The Lend-Lease Program in Eastern India (WW-II)
“There is no civilian counterpart for the world’s longest pipeline to China. It is truly an outstanding engineering achievement of this war. It has not only contributed largely to the successful conclusion of the North Burma Campaign and the building of the Ledo Road, but has been of inestimable value to the fighting forces in China. Every man who has participated in the building of this petroleum lifeline, no matter his branch of service, can be justly proud of the accomplished work.”
– LT. GEN. DANIEL I. SULTAN, USA, Commanding General, USF IBT (1945)
India’s role in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater during World War II is relatively unknown. The China-Burma-India theater was officially established on 22 June 1942 by the US and the Allied forces to assist Chiang Kai-Shek’s government and prevent Japan’s advance into Burma and India. 250,000 American personnel were assigned there. They were in turn assisted by thousands of Indians (mostly semi-skilled and unskilled labor). Although there were some combat troops and pilots who fought the Japanese in the CBI theater, most of the big accomplishments there were logistical – flying over the Himalayas to deliver supplies to China, building the 1000 mile long Ledo road and laying down a 2000 mile long pipeline between India and China. The fuel pipeline from India to China, one that became the longest military pipeline in the world, was built only because Indian and Chinese laborers contributed a total of 1,000,000 man-days to its construction. While the pipeline lay along the surface of the road in most parts, it had to be buried in some places, submerged in rivers in others and suspended from cables over steep gorges in other places. In China, the line reached an elevation of 9,200 feet in some areas. Indian Pioneer troops worked with American soldiers and engineers to lay down the pipes. It was the Indian soldiers who carried the pipe and supplies into the jungle and without the help of whom, the cost in terms of health to the Americans would have been enormous.
When Japan conquered Burma in May 1942, it became necessary to airlift supplies to China. However, it was decided to also build a new road to China — the Ledo Road. Construction of the Ledo Road began in December 1942 and continued till January 1945 with a total of 63,000 workers and a cost of $150 million. In addition to American, and British personnel, there were 35,000 Indian, Burmese, and Chinese workers who contributed as labor.
Most of the supplies that were delivered to China were sent by America under the Lend-Lease Act of 1941. The Lend-Lease Act authorized President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) to “sell, transfer title to or otherwise dispose of” military supplies, arms and ammunition to any foreign country whose defense the president considered vital to America’s national security. In total, the US contributed nearly 50 billion dollars’ worth of munitions (the equivalent of $760 billion today) during the war. Britain received the lion’s share of this amount toward its war efforts around the globe: $30 billion. Britain repaid the U.S. for lend-lease assistance by offering cashless assistance – mainly raw materials from its colonies and transportation services. Many of the raw materials, such as mica, tea, jute and rubber, used as repayment, were extracted or sourced in India. Since the government in India was in fact British, Indians (or independent India) were never compensated for these materials. The British also offered Calcutta and Assam as the bases for American and Allied operations against Japan. Indian labor built these airbases for Allied forces.
It was Indian soldiers who played a crucial role in the Battle of Imphal-Kohima, between the British Indian Army and the Japanese. This battle, sometimes referred to as the greatest British battle of WW II, was where British and Indian Armies were able to defeat the Japanese, who upon taking over Burma in 1942 were attempting to gain a foothold in India. The British armies of about 120,000 personnel that fought these battles were largely composed of Indians and Gurkhas. The British Indian army came from all parts of the country, including Garhwal, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Punjab and Assam. Out of a total of 49 infantry battalions, 16 were composed of Gurkhas. In each brigade there was generally one British, one Gurkha, and one Indian battalion. Each division was supported by two field artillery regiments (usually British) and one Indian mountain artillery regiment. The Battles of Imphal and Kohima determined Japanese presence on the Indian subcontinent because it was here that they were pushed back by the British Indian army, thus preventing them from advancing toward Delhi. Japan’s defeat at Imphal and Kohima also signaled the start of the Allied reconquest of Burma.