Burma Road

Digital relief map of Burma Road

The Burma Road was one of the strategic routes that played an important role in the Second World War.  Originally an ancient road linking Kunming in China with Mandalay in Burma, it was rebuilt under the Kuomintang during 1937-1938 through the efforts of 200,000 conscripted Chinese laborers. It was an alternate supply route to China, bypassing the Japanese naval blockade. At its prewar peak, about 10,000 tons of supplies per month came through the Road. However, the road had many limitations that made it a serious bottleneck. It was not an all-weather road, limiting its usefulness during the monsoon. It passed through areas in which malaria was endemic. Its status as the last link between China and the outside world made it a focus of intrigue and corruption.

Wastage on the road was considerable: Traffic statistics show less traffic at the start of the Road than on the Chinese border, and only 50% as much traffic arriving at Kunming as crossed the Chinese border. According to one estimate, of each fourteen tons leaving Burma, only five tons arrived at Chungking. The rest simply vanished, most likely diverted by corrupt Chinese officials. Chiang piled agency after agency on the Road in an effort to properly manage it, all under the direction of General Yu Fei-peng, a cousin of the Generalissimo, but in vain. Traffic on the road was about 25% consumer goods, 27% military supplies and metals, and 39% spare parts and gasoline. The latter was apart from what the trucks themselves used. It was estimated that 14,000 tons of gasoline was required to supply 5000 tons at Chungking.

The difficulties were not limited to the Road itself. The rail connection from Mandalay to Lashio passed over the Gokteil Gorge (96.834E 22.354N), a formidable barrier at which the grade was 1 in 25 for about half the 27-mile (43 km) section. This required trains to be broken into section and hauled by special climbing locomotives, restricting the flow of supplies to 550 tons per day. A proposal to build a new Yunnan-Burma Railroad got as far as shipment of portions of a unused narrow-gauge line of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad to Burma, but the plan foundered even before war broke out in the Pacific when estimates of the construction time crept up to as much as six years.

When war broke out in the Pacific, the Japanese wasted little time in invading Burma and cutting the flow of supplies at Rangoon.  This left China with no open ports and no land connection to the western powers.  There remained some routes to Russia, but supplying the Chinese was almost the last thing on the Russian’s minds.  The U.S. built large airfields in Assam and used transport aircraft to fly supplies into China, but the amounts were never close to sufficient.

Photograph of Chinese troops advancing into northern Burma

Considerable military effort was expended to reopen the Burma Road.  As early as 24 January 1942, Lauchlin Currie of the U.S. State Department had proposed construction of a road from India across northern Burma to connect to the Burma Road. In the summer of 1944, Stilwell led Chinese forces from Ledo across the Pangsau Pass into the inhospitable Hukawng Valley. From there his troops advanced to the railroad east of Myitkyina, at Mogaung (96.940E 25.303N), building a new road road behind them. The Japanese were driven out of the Hukawng Valley by 5 March 1944. 

The construction of the Ledo Road was carried out by service troops under Raymond Wheeler, who estimated the task would require a force of 10,702 men and nurses.

By early April, with his main force still 100 miles from Myitkyina, Stilwell became concerned that the monsoon would bring his drive to a halt. He therefore took the gamble of sending the Marauders through the jungle-clad Kumon Range, and on May 16 the Marauders seized Myitkyina airfield against light opposition. Unfortunately, the two Japanese battalions from 114 Regiment in Myitkyina town were rapidly reinforced, and the town did not fall until 3 August 1944.

Once Myitkyna fell, the way was clear for the Chinese forces advancing from northeast India (X Force) to join up with Chinese forces advancing west from Yunnan (Y Force). This allowed the Ledo Road to be connected to the old Burma Road well north of Mandalay.  A pipeline was also built alongside the road.  The first convoy left Ledo for Kunming on 12 January 1945 and arrived on 4 February 1945. Unfortunately, by this point in the war, the road had become largely irrelevant, as American successes in the Pacific reduced the importance of the China theater.


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