India prepares to resurrect wartime route that cost Allies a man a mile

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The Independent Online

India has approved plans to reopen a legendary road that was built by American-led soldiers during the Second World War.

India has approved plans to reopen a legendary road that was built by American-led soldiers during the Second World War.

The story of the Stilwell Road is similar to the Bridge on the River Kwai - except that it was built not by prisoners of war working for the Japanese but by teams led by US volunteers for the Allies.

The Stilwell Road was a useable byway constructed from an original dirt track called the Ledo Road. When finished, it became known as the "man-a-mile road" because of the death toll it took on those constructing it. The men who built it had to hack their way through jungle, and carve a route over a mountain pass 3,727ft high. They had to contend with monsoons that washed away the road even as they built it. They had to fight through Japanese forces, pushing their way forward and building the road in their wake.

It was one of the great engineering marvels of the Second World War. The result was a road 1,070 miles long, from Ledo in India to Chinming in China, passing through Burma, and making its way across some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. It was 30ft wide, double-tracked and metalled. It was a vital land supply route for Chinese troops fighting the Japanese in China.

But, since the 1960s, the historic road has fallen into disrepair, forgotten, slowly crumbling under the sun and the monsoon rain. For more than 40 years, relations between India, China and Burma have been suspicious at best, outwardly hostile at worst.

The Indian section of the road, from Ledo in Assam to the Pangsau Pass, the border with Burma in Arunachal Pradesh, is still traversable - just, with a four-wheel-drive and a lot of patience. But it has become an unmetalled gravel track, only wide enough for one car. And even if you want to try to drive it, so jumpy is India about the border area with Burma and China that foreigners have to get a special permit even to enter Arunachal Pradesh state.

All that may be about to change. Generally unnoticed by the outside world, India and China's relations have been a little less frosty of late, if not exactly warming. The two fastest growing economies in the world have realised they have a lot to offer each other.

Now India and China want the Stilwell Road reopened, as a land route between them. All the more direct routes require crossing the vast wall of the Great Himalaya range. The Stilwell Road was originally built to bypass the Himalayas. During the Second World War, the only viable supply route to Chinese forces resisting the Japanese was what was known as "crossing the hump" - flying across the Himalayas. It was a venture fraught with risk. Second World War aircraft could only just clear the world's highest mountains. Even today, pilots are wary about crossing the Himalayas because bad weather can strike without warning.

But then, during the war, Lord Mountbatten, who was head of the South-east Asia Command working to liberate Burma and Singapore, was flying over Assam and asked the name of a river beneath. "That's not a river," he was told. "It's the Ledo Road." Mountbatten asked what it would take to reopen the old road. "It's impossible," they told him.

One man took a different view: the American general Joseph Stilwell, a man so renowned for his unpleasant manner he was known as "Vinegar Joe". He had a plan to reopen the road on file.

And once the British agreed to hand over the building of the road to the Americans, he undertook it, fighting his way through the Japanese with a mixed force of Chinese, Indians, Nepalis and Americans, and dragging the crew in his wake.

One of the soldiers under Stilwell's command wrote to his wife: "My pack is on my back, my gun is oiled and loaded, and as I walk in the shadow of death, I fear no son-of-a-bitch."

Is the road about to reopen at last? India has already cleared more than seven miles on its section. The problem will be Burma. At least 30 per cent of the route through Burma will have to be relaid and the Burmese have made it clear they're not paying for it. Worse, the Burmese authorities have limited control in Kachin, the state the road passes through.

But the Chinese are said to be prepared to finance the Burmese stretch. The Stilwell Road may be about to return.