Officially established March 3, 1942, the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations (CBI) is often referred to as the Forgotten Theater of World War II. Of the 12,300,000 Americans under arms at the height of World War II mobilization, only about 250,000 (2%) were assigned to the CBI Theater. Relatively few Americans were in combat in the theater. Except for a few stories, CBI did not often make headlines in the newspapers back home. The 12,000 mile supply line (longest of the war) was often last in line for supplies from the United States.
Not forgotten to Allied war planners, CBI was important to the overall war strategy. Occupation of Burma in 1942 by Japanese forces cut the last supply line of communication between China and the outside world. A military airlift was begun as it was important to keep China supplied and in the war. It was generally agreed at the time that this would not be enough and a land supply route would be needed. A road from Ledo, Assam, India was begun in late 1942. Ledo was chosen because it was close to the northern terminus of a rail line from the ports of Calcutta and Karachi. Construction of the Ledo Road was completed in early 1945.
Allied forces, mostly British, Chinese, and Indian, engaged large numbers of Japanese troops that might have otherwise been used elsewhere. America's role in CBI was to support China by providing war materials and the manpower to get it to where it was needed. The Flying Tigers fought the Japanese in the air over China and Burma. Army Air Forces flew supplies Over The Hump from India to China. Merrill's Marauders and the Mars Task Force fought through the jungles of Burma. Army Engineers built the Ledo Road to open up the land supply route.
The U.S. forces in the CBI Theater were grouped together for administrative purposes under the command of General Joseph W. Stilwell, but unlike the other theaters in the war, for example the European Theater of Operations, it was never a "theater of operations" and did not have an overall operational command. Initally the forces were split between those who came under the operational command of the British India Command under General Sir Archibald Wavell the Commander-in-Chief in India and those in China, which (technically at least) were commanded by Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, as the Supreme Allied Commander in China. However, Stilwell often broke the chain of command and communicated directly with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on operational matters. This continued after the formation of the South East Asia Command (SEAC) and the appointment of Admiral Lord Mountbatten as the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia in October 1943.
When the joint allied command was agreed upon, it was decided that the senior position should be held by a member of the British military because the British dominated Allied operations on the South-East Asia Theater by weight of numbers (in much the same way as the U.S. did in the Pacific Theater of Operations).
Stilwell, who also had operational command of the Northern Combat Area Command (NCAC), a U.S.-Chinese formation, was supposed to report to General George Giffard — commander of Eleventh Army Group — so that NCAC and the British Fourteenth Army, under the command of General William Slim, could be co-ordinated. This is something Stilwell refused to do.
Stilwell was able to do this because of his multiple positions within complex command structures, especially his simultaneous positions of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia, and Chief of Staff to Chiang. As SEAC's deputy leader, he was Giffard's superior, but as operational commander of NCAC, Giffard was Stilwell's superior. As the two men did not get on, this inevitably lead to conflict and confusion.
It was not until late 1944, after Stilwell was recalled to Washington, that the chain of command was clarified. His overall role, and the CBI command was then split among three people: Lt Gen. Raymond A. Wheeler became Deputy Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia; Major-General Albert C. Wedemeyer became Chief of Staff to Chiang, and commander of U.S. Forces, China Theater of Operations (CTO). Lt Gen. Daniel I. Sultan was promoted from deputy commander of CBI to commander of U.S. Forces, India-Burma Theater (IBT) and commander of the NCAC. The 11th Army Group was redesignated Allied Land Forces South East Asia (ALFSEA), and NCAC was decisively placed under this formation. However, by the time the last phase of the Burma Campaign began in earnest, NCAC had become irrelevant, and it was dissolved in early 1945.NEXT: Stilwell Road