General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell

The right man in the wrong place?

General Joseph Stilwell eating C-rations as a 1943 Christmas meal
(Photo: U.S. Army)

General Joseph Warren Stilwell (1883-1946) of the U.S. Army has a complicated and divisive legacy. Some consider him one of the most brilliant American commanders, who almost led the country’s first and last offensives in the war, but who was robbed of opportunity and glory by the scheming of others. Other people revile him as a terrible leader who failed to understand the needs of his superiors, equals and subordinates. We will try to paint a balanced picture of “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, and let you make up your own mind.
Stilwell was born into a strict and religious family, but ended up rebelling and becoming a troublesome youth in school. He attended West Point at his father’s insistence: he endured hazing he later described as “hell,” introduced basketball to the academy, and had two demerits for laughing during drill. Nevertheless, he showed great promise. As a second lieutenant, he carried an exhausted comrade to safety across a hostile jungle in the Philippines. He served under both American and French command during World War I, performing reconnaissance in no man’s land on several occasions. Having shown a talent at learning languages, he had spent over a decade in China between the two World Wars, serving as a construction engineer, a battalion commander and a military attaché and mastering spoken and written Chinese. He grew to love the country and its people, and understood Chinese politics well, but considered China’s leaders lacking.

Stilwell in France during World War I, 1918
(Photo: War Department)

Stilwell developed a reputation as an energetic, hard-driving, no-nonsense commander who disdained military pomp and ceremony, and offered blunt criticism. One of his subordinates, hurt by Stilwell’s remarks during an exercise, once drew a caricature of him rising out of a bottle of vinegar. Stilwell wasn’t offended by the drawing; in fact, he leaned into the image, sending photographs of it to friends.
Stilwell was considered one of the Army’s top corps commanders based on his performance at large-scale exercises shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, had served with Stilwell in China, and considered him “farsighted, highly intelligent,” and “one of the exceptionally brilliant and cultured men of the Army.” In December 1941, Stilwell was picked to develop plans for America’s first offensive in World War II. President Roosevelt felt that the country needed a quick victory to prop up confidence and war support after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and to show allied nations its capabilities. Stilwell was to plan and lead an amphibious attack on the Vichy French port of Dakar in West Africa.

Troops during the Louisiana Maneuvers, where Stilwell distinguished himself
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Taking Dakar was not going to be easy; in fact, a joint British and Free French force had already tried and failed to do so in 1940. Additionally, the U.S. war industry was just starting to gear up, and transportation capacity was very limited. Both Stilwell and the Joint Chiefs of Staff believed that the original war planners had underestimated the danger of enemy submarines, as well as the probability of Spain joining the war on the Axis side. Perhaps even worse, the initial landing would have had to be made with 11,000 Marines, who would have then had to fight without reinforcements for 45 days, the time it took the transport fleet to return to America, pick up three more divisions, and steam for Africa again. Additionally, top brass started dithering. Two days into the planning, Stilwell was told that the landing would take place at Casablanca instead, in a completely different part of Africa. The very next day, he was told it was going to be one or the other. For Stilwell, it ended up being neither.
Japanese forces were on the offensive in the Pacific, taking Singapore and British Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and forcing General Douglas MacArthur to abandon the Philippines
(Read our earlier article) China had already been fighting Japan since 1937, and helping them seemed to be the key to stop Japanese expansion. Stilwell, speaking Chinese and knowing the country well, was taken off the planning of African landings and sent to Asia instead. He wasn’t keen on going, but Marshall told him “Joe, you have 24 hours to think up a better candidate. Otherwise it’s you.” Stilwell knew that nobody was more familiar with the region than him.

Stilwell reviewing Chinese troops during the war
Stilwell was promoted to lieutenant general in February 1942 and sent to the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI) with three roles: he was commander of all U.S. forces in the theater, deputy commander of the theater under British Admiral Louis Mountbatten (Read our earlier article), and chief of staff and advisor to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, commander of Nationalist Chinese forces. British and Chinese forces were ill-equipped and almost always on the backfoot from Japanese offensives, and there were hardly any American forces in the theater; the real difficulty, however, was the tangled web of diplomacy that Stilwell, with his blunt and critical demeanor (and his Anglophobia), could not hope to navigate.
Stilwell with Lord Louis Mountbatten

The British primarily wanted to defend Burma against the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek wanted to concentrate on China. Additionally, the Generalissimo was propped up by a fragile web of military and diplomatic alliances, and Stilwell’s efforts to reform the Chinese army and curb in rampant corruption stepped on the toes of many of Chiang’s supporters. Stilwell was promised command over all Chinese forces, but Chinese commanders tended to consider his orders mere “advice” and took their actual orders from Chiang. Stilwell’s idea to train several Chinese divisions in India was opposed by the British, who feared that the presence of well-trained and equipped Chinese soldiers might fan pro-independence sentiments among the Indian population. In contrast, Chiang felt that Chinese forces defending Burma were just helping the British hang on to their imperial holdings. Stilwell also had to contend with a fellow American: Major General Claire Lee Chennault, commander of the First American Volunteer Group, the famous Flying Tigers (later China Air Task Force and 14th Air Force), who had his own ideas on how to fight the Japanese, and had Chiang’s ear more often than Stilwell did.

