The Ledo Road that
"couldn't be built" through
the jungle and mountains.
And this is the Ledo Road
that the Army did build.

By Tillman Durdin   ON LEDO ROAD  (By Wireless)

   AMERICAN Army Engineers here say the Ledo Road is the toughest road-building job they have ever known or heard of, any time or anywhere. And these are the men who directed construction work on the Alaskan and Pan-American Highways.
   The Ledo Road respresents the conquest of some of the thickest, wettest jungles in Asia. It has been pushed across four rugged mountain ranges rising to heights of 3,000 to 5,000 feet. In crossing these ranges, popularly called the Naga Hills from the headhunting tribesmen whi inhabit them, the road crawls a length of more than 100 miles.
   Construction of the Ledo Road has meant a triumph over malignant malaria and over monsoon rains so heavy they swamp and wash-out permanent flatland highways, to say nothing of mountain roads. One hundred inches of rain falls over the Naga Hills each year, most of it in the few summer minths. In June last year sixteen inches of rain fell in eleven days.
   Yet in spite of "insuperable" difficulties the Ledo Road has been built. Today the road is delivering military supplies into the Hukawng Valley. It is making an important contribution to a military campaign while it is being pushed rapidly forward.
   THE Ledo Road is mainly an American achievement. The over-all direction and nearly all the equipment are American, while American Army engineering troops predominate among military personnel working on the project. A hard-working Chinese engineering detachment has made a big contribution to the road and many Asiatic civilian laborers have had a share in its building.
   Remarkable feats of construction have marked almost every mile of the road. Hills have been a serious obstacle and the jungles have been a worse one. Towering hardwood trees and a tangle of subsidiary vegetation - strangler vines, bamboo, elephant grass, banana palms - have had to be cleared every yard of the way.
   When construction started fourteen months ago little machinery was available. The engineers could count altogether fifteen rock crushers, five steam shovels, fifty trucks and a few small bulldozers. The rock crushers were without auxilliary equipment and chuts had to be improvised out of bamboo and roofing iron.
   For personnel there were several American engineering units, most of them Negro; the Chinese engineering detachment, and several thousand Asiatic laborers without tools.
   These were the meager resources with which to start one of the biggest road-building jobs in history, but Col. John Arrowsmith, then in charge, and his men set to work and between December 1942, and the rains of the following spring had built thirty-five miles of road.
   LAST year's monsoons brought the blackest days in the history of the Ledo Road. Downpours washed out parts of the highway and some sections became impassable to all vehicles exept bulldozers. One group of Americans up ahead of the completed road were completely cut off. Many of them were stricken with malaria and had to be evacuated by "cat" tractors. Other who made a grueling march out of the woods had to have their shoes cut from their feet when they arrived.
   Only fourteen miles of road were completed during the 1943 monsoon. It became customary in those days for one headquarters to call up another and ask, "How much road did you lose today?" Last November found the Ledo Road just little more than halfway tmhrough the Naga Hills. Then Lieut. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell asked Col. Lewis A. Pick, commander of construction and Supply Services in Northeast Assam and North Burma area, to rush the road through to the Hukawng Valley.
   Colonel Pick, a husky, hard driving, soft-spoken veteran Army engineer with a long record of accomplishing impossible jobs, said he could do it. Many were skeptical, for he had to drive the road over two mountain ranges and through a solid barrier of jungle.
   The colonel sent advance crews out over the jungle trial with bulldozers and set them working backward and forward at several different points on the route to the Hukawng. Gasoline, culvert pipe, food, clothing and diesel fuel were dropped to them from planes. Porters were employed to carry supplies from the dropping fields to work stations.
   Meanwhile, with reinforcements and additional equipment Colonel Pick pressed construction ahead from the old road. Two days after Christmas the road was through ton its designated goal and traffic began to roll from Assam to Northern Burma.
   THE road has followed more or less closely the route of a centuries' old trail over the Naga Hills. Americans here call it the "Marco Polo Trail" although there is no evidence that Marco Polo ever used it. Before the war it was a trail traveled by opium smugglers who carried the contraband across from Yunnan to Assam and down to Calcutta, where they reaped 500 percent profit.
   When the Japanese invaded Burma, tens of thousands of refugees streamed out of Burma over the trail. Thousands died of starvation and disease on the way and Ledo Road workers still find their bones, sometimes their jewels and caches of money.
   One engineering unit that has worked on the Ledo Road almost continually since it was started recently built an airdrome under Japanese artillery fire in the Hukawng Valley. This unit is under the command of Maj. Perley Lewis, until a few years ago a Phoenix, Ariz., contractor.

