by Daniel Arnstein

OCTOBER 6, 1941

   When President Roosevelt needed an expert to go to China and find out what was wrong with the Burma Road, China's vital link with the outside world, Harry Hopkins called Dan Arnstein for the job. Arnstein, who wrote this week's LIFE Report, is a forthright, cocksure former taxi driver who worked up the hard way to be head of the huge New York Terminal cab company. With Harold Davis and Marco Hellman, two other traffic experts, he set out for Chungking, then traveled from end to end of the fabulous Burma Road. With U.S. Lease-Lend goods piling up in Rangoon awaiting shipment, the trio found a tangled mess. Refusing to bother with traditional form or "face," they turned in a blistering, hard-hitting report to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and to Hopkins. It told a sad tale of inefficiency and disorganization. It spared no incompetent, wound up with a detailed prescription for the cure. Already it is being put in effect and vitally needed supplies are reaching China.

   My first sight of the Burma Road was at Kunming, the Chinese terminus and the last flat spot before this incredible highway begins. We had arrived by plane from Chungking to find awaiting us several American automobiles, a No.1 boy, a cook and five Chinese roadmen. From then on, for two solid weeks, we saw a road, and road conditions, that would make the toughest U.S. truck driver turn green.

   There is nothing like this Burma Road anywhere else in the world. When you see it, you understand the American engineer who exclaimed, "My God, they scratched these roads out of the mountain with their fingernails." From Kunming, at one end, the road winds perilously for 726 miles through the jagged Burma mountain ranges, over the deep Mekong and Salween canyons and down to the British end in Lashio. A crow with a liking for high altitudes could fly it in 360 miles, but after Kunming we never saw as much as one-eighth of a mile of straight road ahead.

   The Burma Road is only a few years old, for the Chinese built it after the war began. Yet it was built with the same techniques used 2,000 years ago on the Great Wall of China. Each village and hamlet along the way supplies the workers who are still finishing the road. They bring with them their own food and adzes to chip the rock by hand. Then they haul the earth away by hand in baskets. During the early stages of the work, 200 out of every 250 workers died of malaria. Any laborer in the U.S. would refuse to work under conditions which I saw 10-year-old children quietly enduring.
There were landslides, 1,000-ft. precipices and great bomb holes. The bombs do not bother the Chinese. As an interpreter explained to us cheerfully, "It cost Japan $1,000 gold for bomb to make hole and it cost us $2 Mex. (8¢) to fill it up."

   Courtesy is a matter of life and death. The road is narrow and unpaved. There are no fences or rocks along the side of cliffs. It is almost too easy to skid off in rainy weather and many trucks do. There are air raids, dust, steep grades and swinging, swaying bridges which can hold but one vehicle at a time. I shall never forget one small, single-lane bridge over a gorge which drops a sheer 7,000 ft. into the river below. With more road courtesy than I have ever seen in the U.S., truck drivers anxiously backed up to let the other fellow pass, in the best Alphonse-Gaston manner. Later I learned that this is the most dangerous spot. But it has never seen an accident.

   Even at the start of the trip at Kunming it was pretty plain what was wrong with the flow of Burma Road traffic. The menace was not rain, landslides or bombing, but miles and miles of red tape. The road is honey-combed with customs houses, and at Kunming, truck drivers had to pass by exactly eight desks before getting permission to proceed to the next station. Sometimes this would take from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., while the leisurely customs inspectors read True Confessions and scratched their noses ruminatively. Then, promptly at 6, the customs closed and the war was over until next morning.

   From Kunming we started south, often driving by night to make up time. We stopped at the six or seven main, and six or seven sudsidiary stations along the way, looking over shops, trucks and warehouses. To a fellow with 30 years'
U.S. trucking experience, the situation was appalling. At Wanting, we found 250 trucks waiting, some more than 24 hours, for the necessary customs clearance. Sometimes they have been held up for ten to 15 days, and the traffic over the road in June was a mere trickle of 6,000 tons. It should be at least 30,000. The Chinses never heard of grease, and we passed hundreds of burned-out trucks parked in the few flat spaces along the road.

   It was so bad that we had to lecture drivers, service men and administrators in the simplest fundamentals of trucking. I did the talking and I talked plain. I told them that unless they used grease, the U.S. could see no point in shipping more trucks. I told them that for an all-day trip you had to start at dawn. The paper work would have to be simplified, I said. I had to explain to them that you can't load a truck all in front, but have to spread the load. They were breaking scores of axles by overstraining them.

