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FreightWaves Classics: Building the Ledo Road kept China in World War II

"A man’s life for every mile"

Frank and Joe Sandoval grew up in a predominantly Hispanic-American community in the small town of Silvis, Illinois, which is near the Illinois-Iowa border. They grew up on Second Street, which is only about 1.5 blocks long with 25 houses. What makes Second Street unique, however, is that more than 100 individuals from that street have served in the U.S. military. That is a higher number than any other U.S. street of similar size. 

The Sandovals’ parents were born in Mexico. During the Mexican Revolution, they came to the United States in 1917. Their sons were born in Silvis.

A poster promoting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Image: army/mil)
A poster promoting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (Image: army/mil)

Frank Sandoval quit high school to work on a full-time basis. When he was inducted into the U.S. Army in October 1942, Sandoval had been working at the Army’s Rock Island Arsenal on present-day Arsenal Island (which is near Silvis). After basic training, Silvis began his active service in Southeast Asia as part of Company C of the 209th Combat Engineering Battalion in September 1943. 

His brother Joe also served in the U.S. Army during World War II, seeing action in Africa, the Middle East and Europe in the Army’s 41st Armored Infantry Division.

Why was the Ledo Road built? 

Japanese forces occupied Burma (now known as Myanmar) in 1942. This cut the last supply line between China and the outside world. There were over 800,000 Japanese troops in China, and they controlled all the coastal cities (as well as other Chinese territory). Allied forces needed China to keep fighting the Japanese; If the Japanese conquered China some of those troops would be redeployed and would be fighting U.S. troops. 

U.S. Army Air Corps. C-47, one of the planes used to air-drop supplies to forward areas.
A U.S. Army Air Corps. C-47, one of the planes used to air-drop supplies to forward areas. (Photo: army.mil)

The Allies began a military airlift to supply China; however, an airlift could not supply the country adequately. Therefore, a land supply route was needed. In late 1942, construction on what became known as the Ledo Road began in Ledo, India. Ledo was chosen as the location for the road’s beginning because it was near the northern terminus of a rail line from the ports of Calcutta and Karachi.  

The Ledo Road was built by U.S. Army Engineers, construction battalions and native labor from Ledo through the mountains and jungle of northern Burma, to a junction with the Burma Road. It was built through difficult mountain terrain, across monsoon-fed swamps and rivers and through the thickest jungle. 

Bulldozer meets elephants. (Photo: army/mil)

Frank Sandoval and the 209th Combat Engineers were sent halfway around the world – from “Illinois to California to New York to Rio, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Pacific to India.” 

In India, the battalion was among many assigned the very difficult task of building the Ledo Road. It would be the overland connection that the Allies would use to deliver urgently needed supplies to China in order to better combat the Japanese forces in that theater of the war. 

Construction on the road began in the town of Ledo in northeastern India and ended in southwestern China in the city of Kunming. When it was finished, the Ledo Road traversed 1,072 miles in India, Burma and China. 

Building the road through miles of jungle. (Photo: army/mil)
Building the road through miles of jungle. (Photo: army/mil)

Construction of the Ledo Road began after the Japanese successfully stopped the flow of Allied supplies on the Burma Road. The Ledo Road provided an alternate route for the Allies to transport military equipment and other materiel to help fight the Japanese. In addition, the road made it possible to deliver huge quantities of critically needed food.

“China was starving,” wrote Marc Wilson in a 2004 column about Sandoval in the Iowa-based Quad-City Times. So among the key reasons that the road was built through the jungle from India through Burma to China was “in hopes of feeding a starving nation.”

A section of the Ledo Road where part of a mountain was hacked away to form the roadway. (Photo: army/mil)
A section of the Ledo Road where part of a mountain was hacked away to form the roadway. (Photo: army/mil)

Construction of the road

Building the Ledo Road was one of the most critical and difficult road-building projects of World War II. Its builders had to contend with the ever-present threat of Japanese attacks as they worked. The road-builders also had to hack through jungles populated with leeches, snakes and tigers; navigate the steep and hazardous terrain of the Himalayan region; and build bridges across rivers that could rise as high as 45 feet above normal in monsoon season. One of the chief engineers on this project was Colonel (later General) Lewis A. Pick. He described building the Ledo Road as “the toughest job ever given to the U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.”

Charles Monroe worked with Sandoval, helping to build the Ledo Road. He later recalled the challenges of “making it wider and putting in drain lines (culverts), which was very hard work, also widening the sharp turns.” Monroe also said, “Many of us had our first experience in operating heavy equipment, bulldozers, road graders, rock crushers and heavy dump trucks.” 

