Lattatudes

Better Roads Staff | March 20, 2012

“Mud, rain and malaria be damned.”

We once built a road through Burma’s monsoons and mud, malarial mosquitoes, dense jungles and enemy fire, and some of the most hostile terrain road builders ever faced.

jlatta@rrpub.com

I found a reference to it recently and it made me stop. As we sit in stall mode, I worry sometimes that the public is losing touch with what American road engineers and road builders can do. The Ledo Road builders would tell us, “Hey, you want to know what we can do? Well, this is what we can do!”

The Ledo Road was built to supply China during World War Two. The Japanese invasion of Burma in the months after the December, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack had cut off U.S. allies India and China. American forces flew in supplies over the Himalayan Mountains from India, but also decided to build a road.

It began in Ledo, in eastern India. More than 15,000 Americans in uniform were assigned to build the 478-mile road, more than 60 percent of them African-Americans, with the help of 35,000 local people. More than 1,000 Americans died building that road.

Few, if any, major roads can have been harder to plan, design, engineer and build. There were no reliable records, maps, statistics, surveys or soil analysis. Aggregate was hard to come by and had to be hauled from riverbeds. Logs were cut and made into bridge or road surfaces. Massive amounts of earth had to be moved. Torrential monsoon downpours destroyed miles of work that had to be redone. Bulldozers cleared lakes of deep sloppy road mud by dragging logs across it. Ledo Road builders bridged 10 major rivers and crossed more than 150 streams. A two-mile wooden causeway traversed one major swamp. Malaria was everywhere.

Four-inch pipelines were built as the road progressed, fueling and lubricating the equipment which came from America by sea and unreliable rail. Bulldozers carried welded-on armor plating and a shotgun guard, so close was fighting. The first hundred miles ran through Hell Pass. Steep, high and narrow, the pass road also often fell away into sheer drops into the rainforest on either side. Series of back and forth hairpins were built to carry steep grades, and to run across mountain ridges.

The road finally linked up to the old Burma Road into China after being built at a mile a day.

General Lewis A. Pick, the Virginian in command, called it the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army engineers in wartime. “This road is going to be built,” he said, “mud, rain and malaria be damned.”

This is what we can do.

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