Traversing more than a thousand mile from India to China through the harsh terrains of Burma, the Ledo Stilwell Road was built to defend China during the World War II. It was the largest, costliest and the most controversial engineering project during the World War II heralded by the US Army.
The road started from Ledo in Assam, India stretching through one of the most inhospitable terrains on earth and crossed into Burma through the treacherous Pangsau Pass (1136 m) of the Patkai Range to Shindbwiyang and finally to Mytkiynia in central Burma. It then crossed the broad bowl of the Upper Chindwin, threads the Hukawng and Mogaung valleys and then went down to Bhamo and to the Burma road which connects Kunming, Yunnan province, China.
The Ledo Stilwell Road was constructed to provide an overland military supply route to Yunan in China where the Chinese forces under General Chiang Kai-shek were fighting off the Japanese advance. The road was proposed as an alternative to an air route known as ‘The Hump’ that involved the Allied forces flying from Ledo in India to Kunming over the eastern Himalayas. The air route passed through 4500 m high ridges and was so hazardous that it came to be known as the “Skyway to Hell”.
It all began in 1942 when the Japanese forces had defeated the British forces in Burma. This led to the closure of the Burma Road, the only link between India and war-rift China. The mammoth task of construction of the road was headed by American General Joseph Stilwell. But the idea of the construction of the road was not met with much enthusiasm. Infact, Winston Churchill too was sceptical about the road. He had initially dismissed the idea as ‘an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished before the need for it had passed.’
Yet, the Ledo road was approved on November 10, 1942. Starting on December 16, 1942, it took three years of continuous and painstaking labour for the road to be completed. It was a struggle with the unknown. At the time of planning, very little was known about the intended route. Only a part of it was exposed and the engineers were totally unaware of the topography and terrain of the region that they would encounter. Around 17000 American engineers worked on this ambitious project. More than 60000 labourers toiled 24X7 to convert malaria infested, difficult jungle route into a trans-Asian highway.
Apart from the fear of enemy attack, the engineers and labourers braved the rain forests receiving torrential rains that often resulted in landslides. After fighting off the rains, mud and swamps whatever left within them were faced with malaria, dysentery, typhoid, leeches, poisonous snakes, scorpions and other health hazards. All these took a tremendous toll on the health of the workers. 1100 American died during the construction, the numbers of casualties of the Indian locals were much more. The construction of the road had taken so much human life that it was known as ‘mile a man’ road.
Finally, on 12 January 1945, the first convoy departed Ledo and arrived at Kunming, 1736 km away on February 4, 1945. Major General Lewis A. Pick had led the convoy. He declared that it was the toughest job ever given to the US Army Engineers in Wartime. The road was later renamed the Stilwell Road in honour of General Joseph W. Stilwell at the suggestion of Chiang Kai-shek, it was known to the Engineers who built it as “Pick’s Pike.”
The Stilwell Road that cost around $US 150 million during those time was unfortunately used for only seven months. Japan surrendered on August 28, 1945, and it led to an end to the use of the road. Churchill was almost correct!
At present, the Ledo Stilwell Road lies abandoned, overtaken by the dense forests of the wild Himalayas. The road has virtually as it lies in the lands of three different nations that are China, Burma and India and due to non-maintenance by the respective nations. But the India side has 61 km stretch of the road that is still navigable by car, but the road soon gets lost in the unfathomable Burmese territories.
Starting from Dibrugarh in Assam, you can travel through this historic road. Most of the part of the road lies in terrible condition, but the drive across the tea gardens of Assam is very scenic. On the Assam side, the tea gardens form the undulating vistas that seems like a magical landscape. At Digboi, you will encounter the oldest oil refinery in Asia and an interesting Museum. The World War II cemeteries will also be encountered on the Ledo Road. As the road nears Myanmar, the landscape changes into verdant mountains and amidst this natural beauty, small tribal villages are found. The simple villagers have adopted sustainable means for a living. The Indian government allows tourists to visit till Burma border if you take an army escort with you.
The place is desolate and you will have a surreal feeling once you are there. The war is long over, but the road that was built after so much difficulty lies wasted now. Whatever remains of the ‘road of death’ tells the story of the numerous men tortured by harsh terrain and the war. It so much points out the futility of wars.
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