CORPS OF ENGINEERS IN THE CBI

Part III
1943: Preparations for the Offensive in Burma



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CBIVA Sound-off
Winter 1999 Issue

Extracted by Joe Shupe from "History of the Corps of Engineers - War Against Japan"

Stilwell returning from the TRIDENT Conference in mid-June 1943 set out to reorganize and unify our effort to support the Chinese Y-Force. On 18 June, he organized the Y-Force Operations staff (Y-FOS) at Kunming. He placed Col. Frank Dorn in charge, who made Col. Kohloss his G-4 and Maj. Dawson his engineer. The latter two continued their attempts to get the Chinese to improve their logistics. They succeeded in persuading the Chinese to build general depots at Kunming and Yunannyi early in August, but they had few illusions about the future. The Chinese continued to show almost no interest in an offensive beyond the Salween. Chiang even proposed that the advance be held off until January 1944, and there were no signs during the summer of organizing the Y-Force for a campaign in Burma.

The Road Projects

Despite the priority given to Chennault's air war, and the above, the engineers continued to push their road projects. Since it appeared that the Chinese would procrastinate, Stilwell himself appealed to Chiang. On July 6th, he succeeded in getting one of Chiang's officials to start work on the Burma and Mitu Roads (see map) to open them up partly to trucks by October. Only 100 million dollars were authorized solely for improvement of the Burma Road, and with inflation, this amount was rapidly decreasing. Dawson tried to get the Chinese to widen the road rather than resurfacing it during the dry season so trucks could go through. The Chinese agreed.

By the beginning of August planning was complete, and the Chinese allowed our engineers to be on duty at each of the Highway Administration district offices along the road. Kohloss arranged with the Chinese to set up, in August, a "Mobile Construction Force" to operate under the Chinese direction. This was commanded by Capt. Harvey Gehr and four other American officers and six equipment operators, four Chinese engineers and a crew of coolies. They were to improve those sections of the road where machinery would be effective. By far the greater part of the road work would be done by hand labor. In August, the Governor of Yunnan agreed to conscript 36,000 peasants who were to start work late that month. But, the Governor was a month late in getting the coolies on the road; also his highway officials were "dragging their feet" in doing the necessary planning. Kohloss tried to get the Chinese government to increase the allotment of funds by 44 million, but inflation kept eroding that amount downwards. Our officials felt the work being done was haphazard, and early in October the money ran out; and the road was essentially what it had always been - a one-lane road with steep grades, horseshoe curves, and narrow bridges. And, now, it was more in need of repair than before.

Brigadier General John C. Arrowsmith. From a photo taken during his service as a colonel and deputy chief of the Army Security Agency not long before his retirement from the peacetime Army in 1953. (US Army photograph)

The renewed emphasis on airfield construction placed the Ledo Road in a precarious position. Its loss of priority in troops and equipment in May 1943 came at a bad time. With the roadhead at the crest of the Patkais, the monsoons created endless problems. Bridges were swept out as well as culverts, and the roadway was undermined. Rain soaked embankments, collapsed and blocked the road with massive slides. Disabled equipment piled up as the few mechanics struggled against forbidding odds to make the needed repairs. Malaria rates rose steadily shrinking the ranks of the engineers. As a result, work went into low gear, and once again high morale sunk. Nevertheless, the engineers continued improving the road insofar as possible, although little could be done to extend the road through the jungle.

Early in July, Maj. Gen. Wilhelm Styer, Somervell's chief of staff from Washington inspected the road. He, then, urged his boss to immediately ship out five general service engineer regiments, among other things. He referred to British comments that the Americans are crazy for trying during the monsoons. There was much to justify their views. Among our troops, the malaria rate had reached 955 per 1,000 per year; and among the Chinese it was 2,200. Styer concluded that "in spite of all the obstacles, construction is proceeding, and Gen. Wheeler and his forces deserve a great deal of credit for what they have accomplished under the conditions imposed upon them." Shortly thereafter, an Air Corps officer, inspecting the road at Stilwell's request, found that the engineers were doing a good job under the circumstances. But, others had different opinions. Col. Frank Merrill, theater G-3, inspected the road a few days before Styer, and was very critical. While he admitted that many of the engineer's road resources had been drained away to the airfields, but that they were making too much of the effect of such diversions on the rate of progress on the road. He particularly blamed Arrowsmith, recently promoted to Brig. General. He felt Arrowsmith's leadership as not sufficiently energetic for such trying circumstances.

