On this day in 1946, Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, the man who commanded the U.S. and Chinese Nationalist resistance to Japanese incursions into China and Burma, dies today at age 63.
Born March 19, 1883, in Palatka, Florida, and a graduate of the West Point Military Academy, Stilwell began distinguishing himself early in his career. In World War I, he served with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, as well as in the Philippines. He was also a student of the Chinese language, which garnered him a position as military attache in Peking from 1935 to 1939. It was during the 1930s that Stilwell began to bond with the Chinese peasantry—and developed an infamous distrust, if not contempt, for Chinese political leadership. Known for his straight-talking manner and as a man who did not suffer fools gladly, he made no qualms about his dislike for Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who Stilwell considered corrupt and greedy (and whom he nicknamed “the Peanut”).
Nevertheless, when World War II broke out, Stilwell reluctantly accepted Chiang’s offer to become commander of U.S. Army forces in China and Burma-as well as to become Chiang’s chief of staff. Stilwell also supervised the dispersion of American Land-Lease shipments to China, much-needed supplies for the war effort that Chiang wanted funneled through his office.
Stilwell’s initial military operation, to keep open the Burma Road between India and China and to repel Japanese incursions into Burma, failed. The operation in Burma was so disastrous that Chinese forces under his command stopped taking orders. And as Allied supplies to China were being strangled (the Burma Road was the necessary shipping route), Stilwell and his forces were forced to retreat into India. “We got run out of Burma, and it is humiliating as hell,” the general later admitted.
Further attempts by Stilwell to rally Chinese forces against the Japanese in both Burma and China were often thwarted by both Chiang, who was more concerned about the communist threat of Mao Tse-tung, and not allowing his ultimate authority to be usurped by the Americans, and the American Air Force, which, naturally, wanted to divert the war effort from the ground to the air.
Stilwell did manage to lead Chinese divisions to retake Myitakyina, and its airfield, from Japanese control, rebuilding the Ledo Road, a military highway in India that led into Burma (the road was later renamed Stilwell Road). But conflicts with Chiang resulted in Stilwell’s removal in 1944. He then served as commander of the 10th Army on Okinawa, ultimately receiving the surrender of 100,000 Japanese troops in the Ryukyu Islands, in southern Japan. Stilwell finished off his career as commander of the 6th Army. The man who Gen. George C. Marshall declared “far-sighted” and “one of the exceptionally brilliant and cultured men in the Army…qualified for any command in peace or war,” died in San Francisco—with his nation at peace.