Supply operations in the China, Burma, India (CBI) theater during WWII.
Trucks loaded with
supplies roar through the nigh into Burma, twisting their way through the Naga
Hills, fighting forward through mud and fog on the Ledo Road. Hundreds of them
go every night carrying food, clothing, and fuel to the troops who are ahead
fighting the Japs, or smashing at the reluctant jungle with their bulldozers as
the road makes its way wards an eventual meeting with the old Burma Road and the
opening of a new supply route into China. The supplies are in the trucks now, on
their way to the men at the front. It seems simple enough. You must dump them on
the truck and send them forward. But it's not that easy. Behind every pound of
supplies in those trucks is a story of hard work and worries, of missing
shipments, of broken cases and rusting cans. It is a story of the Quartermaster
Corps operating under adverse conditions in one of the worst areas in the world,
as far from the original source of supply in the United States as it is possible
Scattered over a
vast area that comprises the main base of supplies for the Ledo Road are scores
of warehouses. Some of them are bashas, crude bamboo structures which are the standard building in Assam.
Others are the ground floors of tea-drying warehouses, protected from the
elements by bamboo basha-type walls. (The upper stories are still
used for drying
hold supplies for one of the largest U. S. Army bases in the Far East. Base
Quartermaster is Lt. Col. Herman W. Fairbrother of Vestal, N.Y.
To him falls the responsibility of coordinating and getting into smooth
running order the supply set-up or the tremendous operation of building the Ledo
Road, and for the Chinese Army which is out ahead of road builders. Tremendous
modern depots like those at Atlanta or Philadelphia become dreams of the past.
Demands for more floor space become requisitions for additional bashas, difficult
to obtain because of a critical labor shortage. Coolie labor is substituted for
modern unloading and loading equipment. American enlisted men are spread
thinly throughout the warehouse area in sufficient number to take care of essential tasks. There are not enough to perform many of the little extra things
that help iron out the difficulties encountered in the operation of a large
Supplies for the
Quartermasters along the Ledo Road arrive on a metre gauge railway which
served only the needs of the tea planters in Assam. Cars are small-for the most
part less than one-third the size of American freight cars-and they are packed
to overflowing with food, clothing, and other items of equipment necessary for
Problem No. 1 for
Colonel Fairbrother is getting food to the troops who are up forward. Canned
goods from the United States or goods received from the British on reverse
lend-lease often arrive loose, their cases smashed by the rough handling to
which they have been subjected during the long trip overseas and on the journey
from the ports of India up to Assam. Judian coolies loading the cars and
shifting the supplies from one type of railroad to another work hard at these
tasks, but their methods subject the cases to severe pounding, which often
results in breakage. A coolie can carry heavy loads on his head, but they have
to be placed there by two or three other men. Often there is nobody to help the
coolie take a load down off his head, and he has to let it fall to the ground.
Wooden packing cases cannot take much of this sort of beating.
Cases that arrive
broken, or supplies that are thrown uncased onto railway wagons (the term the
British use for railway cars), cause much extra work. All loose cans, or cans in
broken cases, have to be counted and then repacked in burlap bags for storage
purposes. Though it wouldn't be a hardship in a small operation, repacking
supplies for a base like this becomes a full time occupation, requiring many
men. Long neat rows of cans tied in burlap testify to the time consumed in this
Some of the loose
cans rust in transit. Rusted cans must be issued immediately before the rust
eats its way through to the inside and the food starts to spoil. Sometimes it is
too late, and the food inside the cans is already spoiled when it arrives.
Supply of food to
the Chinese Army creates a double problem, for Chinese soldiers need a ration
very different from ours. Warehouse after warehouse is crammed with rice and
other Chinese staples. Having to use two ration standards with two entirely
different types of food naturally complicates the distribution of food supplies.
For the most part the Chinese supply is kept separate from the American.
Food for men who
are in outfits near the base is broken down at a Distributing Point in the base.
Breakdown is made at night, and everything is ready for the mess sergeants when
they come in the morning to pick up their rations. Midnight finds the DP empty
except for a few Indian chowkiders (guards) who jealously watch over the
neat stacks of food and threaten all who approach with their business-like
Soon after daylight
the trucks start to pour into the DP. Rations are quickly counted by the mess
sergeants, and the line of waiting trucks diminishes rapidly. By ten o'clock the
supplies for the day have been picked up by the various organizations for which
they were intended.