In mid-July, Stilwell came for a firsthand look. Finding his "vinegary," Wheeler and Arrowsmith tried to mollify him and give him a clearer understanding of the difficult situation. Wheeler again emphasized that Base Section 3, "milked daily" of troops for other projects could use "thousands" of engineers. Stilwell stayed for three days, but made no specific complaints.


Lieutenant General Lewis A. Pick, 1890-1956.
(U.S. Army Photograph)

Later on August 9th, Wheeler said that Base Section 3 had shipped to the airfields in Assam, 5,612 carloads of gravel, enough for over 30 miles of single-track road. The 330th Engineers who should have been working on the road, had been put to work as stevedores in Calcutta until July, and, upon arriving at Ledo, much of the regiment worked on access roads and in gravel quarries. Wheeler also complained that the British failed to provide sufficient laborers. He should have added that Arrowsmith had been obliged during the summer to rotate the 823rd and 45th engineers to rest camps in Calcutta to forestall exhaustion from their continual around-the-clock efforts.

Anxious to get the road to Shingbwiyang before the Fall, and stung by "I told you so" smiles of the British, Stilwell wanted no excuses. On August 21st, he again visited the road. After a series of meetings with Arrowsmith, he seemed to indicate no displeasure of how things were going. Nevertheless, he sent a message to Wheeler ordering Arrowsmith's relief. Going along with Merrill, he said he could not "take chances on that project." Branding progress on the road as a threat to the "whole operations" in North Burma, Stilwell asked Wheeler to look into the possibility of getting a "top flight man" from the States.

Wheeler reluctantly recalled Arrowsmith and placed a Quartermaster colonel, Ellis Altaian, temporarily in charge. On August 29th, Arrowsmith's command of a project on which 90% of the engineers in CBI were engaged, came to an end. Arrowsmith, upon departing, was deeply disappointed and said, "we knew what we were up against, we proved that we could not only overcome the physical difficulties, but we also held up against the mosquito. We were nearing the end of a long uphill pull." Arrowsmith was relieved just as things began to get better. The dry season was approaching, engineer reinforcements were on the way. With no rain, natives would be more inclined to work on the road, and the British would have less trouble mobilizing them. The Allied Conference in Quebec had a few days before resolved to support a redoubled Allied effort to open North Burma and build a supply road to China.

Chennault's Air Offensive

Meanwhile, Chennault's offensive was floundering. During May, June and July his flyers destroyed only 3,300 tons of Japanese shipping, and appeared to be making no headway in driving the enemy out of the Yangtze Valley, as Chennault had promised the President. The logistical structure was unable to meet the demands made on it. Deliveries from India had fallen short in July and no great improvement was in sight. In September, the airlift goal was 10,000 tons a month, it carried only 5,000. Much was due to inadequate number of airfields in Assam. The British were to have seven completed by September 1st, but only three were ready. Logistical difficulties in China were equally serious. The five fields in Yunnan were no problem, but getting the needed supplies to Chennault's forward bases was the problem. Even if the tonnage requirements were met, it seems unlikely that Chennault's position would have been noticeably improved.

The approaching end of the monsoons found engineer work in a discouraging state. Progress on the Ledo Road was at a standstill. Almost nothing was being done to improve the Burma Road. The airfields in Assam and the fields in East China were not being put in shape as fast as hoped. Unless high level changes in policy were soon made, the engineer effort in CBI might bog down completely.


Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1944. (U.S. Army Photograph)

QUADRANT - Directs an All-Out Effort - Plans for CBI

A change for the better for the engineers in CBI seemed to be at hand. The allies meeting at the QUADRANT Conference in Quebec, 14-24 August 1943, gave much thought to the CBI. Assuming that the Chinese trained and rearmed by Stilwell would eventually link up with our forces in SE China, agreement was reached to commit enough British and US strength to keep China in the war and as a base for operations against Japan. The directed the capture of North Burma to increase the safety of flights over the Hump and to restore overland roads by mid-February 1944. Gen. Somervell, US Army SOS Commander, went into this matter with the British Quartermaster General, to work out a program for improving the Chinese logistic support. Their plans called for an increase of Hump deliveries to 20,000 tons a month by mid-1944. Also, to open the Ledo and Burma Roads to make possible trucking 30,000 tons of supplies to China by January 1945.

Plans for a pipeline from India to China were made in the talks. To get sufficient fuel to China by truck or plane to support operations there would be impossible. "The old Burma Road ate its head off in gasoline," Merrill said at TRIDENT. "A pipeline is the only way to cure this."

The Shell Oil Company's invasion-weight pipe made this possible. This pipe weighed half as much as standard pipe. A mile of this pipeline together with pumping stations weighed 13 tons. It could be easily transported and installed in any kind of terrain accessible to trucks. In July 1943, construction of such a 4-inch pipeline from Dibrugarh through to Ft. Hertz and on to Kunming was reported by the Chief of Engineers as being practical. The QUADRANT Conference approved it construction to supply gasoline for Chennault. The Combined Chief of Staff also approved the laying of a second 4-inch line along the Ledo and Burma Roads to supply gasoline to trucks hauling supplies from India to China. Also, they authorized two 6-inch pipelines from Calcutta to Kunming via the Ledo and Burma Roads to supply gasoline for ground operations, and the other to run from Calcutta to Dibrugarh to feed the 4-inch lines. When finished, these 4 and 6-inch lines would form the most extensive pipeline system in the world.

The QUADRANT Conference also took up the matter of guerrilla warfare. British Brig. Orde Wingate came to Quebec to support Churchill's arguments for commando operations behind enemy lines. Wingate felt that the method of harassment that he practiced in a previous campaign would cripple Japanese defenses. He proposed to augment his Chindits, made up of Indians, whites and blacks from West Africa, so they could strike really effective blows. He needed the means to send in his forces by air. Given this mobility and dependable air supply, Wingate was certain that his Chindits could harry the enemy sufficiently to force them out of North Burma. Gen. Marshall then directed the assembling of an American task force of some 3,000 volunteers to serve with the Chindits. General Arnold promised to supply pilots to fly the planes, so he directed Col. Philip Cochran to go to India in the autumn to organize these men into the 5318th Air Unit, which would be a custom-made aggregation of bombers, fighters, transports, gliders, and helicopters. It would be up to the engineers to provide the landing fields for the air commandos behind enemy lines. Wingate would carry on guerrilla warfare in Burma while the Chinese under Stilwell launched their full-scale offensive.

At the Conference, Gen. Arnold announces a project which would have a big impact on the engineers in CBI. The Army Air Forces had almost perfected the B-29, capable of delivering 10 tons of bombs on a target 1,500 miles away, and that the first B-29s would be ready during the coming winter. If bases could be provided in the Changsha area of China, midway between Kunming and Shanghai, the Air Forces would be ready to bomb Japan by October 1944. This appealed to the imagination of President Roosevelt. The number of fields to be built was left rather indefinite and methods of providing logistical support were not clearly formulated. Planning staffs in Washington and CBI would have to work out the details in the next few months. Roosevelt thought that if this plan could be carried out as proposed, it would help Chinese morale and an early end of the war with Japan.

Brigadier General Lewis A. Pick (with pith helmet and stick discusses a saddle cut through soft granite south of Warazup, Burma, as Major General William E. R. Covell (left), commander of India-Burma Theater Services of Supply, and Colonel William J. Green, the Road Engineer (right), listen.

