Joseph Stilwell - Conflict With General Chennault

Conflict With General Chennault

One of the most significant conflicts to emerge during the war was between General Stilwell and General Claire Lee Chennault, the commander of the famed "Flying Tigers" and later air force commander. As adviser to the Chinese air forces, Chennault proposed a limited air offensive against the Japanese in China in 1943 using a series of forward air bases. Stilwell insisted that the idea was untenable, and that any air campaign should not begin until fully fortified air bases supported by large infantry reserves had first been established. Stilwell then argued that all air resources be diverted to his forces in India for an early conquest of North Burma.

Following Chennault's advice, Generalissimo Chiang rejected the proposal; British commanders sided with Chennault, aware they could not launch a coordinated Allied offensive into Burma in 1943 with the resources then available. During the summer of 1943, Stilwell's headquarters concentrated on plans to rebuild the Chinese Army for an offensive in northern Burma, despite Chiang's insistence on support to Chennault's air operations. Stilwell believed that after forcing a supply route through northern Burma by means of a major ground offensive against the Japanese, he could train and equip thirty Chinese divisions with modern combat equipment. A smaller number of Chinese forces would transfer to India, where two or three new Chinese divisions would also be raised. This plan remained only theoretical at the time, since available airlift capacity for deliveries of supplies to China over the Hump barely sustained Chennault's air operations, and were wholly insufficient to equip a new Chinese Army.

In 1944, the Japanese launched the counter-offensive, Operation Ichi-Go, quickly overrunning Chennault's forward air bases and proving Stilwell partially correct. However, by this time, Allied supply efforts via the Hump airlift were steadily improving in tonnage supplied per month; with the replacement of Chinese war losses, Chennault now saw little need for a ground offensive in northern Burma in order to re-open a ground supply route to China. This time, augmented with increased military equipment and additional troops, and concerned about defense of the approaches to India, British authorities sided with Stilwell.

In coordination with a southern offensive by Nationalist Chinese forces under General Wei Li-huang, Allied troops under Stilwell's command launched the long-awaited invasion of northern Burma; after heavy fighting and casualties, the two forces linked up in January 1945. Stilwell's strategy remained unchanged: opening a new ground supply route from India to China would allow the Allies to equip and train new Chinese army divisions for use against the Japanese. The new road network, later called the Ledo Road, would link the northern end of the Burma Road as the primary supply route to China; Stilwell's staff planners had estimated the route would supply 65,000 tons of supplies per month. Using these figures, Stilwell argued that the Ledo Road network would greatly surpass the tonnage being airlifted over the Hump. General Chennault doubted that such an extended network of trails through difficult jungle could ever match the tonnage that could be delivered with modern cargo transport aircraft then deploying in-theater. Progress on the Ledo Road was slow, and could not be completed until the linkup of forces in January 1945.

In the end, Stilwell's plan to train and modernize thirty Chinese divisions in China (as well as two or three divisions from forces already in India) was never fully realized. As Chennault predicted, supplies carried over the Ledo Road at no time approached tonnage levels of supplies airlifted monthly into China via the Hump. In July 1945, 71,000 tons of supplies were flown over the Hump, compared to only 6,000 tons using the Ledo Road, and the airlift operation continued in operation until the end of the war. By the time supplies were flowing over the Ledo Road in large quantities, operations in other theaters had shaped the course of the war against Japan. Stilwell's drive into North Burma, however, allowed Air Transport Command to fly supplies into China more quickly and safely by allowing American planes to fly a more southerly route without fear of Japanese fighters. American airplanes no longer had to make the dangerous venture over the Hump, increasing the delivery of supplies from 18,000 tons in June 1944, to 39,000 tons in November 1944. On August 1, 1945 a plane crossed the hump every one minute and 12 seconds.

In acknowledgment of Stilwell's efforts, the Ledo Road was later renamed the Stilwell Road by Chiang Kai-shek.

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