The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II Review

The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II
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The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II ReviewFinally, a new authentic voice.
Ledo, Shaduzup, Shingbwiyang, Myitkyina, Bhamo...I knew these names by heart before I was 10.
Stilwell, Pick, Seagrave, .... legendary names circulating around our dinner table, their stories, great and small, told and retold. I grew up with their photographs looking down at me from on the sunroom wall. A penetrating statement by Stillwell became our family motto, hammered home, to my chagrin, again and again to me by my father over the years.
I can still clearly see myself as a child of seven sitting on General Pick's knee in our living room. There he would sit talking with my father, Col. Joe Green, the Road Engineer, Pick's right hand man. They visited often back then in the early 1950's, Pick and my father. Often, amidst the pressing concerns of the day and the Cold War, they talked of Burma and the Road and the men who built it, who fought and who died.
I grew up hearing a uniquely authentic and unvarnished story of the CBI, the very good, the very bad, the very funny and the very ugly. The stories and history came from men who were profoundly changed by that experience. These men were faced with almost insurmountable obstacles; the Burmese jungles, rivers and mountains and a deadly and implacable foe. Men, who in spite of every hardship, got the `Road That Couldn't Be Built' done in record time with a major pipeline, and a myriad of airstrips thrown in to boot.
None of the men from the CBI that I have known over the years considered themselves heroes. When I would ask my father how he felt about being the road engineer on one of the great engineering feats of any century, he would reply " It was just a job of work, son. We all just wanted to do our best, stay alive and get home as quickly as possible." He refused to consider the possibility of writing a book. With the passing of these modest, brave and dedicated builder/warriors the authentic voice has muted and faded, until now.
I bought the book by Donovan Webster primarily because in his Prologue he talked about walking the Road. Imagine, I said to myself, a writer who actually took the time to visit what he was writing about, I couldn't resist. Not expecting much I began to read. Suddenly I realized I was captivated. I was reading this history book like it was a novel. Then it stuck me, even though this was very much an overview of a theater of operations, this guy GOT IT. He had somehow managed to capture and retell the stories in that same authentic voice that I had heard over the years from the men who were there. All of this was the result of many interviews and hundreds of hours spent on the Road and off.
One thing I can assure any reader is that Webster has correctly assessed, at least the way I first heard it, Chang, (difficult and self-seeking) Stillwell, (a soldier's soldier) Slim, (reliable) Wingate,(gifted and mad) Sun, (the best of a bad lot) the tribal Nagas (ferocious) and Kachins,(delightful and terrifying), the Merrill's Marauders, (unequaled courage and skill) Raiders,(mad English with a real talent for mayhem) engineers, black and white, (the best men, 24/7 worked their hearts out) and the rest. All crafted to fit together in a coherent and highly readable book as the story of real people in a deadly situation.
It is a relief to hear the `voice' again from the men who were there. This book has the ring of truth, a palpable sense of the sweat, the smell, the bugs, rats, mud, monsoon, fear, tragedy, death and ultimate triumph. It is all there. It is true that there is much more to tell. It would be unfair to criticize this work for being superficial. Is an overview. The story is truly vast and this book could easily have been a thousand pages or more. The official (and dry) U.S. Army history is a multi-volume set.
One thing that really impressed me about this book was Webster's style and editorial judgment in dealing with the people and events. He didn't write it like it was a PhD thesis or a technical study. He managed to capture that "golden thread", the story, the theme of the conflict in this theater of war; viz, No matter what, Build the Road, Keep China in the war. He accomplishes this in a real time fashion by the use of narrative without playing the games of revisionist history. When the Road was built nobody knew about the atom bomb. In early 1945 the men in Burma, including my father, were looking at another 18 months of war, either on the Japanese home islands or fighting the bulk of the Japanese army in China. Their greatest fear was that the Imperial Army would fight to the last man as they had on Saipan. They had witnessed the savagery and slaughter of Myitkyina, Imphal and Kohima. Upon completion many looked to, as their reward, being transferred to the far Pacific to follow Stilwell to Okinawa. As far as they knew or believed convoys would be traveling the Road to China for months if not years to come.

Chang's threat to make a separate peace with Japan was taken very seriously. The Road had to be built. Mr. Webster captured the importance of Joe Stillwell in this scheme as the central driving force of the Burma Campaign. His will, example and leadership galvanized everybody and the entire effort. He kept the perspective that existed in 1944, the Road was the reason for everything in Burma. All was focused on one goal, build the Road, and keep China in the war.
If you don't read another book about the CBI read this one. It's the real deal. Dad would have loved it.
Kevin O'C. GreenThe Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II Overview

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