The Japanese invaded Burma on January 20, 1942. Why? Principally, it seems, for two reasons: to safeguard their hold on Thailand, Malaya, and Singapore---all vulnerable to attack through the long Kra Isthmus---and to cut off Nationalist China from one of the few remaining backdoor sources of supply, the Burma Road from Rangoon to Lashio and across the border to Kunming. Japan had invaded China in 1937. She was anxious to complete her conquests and free troops for other fronts.
When the Japanese entered Burma there began one of the longest ever retreats of British arms, some nine hundred miles over four months, from Moulmein, at the mouth of the Salween River, north up to Imphal, in the Indian state of Manipur. [...]
This account has so far omitted mention of the Chinese and Americans in connection with the Burma campaigns. Perhaps this is natural. Most of us infantry in the army of India came across neither, and heard of their doings at sixth hand, usually after the war.
It seems that from the start British, American, and Chinese leaders were pursuing divergent strategies, seldom acknowledged as such. The Americans were interested in Burma only insofar as it provided a corridor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Chinese armies. They took this requirement seriously. The Chinese must be kept in the fight, must continue to tie up a million Japanese soldiers. In those early months America's ultimate strategy of island-hopping across the Pacific was not yet proven. The best road to Tokyo might still lie across mainland China.
In America the China lobby was strong. China was a cornerstone of American policy not only for the defeat of the Japanese in war but also in achieving postwar stability in Asia and the Pacific. During the 1930s America's "self-appointed role as China's disinterested guardian had been the principal factor in the widening gap between the United States and Japan." There were senior Americans who placed the survival of China above the survival of Britain (a philosophy not grasped by most British). [...]
The primary British objective, or at any rate the objective probably closest to the heart of Prime Minister Churchill, was the recapture of Singapore. To achieve this there was no need to reconquer Burma overland. Given the ships, Burma could be bypassed. The repossession of Singapore would be both a genuine strategic gain and a reassertion of British "face" throughout Asia.
This was not an objective that appealed much to the Americans, who may have been pro-British at this time but were never pro-British Empire. One American historian has put it nicely. He writes of "the ancient ambivalence of Americans confronted with the descendants of those mythical oppressors who stalked the pages of their elementary school primers." Roosevelt and his advisers wanted the land links with China restored. They demanded that the British reconquer Burma. Any diversion from this they saw as malingering.
In any event, a shortage of sea transport kept postponing plans for amphibious action against Singapore and nearer objectives, and condemned the 14th Army to land campaigns.
Scott Gilmore. Chapter 8. A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurka Rifles. A Burma Memoir. Brassey's: London, 1995.
In the spring of 1944 the Fourteenth Army was advancing on the central front in Burma against savage Japanese resistance. The Allies had won the mastery of the air, but the Japanese forces were thick on the ground. At this time, when the Allied armies in Europe were fighting in Italy and massing their forces for the Normandy landing, Burma was at the thin end of the supply line. In March the Japanese forces in Burma launched a violent attack. They had prepared for a long time to sever the thin British lines, outflank the Fourteenth Army and cross into India.
The little hill station of Kohima lies on the Indian frontier, on a narrow saddle five thousand feet above the plains, and there the Japanese forces were held by a tiny force of British soldiers. For fifty days and fifty nights they clung to the pass. In the charred ruins of the little town everyone who could hold a gun confronted the enemy. Kohima was the stand that saved India.
Farther along the India-Burma border, on the Imphal plateau, the Japanese spearhead encircled sixty thousand men of the Fourteenth Army who, supplied only from the air, fought off the enemy attacks.
The Japanese Imperial Command staked everything in this battle. The troops were told that victory in Asia depended on Imphal, and they fought with boundless fury.
Then, on June 22, the Japanese front at Imphal collapsed. Reinforcements streamed through to relieve the British garrison. Fifty thousand Japanese lay dead on the field of battle, and the road to Kohima and the plains was opened.
While the armies were engaged on the long front, two guerrilla forces were causing havoc behind the enemy lines. A secret O.S.S. unit, Merrill's Marauders, named after its leader, worked with a fierce native tribe, the Kachins. They recruited the Kachin warriors, who were born fighters, armed them with modern weapons and directed their raids on Japanese depots and communications.
The other guerrilla force, Wingate's Chindits, was made up of British soldiers, rigorously trained for jungle warfare. They were parachuted in with arms and explosives and supplied by air, so that they could live in the jungle for weeks on end to accomplish some special mission.
Along the Arakan coast in western Burma, troops of the Fourteenth Army pressed on to join a British sea-borne landing at Rangoon. In the sweltering Arakan country it can rain as much in one week during the monsoon season as in New York during a whole year. Always the coming of the monsoon hung over the Burma fighting. When the rains broke the jungle was turned into a stiffing swamp where men, mules and vehicles were sucked into the quagmire.
Suddenly the British units near Rangoon discovered that the Japanese had pulled out; they had slipped away in the night and were steadily retreating. Then, at last, in December 1944, after a year of continuous fighting, the Fourteenth Army swung north and joined up with General Stilwell's divisions. With magnificent dash, "'Vinegar Joe's" troops had captured the junction and airfield of Myitkyina. He had proved the quality of his Chinese divisions. Together the Allied armies broke out into the plains of Mandalay. Finally, Chiang Kai-shek's armies swept down from China, and the Burma Road was open again.
The Battle of Burma had been won. Pitted against the Japanese, the jungle, the monsoon and a constant shortage of supplies, the Allied forces had gained a great victory. King George VI ordered a special medal to be struck, the Burma Star, for the men who had fought this battle.
Katharine Savage. Chapter 28. The Story of the Second World War. New York: Scholastic Book Services. 1957.
George Rock. History of the American Field Service, 1920-1955.
New York 1956