LIFE'S REPORTS 

U.S. GENERAL STILWELL COMMANDS CHINESE ON BURMA FRONT

by CLARE BOOTHE


Allied Headquarters in Burma (via Chungking) April 12

   The continuing British retreats in Burma are due to the weariness of the troops, who have been unrelieved for three months - plus the difficulties of supply and deplorable communications; plus the treachery of the Burmese natives who are showing an unexpected ability to fight for the Japs; plus the typical tangle of the military with the Anglo-Burmese civil government; plus Burmese fifth columnists led by orange-robed Poonghie Buddhist priests; plus the inability of the British to use tanks in the jungle; plus Jap control of the air. Bombing of towns, railheads and air bases and machine-gunning of roads is uninterfered with up both valleys leading north to Mandalay and Lashio. The British troops ask, "Where is the R.A.F.?" The Chinese ask, "Where are American planes?" The answer is: In India, on the way, if at all.

   In the past weeks Chinese patience has been sorely tried. The Chinese feel that the only apparent British answer to Jap tactics of infiltration is defiltration everywhere. Also Burma is designated as a British theater of war, whereas the map and the events of the past two months show that Burma is now, logically, a Chinese theater. Consequently the recent promotion to a full generalship of Britain's H.R.L.G. Alexander, outranking Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek's U.S. Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell, has obscured the command.

   Tough, wiry, close-cropped General Stilwell, who used to be known at Fort Benning as "Vinegar Joe," has also shown almost Oriental patience and diplomacy in handling his pineapple job. But just the other day he flew from the front to Chungking, and returned to Lashio with two aces in the hole - Madame Chiang and the "Gissimo" - thus making the biggest surprise news in Burma. In Lashio, the Chiangs stayed at the small house of a local bigwig for the night. Madame sent for me. She is always the same - dynamic, flashing-eyed, swift-speaking, charming, and utterly dedicated to the one increasing purpose - to lick the Japs, no matter who, when or what folds.

   We sat with our feet up in easy chairs on the high porch in the blackness, with the circling Burmese farm fires burning high in the hills like the signal fires of the fifth columnists. Madame Chiang read me a bitter article that she had written. Later we talked. Typical comment: "When I, for an argument defending the fall of Singapore, said "They ran out of water," she said: "We Chinese have run out of water too. We drink from muddy puddles, get dysentery, get up and fight on."

   Chiang once said to me that Madame was worth ten divisions to China. In the current situation she is now worth 20 to America. I ate dinner with the Gissimo, Hollington Tong and Madame. It was simple good food. It developed that they had brought their own cook on the plane. The Chiangs asked dozens of questions about India which both realize, better apparently than the U.S. and Britain, is now China's base for supplies. Madame admired Nehru and said: "When you return to India, tell him to keep a stiff upper lip. No, that doesn't sound quite dignified." Then, with fierce sincerity: "Tell him I have every confidence that he will do the right thing."

GENERAL "VINEGAR JOE" STILWELL

   The next morning Madame, the Gissimo and their bodyguards motored five hours down the tortuous Mandalay Road to Maymyo. I preceded them with General Stilwell and an aide in a dilapidated Ford. We had a young native civilian Persian driver wearing a sun helmet. On its back his name "Sadie" was inked and on the brim the words: "Men pass by with word and deed. What is left is earth and seed. Trust none but God." Stilwell said: "A add to God the Russians and Chinese."

   Called "Uncle Joe" out here, General Stilwell has no illusions as to the extraordinary difficulties and delicacy of his China command. He is a real soldier who spends more than half his time smack-bang at the front, wearing an old campaign hat, sleeping and eating with Chinese troops nearer fire than any commander since MacArthur. He is also a good soldier. This was indicated by his move in bringing the Gissimo to Maymyo, not to embarrass Alexander but to clarify the command and assure a united Allied effort, to inspire the Chinese troops, and above all, to develop one Burma defense plan - for which the Gissimo and Alexander could share the credit and the responsibility.

   On the morning of April 7, a covey of Chinese generals, the Gissimo, Alexander and Stilwell achieved, please God, all these objectives. With Madame and Hollington Tong interpreting, the Gissimo also served notice of the offensive spirit necessary, and the threat to all if the British were withdrawn from Burma and the Chinese then outflanked and forced to do likewise. According to report, the bucking-up process had good effect on the generals. An eyewitness said: "They took it out of the spoon."

   To his own heretofore sometimes individualistic generals the Gissimo made clear the undisputed status of Stilwell's command. The results were closer cooperation between the two fronts, the moving of Chinese troops into Mandalay to relieve British troops, and the supplying by the Chinese of communications, personnel, labor gangs, etc., for jobs previously held by Burmese and Indians.

   On the afternoon of April 6, Madame Chiang drove to Mandalay, where she saw what I had seen the day before. The city after the bombing of April 4 was completely deserted, except for a garrison of Burma Rifles in the old fort. Every house was burned down or still flaming and smoldering. A terrible stink arose from 2,000 bodies in the ruins of brick, plaster and twisted tin roofing. Only the smoke-grimed stone temple elephants on the sacred path were watching guard over the Road to Mandalay, while buzzards and carrion crows wheeled overhead. Bodies were lying on the streets and bobbing like rotten apples in the quiet green moat around the untouched fort. Because of the breakdown in civilian morale, there was no attempt to prevent the gutting fires from sweeping too fast for dynamite. Since the religious scruples of the Indians and Burmese forbid them to pick up corpses, this grisly task in Burma is always left to the too few Europeans. It was a gruesome Daliesque sight to see natives on bicycles heedlessly pedaling along the corpse-filled river and moat or sitting calmly on the few remaining porches, within 10 ft. of the stinking bodies of children on the edge of the road. Meanwhile, natives, fleeing on foot or in bullock carts, riding horses or bicycles, are carrying cholera toward India.

