The Burma Road (1938-1945)

Our Family's Journey

Strategic Hui Tong Suspension Bridge 惠通橋 over the Salween River
-- US Army 2-½ ton CCKW "Jimmy" cargo truck towing a Howitzer --
(US National Archives)

The Backdoor to China

Between 1937 and 1938, China built the Yunnan-Burma Road as a backdoor supply route during Second Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese government depended on this road to transport materiel through Britain's colonial possessions in Burma and India to Chungking in Central China. Supplies were transferred from ships docked at Burma's capital, Rangoon, to rail cars bound for Lashio. From the Lashio railhead, trucks transported the materiel over the Burma Road to Kunming in China's Southwestern Yunnan Province. The road became one of China's main lifelines after China lost sea-access along its Eastern and Southern coasts.

When full scale war broke out between China and Japan, my grandfather HONG Hock How was a professor of electrical engineering at National Sun Yat Sen University in Canton, and Japan was swiftly occupying much of coastal China. In June 1938, Hock How moved his wife, Tui Goon, and their children, Larry, Jack, Paul, and Lily, to Hong Kong, while his parents stayed behind in their family village.

Hock How went ahead to Rangoon, Burma, where he lead the Works Department of the Rangoon Truck Assembly Plant for the Chinese government, and was charged with assembling 2,000 Dodge trucks then 500 Ford trucks. Tui Goon and the children eventually rejoined Hock How in Rangoon. Over 16 months, Hock How's team built the trucks from complete knocked-down condition. After the truck chassis and wooden bodies were assembled, they were loaded with war materials and driven to Chungking, China along the Burma Road.

The 717 mile Burma Road was built by 200,000 Burmese, Chinese, and local minorities. Hock How described the route in his autobiography:

"The road distance from the Burma border to Kunming is only about 600 miles but a portion of the road is narrow, dangerous, and goes over the [Hui Tong 惠通] Mountains, 12,000 feet above sea level. It usually takes six days for the journey over this distance."

The road connected existing trails and was upgraded "stone by stone" to handle heavy truck traffic through both the wet and dry seasons. Laborers often pulled large stone rollers by hand to level and pack the road surface. Once completed the road had to be continuously upgraded and maintained. The Hui Tong and Gongguo 功果 suspension bridges were also improved to support fully loaded vehicle traffic across the Salween and Mekong rivers (known in Chinese as the Nu 怒江 and Lancang 瀾滄江 rivers), respectively.

Map of Yunnan Supply Routes, 1938-1945
(Routes and Japanese Area of Control are approximations. Any errors are mine.)


Fall of Rangoon

The Japanese invaded Burma in December 1941 in order to cutoff this critical supply line and to secure Burma's petroleum, mining, and agricultural resources. As Hong Kong and Singapore fell and Burma was threatened, HONG Hock How decided to evacuate his family to Kunming. At the end of February 1942, Hock How drove an “Austin 12” (12 HP passenger car), with a hired driver following in a truck loaded with company goods. A week later, on March 7, the British Burma Army evacuated the Burmese capital and it fell to the Japanese.

Convoy with Chinese Troops in Salween Gorge, 30 Jan. 1945 
(US National Archives)

Hock How arrived safely in Kunming in late-March 1942. Remembering their narrow escape over the mountains Hock How later wrote, "Some people, who were slow and were unlucky, and did not get over the [Hui Tong] suspension bridge soon enough, were caught by the Japanese either as prisoners or had to run away and walk over the [Hui Tong] mountains.” In her memior written in 1980, Tui Goon had a similar recollection of the family's flight through the mountains:

"We traveled in an Austin car and a 3-ton truck load with steel bars for Chiang Kai Shek. The invading Japanese army were close behind us, but we were lucky and arrived in [Kunming] safely, although the trip took over a month on the Burma Road."

Japanese Conquest of Burma April-May 1942
(Public Domain work of the US Federal Government)

Following the fall of Rangoon, the Japanese forces pressed the Burma Army north and to the west toward British India and Chinese Armies toward the east along the Burma Road. The Japanese advance was eventually halted at the Chindwin River near the Indian border and Salween River in China. As Hock How's account alludes, the Hui Tong bridge was a critical choke point on the Salween River with only one lane of traffic that could support one fully loaded truck at a time. On May 5, 1942, Japanese forces reached the bridge but the Chinese blew it up before the Japanese could capture the bridge and cross to the other side. The Salween River would marked Japan's deepest advance of the war into western Yunnan.


