04 April 2006

Black American Troops on the Burma Front, 1943

After the Japanese invasion of 1942, the Allies had lost control of the original Burma–Yunnan road which had brought supplies up to the Chinese nationalists. For a year everything had needed to be flown to Chungking from India over the Hump or northern mountains, a dangerous and costly exercise. The Americans decided early on that it was imperative to build a new road from India across the northern tip of Burma into China as part of their support for the fragile nationalist regime....

The plan was to get this road finished before the monsoon of 1944. The task seemed impossible.... Some progress had been made by February 1943, but then the rains washed the embankments away... By September 1943 the whole project had ground to a halt. It had progressed only forty-two miles during the whole year.

Then on 13 October General Lewis A. Pick arrived on the scene. Chosen personally by [Gen. Joseph] Stilwell following an interview in a rain-sodden tent, he had been in charge of flood control works on the Missouri river during the 1930s. Pick drove the project forward at the Chinese end with extraordinary energy. He relied heavily on black troops of the US Engineer Corps and was later acknowledged as having improved race relations within US forces as a whole. He disciplined and organized the fragmented Indian, Chinese and Burmese labour force. he instituted twenty-four-hour shift working. During the night flares were lit in buckets of oil placed every few yards along the road. Pick achieved the extraordinary progress of one new mile of road per day. By New Year's Day 1944 he had got as far as Shingbwiyang, the ill-fated refugee camp where so many Burma refugees had died the previous year. It was through this route that Stilwell and his Chinese troops were to enter north Burma that year....

As in other sectors of the war front, racial tensions sometimes exploded when Indian, British, American, Free French and Chinese troops were in close proximity. Black American troops, often driving around in large jeeps and sporting larger wallets than even British and Indian officers, were resented by white and high-caste Indians. The black soldiers for their part complained of an Indian and white colour bar. There were occasional scuffles and fights around restaurants and hotels. Meanwhile, even in the crisis of war, many British continued to discriminate against mixed-race Eurasians, the most loyal of the empire's subjects, who had suffered the most from the Japanese and kept all the major services running even in the face of the Quit India movement.
SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 280-281, 297

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