LEDO / BURMA ROAD DIARY
By Mr. Ben Brown
69th Depot Repair Squadron (submitted by Mr. Marty Oxenburg) Dear Folks: What follows here are some notes that I took during the trip I had over the Burma Road. It has been some time since I've driven this murderous stretch of terrain and there will probably be lots of parts that are sketchy, but regardless of these minor details that may be lacking I shall send this on to you in hopes that you can get an idea of just what the common phrase 'the road' means. We were not the first in crossing the hump nor were we the last but we saw things that the convoy following will not see and they saw sights that we didn't see. A person can travel around the world or half way around as I and see nothing. Nothing but water, sky and more water. So you can see that there is really very little to write about as concerns our boat trip. We didn't really begin our experiences until we docked in Bombay. We were the first ones off the boat and we immediately loaded onto a train. The only thing that this had in common with the trains back home was that it ran on tracks. The car we were in was about fifty feet long and about twelve feet wide. They packed thirty three of us in here and for three hours we waited in the railway at Bombay before leaving. Like most other cities of the far east, Bombay smells- not of excrement, but of dead matter. Dead people and animals lying side by side. Among this mass of dead lying prone in the main streets were bodies of people sleeping. If you ask the society for the burial of the dead is busy else ware in the city. After seeing the living you simply dismiss the sight or the dead with the thought that they are probably much better off because when you are dead you have no worry about meals and the maintenance of a body. The main occupation of the living however is begging. If they can't steal it from you they beg it from you. "No-mama-no-papa-obocshes. Ocshee means 'give me'. You hate like hell to knock these people in the head with a rifle butt, but if you didn't you wouldn't have a dam thing left. We left here and got under way for a four day trip across the central and hottest part of India. The speed never exceeded 10 miles an hour and due to the lurching and frequent stops sleep was almost impossible. We had other discomforts like C-rations, malaria mosquitoes, heat, dirty clothes and no facilities for bathing. Although this country has been a colony of England for some time it is farther behind than Burma or China. Nothing is conventional here. Even when you wish to relieve yourself you have to read a book on how to use the Hindu version of a commode. We saw a woman carrying coal on their heads in a basket to fill the bunkers of locomotives. Such common things as a shovel or wheel are considered an extremely modern implement. On April the first we reached the siding at Kanchapara. Tired weak, bearded and with a atabrine complexion but dam glad to get off the train. We stayed here for three weeks awaiting our orders and resting up if that is possible in that weather. Extremely hot in the daytime and toward 7 PM the wind would rise and the rain would commence. These quick flash storms would imperial the safety of our fragile tents. One day while we were here we were lined up and the Major talked to us. He asked every man that had ever driven a car or truck to step forward. Most of us did without even knowing what was to be expected of us later on. They took our names down and the next thing I knew I was on the back end of a truck bound for Calcutta about 40 miles from the camp. We arrived at a Ordnance depot and were told to grab a truck and check it over. Wait a minute, what in the hell were they doing to me, turning me into a damn truck driver. I had no experience except driving an old beaten down 1 ½ ton V8 once. No time to argue the next thing I knew I was behind the wheel and driving through the congested streets of Calcutta toward camp. The truck I had was a 2 ½ ton General Motors. It was big, clumsy and powerful. I drove it a long time before I discovered what all the levers were for. We arrived back at camp and started to load our equipment on them. Soon it started to dawn on me. I had been drafted to drive the worlds worst military highway, the Ledo-Burma Road. On my truck I had about 4 tons of equipment and a little room in back for my cot and other effects. We left Camp Kanchapara April the 22 and boarded flat cars. Late that night we pulled out of the Calcutta yard on our first leg of journey to China. For 30 hours we rode these flat cars. Sleeping, eating and living on the back end of a truck. Our final destination was to be Siligoro. This was almost directly north of Calcutta, the scenery up here was almost the same as between Bombay and Calcutta except that this section of India was not industrialized at all. Groves of bamboo and lots of very poor stock. Same type of weather; not as hell in the daytime and torrents of rain at night. Our convoy ( 56 trucks, two jeeps and one weapons carrier ) arrived here about 10 in the evening and we immediately drove off and headed for a cleared parking lot about two miles from the train. This cleared lot was to be our camp for a day and two nights. As soon as we parked