Search for Alternative Supply Routes

Despite the stalemate along the Salween River, Japan had temporarily achieved its goal of closing China's backdoor. With the Burma Road cutoff, the allies were forced to airlift supplies over The Hump from airfields in Assam, British India, which was in northeastern India connected by rail to Calcutta.

On December 1, 1942, British and American commanders agreed to establish a land route from India to Kunming starting from the town of Ledo. The Ledo Road would snake down into Burma reaching Shingbwiyang, Myitkyina, and Bhamo then met the Burma Road at the Mong-Yu junction between Lashio and Wanting.

During this time, Hock How continued to work on commission after arriving in Kunming, and he and his family lived comfortably. Larry, Jack, and Paul attended school and learned the Yunnan dialect. In July 1943, Tui Goon and Hock How's fifth child, Mary, was born. Tui Goon recalled that "we lived on the Second (上二) Street. Hock How had a jewelry store. Larry went to Wu Wha Middle School. Jack, Paul, and Lily attended grade school."

The new Ledo Road eventually stretched 465 miles from Ledo to the Mong-Yu junction, spanned 10 major rivers and 155 secondary streams (averaging more than one bridge every 3 miles). The road was build by 15,000 American soldiers and 35,000 local workers using modern gas powered equipment. It cost 1,100 American and many more local lives, and US$150 million. The road took two years to complete with the first convoy of 113 vehicles arriving in Kunming on February 4, 1945. By the wars end, an estimated 147,000 tons of supplies had been delivered over the road.

Crowds in Kunming Cheer the Arrival of First Convey, February 1945
(US National Archives) 

The combined Ledo-Burma Road, which now stretched 1,072 miles, was named the Stilwell Road by Chinese leader Chiang-Kai Shek after American General Joseph W. Stilwell. At the outset of World War II, Stilwell, who had been a military attache in China, became Chiang-Kai Shek's chief-of-staff and commanded the Chinese Fifth and Sixth armies in Burma. Stilwell also served as the commanding general of all US troops in the China-Burma-India theater

Despite the Ledo Road's successful completion, it was not without controversy. According to the creator of the website cbi-theater.com, Carl W. Weidenburner:

"The usefulness of the Ledo Road was debated both before its construction and after its completion... As it neared completion and until well after the war ended, many pointed out that it never lived-up to the original estimates of capacity as a supply line."

Although the Ledo Road supplied far less tonnage than The Hump, the effort had other benefits. As road construction wound its way into Burma, it became easier to supply the troops in Burma who were pressuring the Japanese Army from the north. Then with the capture of the airfield at Myitkyina, flights over the Hump were able "to fly a more southerly route without fear of Japanese fighters, thus shortening and flattening the Hump trip with astonishing results." At that point, air deliveries more than doubled between June and November 1944 from 18,000 to 39,000 tons.

Weidenburner concludes:

"As the road was built it served as a combat highway enabling the reconquest of Burma, serviced a pipeline that paralleled it to carry fuel all the way to China, and allowed safer more southerly routes for airlift flights to China. The accomplishment of building the Ledo Road stands as a testament to the men responsible and the American spirit that made it possible."


Over the Hump and Back Down the Road

In July 1945 with the end of the war in sight, Hock How decided to take Larry to the New York to attend school. They first flew over the Hump to Calcutta, then spent four months arranging for passage on a freighter going to Port Angels, Maine. In December 1945, they finally arrived in New York.

A year and a half later, Hock How returned to Rangoon by way of San Francisco and Shanghai. With contracts in hand with International Harvester, Packard Motors, British Motors, and Cummins Diesel Engines, Hock How opened an office and showroom for Jing Hong Trading Corporation. In 1947, Tui Goon hired a truck for their belongings and returned to Rangoon with the rest of their children via the Burma Road.


Sources:

“Burma Road.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 May 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Road. Accessed 09 June 2021.

HONG, Hock How. Autobiography, 7 Feb. 1979.

HONG, Tui Goon. Autobiography recorded by Larry Hong, August 1980.

“Introduction to the Old Burma Road.” Burma Road, 29 Dec. 2018, burma-road.com/introduction.html. Accessed 09 June 2021.

Tuchman, Barbara W. (1971). Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45. Macmillan. p. 484

Weidenburner , Carl W. “The Ledo Road CHINA-BURMA-INDIA.” The Ledo Road, www.cbi-theater.com/ledoroad/Ledo_Page_One.html.


No comments: