During the first two years of the war, the black aviation engineering operations in the China-Burma-India Theater bore little resemblance to what had been envisioned in 1941. Since the 10th Air Force relied upon British engineers and Indian laborers for airbase construction, they played a critical role in securing the lifeline to China. After the Japanese had cut the Burma Road, the only way for the Allies to send supplies to the Chinese was by air, via the famous Hump route. So great was the importance of establishing a land route to China, that the United States assigned 15,000 American troops to construct the Ledo Road, which ran 271 miles from Ledo on the India-Burma border to a junction on the old Burma Road. Sixty percent of those American troops were blacks.
The first two American Army units assigned to the Ledo Road -- the 45th Engineer General Service Regiment and the 823rd EAB (both black units) -- started construction in December 1942. The first section of the Ledo Road followed a steep, narrow trail through unsurveyed territory from Ledo across the Patkai Mountains and down to Shingbwiyang, Burma. Sometimes rising as high as 4,500 feet, the 103-mile trail required the removal of 100,000 cubic feet of earth every mile. In 1943 four more black EABs (848th, 849th, 858th and 1883rd) arrived to work on the Ledo Road, and the lead bulldozer reached Shingbwiyang on Dec. 27, 1943, three days ahead of schedule.
In January 1945 four of the black EABs (along with three white battalions) continued working on the Ledo Road, which was renamed the Stillwell Road. Another black unit, the 1888th EAB, took over from another unit the construction of a B-29 airfield at Piardoba, India, in February 1944. Despite having only limited training in airfield construction methods, the 1888th's officers and men completed the job on schedule. In China, the services of the EABs had long been coveted, but Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek refused to allow black troops to enter China because the western Chinese had never seen black troops. Accepting the tactical necessity of the situation, he agreed to allow black soldiers to enter China, but only as far as Kunming. The 858th EAB had the honor of being the first EAB to go into China to work on the Stillwell Road. Tasked with another white unit to maintain the road from the Salween River to Kunming, the 858th remained in China until VJ Day, and it held the distinction of being the only black battalion sent to China.
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