209th Engineer Combat Battalion
Building the Ledo Road
To open the Ledo Road in Burma during World War II,
U.S. combat engineers did more than just build.
by Lloyd L. Kessler
In November 1943 life for the 209th Engineer Combat Battalion was posh by Army standards. Camped in the Naga Hills of northern India, 6,000 feet above sea level, we actually had wooden floors for our tents and kerosene lamps. Our battalion had been tasked with building some 400 miles of the Ledo Road between the Naga Hills and Kunming. Little did we know that fall that more than half of us would never see the road's completion.
For a while during that autumn of 1943, however, life was good. There were movies nearly every week. Rumors circulated about Hollywood entertainers coming to visit us in India. I even saw one celebrity waiting in the mess line ahead of me -- Major Melvyn Douglas, the American actor, in dress uniform, mess kit in hand, apparently unaware that officers ate separately. Our duties within the Naga Hills were not too taxing. Several times a week I helped survey the next section of roadway with Captain John Mattina, our divisional engineer; Staff Sgt. Guido von Mayrhauser, intelligence sergeant; and a couple of men from Company A. Captain Mattina used the transit, Sergeant von Mayrhauser held the stadia rod and I recorded the readings. Later, I transferred the numbers to a map showing the road center line, with cuts and fills that bulldozer operators used to shape the road.
We had been in place for so long that the battalion even struck up a working relationship with the local headhunters, little Naga tribesmen. Our cooks made a deal with them -- our flour and sugar for their chickens. The Nagas got the better of the exchange; their chickens were scrawny little things, like Cornish hens but tougher. These Naga tribesmen were normally smiling and shy. But they were ferocious when provoked. Two men from Company C found a lone Naga girl on the outskirts of their village and took turns raping her. Naga justice was swift. Responding to the girl's screams, men of the village caught the second soldier in the act and promptly cut off his head.
We were still well ensconced in our camp in December. Christmas Eve 1943 saw me sitting high on a hill overlooking our camp, shivering inside my overcoat, with my M-1 resting on my lap. I had never known it could be so cold in a jungle. The tents below were even covered with a light coating of snow. Still, there was not much else to complain about. A week later we welcomed 1944 in various ways. Some bought cheap rice whiskey from passing Chinese soldiers. Medics and motor pool personnel assembled a still and produced a concoction of their own. I tried a sip, and it burned all the way down.
Our idyllic life ended when the new year began. The company was ordered 90 miles east, going from cool mountains to hot, humid lowlands. We joined Company C at the site of the longest bridge we ever built, a 1,100-foot span across the Tarung River. The work site was a beehive of activity. Several generators ran at once. Men shouted. Trees were felled, chopped, shaped and assembled into H-shaped supporting columns, floated out into the water and held in place, ready to receive 50-foot-long steel girders. Heavy timber planking formed the surface of the roadway. The finished product was beautiful.
From the bridge we traveled 60 miles farther east before setting up our next camp and continuing our roadwork. It was dark and raining when we arrived. Since I was scheduled for fatigue duty the next day, I found shelter under a tree and hung my fatigues on a limb to allow the sweat to dry. The mess sergeant woke me at 0400, and I struggled into my fatigues, half asleep. Then I felt them, biting...stinging...crawling over my flesh. I tore off my fatigues and saw hundreds of red ants blanketing my body. The medics hosed me down, wrapped me in a blanket and gave me pain pills. A dream-filled sleep overtook me for the next 10 hours. But my troubles were only beginning.
I woke up tired and disoriented, with festering ant bites that begged to be scratched. I was told that I had malaria and was ordered to stay in bed. For the next several days I lay on my cot,
Near the middle of May we heard good news. The Myitkyina airfield had been captured. Myitkyina was a small northern Burmese town whose hard-surfaced airfield built on its outskirts ensured that the tiny hamlet would take on an importance out of all proportion to its size. Control of the airfield would be critical if the American commander in the China-Burma-India Theater, Lt. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, was able to continue his advance eastward to China. We assumed the town itself would soon fall, allowing us to complete the road. But it did not happen that way.