CBI Theater Reorganization

The decisions at Quebec were undertaken at the same time with two basic changes in the command structure in CBI. Hoping to eliminate some of the confused relationships of the existing "loose coalition at Allied headquarters," Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to set up the SE Asia Command (SEAC), with Vice Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten as commander. (See photo.) He would control Anglo-American operations in Burma. Stilwell's position was not clear. He would be under Mountbatten for operations in Burma, as Mountbatten's deputy, but there was no official confirmation of this assumption. Arnold's chief of staff, Major Gen. George Stratemeyer, was to go to CBI as Stilwell's air advisor, and to command Army Air Forces, in India and Burma, and under him was the 10th Air Force to be commanded by Brig. Gen. Howard Davidson, after Gen. Bissell's return to the US in mid-August. His headquarters was set up near Calcutta. He soon learned that he would have little control over Chennault. Roosevelt had assured Chiang of that, so Stilwell exempted Chennault from Stratemeyer's operational control. To most observers, command relationships remained as confused as ever, and also the complexities of the engineer organization as great as ever.

The growing emphasis on air power led to the organization of engineer offices in the Air Forces in CBI for the first time. On August 15th, Col. Herman Schull, Jr., organized an Engineer Section in Chennault's 14th AF, headquarters at Kunming. Schull and one assistant were to maintain liaison with the SOS regarding the building or maintenance of five airfields in Yunnan and ten in East China, together with 12 reserve fields in widely scattered areas. A similar development took place in India. On August 20th, Stilwell activated the CBI Air Service Command with headquarters near Calcutta, to succeed the X Air Force Service Command. The new organization was charged with supporting the 10th AF and the 14th AF. Col. Lyle Seeman became the first engineer of the new organization; also he became theater air engineer under Stratemeyer. Seeman, with his small staff, maintained liaison with the SOS on airfield construction in India.


Major General Lewis A. Pick, director of the Ledo-Burma Road project chats
with a bulldozer crew. Workers dubbed the road "Pick's Pike."

Planning for New Operations

Because of the shortage of planning staffs in CBI, Army Service Forces in Washington assumed the main burden of planning for the projects the Combined Chiefs of Staff had approved. Somvervell's chief of staff, Styer, said that "these projects bid fair to be the greatest engineering efforts of the war." Somervell set up an Indian committee of various specialists of the technical services to anticipate what CBI needs in the way of men and materials. The principal representatives on this committee from the Chief of Engineers was Col. Louis Horowitz for theater liaison, Col. Thomas Farrell for construction, and Col. Harry Montgomery for supply. They worked at top speed to get what was necessary in the CBI. Somervell was determined to get 18 engineer construction battalions for the Ledo Road; as of September 1943 only six were in the CBI; he wanted the 18 on the road by the following January. The Corps of Engineers expanded the Petroleum Section of the Engineer Unit Training Center at Camp Claiborne, LA, nine petroleum distribution companies were to be trained and readied for shipment to India by early 1944. Gen. Godfrey, the Army Air Forces engineer urged Gen. Arnold send to the CBI a headquarters of an aviation regiment and four aviation battalions to work on the B-29 fields. Godfrey was especially interested in Wingate's plans for the air commandos. He was instrumental in getting airborne engineers assigned to the air commandos. For pipeline construction, the Army Service Forces had already assembled the materials; they had been intended for the now abandoned LOG from Rangoon to Kunming. All the pipe for the 4-inch line was en-route to CBI by late August; also nearly a fourth of the 6-inch line. Of the 55,715 tons of road construction equipment requested by Wheeler during 1942 and 1943, all was either enroute or being procured by September 1. Since additional pumping stations and pipe would be needed the Corps of Engineers undertook procurement during September and October.

It soon became evident that the B-29 program would have to be curtailed. The problem was logistics. Having the fields at Changsha ready would mean developing an LOG from Calcutta to Kunming of the magnitude and speed not contemplated by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. The supply effort required would be Herculean. As modified by Stilwell and Stratemeyer In October and November, the Matterhorn project called for the construction of five air bases west of Calcutta and four staging fields near the city of Cheng-tu. Northwest of Chungking. This reduced effort would move up the bomber offensive to the spring of 1944. But mass bombings would have to be given up in favor of careful selection of strategic targets, such as Japanese steel mills and aircraft factories.