our trucks most of us climbed into the back and fell asleep, our first real sleep in 30 hours. Next morning we got up are a fair breakfast and went to work. We serviced our trucks, tied down our load and cleaned up and washed our clothes from a stream that flowed nearby. Quite a few South African troops here that have been fighting up in the Burma jungles. They have lots of stories and advice. These troops are blacker than the American negro and as a rule are very big. To the South of us is the first dessert, to the north and quite close are mountains. We pick up our ammunition and tomorrow we head north. Up at 3:30 and on the road at 6. It is raining a little but the road is black-top and in fair shape. We climb a long grade much like pine canyon. After reaching the top of this we level out in some entirely different country, the Darjeeling tea country. Everything here is quite fresh and moist and everything even the people look cleaner. Today was the first real driving we have done. It is no clinch because maintaining a speed of 35 to 40 miles and hour with a heavily loaded truck is a pretty good average. Quite a few detours and we had two accidents today. One Jeep bounced off the road and ran into a tree and another 6x6 failed to make a curve and went off a bridge. It took us three hours of damn hard work to get it out. We towed it in and they are going to try to save it. Pretty badly battered up and I doubt if they can save it. Hit our next stop about 5. Wash up from helmet, service our trucks and eat and get ready for our sack before dark ( 7:30 ). Cooks doing a darn good job. Some of the fellows worked all night on the wreck. Leave here at 9 AM. The wreck is still with us but sounds like hell. Today ( April 26, 1945 ) we have to drive 85 miles. Same Sights but the people look much more oriental. Have a little trouble chasing water buffalo and elephants off the road. I guess should have Dad and Dick along with me to help. Today we crossed the Brahputra river by ferry. This river is very wide and takes about 45 minutes to cross. Quite a few porpoises and hippos in the water. This ferry is operated by Englishmen and they bitch almost as much as the G.I. does. Work 10 hours a day 7 days a week. After crossing this stream we have to drive like hell to catch up with the rest of the convoy. We hit our camp late and eat and stay up till midnight boiling water and servicing trucks. The wreck is still with us and still requires a lot of work. Leave here at 7:30 for another lap. It is quite amazing the way some of these fellows have taken to driving trucks. None of us have had any great experience with them but we are learning and what is most important we are keeping up. It feels rather good to be finally doing some good after loafing around and playing soldier so damn long in the States. We got into our camp at 4 PM and are able to get a shower and even a little ice for our beer. Little thing like this are damn good. Saturday we are up at 3:30 and on the road at 5. Today we have 179 miles to drive which will be our longest stretch so far. Lots of natives working on the roads. They carry large rocks on their heads and sit for hours making gravel by pounding one rock against another. So far the road has been fair. The surface built by G.I.'s. It is very hard to maintain because of the amount of traffic going over it all the time. Today is May the first. Our trucks are still being serviced and we are picking up more trucks for the purpose of hauling gas. Every inch of space on the trucks is being used for the storing of gas as the pipeline is not to safe to rely on after Chabua. We leave tomorrow morning for what promises to be our real indoctrination on the art of rough driving. It is going to be rough but I wouldn't miss it for anything. Leave Chabua at 6:50 AM. Today we traveled only 50 miles ( 710 since Calcutta ) but it seems like 200. Road rough as hell, bad curves and oncoming traffic gives me a lot of trouble. We arrived at Ledo at 2 PM. This place is in the far north-east corner of India. As we look toward the mountains ( hump ) we can see Burma. This place is very busy. 24 hours a day you can see trucks whizzing by. Quite a few jungle fighters here also. We get some mail here a couple bottles of beer but no cigarettes. So we go out to the PX and "requisition" ( swipe ) some. Things are scarce and these camps hate to give things to transients. While here we also heard some peace rumors but evidently they are unfounded. Today, May 4th we start on the treacherous Ledo Road. This is the road that the Englishmen said never could be built, this is the road that is all American. All you have to do is see Ledo and drive the first thirty miles of this road and you can see that what the GI can accomplish. The town of Ledo itself is a monument to the American engineer but things like this road leave you dumb rounded. In 30 miles we climbed 9,000 feet with 18,000 curves in it. Washboard dust and all. My hat is off to the negro. They drive this road at 20-25 and this is breakneck on some of these curves. The traffic is all regulated. No sooner have we stopped than another convoy will come whizzing by toward Burma. May 5 ) A long time ago when I was a mere child I used to imagine myself