Over the course of the last four years, I made a series of journeys travelling the length of The Ledo-Burma Road – also known as The Stilwell Road. The road starts in the town of Ledo in India’s north-eastern state of Assam, crosses northern Myanmar and ends in Kunming in the south-western Chinese province of Yunnan.
This project was born out of a desire to provide a tribute to the sacrifice of those who laboured through the jungles of South Asia, and to understand how the population of the present day are now using the road.
I had heard of US Army General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe” Stilwellas a fearless commander of troops in World War II in the Asian Theatre, and the more I read about him the more I wished to journey along the road which bore his name.
Named by Chinese Nationalist Leader Chiang Kai-shek after Stilwell who commanded US and Chinese troops in Myanmar, the road was built during World War II to deliver arms and supplies to the Chinese regime as an alternative to using an air route called ‘The Hump’, which involved Allied Forces flying from Ledo in India over the eastern Himalayas to Kunming.
Faced with natural barriers of malarial-infested jungles fueled by monsoon rains and inhabited by predators large and small, mountain ranges topped by stony peaks, and the dangers of continual enemy attacks, the reality of this enterprise was that soldiers and civilians alike endured horrific daily working conditions as they forged the route which led to it being dubbed ‘A Man a Mile Road’.
Our house gained a mini-library on the region, and the more I read about the area the more I became fascinated with the region not only of the time of World War II but of the present day where I believe, as the link between the two great powers of India and China leading the 21st century world, the road can be a conduit for trade and understanding for the Asian continent.
Due to present day border restrictions it is not possible to cross the national borders across which the road travels. So, starting in late 2010, I made different trips to the three countries involved – India, Myanmar and China. I have just concluded the final section of travel between Muse on the Myanmar/Chinese border and Pangsau Pass on the Myanmar/India border.
The final section which we undertook – I was accompanied as ever by my long-suffering wife – was as passengers on tiny Chinese 125cc scooters along the hilly jungle track between Namyun village and Pangsau Pass in northern Myanmar. This six-hour journey was the highlight of the trip, not only because it was the end of our odyssey along the Stilwell Road, but mainly because the enthusiasm of the young men who piloted us through the heavily rutted muddy track was symbolic of the drive and determination of those men and women who built The Stilwell Road, surely the most fitting of tributes to them.
January 2015 will see the 70th anniversary of the completion of the first journey along the Stilwell Road (of which, Britain’s war-time leader Winston Churchill had famously said “ an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed”), during which the main architect of the road, Lt. Gen. Lewis A Pick, led the convoy from Ledo to Kunming.