Black WWII Vet Recalls Terrible Time Building 'Ledo Road'
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 7, 2004 It's known as a wartime engineering miracle, but for nearly 60 years the African-American soldiers who built it said it would be a miracle if they were ever recognized for their extraordinary accomplishments during World War II.
The miracle was called "Ledo Road," later renamed "Stilwell Road" in honor of Army Gen. Joseph W. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, World War II commander of the China-Burma-India Theater. After the Japanese cut off the Burma Road between China and Burma, the only way for the Allies to send supplies to the Chinese was by air. The importance of a land route to China was so great that the United States assigned more than 15,000 American troops to construct the Ledo Road. The road ran 271 miles from Ledo on the IndiaBurma border to a junction on the old Burma Road.
Construction of Ledo Road began in December 1942. The first section followed a steep, narrow trail through unsurveyed territory from Ledo, India, across the Patkai Mountains and down to Shingbwiyang, Burma. Sometimes rising as high as 4,500 feet, the 103-mile trail required the removal of more than 100,000 cubic feet of earth every mile, according to military historians.
More than 60 percent of the American troops were African-Americans. The first and only recognition they received was during the 2004 Defense Department African American History Month observance at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Fla., in February.
One of them was Mose J. Davie, a man who later established his own law school and graduated from it because blacks were not allowed to attend law school in Tennessee.
A native of Nashville, Davie, who now uses a wheelchair to get around, was unable to attend the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on May 29. But the aging lawyer calls the memorial "a nice gesture," adding, "It's an honor to the black soldiers who built the Ledo Road, both those who are dead and alive. I don't know how many are still alive, but I read in the paper that about 1,000 World War II veterans are dying every day."
Defense Department officials were able to locate only 12 of the African-American road builders in February, and only six of them were able to travel to Tallahassee.
Davie said he's pleased that the China-Burma Theater is carved in stone in the Pacific Theater section of the memorial.
"I thought we'd accomplished something when we finished that road," said Davie, who served as sergeant major of the 382nd Engineer Construction Battalion. "I felt at that time the United States had let us down. They hadn't done anything to reward us for the patriotism we'd shown.
"I felt we'd been let down, but I feel elated a little bit now, because they have subsequently recognized their mistakes," Davie said.
As to those who have died before the recognition and before the dedication of the memorial, Davie said it's "pitiful" that they were never recognized. "There was an injustice done to them," Davie said. "As far as I know, there are only about a dozen of us left. The Lord has spared me to live so long."
Davie was drafted into the Army in May 1941 while a senior at Tennessee State University in Nashville majoring in industrial education. After boot camp, he was assigned to the 382nd at Fort Knox, Ky. While he was at Fort Knox, the 382nd trained the 758th and 761st Tank Battalions, that later became famous during the war under Army Gen. George S. Patton.
"They didn't have any black outfits where enlisted men could become officers or noncommissioned officers," he noted. "So they had to activate one for that purpose.
"I was like the rest of the young aggressive black men -- I wanted a promotion, and the best I could get was as a buck sergeant at Fort Knox," Davie continued. "So I asked for a transfer. They sent me to Fort Campbell, Ky., as a first sergeant. I really went from a buck sergeant to a master sergeant."
When he was assigned to India, Davie knew only that he would be doing some kind of construction work, but he had no way of knowing what a massive job faced him.
When the black soldiers arrived at the job site, they were issued hand-me-down equipment that had been used by white troops before they arrived. Davie said some of the shovels, picks, graders, bulldozers and other equipment needed repair.
Noting that all the officers were white, Davie said, "We were an all-black unit in India with a job to do, and we tried to do it. I'd never done any construction work before, so I didn't know what engineering work was like."
As the battalion sergeant major, Davie was the highest-ranking black man in the organization. "We assigned the troops to do a job, and hoped that they would do it," he said. "If they didn't do it, the white officers had to see that it was done.
"There was nothing but jungles, mountains, gorges, rivers, swamps and oceans of mud over there," Davie said. "We started building that road in 1942 and finished it the month that Japan surrendered," said Davie, who worked on the road the whole time. "I lost three years of my life working on that road."
Six companies of African-American soldiers -- a headquarters company, a service company and four combat-engineer companies -- performed the bulk of the construction.
Davie noted that malaria was prevalent. "It was a man killer over there," he said. "I was lucky because I didn't catch malaria, but a lot of men died from it." However, Davie said, he dropped from about 175 pounds to about 120 pounds. "The Army gave us enough food, but the malaria, living conditions and working seven days a week night and day -- is what took the weight off of you," Davie said.
The monsoon season, which lasted from May for about five months, made for miserable conditions and hampered construction work. "The road would wash out, and we'd have to go back and rebuild overnight," Davie noted.