doing great and shining deeds. From books I had read I would wonder how I would survive if I were ever subjected to extreme or vigorous tasks. I believe this is a common behavior of the mind. Well this is rough. Death lurks around each corner and still I am on the road. Yesterday we drove from 8 AM to 7 PM, 20 minutes for lunch. Burra Pass ( Hell's Gate ) 5, 218 feet high in three miles. This is the India-Burma border and is the farthest point that the Japanese penetrated. It is here also that the engineers that constructed this road ran into their first encounter with the enemy. The engineers had no infantry to help them. They were the infantry and road builders in one. Our trucks burned out, one threw a rod, one burnt a clutch out and one turned over. The fellow that turned over was unable to jump and as a result suffered a lacerated face, wrenched arm and a rough ride. He truck was wrecked beyond repair. Don't believe have ever been so tired but tired or not my truck has to be serviced and others worked on. We camped tonight on the very top of a ridge. We could look down and see thunder storms beneath us. This road is carved out of the side of the mountains. We don't follow the valleys at all but wind up and down these Burmese mountains. We leave here on the 6th at 7:30. 75% of the trucks sound like hell but mine is fine so far. More ridges and then down grade. A little ways back I saw a peach of a wreck. A Chinese soldier driving a light weapons carrier was coming down a grade about 40 miles per. His truck hit some loose gravel and went out of control much like it would do if it was on ice. It swerved twice rolled over and smacked into the truck directly ahead of me. Tore the bumper off the 6x6 to shreds and smashed the weapons carrier to salvage. The driver had a bad head injury and was bleeding through the mouth and nose. The fellow ahead of me and myself jumped and neither one of us were hurt although we were scared like hell. I suppose that the Chinese driver will be killed for wrecking the vehicle. Don't laugh because it happens every day. I will admit now that these mountains although lacking rocky cliffs are higher than any mountains in Washington. Came down into the valley today and finally hit a straight spot. Lots of blown up Jap equipment along the road. It was only about 6-7 months ago that the Japs were fighting here. Most of these engineers up here are Negroes from Fort Lewis. They are doing a wonderful job. The labor is done by the natives and the Negroes work as supervisors. I had a flat tire today so I had to skip lunch and fix it. Did the job in 20 minutes, which is damn fast for these trucks. At 2 PM today we stopped at a river and had a swim. Felt wonderful. Everybody has at least an inch of dust on them so you just dump things out of your pockets and dive in with your clothes on. Stopped tonight by a river. We got in late so didn't have much time to fix my truck. I washed up though and went to bed. The nights are quite cool and excellent for sleep. We leave here at 7 AM and should hit the Burma Road sometime tonight. 900 miles from Calcutta. Along the way today we saw the price of this road, cemeteries of American personnel. A tombstone for every mile of this road. We stop today just after crossing the Irrawaddy River. The bridge is a pontoon bridge and the river is about ¾ of a mile wide. We got here early as we clean up our trucks and wash in the river. Some of the fellows went into the jungle to do some shooting. All around here there are signs the Jap just left. If you will remember back a few months into march you will recall that this town ( Myitkyina) was the scene of some very furious fighting. We went into town last night. The town, kind people just isn't. I don't believe you can comprehend what modern warfare can do to a village. It is simply blown to hell. The Americans though have set up very fast. The Red Cross is here with a fair set-up and all in all it is pretty civilized. The people you may ask about. Well all along the road we see them starting to straggle back. They are all armed to the teeth with old fashion rifles and sharp, mean looking knives. They earn their living by going into the hills and jungles killing Japs. They receive about Rs. 10 ( about 3 dollars ) for each Jap killed. We leave here and today we go south to pick up the Burma Road. The road today is new, just built and therefore is rugged. See lots of jungle and beautiful valleys. Lots of Chinese troops going up from here. They are young and keep them-selves quite clean which is more than I can say for the Indians. One of our trucks just rolled over a grade. Don't know if anybody was hurt. Found out later that no one was hust but a little farther up we had another one roll off the grade. Lots of wrecks and the fellows are damn lucky. Coming into Bhamo today we saw lots of enemy activity. The camp seems quite old but just the ruins are fresh and the bomb craters are pretty new. No shower here and due to the location it is hot. Damn flies are eating me up. While here we got hold of a staff car and went swimming in the Irawaddy. While down by the river we could look up at the town and see what a beating this town took. Everybody packs a gun here. Left Bhamo early, little sleep