THE fall of Canton last October deprived China of her last important port of entry for war materials from abroad. Thenceforth she would have to depend on the thin trickle of supplies which might elude the Japanese naval forces to be landed at small ports such as Foochow, Wenchow or Swatow, or bring them across the boundaries of adjacent countries in the northwest or southwest. It is now apparent that Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had anticipated this situation and had planned accordingly. While Japan was firmly closing China's front door, Chiang was laying plans to keep contact with the outside world by opening the back. Roads were started toward the frontier of Soviet Russia and toward Burma.
When Chiang moved his government to Chungking he found himself roughly equidistant from three foreign avenues for obtaining supplies: the Turk-Sib railway in Soviet Russia, the port of Haiphong in French Indo-China, and the port of Rangoon in Burma. Work had already been started on the road to Russia via Lanchow in Kansu province and Urumchi in Sinkiang. But over this route goods must be carried the entire distance of more than 2,000 miles by truck. It leads through desolate country, and obviously even with a good road much of the carrying capacity of the lorries must be devoted to fuel supplies. The route to the sea at Haiphong, through Kunming and French Indo-China, is considerably shorter and for nearly half the distance is served by a metre-gauge railway line. However, the Japanese have brought such pressure on the French that they have declined to transport war materials. The distance to Rangoon through Kunming, Lashio and Mandalay is about 2,100 miles, and is served by a railroad line only a quarter of the way. Yet it is the most dependable route now remaining for bringing in military supplies.
The Chinese started building the last, and most difficult, link in the Burma road in December 1937. It is now completed. It follows the old trail which Marco Polo traveled when he visited the Middle Kingdom more than 600 years ago. How far it will serve to assist China in solving her problem of supply remains to be seen. But its completion by native labor, without any modern road-building machinery whatever, and through a sparsely-settled, mountainous country, represents a very substantial accomplishment.
A part of the road was built in former years. As early as 1925, the China International Famine Relief Commission made surveys of the route between Yunnanfu (now called Kunming) and Kweiyang and subsequently completed that stretch. Later the link between Kweiyang and Chungking was built. The new part of the road, from Siakwan (the section between Kunming and Siakwan was laid out and roughly constructed two or three years ago) to the Burma border, was not undertaken until after the present war with Japan started. There it connects with a recently improved road built by the Burmese authorities which proceeds to the railhead at Lashio. The railroad leads by way of Mandalay to the port of Rangoon.
The road from Kunming to the Burma border is approximately 650 miles in length. Along much of its course it is winding and it crosses many high mountain passes. Near the Burma frontier it crosses the Salween and Mekong rivers which flow southward from Tibet in high steep valleys flanked by mountains rising to 8,000 feet above sea level and 4,000 to 5,000 feet above the beds of the rivers. When we remember that these natural obstacles were surmounted without any kind of machinery and in a country where even wheels have hitherto
been unknown, the achievement seems almost incredible. It can be explained only by the unlimited supply of labor. At the height of the operations more than 120,000 laborers -- men, women, and even children -- were engaged on the work.
The bridges over the big rivers are suspended from steel cables and constructed of wood. Stone bridges are the rule for the smaller streams. In areas where rock was available it was used both for the foundations and the surfacing. There are, however, stretches which traverse a clay country. There the surfacing is a mixture of clay and sand. This is satisfactory, at least in the dry season, if there is adequate labor available to fill in ruts and keep the surface smooth. Much of the road is narrow and will allow only one lane of traffic. But there is provision at frequent intervals for passing.
The Chinese transport authorities are working energetically to assure effective use of the road. A part of the $25,000,000 loan made to China by the American Export-Import Bank is being used to purchase trucks and fuel. In December an order for 1,000 three-ton Chrysler and General Motors trucks was placed in the United States and these have all been shipped to Rangoon. It is reported that many of them have already arrived and are in use on the road. Subsequently an order for an additional 1,000 three-ton Chrysler and Ford trucks was placed. Part of these are going to Rangoon and part to Haiphong. The Chinese are calling for the delivery of gasoline at both Rangoon and Haiphong. Thus they apparently have the hope of being able to use the French railway line to bring in gasoline. This would be a great advantage, for then a full load of munitions could be carried up into China from Burma and fuel supplies secured at Kunming by the return trip. In addition to trucks, pack animals and bullock carts are being used. An effort is being made to secure second-hand motor car axles and wheels to be fitted to bodies and shafts for draft animals. One such vehicle having ball bearings will carry a ton or more and can be drawn by two animals. Medical stations, repair stations for trucks, and stables for relays of transport animals are being established along the road. The British authorities seem to be coöperating cordially. They have put the road on the Burma side (120 miles in length) in good condition, and warehouses are being built at the railhead at Lashio for the freight which is accumulating there.
The upkeep of the road presents a tremendous problem, particularly in the rainy season which begins in May and continues until November. In the hill country the route is subject to landslides, and these will of course be particularly severe during the rains. The Chinese seem to have an abundant supply of labor for upkeep. They will need it.
Naturally the Japanese will make every effort to disrupt traffic along the road. Thus far they have not succeeded in intimidating the British in Burma as they have the French in Indo-China. Nor are they apt to do so, for between Rangoon and the scene of Japanese naval operations lies the Singapore base. It was rumored recently that Japan was making efforts to stir up the Burmese and was trying to arm the tribesmen in the part of Yunnan traversed by the road. As to direct action, they are at present too far away to do any effective bombing. Kunming is more than 600 miles from any Japanese bombing base.
It is difficult to estimate how great a volume of supplies the road can carry into China in the coming months. A transport system is only as good as its weakest link. It is said that the average round trip from Lashio to Kunming will take two weeks. On that basis, if 100 trucks were to leave every day, each with three tons of cargo, a monthly total of some 9,000 tons could be moved. This would require 1,400 trucks in constant use.