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Burma's Stilwell Road: A backbreaking WWII project is revived

IndiaChinaDefenseArmed Conflicts

It was a road some said couldn't be built. Most of the men ordered to make it happen were African American soldiers sorted into Army units by the color of their skin.

As World War II raged, they labored day and night in the jungles of Burma, sometimes halfway up 10,000-foot mountains, drenched by 140 inches of rain in the five-month monsoon season. They spanned raging rivers and pushed through swamps thick with bloodsucking leeches and swarms of biting mites and mosquitoes that spread typhus and malaria.

Some died from disease or fell to their deaths when construction equipment slid along soupy mud tracks and dropped off cliffs. Others drowned, or were killed pulling double duty in combat against the Japanese.

They gave their lives to build a 1,079-mile road across northern Burma (now Myanmar) to reinforce Allied troops, a project derided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as "an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed."

Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest. The road had cost 1,133 American lives, a man a mile.

Evelio Grillo is one of the few vets still alive to tell the tale of the Stilwell Road.

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The son of black Cubans who migrated to Florida to roll cigars in Tampa factories, Grillo graduated from Xavier University, a black college in New Orleans, and was immediately drafted. He made staff sergeant in the Army's segregated 823rd Engineer Battalion.

In an old black-and-white photo he sent home during the war, Grillo wears his khaki uniform and garrison cap, one eyebrow slightly arched, his eyes dark and mischievous. His favorite stories of his time in Burma are about cleaning up at poker, taking breaks to look at pretty girls, and talking to tent rats as big as small cats.

He remembers making road trips across the border to India to buy light bulbs when the old ones popped in their sockets most nights in their camp. The new ones exploded just as quickly as the ones they replaced.

Grillo also tells of boneheaded officers who ordered him to measure the road with lengths of chain for hours on end until someone finally pointed out that the Army jeeps had odometers.

"That was probably you," Grillo's daughter Elisa Grillo Clay says from her father's bedside at a nursing home in Oakland, proudly calling him "a professional troublemaker."

Grillo, 89, was one of more than 15,000 U.S. soldiers who put their backs into the punishing work that many thought was futile.

In a little over two years, they completed the road from India to the western Chinese city of Kunming. The U.S. spent almost $149 million to build it and, at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, it was named the Stilwell Road, after U.S. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region who insisted the project would work.

More than half a century later, China now is working to resurrect it as the first major overland trade route since World War II with India, where business leaders, politicians and bureaucrats also are pressing their government to formally commit itself to the road as a link between the world's two most populous nations.

Finding the money to pay for the upgrade, Indian proponents say, is the easy part. Overcoming the fear of more competition and the unwelcome visitors opponents say the road would bring is proving more difficult.

India has already declared China a strategic partner, and for the last six years New Delhi's "Look East" policy has held up increased trade with the rest of Asia as India's best hope for economic growth.

With India's traditional trading partners in the U.S. and Europe sinking deeper into recession by the day, the push to reopen the road should gain new strength, said Mahesh K. Saharia, a leading backer in the powerful Indian Chamber of Commerce.

He and other supporters say that connecting two of the most undeveloped regions in India and China could lift millions of people out of poverty. Indian opponents argue that the risk of insurgents and drug smugglers sneaking across a more open border is too high.

"My own guess is that the benefit of the cooperation is so immense, and the cost of noncooperation is again so large, that everyone who looks into it will . . . have to agree to it," said Saharia, chairman of the business group's North-East Initiative.

In 2005, Indian and Chinese survey teams began mapping out plans to rebuild the road. So far China has done all the reconstruction work, paving dozens of miles with granite stones packed into dirt. When the monsoons end, the surface is watered, rolled and baked hard in the sun, making it almost as flat as asphalt.

The road's western end, close to the Indian state of Assam, has been swallowed up by the jungle, and portions of it can be traveled only on foot. In the east, the upgraded section near the Chinese border is busy, but most of the traffic consists of small traders and tourists on short visits to gamble, or to see transsexual burlesque shows in Myanmar.

