What Was the Burma Road?

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US Army trucks carry ammunition for Chiang Kai-shek's troops on the Burma Road. Keystone / Getty Images

The Burma Road wound for 1,154 kilometers (717 miles) through the densely forested mountain sides of Burma (now known as Myanmar) and southwest China.  It connected what was then the British colony of Burma in the west with Chinese nationalist troops in the east.  Trucks rumbled and wheezed along the mountain switchbacks, carrying food, medicine, and ammunition into China.  The trucks were mainly British and American; their mission was to support the desperate efforts of the Chinese, who had been pushed away from their own coast and into the interior by the advancing Japanese.

Construction began on the road in 1937, when Japan invaded China and started the Second Sino-Japanese War.  World War II was still several years off, but the British and Americans sprang to the aid of Chinese nationalist forces under General Chiang Kai-shek.  Chiang and his troops had been busy fighting the Chinese communist armies in the Chinese Civil War, but both sides called a cease-fire and worked together to try to hold off the Japanese.  Imperial Japanese forces quickly seized the coastline of China, but were stymied by the rough and mountainous interior.

Around 200,000 Chinese and Burmese laborers cut the Burma Road into the sides of mountains, back-breaking labor accomplished mainly with shovels and pick-axes.  Supplies for Chiang's fighters were flown into Rangoon (now called Yangon), and put on trains for the town of Lashio, which was the western end of the Road.  From there, the material was trucked to the city of Kunming, in China's Yunnan Province.

Obviously, the Japanese Imperial Army and the government in Tokyo were not pleased that the British and Americans were meddling this way in the Second Sino-Japanese War.  In 1942, the Japanese Empire invaded Burma, wresting it away from British control, and threatening to move on to British India.  With the Burma Road in enemy hands, the United States and Britain had to send supplies to the Chinese by air over "The Hump," as the pilots called the high mountains at the eastern end of the Himalayas.

  US volunteer pilots on this route were known as the "Flying Tigers."

Late in 1944 and into early 1945, the Allies finally managed to push the Japanese out of northern Burma.  With that, they had the Burmese build a new supply road to China, north of the original Burma Road, called the Ledo Road.  The first supplies to reach the Chinese fighters by land in three years showed up on January 28, 1945.  The Ledo Road continued to operate right up to the Japanese surrender that ended World War II in August of 1945.

Many westerners today consider the War in the Pacific to have been mainly between the US and Japan.  However, it took the efforts of determined Chinese soldiers, who fought the Japanese for eight years, as well as the strenuous work of hundreds of thousands of laborers in the mountains of Burma, to keep that western front in Asia open.  How much more difficult would it have been to defeat Japan, if they had fully conquered China and freed up all of those troops to fight in India, or Australia, or Alaska?