last night as I was up all night fixing flats. The road today was all under construction and down grade. You can look out on the hill tops and see where the Japs had their artillery. More Chinese troops going on foot and horse. Funny fellows the Chinese. He is very young and short and well built. Their arms are a conglomeration. U.S. Tommie guns, English Brans, Japanese 25 caliber, German luegers etc. The noticeable thing about them is their sturdy posture. Made camp tonight midst a country of rolling hills and fertile valleys. This country of Burma as a whole looks much better than India. While traveling today we went over lots of rivers and gorges that had bombed out bridges. Al along the sides of the road was the signs of the recent war that had ravaged the land. In here though most of the natives were coming back. New buildings being built to replace those gutted by shell fire. In the rice fields you could see the farmer plowing behind his water buffalo unconcerned of the small craters that pack his farm. In a way it is much like Pearl Bucks novels. The people can live through anything, flood, famine and even war yet they always return to the land from which they were born. Tonight I had my first introduction to rice whiskey. This is called 'saki' after the favorite Jap beverage. It is distilled, aged and distributed in 55 gallon gasoline drums. It is very raw and a beer bottle full can make you as drunk as a quart of bourbon. It is poured from these drums into old used beer bottles or cans, corked with a wooden plug and sold to the ever thirsty G.I. It sells for a pack of cigarettes which are worth about five dollars here. Last night some of the fellows heard the first sound of war, an aerial bombardment somewhere in the distance. We leave here at 7:30 and we should leave Burma today and enter China. I'm getting damn tired of K-rations, dust and driving this truck. Quite a few of the fellows are beginning to get kidney and back trouble from the continual bumping and jostling that they have received while driving this road. So far I'm still healthy. I, and of course all of the other fellows with me are very yellow from our diet of Atabrine. I wonder how many of these fellows are actually going to get malaria. I had a little but it couldn't have been very serious as I've only been ill with it once. The percentage though must have been about 30%. Here we are after a 10 mile drive on the border. Fox holes, trenches, shell craters, ruins and the usual debris of war. Ahead of us lies a high ridge and more mountains. We have to stop here at the border so the M.P.s can look the trucks over. Lots of Jap skeletons here. This Burma Road that lies in China is very old, in fact it is probably almost as old as China itself. Marco Polo went over much of the same route. I am of the opinion that if old Marc were to travel this road today, he would probably exclaim that it hasn't changed much. It is very old and maintained by coolie labor. All of the bridges were blown up so we either drive across logs or ford the many streams. Shell craters in the road are not even filled in. To top this all off it rained. As is expected of a former citizen of Seattle I love the rain, but rain like this I've never seen before. The road have a clay surface and rain turns it into a slippery, tricky drive. These trucks are open and I also get soaked. Along one exceedingly bad spot I had to work for two and a half hours in pulling trucks up a steep incline. After this was done I had to drive as fast as I could on this road to catch up and take care of any stragglers. Herding a large, heavy truck down these slippery grades at 25-30 per is not an exceedingly easy way to make a living. We didn't make our next stop until late great prive at night, about 9 PM. Due to the fact that I was late I came in all by myself. As I drove down the last grade in the darkness, I could see and hear the streak and sharp explosions of cannons and machine gun fire hitting up against the wall of the mountain. Frankly it scared the hell out of me but it wasn't until later that I was able to find out the reason for this. They had about five medium tanks there and they were celebrating the surrender of Germany. Dimly I could picture the celebration back home. Civilians slapping each other on the back and saying 'We sure gave them hell didn't we'. You could hear the firing of guns and the shouts of G.I.s but it was all a anti-climax to us. War is nothing but waiting or sweating it out, it even reaches the point where the defeat of your foe is just another days. You think that when the war is over you can revert to a new life, but you can't. My celebration consisted of servicing my truck in the rain, eating dinner of K-rations and sleeping for an hour before going on guard duty. My how I have changed. In the various towns we passed though yesterday you could see the grim story of China. All the buildings flattened so the people move to caves in the hills. Take for example a city the size of Cashmere completely flattened by war. I wonder if the citizens of that city would remain to work their farms and live in caves as the Chinese do. Mothers with many children looting the garbage pails for food much like a pack of dogs. The guards hate