It became the job of General Stilwell to retake northern Burma, reopen the Burma Road, and build the Ledo Road 500 miles (800 kilometers) through mountainous jungle, connecting the Burma Road with India. (Once the Ledo Road and Burma Road were joined, Chiang Kai-shek renamed the entire passage the Stilwell Road.) To keep China in goods and weapons while the road was being built, Stilwell cranked up a massive airlift between China and India over windy, 14,000-foot (4,300-meter) peaks: the infamous Hump route, which eventually claimed 607 supply planes.
But the Hump's perils were equaled by those facing General Pick's construction battalions. In 15 months Pick's men, despite snipers and malaria, moved 13.5 million cubic yards (10.3 million cubic meters) of earth to cut the roadbed—enough dirt, wrote Tillman Durdin of the New York Times, to build a wall ten feet tall (three meters) and three feet (one meter) wide from New York City to San Francisco.
"It was crazy, and it was miserable," says George Erban, a U.S. engineer and a shovel operator on the road. "Every day was the same. Up at dawn, sweat and work until dark. It was so hot sometimes, where we'd lay concrete, it would be dry in an hour. We'd cut a stretch of road over some jungle mountain, and the monsoon would wash it out. But we kept going. We had no choice."
Entering the jungles of Myanmar today, I am coming to understand what an epic undertaking the road was. Nearly three travel-wracked weeks after visiting Ledo, I am—once again—just a few miles from Pangsau Pass, this time approaching the border from its Myanmar side.
It's been a long, muddy trip. Because Pangsau is closed to outsider traffic, I've been forced to fly from northeastern India through Calcutta to Yangon (the former Rangoon). Then, once inside Myanmar, I hopped another series of airplanes, taxis, trucks, and conveyances (including a 1943 Willys jeep left over from the war and, later on, a pair of elephants) to approach the Myanmar side of Pangsau along the road.
For the past hundred miles (160 kilometers) I've watched the road go from pavement to gravel to mud to its current state, a single-track footpath through enclosing jungle. As that path climbs one last mountainside before Pangsau, I find perhaps the most remote village along the road's length: Namlip. Like many villages in this part of Myanmar, it is home to the Naga, a people reported to be active headhunters as recently as 1991. That's when my friend, Delhi-based backcountry guide John Edwards, visited a village southwest of here just a week after an intervillage disagreement. The men from one village had "hacked 28 heads from the enemy village," he told me. "Then they brought them home as souvenirs."
It is therefore with some trepidation that I approach Namlip, whose low-roofed, palm-thatched stilt huts crowd the hills on both sides of the trail. As I step out of the jungle and into the village's grassy clearing, a gaggle of children—barefoot and wearing short pants and ragged T-shirts—spot me. Shocked, they streak for home, leaving only chickens and pigs to greet me. Ten minutes pass before a tiny sticklike figure emerges from a hut up the hill on the left.
He's an older man, dressed in a blue Nehru-style jacket, leather sandals, and a cloth sarong, or longyi. As he approaches, he is smiling—hardly the threatening headhunter—and I notice that his pierced earlobes dangle low.
"Hello," he says in Naga, which my guide translates. "I am Ah Naung, more than 80 years old. Welcome to Namlip. Welcome." Then Ah Naung makes an admission that startles the explorer in me. "I'm sorry for the coldness of your greeting, but you are the first white person most of these people have ever seen. You are the first white man I myself have seen since 1945."
Ah Naung shakes my hand. He calls loudly back up the hill toward his hut, ordering us some tea. For the next 90 minutes as we visit, a crowd gathers to stare and listen.
Life in Namlip today, Ah Naung says, remains much the same as it was before 1942. "We farm and hunt to eat," he says. "We live very simply. I would like to tell you the road has changed our lives—but no. We use it to travel, though there was always a trail there, even before the war. Rice is transported to us along the road, since rice is difficult to grow here."