Then there were the big snakes and leeches. "You wouldn't know you had leeches on you until they filled up with blood and dropped off of you," Davie recalled. "And you could hear jackals barking at night, but you never saw them."
Temperatures would soar to more than 115 degrees in May and June. And there were earthquakes. "I was laying in bed one night and heard something popping, and we thought the Japanese were bombing us," Davie recalled. "I went outside my tent and we were having one of the worst earthquakes -- the Earth and mountains were popping."
It was near the end of the war when the black road builders finally got an all-black hospital unit. Before that, there wasn't anything but the 20th General Hospital, which had all white doctors, nurses and medics.
Just getting to India was unpleasant, Davie said. Men in the 45th before him left from North Carolina; he left from Anza, Calif. "We were in a staging area at Camp Anza, Calif., packing our equipment getting ready to go overseas, but we didn't know where we were going or what we would be doing," Davie said. "And behold, one morning, they put us on a ship called the USS Hermitage. We sailed from Camp Anza to Wellington, New Zealand. We arrived in June, and they were picking cotton and potatoes during the fall farming just like you would in this country."
From there, they sailed to Melbourne, Australia, and around the West Coast to Perth. Then they went back out into the Indian Ocean and sailed up to Bombay, India.
Davie said the long ocean voyage was far from being pleasurable. "With 18,000 men on those ships, you did the best you could to get some sleep," he said. "It got so hot they had all the black people in the hull of the ship below the water level. They had a white guard on the doors in the event that a torpedo hit the ship. I took a job running a mimeograph machine on the top deck to keep from going down into that hole. I slept on the steel floors."
He noted that the white sailors ate the good food -- bacon and eggs -- for breakfast, and the black troops ate hardtack and cold pork and beans.
"They picked up some Indian cooks in Calcutta, but when the train stopped for you to eat, you got some hardtack full of bugs and weevils out of the boxcar," he recalled. "You couldn't eat it in the daytime. You waited until night so you couldn't see what you were eating. For bathrooms, they had a hole bored into the floor of the train with a chair sitting over that hole."
When he was discharged in 1945, Davie finished his bachelor's degree requirements at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, which is now Tennessee State University. After getting his master's degree, Davie decided he wanted to go to law school.
"But no law school in Tennessee would admit a black man in those days," Davie said. "But I had a good white friend who said, Mose, if they won't let you go to their law school, start your own law school and go to it. He helped us start the law school in Nashville and selected a faculty for us, and we paid the teachers $5 an hour to teach us."
The name of the school was Tennessee Evening Law School, which Davie started in 1956. Ironically, all of the law students held doctorate degrees and had been Davie's professors.
After Davie earned his law degree from his own law school, the state wouldn't allow him and the other graduates to take the bar exam. When state officials changed their minds, they told Davie they would let the first group of graduates take the bar exam if he would shut down his school. He reluctantly closed the school, took the bar exam and became a general practitioner.
Tennessee started admitting blacks in law school around 1962.
One of Davie's first successes was to save the life of a black man on death row. The man had been convicted of killing the Memphis police chief's brother-in-law. Scheduled to be executed in Nashville, the man wrote a letter to then-Gov. Frank Clement saying he was about to be killed for something he wasn't guilty of.
"They'd never had a black man on the grand jury in any of the counties in the state of Tennessee," Davie noted. "That's when I became very interested and they appointed me to defend him. I saved his life!
"I wrote Governor Clement a letter and told him that this man felt he'd been mistreated because he was condemned to die and had never received a fair trial under the Constitution," Davie continued. "The 14th Amendment says you must have a black on the grand jury." The governor commuted the sentence to life, along with the sentences of several other black men who had been given the death penalty, Davie noted.
"The governor said, 'We're not going to electrocute any more black people in the state of Tennessee,'" Davie said. "And no one, black or white, was electrocuted in Tennessee for more than 40 years after that."
Reflecting on the hardships he endured over the years, Davie still maintained a sense of humor. As rough as he had it building the road, he was able to laugh heartily as he recalled his first pass in India.
"They gave the first sergeants and master sergeants a few hours off the ship to walk through the city," he recalled. "Little Indian boys kept running up to us begging for money. When I wouldn't give one of them anything, the boy ran around in front of me with a basket, took the top off and a cobra snakehead came up. I gave him everything I had."
Editor's Note, April 23, 2015: We have been made aware that this article fails to credit the work of Dr. Geraldine Seay, who spent more than a decade working on collecting the stories of Ledo vets and researching the CBI campaign. She persistently sought Defense Department recognition for the veterans, culminating in providing the names of the veterans she had interviewed so they could be flown in for the recognition ceremony, at which she spoke. We apologize for the omission, and have added a link below to Dr. Seay's website, African Americans and the Ledo/Stilwell Road.