Long before his World War II exploits in Burma had made him a legend, General Joseph W. Stilwell had earned his nickname of "Vinegar Joe." The peppery, outspoken military leader abhorred incompetents and never hesitated to let them know it. In February 1942 Stilwell was named commander of U.S. Army forces in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater and chief of staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese Nationalist forces. Stilwell's assignment was to train Chinese forces to resist Japanese expansion, to build and hold military bases in China for America's effort against Japan, and to coordinate Allied operations in that area.
Following the final conquest of Burma by Japan in May 1942, Stilwell personally led the remnants of his force on a tortuous 150-mile march through the jungle to the Indian border. While he rebuilt the Chinese army in India, air units under his command, including General Claire Chennault's 14th Air Force, mounted an airlift of supplies "over the hump" of the Himalayan Mountains to isolated China. Then, late in 1942, "Vinegar Joe" ordered work to begin on the Ledo Road supply line, which eventually linked to the old Burma Road and brought an end to the great burden of supplying Chiang Kai-shek by air transport alone. This work of endurance, combat, and engineering, led by the spectacular exploits of General Frank Merrill's "Marauders," progressed with painful slowness through northern Burma and ended in the capture of Myitkyina, a key enemy base, in August 1944.
From mid-1943 on, Stilwell also held the post of deputy supreme commander of the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC) under British Lord Louis Mountbatten. While Stilwell's relations with Chiang Kai-shek at this time were stiff and formal he could not resist commenting unfavorably on Chiang's stubborn resistance to any reform of China's corrupt Nationalist forces regime. The efficiency of Chiang's Nationalist regime was further reduced by the generalissimo's attempt to wage war on the Chinese Communists as well as against the Japanese.
In August 1944, after Stilwell had been promoted to full general, President Franklin D. Roosevelt strongly urged that he be given control of the Chinese armed forces. This caused Stilwell's continuing conflict with Chiang to rupture, and in October he was recalled to the United States.