   One of the most remarkable things about the Ledo Road is that it has been used while it was being built. Motor vehicles began passing over the road as soon as the first bulldozer path was cut. While traffic flows both ways, the work of widening, straightening, grading, filling, bridging and culverting goes on twenty-four hours a day. Light for night work is provided by diesel oil set ablaze in drums alongside the road.
   A TEEMING, varied life flourishes along the Ledo Road. It has fostered a strange community, and the isolation, lonliness, the satisfaction of progress from grueling labor, and the dark, pressing nearness of the jungle have impressed upon the community many common interests and emotions. American Negroes from Alabama, Harlem and Illinois mingle with little Nepalese laborers from the foothills of the Himalayas. American whites work side by side with Garo porters from the Darjeeling neighborhood.
   Chinese are constantly working along the road, driving trucks and building bridges. They display an incurable cheerfulness with their borrowed English greeting of "Hello Joe," or their own "Hao Pu Hao" and salute Americans with infectious grins. Chinese, Indians, occasional Nagas and Kachins mix with Americans, sharing their camps, food, joys and sorrows together. What formal amusements exist are common property - movies that make the Ledo Road circuit or an occasional road show such as the swing orchestra and G.I. vaudeville show which Capt. Melvyn Douglas, late of Hollywood, took up and down the road recently.
   A movie performance on the Ledo Road is one of the world's unique scenes. The screen set up under trees at the foot of a slop and the audience that sprawls on the ground or sits on logs in a close packed group up one side of the hill is made up of white and Negro Americans, half-naked Naga tribesmen, Kachins in their bright-colored loongyis or skirts, Nepalese in their grimy jodhpur-lioke trousers, Chinese, Indians, refugee Burmese and perhaps a passing British officer or two. Hollywood seems to provide an equal degree of escape for all and the movies are one of the common denominators that help knit the variegated road community into a whole.
   The men who build this road camp beside their jobs, hacking away jungle undergrowths to set up little clusters of tents and bamboo bashas under tall trees. One American unit has made camp more than seventy times in moving along as the road progressed.
   Americans have met few of the dangerous animals they were warned against when first sent to the Naga Hills. Most have seen nothing more predatory than a barking deer or curious gibbons. Naga headhunters have turned out to be aloof but friendly and helpful when encountered. The Americans have discovered that if they still hunt heads at all they hunt Naga heads and not white ones.
   AFTER the mountains and the jungle, malaria has been the third great obstacle for these road builders. Strict anti-malaria discipline for individuals has been applied - trousers tucked into boot tops, no rolled up sleeves, sleeping under mosquito nets, are some of the vigorously enforced rules here.
   Colonel Pick has pracrtically lived with the Ledo Road during the last few months of great construction records and to him goes much of the credit for pushing the highway through. He is constantly up and down the road, devising construction short cuts here, clearing up a mchinery spare parts shortage there, urging men on to new efforts everywhere.
   His chief field subordinate is chunky, redheaded Lieut. Col. William J. Green of Rockford, Ill., a former colege football player. With his administrative officer, Maj. Raymond R. Sartain, Colonel Green shuttles between posts on the road, coordinating efforts, deciding day to day construction problems. They have "sweated out" a monsoon and seen some of the toughest obstacles road builders ever have encountered overcome.
   The road's veterans now see their jungle highway paying off in concrete results. For them and everyone on the road, this is a tonic to morale. The highway is beginning to help support the military campaign thgat is driving the enemy back.
   There always has been a scholl of thought that maintained that the Ledo Road was impractical, that the tremendous expenditure of money, materials and effort might better be applied elsewhere against the Japanese. But against this point of view have stood those who plced the re-estaqblishment of land communications with China high on the list of imperative war jobs, who believed that stubborn, determined endeavor could drive the road into China from India - even across the formidable Naga Hills.
   The road is now :over the hump" and the hill country has been conquered. Its builders and backers have achieved one of the engineering masterpieces of the war. Another "impossible" thing has been done. Already completed roads, some of them all-weather routes, span much of the several hundred miles of territory, mostly valley lands, that lie between the present head of the Ledo Road and roads in China proper. Construction is going to be easier and quicker from now on.
   History will eventually write a verdict on the Ledo Road. Meanwhile, it unrolls farther and farther toward China, a spectacular monument to enginnering skill, dogged persistence and soldierly hardihood. And week by week the road is becoming a bigger factor in the strategy of the war in Asia.

As published in the March 19, 1944 issue of The New York Times Magazine

Original article courtesy of Joe Davis     Adapted by Carl W. Weidenburner


Copyright © 2021 Carl W. Weidenburner    Portions Copyright 1944 by The New York Times Company         Visitors