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The Burma Road
The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theatre in World War II
By Donovan Webster
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 370 pg. US$25/C$41.50
ISBN: 0-3741-1740-3

A forgotten war and its heroes

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 8, 2003

The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theatre in World War IIIn many ways the Second World War's China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre is the forgotten child of military history. During the war it was last on the long list of priorities for the Allies and after saw relatively few books and movies chronicling its people and events. While The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theatre in World War II isn't the first treatment of the subject, Donovan Webster manages the near impossible task of allowing the reader to imagine on some level what it was like to campaign in the mud and leech-ridden jungles of Burma.

Popular history records the start of the Second World War in 1939 but the ravages of war were experienced by the Chinese years earlier when Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931. Beginning that year, Japan began its march across Southeast Asia and slowly encircled China, gradually cutting it off from the outside world with the exception of a trade route known as the Burma Road. With its immense manpower resources, the Allies -- joined by the United States in 1941 -- realized the importance of keeping the Chinese in the war and to that end created the CBI theatre in an attempt to stop the advancing Japanese armies.

The war against the Japanese started off poorly. In February 1942 American general "Vinegar" Joe Stilwell took command of the theatre just days before a massive Japanese force rolled into Burma and forced the Allies back into India. Stilwell, along with 114 others, was forced to walk out of Burma to India through 140 miles of mountainous jungle. With the Burma Road cut off, China could only be supplied by the air and with most assets dedicated to the European and Pacific theatres, which meant that Stilwell couldn't expect much in the way of help in retaking Burma.

Stilwell's headaches didn't merely include the Japanese, as Webster illustrates. Although he was in command of the entire CBI theatre, he also answered to Chiang Kai-shek, a leader afraid of arming his own soldiers for fear of a popular uprising or sending them into battle against the Japanese. Compounding those problems was the Chinese leader's constant threats to sign a separate peace treaty with Japan unless more supplies flowed to China and Chiang's dislike of Stilwell, a personality clash that would eventually lead to Stilwell's recall.

A lesser man could have thrown up his hands at the impossibility of what was asked of him but Stilwell took on the challenge with the fervor of a man given his first major command. The construction of a new road into China was ordered and Stilwell, along with his British peers, began training soldiers with the intention of invading Burma. In October 1943, the first of those soldiers entered Burma and began clashing with the Japanese in terrain so hostile that the physical effects of jungle warfare still haunt the survivors today. It was a campaign so difficult that Winston Churchill described it as "munching a porcupine, quill by quill."

Webster, who traveled the Burma Road twice during research for the book, does a marvelous job of bringing to life what jungle combat during the war entailed. The men were frequently covered with leeches the size of sausages after a walk through the jungle and death could visit them at any moment, whether from the Japanese or Burma's wildlife. Epic battles raged at places whose names are barely pronounceable by Western tongues and often under the most arduous circumstances -- if the Japanese didn't kill you then disease surely could.

And yet, as Webster shows, the campaign was ultimately successful thanks to men like Merrill's Marauders, the Chindits, the Flying Tigers and other equally heroic American, British, Indian, Chinese and native soldiers. The Japanese were driven from Burma and the Burma Road was ultimately re-opened, although it came at a point when it was no longer needed thanks to the Allied control of the Pacific. China stayed in the war on the side of the Allies and the defeat of Japanese soldiers in the jungles of Burma proved -- to both sides in the war -- that they were not unstoppable.

With The Burma Road Webster has created an excellent overview of the CBI theatre, one that manages to carefully weave together the numerous threads that encircle the story of Stilwell, his road and the men who fought to free Burma and keep China in the war. Thanks to his superb work, clearly marked by his passion for the subject, the courage, dedication and indomitable will of the men who fought in those jungles won't soon be forgotten.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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