SEAC – Southeast Asia Command – and the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations may have been “the forgotten war” of World War II, but it was a strategic linchpin in the prosecution of the war for both the Allies and the Axis in the Far East. For the Japanese, possession of Burma, which it achieved in early 1942, was a plum rich in value. Burma’s rice paddies produced 8 million tons of rice a year. Three million of those tons could be shipped to the far-flung Japanese military outposts in the new East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere that in 1942 covered almost half the globe. Japanese possession also cut off the Burma Road, the vital highway that carried supplies to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s armies fighting the Japanese in China. Finally, because Burma bordered India, it could be used as a staging area for invasion of what was then the crown jewel of the British Empire. In fact, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters was preparing an ambitious plan to invade India and ultimately link up with German troops advancing from the east.
The challenge facing Great Britain and the United States was daunting in the extreme. Britain’s resources, even with lend-lease aid from America, were stretched perilously thin. As a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the vast industrial and manpower might of the United States had gone from a standing start to high gear. But it would take time before the full weight of those resources could be employed. In those early months of World War II, the United States had at hand little in the way of trained men, materiél, and the ships to transport and guard both. And, in order of priorities, the CBI came a distant third behind Europe and the Pacific theaters.
When Roosevelt presented him with Wingate’s proposal, Arnold was initially cool, as it dealt with support operations instead of air strikes against enemy installations. But then he saw in Wingate’s design an opportunity to demonstrate a hitherto unrecognized benefit of air power: The singular ability to support sizeable units for an extended period of time behind enemy lines.
Those desperate times called for desperate measures. Fortunately for the Allies, one man who saw opportunity where others saw only looming disaster was British Brig. Gen. Orde Wingate. Creating the long range penetration group called the Chindits, he conducted a guerilla campaign behind Japanese lines in Burma that caught the imagination of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was always receptive to unconventional ideas of waging war. Churchill took Wingate with him to the Quadrant Conference in Quebec where, in a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wingate outlined his concept for continuing his unconventional campaign in Burma. Wingate’s plan, even in expanded form, required relatively little in the way of resources. The key factor in the campaign would be adequate air support. Roosevelt, as enthusiastic about unconventional warfare as Churchill, endorsed it as a way of keeping China in the war.
Simultaneously, Army Air Corps Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold was looking for an opportunity to demonstrate how the war could be won with air power. When Roosevelt presented him with Wingate’s proposal, Arnold was initially cool, as it dealt with support operations instead of air strikes against enemy installations. But then he saw in Wingate’s design an opportunity to demonstrate a hitherto unrecognized benefit of air power: The singular ability to support sizeable units for an extended period of time behind enemy lines.
Gen. Arnold selected two officers to be co-commanders of the new unconventional warfare unit, Lt. Col. Philip G. Cochran and Lt. Col. John R. Alison. Cochran was a smart, daring, and imaginative fighter pilot with a distinguished war record earned in combat over North Africa. Cochran’s exploits had made him a national hero and the inspiration for the character Flip Corkin, the pilot hero in cartoonist Milton Caniff’s syndicated strip Terry and the Pirates. Alison was another exceptional pilot with a distinguished war record that included a combat tour with Maj. Gen. Claire L. Chennault’s 23rd Fighter Group, which earlier in the war had fought the Japanese under the name American Volunteer Group or “Flying Tigers.”
Gen. Arnold defined the mission of the new unit, initially named Project 9, in four points:
1. To facilitate the forward movement of the Wingate columns.
2. To facilitate the supply and evacuation of the columns.
3. To provide a small air covering and striking force.
4. To acquire air experience under the conditions expected to be encountered.
And in case there might be any doubt as to what the unit should do once it reached its base in India, Arnold declared, “To hell with the paperwork, go out and fight.” This order was taken so literally that later, when Cochran saw a dozen typewriters on a list of material to be shipped to India, he crossed them off the list.