The Stilwell Road aka the Ledo Road was built during World War II by an army of 15,000 American soldiers and 35,000 locals under the expert supervision of General Vinegar Joe Stilwell.
The road stretches from Ledo in Assam across 1079 miles to Kunming in China. The construction of this mammoth project was estimated to be around USD 150 million and the road was used by the Western Allies to supply to the Chinese when the Japanese Army had cut the Burma road. By occupying Burma, the Japanese had not only gained access to the vast resources of teak and rubber, but they had closed the Burma Road, 700 miles of dirt highway that represented China’s last overland link with the outside world. The reopening of an overland route to China would be the major American goal, indeed obsession, in the theater throughout the campaign especially after the defeat at Pearl Harbor that enabled the Imperial Japanese Army to extend their empire from Wake Island in the Pacific to Malaya and Singapore in South East Asia.
Here, the Allies would face one of the most inhospitable areas for military operations in the world. For the Americans, the theater not only covered a vast area, but it was also the end of a 12,000 mile supply line. The areas where the Allies would campaign was characterized by extremely rugged terrain with few roads and other communications, conditions which would favor the defense and reduce the Allies’ advantage in numbers. Northern and central Burma, where they would conduct the bulk of their operations, had steep, densely wooded mountain ranges cut by streams. The Allies would need to scale precipitous ranges along the border to reach one of Burma’s three great river valleys – the Chidwin, the Irrawaddy, or the Salween – in order to move south into the heart of Burma. They could also expect their advance to be slowed by monsoon, near-constant rains which would last for two to three months, anytime after April. Leeches, flies, ticks, and other insects, along with diseases as malaria, dysentery, and typhus, added to the soldier’s miseries. Keeping in mind all these the Americans resolved to go ahead with the task of constructing this mammoth project and the construction started in December 1942 across the dense terrain of the Patkai range through the Pangsau Pass aka “the Hell Pass (for the difficulty of the terrain)” into Shingbwiyang in Burma. The terrain was outrageous as it rose high upto 4,500 feet (1400m) along with steep gradients, hairpin curves and drops upto 200 feet (60 m).
Although the British Engineers had initially surveyed the route for a road (first 80 miles) the credit of building the Stilwell Road (Ledo Road) goes to General Stilwell which was under the American NAC operation. This road was to complement the airlift operations to China over the Eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains aka “the Hump”. American Engineers in late 1942 began to construct a road meant to restore China’s land communication with the outside world. It was the Americans, more than any of the other Allies, who wanted to open the road to China, and they pushed the enterprise the hardest. Taking over the project from the British in October 1942, they began construction from Ledo in December with the goal of arriving at the Burmese city of Shingbwiyang, 103 miles from Ledo by June, 1943.
General Stilwell and his army of men completed the stretch of 1079 miles (1736 km) within 2 years under the most treacherous conditions and this is what makes this road “an Epitome of an American Engineering Marvel”. And this was done more than 70 years ago ago when the world didn’t have the expertise of today’s technology.
Although, there was a flip side to this feat as more than 1100 American soldiers and many more locals had to lose their lives in the construction of the Western Allies march to crush the Japanese.
Jungleideas welcomes you to India’s North East to relive the memories of the Second World War at the Stilwell Road – Ledo (India) to Kunming (China) – the Epitome of an American Engineering Marvel, the States of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh, Incredible India!
Recommended Itinerary for your visit to Stilwell Road ~
Day 1: Dibrugarh Airport – Margherita
Arrive at the Mohanbari airport at Dibrugarh and upon arrival you will be welcomed by our representative offering you a warm welcome in traditional Assamese style and from the airport we will drive to Tinsukia town at first taking a short break for coffee at the Kundan Dhaba at Chabua. Later we drive to the Hijuguri area at Tinsukia where we will make a stop at the Railway Heritage Park and Museum here that is a museum that depicts the artefacts from the times of the Dibru Sadiya railway. Known to be once among the oldest rail heads across India, the Dibru Sadiya railway was built to easily transport the minerals, crude oil and tea from areas in Upper Assam like Ledo, Margherita and Digboi to the port at Dibrugarh. The Brahmaputra River near Dibrugarh offered a great channel and waterway for ships to ply on these waters and the rail head transported these materials to the port. The Dibru Sadiya railway was at first established between Dibrugarh and Ledo and later it was extended to Lekhapani and this place became Indian railway’s final frontier of the east. This Dibru Sadiya Railway played a major role during World War II and helped in the movement of troops and war materials from the Ledo airstrip and Dibrugarh airport to Lekhapani.
Lekhapani was the place was from the historic Stilwell road started and a visit to this museum will allow us to witness the various steam engines, locomotives and passenger vehicles that these locomotives pulled during the British Era and also the World War II – Burma Campaign. We explore this museum and there are various old steam locomotives that were one of the best innovations of the industrial revolution that helped in transportation of people and good over long distances from one place to another. These steam engines and locomotives paved way for the diesel locomotives and the much cleaner electric locomotives of the India railway and the present hyper loop in the bullet rains and the cross country trains as well. A functional toy train is also present at this museum as well and visitors who come with their family in the evenings take the opportunity to sit on this toy train and take a ride across the Railway Heritage Park and museum. We will finish our exploration and board our vehicles again to continue on our drive to Margherita crossing Makum and Digboi. These places in Upper Assam developed once the British discovered the tea gardens and the varied reserves of crude oil and coal along with the timber for plywood and the best tea gardens of Assam are now located across these areas of Upper Assam.
When you travel across these places you will still get a feel of the colonial era charm that is present and are to be seen in the big British style Bungalows across the tea gardens, the finest golf courses and the heritage clubs of Digboi, Margherita and Ledo. We will soon arrive at Margherita and we will proceed to check into our place of stay at the Hotel Royal Treat. The area of Margherita is famous for the presence of coal, tea gardens, numerous indigenous tribes of Assam, India’s only coal museum, the remains of the 20th General Hospital of the American Army and the forests of the Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary that is called as the ‘Amazon of the East’ and it is a long stretch of rain forest stretching across the various districts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Margherita also acts as your layover stop to travel across to the Pangsau Pass in Arunachal Pradesh and further to Myanmar along the Stilwell Road and every month on the 10th, 20th and 30th, Indian Nationals are allowed to travel from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh (with a valid ILP) and from here you can travel to the Pangsau Pass to reach the International Border of India and Myanmar and later cross it to reach Myanmar at the Pangsaung Market and view point and sight the historic Lake of No Return.
The Burma Campaign of World War II was fought in these parts and the soldiers of the Allied Forces had to come down to Margherita and Ledo as the Japanese forces had cut off the supply route to China from this part of India and so they had to search for an alternate route to build a road to restore supply routes to China and originally the British army had come to survey the route and start on the work to build the Ledo Road but they couldn’t work it out. Finally the American Army had to step in and under the supervision of General Vinegar Joe Stilwell they started the mammoth task of restoring the supply route and began work on the Stilwell Road aka Ledo Road from Ledo (India) to Kunming (China) via Pangsau Pass and Myanmar. An army of locals were hired to work on this job and everyone worked across some of the most treacherous and harsh climatic conditions to build the Stilwell Road and the job was completed in a year and the supply route was restored. But everything was not a success story in the construction of the Stilwell Road as many soldiers and locals had to put down their lives while working on building this road and they were put to rest at the various war cemeteries.