"The Old Man With the Stick": General Lewis A. Pick
by DAVID L. COHN
BUILDING the Ledo Road was a project without parallel in military history. It is a broad, allweather, motor-freight highway running from Ledo, a tiny native bazaar in northeastern Assam, India, to a junction with the Burma Road 478 miles distant. The difficulties of building the road were prodigious; so too the cost in matériel, pain, and lives. Able engineers said it could not be done. It was an undertaking so desperate in its nature that it could be justified only by extreme military urgency. Yet General Joseph Stilwell staked his reputation, and the success of the Allied campaign in Burma, on the ability of Brigadier General Lewis A. Pick not only to build the road but to do it in record time.
The Army undertook what General Brehon B. Somervell has called “the toughest road construction job ever attempted” for the great purpose of re-establishing communications with China. In 1942 when Stilwell was driven out of Burma, he said we had “taken a hell of a beating.” Japan had conquered a country larger than Germany. She had captured not only Burmese oil and lead but the richest rice-producing area of the Orient. China was isolated from her allies except by air. Inside that country, “realists” were urging that she make a deal with Japan and withdraw from the war. To avoid this catastrophe, the Army had to open an overland supply route and for the first time link India and China by road. The highway could not be built, however, unless the enemy was driven from Burma — and this could not be done without a road to supply the troops. Hence its construction would involve not only a struggle with jungles, mountains, mud, rain, disease, and loneliness, but also with the enemy at the same time.
A short time ago I spent several days in Assam with General Pick, the engineering genius who brought about the construction miracle called the Ledo Road. Then I went by jeep the whole length of the Stilwell Road from Ledo to Kunming, China, more than one thousand miles. Along the way I talked with the men who built it. I saw the country they had conquered. I understood then something of the skill and courage they had employed, the pain and loneliness they had endured. And when my jeep reached Kunming, I felt a sense of exaltation in the accomplishments of my countrymen.
The first attempt to build the road failed. For more than a year, engineers had struggled with the road. They had pushed it forty-five miles through the Naga Hills. Then they had stalled. Many men had broken under the intolerable pressure of the task. Eighty per cent of the crews had contracted malaria. Little equipment and few competent workers were available. The project seemed hopeless when, on his first evening in Ledo, in October, 1943, Pick (then a colonel) called a staff meeting.
“I’ve heard the same story all the way from the States,” he said. “It’s always the same—the Ledo Road can’t be built. Too much mud, rain, and malaria. But it’s going to be built. Mud, rain, and malaria be damned.”
Pick moved his headquarters into the jungle, set a difficult schedule, weeded out incompetent officers, drove himself and his men around the clock. The road now began to move forward at a rapid rate. A month after his arrival, he sat down one day to talk with General Stilwell in his rain-soaked tent.
“Where are your detail maps?” asked Stilwell.
“I have none,” Pick replied.
“Where are your progress charts?”
“I have none.”
“Where is the point of the road now?”
Pick took a map and marked a point in the Patkai Mountains sector. “Here at the fifty-mile mark,” he said.
Stilwell then asked, “When can you build me a jeep trace to Shingbwiyang?” This, he said, would go for fifty miles through the worst section of the route.
“I can’t build you a jeep trace,” Pick answered, “ but I will build you a military highway to handle truck traffic.”
“When?” inquired Stilwell.
“When do you want it?”
“By January 1.”
“O.K.,” said Pick.
This conversation took place on November 3, 1943. By the morning of December 27 the lead bulldozer entered Shingbwiyang in the Hukawng valley of Burma. Pick had conquered the Patkais four days ahead of schedule, and a convoy of trucks carrying Chinese troops — the first Allied soldiers to enter northern Burma by motor vehicle — followed the bulldozers into the village.
WHEN Pick began building the road, he faced many obstacles. In its first hundred miles it would cross seven summits of the Patkai Mountains — foothills of the Himalayas — whose peaks in the immediate vicinity of the highway tower to 6000 feet. (At the Pangsau Pass one has the incomparable experience, on a clear day, of seeing at once India, China, Burma, Tibet.) During the stretch from Hell’s Gate to the Pass, the climb would be straight up, necessitating two hundred hairpin curves within a distance of seven miles. Here the soil is clay with a tricky shale foundation —the ideal combination for earth slides. The valleys are steep and narrow. The jungle is a matted black mass of trees and creepers. The few natural clearings are swamps overspread with tall elephant grass.
