Blunder or Deception? General Joseph Stilwell's Controversial World War II Leadership

January 26, 2021 Topic: History Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIJoseph StilwellPacific TheaterMilitary History

Blunder or Deception? General Joseph Stilwell's Controversial World War II Leadership

General Joseph Stilwell’s suppression of intelligence reports on Japanese troop strength at Myitkyina led to controversial tactical decisions and strategic outcomes.

Here's What You Need to Know: In a scathing military commentary long after the war, U.S. Army Colonel Scott McMichael wrote, "Inexplicably, in a display of gross military incompetence, Stilwell completely failed to take advantage of this coup-de-main."

General Joseph W. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and his Sino-American Myitkyina Task Force (MTF), in a coup de main attack, seized the vital Japanese-controlled airfield just west of the town of Myitkyina on the great Irrawaddy River in northern Burma on May 17, 1944.

The MTF was made up of Stilwell’s American 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), codenamed Galahad but also known by its newspaper sobriquet, Merrill’s Marauders; elements of two of his Chinese regiments that he had trained at Ramgarh, India; and Office of Strategic Services (OSS)-led Kachin scouts. The dazzling military feat, first through Burma’s Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys and then over the Kumon Range, was incomplete, though, since it was not until August 3, after a protracted and bloody 78-day siege, that the well-fortified town of Myitkyina itself was captured.

Some of Stilwell’s key American subordinates in the MTF asserted that faulty, repetitive underestimates of the Japanese garrison’s strength led to poor tactical and strategic decision making that necessitated the lengthy siege.

The Goal of Capturing the Airfield

According to contemporary historian Geoffrey Perret, “What Stilwell wanted was the airfield. His plan was to take it, fly in Chinese reinforcements, then capture the town, a mile away. This plan was entirely his own…. His chief of staff, Brigadier General Haydon Boatner, wasn’t asked his views on it…. The only people he … discussed it with were Merrill and his own son, whom he’d installed as his G-2. Colonel Joseph Stilwell, Jr., assured his father that there were only a few hundred Japanese left at Myitkyina: too few to hold the town, too few to defend the airfield.”

It is true that the airfield’s capture on May 17 removed the threat of Japanese fighters stationed there, which had been interdicting the Air Transport Command (ATC) pilots’ more southerly and less onerous Hump Route from India to China to avoid the geographically hazardous northerly flight path over the Himalayan peaks. However, the taking of Myitkyina town was a prerequisite for completing the Ledo Road’s juncture with the Burma Road, thereby establishing a point where land communication could be reopened with China via an all-weather road with a gasoline pipeline.

In a scathing military commentary long after the war, U.S. Army Colonel Scott McMichael wrote, “Inexplicably, in a display of gross military incompetence, Stilwell completely failed to take advantage of this coup-de-main. Instead of flying in strong infantry reinforcements, food, ammunition … Stilwell’s staff deployed antiaircraft units and airfield construction troops! As a result, a magnificent opportunity was lost. Stilwell’s mental lapse, which no one has ever satisfactorily explained, allowed the Japanese to build up the Myitkyina garrison to the point where it could only be taken after a three-month siege instead of by storm.”

Stilwell’s failure to take the town of Myitkyina after his initial sensational success at capturing the western airfield was to be one of his greatest humiliations.

An Intelligence Officer in World War I

Ironically, Stilwell was an intelligence officer on the Western Front during World War I. He trained at the Army General Staff College at Langres, France, and served as an intelligence liaison with the French Army at Verdun and as chief intelligence officer with the IV Army Corps, American Expeditionary Force. During his service between the wars, he was appointed the initial U.S. Army Intelligence Division’s language officer for China, and after promotion to major he left for Peking in August 1919.

In 1926, when civil strife between Chinese communists, rival warlords, and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces was reaching a crescendo, Major Stilwell, who spoke Chinese, was sent into the countryside to gather firsthand information about the extent of the unrest. The intelligence trip was dangerous, with frequent threats to Stilwell’s life since he was a foreigner, but he was commended for the thoroughness of his report and he was on his way to becoming America’s foremost military expert on China.

“Erratic and Nepotistical Direction”

In Burma in 1943-1944, while leading the Northern Combat Area Command (NCAC), Stilwell possessed a strong streak of the unorthodox while in the field, which was unusual for a West Point graduate. Due to his strong sense of family bonding, he included his son and sons-in-law on his staff. According to historian Shelford Bidwell, he “liked to keep a surrogate family of a few trusted friends near him.”