During one of the epic campaigns of World War II, early in 1944 the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), better known as "Merrill's Marauders," had crossed hundreds of miles of rugged mountain terrain to seize the Japanese airfield at Myitkyina on May 17. Unfortunately for us, the campaign to take the airfield had been so severe that only a handful of the original Marauders were able to continue the fight. One of their officers commented that his men were falling asleep while under enemy rifle fire. The situation was critical. General Stilwell refused to ask the British for help, insisting that American and Chinese forces should capture the town. On May 24, unable to secure Myitkyina with the troops available, in desperation he called upon the only combat-trained American troops available, the 209th and 236th Engineer Combat battalions.
We had been trained to build, destroy and fight, but few of us were prepared to do all three. I still remembered how to clean my M-1 rifle, but I had not shot at anything except a target since basic training.
Nevertheless, we moved quickly. During the next two days my battalion was shuttled by air between Shingbwiyang and Myitkyina. As part of battalion headquarters, I came in on the 25th. As we circled the field at Myitkyina, bullets pinged off our fuselage like hail on a tin roof. On the ground, chaos reigned. Officers shouted orders at confused soldiers, airplanes landed and took off at a ferocious rate and Japanese snipers fired at us from a distance.
As soon as I landed, I jumped out of our plane, ran to the edge of the jungle and joined a sergeant from our personnel section. He was calmly digging a shallow foxhole and heating water in his mess cup, as though he did this every day. I helped finish the hole and erect a shelter half to protect the two of us from the weather. After the water eventually boiled, I had my first taste of K-ration coffee. The black chunk of material that resembled tar finally dissolved in hot water and, with enough sugar, tasted almost like the real thing.
That evening I had diarrhea, the result of the sudden change in diet from real food to containers with questionable contents. The medics gave me some pills and told me to eat cheese. I swallowed two of the pills and promptly fell sound asleep. I slept all night, unaware of the firefight that was going on 50 yards away.
I woke to shouts and movements in the brush. Grabbing my M-1, I jumped out of my foxhole, expecting to face an attacking horde of Japanese. Instead, I saw my first Japanese soldiers -- three truckloads of them, all dead, scattered over the road, in the ditches and inside the trucks. They were larger than I expected. Someone said they were Imperial Marines. In addition, the remaining Marauders were gone, leaving a few jungle-wise veterans to help us make the transition from road builders to infantrymen. We spent the next several days acclimating ourselves to our new surroundings. We improved our positions, went out on patrols and waited for something more substantial to happen.
Our first major offensive could properly be called a failure. Early in June, we were ordered to neutralize a 75mm gun emplacement that was creating havoc among the Chinese troops that were supporting us. Reconnaissance told us that a platoon of Japanese soldiers stood between us and the gun. Since it was almost dark, we decided to wait until dawn before trying to seize the position. We did not consider that the enemy troops might have had plans of their own.
Whatever sleep we might have gotten was interrupted at 2300 hours by a volley of rifle fire. Orange tracers cut through the darkness. One of our machine guns opened up, answered by the rapid chatter of a Japanese light machine gun. Flares bathed the area in bright light. I saw the Japanese coming toward us -- silently, not a banzai attack but slowly and deliberately, as though they expected little opposition. I held my rifle with the sling wrapped around my arm, just as I had learned in boot camp, knelt and waited until I saw them clearly. I started firing and kept firing until there were no more Japanese in front of me. They stopped shooting flares. I stared into the darkness, but all I could see or hear was the whimpering and groaning of the wounded. Our medics were busy that night.
At dawn the enemy decided to kill us from a distance. A big artillery piece opened up. I heard a rush of air as something big whizzed past me, then a loud explosion somewhere behind me. They had not found the range yet. Despite this bit of good fortune, we knew we were outgunned and outnumbered, and the decision was made to retreat.
