Nickii Wantakan Arcado
As February celebrates Black History Month, this article was written to honor and recognize the contributions, efforts, and sacrifices made by African Americans during WWII. Though serving under a country that treated them as second class citizens, African Americans continued to enlist in the U.S. military to serve their nation. This is their story.
The Ledo Road was a passageway located in Ledo, India that connected the countries of India, China, and Burma. The road was to serve as an alternative to the Burma Road that was cut off by the Japanese a few months prior. This new road would enable the Allied forces to deliver necessary wartime supplies to China and aid them in their fight against the Japanese.
Construction began in 1942 with 15,000 American troop members, 60% being African American. Along with the Black troop members, another 35,000 soldiers consisting of Indian, Chinese, and Burmese nationals, assisted in the construction of the road. The goal was to have the road begin in Ledo, India, cross over the Patkai Mountains (where passes were as high as 4,500 feet) and end at Kunming, China. By 1944, the road stretched 1,726 kilometers (1,072 miles), with 1,033 kilometers (642 mi) in Burma, 632 kilometers (393 mi) in China, and the remainder in India.
African Americans chose to travel to various areas in Asia to serve their country and fight for its freedom, despite not being offered the same freedom and rights at home. One of these locations included Ledo, India where the Ledo Road connecting India, Burma, and China was to be built. While traveling to Asia, African Americans were subjected to harsh, racial travel discrimination. Not only were Black soldiers forced to sleep in windowless, foul-smelling, lower levels of transport ships, but their meals consisted of leftover beans and cold pork. Other meals were also given to African Americans in smaller portions than their white counterpart who were served large, healthy portions of bacon and eggs. Instead of using retained fresh water, African American troops were also forced to shower with sea water as well as constrict themselves to narrow, uncomfortable places on the ship for longing.
On top of their discriminating travel experiences, African Americans were also exposed and met with unfavorable work conditions. Five months of the year were marked as monsoon season, and an average of 140 inches rain feel during construction each year until the road’s completion. The tools given to Black soldiers were also second-hand shovels, pickaxes, and bulldozers that were in need of repairs. This proved extremely difficult in terrain that consisted of jungles, mud rivers, swamps, and mountains. Soldiers were required to cut through roots, trees, and branches infested with mites and ticks, while also navigating around leeches and mosquitoes that spread malaria and other deadly diseases. On top of working 7 days a week, Black soldiers were also worked in humid temperatures that would reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Over 1,500 soldiers died during the construction of the road, with a majority from disease, infections, or equipment landslides.
African Americans nurses and doctors who served in areas surrounding the Ledo Road, a majority who were women, should also be recognized. Black soldiers did not have access to health care or emergency services until the last few years towards the end of the war, where an all-black unit of nurse barricades was set up to treat injured servicemen. Like the men, female nurses and doctors also served round the clock 7 days a week and also treated Indian and Chinese patients. When asked to segregate the hospitals and reserved bed for white soldiers, Dr. Wilbur Strickland, the commanding officer of the nursing unit, refused, citing that all soldiers equally shared pain, suffering, and hope throughout their time engineering a difficult military route, and thus, all deserve equal care and medical attention regardless of skin color or ethnicity.
Other African-American combat units that fought and served in the Pacific Theatre included the 93rd Infantry Division, the 24th Infantry Regiment (both colored segregated unit of the United States Army), ten anti-aircraft battalions, and one coast artillery battalion. The only African American to be awarded the Medal of Freedom in the Pacific Theatre was Private George Watson who served in the U.S. Army. While his ship, the SS Jacob was hit by Japanese bombers and abandoned, Watson remained in the water to assist his fellow soldiers into life rafts. Weakened by his efforts, he was dragged down by the sea and drowned. His body was never recovered and his medal was presented after his death.
After the completion of the Ledo Road, African Americans who returned home failed to receive recognition for their work, either in their labor for the Ledo Road or their efforts in Asia in general. In fact, when the road was completed in 1945, it was renamed “Stillwell Road” after Commander of the China-Burma-India Theater, Army Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell—with no description or written records on the Black individuals or company that ensured the successful construction of the road. It was not until 2004 that African American soldiers who built the Ledo Road were honored. During African American History Month observance at Florida A&M University, representatives of the U.S. Department of Defense publicly recognized African American survivors and their work in both India and Burma. By then, the American Forces Press Services reported, most of the veterans were dead and only 6 attended the ceremony in Tallahassee.
Black servicemen and women history continue to be placed on the backburner of American history. While the Ledo Road in one of many countless anecdotes of African American contributions during World War II, we hope that this story shines a light on our brothers and sisters of color who have risked their lives for the betterment of our country. We will forever remember their story. Happy Black History Month!