The road would cross ten principal rivers and 155 secondary streams; it required a bridge every three miles of its length. The great rivers of the region are unpredictable and treacherous, and have been hitherto unbridged. Among them is the Tawong, which during the monsoon carries three times as much water as the Missouri in flood. The rains last from May to September. Pick hurriedly threw a 1400-foot timber bridge across it. The river tore it to pieces, and on a dismal night of storm Pick sat in a hut near the stream and queried his staff on the possibility of rebuilding it at once. One by one the dispirited men said it could not be done. It was now after midnight. For a little while there was silence, unbroken except by rainfall on the roof of the hut. Then Pick spoke quietly. “Tomorrow we will build the bridge.” And it was built during the monsoon.
Bridges were one of Pick’s principal worries, for he lacked the essential data of the bridge builder — records of rainfall and river stages. There were none because no white men and few natives had ever lived in this unfriendly region. For centuries the peoples that grew up around it had left it alone, so that our engineers came into a country as remote, secret , and lethally beautiful as it had been throughout time. Yet there was the mighty Irrawaddy to cross. Fed by Himalayan snows and the rains, this river might rise ten to fifteen feet overnight; its fluctuations between low and high water were as much as forty-five feet.
First Pick flung across it one of the longest pontoon bridges men have ever built—1172 feet. But the swift, rising waters would often bend the bridge into a curve like the letter U, and Pick’s men would remove sections of the pontoons in order to prevent the structure from being crushed. Traffic stopped until the waters receded. Then, by combining the features of many kinds of bridges and inventing new ones which remain a secret, Pick succeeded in anchoring a huge permanent floating bridge across this violent river. During the monsoon all the rivers uproot trees so heavy they do not float, or float almost entirely submerged, and these trees become battering rams hurled by the powerful currents to take out bridge pilings and piers and sweep everything clean before them.
Pick could not always be sure of where he was going, since there were no maps of the route he would take; surveyors could not use their transits in the jungle; the presence of the enemy often made it impossible to send out survey parties; and consequently Pick, taking to the air, frequently located the route by aerial reconnaissance and his own engineering instinct. Nearly every yard of the road had to be built through matted jungle, and some of the work would go on for half the year in almost unceasing rain. Signal communications would have to be provided for a constantly lengthening supply line, hospitals and sanitary arrangements erected in the unending fight against disease, and recreational equipment procured for the men during their rare hours off duty.
Pick would be operating at the end of the world’s longest supply route and, since the China-India-Burma theater was not on the highest priority list, would have to use such equipment as he could get . For supervision and labor he would have 63,000 men. These would include 28,000 Americans, 30,000 Indians and Burmese, and 5000 Chinese.
The polyglot nature of this group created special problems. It is difficult enough to feed so many thousands of men under jungle conditions, but it is far more difficult when they will eat only those foods to which they are accustomed. Thus the Indians, because of their habits and religious customs, required four kinds of rations; other native laborers and the Chinese demanded their own types of food; the Americans wanted still another variety. Consequently Pick had to supply seven kinds of rations in the jungle, although he was more than a thousand miles away from his supply port of Calcutta and 12,000 miles distant from the United States, where most of his supplies originated. His labor force, moreover, spoke over a hundred dialects and no common language. But the road moved forward at the astounding rate of one mile a day.
Pick now spent four fifths of his time with his men in the jungle. The Old Man was with them on the job every day, sharing their hardships, going about with almost closed eyes and swollen face as the result of a jungle infection; and as they saw him their spirits rose and they worked with redoubled energy. He knew hundreds of his men by name, got good food for them, the best quarters that could be provided, and frequent movies. They affectionately called him “The Old Man with the Stick.” Many of the men carried a long rattan stick with a hooked end for catching onto branches and pulling themselves up slopes, but the Old Man’s stick was the longest of all and it became part of his personality as he tirelessly tapped and prodded up and down the hills and valleys of northern Burma.
LEWIS A. PICK, builder of the road that men said could not be built, was born at Brookneal, Virginia, in 1890. Like his great colleague, General George Marshall, who is a product of Virginia Military Institute, Pick is not a West Pointer, but a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute. A civil engineer, he entered the Army in May, 1917, served in the MeuseArgonne offensive, later attended the Army War College, and before being assigned to the China-IndiaBurma theater was Division Engineer, Missouri River Division, with headquarters at Omaha, Nebraska. There he was in charge of a vast program of war construction in nine states of the Missouri River valley, and in his spare time he conceived the Pick Plan for the development of the Missouri River valley, which when executed will change the face of a large part of the United States.