The engineers had to make still greater efforts to meet the goals set by the QUADRANT Conference. Work on old projects had to be speeded up and new ones begun. Whether much more could be done until more troops arrived was doubtful. But, by the fall of 1943, there was a noticeable quickening of engineer work in CBI.

Airfields in China and India

In East China, Byroade continued to supervise construction of the fields near Kweilin and to improve several more in that area. Again was the problem to "squeeze," uncertified contractors were permitted to start work on some fields; soon organized gangs interfered, carrying out acts of violence against such contractors and their workers, with no interference by local authorities. Additional contractors were subsequently used after they indicated they were willing to share profits with local officials. Despite such hindrances, progress was made. During autumn, Byroade presented Chennault with five improved fields near Kweilin and seven more 200 miles further east and southeast. By this time the SOS engineers were responsible for maintaining 27 fields for Chennault.

The fields in Assam, where much work had to be done to make possible more supplies for Chennault, also showed progress. The British wanted to withdraw their military engineers to support British forces in Southern Burma. Stilwell and Wheeler were able to convince the British early in October that a wholesale withdrawal would be uneconomical, so the British agreed to leave their engineers on the most important of the remaining uncompleted fields. Later that year, the ATC had available 10 fields along the upper Brahmaputra.

With more fields in India and China to give him support, Chennault did better. Deliveries over the Hump increased, and two additional fighter squadrons arrived. After a failure of his trial offensive in August and September, Chennault began to take offensive. In the last quarter of 1943, his flyers carried out highly successful flights against Japanese shipping on the Yangtze and off the China coast.

The Ledo Road

Meanwhile the engineers on the Ledo Road expanded operations. Supervision on the road now rested largely on Col. Robert York, road engineer, since May 21st. The 45th Engineers returned from their rest camp and the tapering off of the monsoons gave York a chance to push road construction. With the 330th Engineers breaking the trail and doing advance grading and the 45th Engineers doing the final grading and graveling, the road inched southward, despite 23 inches of rain during the rest of the month. By 15 October, the lead bulldozer advanced nearly seven miles, to beyond Mile 60. By this time there were on the road two general service regiments, three aviation battalions, and one engineer maintenance company (about 5,250 engineers in all).


Chinese Infantry trained by General Stilwell passes the 330th Engineer General Service Regiment's
"roadhead" just north of Tagap Ga in the autumn of 1943

On October 17th, Col. Lewis Pick, Missouri River Division Engineer, took over Base Section 3 (see photo). Upon arrival he told his staff, "I've heard the same story all the way from the States. It's always the same - the Ledo Road can't be built. Too much mud, too much rain, too much malaria. From now on we're forgetting this defeatist spirit. The Ledo Road is going to be built - mud, rain, and malaria be damned." He set up his command tent near the roadhead. He restarted the around-the-clock schedule that Arrowsmith abandoned five months before the rains. Obstacles be damned, he sought to provide night lighting, by stripping the base of all lighting supplies that could be spared. He told his troops that if necessary to put flares in buckets of oil. Work would have to go on without interruption.

Pick believed that one of his first jobs was to relieve the forward elements on the road. The day before his arrival, Co. D of the 330th Engineers was withdrawn. They had spearheaded the advance since early July, and had been reduced to a handful by malaria and dysentery. On November 1st, Pick lauded the unit for displaying a fortitude "comparable to that cited for combatant troops." Shortly afterward, he began pulling back the rest of the 2nd Battalion for road maintenance and improvement south of Pangsau Pass. By November 14th, he moved up the 1st Battalion of the 330th to take the lead; that brought the roadhead to Mile 63. The advance was about to begin in earnest.

