The Ledo-Stillwell Road: From India to Burma and China

At army vantage point, arrows pointing north towards India.

World War II can be regarded as one of humanity’s breaking point. The tragedy of Hitler’s Europe is well known, but there are also places far away, where the war brought with it the same approach to death. One such is the China-Burma-India (CBI) region which remains not much publicized.

It began in 1942 when the Japanese invaded Burma and occupied it after having defeated the British India forces. This led to the closure of the Burma Road, the only route of the time that led from India to war torn China. It was an urgent need to come with an alternative route that led to the creation of the Ledo Road, one of humanity’s mightiest construction projects. The road was to start midst the tea gardens of Assam in North-East India, and travel all the way to higher Burma and then China.

Ledo & Burma Roads. Assam, Burma, China in 194...

The handiwork of United States Army and forced Indian labors, the road was an engineering excellence, crossing some of the toughest terrain of the planet that consisted of mountains and the densest of rainforests. Combined with the relentless rain of monsoons for more than six months of the year, the Ledo Road became an extraordinary feat of human creation. One of the men who commanded the building of the road, General Lewis A. Pick, had commented, “it is the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.”

Starting on 16 December 1942, it took 3 years of continuous construction work for the road to be completed. Finally, the road ran 465 miles, starting from Ledo in Assam, then, through some of the wildest mountains of the world, and ending near Wanting in South China. And even though the completion came almost when the war was over, the road still managed to transfer an estimated 35,000 tons of supplies to China. But beyond all the glory, the road was built upon death, of soldiers and poor laborers. More than thousand American soldiers and many more thousands of Indians died in the making of the road, facing hell-like terrain.

Today, most of the road lies abandoned, overtaken by dense rainforest vegetation of the wild eastern Himalayas. The Indian side of the road is still navigable by car, but once in Burma, the road soon disappears into unfathomable territory of rebels and cruel Burmese army men. In India, one can easily drive through this historical ‘road of death’, like I did, last winters. Starting from Dibrugarh in Assam, the road for most parts lies in horrible condition. Nevertheless, the drive is very scenic and crosses many significant attractions. In the Assam side of the road, there are the usual unending miles of tea plantations which stretch till as far as the eye can see, forming an almost greenery carpeted magical landscape. In Digboi, apart from the oldest running oil refinery of the world, there is also a museum devoted to the oil revolution which is very informative. The drive also crosses through a few World War II cemeteries, where beautiful flowers grow midst inspirational messages written by people all over the world who lost loved ones in the China-Burma-India region. As the road nears Burma, the landscape changes to verdant hills which form the very eastern part of the Himalayan ranges. In these remote regions, you will come across charming tribal people who live in simple and sustainable villages. The Government of India allows travelers to visit till as far as Burma starts, provided, you take an army escort with you. At the very edge of the Indian side of the road, a worn-out signboard stands desolated, announcing your arrival to the Union of Myanmar. It is an empty and surreal place where time feels paused. It is a place which I found had a perpetual silence. Though the war is long over, the road still lies wasted, consisting of dark and dense jungles where humans are not meant to survive, where tales of death can still be heard from the locals. When beginnings are wrong, the outcomes are too. Such is the story of this ‘road of death’ – overshadowed forever by dead men tortured alive by terrain and war.

One of the most in-depth pieces on this road can be read in this must-read article written by Mark Jenkins for Outside Magazine. He writes, “I spent a year of my life trying to complete the Stilwell Road, but I gave back the advance and didn’t write the book. I wasn’t ready. To this day, my arrogance, ignorance, and selfishness appall me. Adventure becomes hubris when ambition blinds you to the suffering of the human beings next to you. Only at the end of my odyssey did I fully accept that traveling the road didn’t make a damn bit of difference. That wasn’t the point. It wasn’t about me. It was about Burma…”

Lonely signboard welcoming tourists to Myanmar.
A tribal house.
All that remains now of the glorious road.
At army vantage point, arrows pointing north towards India.
Remote landscape of the vest eastern Himalayas.
Driving through some remote landscapes.

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