named, Rape of Nanjing. Within months, the United Kingdom, Free France, and the Netherlands had moved in support of the embargo, and with Japan attempting to support itself on only a year’s worth of stockpiled imported oil, an alternative had to be looked to, and with the Japanese wishing to pursue their philosophical “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere”, one thing stood in their way: the slumbering industrial might of the United States.

Since the cessation of the War of 1812 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24th, 1814, the United States had begun to emerge as an industrial superpower, and by the turn of the 19th Century, that power began to be fully recognized, when the United States defeated the Spanish in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in the Spanish-American War. With the technological advances of the Gilded Age combined with those of the First World War, America’s military began to advance into the 20th Century, yet following the technological leaps of the First World War, an international desire to keep such an atrocity from happening again kept the United States military from strengthening. Unfortunately, America’s future enemies did not share the same antiwar mentality. While America began to demobilize and downsize, the Empire of Japan began to exploit its full military might, commencing a military campaign that would last almost fifteen years with an invasion of Manchuria. At first, America regarded Japan’s war against the Chinese, who, up to that point had been mixed into a brutal civil war between forces commanded by Chiang Kai-Shek and those of Mao Zedong, as nothing to concern themselves with, yet, when the invasion, occupation, and annexation of Manchuria (later renamed Manchukuo and placed under the control of a Chinese puppet, Puyi, the last of the Qing Dynasty) turned into all-out war in the summer of 1937, following a shootout at Marco Polo Bridge near Peking between Kuomintang Chinese and Japanese forces, the Roosevelt administration in Washington began to increase their focus on a war that was fought not over politics, but over territorial expansion. Japan was no longer fighting to avenge the death of a foreign minister killed in a Chinese-administered assassination attempt, but they were now fighting to quell an insurrection by native guerrillas in a massive swathe of territory they were keen to annex completely. It was undisguised offensive warfare, and incredibly brutal and mirthless at that. While the United States government wished to maintain a stance of neutrality regarding the rapidly unfurling events of the Second World War, the word “neutrality” soon only carried its meaning on paper. Whether or not the Roosevelt Administration realized it yet or not, they had entered the Second World War with the passage of the Lend-Lease Act and the deployment of Claire Chennault’s Flying Tigers, and they would not soon be leaving. 

While the United States took a proactive, yet simultaneously retroactive, stance regarding the unfurling events in China, the other Allied powers occupying vast swathes of territory in the South Pacific seemed to be slumbering at their posts, yet for good reason. With the fall of France in the summer of 1940, and the first Italian offensives launched into British Egypt and Kenya in September 1940, the war had been brought closer to home for the only other Allied power in the South Pacific with a large enough military to a make difference: the British Empire. And with the French capitulation on June 25th, 1940, combined with the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy government in southern France via armistice, all territories previously controlled by the French Third Republic now fell under Axis administration, including Vietnam. And with the Pacific colonies of the United Kingdom looked to as an administrative afterthought due to the fighting in Libya, Egypt, and East Africa, such events as Japan’s forcing of the closing the Burma Road and her invasion of French Vietnam following scant amounts of political pressure were regarded with almost complete apathy in London. Although the protection of the British Raj in India, as well as of Singapore, the Crown Jewel of Southeast Asia, were nevertheless accounted for by the Admiralty, they were of little concern compared to the fighting in Africa. In the end, the United States was the only real power with any military substance left in the Pacific, alongside Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands East Indies, administered via Queen Wilhelmina’s government-in-exile in London. The Imperial Japanese Army in 1941 consisted of fifty one divisions, of all various specialties, numbering over 1,700,000 men. In the summer of 1941, on par with requests made by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George C. Marshall, the first peacetime draft in American history was held, swelling the ranks of the United States military from a professional army of 175,000 men to roughly 1,400,000. Yet while the United States military could almost rival the Imperial Japanese Army in men, it could not even come close to rivaling them in experience. By 1941, the Japanese had been at war with the Chinese for nearly eleven years, an amount of experience that would be nearly impossible for the United States military to even come close to matching. The stage for the Second World War in the Pacific had been set. 

