Stilwell Road – Old Caravan Route to China

December 27, 2013

Stilwell Road Commerative Sign
Stilwell Road Commerative Sign

A man a mile – was the death count during WWII’s construction of the Stilwell Road; a near impossible engineering feat in itself but even more so during wartime. Malaria, typhus and monsoon-soaked, crumbling hills were the biggest killers – not the Japanese. 

India-Burma Border
India-Burma Border

Caravans, between China and Persia, had passed near the Pangsau Pass years earlier but, unlike the WWII army, had no need to carry army tanks or troops of men.  The Stilwell Road started in Ledo India.

Abandoned narrow gauge rail line - Assam India
Abandoned narrow gauge rail line

Transport to Ledo during WWII was via narrow gauge rail, which had been set up to service the tea plantations.

British tea house still in use
British tea plantation still in use

They called it the chicken neck of India; beyond the boondocks. You‘ve heard of Naga head hunters?” 

Pangsau Pass ahead
Pangsau Pass ahead

This was the territory of the Sing Pho and Naga tribes.  Descendents of both tribes still live within a couple miles of each other today.  During WWII the Sing Pho signed an easement with the U.S. government, giving the Allies the right to construct portions of the thousand mile road on their land.  

Cross section of old Stilwell Road - bitumen layer sprayed over chunks of granite
Cross-section of old Stilwell Road – the scarce supply of bitumen was sprayed or poured over chunks of granite

In a manila folder containing important documents dating from the 1800s to 2013, the governing heir of the Sing Pho tribe, King Dowa Bisa Nong Sing Pho and his family, safeguards these records. 

King Dowa Bisa Nong of SingPho (far right). Kachin relatives who gave US easement to build Stilwell Road.
King of SingPho (far right) Kachin’s relatives gave Stilwell the easement for the US to build the Road

Although the Sing Pho are Buddhists, many of the Naga are Christian. It seems strange to think that the Naga were once headhunters turned Christians.  

Section of Stilwell Road in India
Section of old Stilwell Road in India 2013

Struggles continue between the tribes and their respective governments along the border of India and Burma.  Due to unpredictable clashes, the Stilwell Road has seen deterioration, and cross-border permits are given only under special conditions.

Surveyor siting alignment of road
Surveyor siting alignment of road.

This may be changing in the near future.  The governments of both India and China are interested in restoring the Stilwell Road in their respective countries and through Burma.  Problems with mining gold and precious gems, trading opium, harvesting teak, maintaining dams, tiger reserves, conservation efforts, finding funding, and property rights need to be resolved first.

Stream modification for future development
Stream diversion for development

Current investments in road projects along the Indian border and by the Chinese in Burma suggest a drastic change for the future of this area.

Old World War II barracks now in use by Indian army
Old World War II barracks are now in use by the Indian army

Within India, old WWII barracks, along the Stilwell Road, continue to be utilized by the Indian military as cantonments.

Ledo barracks - off limits to public
Ledo WWII basha barracks

Unfortunately, they are not open to the public but at least they found a use for them and weren’t abandoned.

Coal mining along Stilwell Road
Open-pit Coal mine along Stilwell Road

This part of the Himalayas is so rugged that only part of the coal and oil deposits have been used. The locals say when oil was discovered in Assam an Indian boy, in surprise and fear, showed the British the oil on his feet from walking through the field. The British response was, “Dig boy dig.”

Dig boy dig - first oil fields in India
Digboi – first oil fields in India

My book, Behind the Forgotten Front, takes a look at this part of the world from 1942-to 1945.
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