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Doomed US-built wartime road finds new life

China working to make use of route to India

Evelio Grillo, 89, was one of thousands of black soldiers who suffered to build the 1,079-mile Stilwell Road. He was shown with his son, California Superior Court Judge Evelio M. Grillo. Evelio Grillo, 89, was one of thousands of black soldiers who suffered to build the 1,079-mile Stilwell Road. He was shown with his son, California Superior Court Judge Evelio M. Grillo. (Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times / January 4, 2009
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MYITKYINA, Burma - It was a road some said could not be built. Most of the men ordered to make it happen were black soldiers sorted into Army units by the color of their skin.

As World War II raged, they labored day and night in the jungles of Burma, sometimes halfway up 10,000-foot mountains, drenched by 140 inches of rain in the five-month monsoon season. They spanned raging rivers and pushed through swamps thick with bloodsucking leeches and swarms of biting mites and mosquitoes that spread typhus and malaria.

Some died from disease or fell to their deaths when construction equipment slid along soupy mud tracks and dropped off cliffs. Others drowned or were killed pulling double duty in combat against the Japanese.

They gave their lives to build a 1,079-mile road across northern Burma to reinforce Allied troops, a project derided by Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain as "an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed."

Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest. The road had cost 1,133 American lives, a man a mile.

Evelio Grillo is one of the few vets still alive to tell the tale of the Stilwell Road.

The son of black Cubans who migrated to Florida to roll cigars in Tampa factories, Grillo graduated from Xavier University, a black college in New Orleans, and was drafted. He made staff sergeant in the Army's segregated 823d Engineer Battalion.

In a black-and-white photo he sent home during the war, Grillo wears his khaki uniform and garrison cap, one eyebrow slightly arched, his eyes dark and mischievous.

He remembers making road trips across the border to India to buy light bulbs when the old ones popped in their sockets most nights in their camp. The new ones exploded just as quickly as the ones they replaced.

Grillo also tells of officers who ordered him to measure the road with lengths of chain for hours on end until someone finally pointed out that the Army jeeps had odometers.

"That was probably you," Grillo's daughter Elisa Grillo Clay says from her father's bedside at a nursing home in Oakland, Calif., proudly calling him "a professional troublemaker."

Grillo, 89, was one of more than 15,000 US soldiers who put their backs into the punishing work that many thought was futile. In a little more than two years, they completed the road from India to the western Chinese city of Kunming. The United States spent almost $149 million to build it and, at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, it was named the Stilwell Road, after US General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region who insisted that the project would work.

More than half a century later, China is working to resurrect it as the first major overland trade route since World War II with India, where business leaders, politicians, and bureaucrats also are pressing their government to formally commit itself to the road as a link between the world's two most populous nations.

In 2005, Indian and Chinese survey teams began mapping out plans to rebuild the road. China has done all the reconstruction work, paving dozens of miles with granite stones packed into dirt.

The men who built the road weren't honored for their feat until 2004, when the Defense Department marked African American History Month at Florida A&M University.

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