When we read about World War 2, it always feels like it happened on some distant shores — that there was an evil ruler in Germany and that the US dropped an atom bomb in faraway Japan. But northeast India was actually a prominent stage for this historic event. Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Nagaland were all strategic locations for the Allied Forces in their quest to keep the advancing Japanese army at bay.
In fact, the Japanese army had come as close as Burma. They were successful in disrupting the Allied Forces’ supply route–which was earlier through the Burma Road–to the Yunnan province in China. An alternative, therefore, became necessary and it needed to be commissioned in as little time as possible. This was when the Ledo Road project was commenced in earnest. In due course, it was named the Stilwell Road, in honour of US Army General Joseph Stilwell. He was a decorated officer who was well regarded for his war contributions in the Asian Theatre.
General Stilwell commanded both US and Chinese troops in Burma. That the road should be named after him was proposed by Chinese Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek. What is lesser known is that this engineering marvel also acquired the infamous moniker ‘A Mile a Man Road’. This was on account of the many lives lost during its construction, mostly to then deadly diseases such as malaria and dysentery. Some 1100 Americans were killed, as were locals. Besides disease and the monsoons, there were also attacks from the Japanese that many succumbed to. The bulk of workers were African-American US soldiers.
This historic route began in a small town called Ledo in upper Assam and it stretched a little over 1700 kms. It wound its way into Burma through the difficult Pangsau Pass before climbing north to Kunming in China. The Allied Forces were able to mobilise trucks, road rollers, graders and other construction equipment, shipping them as they did from half way across the world. Ledo was chosen as the start point because there was rail connectivity till there from the ports of Calcutta and Karachi.
Construction began in December 1942. By December 1943, a 187 km stretch was opened and the first convoy of vehicles reached Kunming in February 1945. In hindsight, it was fully completed only about six months before the Japanese surrendered following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the time, the road cost an estimated USD137 million to complete. By end 1945, the road was abandoned by the US army.
This sure leads one to wonder if the efforts undertaken to build this road may well have exceeded the benefits it offered. Supplies were, in any case, being flown to China by air from air bases in Chabua and Ledo in Assam. However, its utility aside, the sheer grit in accomplishing a project of this scale, and in such little time, is definitely worthy of admiration.
The road fell into disrepair since border tensions with both China and Burma meant it was inaccessible for use along its entire length. The bulk of it fell in Burma where certain sections of it continue to be used while others have slowly been reclaimed by the jungle. Several overseas expeditions have embarked on it after its closure, a notable one being the Oxford and Cambridge Far East Expedition of 1955-56. This was a Land Rover marketing effort and six students from either university drove a pair of Land Rover Series 1 vehicles from London to Singapore. Their journey took them six months and six days covering over 24,000 kms.
Over the decades, there has always been discussion over restoring this fabled route. If the governments of the three countries can come to an agreement, there is much benefit in store for residents in China, Burma and India. It will enable forging of trade ties and possibly serve as a fillip to tourism. To place into perspective, if the Stilwell Road is opened, Kunming and Kolkata may be equidistant from the northeast Indian hub of Guwahati.
However, in a rather unfortunate turn of events, just as Burma was beginning to settle into its avatar as a democratic state, a recent coup has threatened its internal stability yet again. In addition, Sino-Indian relations seems to only be growing more hostile. And with these existential problems at the fore, any headway made with restoring the Stillwell Road will now be relegated to the back burner. It sure does bring Rudyard Kipling’s poem to mind which concluded thus:
“The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.”