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Supplies for the Troops in Burma

The Quartermaster Review
May-June 1944

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 to get.

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 since Assam is one of the largest tea-producing areas in the world.)  In each of these warehouses Quartermasters work until the small hours of the morning getting out supplies for the American and Chineese troops who are up the road working and fighting.

These warehouses 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 depot.

Supplies for the Quartermasters along the Ledo Road arrive on a metre gauge railway which formerly 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 modern warfare.

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 repacking.

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 steel-tipped spears.

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.

An egg-candling 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.

The toughest 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.