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World Battlefronts: BATTLE OF ASIA: Double Pay-Off on the Border

4 minute read
TIME

One decisive battle is enough to settle most campaigns. But last week, with the monsoon due to write finis in May, the Burma campaign of 1943-44 was winding up with two decisive battles under way at once.

Even while the issue remained in doubt, it was evident that the Japanese had outgeneraled the Allies. For the Allies needed to win both battles to chalk up victory; the Japanese needed to win only one.

Stilwell’s Gambit. With the crumbs tossed to him by China, the U.S. and Britain—two divisions of Chinese troops which he had trained from the ground up, plus Merrill’s U.S. Marauders and the able assistance of Wingate’s British Commandos —General Stilwell undertook to reconquer north Burma from the Japanese.

It was a terrific task: it meant fighting and building his way through hundreds of miles of trackless country, across mountains and through jungles. Last week, within 50 miles of Myitkyina (pronounced Mitch-i-nah), the goal whose capture would make his campaign a success, the Japs made a savage attempt to stop him.

Wingate’s jungle-wise raiders had already put the Japanese in a spot by cutting their rail and river communications below Myitkyina. Stilwell’s own forces had pocketed the large Jap “force farther north. The Japs, rallying every man they had, made a desperate attack on Stilwell’s road block. They breached it, were thrown back in desperate fighting beyond. Then Stilwell’s Chinese took the offensive, drove the Japs from their dugouts by the river bank. In the jungles, ringing with the earsplitting metallic whine of cicadas, the fighting went on for over ten days.

Even the carefully hoarded Jap air force was thrown into the battle. Eleven out of 18 bombers, thirteen of the 20 escorting Zeros were shot down by U.S. fighters. Of one day’s fighting, TIME Correspondent James Shepley reported: “The field of this attack . . . was almost cleared of trees, sawed off by machine-gun fire and broken into shredded stumps by mortar bursts. When the attack ended I counted the bodies of 50 Japs in an area hardly bigger than my backyard at Bethesda, Md. Most of them were still in their foxholes where they had been shot or bayoneted by the Chinese.”

Last Saturday morning he reported that the Japs, steadily being forced deeper into their pocket, had lost at least 300 dead (added to the campaign’s total of about 5,000) in desperate rushes against one road block during the previous night. He added: “The battle is now at a critical stage.”

Kawabe’s Counter. With an estimated three to six divisions operating in four columns, Lieut. General Masakazu Kawabe two weeks ago descended on Imphal.

But only a short 50 miles behind Imphal runs the little narrow-gauge railroad which was built to connect the tea plantations of Assam with the outer world. The over burdened single track now carries all the supplies for General Stilwell’s front, plus goods for delivery to northern Assam airfields, for transport over the Hump to China. If Kawabe cuts this railroad, he will have fixed Stilwell exactly as Wingate’s Raiders have fixed the Japanese opposing Stilwell—cut them off from their bases.

Even if Kawabe only succeeds in seizing the airstrips in the Imphal Valley, he will have done serious damage and be able to harass Stilwell’s supply route by air.

The outcome of the battle for Imphal could not be judged last week. The British were optimistic. In India General Auchinleck blandly announced: “Our commanders have no intention that Imphal should fall into the enemy’s hands.” Pessimists, remembering the optimism of Singapore, wished he had said nothing. But American observers on the scene were also inclined to think that Kawabe might have overreached himself.

One New Delhi wag suggested: “It looks like a swap. The Japanese will get India and the Allies will get Burma.” But even if Stilwell should be cut off by the Japanese thrust at Imphal, it might be possible to supply him by air, although with great difficulty during the monsoon. Much worse would be the very serious reduction, if not elimination, of supplies for China over the Hump.

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