September 1956 Issue From Phoenix, August 1945
By Anthony March
ONE RECENT morning Major Clarence D. Sheffield, Signal Corps construction chief, picked up a phone in the repeater building near Kunming and talked to an American officer in New Delhi. That little conversation over 2,900 miles of wire marked the completion of 30 months of work along the 1,078 back-breaking miles of right-of-way from Ledo to Kunming. It meant that TIG-One-B was in. "TIG-l-B" is otherwise meaningless shipping nomenclature for the U.S. Signal Corps line from Ledo to Kunming. Everyone along the Stilwell and Burma Roads knows it by that name and has become familiar with it since the time in November 1942 when the wire first began to creep out from Ledo eastward. When on May 25, 1945, Major Sheffield made his telephone call, the name went off into history. Except for the men who put in TIG-1. They'll remember it until they die. It was rough. The slim poles carry the copper wire on their shoulders and stride across the toughest terrain in the world. Coming out of Ledo, they cross the Patkai Mountains into Burma. Following the Stilwell Road, they leap the Chindwin River east of Shingbwiyang, the Irrawaddy at Myitkyina, run south to Bhamo and Muse and, falling in with the Burma Road, cross into China at Wanting. Sometimes, where the road goes down, the wire goes up and you see on a distant peak the last cross-arm. And the poles march down into gorges like that of the Salween, as straight as a file of soldiers, for the men who put them there could not think of convenience alone. There were considerations like time and manpower and material. But mostly time. When Base X was set up at Ledo in November 1942, it had a personnel of two American officers and three enlisted men. There were also one British officer and 54 Indian Army men. Now there are several battalions of Signal Corps troops maintaining the Ledo - Kunming line, keeping it open despite monsoon, truck accident, and the natural love of the native for copper wire. At the beginning the Japs were close at hand and-the line moved slowly. In December 1942; the first switchboard was set up at Ledo with 12 lines for local calls and two trunks to Chabua and Lekhapani. Soon afterward, a radio circuit was established and began working a 24-hour watch with Chabua and Calcutta. A four-strand pole line worked forward as far as mile 10. This was "Tokyo Corner," highwater mark of the Jap attempt to invade India. A 24-hour radio schedule was set up with Delhi and teletype shortened the time needed to expedite messages. Field wire was laid 60 miles put of Ledo and poles ran for half that distance. In the seventh month of operations, Base X (later Advanced Section 3 and now simply Advanced Section, I - B Theater) was handling monthly 75,000 phone calls, 41,232 teletype groups and 222,248 radio groups. Its personnel at that time was eight officers and 107 enlisted men. They had begun making their own cross-arms, turning out 250 a day in a sort of portable factory they took with them as they moved up. Later on, the 96th Signal Battalion set up a creosoting plant at the 101 -mile mark. The 1943 monsoon hit them while they were still in the mountains of northern Burma. All material had to be manhandled into position with improvised equipment. Trucks couldn't get up where the line had to go. Malaria and dysentery struck down a big percentage of the men, yet they shoved the line to the 47-mile mark before they had to stop. The road had not yet been gravelled beyond that point. By the time the new year came in they were beginning to pick up speed. In January 1944 they were advanced 67 miles and by June they had completed ten-pin construction to 164 miles. In the marshlands between Nritu Ga and Tingkawk Sakan, they had to use cables. Maintenance was a tremendous task here; crews worked in mud and water to their chests to bridge the 20-mile gap. Pontoon boats were used. Somebody was so intent upon cutting the cable that M.P.'s had to be called in to patrol the line. The 428th Signal Heavy Construction Battalion, which had built the line from Ledo to Mogaung, was given another task in the direction of Myitkyina. The 96th Battalion built new line to Mogaung and then split its forces as the big southward drive of the British XIV Army got underway. One part of the Battalion swung southwest to Katha, putting in line behind the 36th Division. The other section strung 180 miles of wire between Myitkyina and Bhamo in January 1945. At the Chinese border in March, the 96th was joined by the 432nd Signal Heavy Construction Battalion, which took over the wire and went into Lungling with it. The line from Lungling to Yunnanyi was American supervised and Chinese built, and at the latter place the 31st Signal Heavy Construction Battalion took over and ran it into Kunming.
Telephone To Kunming
That, in a general way, is a picture of how the work progressed, but it is not the whole picture. Other outfits, all this time, were supplementing this work. In December 1943, the 430th Battalion built 36 miles of wire from Ledo west to Tinsukia. The original construction from Ledo to Mile 37 was done by the old 835th Signal Service Battalion, now redesignated the 3199th Signal Service Battalion. Company C of this unit, which, with another Signal Service Battalion, now operates the line while it is maintained by the 445th, 96th and 31st, received a presidential citation for its work from Loglai to Shadazup during April-August 1944. According to Lt. Col. Robert Disney, who has been in charge of the work as Signal Officer of the Advanced Section, it has been "a back-breaking job." The laymen sees a line of poles stepping along the mountains and they look mighty pretty and purposeful. He doesn't see the surveyors with line and rod walking those hills, staking off the poles and selecting the right-of-way. He may catch a glimpse occasionally of a mechanical earth borer drilling neat holes at the rate of 100 a day -but what of the countless times when the rugged terrain (and there is plenty of that stuff along this route) won't permit the use of borers? Then coolies are called in with picks and shovels. The best they've ever done has been 35 holes a day. Then comes the supply crew, dropping poles off trucks; the framing crew, which spikes on the cross-arms and hardware; the setting crew to up-end the poles in place, line them up, tamp them in. And now the guying crew attaches guys where the line turns a corner or leaps a long span, and they sink anchors in the ground to hold the whole steady. And the stringing crew strings, of course, the wires, unreeling the miles and miles of copper metal that will carry the word whenever you wish to send it. And the sagging crew pulls in the slack, making the line sharp and taut as a bowstring, and ties it in. One man following another, walking up and down the mountains, doing a job of work, and there is your line. -THE END
WIRE-STRINGING crew of 432nd Signal Hvy. Const. Bn. strings wire
across rice paddies to link China with India. U.S. Army photo, Mar. 15, 1945.