The narrow, twisting Burma Road crossed through jungle, plateaus, mountainous terrain as high as 11,000 feet above sea level, gorges, rivers, and valleys. Steep grades and plummeting drops challenged those who traveled it.
Allied transportation of military supplies from Burma via the road was disrupted when Japanese forces seized its southern end in April 1942. Hoping to delay a Japanese invasion, Chinese troops destroyed the Salween River Bridge and 25 miles of the adjacent Burma Road passing through the river's canyon. China was now isolated from Allied aid and faced perhaps its gravest crisis of the entire war. The United States responded by initiating cargo flights over the Himalayas; however, the cargo capacity of such flights "over the Hump" was severely limited, and the Western Allies feared that China might use its lack of military supplies as the excuse to conclude a separate peace with Japan. By September, Allied forces gained control of some of the region, and Colonel Leo Dawson of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had command of road reconstruction. He directed a large group of Chinese engineers and approximately 30,000 local laborers.
In December 1942, U.S. combat engineers began building a road from Ledo in Assam, India, to Burma as an alternate route to bypass the Japanese-controlled sections. As of autumn 1943, Major General Lewis A. Pick directed work on the Ledo Road. By the next summer, builders connected the Ledo and Burma Roads at Mongyu, Burma, and military transport expanded. The two roads, known collectively as the Stilwell Road, were 1,079 miles in length.
Ultimately, some 28,000 U.S. and British engineers and 35,000 Burmese, Chinese, and other ethnic laborers surveyed, cleared, cut rock, widened, and repaired the Burma Road and built bridges. They also built a pipeline paralleling the road. Monsoon winds and the rainy season caused muddy conditions, and workers were plagued by red ants and mosquitoes that transmitted malaria. The strenuous work resulted in more than 1,000 deaths.
The previously Japanese-held parts of the Burma Road were reopened by mid-January 1945, with Pick leading a convoy. By August 1945, 120,000 tons of material and 25,000 vehicles had been transported on the Burma Road.
Following World War II and the Chinese Civil War, parts of the Burma Road fell into disrepair. The road was also altered by the building of more direct routes, and in places, it was improved with easier grades. In some spots, it was widened to as many as six lanes. Elizabeth D. Schafer
Anders, Leslie. The Ledo Road: General Joseph W. Stilwell's Highway to China. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.; Bowman, Waldo Gleason, Harold W. Richardson, Nathan Abbott Bowers, Edward J. Cleary, and Archie Newton Carter. Bulldozers Come First: The Story of U.S. War Construction in Foreign Lands. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1944.; Coe, Douglas. The Burma Road. New York: J. Messner, 1946.; Dod, Karl C. The Corps of Engineers: The War against Japan. Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1966.; Fowle, Barry, ed. Builders and Fighters: U.S. Army Engineers in World War II. Fort Belvoir, VA: Office of History, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1992.
Elizabeth D. Schafer