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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.