   Returning from Mandalay in a jeep at 50 m.p.h. to reach the beautiful Maymyo country club - the typical colonial setup, with cricket, tennis, racing and golf - for a much needed drink. I found a pretty girl in tennis shorts in the powder room. She asked me, all dusty, where I was from. I said, "Mandalay," She said: "Oh, poor dear old Mandalay!" It is only 40 miles from Maymyo which as yet has not been raided.

   American headquarters, in cool, fragrant Maymyo, is in the mission house, with the eight or ten cottages in the compound for officers. These are surrounded by a lovely spring garden, rose arbors and a great hedge of poinsettias. The sweet smell of eucalyptus is always in the air. The 30-odd officers at the mess, with a scattering of Chinese liaison officers, were served delicious strawberries and lousy coffee by Burmese Indian servants. GHQ is absolutely teetotalitarian. There is not even any beer. At night the officers smoke, read and munch handfuls of peanuts from a basket before the open fire - above which a marble plaque is inscribed: "Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, and may they rest from their labors and their works do follow them." They play an untuned piano and sing old World War I songs, in close harmony. All wistfully wish they could have good old American doughboys behind them now.




   While I was typing this the air alarm sounded. We all went out to trenches in the compound, the officers carrying tommy guns and wearing helmets, and waited.

   I felt sure the Japs would bomb the two most important military objectives in the whole Far East who were visiting Maymyo today. After half an hour they came, 28 planes flying at 10,000 ft. They let go one great salvo in a scattered pattern of about 150 bombs, including several 500-pounders. It was very noisy where we were. The causalities were 40 dead, 40 wounded, all civilian. One slit trench with twelve kids in it got a direct hit, and there was a small hit on the hospital, but absolutely no military objectives were touched. The Gissimo, Stilwell and Madame in the woods had one 50 yards away. Fortunately the town did not burn, but a half hour later the natives, rounding up stampeded cattle and horses, took to bullock carts and repeated the now familiar Burmese exodus, leaving Allied Headquarters shy of servants and laundrymen, and the markets all closed - no strawberry shortcake tonight. The planes proceeded to Mandalay and finished the job on the now pancaked town.

   After the raid I had a talk with handsome, blue-eyed, crisp-mustached General Alexander. He was very optimistic but "not blindly so," determined not to retreat one fraction of an inch faster than necessary, and anxious to cooperate in every way possible with the Chinese and the now subordinate Stilwell. He hopes for immediate aid from Wavell in India and transport planes from America soon. he points out that the Japs also have tremendous problems. This fact - and the prospect of aid and the monsoon season - is the basis for his hope that Burma can still stall the Jap operations. If the worst comes to the worst, and he doesn't believe it will, he can retire to the mountains north of Mandalay and fight a guerrilla war with the Chinese until the new supply routes are opened from India. He is trying to put mechanized troops in bullock carts which are better able, in the valley with only one road, to fight jungle war against Japs in sneakers and gym shirts fighting American Indian war style. The general is also arming the warlike Chinese mountaineers who adore fighting the Japs. Said Alexander: "We have more than a sporting chance, Guts and determination will decide the issue in Burma and we have both."

   I talked with big, handsome, able, dark, young Governor of Rangoon Sir Reginald Dorman Smith. His headaches are plenty. One hundred and fifty thousand refugees daily, bringing cholera with them, are streaming toward the mountain passes of India. He is trying to feed them all enroute, but the difficulty is increasing since the great Burmese rice granaries are now in the hands of the Japs.

   On April 7 the Gissimo and Madame went back to Chungking, with a hairbreadth take-off from Lashio in the middle of a Jap air raid. And Stilwell went off to the front to decorate a gallant young Chinese lieutenant with the D.S.C. for leading a battalion counterattack at Toungoo. This is the first time a Chinese has received an American decoration. General Stilwell, whose knowledge of the Chinese language, psychology and terrain is invaluable now, is the representative of the U.S. on any Allied War Council in China, Burma, India, Siam, and Indo-China, and in charge of defense aid and lease-lend for China.

   Said Stilwell when I asked him if he would harangue the troops in Chinese, "Yes." I asked, "Will your Chinese be good enough?" He said: "I make the same speech in every language to troops. It's short, sweet and simple. I say, "Get in there, boys, and fight!"




CLARE BOOTHE SURVEYS THE RUINS OF MANDALAY
APRIL 1942.



LIFE correspondent Clare Boothe, who is now in New Delhi, India, last fortnight visited the war front in Burma, saw bombed Mandalay, experienced an air raid in Maymyo and re-encountered Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whom she met a year ago in Chungking (LIFE, June 30, 1941).


More of Clare Boothe's account of these experiences at:

BURMA MISSION.


 LIFE Magazine

Adapted from the April 27, 1942 issue.
Portions copyright 1942 Time, Inc.


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