A section of the Ledo Road. (Photo: army/mil)
A section of the Ledo Road. (Photo: army/mil)

To better understand the scope of the work, the New York Times reported that enough soil was moved “to build a solid dirt wall three feet wide and 10 feet high from New York to San Francisco.”

Other key facts about the Ledo Road include:

  • Engineers dug 1,383,000 cubic yards of gravel from riverbeds to surface the road
    • If loaded on rail cars the train would be 427 miles long
  • The Ledo Road crossed 10 major rivers and 155 smaller streams
    • 700 bridges over the length of the road
  • Construction was as much a drainage project as a road building effort
    • An average 13 culverts per mile were used totaling 105 miles of pipe
  • Foresters gathered 822,000 cubic feet of lumber to help build the road
    • One million board feet of lumber and 2400 pilings were used in a causeway over the swamp
  • Of the 15,000 engineers who built the road, over 60% were African-American
    • These troops received the jobs nobody else wanted
  • The supply line from the United States to CBI was 12,000 miles long
    • Longest supply line in World War II
Monsoon rains caused havoc while the road was built and after it was opened. (Photo: army/mil)
Monsoon rains caused havoc while the road was built and after it was opened. (Photo: army/mil)

There were debates at the highest levels over the usefulness of the Ledo Road – both before its construction and after it was completed. Military planners worried whether the road could be completed in time (to help the war effort) or even at all.  

Construction began on December 16, 1942 and the Ledo Road officially opened on May 20, 1945. Before the war ended in September, it is estimated that 147,000 tons of supplies were transported by trucks over the road. Further military use ended in March 1946. The Ledo Road was officially “open” for only the last three months of the war.

Anti-aircraft batteries like this one protected those building the road and those that traveled along it. (Photo: army/mil)
Anti-aircraft batteries like this one protected those building the road and those that traveled along it. (Photo: army/mil)

The Sandovals

Frank Sandoval died in June 1944 after he and other members of the 209th were helping to defend an airbase in northern Burma that was under Japanese attack. Sandoval was killed by Japanese forces along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. He was only 23 when he died. In a letter to his parents, a military chaplain wrote, “Frank was killed in action and suffered no agony, as he was killed by enemy gunfire in an attack.” The chaplain also noted, “Please do not picture the worst, for he went quickly, perhaps not knowing it.”

Frank’s brother Joe died during the war as well. He was killed in action in Germany in April 1945, the last full month of the war in Europe. 

The bodies of the Sandoval brothers were eventually returned to Illinois; they are buried in Rock Island National Cemetery. Silvis’ Second Street was renamed Hero Street U.S.A. in 1967 as a tribute to those who had lived on that street and served in the U.S. military in times of war. Hero Street Park USA was dedicated four years later to specifically honor the Sandoval brothers and several other Hispanic-American servicemen from that street who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Ledo Road today

While much of the Ledo Road has been reclaimed by the jungle, portions are still in use.

March 2005 photo of the “24 Zig” curves near the Burma Road.

Men from the following companies, regiments and battalions were part of the crew that built the Ledo Road.

  • 45th Engineer General Service Regiment
  •  71st Engineer Light Pontoon Company
  •  75th Engineer Light Pontoon Company
  •  77th Engineer Light Pontoon Company
  •  93rd Engineer General Service Regiment
  • 195th Engineer Dump Truck Company
  • 209th Engineer Combat Battalion
  • 236th Engineer Combat Battalion
  • 330th Engineer General Service Regiment
  • 352nd Engineer General Service Regiment
  • 479th Engineer Maintenance Company
  • 497th Engineer Heavy Shop Company
  • 797th Engineer Forestry Company
  • 823rd Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 848th Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 858th Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 1327th Engineer General Service Regiment
  • 1359th Engineer Dump Truck Company
  • 1388th Engineer Forestry Company
  • 1575th Engineer Heavy Shop Company
  • 1875th Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 1883rd Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 1905th Engineer Aviation Battalion
  • 4023rd Quartermaster Dump Truck Company
  • 4024th Quartermaster Dump Truck Company

FreightWaves thanks its several sources for this article, particularly Carl W. Weidenburner, whose research and article on the Ledo Road can be found at http://www.cbi-theater.com/ledoroad. Weidenburner’s father was one of those U.S. servicemen who helped to build the Ledo Road.

Scott Mall, Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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