On the eve of the Japanese attack on the slumbering American Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, on December 7th, 1941, the Japanese Ministry of War had already laid the groundwork for offensive operations in the Pacific. With the ideology of the “Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” firm in hand, the Japanese set about with plans for offensives to be launched against not only Pearl Harbor, but also the woefully inadequate and decrepit American defenses on Guam, Wake Island, and the massive mixed garrison of Philippine Scouts and American Marines on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Simultaneously, the Japanese had twenty seven divisions of mixed specialties garrisoned in China, that would assault the defenses of British Burma, and, after crushing them, advance to Malaya and seize Singapore before moving into Malaysia, Borneo, Sumatra, and Java in the Netherlands East Indies. Japan had no natural source of oil, and therefore, the majority had to be imported from the oil-rich Dutch controlled island of Java, and in the summer of 1941, with the Dutch assisting in enforcing the trade embargo on Japan enacted by the United States, the Japanese were sitting on a reserve of roughly one year’s worth of oil in which to wage war, not only against the Chinese, who had now consolidated their forces into one coherent defense, yet also the American, Dutch, Australian, and British defenders standing in their path. 

On December 7th, 1941 on the eastern side of the International Date Line and December 8th on the eastern side, the Japanese struck every target simultaneously with a land-based offensive, safe for the Philippines, which was struck with bombers based in Formosa. The British and American defenders in Burma, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Malaya, respectively, had had so long a period of peace that they had not anticipated a Japanese assault, even in the face of mounting political pressure by the Japanese government as well as increasing numbers of within the Japanese military, and thus were woefully unprepared for the Japanese attacks. The Japanese smashed through the defenses of Guam, taking the island with little resistance under an hour, while the fighting on Wake Island would last until Christmas, following an attack on the island by three separate waves of infantry: Japan’s Bunker Hill. The Japanese advanced rapidly through Burma, overwhelming the beleaguered defenders and steamrolling over whatever resistance was offered, if any. By January 31st, 1942, the full might of nearly 70,000 men waited at the gates of Singapore. The British administration in Burma had collapsed, and many had already been evacuated from Singapore and taken to India or Ceylon, similar to those evacuated from Hong Kong, one of the many treaty ports given to Britain following the Opium Wars. With Japanese artillery rumbling in like thunder in the distance, the defenders of Singapore knew what precious little time they had left. In the Philippines, the American headquarters had been shifted from Manila to Corregidor Island, leaving the roughly 150,000 men of the mixed American-Filipino Philippine Army left stranded on the Bataan Peninsula, awaiting the might of the Imperial Japanese Army behind defenses that had been left neglected due to overconfidence that a war would never be fought. With the sinking of the British warships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales on December 10th, 1941, the full strength of the combined Allied navies had been almost completely neutralized. On February 15th, 1942, Singapore capitulated when Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival strode into the Japanese headquarters toting a white flag, while his adjutant shouldered the British Union Jack. Nearly 80,000 men were surrendered to the Japanese with Singapore. On March 11th, 1942, Douglas MacArthur and his family, along with his Chief of Staff Richard K. Sutherland, were evacuated from Corregidor Island as the Japanese commenced their assault on the men stationed on Bataan. Contrary to the moniker the Marines had bestowed upon MacArthur following his government-sponsored flight to Australia, “Dugout Doug”, General MacArthur had actually wished to remain on Luzon and die alongside his men, for only he and his staff knew of their coming fate. Pursuant to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “War Plan Orange”, the Philippines would be left, along with all their men, to fall to the Japanese, while the United States would fight a defensive war against the Japanese until victory over Germany could be secured. On March 11th, 1942, MacArthur left General Johnathan Wainwright, the commander of the Philippine Army, in command of all the Philippines prior to escape aboard PT-41. On May 8th, 1942, the Philippines capitulated to the Japanese. The survivors on Bataan were marched north to Camp O’Donnell, where they would serve out the rest of the war as prisoners under the Japanese; malnourished, beaten, battered, and bruised by their captors, inhabiting quarters that were beyond deplorable. 