Early in November, Stilwell visited road headquarters. He impressed on Pick the urgent importance of having a jeep trail open to Shingbwiyang by January 1st. Pick: "I can't build you a jeep road, but I'll build you a military road to handle truck traffic." Stilwell took him up on it. In mid-November, the 330th and the Chinese 10th Engineers at Mile 63 began the 54-mile "race to Shingbwiyang," by breaking a path through the jungle. To the rear, the 45th Engineers were joined by newly arrived units. The 849th and the 1883rd Aviation Battalions helped with the final grading and graveling from Pangsau Pass southward. The 209th Combat Engineer Battalion operated a sawmill, did maintenance at the pass, and a little farther south built a 157-foot-long girder bridge over the Nawngyand River. The 823rd Engineers maintained the older sections of the road, while the 479th Maintenance Company repaired equipment. With the help of Company C of the 45th Engineers, which had made an overland trek to open an advanced roadhead at Mile 70 early in October, the 330th had pushed its lead bulldozer 22 miles beyond that point by the close of November.

Under Lt. Col. William Green, who became road engineer on December 3rd, progress was rapid. With clear weather, the 330th Engineers gradually improved their performance until they attained early in December an average of a mile a day. The units In the rear kept pace. Specifications called for a minimum of 27-foot shoulder to shoulder, with a 20-foot roadway, maximum grades of 10%, and a minimum curve radius of 50 feet. Accounting for this rapid progress included around-the-clock operations, new equipment and Pick's insistence on constant supervision by all commanders and on giving junior officers an "in" on the planning. The ingenuity of maintenance crews made up somewhat for the scarcity of spare parts. Nevertheless, that was not equal to the task of preventing the continual deterioration of heavy equipment, too long in constant use. At any rate, by making best of the existing equipment and by using men of the recently arrived 1905th Engineer Aviation Bn., to create new roadheads, Green pushed the road to within 11 miles of Shingbwiyang by December 23rd. Green split the 330th to put in advance railheads and organized two more grading parties. On the 27th, they were three miles north of town. Pick flashed the word to New Delhi that the 117 mile road from Ledo to Shingbwiyang was open. He then rode into town at the head of a convoy of jeeps and trucks. He had beaten his target date of January 1, 1944, by five days. Finished grading and graveling remained to be done, but the road which Stilwell wanted was open.


Pipeline crossing a stream by means of cable suspension.

Soon after his arrival in CBI, Pick started work on that part of the pipeline for which he was responsible. Wheeler told him that Stilwell was no longer interested in a line over the mountains via Ft. Hertz. Earlier the Chief of Engineers advised against using the light, invasion-weight pipe in the high elevations; so Stilwell went back to the original plan to put the pipeline along the road. Materials could be moved there faster and construction made easier. Pick had a good supply of 4-inch pipe but the troops to build the line were not to arrive until January. So, he decided to use the 330th Engineers and the recently arrived 209th Combat Bn. and the 382nd Construction Bn. On October 27th, he put the men to work on the pipeline from the refinery at Digboi, toward Ledo, 14 miles from the south. Early in November, Col. Kenneth MacIsaac, recently arrived, with a staff of four petroleum engineers took charge of the project. Almost totally inexperienced in pipelines, the troops caught on quickly. The line was soon complete to Ledo and was being extended down the road, at the rate of 1.2 miles a day. When they reached the mountains, they slowed down to about half that rate, by the last week in December, they almost caught up with the graveling details on the road at Mile 60. Thereafter, Macisaac slowed his pace so as to not hamper road construction.

Stilwell's campaign in North Burma got off to a premature start on October 16th. The plan called for the Chinese to advance from Shingbwiyang to the Tarung River. From the Tarung, they were to drive southward on December 1st toward Myitkyina, some 140 miles away. That was the main operational base of the Japanese in North Burma, and was the route planned for the Ledo Road, a key rail terminus. It was also an important airfield. Operations, however, did not develop as planned. On October 30th, the Chinese ran into unexpectedly strong Japanese forces near Tarung. The engineers feared a counterattack on their advanced roadhead. The 330th Engineers complained that they had only piecemeal information of the location of the front, because there was a lack of liaison with the ground forces. On the 30th of December, the Chinese scored a victory over the enemy at Yuphang Ga., that relieved the threat to the engineers.



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