Fifty-five years old, sturdily built, gray-haired, square-jawed, erect, and soldierly in his bearing, Pick speaks slowly with a drawl. There is nothing about him to betray the fact that he is a man of relentless, driving energy and indomitable will. He is quiet and relaxed; his relations with his officers and men are informal; convivial and courtly, he always has time on his hands for anybody who wants to see him. In his simple office at Ledo, neither aide nor secretary sat by his side, nor was there an electric pushbutton to hand. When he wanted something, he stood up from his desk, softly called “Mr. Willis,” and a warrant officer appeared to do his bidding.
A man of simple tastes, Pick likes to read biography and to fish. He is, moreover, addicted to eating catfish. When I lamented to him that all the rivers of Burma did not contain a single catfish and were, therefore, as barren as the Dead Sea, the corners of his mouth crinkled with laughter. “You’re wrong,” he said. “We’ve got the best catfish in the world around here, and I’ve got the champion catfisherman — Old Tom, a Negro soldier. I’ll wire ahead and when you get to Shingbwiyang tonight you’ll have what you want.” And that night, in the Burma jungle, I had a catfish dinner that even Roark Bradford might envy.
It is characteristic of Pick, the Southerner, that he insisted upon taking Negro troops of his command with him in the first convoy from India to China. It is also characteristic of him that, a lifelong soldier, he abhors war; and while doing superlatively well the tasks imposed on him by war, he is deeply concerned with remaking peacetime America. He thinks that the great river valleys of this country are only fractionally developed. Many a night on the road, tired from the day’s task, but still excited about the future, he talked to his officers of his vision and traced the outlines of his plans on the dirt floor of his tent.
Those who have long known Pick say that his trials on the road aged him, temporarily at least, by ten years. Conquering mountains and jungles, bridging streams, fighting malaria, leading a polyglot group of men in a race against time, sending his engineers to fight the Japanese one day and directing them on bulldozers the next, and living constantly with his troops under conditions that would have wrecked a man of less indomitable will, Pick’s struggle against nature changed him. Always gentle, he is more than ever gentle. Always patient, he is more than ever patient. Always even-tempered, he is even slower to anger.
A leader who believes in leading, Pick was so constantly on the road that he came to know its every ditch and culvert. Twice he became ill and his officers insisted that he go to a hospital. But he went to bed only once, for forty-eight hours, when fever overcame him, and even then he worked by telephone. Despite his passion for leadership, however, Pick chose able men, delegated great responsibility, and let them alone.
He therefore not only accomplished the task, but its accomplishment was the easier because he gained the affection and respect of the officers and men of his command. Exacting but sympathetic, hard-driving but a lover of life, this man nonetheless has an air of withdrawal. It is not an ascetic retirement or a retreat from battle. It is rather that aloofness characteristic of those who, even while they are intent upon the task at hand, are dreaming of new worlds.
The road had progressed to Warazup (Miles 189.2) when the 1944 monsoon halted further operations. Except for occasional blocks, however, not only was it kept open during the rains, but heavy equipment arriving from the United States was placed where it could be used later, in the dry season. During the monsoon, Pick’s men completed the biggest task of maintenance engineering in the history of the Corps of Engineers: the construction of a two-mile wooden causeway over a low-lying area, without which the flow of supplies would have stopped. Operating jungle sawmills, felling trees in the ceaseless downpour, fighting leeches and mosquitoes, the engineers cut, sawed, delivered, and put into place a million board feet of lumber within forty days.
Meantime the Japanese were retreating. Kamaing and Mogaung fell to the Allies. The critical battle of Myitkyina was on. Every available man was needed in the front lines. Two battalions of combat engineers were now taken off their jobs and flown in to help the infantry, while Pick ordered that an airfield be built to support the operation. In dense jungle the engineers worked twenty-four hours a day, dropping out one by one from exhaustion. By the close of the twelfth day, as the finishing touches were being put on the field, only two men remained on their feet. One of them was Sergeant Suggs, a North Carolina Negro, who had been running a grader for thirty-seven consecutive hours. With him on the machine was General Pick, who was teaching him the fine points of grader operation.
During the next twenty-four days, four thousand missions were flown from the new field, and after a seventy-four-day siege the vital Irrawaddy River bastion of Myitkyina fell to Chinese-American forces.
WITH the end of the 1914 monsoon, work on the load again proceeded vigorously. At night mobile generators, supplemented by oil flares, kept the work going. Chinese engineers built an access road through ten miles of swampland to Warazup. It then followed the proposed highway route along the hillsides to a station on the Rangoon-Myitkyina-Mandalay railroad, halfway between Myitkyina and Mogaung. Leapfrogging along the access roads, units of Pick’s engineers would build a fouror five-mile stretch of highway, then move forward of other units and start a new trace.