An airstrike was called in at 0900. An hour later, a formation of three North American P-51 Mustangs swooped toward us, flying low and fast. Several of us were resting in a clearing when they reached us. The lead plane had barely cleared the trees when he fired a quick burst. The second plane followed suit. The last plane fired a moment too soon. Bullets spattered the ground next to me. It happened so fast that I had no time to react. One of our cooks rolled on the ground, holding his stomach and repeating over and over: "Oh, God. Oh, my God." A sergeant from the motor pool screamed: "I'm hit! I'm hit! My legs!" He was hit in both legs, but he lived to return home an amputee. Our commander, normally a mild-mannered man, was angry. I heard both sides of the ensuing conversation. "Don't come back, you SOB. You shot my men!" The pilot replied, "Sorry." In his defense I would say hitting a target in the jungle must be virtually impossible. In the end, however, it was not air power that silenced the gun but another concerted attack by Company A.
After our first failed offensive, the men spent their time becoming more used to their new role as infantrymen. I spent the first couple of weeks as a runner. My job was to carry messages from my battalion commander to the commander of a nearby Chinese infantry battalion. Although off the front line, I had ample opportunity to see the effects of combat. On one occasion I remember passing by a medical tent. The ground all around the tent was red with the blood of the patients.
This routine continued until June 12, when I was ordered to report to the battalion's intelligence officer. I obediently reported to an oversized foxhole where I found a lieutenant and sergeant conferring over a large-scale map. They invited me to join them, so I sat on an upturned 10-in-1 ration box and wondered how I could be involved in whatever was being planned.
"Tomorrow morning, Company B, followed by Company A, will move a mile closer to the city," our intelligence officer announced. "Colonel Combs will be in command. [Colonel William H. Combs was a highly respected officer in the Marauders.] You will lead a squad to lay wire and establish communications between the colonel and our headquarters." "Why me?" I silently asked myself. "Why not wireless radios?"
I left with Combs' column in the dark at 0400. As we marched I busied myself unwinding wire and trying to keep up with the last soldier of Company A. All went well until we crossed a rice paddy. I spliced the wire in the middle of the paddy while Chinese and Japanese troops manning the hills on each side of us exchanged shots. We fell so far behind that we almost lost Company A. The situation improved after we found our men crouching in ditches on each side of a road.
Word came back to leave the ditches, disperse into the brush, move and be alert. I moved toward the front, searching for Colonel Combs. He stood in the middle of the road, shouting orders, directing us to jump into the foxholes lining the road on each side. The Japanese had retreated, leaving us ready-made foxholes.
I waved the phone and yelled, "Colonel Combs! Colonel Combs!" He jumped into my hole and grabbed the phone. Standing next to me, he reported that we had reached our objective without opposition. His eyes moved constantly, surveying the jungle around us all the time he talked. Finally he said: "This is the Old Ranger signing off...Roger on that...Roger and out."
Then all hell broke loose. Mortar shells exploded, rifle fire sprayed us from all sides and a machine gun opened fire far down the road. Combs tried desperately to contact our headquarters, but it was too late. The wire had been cut.
This was my introduction to the horrors of short-range mortar fire. The Japanese 50mm grenade launcher, commonly called a knee mortar, had a range of 700 yards, far beyond what was needed to annihilate us. I grew to fear the noise from incoming mortar rounds more than the whistling of the big guns.
I knew that they were at each end of the road and behind dense jungle on each side of us. They were hidden; we were like clay pigeons in a shooting gallery, defending a perimeter about 50 feet wide and 70 feet long. I saw Colonel Combs kneeling in the ditch across from me, having an animated conversation with a Chinese officer. Two soldiers waited nearby. Suddenly they turned and crawled off into the jungle. Seconds later a burst of gunfire shattered the stillness. I never saw Colonel Combs again. The "Old Ranger" gave his life for us.
Some accounts of the action that day state that Combs died trying to warn us about a Japanese ambush. Actually, he led us into the ambush, but he died trying to get us out.
We were still surrounded by the enemy when monsoon rain hit us in full force. The downpour turned my foxhole into a muddy quagmire. The mortars soon resumed their now familiar cycle of death. I tensed during the pauses, filled with fear, counting the explosions as they came closer and closer. If it continued, how could they miss me? I pressed against the side of my foxhole, reasoning that if I could cut a niche in the wall, I could protect my head and survive, even if I was wounded. I used my helmet to dig, but the wall collapsed. Then the rain and the mortars stopped. The sun came out.
