Stilwell’s 1942 Retreat from Burma through Homalin

January 6, 2014

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Looking west from Homalin from where Stilwell crossed the Chindwin River in 1942.
Looking west from Homalin from where Stilwell crossed the Chindwin River in 1942.

On May 12, 1942 General Joseph Stilwell led 114 Americans, British, Chinese and Burmese into Homalin. The next day they crossed the Chindwin River. They started in Maymyo on May 1 and arrived in Imphal, India on May 20.  Stilwell knew the Japanese were on their heels so he set a tough pace: fourteen miles per day at 105 steps per minute. Fifty minutes of marching per hour with a ten minute break. The Japanese arrived in Homalin only a day after Stilwell’s group crossed the Chindwin. In those three weeks they marched through jungles and up mountains, losing an average of 25 lbs per person.

On May 24, 1942  Stilwell gave an interview to a New Delhi reporter, “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”

We always hear about the Allies journeys through exotic lands. But who did they pass along the way?  Below is a day by day summary of Stilwell’s retreat and the problems they encountered with photos from Homalin of the type of people they may have passed along the way.

Known as Chin Lone in Myanmar and Sepak Takraw in other Asian countries, this game of kick-volleyball should be an Olympic sport.
Known as Chin Lone in Myanmar and Sepak Takraw in other Asian countries, this game of kick-volleyball should be an Olympic sport.

April27, 1942 Heard an ugly rumor from Limie: the Chinese are leaving Lashio (about 100 miles east). Chiang Kai-shek (CKS) said to stay in Burma. Sixty boats sunk by Japanese on Irrawaddy. Flew all the British women out of and most of the Head Quarters crowd.

This child followed me for blocks for a photo - what a cutie.
This child followed me for blocks for a photo – what a cutie.

April 29, 1942 Swebo hit by 27 Japanese bombers.

April 30, 1942 Officers are beginning to lose their grip, squabbling over rice and trucks. Lashio was taken. Ava Bridge over Irrawaddy blown-up by Chinese to stop Japanese. Imminent danger of disintegration and collapse.

Love those lunch boxes.
Love those lunch boxes.

May 1, 1942 Japanese on Maymyo road. Started evacuation from  Maymyo 6 am. Arrived in Zigon 10 pm. Car stalled. Three hour delay.

May 2, 1942 Left Zigon at 6 am arrived in Pintha at 11 PM. Battled along oxen-trails. Dr. Seagrave got some medical equipment off a bull cart.  Had a bath using a farm well.

These teachers motioned me over for photo of their flowers.
These teachers motioned me over for photo of their flowers.

May 3,1942 Left Pintha at 6:30 am arrived in Wuntho at 9:30 pm CKS says to go to Myitkyina. Tomorrow we’ll head towards Mogaung. Need to decide whether to wait three days for elephants to carry food or forage later. Bridges needed repair before trucks could cross. Sent mules ahead to cross Chindwin at Kalewa then travel through Kalemyo to Tedim.

Flowers - one of the better things in life.
Flowers – one of the better things in life.

May 5, 1942  Myitkyina out. Had to make a decision whether to take the route to Tamu, due west of Mawlaik on Chindwin or head towards Kawlum and cross Chindwin from Homalin. Chose Homalin. Heard elephants trumpeting in the woods. Broken gas line in car. Another car got stuck in sand. Limie’s truck blocked ford in river: didn’t want to get his feet wet. Had to abandon all vehicles and find other crossing. Serious fords to cross with monsoon. Saw head man at village.  Said all coolies went south.  Will take 10 days to get rafts or next village has 60 porters and mules. Good eggs (people) here.

In a country at poverty level, who buys flowers? Must be a priority for some.
In a country at poverty level, who buys flowers? Must be a priority for some.

May 6, 1942 Late start at 3:30 am. Last radio message – destroyed radio

May 7, 1942 Arrived in Magyigan. Hard going across river. Some carried mattresses and bedding. Stripped everyone down to only 10 lbs per person. Of the 12 officers 4 are seriously ill. Merrill fell face first. Christ but we are a poor lot. Marched down the middle of Chaungyyi River rather than fight the vegetation along the shore.

Aren't their smiles contagious?
Aren’t their smiles contagious?

May 8, 1942 Arrived in Saingkyu. Chattering monkeys in jungle. Japanese bombers overhead. We’re not out yet. Had tea and good sleep.

May 9, 1942 Arrived in Maingkaing – Charged by rogue elephant. Began travel on flat bed raft with bamboo hand poles on Uyu River.

Homalin is a large city similar to Monwya, which has a population of 150,000.
Homalin is a large city similar to Monwya, which has a population of 150,000.

May 10, 1942 Put Seagraves Burmese nurses on roof of rafts. Nice ride but too damn slow. Took break at 22:00 then poled all night on river.

May 11, 1942  Rain. That’s ominous. Had a hell of a time getting everyone going. Big chicken dinner.  Off again at 22:00. Many snags and rafts breaking up. Rumor preparations made for us in Homalin.

Homalin and Monywa are the two big towns on the Chindwin.
Homalin and Monywa are the two big towns on the Chindwin.

 May 12, 1942 Arrived in Homalin. It’s Mother’s Day. No one’s here. Commissioner up river. Camped in temple.

May 13, 1942 Left at 6 am and traveled 3 miles north of Homalin to cross Chindwin by dugout. After we crossed, one of the guerilla leaders took his horse through the chowline. “What will I do with him?” Thunderstorm ahead.

Homalin ahead traveling from south. Notice good-luck leaves in bow. North of Homalin the river is very shallow. High risk of bottoming out.
Homalin ahead traveling from south. Notice good-luck leaves in bow. North of Homalin the river is very shallow. High risk of bottoming out.

May 14, 1942 Passed by bright green snake. Sissy Brig complaining. Climbed in heavy rains to Kawlum. Met British relief expedition with ponies, medical supplies and food.

May 15, 1942 Time change. Beautiful view of Mainpur Hills.

Homalin looking south in January. Imagine Chindwin River during monsoon.
Homalin looking south in January. Imagine Chindwin River during monsoon.

May 16, 1942 Met Tangkhul bearers. Fine people. Haircut like Iroquois. Men wore g-string sashes. Arrived in Chamu – beautiful view. Thatched covered bridge. Coolies built me a house in an hour.

May 17. 1942 Seventeen miles to Pushing. Naga came out with rice wine to welcome “great man.” Pushing like Alaska with totem pole boards. Saw Tangkhul with safety pin earring.

Teens seem to be the same world-wide. Note 'pinky' connection between 3 Chin girls.
Teens seem to be the same world-wide. Note ‘pinky’ connection between 3 Chin girls.

May 18, 1942 Six miles to Ukhrul. Noisy night with bugs. Tangkhuls wear a ring on their dink while working in the fields with the women. Women strip down to nothing with the heat. Imphal bombed again.

May 19, 1942 Rained. Passed through Limpo. Made 21 miles. Got cigarettes and chocolate.

May 20, 1942 Rained all night. Cordial reception by Limies. The PA, an old fart, didn’t know I wanted him to forward radio message from May 6. Colossal Jackass.

General Joseph Stilwell, WWII leader and great historian.
General Joseph Stilwell, WWII leader and great historian.

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