Long lines of bulldozers, driven by gum-chewing soldiers, pulling carryalls and giant, lumbering earthmovers, ate away the mountainsides in order that thousands of tons of soil might be dumped into the swamplands for a high dirt causeway to cross areas which were covered with deep water during the rains. For each mile of road built, 100,000 cubic yards of dirt were removed — enough to construct a solid wall three feet wide and ten feet high from New York to San Francisco. And because Pick was operating in an area of the world’s heaviest rainfall, the culvert pipe he laid for drainage would form a continuous conduit over a hundred miles long.
Edging each other for room on the crowded, churnedup, uncompleted road were bulldozers, graders, and gravel trucks. The Burma Road is built of rock blasted from the adjacent mountains. But from Ledo, where Pick began, to a junction with the Burma Road, there is little rock along the route. In order to build and maintain the road, Pick’s men had to dig trainloads of gravel from river beds, load it onto trucks, climb steeply up out of the river beds, and often go distances of twenty-five to fifty miles to deposit their loads. This enormous task in itself required the tireless energy and antlike persistence of thousands of men.
After the capture of Myitkyina, Pick’s two engineer battalions which had fought there and suffered severe casualties returned; and upon being re-equipped, they resumed work on the road. One was given the job of strengthening bridges in the Hukawng valley. The other was to push the road south of Myitkyina to Bhamo, right behind the advancing infantry who were fighting the Japanese. Mine-detector crews now preceded the bulldozers. By the middle of November, 1944, they were building the highway from the swamplands and hills south of Warazup to the rice paddies of the Bhamo sector; and when Bhamo fell in December they pushed on toward the Namhkan-Wanting area, near the Chinese border, improving a rough narrow road to handle convoy traffic into China. Pick’s men worked on the fringes of enemy-held territory, sometimes within sight of the front lines.
As the “impossible” road moved toward completion, the excitement of its builders increased and the pace became faster. Americans from every state of the Union were directing the labor of thousands of men whose like they had never seen and perhaps had never imagined. There were laborers from the mysterious kingdom of Nepal, where few white men have ever been. There were Travancoreans, Garos, Bengalese, Assamese, Burmese, Shans, Karens, Kachins, and the excellent troops of the Indian Pioneer Corps.
To this multilingual group our soldiers spoke pidgin English, a smattering of Hindustani they had picked up along the way, or fluent sign language. There were Hindus, Buddhists, Moslems, animists; they were caste-ridden and superstitious. Their fires starred the jungle by night as they prepared their evening meals, while shrill religious controversies — always potentially dangerous in the East — arose as members of various sects insisted upon their own prerogatives in worship and rations, and as the “self-feeders refused to eat anything prepared by another lest he thereupon become a brother entitled to claim all one’s possessions.
Finally, in the darkness of early morning, January 21, 1945, Pick, who was to lead the first convoy into China, said to his drivers: “You are picked men to take part in a unique trip. Conduct yourselves as ambassadors of the United States. Don’t discuss what you are carrying, don’t speculate on the capacity of the road, and don’t talk politics. It’s up to us to get every one of these vehicles through. O.K. Start ‘em rolling.”
In fifteen months Pick had pushed the highway through. For most of its length the roadbed varies from twenty-four feet from shoulder to shoulder in the mountains to forty-nine feet in the valleys. It links India and China by road for the first time. Over it there have been rolling into China thousands of trucks, heavy artillery, and immense quantities of supplies. It enables us to make good our promise to keep China supplied. More than anything else, perhaps, it kept China in the war when it might have been disastrous to the Allies if she had been forced out.
After the road had been opened, General Stilwell wrote of Pick, who had kept every time-promise on the dot: —
If, among the thousands of American and Chinese combat engineers and infantrymen, one had to be picked to receive the honor of having cleared and built the Ledo Road, completing the link between India and China, Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Pick would be that man.
“The Old Man with the Stick” covered the road by foot, jeep, and liaison plane twenty-four hours a day. He knew every rock quarry, every mudhole and slide, every curve, every cutback and bridge. He never failed to meet an important date — if a certain section had to be completed by a given time, he would personally be on the spot until the date was met, and he kept his construction right on the heels of his combat troops.
General Pick had the support and devotion of the Engineers who served under him. If I know General Pick, he is even prouder of that fact than of the completion of the Road.