The enigma that was ‘Vine­gar Joe’

Joseph War­ren Stil­well was the per­fect can­di­date to over­see US op­er­a­tions against the Ja­panese in the China-Burma-In­dia Theater dur­ing World War II. Although a con­tro­ver­sial fig­ure in his home­land, the late gen­eral is revered in the coun­tries he helped to

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He was a four-star gen­eral who shunned pom­pos­ity. An army com­man­der who at times fa­mously dis­agreed with his su­pe­ri­ors and in­flu­en­tial sub­or­di­nates. A man at once crit­i­cized and revered.

Nearly 70 years af­ter his death, Gen­eral Joseph War­ren Stil­well, com­man­der of US Forces in the Chi­naBurma-In­dia Theater, or CBI, dur­ing World War II, re­mains an enigma.

Was he the acid-tongued “Vine­gar Joe” of his de­trac­tors, or the easy­go­ing, car­ing “Un­cle Joe” who won the re­spect of his men and many oth­ers?

What­ever the truth, in China Stil­well re­mains a pow­er­ful sym­bol of US sup­port for the coun­try’s wartime strug­gle against Ja­pan.

“With Gen­eral Stil­well, no one should draw easy con­clu­sions,” said his grand­son, John Easter­brook, who vis­ited Bei­jing in Au­gust to at­tend the open­ing of a photo ex­hi­bi­tion called Na­tional Mem­o­ries – China-US Col­lab­o­ra­tion dur­ing World War II.

“In a let­ter my fa­ther wrote, dated Septem­ber 14, 1960, he cau­tioned the re­cip­i­ent to be care­ful with the di­aries,” he said, re­fer­ring to a col­lec­tion known as The Stil­well Di­aries, held at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion Ar­chives at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity.

In 1944 and 1945, Ernest Easter­brook, Stil­well’s son-in-law and the fa­ther of John, was on the gen­eral’s CBI staff and han­dled his mes­sages and spe­cial projects. The el­der Easter­brook, who died in 1989, was struck by the sharp con­trast be­tween what he saw and heard about his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer and what he later read in Stil­well’s di­aries.

“I know of in­ci­dents where Gen­eral Stil­well had oc­ca­sion to ad­mon­ish some­one for dere­lic­tion or in­dif­fer­ence to duty. Gen­eral Stil­well would speak in firm, concise terms but was most care­ful not to use abu­sive lan­guage,” he later wrote in a let­ter. “At a later date, Gen­eral Stil­well might re­fer to an oc­ca­sion where he had ‘re­ally bawled out that so-and-so’.” A tough as­sign­ment

The “dif­fer­ence be­tween this out­ward ex­pres­sion and the notes which he kept in his own hand”, as the el­der Easter­brook called it, may al­ways be open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion. How­ever, when Stil­well ac­cepted the job of lead­ing the US Army in the CBI in early 1942, Henry Stim­son, the US sec­re­tary of war be­tween 1940 and 1945, ac­cepted that he had been given “one of the most dif­fi­cult” as­sign­ments of any theater com­man­der.

John Easter­brook be­lieves that his grand­fa­ther would have ac­cepted the sit­u­a­tion with­out com­plaint: “Com­pared with the ‘ main’ bat­tle­grounds in Europe and Africa, the CBI theater was se­verely lack­ing in re­sources, both men and equip­ment, but my grand­fa­ther be­lieved a sol­dier’s duty was to ac­cept as­sign­ments for the good of his coun­try.”

Stil­well ar­rived in Burma, now Myan­mar, shortly be­fore the coun­try fell to the Ja­panese. The Al­lied de­feat re­sulted in the clo­sure of the “Burma Road”, which sev­ered China’s sup­ply routes on land and sea, and forced Stil­well to lead a party of more than 100 through the jun­gle on foot to As­sam in In­dia, march­ing at what be­came known as the “Stil­well Stride”, 105 paces per minute.

Call­ing the retreat “hu­mil­i­at­ing as hell”, Stil­well, who was also chief of staff to Chi­ang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist Army, later led the 1944 cam­paign in the north of the coun­try that laid the foun­da­tion for the Ja­panese de­feat in China.

For John Easter­brook, that hard­won suc­cess can be traced in part to Stil­well’s long as­so­ci­a­tion with China and her peo­ple.

“Be­fore his CBI mission, my grand­fa­ther had been to China three times. His first stay was be­tween 1920 and 1923, and he was the US Army’s first Chi­nese-lan­guage stu­dent,” the 74-year-old said, re­fer­ring to Stil­well’s flu­ency in spo­ken and writ­ten Chi­nese

Dur­ing his first visit, Stil­well used the en­gi­neer­ing skills he’d ac­quired at West Point Mil­i­tary Academy to work as chief en­gi­neer on the con­struc­tion of a famine-re­lief road in Shanxi Prov­ince. “Work­ing and living with laobaix­ing (“the old 100 names” or “or­di­nary peo­ple”) on the road gave him pro­found knowl­edge of the Chi­nese peo­ple,” said John Easter­brook, who added that his grand­fa­ther re­turned to China in 1926, stay­ing three years, and then lived in the coun­try again from 1935 to 1939.

In July 1937, fight­ing broke out be­tween the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist Army, sta­tioned at the Marco Polo Bridge (aka Lu­gou Bridge) in the south­west­ern sub­urbs of Bei­jing, and the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army. “The Lu­gou In­ci­dent”, as it be­came known, marked the start of China’s eight-year war against the Ja­panese.

