Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell

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Joseph Warren "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, 1883-1946

(Compiled by Forrest Ladd from a variety of encyclopedia and Internet sources.)

Joseph Warren Stilwell was born March 19, 1883 in Palatka, Florida, the son of Benjamin W. Stilwell and Mary Augusta (Peene) Stilwell. He was educated at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Commissioned in the army in 1904, he served as an officer in France in 1917-18 during World War I. His family had roots in New York, including a long line of Methodists. His father inherited a substantial estate, but the General's lifestyle reflected neither wealth nor religious inclinations. He served for 13 years in China between World Wars I and II, where he learned to know the country and to speak Chinese fluently. In February 1942, during World War II, he went back to China, where in March of 1942 he became Chiang Kai-shek's chief of staff and commander of U.S. troops in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater. He continued this command until October 1944.

Arriving in Karachi, India on February 24, 1942, he set up his headquarters in Lashio, Burma. Defeated in Burma by Japanese troops, he and his troops retreated from Lashio beginning on April 21, 1942. Across treacherous terrain, through monsoons and floods, by train, by truck, by jeep, by raft, and by foot, they journeyed toward India with the Japanese troops behind. May 20, 1942 was the last day of their journey through the jungles to Imphal, India. There Stilwell led the buildup of forces for the successful counterattack in Burma.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek gave Stilwell command of Chinese troops in Burma and India on December 18, 1943. Six days later Stilwell announced the beginning of the campaign to retake Northern Burma. However, there was continuing conflict between Stilwell and Chiang, with each believing that the other was trying to undercut him. Pearl Harbor had opened Uncle Sam's purse wide to Chiang Kai-shek. Beginning in 1942, the Americans agreed to pour in millions of dollars in cash and virtually unlimited supplies of war materials. In actuality this money was a bribe since the Chinese threatened to quit the war against Japan and devote their full energies against the Communists if they did not receive the money. Fully half of Japan's overseas armies were pinned down in China, and the Chinese had suffered 3 million casualties in fighting the Japanese. The possibility that the Chinese might surrender, thus freeing the bulk of the Japanese army for deployment against U.S. troops, frightened Washington sufficiently to keep the money flowing. Chiang thought that any suggestion as to how the money should be used was a reflection on China's sovereignty.

An important part of Stilwell's mission was to shore up Chiang's troops and to get Chiang to spend more time fighting the Japanese. To his dismay, Lt. Gen. Stilwell found Chiang's army a loose confederation of feudal warlords of dubious loyalty and capability. Stilwell fumed because of what appeared to be Chiang's undeclared truce with the Japanese. Whenever the enemy advanced, Chiang's forces fell back without offering resistance. Chiang was using his best forces to fight the Communists and he wanted a strong army left after the war. On the other hand, Chiang felt that Stilwell was trying to undercut his authority.

Stilwell's report to Washington included the statement that "Chiang Kai-shek believes he can go on milking the United States for money and munitions by using the old gag about quitting if he is not supported. . . . I believe he will only continue his policy of delay, while grabbing for loans and postwar aid, for the purpose of maintaining his present position, based on one-party government, a reactionary policy, and the suppression of democratic ideas with the active aid of his gestapo." Needless to say, there was continuing conflict between Chiang Kai-shek and Lt. General Stilwell. General Patrick Hurley was sent to Chungking as the presidential emissary to harmonize Stilwell's relations with Chiang. Although he tried to mediate, he could not fix their relations and eventually his message to the President was that the primary issue between Chiang Kai-shek and the President was Stilwell. This report made Stilwell's recall inevitable. President Roosevelt replaced Stilwell in October 1944 because he was afraid that Chiang was going to stop resisting Japan.

In January of 1945 General Stilwell became chief of Army Ground Forces and commanded the U.S. 10th Army on Okinawa in the final months of the war. From March 1, 1946, to his death on October 12, 1946, he was commander of the U.S. Sixth Army, with headquarters at San Francisco.

Stilwell was known by his troops and the public as "Vinegar Joe." Unlike General Douglas MacArthur, Vinegar Joe was characterized by his candor, lack of pretension, and identification with the common soldier. His tendency to let people know what he thought of them ill-suited him for a post with strong diplomatic overtones. Yet, the abrasive exterior was accompanied by a keen intelligence, a willingness to innovate, and, like MacArthur, an unusually great sensitivity to Asiatic cultures. His acid was balanced by a human kindness and an ironic sense of humor. When he spoke he "told it like it is." No soft soap. No dramatics. No politically correct statements. No dress-up uniforms. No rows of medals. Joe Stilwell was a rugged West Pointer who had spent his life as an infantryman. When his staff walked out of Burma, Stilwell led the way in his battered old campaign hat. He could out-walk any man in the group. Vinegar Joe was an appropriate public name for General Stilwell, a name that covered his Spartan style as a field grade officer and his astringent use of the English language.

One of his achievements during the term of service in the China-Burma-India theater was the initiation of a supply route connecting the town of Ledo in Assam province, India to the Burma Road in East Burma. Originally called the Ledo Road, this 478-mile road was renamed the Stilwell Road in 1945 by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek in Stilwell's honor. Building this road was an extraordinary feat of military engineering. While estimates of the manpower involved in the construction vary, it is likely that more than 25,000 persons, military and civilian, were involved. This number included many local laborers, American troops, including a substantial number of blacks, and a contingent of British soldiers, led by General Ord Wingate and comprised of a diverse group including soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, and India. In addition to construction crews, support personnel such as medical units, maintenance workers for the machinery, and the like made substantial contributions to the effort.

Begun in December 1942, the road was officially opened in February 1945, designed to provide crucial supplies from India to China. It also provided a pathway for a pipeline to provide much-needed gasoline for aircraft. Constructed under enemy fire and extreme natural obstacles, this link provided vital supplies needed by the American and Chinese forces fighting the Japanese on the Chinese mainland. The first convoy reached Kunming, China on February 4, 1945. The road was in use until the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. A video entitled "The Stilwell Road," narrated by Ronald Reagan, presents the story of the construction.

During his last years he and his wife Winifred (affectionately known as "Winnie") made their home in Carmel, California. The house still stands on Inspiration Way, not far from Tor House. He died on October 12, 1946 of cancer. At his death, he was cremated and his ashes were tossed to the wind currents above Carmel Beach. He was the author of the Stilwell Papers, arranged and edited by Theodore White and posthumously published in 1948 as a memoir of his experiences in World War II. He also is known for his motto, a faux-Latin phrase "Illigitimati non carborundum," which may loosely be translated as "Don't let the b____s grind you down." (One researcher says that the phrase actually was coined during the Civil War by General Burnside at the Battle of Spotsylvania.)

An abbreviated ancestry of Joseph Warren Stilwell:
Nicholas Stillwell, b. about 1603
 Nicholas Stillwell, b. about 1636
  Nicholas Stillwell, b. about 1672
   John Stillwell b. May 9, 1690
    William Stilwell, b. about 1722
     Stephen Stilwell, b. October 27, 1760
      John Stilwell, b. October 7, 1802
       Benjamin W. Stilwell, b. July 19, 1858
        Joseph Warren Stilwell, b. March 19, 1883 


Materials graciously supplied by Greg Stilwell of the USA and Martin Stilwell of Surrey, England.

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(Reviewed 24 Oct 2005)