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China-Burma-India Theater [CBI]

The outbreak of war in July 1937 tremendously boosted the national unity of China that had been greatly divided between the Nationalist Central Government (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This national spirit of unity was most pronounced in the sudden surge in the central theme of "Resisting Japan." However, this unity was also misleading. Under the facade of national united front against Japan, the Nationalist Central Government lost control over a significant part of the country, because now its rival, the CCP, had a legitimate reason to expand its control.

The Flying Tigers were officially called the American Volunteer Group, and were known for their planes with iconic shark faces on them. They were led by Lieutenant General Claire Lee Chennault. They were equipped and recruited in the spring and summer of 1941, with the express purposed of aiding the Chinese in theater against the Japanese. The AVG's success in Burma and China led to its integration into the U.S. Army Air Forces on 06 July 1942 as the China Air Task Force.

After Pearl Harbor, the eyes of the Americans turned to China, to which they attached disproportionate value. According to Churchill, even the top leadership of the United States attributed to China almost the same fighting power as the British Empire, and the Chinese army was equated to the Russian army. President Roosevelt envisioned China as one of the postwar world's "Four Policemen" along with the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union.

The Americans insisted that the operations in Burma begin as soon as possible to re-open the way of supplying China by land, suggesting the creation in China of large air bases, based on which the American aircraft would gain air superiority over Japan and could carry out the bombing of Japan.

China-Burma-India Theater [CBI] was the most convoluted theater designation of World War II, without a clearly understood and multilaterally agreed to command structure, which created a mishmash of command strife and turf battles among the Americans, the British, and the Chinese military leaders. Contemporaries often referred to CBI as to mean “Constant Bickering Inside.”

The United States Army Forces in the China, Burma and India Theater were originally planned as a task force to support China. They were largely based on India; only a small fraction of their strength was in China itself. In China, the Generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, was Supreme Commander, China Theater. In India, Gen. Sir Archibald P. Wavell had a comparable role and title. The two portions of the U.S. forces—in India and China—were separated by Japanese-occupied Burma. The U.S. theater commander had two major roles, in that he was an American theater commander and also chief of the Generalissimo's Allied staff for China Theater. The command situation was thus most complex. More complications were provided by the differing views on strategy held by the United States, the Republic of China, and the British Commonwealth

One of the Army's most bitter battles in World War II was waged not between American GIs and the Axis Powers, but between two renowned American leaders: General Joseph W. (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell, chief of the American military mission in China, and General Claire L. (Old Leatherface) Chennault. The contest was over which policy the United States would pursue in the war's most frustrating arena, the China-Burma-India theater. The referee was the President of the United States. And each contestant had some important allies: in Stilwell's corner were General George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson; in Chennault's corner were presidential assistant Harry Hopkins, journalist Joseph Alsop (the President's cousin), the formidable Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and her husband, the Generalissimo [aka the Peanut].

The "Forgotten War" in the China-Burma-India Theater was so dubbed because it lacked the priority the Southwest and Central Pacific campaigns received in Washington. Yet this region was important because of its geographic location. The Indian border represents the farthest westward expansion of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere and the subcontinent, a British colony, contained needed resources for the Japanese military. China, for centuries, had been perpetually on the brink of war with Japan; north and central Burma is nestled between India and China.

Chiang's refusal to employ his best-equipped armies against the Japanese (using them instead to contain the Chinese Communist forces) and his reluctance to commit forces to offensive action were continuing sources offrustration for Roosevelt. Chiang's frequent demands for increased aid and his occasional paroxysms of indignation (because China was not being treated as a "worthy ally") placed pressures on the President's decision-making.

Stilwell's frustration with Chiang and the Chinese army in the first Burma campaign in the spring of 1942 convinced him that considerable reform and reorganization of the Chinese army were essential. General Chennault, commander of the 14th Air Force, enjoyed a close relationship with the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang and was an ardent supporter of vastly increased aid to the China theater.