   The control of the road was a governmental jumble. There were, besides the private companies, no less than 16 Chinese government agencies operating trucks over the road, everybody from the Salt Gabelle and the Fifth Army to the Bank of China. Everybody had his own checking stations, rest stops and administrators. There were just plain village magistrates along the way collecting their small "squeeze" tax from every passing truck. With private and government trucks both operating, rackets spring up. When a private truck breaks down, a government truck will stop. The private truck driver buys a good part from the government man, puts it in his truck and drives on. Until the government repairman happens along, the truck driver enjoys himself with the local girls.

   Living conditions along the Burma Road are strange to a man used to the accomodations on U.S. highways. Davis discovered this one night when we stayed at the home of Sawbo Y.G. Fang, a native civil governor who prided himself on his modern house. Davis had just enjoyed the luxury of a bath in a porcelain tub and pulled the plug when he was surprised to see the water splash across the floor and run down a drain cut through the floor. Sleeping was not always comfortable, in spite of the occassional grandeur of our surroundings. We spent one night in an old deserted temple (the first I have been in since I was a boy), surrounded by great golden idols. My bed was four post stuck in the ground, with a surface of flat boards. There was no mattress but someone had carefully supplied a sand pillow. It wasn't feathers, I guarantee. Our Chinese cook never really got into action, and the best meal he served us enroute was a can of sardines, a fairly simple operation. At first we were baffled by the chopsticks, but after you get hungry you do pretty well. I used mine as a spear.


   My worst night on the road was spent at a compound with an abundance of rats. I had occassion to rise during the night and go down to the lavatory, such as it was. Just as I arrived I stepped on a large rat. While it screamed I yelled and cursed until a soldier guard came running up, and, without warning, pulled a revolver and shot the rat right under my foot. I was so excited by this time that I returned to bed, completely forgetting my original mission. Davis and Hellman still kid me about it.

   When we reached Rangoon at the end of our drive down, we locked ourselves in a room and the Strand Hotel with two Burmese stenographers and went to work on our report, which started out 119 pages long but was cut to 35 by Hellman.

   The report was tough. We sent a copy ahead to Chiang. It described all the inefficiency we had seen and then blasted everybody connected with it. It started off by saying "The main reason that practically no shipments are getting through the Burma Road is due to a lack of knowledge of fundamentals." It outlined a complete but simple plan to get trucks rolling, one every minute if necessary. By the end of the year, we said, about 8,000 trucks should be running on the road at once.

   It was like being hit over the head with a baseball bat, and I was not sure how well we would be received by the Generalissimo. Instead we were there five hours. Mme Chiang had read the report, and the Generalissimo had a translation, completely indexed in Chinese. He was pleased as punch, so pleased that before dinner he made us a long speech, which when translated turned out to be a strange offer that only an Oriental will understand. He asked whether Davis, Hellman and I would like to take on the Burma Road as a private concession, at so much percentage a truck. It was as characteristically Chinese an offer as an invitation to tea. We were dumbfounded, but in a moment or so found words to decline with thanks. But the Generalissimo was not ruffled. "Now we eat,"
he announced briskly in Chinese, and sprang to his feet as though he had been thinking about dinner all the time.

   At dinner I sat next to Madame Chiang, who speaks fluent English. Her husband, I thought, spoke none, but soon I began to learn the words he knew. I remarked, through an interpreter, that compared to the bombing I had seen in the last war, the Japs over Chungking were just indulging in target practice, uninterrupted because China has no pursuit planes or anti-aircraft. Chiang nodded eagerly and barked "Yeah!"

   Later I asked Madame, "What did you like in the report?" "I liked its simplicity," she said. "A 12-year old will understand."

   As my evening with the Chiangs drew to a close, Madame turned to me and said that sometimes she felt apologetic for the way in which she scolds and squawks at America, but that she would always squawk loudly about China's needs.

   "Don't worry, Madame," I told her, "we have a saying in the trucking business that 'The squeaking wheel gets the grease.' You keep on squeaking and you'll get attention from America."

   At this, the Generalissimo looked up and demanded a translation of what had been said. As the interpreter spoke, a smile broke over his face and he clapped his hands. "Good! Good! he said.

 LIFE Magazine
Adapted from the October 6, 1941 issue
by Carl W. Weidenburner
Portions copyright 1941 Time, Inc.