A Douglas C-47 circled above us, and I watched and prayed as the parachutes bringing medical supplies, ammunition and food slowly drifted down and landed a few yards outside our perimeter.
Late in the afternoon of the 15th, I realized time was running out. Either we would be shot or we would die of starvation. Better to die trying to escape than to wait for the inevitable. I decided to leave late that night, when the Japanese might be less alert. Unknown to me, a better plan was taking shape. Word was passed around that Staff Sgt. Alvin Miller, one of the Marauders who was still working with us, had reconnoitered an escape route. We would leave when we heard the word "Messcall."
At dusk I heard a voice speaking perfect English, "Surrender, Americans! Surrender or die!" This was followed by a loud monologue in Japanese. The enemy soldiers responded with clapping, laughter and cheers.
Then I heard "Messcall." Shadowy shapes emerged from foxholes around me, some barely able to stand. I watched a sergeant from Company A pass by, carried by two of his buddies, his left foot dangling from the stump of his leg. "Hold it up!" he kept repeating. "Hold it up, dammit."
Only about a dozen of us reached our perimeter. The others either drowned in deep, water-filled foxholes or wandered into Japanese hands. Americans along the perimeter told me later that the survivors of the patrol were like zombies, literally back from the dead. Another small group was also able to break out and joined us later. Our officers allowed those of us who had survived the Japanese ambush about a week to rest and regain our strength before returning to our normal duties.
For me, that meant a return to the position of company runner. Although not on the front lines, I was reminded that death was never very far away. Japanese snipers were everywhere. In one instance, I looked up from my foxhole while shaving to see an enemy sniper in the top of a tree about 200 yards away from my hole. Early in July I was relieved from my duties as a runner and prepared to return to the line. I would not be there long.
Thursday, July 13, 1944, dawned clear and hot. What remained of my company was ordered to replace casualties on the perimeter. I passed our medic's tent on the way to a line of foxholes. "Orders are to shoot every so often so they can't surprise us," someone said, and I shot a few rounds blindly into a wall of elephant grass.
I didn't realize at the time that the gnawing emptiness in my stomach was about to become my downfall. I heard talk about 10-in-1 rations being available at the medic's tent, bringing back memories of how I had rummaged through one of those large cans, surprised by all the goodies, and feasted for a day. I rationalized that I could share it. The Japanese were not shooting...it was only 100 yards. "Cover me," I said, as I started to run toward the tent, bent over, zigzagging as I went. When I was only about 30 yards from the tent an explosion hit just behind my head. The next second found me on the ground, flat on my face, staring at my right hand. Someone had driven a red-hot poker through it. I rolled on my side and saw shreds of flesh hanging out of my palm.
Fortunately medics rushed to my side and I was soon on a jeep, riding in a morphine-induced stupor to a field hospital where two young lieutenants cheerfully worked on my hand. After scrubbing it with a wire brush, one of them said, "Hey, look at this," as he held a long sliver of bone. His partner held my arm out, stooped and looked upward. "I can see light." Chuckling, they sprinkled sulfa and applied a plaster cast to my mangled arm.
The next morning, at the airfield where I had first landed two months previously, I had fruit cocktail and real coffee, better than the rations that had led to my wound. At midmorning a C-47 arrived and I filed aboard, bound for the 69th General Hospital at Ledo, unfit for further combat, to be detached from my outfit.
Myitkyina fell on August 3, 1944, after a three-month siege. About 600 Japanese soldiers tried to escape down the Irrawaddy River; my battalion killed a third of them.
The Mars Task Force, a newly formed regiment that included some Marauders, cleared the way for a reorganized 209th Engineer Battalion to return to its construction duties on the Ledo Road through Myitkyina and on to Mong Yu. By war's end, more than 5,000 vehicles carried 34,000 tons of materiel to Kunming, China. The engineers had done their job, and become veteran combat soldiers as well.
Originally published in the March 2001 issue of
World War II
209th Engineer Combat Battalion
Building the Ledo Road
Representative images have been added to the original text.
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Originally published in the March 2001 issue of
World War II