With the monsoon ahead and the Japanese in pursuit behind, Lt. General Joe Stilwell trekked 140 miles through steamy jungles and over 7,500-foot mountain ridges to escape an overrun Burma during World War 2.
His party of 117 carried money and Tommy guns, but their secret weapon was the singing voices of Than Shwe and 18 other Burmese nurses. Despite battling tuberculosis, Than Shwe, a devout Christian, led the hardy ladies in “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to boost morale in the flagging marchers.
“All the way on the retreat we were singing. ‘Sing, girls, sing,’ Uncle Joe would say,” said Than Shwe, as quoted in Stars and Stripes.
She was still teaching English in Lashio, Myanmar, at 89 years of age when she was interviewed two years ago. Although she shares the name with the ex-dictator of Myanmar (Burma’s new name), Than Shwe has nothing else in common with the repressive military general who handed leadership over only recently.
Than Shwe is remembered for being peppy and cracking jokes. She was hardworking lady who offered her services as a nurse during World War 2 despite fighting her own battles against TB.
Stilwell’s retreat on foot out of Burma in May 1942 is the stuff of legends among history buffs. The no-nonsense general who wore no military insignia to show solidarity with his troops was charged with the Allies’ China-Burma-India theater. He sent much of his staff out on planes but refused the luxury and security for himself. Instead, he led the on-foot retreat personally. “I prefer to walk,” he said.
When Stilwell – known to his soldiers as “Vinegar Joe” for his acid personality – found his forces disintegrating, he was obliged to retreat. On May 6 leaving Indaw, the group headed west into the impenetrable jungle, tramping a minimum 14 miles a day through mud and zig-zagging up and down switchbacks to India.
“The jungle was everywhere,” wrote Donovan Webster in The Burma Road. “Its vines grabbed their ankles as they walked. Its steamy heat sapped their strength. And every time they reached the summit of yet another six-thousand-foot mountain, they could only stare across the quilted green rain forest below and let their gazes lift slowly toward the horizon. Ahead of them, looming in the distance, they could finally see the next hogback ridge between them and safety. They would, of course, have to climb over that one, too.”
Stilwell was committed to assuring that every member of his party – Americans, English, Indians, Chinese and Burmese – escaped alive. Japanese troops, trying to cut off Chiang Kai-Sheck’s supply line through Burma, were chasing him from the South, the East and the Northeast.
“By the time we get out of here, many of you will hate my guts,” Stilwell said. “But I’ll tell you one thing: You’ll get out.”
The nurses looked frail, hardly apt for such a rigorous journey, and Stilwell urged anyone incapable of completing such an arduous journey to stay behind and seek refuge in town. But instead of slowing up the group, the gospel singing nurses turned out to the godsend, constantly injecting enthusiasm with their lively songs. Follow the rest of the march.