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Burma Road On Assignment

Burma Road On Assignment

Burma Road
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Burma Road Map

A Hellish Lifeline

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By Donovan WebsterPhotographs by Maria Stenzel

Allied forces endured disease, monsoons, and Japanese attacks to build the infamous 1,100-mile (1,800-kilometer) supply line that still winds through three nations—and old soldiers' memories.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The old soldiers urge me not to go looking. They'd prefer to think that the road they hacked across India's steep Patkai Range and down through the jungles of Burma to China during World War II is gone. That its two stringy lanes—now six decades old—have been devoured by time and landslides, jungle monsoons and swampy earth.

But right now, step after step, I'm crossing a steel bridge near the northeastern Indian village of Jairampur: a dilapidated span the old soldiers laid above the muddy Khatang Nalla in early 1943, the first true bridge of the Burma Road's 1,100-mile (1,800 kilometer) length.

I leave the bridge's far end, walking between walls of rain forest that rise like green tapestries a hundred feet high. As I walk, I'm thinking of Mitchell Opas, now 86, who served as a U.S. Army medic during World War II and whom I've interviewed at reunions from Massachusetts to Texas. "If that road's still there," Opas has instructed me, his finger pointed in my direction for emphasis, "then you send pictures of it."

Up the pavement ahead of me, dogs doze in the sun as children run back and forth across the otherwise empty road's chipped asphalt. Two hundred yards farther along, a wood-planked district police station encircled by razor wire sits off the road's left shoulder. When I begin to pass it by, a green-uniformed sentry—his assault rifle slung across his belly—lifts his weapon. Using the gun's black barrel, he motions me inside the front gate. "Please," he suggests, "come inside."

I'm led to the commander's office, where I'm offered a handshake and a chair. The commander is an imposing man in his 40s named G. K. Grung, his olive uniform festooned with flashing gold stars. Seated behind a wooden desk, he examines my passport and visa. He's especially interested in my Restricted Area Permit, the paper authorizing me to travel the final 18 miles (28 kilometers) of road inside India's otherwise off-limits state of Arunachal Pradesh. Here in Arunachal's jungle, the road crests a 3,727-foot (1,135-meter) mountain notch called Pangsau Pass, which constitutes India's hotly defended border with Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma.

Commander Grung looks up. "I'm sorry," he says, "but we have been issued new orders about the road to Pangsau Pass. No visitors are allowed past this point. Unfortunately, this means you." He smiles, then taps his desk with his right forefinger. "There is significant rebel activity here at the moment. The jungles are something of a no-man's-land. We cannot assure your security. Therefore, you cannot proceed."

I smile back. This is how my journey along the Burma Road begins: with recollections of old soldiers and a warning backed by machine guns as I get close to India's touchy frontier.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, a statue of the Hindu goddess Kali, lording over other deities outside a shop in Ledo, India.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?

The construction of the Burma Road over forbidding, monsoon-swept terrain was an astonishing feat. No less impressive, though, was the other way supplies were transported from India into China during World War II, both before and after the land route was opened. Goods traveled via an airlift that became known as the Hump, and the accomplishments of those who kept the Hump route up and running are truly remarkable.

From the spring of 1942 until the war ended in August 1945, pilots' skills were tested as they crossed towering mountains in abysmal circumstances—violent turbulence, Japanese airfire, dreadful weather, malfunctioning airplanes—and with little sleep. Planes took off around the clock from any of 13 bases in northeastern India, landing about 500 miles (800 kilometers) later at one of 6 airfields in China. Most of the planes and pilots belonged to the Air Transport Command, and some men flew as many as three round-trips a day.

In his book Flying the Hump: Memories of an Air War, former Hump pilot and journalist Otha C. Spencer quotes one pilot's typically harrowing experience in the air. "We encountered a solid cold front at 16,000 feet (5,000 meters). Suddenly the entire plane began to vibrate…ice had built up on our props and we were unable to break it loose.… I ordered the crew to prepare for bail out and I would remain and try to get rid of the ice…the crew elected to remain with the plane…we had dropped into a river valley…suddenly it sounded as if the engines were coming apart.… We had entered the warm air and the clubbing props were letting loose large chunks of ice…we were still flying, just skimming the treetops at 9,800 feet (2,900 meters)…at Kunming the aircraft was grounded, as the entire fuselage in line with both props was literally demolished…our cargo had been explosives…another normal day."

In all, some 650,000 tons (600,000 metric tonnes) of supplies were ferried to China over the Hump, but at a cost: More than 600 planes and 1,000 lives were lost in the airlift.

—Robin A. Palmer
Did You Know?

Related Links
Stilwell Road (Ledo Road)
This site describes the history of the Stilwell, Ledo, and Burma Roads, and includes a chart that gives the distances between various points along the connected routes.

Burma, 1942
A product of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, this document gives an account of the situation in Burma between December 1941 and May 1942, when the United States was first becoming involved in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.

Merrill's Marauders
"Merrill's Marauders" was the nickname given to the U.S. troops who fought under Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.  Here you'll find descriptions of some of the Marauders' engagements, maps of their campaigns, diary excerpts, photographs, contemporary newspaper stories, and much more.

The Irrawaddy
At this site you can get up-to-date news on Myanmar (Burma) and other parts of Asia.

India Tea Board
Tea is one of the most important commodities of northeastern India. This site provides information about tea cultivation, the machinery used to process tea, recipes, and more.


Christian, John LeRoy. Burma and the Japanese Invader. Thacker and Company, Ltd., 1945.

Moser, Don. China-Burma-India. Time-Life Books, 1978.

Ogburn, Charlton, Jr. The Marauders. Harper and Brothers, 1956.

Romanus, Charles F., and Riley Sunderland. United States Army in World War II. China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell's Command Problems. Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1956.

Romanus, Charles F., and Riley Sunderland. United States Army in World War II. China-Burma-India Theater: Stilwell's Mission to China. Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1953.

Romanus, Charles F., and Riley Sunderland. United States Army in World War II. China-Burma-India Theater: Time Runs Out in CBI. Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1959. 

Spencer, Otha C. Flying the Hump: Memories of an Air War. Texas A&M University Press, 1992.

Tuchman, Barbara W. Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945. Macmillan, 1970.

Webster, Donovan. The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2003.

White, Theodore H., and Annalee Jacoby. Thunder Out of China. William Sloane Associates, Inc., 1946.


NGS Resources
Swerdlow, Joel. "Burma, the Richest of Poor Countries," National Geographic, July 1995, 70-9.

Passantino, Joseph E. "Kunming: Southwestern Gateway to China," National Geographic, August 1945, 137-68.

Tayman, Nelson Grant. "Stilwell Road: Land Route to China," National Geographic, June 1945, 681-98

Christian, John Leroy. "Burma: Where India and China Meet," National Geographic, October 1943, 489-512.

Lattimore, Owen. "China Opens Her Wild West," National Geographic, September 1942, 337-67.

Outram, Frank, and G. E. Fane. "Burma Road, Back Door to China," National Geographic, November 1940, 629-58.

Rock, Joseph. "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia," National Geographic, August 1926, 133-86.


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