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WWII Snorter Marks Ledo Road
By Kerry Rodgers, Bank Note Reporter
May 23, 2012

This article was originally printed in Bank Note Reporter.
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In 1945, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (U.S.A.C.E.) completed its greatest engineering feat of World War II: construction of the Ledo Road. The road was driven through some of the most inhospitable, mountainous, tropical rainforest that our planet can offer. One American died for every one of the 1,079 miles constructed. The dollar cost totaled $148,910,000.

The road was part of the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre of WWII. Today this has become the forgotten war. In part this stems from just 250,000 of the 12,300,000 Americans mobilized at the time being assigned to the CBI. Of these some 60 percent were black. The theatre also enjoyed the longest wartime supply line from the United States—some 12,000 miles.

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Today the U.S. National Archives has no primary reference to CBI on its WWII index page http://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/. Nor is there an entry for CBI under http://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/photos/. For many the Ledo Road and the lives it cost have become part of a general forgetfulness associated with most matters CBI. Your author’s memory was promoted by a small reminder that surfaced in February in the shape of a 10 rupee snorter sold by Heritage Auction Galleries.

The back of the bill is headed, “1944 / Ledo Road / 1944.” There follow a number of signatures of senior officers associated either with the road or who served elsewhere in CBI. From the top down they are:

Maj. Gen. Daniel Sultan (U.S.A.), Deputy Commanding Gen. CBI 1943-1944, Commanding Gen. Northern Area Combat Command [Burma]1944-1945;

Maj. Gen. Godfrey Wildman-Lushington (U.K.), Assistant Chief of Staff, South-East Asia Command 1944;

Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten (U.K.) Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia 1943-46; Lt. Col. -?;

Lt. Col. A.A.C. Walker (U.K. Royal Engineers);

Brig. Gen. Lewis Pick (U.S.A.), Commanding Officer Advance Section US China-Burma-India Theater of Operations 1943-45;

Brig. Gen. Thomas Farrell (U.S.A.), Chief Engineer Officer U.S. CBI Theater of Operations; Capt. Paul Edwards (U.S.A.).

These are followed by the names of three women, the best known of whom is Paulette Goddard, a top Paramount star of the day. The signatures of three other women feature on the back. All-in-all, it is a significant snorter.



Background

The Burma Road had been constructed between the world wars by 200,000 Burmese and Chinese laborers. It linked China to India via Burma. In the years prior to Pearl Harbor it provided the last direct line between the Allies and China in their war with Japan. Once Japan overran Burma in 1942 they controlled the Burma Road. All supplies for China now had to be flown in over The Hump aka the Himalayas.

In 1942 President Roosevelt personally assigned Gen. ‘Vinegar-Joe’ Stilwell to the CBI theater. He was both commanding general of the United States Army in the area and chief of staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. His specific task was to keep China in the war.

Stilwell arrived in Asia just as the Allied defense of Burma collapsed. It quickly became evident that resupply of the Chinese via The Hump could not keep pace with attrition. It certainly could not feed the Chinese troops. Consequently, Stilwell made the opening of a land route to China from India one of his primary goals. It was to become an obsession.

To this end Stilwell asked his planners to determine whether a road could be constructed from Ledo in Assam, north-east India, through northern Burma, and then swing southeast to link up with the Burma Road. His planners declared it possible and estimated that such a route could supply 65,000 tons of supplies per month, well in excess of the monthly tonnage then being moved across The Hump.

The British had looked at such a route in the 19th century as a possible rail link. It would more or less have followed an old caravan trail and go over the 3,727 ft. Pangsau Pass of the Patkai Range of the Himalayas. Although they concluded a rail track could be pushed through, they shelved it as too hard and too costly.

In 1941 British Field Marshal William Slim, commander of the British Fourteenth Army in India/Burma, had his engineers survey the first 80 miles of this route. Both he and Churchill came to the conclusion that the war-winning value of such a road was limited and did not warrant the outlay of scarce resources. Slim also considered Ledo as the wrong place to start. Others had their doubts and expressed them openly. They included U.S.A.A.F. 14th Air Force commander, General Claire Chennault.

For his part Stilwell was determined. He went to the top and requested the go-ahead from the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command, Admiral Mountbatten. Lord Louis also had doubts as to the wisdom of the enterprise but not only gave Stilwell his consent but also responsibility for clearing the Japanese out of northern Burma. In this latter respect the road would provide a combat highway as well as a supply route for the reconquest of Burma.

And so on Oct. 29, 1942, Vinegar-Joe gave orders for a road to be built to eventually link up with the Chinese lines.



Getting Started

The original plan was for a two-lane highway from Ledo to join the existing Burma Road at Mongyu, a distance of 465 miles. The 600-mile northbound segment of the Burma Road would then be upgraded. On Dec. 15 Base Section 3, the command center for the project, was established outside Ledo and on Dec. 16 construction began.

There was an immediate problem. The U.S. engineers had little equipment. They started by hacking their way into the jungle with machetes. Only on March 4 would substantial numbers of troops, support personnel, and essential equipment begin to arrive. Further, with much of Burma under Japanese control it was not possible to get important civil engineering information on the topography, soils, and river drainage. The Army Engineers had to make this up as they went along.

