Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Poppies everwhere

Joseph Warren Stilwell, one of the US’s famous Second World War generals, was born 130 years ago today. He kept diaries for most his adult life, and although they have never, apparently, been published in print, the Hoover Institution has made them freely available on its website. They are dense, informally written in a quick staccato style, full of character and rich in detail of his busy army life.

Stilwell was born on 19 March 1883 in Palatka, Florida. His father, a doctor, brought him up with a disciplined regime, but he rebelled and became an unruly student. Eventually, he was entered in the US Military Academy at West Point, and, after graduating, returned to teach there. He married Winifred Smith in 1910 and they had five children. Having served in the Philippines, he worked with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I, as an intelligence officer, and was later awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. He also earned the nickname ‘Vinegar Joe’ for being a harsh critique of his subordinates.

After the war, Stillwell studied the Chinese language, and served in Tientsin in the 1920s and Peking in the 1930s. Just prior to World War II, he was initially selected to plan and command the Allied invasion of North Africa, but instead was assigned to Chiang Kai-Shek to command Chinese armies in Burma. He arrived in time to see the collapse of the Allied defence, and the Japanese cut Burma off from all land and sea supply routes to China, so he personally led his staff to Assam, India, on foot.

Through the Second World War, Stillwell served as commanding general of all US forces in China, Burma and India. He was appointed commander of the US 10th Army in the Pacific in August 1945 and received the surrender of more than 100,000 Japanese troops in the Ryuku Islands; and then was Commanding General of the Sixth US Army near San Franciso until his death in 1946. Biographies of Stillwell can be found at Wikipedia, and the China-Burma-Theatre, Presidio of Monterey and Yonkers history websites.

Stillwell kept a diary for all his adult life. After his death, the manuscripts were deposited, along with the rest of his papers, at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Stillwell’s World War II diaries were the first to made available online on the Hoover Institution website, and subsequently the rest of the diaries - 1900-1939, 1945-1946 - were also made freely available. The Stillwell family retains the copyright, and the online versions are security coded to disallow text copying. However, I’m sure the family won’t mind me reproducing one entry from his service in France in 1919 during World War I which gives an excellent flavour of his informal and staccato - but nevertheless highly engaging - style.

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