The rest of the road is usually so quiet that villagers stroll down the middle as if it was a sidewalk. When they hear the distant hum of an approaching vehicle, pedestrians choose a lane and let the pickups, stuffed with swaying passengers on wooden benches or stacked with rusty drums of gas, sputter past.

About 40 miles southeast of Myitkyina, the road winds up a hill past the village of Nalong, where Hla Di Lu has lived since the day she was born 82 years ago.

She lives alone, in a leaky hut of bamboo and wood, next to a tiny plot where she grows rice. A key dangles from a string around her neck. It opens a heavy padlock on her front door, where someone has written in chalk a holiday greeting: Merry Xmas Happy New Year 2008.

She has to coax her brain to recall the long-ago war. What surfaces from the depths of an old mind is a bit blurry, as if one's had a few drinks, Hla Di Lu says with a toothless grin. But a few things come into focus: Japanese soldiers running villagers through with bayonets, American soldiers sharing tins of fruit and canned meat from their K-rations.

The brightest memory is the glow from the road that lighted up the darkness as the Americans toiled through the night, pushing hard to make the next mile.

Grillo had always been a fighter. In wartime, he defied white commanders he considered racist. After peace returned and he moved to Oakland, he struggled for decades to bridge the differences between Hispanics and African Americans, arguing that they were all part of the same black community.

He still lives there today, in a space not much bigger than his bed, in the shared room of a nursing home. The body that fought off malaria 14 times during the war, the lifelong rebel who refused to bow to intolerance, is slowly surrendering to time.

The strong hands that hacked and dug through Burma's jungle and rock are frail now. Grillo's right leg has been amputated at the knee. His dry, papery skin is drawn taught over atrophied muscles. His voice is a whisper, and each word he speaks is a tug of war between mind and mouth.

Within half an hour, he is exhausted, and his eyes gently close until he can summon enough strength to try again.

Squeezing the hand of his son and namesake, California Superior Court Judge Evelio M. Grillo, the old vet smiles at the memories of winning enough poker pots from his war buddies in Burma to buy his mom a house in Tampa, Fla.

But he'd rather forget most of his two years at war. Grillo had to suffer the indignities of racial segregation on the 58-day passage to India aboard the Santa Clara, where the only comforts were reserved for the white officers.

Grillo remembers most of them as vulgar racists, and wrote in his memoir, "Black Cuban, Black American," that the road builders assumed that the white men giving them orders in Southern drawls had been selected because they were "deemed to know how to handle black men."

The black GIs had to bunk in the ship's windowless, foul-smelling hold, stewing in the "stench cooked up by the sweat, the farts and the vomit of 200 men," he recalled in the memoir.

"White troops had fresh water for showering," Grillo continued. "Black troops had to shower with sea water. White troops had the ample stern of the ship to lounge during the day. Black troops were consigned to the narrow bow, so loaded with gear that it was difficult to find comfortable resting places."

Things only went downhill in the jungle. In a letter home, handwritten on Red Cross stationery and dated June 7, 1943, Grillo was looking forward to taking leave in a big city where he could sit on a toilet again.

"We'll just have to make the best of whatever comes until such time as this nightmare shall spend itself," he wrote, "and a box of candy or a bunch of flowers shall again be thought of as some of man's most effective and most important 'weapons.' "

The men who built the road weren't honored for their feat until 2004, when the Defense Department marked African American History Month at Florida A&M University.

By then, most of the veterans were long dead. The Pentagon could locate only 12 to invite to the ceremony in Tallahassee, and only six were well enough to travel, the American Forces Press Service reported at the time.

Today, the band of brothers who built the Stilwell Road has all but disappeared. But the feeling of resentment among black men who felt dumped in the jungle and expendable because of their race is still alive in Grillo.

He's happy to hear that the road is coming back to life. He summons all his strength to speak, whispering that it shows he and his comrades did a good job building it. But the proud smile on his wan face disappears with a question from his daughter.

"Do you think Winston Churchill was right when he said it was a waste of lives building the road?" she asks from the foot of his bed, speaking loud and slow to help him process the question.

He closes his eyes and nods.

An alarm sounds in the hall, calling a nurse to another room.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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