Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China – Burma – India Theater in World War II is a gripping account of the enormous battles and personal sacrifice in what ultimately came to be (barely) remembered as something of a backwater in World War II.
In the beginning of the war between the Allies and Japan, the Allies pursued a two-prong strategy: island hopping in the Pacific on one front and on the other pushing in towards Japan from mainland China. The latter required the Allies to keep China in the war by supplying the nationalist army under the command of the apparently incompetent and corrupt Chiang Kai-shek.
The man responsible for pulling off this impossible task was American general Joseph Stilwell, whose main mission was to reopen the Burma Road that ran from India to China and which would allow the Allies to provide provisions to the Chinese.
Though Webster focuses on Stilwell’s efforts, both military and bureaucratic, to drive the Japanese out of Burma and away from India so that the road could be rebuilt and reopened, the book ranges widely, recounting the exploits of the British Chindit brigades, Merrill’s Marauders, the hump pilots who flew the airlift missions over the Himalayas into China, the Flying Tiger squadrons and the day-to-day lives of the men in the field. It’s a testament to Webster’s storytelling abilities that he is able to bring all of this together into a narrative that is both concise and detailed.
Webster’s greatest achievement here is his depiction of the terrible conditions under which men fought and died, often as much from starvation and disease as from combat. He moves nicely from battlefield heroics and tragedies to the tactical details of the military campaign, ultimately presenting a picture of the CBI Theater from multiple perspectives from soldiers on the ground to the lines of the generals’ maps.
The Burma Road is a well-researched and engaging work of popular history that is definitely worth the time of anyone wondering how China managed to stay in the war and how the Japanese were ultimately pushed out of south Asia.