Rations for the
troops in the forward areas are picked up in bulk at the base warehouses during
the night. The trucks then carry the ration in this form to a DP located farther
up along the road, where the necessary breakdown takes place. By 5 :30 A.M.
(0530 hours) the breakdown is
completed, the supplies are loaded, and the convoys are once again on their way
through the mud, heading for the hills. Rations for troops at intermediate
points are loaded on trailers which are dropped off at a midway warehouse, where
the final breakdown for the units in that area is consummated. The trucks
continue on to the most advanced DP, where their supplies are unloaded and
separation is made for distribution to the vanguard units.
In addition to food
for the Chinese and American soldiers, the Quartermaster must concern himself
with food for the Indian laborers along the road-the Nagas, the Caros, and
countless other types of natives. Thus a third kind of ration must be issued.
The food for these
Indian laborers is stored in a separate warehouse in the base.
Animals. too, must
be fed. Near the railhead there is a tremendous outdoor feed depot to which the
Chinese come every night to pick up hay and grain for their horses. Supplies
are brought into this depot from the railroad during the day and issued out to
troops at night.
There are no set
hours when the trucks will arrive for their supplies. The condition of the road
determines when they will come. Often a truck slides off
the road into a ditch and the
men in the warehouse wait until daylight for another truck to be sent, for a
wrecker to come and pull the ditched truck out of the mud.
Fresh foods are
issued to the troops whenever it is possible, but the amount is limited because
of the lack of natural sources of supply in the area, and by lack of
refrigeration facilities for the preservation of perishable foods. Beef is
scarce. A small abattoir slaughters all the cattle that are available, but the
number heads is small, and the meat must be eaten soon after slaughtering
because it spoils rapidly in the Assam climate.
plant has been set up and thousands of eggs go forward every day. Breakage of is
high. There is no way to cushion them against jolts that are a part of every
drive up through Naga Hills and on into Burma.
Ice is as unknown
in Assam as rain is to the California Chamber of Commerce. Recently a small ice
plant was set up and the
refrigeration provided be this small quantity of ice has proved a boon to
gigantic hospital installations in the base. But there is none left over for
storing perishable foods. These still must be consumed quickly before the
ravages of the weather start to
take their toll.
The supply of all
other types of Quartermaster equipment to the troops parallels the supply of
food. Shoes wear out quickly in the jungle; clothing remains damp and becomes
mildewed; the sun is seldom out,
and bedding and other supplies cannot dried.
A salvage shop has
been set up on the fringe of jungle. Here native laborers, under the supervision
of an American officer, repair shoes, clothing, jeep tops and countless other
articles of equipment. Not goes to waste if it is possible to salvage it. The
supply lines are too long and difficult, and the time involved, in shipping is
too great to justify dependence upon seasonable replacement of worn-out
equipment. Anything that can go back into service in any form does just that. A
long line of Indian tailors work under Private Anton Joseph, former New York
clothing man. Fatigue clothes are the daily uniform of the troops along the
road, and most of the tailors are constantly working on these, getting them
ready for reissue after they have been turned in as unserviceable.
The Depot Officer,
Captain Harry Swartz of Detroit, Michigan, or one of his assistants, is on the
night and day, checking the warehouses, making sure that requisitions are being
filled and that there are enough men on hand to get the supplies out. If a rush
order for clothing or equipment for a new Chinese unit comes in at night, it
must be filled. Combat troops cannot fight without their equipment.
problem to lick in Assam is the problem of warehouse space. Bashas can
only be built at a certain rate of speed, and often supplies on hand outgrow
existing warehouse facilities. Huge piles of stores must often remain in the
open for days, cover only with tarpaulins, which afford scant protection against
the monsoon rains that pour down steadily throughout more than six months of the
year. Furthermore, supplies left in the open are more subject to pilferage than
those in a locked warehouse.
It's no easy problem getting those supplies up to the troops in Burma. But the Quartermasters along the, Ledo Road are getting the supplies there despite all difficulties. They may not arrive as neatly stacked or as dry as they would be under ideal conditions, but the troops are being fed and clothed-which is the primary task-and this fact makes the operation a success.
Return to: Quartermaster Corps in World War II
since 24 March 2001