Burma Banshees, "Angels on our Wings," the call of death to the enemy
February 22, 2005
The pre-war setting of the China-Burma-India Theater of War
80th Fighter Group (FG) "Burma Banshee" P-40N "Warhawk," 1944. A painting by Richard Groh, presented by Adam Lewis' "Adam's planes."
The war in Europe took precedence over the conflict in the Pacific. And, in the Pacific, where the Americans were forced to retreat to Australia, the top priority was to island hop all the way from Australia to Japan. The overwhelming bulk of US ground forces were committed to these two theaters of war as a result.
The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater was not a top priority. The British used some of their own forces plus a lot of Commonwealth and Burmese forces. The US, in the main, trained Chinese ground forces and committed very few of its own. In the case of the British and US, the main ground force commitments were in the form of small columns of guerrilla forces. We will explain all this later.
If asked about the war in the Pacific, most Americans will tell you that the number one Asian player was Japan. That's fair enough, but it is crucial to understand the major role played by China. Because of the way the war in the CBI developed, Burma and India also became important, very important indeed.
Asia in the 1930s
The CBI officially comprised India, a British colony, which included modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma; Indochina, a French colony, which included Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam; Siam was independent but pro-British; Malaya was ruled by Britain until occupied by Japan; and China, which was literally sectioned off into multiple spheres of foreign influence.
The CBI geographically was the largest single theater of operations of World War II. Rangoon was one of the most heavily defended areas in the region, the Himalaya Mountains presented a formidable obstacle to ground operations and flying, and the jungle tropics created a very difficult environment in which to conduct ground and air operations.
This is a map of China as of 1910, during the closing phase of the Manchu Dynasty, by Matthew White.
China, by 1900, and beyond, was in a shambles. To make a long story short, the Manchu Dynasty had its roots in Manchuria in the 1640s, the region from the Korean border to the Amur River bordering Russia. Over the years, the Manchus found a way to gain control over most of China. European and American trade with China grew in the19th century and by the time 1900 rolled around, the Europeans had effectively divided up China into spheres of influence they considered their own. The color code on the map is hard to read, so we'll interpret it for you, moving north to south. The Russians controlled northern Manchuria while the Japanese controlled southern Manchuria while the. The Germans and Portuguese controlled the area around Tsinan to the Yellow Sea. The British controlled the region from Shanghai to Chungking along the Yangtze River, Tibet, and Hong Kong. The Japanese controlled the coastal region across from the island of Formosa, now called Taiwan. The French controlled the area bordering most of Burma, all of Indochina, and along the South China Sea including Hainan Island.
To make matters worse for the Chinese, Britain controlled Nepal and Bhutan, and India and Burma were British colonies. Indochina was a French colony. And, at the close of the 19th century, Japan invaded China, took the entire Korean peninsula, Port Arthur on mainland China, and the island of Formosa.
In 1906, Japan founded and operated the South Manchuria Railway Corp. and garrisoned troops along the railroad to guard the movement of resources from Manchuria to Korean ports. The Japanese Army controlled the railroad. We want to show you this railway because its Japanese ownership impacted how the Chinese came to rely so heavily on Burma. The best maps we could find are Russian, courtesy of Transsibmaps.
This is an overview of the Soviet Far East and northern China. The red line marks the Trans-Siberian Railroad which connected Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan with Moscow far to the west in Europe. The olive-brown line spurring off the Trans-Siberian in a southeasterly direction connected the Chinese Eastern Railroad and the olive brown line spurring off that to the south, to Port Arthur, China, was the South Manchuria Railroad. This is the section controlled by the Japanese from 1906. This next map is a zoom view of the South Manchuria Railroad line.
With the Japanese controlling this line, the Chinese lost a vital line to move valued resources in southern Manchuria to Port Arthur and beyond. Given that the Japanese also controlled all of the Korean Peninsula and southern Manchuria, the Chinese lost ready access to much of the world through this region and specifically to Korea, an important trade partner.
Sun Yat-sen, a nationalist, shown here, became the President of the United Provinces of China in 1913, but the Chinese people and lands were so divided that his noble efforts fell apart. China came to be ruled by warlords. Nonetheless, he managed to build a political party, called the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, and set up shop mainly in Canton.
We indicated early on that there were colorful characters surrounding our Burma Banshees --- this is a good start, Sun Yat-sen, Mao Tse Tung, and Chiang Kai-shek, but we've only begun.
The word to describe Japanese ambitions in Asia is “expansion.” The Japanese had a vision of owning a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," though their actions and crimes against humanity would hardly have accomplished such an objective. We'll now describe the Japanese race through Asia. It most certainly can match the so-called German "blitzkrieg" through Europe in terms of its speed and ferocity, and the number of people coming under Japanese subjugation.