This Day In History: The American General Joe Stilwell Dies (1946)

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On this date in 1946, General Joseph Stilwell, (on the right in the picture) the commander of the U.S. and Chinese Nationalist forces in Burma, died, at the age of 63.  He was commander of the American and Chinese forces that defended China and Burma from Japanese incursions.

Stillwell was born on  March the 19th , 1883, in Florida. He was a graduate of the prestigious West Point Military Academy. He served with distinction in WWI and later was stationed on Guam and in the Philippines. A man with a lively mind he became interested in Chinese culture and learned the language. He was appointed military attaché to the American Embassy in Beijing in 1935. While her he witnessed and reported on the brutal Japanese invasion of China. Stilwell was appalled at the treatement of the Chinese peseants by the Japanese Imperial Army and he formed a special attachment to the ordinary people of China. He also developed a deep distrust and even hatred of the Chinese elite who he believed were not doing enough to resist the Japanese. He was a straight-talker and did not try and hide his dislike of many Chinese Nationalist leaders, especially Chiang Kai-shek, whom Stilwell regarded as corrupt.

When war broke out Stilwell was appointed the commander of the US forces in China and Burma and he supervised the supplying of American arms and supplies to the Chinese Nationalists.  Stilwell established the Burma Road to ensure that American supplies were able to get through to the Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. Stilwell tried to stop the Japanese from overrunning Burma but he and his men were forced to retreat to India, which was a great personal humiliation for him. It was here that he helped to form ‘Merrills Marauders”, an American special forces unit that launched many raids and attacks on Japanese occupied Burma. He was openly critical of the British army at this time and he wanted a more aggressive approach in Burma.

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American troops in Burma

Stillwell tried to rally Chinese units in both China and Burma and to enlist them in the battle against the Japanese. However, Chiang was more interested in fighting the Communists. After much work Stillwell did manage to persuade some Chinese forces to take a strategic airfield  and he also supervised the construction of a road from India into Burma, to facilitate allied attacks into that country. Chiang hated Stilwell and saw him as a challenge to his position in China and he demanded his removal. Stilwell had complained that Chiang was hoarding American supplies and not doing enough to fight the Japanese and this had been the final straw for the Nationalist Chinese leader. Roosevelt recalled Stilwell to placate his Chinese ally, who was infuriated by the American general. Stilwell greatly frustrated, was sent to the Pacific theatre and he commanded the 10th Army on Okinawa. He later oversaw the surrender of the Ryukyu Islands. Stillwell died in San Francisco after a short illness and his passing was mourned by many. He was regarded as one of the most able officers in the US army.

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