Stilwell biographer Barbara Tuchman noted, “Stilwell had sent for his son, Joe Jr., then a lieutenant colonel, who arrived in November [1942] to serve as G-2, as well as his sons-in-law Colonel Ernest Easterbrook and Major Ellis Cox who came to join the Ramgarh staff … serving as liaison officers with the Chinese divisions … [since] the family [was] always Stilwell’s main anchor in life.”

According to Boatner, “When I returned to NCAC headquarters about 25 April [1944] … both Easterbrook and Cox were then on duty in that headquarters then at Shaduzup with JWS [General Stilwell]. The former, a very fine man and officer, served as headquarters aide to JWS and Cox was in the G-2 section under Little Joe. Neither ever took advantage of family relationships nor did anything other than their prescribed duties. Although occasionally U.S. Army generals have had their sons and relatives serve directly under them, it is universally recognized as being bad practice…. Little Joe was volatile and impetuous like his father and both consciously and unconsciously would involve himself in other than intelligence matters.”

Colonel Charles Hunter, initially Galahad’s deputy commander, then the H Force leader that captured the Myitkyina airfield, and finally the overall commander of American ground forces under Stilwell engaged at Myitkyina, derisively noted that many did not appreciate the “erratic and nepotistical direction” of operations in the NCAC. Stilwell’s previous “end-runs” with Galahad at Walawbum, Shaduzup, and Inkangahtawng were initially successful in their immediate objectives, but “thanks in part to deficiencies in theater intelligence, were disappointing in the follow-up.”

Hunter contended that this was to be especially true for the assault on Myitkyina, which was “seized with sensationally neat precision, but what should have been the following quick occupation of the town was turned by lack of planning, international and interservice involvements, and the manipulation of intelligence into a grueling ten-week siege.”

A Strikingly Low Estimate

Were intelligence figures of Japanese strength at Myitkyina town intentionally underestimated, and, if so, for what reason? Did the unreliable intelligence estimates of Japanese troop strength adversely prolong the capture of the town? Finally, did the low numbers of Japanese troops believed to be in Myitkyina by Colonel Stilwell and his G-2 staff cloud General Stilwell’s judgment into not utilizing veteran British troops allocated to assist in his attack on Myitkyina?

According to Hunter’s postwar memoirs and other writings, Merrill, on his arrival at the Myitkyina airfield on May 19, was informed that local intelligence from Galahad troops and Kachin scouts had put between 400 and 500 Japanese in Myitkyina on the day of the airfield’s capture (May 17); however, due to rapid reinforcement, the town’s garrison quickly swelled to over 2,000 troops or two and a half battalions.

Additional reinforcements from other Japanese divisions were also anticipated to arrive in Myitkyina from the south. Merrill took Hunter’s estimates of a rapidly increasing Japanese garrison size at Myitkyina to General Stilwell’s headquarters at Shaduzup on the Kamaing Road between Walawbum and Inkangahtawng, which were all sites of previous Galahad operations preceding the Myitkyina assault.

These figures were downgraded back to 400-500 by Colonel Stilwell, the G-2 officer, as well as by the intelligence staff at the MTF Headquarters that Hunter noted was “at this time inexplicably back at Naubum.”

Deliberately Deceiving the Chinese?

The village of Naubum, situated on the Tanai River just west of the Kumon Range, was the base from which Galahad’s 1st and 3rd Battalions started their trek to Myitkyina on May 1. At Naubum, General Merrill had with him the equivalent of a divisional headquarters, which was not to march with the assaulting Galahad and Chinese troops to Myitkyina but would be held back until the airfield was reached. The estimate of 400-500 Japanese in Myitkyina would not be modified despite the fact that during the ensuing days of grueling combat more than that number of Japanese were killed in action at the airstrip and in the town’s environs.

The discrepancy between the intelligence estimates harbored by the senior MTF headquarters at Naubum and the true figures ascertained on the battlefield rankled Hunter to such a degree that he stated after the war that the low enemy estimates were “to deceive the Chinese troops into a sense of shame in view of their demonstrated lack of aggressiveness. Neither the Chinese nor Galahad fell for this intelligence. The concept of deliberate deception is my personal opinion. Colonel Stilwell, the Intelligence officer [Stilwell’s son] could not have been as ignorant of the situation as the intelligence estimates furnished Galahad indicated in June and July … if he was he should have been relieved … this deliberate manipulation of intelligence created a complete lack of confidence in the higher headquarters’ estimates of enemy strength such that upon its receipt, it was usually discarded.”