The Road Projects
Despite the priority given to Chennault's air war, and the above, the engineers continued to push their road projects. Since it appeared that the Chinese would procrastinate, Stilwell himself appealed to Chiang. On July 6th, he succeeded in getting one of Chiang's officials to start work on the Burma and Mitu Roads (see map) to open them up partly to trucks by October. Only 100 million dollars were authorized solely for improvement of the Burma Road, and with inflation, this amount was rapidly decreasing. Dawson tried to get the Chinese to widen the road rather than resurfacing it during the dry season so trucks could go through. The Chinese agreed.
By the beginning of August planning was complete, and the Chinese allowed our engineers to be on duty at each of the Highway Administration district offices along the road. Kohloss arranged with the Chinese to set up, in August, a "Mobile Construction Force" to operate under the Chinese direction. This was commanded by Capt. Harvey Gehr and four other American officers and six equipment operators, four Chinese engineers and a crew of coolies. They were to improve those sections of the road where machinery would be effective. By far the greater part of the road work would be done by hand labor. In August, the Governor of Yunnan agreed to conscript 36,000 peasants who were to start work late that month. But, the Governor was a month late in getting the coolies on the road; also his highway officials were "dragging their feet" in doing the necessary planning. Kohloss tried to get the Chinese government to increase the allotment of funds by 44 million, but inflation kept eroding that amount downwards. Our officials felt the work being done was haphazard, and early in October the money ran out; and the road was essentially what it had always been - a one-lane road with steep grades, horseshoe curves, and narrow bridges. And, now, it was more in need of repair than before.
The renewed emphasis on airfield construction placed the Ledo Road in a precarious position. Its loss of priority in troops and equipment in May 1943 came at a bad time. With the roadhead at the crest of the Patkais, the monsoons created endless problems. Bridges were swept out as well as culverts, and the roadway was undermined. Rain soaked embankments, collapsed and blocked the road with massive slides. Disabled equipment piled up as the few mechanics struggled against forbidding odds to make the needed repairs. Malaria rates rose steadily shrinking the ranks of the engineers. As a result, work went into low gear, and once again high morale sunk. Nevertheless, the engineers continued improving the road insofar as possible, although little could be done to extend the road through the jungle.
Early in July, Maj. Gen. Wilhelm Styer, Somervell's chief of staff from Washington inspected the road. He, then, urged his boss to immediately ship out five general service engineer regiments, among other things. He referred to British comments that the Americans are crazy for trying during the monsoons. There was much to justify their views. Among our troops, the malaria rate had reached 955 per 1,000 per year; and among the Chinese it was 2,200. Styer concluded that "in spite of all the obstacles, construction is proceeding, and Gen. Wheeler and his forces deserve a great deal of credit for what they have accomplished under the conditions imposed upon them." Shortly thereafter, an Air Corps officer, inspecting the road at Stilwell's request, found that the engineers were doing a good job under the circumstances. But, others had different opinions. Col. Frank Merrill, theater G-3, inspected the road a few days before Styer, and was very critical. While he admitted that many of the engineer's road resources had been drained away to the airfields, but that they were making too much of the effect of such diversions on the rate of progress on the road. He particularly blamed Arrowsmith, recently promoted to Brig. General. He felt Arrowsmith's leadership as not sufficiently energetic for such trying circumstances.
In mid-July, Stilwell came for a firsthand look. Finding his "vinegary," Wheeler and Arrowsmith tried to mollify him and give him a clearer understanding of the difficult situation. Wheeler again emphasized that Base Section 3, "milked daily" of troops for other projects could use "thousands" of engineers. Stilwell stayed for three days, but made no specific complaints.
Later on August 9th, Wheeler said that Base Section 3 had shipped to the airfields in Assam, 5,612 carloads of gravel, enough for over 30 miles of single-track road. The 330th Engineers who should have been working on the road, had been put to work as stevedores in Calcutta until July, and, upon arriving at Ledo, much of the regiment worked on access roads and in gravel quarries. Wheeler also complained that the British failed to provide sufficient laborers. He should have added that Arrowsmith had been obliged during the summer to rotate the 823rd and 45th engineers to rest camps in Calcutta to forestall exhaustion from their continual around-the-clock efforts.
Anxious to get the road to Shingbwiyang before the Fall, and stung by "I told you so" smiles of the British, Stilwell wanted no excuses. On August 21st, he again visited the road. After a series of meetings with Arrowsmith, he seemed to indicate no displeasure of how things were going. Nevertheless, he sent a message to Wheeler ordering Arrowsmith's relief. Going along with Merrill, he said he could not "take chances on that project." Branding progress on the road as a threat to the "whole operations" in North Burma, Stilwell asked Wheeler to look into the possibility of getting a "top flight man" from the States.
Wheeler reluctantly recalled Arrowsmith and placed a Quartermaster colonel, Ellis Altaian, temporarily in charge. On August 29th, Arrowsmith's command of a project on which 90% of the engineers in CBI were engaged, came to an end. Arrowsmith, upon departing, was deeply disappointed and said, "we knew what we were up against, we proved that we could not only overcome the physical difficulties, but we also held up against the mosquito. We were nearing the end of a long uphill pull." Arrowsmith was relieved just as things began to get better. The dry season was approaching, engineer reinforcements were on the way. With no rain, natives would be more inclined to work on the road, and the British would have less trouble mobilizing them. The Allied Conference in Quebec had a few days before resolved to support a redoubled Allied effort to open North Burma and build a supply road to China.