Chennault's grandiose plan envisioned the defeat of the Japanese through an enlarged air effort against Japanese supply lines, shipping, and air forces. With supplies carried over the mountainous "Hump" from India to China scarce, Chennault's plan required a reallocation of aid from Stilwell's program of reforming the Chinese army to provide the equipment, planes, and fuel for Chennault's air arm. The Generalissimo strongly supported Chennault's plan - unlike Stilwell's plan, it would avoid reforming the Chinese army (which might threaten Chiang's hold on power), and it allowed Americans to do most of the fighting.

Stilwell and Marshall strongly opposed the Chennault plan, as they believed that as soon as the Japanese started incurring heavy losses from Chennault's air attacks, they would respond with a ground offensive against American air bases in eastern China. Such offensives could only be stopped by the strengthened and aggressive Chinese ground army advocated by Stillwell.

In April 1943 - just prior to the Churchill-Roosevelt conference in Washington on Allied strategy (Trident) - summoned Stilwell and Chennault to the White House - and sided with Chennault. Churchill opposed a major ground effort in Burma and preparations to open a second front in Europe precluded adequately supporting large-scale ground operations in the CBI theater at the same time being. Marshall continued to stress the need to open the Burma Road to increase the flow of materiel into China and to end the Hump route's drain on transport aircraft needed in Europe.

After the Cairo Conference in November-December 1943, the President started gradually to adopt Stilwell's approach. The successes of the Pacific island-hopping campaign vastly decreased the military importance of China for defeating Japan. The Chennault air offensive was falling far short of promised results, while Stilwell's ground campaign in Burma appeared to be achieving tactical success.

The Chennault air offensive was not only falling way short of its promised destruction of Japanese shipping and supply lines, but it had indeed provoked the massive Japanese offensive against American airbases that Marshall had predicted. Still retaining the initiative in China, Japanese forces launched the largest land offensive of the Pacific war, codenamed ICHIGO, in April 1944. ICHIGO dealt a staggering blow to the American military strategy for conducting joint and combined operations in the China Theater, already hampered by lack of resources and extraordinary difficulty in synchronizing strategy and operations among the Allies (United States, China, Great Britain and Soviet Union) or even betveen the U.S. Army, Army Air Force, and Navy.

The Chinese armies, which Chiang had claimed could protect the bases, seemed to disintegrate under Japanese pressure and were denied reinforcements and supplies by Chiang (who did not want to risk losing more). This Japanese offensive threatened the China-based B-29 bases which were then critical to the Very Long Range Bomber project against Japan.

By late 1944, the Allied position in China had been steadily deteriorating. In mid-September 1944 General Joseph W. Stilwell, commanding U.S. Army forces in China, Burma, and India, and Allied Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, reported to the Joint Chiefs that Japanese offensives in eastern and southeastern China were overrunning the last air bases from which the China-based U.S. Fourteenth Air Force could effectively support invasions of either Luzon or Formosa. Chiang's armies were unable to either hold or recapture the air bases. This news had an obvious impact upon the thinking of both the ground and the air planners in Washington. The Army Air Forces had intended to expand its airfields in eastern China as staging bases for B-29's flying against targets in Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and Formosa, and to base on these fields much of the tactical bombardment preceding the actual invasion of Japan.

The east China fields now appeared irretrievably lost, and the Allies could not afford to expend the manpower necessary to retake and hold them. The need for seizure and development of a port on the China coast was therefore deprived of much of its urgency since the Allies had needed such a port primarily to open a good supply route into China for the development of air bases. By the same token, one of the principal reasons for seizing Formosa - to secure a stepping-stone to the China coast - became much less compelling.

By the time ICHIGO reached its culminating point in January 1945, the damage to the Allied var effort in China was extensive and far-reaching. In the course of attempting to establish a secure overland line of communication to their forces in Indochina, the Japanese overran all of the American forward airfields in eastern China, virtually eliminating U.S. tactical land-based air support from China at a critical phase of initial U.S. operations in the Philippines and Western Pacific.

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Page last modified: 16-06-2019 18:59:38 ZULU