to keep them away but they have to or they would steal everything. Inflation is terrific, a Chinese soldier offered me #200 for a pack of cigarettes. The women here are not pretty as the Burmese women but they are much more forward. In India you rarely see a native woman as it is forbidden for them to appear before strange men. In China it is much the opposite. It is considered a great privilege if a Chinese woman acquires a foreigner. They ( 15-25 years of age ) follow a G.I. around like a dog. I'll leave the acquiring of a concubine strictly to the married men. Road to Kunming is blocked so we shall wait here for a few days. Heard the radio today from Honolulu. It is a airplane transmitter and has quite a range. We pick up Chunking, Shanghai, Frisco and Tokyo. I would be foolish and unbiased if I were to form an opinion of China soley from what I have seen so far, but never have I ever dreamed of seeing a race of people degraded. People that are supposed to have a government of major distinction yet has no economic structure and no way to better it's people. In sober judgment is the same as one senator said ( who was bitterly scoffed ), 'Why not let the Japs have China'. Surely in spite of all Japanese brutality they must have some form of stable government. Beggars who haven't money or cloth for clothes to shed the cold have a roll of bills sufficient to paper the kitchen of the house at home. Money drawn on banks in Nanking and Shanghai, banks that don't exist. Lots of fertile valleys and yet it wastes away. This is a vast country it's true but I should think that until some foreign power moves in here and stabilizes things, China as a prosperous country is impossible. We left this camp at 7:30 accompanied by half of the third convoy. Crossed a big suspension bridge across the Salween River. Quite a bridge, only it was very weak, one truck at a time. These valleys are quite beautiful. The valleys we are in now reminds me somewhat of the Wenatchee Valley. The hills and mountains and the color of the gorges and canyons. Instead of the fruit trees though you have the rice paddies and ponds of water. Tonight I went into the village ( Paoshan ) narrow streets, smells of burning food, dirt and the oriental way of life that I am getting so accustomed to. I was very surprised to be able to get a quite decent American meal here. It costs me 1100 dollars ( Chinese money ). Souvenirs and curios are quite scarce on the legitimate market but on the black market you can get some very valuable things. Two cartoons of cigarettes would have got me a German Mauser automatic pistol. Like a huge rope wound around these high mountains. It winds up one side and down the other-up and down----so goes the Burma Road. The scenery of these valleys is beautiful but the sight of the poor natives is forever marring the real beauty of it. Each day is a little harder as far as driving is concerned. Yesterday ( May 12, 1945 ) it was all up and down, but today we are resting in a narrow valley. Not over 10 miles in front of me is a ridge that is all of 10,000 feet high. So it looks like more and more mountains. While here I visited some of the Chinese Temples. As you know the prevalent religion of China is based on Buddhism the worship of many idols and gods. These temples possessed scores of such idols. Beautiful figures they were and even more so when you realized the work that required to make them. Faces and features very life-size, looked much like huge dolls. They are all hand made of red mud. These temples were large, well built things and didn't even so much as have a nail or hinge in the whole works. They are. I believe, as old as America if not older. May 14th. Here we go for 155 more miles. Little happened today. Road not as steep but very rough and dirty. Didn't get into our night stop until late. We stayed here for two days and left early in the morning. Today May 16th should put us into Kunming our destination. Need less to say I will be very glad because I am getting tired of living in a truck. 107 more miles and lo and behold the Kunming Valley. They could have never told us our destination or where we would end but all we would have to do is drive out of this slit in the mountains, look down on this valley and we just naturally knew that this was the end of our journey. It is all over now, we have two countries, lots of experiences and 1,809 miles behind us. I have rode with one foot on the running board ready to jump, I've pulled grades in low-low and wished to hell I had another low. I have seen the importance of the road and the pipeline that parallels it, I have seen a little of the battle they are waging, a battle solely dependent on this road and the planes that fly over it. I'd never do it again but I wouldn't trade my experience for a million dollars. As for Kunming, my opinion is varied climatically it would be hard to beat, as for enjoyment or entertainment there wasn't any but I didn't come over here to be entertained. It was all China, people using their sidewalk for a bathroom, smells of dead and groans of the dying, bombed buildings and wrecked planes, both our and Japs. I think I had it good and I'll tell you why; its simple, just three words will explain it. I'm still alive!