Initially progress was slow. By Jan. 26 they had reached Mile Post 34.5. This was dubbed Hellgate. It marked the start of the road’s ascent into Himalayas. By Feb. 28 they were 36 miles into the Patkai Range and had reached the Burma-India border sited at Pangsau Pass, aka Hell Pass, This was near the road’s highest point of 4,600 feet. From here the road would descended to Shingbwiyang in Burma via the spectacular curves of Chinglo Hill.



Pick’s Pike

On the 103-mile stretch from Ledo to Shingbwiyang, gradients were extremely steep. Hairpin curves and sheer drops of 200 feet were commonplace. To make their way up—and down—the engineers had to remove 100,000 cubic feet of spoil per mile. They had been lucky with the weather in getting to Hell Pass but the next few months would see progress become extremely slow with the arrival of the monsoon.

As construction became bogged-down the base vommander for the project, Col. John C. Arrowsmith, was replaced by Col. Lewis Pick in October 1943. Pick came with a reputation for getting a job done. He had been Army Corps district engineer in New Orleans during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, where he had coordinated federal relief efforts. In 1942 he was Missouri River division engineer and co-wrote the important Pick-Sloan Plan for controlling the water resources of the Missouri River Basin. It would not be long before his CBI construction troops dubbed the road Pick’s Pike.

The first bulldozer reached Shingbwiyang on Dec. 27, 1943, three days ahead of schedule but over a year after starting. At this rate the entire road would not be completed for nearly 10 years. But under prodding from Pick’s infamous big stick things were speeding up. His engineers completed the last 54 miles in 57 days and the Ledo-Shindbwiyang section was declared operational on Jan. 1, 1944. At the celebrations Pick, now a brigadier general, omitted none of the essentials. The opening convoy rolled into Shindbwiyang laden with candy, doughnuts, and 9,600 cans of beer for his engineers.

This first section of the road now allowed supplies to flow into the troops driving the Japanese out of the country ahead. Up until this point these mainly American-trained Chinese divisions had been dependent on airlift for nearly everything. The road, too, would provide the route Merrill’s Marauders would take. To realize the road’s purpose as a combat highway a double pipeline of four-inch fuel pipes was constructed alongside the roadway. These not only supplied the troops and convoys but would also eventually carry gas to China.



Onward to China

The engineers now found their task a little easier. The route south was able to follow a fair-weather road built by the Japanese. The road next terminated in Bhamo at the 372 mile point. From there it headed to Mongyu, 465 miles from Ledo, to join the Burma Road. This required crossing 10 major rivers and over 150 secondary streams, i.e., one bridge built every 2.8 miles.

In late 1944, just two years after Stilwell had ordered a start, the Ledo Road finally linked to the Burma Road. The old road was in bad need of an upgrade and sections of the new road were already under repair due to the relentless monsoon downpours. Nonetheless a highway of sorts now stretched from Assam in India to Kunming in China, a distance of 1,079 miles.

Once patching-up had been attended to the first convoy of 113 vehicles, with Gen. Pick in the lead, left Ledo and headed for China on Jan. 12, 1945. They reached Kunming 23 days later on Feb. 4. On arrival Pick described the construction as, “the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.”

Gen. Stilwell was no longer in command at his road’s completion. His ability to get off-side with those around him had eventually seen this natural warrior replaced. Nonetheless, at the suggestion of Chiang Kai-shek the combined Ledo Road plus the refurbished Burma Road became known Stilwell Road; the link from Ledo to Mongyu is simply its Ledo Road section.

From January 1945, four black and three white Army units continued to improve and widen the Stilwell Road. Over the next six months 129,000 tons of supplies would be transported to China. It was a one-way trip for the 26,000 trucks involved. On arrival they were handed over to the Chinese military. There was no going back as the finished road had few two-way sections.

As Gen. Chennault had predicted back in 1942, at no time did the tonnages transported on the road match those airlifted over The Hump. By late 1944 the tonnage being airlifted had significantly increased. In July 1945, 71,000 tons of supplies were flown into China with just 6,000 tons going by road. The total for the airlift operation by the end of the war was 650,000 tons while the Ledo Road totaled 147,000 tons. And Churchill had also been right. By the time supplies were flowing along the road in large quantities, Allied operations in other theaters were shaping the course of the war.



Retrospect

It was more than miles. The raw statistics of what the U.S.A.C.E. accomplished are summarized by Carl Weidenburner on his Ledo Road website:

http://ledoroad.home.comcast.net/~ledoroad/Ledo_Main.htm. The engineers moved 13,500,000 cubic yards of earth. They dug 1,383,000 cubic yards of gravel from riverbeds to surface the road. They crossed 10 major rivers and 155 smaller streams constructing 700 bridges in all. To minimize washouts they installed an average of 13 culverts per mile using 105 miles of pipe. Some 822,000 cubic feet of timber were gathered from the forest. Of these 1,000,000 linear feet and 2,400 pilings were employed to build causeway over swamps.

The road’s construction had an important social side effect. Along with 35,000 local workers, some 26 U.S. Army units—regiments, companies, battalions—were involved in the road’s construction. Of the 15,000 Army engineers over 60 percent were African-American. Post-war many of their white officers were at the forefront of requesting full integration of the military.

As Carl Weidenburner concludes: The accomplishment of building the Ledo Road stands as a testament to the men responsible and the American spirit that made it possible. He credits Leslie Anders’ The Ledo Road, published by the University of Oklahoma Press, as a primary source of information. For his part, your writer is grateful to those who signed the snorter to remind him of the immensity of their accomplishment.



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