China-Burma-India Theater Artwork

The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of World War II offered a new set of challenges for U.S. forces.  Often referred to as the “Forgotten Theater,” the CBI had a unique feel due to the various national interests involved as well as the difficult terrain of the region.  With Japan steamrolling through much of Southeast Asia in the early 1940s, British, Chinese and American troops undertook the task of halting Japanese expansion in the area.  In March 1942, Japan invaded Burma and captured its capital, Rangoon.  This victory effectively cut off any land routes to China.  Lieutenant General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell took command of Chinese troops and, with British cooperation and American air and ground units, hoped to drive back the Japanese and reestablish an overland link to China.  The United States believed its assistance to China would enable Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese to regain their strength and overcome the Japanese pressure.  Unfortunately, China’s forces lacked the organization and training to spearhead the operations.  Furthermore, in addition to defeating the Japanese, the British were also concerned with the threat to their national interests in India.

The terrain of the CBI Theater was no less challenging than the politics.  The region had few modern roads or railways.  The majority of operations took place in Northern and Central Burma, where the landscape was dominated by densely wooded mountains, scattered streams, and other obstacles.  Monsoon season, which began after April, was characterized by constant rain for two or three months.  The heavy rain turned the few available roads into quagmires and led to conditions that allowed diseases such as malaria and dysentery to thrive.

Nevertheless, faced with such hardships, American and Allied forces remained indefatigable.  American engineers conquered the difficult terrain to complete the Stilwell Road, which was connected to the Burma Road to reestablish contact with China.  Other units, such as Merrill’s Marauders (later known as the 475th Infantry Regiment), successfully engaged Japanese forces on many occasions, often while outnumbered and behind enemy lines.  Today, the 75th Ranger Regiment traces its lineage to Merrill’s Marauders.

Beggars surround two American soldiers on the streets of an unnamed Indian city in John G. Hanlen’s undated watercolor on paper, India. (Army Art Collection)
An ambulance struggles in the muddy jungle terrain of Burma in Howard Baer’s 1945 oil on canvas, Burma Mud. (Army Art Collection)
In Howard Baer’s 1944 oil on canvas, Moon over Burma, doctors work on two wounded soldiers in a field hospital somewhere in Burma. (Army Art Collection)
A Jeep passes a Chinese sentry as it enters an American camp in John G. Hanlen’s 1944 ink/wash on paper, Little Fort Benning, China. (Army Art Collection)