Stilwell with Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang on the day after the Doolittle Raid
(Photo: Department of Defense)

It quickly became clear that Burma could not be held. In the spring of 1942, with Allied defenses collapsing, Stilwell refused to be airlifted to safety. Instead, he led his 117-man staff on a 140-mile (225 km) foot march to India, maintaining the “Stilwell stride” of 105 paces per minute. His retreat left behind 100,000 Chinese soldiers, a quarter of whom perished in the war later.

Stilwell with his staff during his march out of Burma

The loss of Burma also meant the loss of land routes through which the Allies could supply Chinese forces from India. The last remaining supply line was “the Hump,” a perilous air route over the Himalaya mountains, which could not keep both Stilwell Chinese forces and the Flying Tigers supplied. Stilwell considered it a priority to liberate Burma, or at least its northern part, and reestablish land routes, but did not have the means to do so. 

 A Curtiss C-46 Commando flying the Hump
(Photo: Smithsonian Magazine)
Relations between Stilwell and Chiang deteriorated. Chiang was outraged at what he felt was the abandonment of his best army during the retreat from Burma. Stilwell bridled at Chinese corruption (40% of Nationalist Chinese conscripts deserted during training, and another 20% starved to death after officers sold their food on the black market). He also believed that Chiang was deliberately withholding men and equipment from combat, keeping them for later use against Mao Zedong’s Communist Chinese forces. Stilwell ended up complaining openly to Roosevelt, and threatening to completely cut off Lend-Lease aid to China. By the end, Stilwell called the Chinese leader “Peanut” behind his back.
Stilwell also clashed with Chennault. The latter advocated for limited air offensives against the Japanese from whatever forward air bases were available. Stilwell believed that the Chinese would be unable to defend these airfields from Japanese counterattacks, and wanted to hold the air force back until larger, better-protected bases could be built. Chennault had his way, but Stilwell was eventually proven right when a Japanese counteroffensive, Operation Ichi-Go, quickly overrun the forward bases.
Stilwell with Major General Chennault in 1943
“Vinegar Joe’s” relations also soured with British Chindit forces and the American unit Merrill’s Marauders. Both units were used for special operations far behind enemy lines in the jungle. Stilwell seemingly failed to understand the toll such operations extracted from the men, and pushed them on relentlessly, denying them rest and recovery even after heavy casualties and widespread outbreaks of tropical diseases. Many Marauders, ordered to fight despite constant dysentery, cut holes in their trousers so they could relieve themselves while firing. Many soldiers in hospitals were rounded up by doctors working under Stilwell’s orders and sent to the front as being fit enough to fight, only for forward position doctors to evacuate them back immediately upon arrival.
Stilwell (right) with Frank Merrill, the commander of Merrill’s Marauders
(Photo: U.S. Army)
The Chinese front started to deteriorate rapidly after the Japanese have launched Operation Ichi-Go. The Chinese city of Guilin, one of the most important military and transport centers, became a fulcrum point – not so much between Japan and the Allies, but between Stilwell and Generalissimo Chiang. With the Japanese threatening the city, Stilwell withdrew American forces and persuaded Chiang to accept the loss of Guilin. In the resulting crisis, Stilwell appealed to President Roosevelt to resolve the leadership dispute, and Roosevelt sent a message to Chiang, threatening to withdraw all American aid unless Stilwell was finally and truly given control of all Chinese forces. Chennault, Stilwell’s rival for resources and Chiang’s cooperation, later claimed that Stilwell deliberately left the city unprotected in order to manufacture the crisis which eventually gave him full control – for what it's worth, one particular entry in Stilwell’s diary seems to suggest that he was, at least, considering such a course of action.
Stilwell with his frequently-carried M1 carbine in Burma
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Stilwell, however, did not get what he wanted. Chiang replied to Roosevelt claiming the ultimatum was an American attempt to subjugate China, and demanding Stilwell’s removal. Roosevelt’s special envoy in China reported that Stilwell was incapable of working with Chiang, and his continued command might lead to losing all of China to Japan. Stilwell, a four-star general by the time, was quietly recalled in October 1944. Rather than receiving the usual ceremony on his return to the U.S., he was met by two generals at the airport who told him not to talk to the press about China.
Stilwell late in his career, after his promotion to four-star general
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Stilwell got one final chance to participate in the war, and it was an extraordinary chance: that of leading the invasion of Japan itself. In June 1945, Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner, jr. was killed by Japanese artillery on Okinawa, leading the Tenth Army, slated for the invasion, without a commander.  MacArthur wanted Marine Lieutenant General Oscar Griswald to take over, but Marshall picked Stilwell. The invasion was only scheduled for March 1946, but Stilwell threw himself into the preparation with great energy. He didn’t get to lead America’s first offensive in Africa; he would get to lead the last.
The last photo of Lt. Gen. Buckner (extreme right), taken just before his death
(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)
MacArthur was angered because Marshall passed over his candidate, and took it out on Stilwell by gradually removing units from under his command, leaving him with less and less. Even more decisively, the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, ending the war before the invasion could happen. Stilwell probably felt cheated of glory, but was happy that his son, Joseph Stilwell jr., who was already serving in the Army, was not thrown into a bloody, grueling invasion.
“Vinegar Joe” Stilwell died of stomach cancer in 1946. Stilwell’s ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean, and a cenotaph erected in his memory stands in West Point Cemetery. His son went on to serve as a Special Forces general in Korea and Vietnam until his plane disappeared without trace over the ocean in 1966.

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Soldiers decorate a Christmas tree in Germany, December 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army)
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