“At that point, the United States was still neu­tral. As a mil­i­tary at­taché in the US del­e­ga­tion to Bei­jing, it was my grand­fa­ther’s job to gather in­tel­li­gence. So he was out ob­serv­ing both forces — not easy, as he was guarded by both,” said John Easter­brook, who be­lieves Stil­well’s faith in the Chi­nese sol­diers, rather than his fa­mil­iar­ity with “Ja­panese weak­nesses” — con­vinced him that his forces would pre­vail in the CBI.

In a speech de­liv­ered in 1942 on the fifth an­niver­sary of the Lu­gou In­ci­dent, Stil­well said: “To me, the Chi­nese sol­dier best ex­em­pli­fies the great­ness of the Chi­nese peo­ple – their in­domitable spirit, their un­com­plain­ing the Ja­panese sur­ren­der in Au­gust, it’s true that it never re­ally de­liv­ered the ton­nage of sup­plies en­vis­aged. But in the process of forc­ing this route through north­ern Burma, Stil­well had helped to train and equip 30 Chi­nese di­vi­sions, many of which later fought the Ja­panese else­where in China,” Ge said. “Stil­well was al­ways an ac­tive pro­po­nent of the im­prove­ment of the Chi­nese army.”

How­ever, by the time the Ledo Road — later re­named Stil­well Road by Chi­ang Kai-shek — was opened, the gen­eral had al­ready been re­called to the US by Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt.

“When he ar­rived in the States, Stil­well was met by two army gen­er­als who told him not to talk to re­porters,” said John Easter­brook, re­fer­ring to his grand­fa­ther’s crit­i­cism of the cor­rup­tion and ex­ploita­tion he had wit­nessed in the Chi­nese Na­tion­al­ist Party. Many ob­servers be­lieve that the grow­ing an­tag­o­nism be­tween Stil­well and Chi­ang was partly re­spon­si­ble for the US gen­eral’s re­call. A con­tin­u­ing le­gacy

Even so long af­ter Stil­well’s death, John Easter­brook said his grand­fa­ther’s le­gacy is still pal­pa­ble in the fam­ily.

“I still have some pieces of Chi­nese fur­ni­ture and porce­lain that he brought back to the States in the 1920s and 30s,” he said. “There’s also a Ja­panese ma­chine gun from World War II. It turns out that he and his fa­ther-in-law in­vented the mech­a­nism for the gun and patented it in the US, be­fore it was stolen by the Ja­panese.”

In 1980, dur­ing one of his many trips to China, John Easter­brook met a man who had been Stil­well’s es­cort in the late 1930s. “He told me they were driv­ing in a car when a Ja­panese war­plane sud­denly ap­peared,” he said. “There was a house nearby and the es­cort told the gen­eral, ‘Let’s get into the house, but my grand­fa­ther sim­ply replied, ‘Get out of the car and get into the ditch!’ So they jumped into a nearby ditch. The Ja­panese plane flew over them, dropped a bomb, and de­mol­ished the house.”

Bernard Martin, a 93-year-old US vet­eran of the battle for My­itky­ina who at­tended the photo ex­hi­bi­tion in Bei­jing, said: “Gen­eral Stil­well was a very hard com­man­der, but it took a leader like him to push us hard to get the job done. He took a lick­ing when he first went into the jun­gle and lost 90 per­cent of his men. He told what was left of the troops that it wouldn’t hap­pen again, and he kept his prom­ise. Yes­ter­day, we all hated him, but to­day I re­vere the man.”

Ge, the his­to­rian, be­lieves that feel­ing is typ­i­cal of peo­ple who knew Stil­well. “The Chi­nese vet­er­ans that fought un­der Stil­well and spoke to me over the years in­vari­ably re­mem­bered him wear­ing bat­tered army fa­tigues and car­ry­ing a car­bine. He was one of them,” he said. “For me, the ‘tragedy’ of Stil­well, who was forced to leave the CBI on the cusp of the Al­lied victory, lies in his be­ing a sol­dier and a gen­eral, in­stead of a politi­cian.”

In one of the pho­to­graphs at the ex­hi­bi­tion, Stil­well is shown eat­ing break­fast from a crude ta­ble in the open air in north­ern Burma. Wear­ing gaiters and with­out dec­o­ra­tions or in­signia on his uni­form, noth­ing about the man sug­gests glory.

Yet, if not be­ing al­lowed to con­tinue with his im­prove­ments and wit­ness the de­feat of Ja­pan first-hand came as a dis­ap­point­ment, Stil­well had good rea­son to feel con­tent. Dur­ing an in­ter­view in June 1944 he told a jour­nal­ist, “If I can prove that the Chi­nese sol­dier is as good as any Al­lied solider, I’ll die happy,” ac­cord­ing to John Easter­brook.

Be­fore he left China for the last time, Stil­well wrote a let­ter to his sub­or­di­nate Pan Yukun, com­man­der of the 50th Di­vi­sion of the Chi­nese Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces, in which he stated: “I hope you will for­get any mis­un­der­stand­ings and clashes of opin­ion we may have had, and think of me as your friend, and a friend of China.” Con­tact the writer at zhaoxu@chi­

Yang Wanli con­trib­uted to this story.


Gen­eral "Vine­gar Joe" Stil­well speaks with wounded Chi­nese vet­er­ans at a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion camp be­fore their re­turn to civil­ian life in July 1944.


Gen­eral Stil­well poses with a Chi­nese sol­dier in the China-Burma-In­dia Theater dur­ing World War II.

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