China‐Burma‐India Theater

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ChinaBurmaIndia Theater (1941–45).The China‐Burma‐India (CBI) theater has been dubbed “the forgotten theater” of World War II. Once the United States entered the war, American strategy called for building up China as a source of manpower, as a base for bombers and the eventual invasion of Japan, and as a pro‐American regional power in the postwar era.

After Japanese occupation of Burma and the April 1942 closure of the Burma Road, China's last overland link with its allies, two years passed before the Allies could make a major effort to reopen the route. Vast distances, rugged terrain, few roads, heavy rainfall, and diseases made Burma a horrendous place for a campaign. Given the “Germany First” strategy, the CBI theater lay far down the Allies' list of priorities. Although the British wanted to recover Burma and their other Far Eastern colonies, they shared little of the American sense of urgency for aiding China. The Nationalist leader Chiang Kai‐shek, anxious to conserve his forces for the postwar showdown with Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists, was wary of major commitments. Consequently, the Americans built up their logistical structure and examined alternative strategies. From airbases near Dinjan in Assam Province (northeastern Indian), C‐46 and C‐47 transport planes flew supplies 500 miles through the Himalayas over “the Hump” to Kunming, China. In December 1942, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over construction of a road from Ledo to join the Burma Road. Searching for alternatives, Roosevelt and Chiang were drawn to Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault's extravagant promise that with 150 planes and priority on “Hump” tonnage, he could defeat Japan. The Allies also tied intelligence gathering to Kachin guerrillas rescuing downed Allied fliers by Detachment 101 of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and deep raids by British Brig. Orde C. Wingate's “Chindits.”

At the Cairo Conference in November and December 1943, Allied leaders could not agree on a major 1944 offensive into Burma by Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten's new Southeast Asia Command, but Lt. Gen. Joseph Stilwell had his own ideas. The able but acerbic Stilwell was American theater commander, Mountbatten's deputy, Chiang's chief of staff, and commander of the Chinese Army in India. Determined to proceed with his three U.S.‐trained Chinese divisions and “Merrill's Marauders”—3,000 air‐supplied, American light infantrymen originally assigned to Wingate—Stilwell sent the Marauders on deep flanking marches into the rear of the Japanese 18th Division while the Chinese attacked in front. By mid‐April 1944, Stilwell's forces had advanced to sixty‐five miles from Myitkyina, a key transportation center and air base in North Burma. To the south, a drive by three Japanese divisions into Assam threatened Stilwell's communications; but in June, Lt. Gen. William J. Slim's British Fourteenth Army badly defeated the Japanese at Imphal. Meanwhile, the Marauders seized the airfield at Myitkyina in a surprise attack on 17 May. Worn down by casualties and disease, they and the Chinese could not take the city, which held out until 3 August. In October, the Allies resumed their offensive. The Fourteenth Army advanced to the Chindwin River, and the Chinese and Mars Task Force, including the revived Marauders, pushed on Bhamo and Lashio. On 20 January 1945, patrols of the 38th Chinese Division from India linked up with Chinese troops from Yunnan on the Burma Road, and on 29 January the first convoy from Ledo passed the linkup en route to Kunming.

By then, the war had passed by CBI. Since the Cairo Conference, Roosevelt and his advisers had become increasingly disillusioned with Chiang and his inability or unwillingness to drive back the Japanese. American strategy became oriented toward the Pacific, limiting CBI's role largely to diverting Japanese divisions. In June 1944, the Twentieth U.S. Air Force had launched B‐29 raids from Chengtu, China, against Japan, but after ten months of disappointing results and logistical problems, the B‐29s were shifted to the Mariana Islands in the Pacific. Chennault's strategy also proved a disappointment, as the Japanese Army, fulfilling Stilwell's predictions, seized the Fourteenth Air Force's bases once its operations began to affect them. Stilwell could take little satisfaction, for on 18 October 1944, Roosevelt, bowing to increased pressure from Chiang, relieved him. CBI split into an India‐Burma theater with about 184,000 U.S. forces under Lt. Gen. Daniel I. Sultan and a China theater with about 28,000 Americans under Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer, who prepared ambitious plans for a rejuvenated Chinese Army to drive to the China coast by 1946. To coordinate a Chinese offensive against the Japanese, an OSS delegation, the “Dixie Mission,” even visited Mao in Yenan Province, Northwest China, but U.S. Ambassador Patrick Hurley, fearing the impact on Communist‐Nationalist negotiations, vetoed cooperation with the Communist forces. Wedemeyer's offensive in July 1945 came too late to affect the war's outcome.

CBI produced some of the most impressive feats of engineering and logistics in American military history. Yet, despite the best efforts of numerous Americans, it contributed little to Japan's defeat, except perhaps to keep China in the war and thereby tie up sizable Japanese forces on the Asian mainland.
[See also China, U.S. Military Involvement in; Chinese Civil War, U.S. Military Involvement in the, World War II, U.S. Air Operations in: The Air War Against Japan.]


Charles F. Romanus and and Riley Sunderland , Stilwell's Mission to China, 1953.
Charles F. Romanus and and Riley Sunderland , Stilwell's Command Problems, 1956.
Charlton Ogburn, Jr. , The Marauders, 1959.
Charles F. Romanus and and Riley Sunderland , Time Runs Out in CBI, 1959.
Barbara W. Tuchman , Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911–1945, 1970.
Warren I. Cohen , America's Response to China: An Interpretive History of Sino‐American Relations, 1971.

David W. Hogan, Jr.

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China‐Burma‐India Theater

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