In 1942, following the Japanese establishment, occupation, and annexation of Indochina, the Netherlands East Indies, and the majority of the islands of the South Pacific, an American commander arrived in Burma to take command of what was left of the joint Sino-British force that had defended, albeit poorly, the region several months prior. His name was Joseph Stilwell. A West Point graduate from Palatka, Florida, his impartial, acidic, frank demeanor and behavior, combined with his no-nonsense attitude, gained him the loving moniker “Vinegar Joe” by the men who served beneath him, which by the end of the Second World War was a mixed unit of British, Chinese, Australian, and American light infantry and commandos. When Stilwell arrived in Burma, he and his staff landed in country without a security detail, and in order to find those whom he was assigned to command, Stilwell marched his staff from western Burma to Calcutta, India. His frank, aggressive behavior soon earned him either the respect or contempt of those he commanded, and also those he worked with. While Lord Louis Mountbatten, the C-in-C of India Command, chose to work primarily to stabilize the situation in Europe before attempting offensive operations in Burma, a stance taken by the majority of his staff, Stilwell rather chose to  begin immediately dispatching with the pleasantries and getting to brass tacks, although he found the majority of officers he worked with were less eager to assault the Japanese. The situation in Burma was chafing the borderline of hopeless. With the closing of the Burma Road, all supplies had to be flown into Burma and India via “The Hump”, otherwise known as the Himalayan Mountains, a treacherous route and often time and supply consuming. Along with supplies, men was another shortage, as was morale. With the loss of Burma and the majority of Southeast Asia to the Japanese, morale was hopelessly low, and with nearly 110,000 British and Commonwealth troops that had originally defended Malaya and Singapore now housed in shabby prison camps and forced to construct railroads through Burma for the occupying Japanese, men was another concern. The majority of able-bodied men capable of waging war would be forced to come from the Kuomintang Chinese, yet the issue was not whether or not Stilwell could acquire the men, it was whether or not Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, their commanding officer, would be willing to commit them. Chiang Kai-Shek, otherwise known as Jiang Jieshi, had been in command of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist, Chinese forces for nearly twenty years, and had been waging war with the Communist forces under Mao Zedong for nearly that long. Chiang Kai-Shek, through his political and military career, had grown hopelessly corrupted, and maintained his power through a delicate balance of warlords he had donated patronage occupations to under his regime. With time of the essence, and supplies and men running low, Stilwell demanded that Chiang Kai-Shek deliver unto him as many men and supplies as he could possibly do. Chiang refused outright, stating that the supplies given unto him via the Lend-Lease Act were being stockpiled in anticipation of the civil war that would no doubt resume the minute the war had ended. Chiang also wished to keep his men under his command, for fear that if too many of his men were placed under the command of Allied generals, it could spell disaster for his army. Stilwell had also attempted to begin reforming the Chinese Kuomintang Army, namely by modernizing the weaponry and dismissing generals and commanders unfit to command, many of whom had been assigned to their posts by Chiang and were the very same warlords who were helping to maintain his delicate position in head of the Kuomintang regime. Yet again, Chiang refused, mostly due to his flimsy political position and his thoughts of the war that would resume once the Japanese had departed from China, and with this, the seeds had been sown for an ongoing dispute between Chiang and Stilwell that would last for the entire war. Chiang had been hoarding supplies in anticipation for the civil war that would resume, as well as money that had been supplied to him by the War Department for utilization as payment for his men. Instead, Chiang chose rather to spend such money on not only himself and Madame Chiang, yet also on the inept and inadequate warlords he had assigned to patronage jobs to secure his command. Combine these with his failure to commit troops, as well as the British hesitancy and resistance to major offensive operations, and as such, the Burma Campaign began its fledgling years with compounding setbacks for the Allies. 

