Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Myitkyina, Siege of (May–August 1944)

The key military objective of the 1944 Allied Northern Burma Campaign in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations. U.S. Lieutenant General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell had command of Allied forces in the battle and subsequent "siege." The action began in late April 1944 with attacks in the Mogaung Valley by predominantly Chinese troops, followed by a general Allied effort against the airfield and railroad center of Myitkyina. The aim of the campaign was to reduce Japanese pressure on the air resupply route from India to China over the Himalayas ("the Hump") and to clear a vital road link along the ground line of communications under construction from Ledo, India, to Kunming, China (the Ledo Road, later known as the Stilwell Road). British, Chinese, Burmese, and U.S. troops (Merrill's Marauders, the 5307th Composite Unit [Provisional]) captured the airfield on 17 May, but they could not eliminate stubborn resistance by elements of the Japanese 18th and 56th Divisions in the Myitkyina area until 3 August.

The Allied operation, code-named end-run, was conducted by three separate combat brigade–sized elements organized around the battalions of Merrill's Marauders (code-named galahad). H Force, consisting of the 1st Battalion, the 150th Regiment of the 50th Chinese Division, and a battery of the 22nd Chinese Division artillery moved south on 30 April. M Force, the 2nd Battalion with attached Burmese Kachins, began its operations on the southernmost axis on 7 May. K Force consisting of the 3rd Battalion of galahad and the 88th Regiment of the 30th Chinese Division began the advance to Myitkyina on 28 April. These three formations were accompanied by U.S. and Chinese support troops, including mobile hospitals, engineers, and animal transport units.

The 17 May attack completely surprised the 700 to 800 Japanese troops defending Myitkyina Airfield. Colonel Charles Hunter's H Force spearheaded the attack and secured the field and supporting facilities. A U.S. engineer unit, a Chinese infantry battalion, and a British antiaircraft unit were quickly airlifted into the field. Allied reinforcements also arrived in preparation for the difficult task of taking the town and supporting defensive positions. Initial attempts by Chinese forces to take the town were unsuccessful, and a stalemate ensued. Both sides sent in reinforcements and built strong points that were difficult to overrun.

British forces under General Sir William Slim, fully engaged against the Japanese in the west around the Imphal and Kohima area near the Burma-India border, were unable to provide major combat formations for the Northern Burma Campaign. Major General Orde C. Wingate died in a plane crash on 25 March; his Special Forces, or "Chindits," were placed under the command of Major General W. D. A. Lentaigne. Elements of this force were put under Stilwell's direct command and fought their way north to support the effort around Myitkyina. Unable to quickly consolidate initial gains against stubborn Japanese resistance, Stilwell ordered the exhausted Marauders to continue the fight. He also brought in U.S. combat engineers working on the Ledo Road to serve as infantry, and he called for additional Chinese reinforcements.

Over the next two months, both sides conducted small-scale attacks, with no significant change in the military situation on the ground. By late July, however, continued Allied efforts, supported by increased air sorties and added artillery, began to take their toll on the Japanese defenders. Determined and often bitter small-unit actions wore down the Japanese, and during the last three days of July, Allied forces made significant advances. On 3 August, Myitkyina was declared secure. The key U.S. formation, Merrill's Marauders, fought on doggedly and remained in the field until victory, despite being decimated by combat casualties and losses from sickness and disease. The unit ceased to exist as a viable combat formation and was eventually replaced by the Mars Force under the command of Lieutenant General Daniel Sultan. However, it was the Chinese units, which had shown that they could stand with veteran Japanese formations, that were the key to the eventual Allied victory in northern Burma.

Although delayed by stubborn Japanese resistance, the difficult terrain, and the challenges of coordinating Allied forces, Stilwell's Northern Burma Campaign was a success. With the fall of Myitkyina, the Allies were one step closer to opening a secure ground supply line to China and to setting the stage for a major offensive to drive the Japanese from Burma. General Stilwell, principal architect of the campaign, was relieved of his duties in the CBI in mid-October and replaced as commander of U.S. combat forces in Burma by General Sultan.

J. G. D. Babb


Further Reading
Ogburn, Charlton, Jr. The Marauders. New York: Harper and Row, 1959.; Romanus, Charles F., and Riley Sunderland. China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell's Command Problems. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1985.; Slim, William J. Defeat into Victory. London: Macmillan, 1986.
 

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