As the months ground on with increasing casualties on both sides, with Japanese defenses dug into the thick jungle, and with malaria, dysentery, cholera, beri beri, and dengue fever spreading like a wild fire through the poorly supplied Allied troops, two Allied commanders would hatch hair-brained schemes to launch offensive strikes against the Japanese that had the potential for success. The first was proposed by Orde Wingate, a general in the British Army, for the transformation of the Indian 77th Brigade into a commando force known colloquially as “the Chindits”, named for a mythical Burmese beast similar to that of the European griffin. Wingate had also created Gideon Force to wage offensive guerrilla warfare against the Italian troops inside Abyssinia, and it had worked with overwhelming success. Yet the Chindits were less well-maintained, and incredibly under-supplied. With tropical diseases beginning to rack up, and very little damage done to Japanese infrastructure in Burma, and with Wingate’s death upon the crash of his B-25 Mitchell in Manipur, India, Stilwell was soon approached by General Frank Merrill. 

Merrill proposed a similar idea to Orde Wingate’s Chindits, yet his commando force, known officially as 5307th Composite Unit, and unofficially and popularly known as Merrill’s Marauders, was far more successful in their exploits. By 1944, the Japanese military had nearly 5,500,000 men committed to Indochina and the Netherlands East Indies, yet they had become bogged down into a war against a combined American-Australian force fighting the rugged Owen Stanley Mountains of New Guinea, and from New Britain and New Ireland to the beaches of Noemfoor. With Japanese forces tied down in heavy fighting in Southeast Asia, and with American forces breaking through into the Mariana, Palau, and Philippine Archipelagos by summer, resistance began to lighten, and the fighting in Burma went from a nearly completely defensive effort due to lack of men and material to a full-on offensive into the winter of 1944-45, the war began to take a very different turn. With the fall of Myitkyina, the center of the majority of Allied effort throughout the entire Burma Campaign, the war seemed that one step closer to being completed.

The Burma Campaign was one that sadly tied politics into warfare with Chiang Kai-Shek’s inept and corrupt Kuomintang military regime. Although he did commit scant amounts of forces, the disagreement between him and Stilwell would lead to Stilwell’s approaching President Franklin Roosevelt and demanding he cut off aid, whether financial or material, to Chiang until the war was over, forcing Chiang to commit to the Allied war effort in Burma. The war effort remained hopelessly stalled, safe for the small bands of commando forces such as Wingate’s Chindits and Merrill’s Marauders who ventured deep behind enemy lines into Burma to wreak havoc on Japanese installations, although the overall effect is up for debate. By 1944, with the American Marine Corps closing in on the Home Islands, and with the Marianas being cut off in summer 1944, the Burma Campaign finally reached the point where offensive operations no longer meant complete suicide, although many British commanders were still reluctant to get behind Stilwell, whose disdainful view of the British, combined with his acidic demeanor, kept him from being a very amiable and friendly character, although he demonstrated his military capability time and again throughout the Campaign. Following the war, Chiang’s regime was toppled after the majority of his Army deserted him in favor the less corrupted and more inviting promises of Mao Zedong’s Communist Army. In October 1949, Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China after Chiang fled, with the majority of his still loyal staff, to Formosa, now known as Taiwan, forming their capital in Taipei. It would not be until 1972 that the People’s Republic of China would be officially recognized as the real Chinese government, following a mission to China led by American President Richard Nixon and sponsored heavily by his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Overall, the Burma Campaign can be regarded as a stalemate, in which the majority of lives were not taken by offensive or defensive action, but rather from the jungle itself, with its myriad diseases, and, alongside that, the monsoon, which limited military operations to only a few months out of the year. The CBI, or China-Burma-India, theatre remains, to this day, a little known theatre of the Second World War, although here is where Allied commanders faced far more difficult and arduous challenges than faced that the Allied commanders in Europe. Here, a war far more challenging, both mentality and physically, was being waged, and shall not be forgotten. 

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