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China Student. The career that was to take him to Asia began in 1883. Florida-born, Yonkers-bred Joe Stilwell, at 18, was sent by his doctor-lawyer father to West Point because he was something of an adolescent hellion. Young Stilwell would have chosen Yale. During World War I Lieut. Colonel Stilwell served in France. Back in the U.S. at war's end, he felt a cold wave of pacifism welling up over the country, asked the Army to send him abroad, far away, anywhere that he might sometimes enjoy an occasional martial mixup. One day in 1920 he turned up in Peiping as a military language student.
Joe Stilwell developed an insatiable curiosity about China and her way of life. As military attache at the U.S. legation in Peiping, his reports were concise, but packed with information. Soon he won the reputation of being an authority on Chinese affairs. He studied in books and at first hand. His lean, leathery figure, bedroll and knapsack slung over his shoulder, became a familiar one, tramping across China's flat, dusty, northern countryside. He liked to mingle with the chiupa, the rugged riflemen who, since the Manchu dynasty was overthrown (1911), have borne the burden of their nation's endless civil wars.
Between service stretches in China, Joe Stilwell taught infantry tactics back in the U.S. He also raised a familythree daughters, two sons. But Joe Stilwell, honest, good-humored scholar, teacher and family man, was also known as an acidulous observer of the world of men. For his avuncular benignity, he was called "Uncle Joe." For his biting comments on dopes and humbugs, he was nicknamed "Vinegar."
In China, Stilwell developed one deep conviction that was also a deep compliment to the Chinese nation: he believed that the straw-sandaled, underfed Chinese soldier, properly equipped, trained and led, was the fighting equal of any other nation's soldier. He was sure that he could create a striking force with Chinese manpower and U.S. weapons that would drive the Japanese from China. After Pearl Harbor, he got the beginning of a slim chance to test this belief.
China's Soldier. In March 1942, General Stilwell went back to China, plunged immediately into the hopeless task of holding Burma against the Japs. His famed retreat across Burma ("I say we took a hell of a beating") did not shake his faith in the Chinese soldier. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek supported Stilwell, at first. So did his great & good friend, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall.
But on all sides, frustrations presently piled up. All of Joe Stilwell's vinegar personality could not bite a way through the conflicting confusions of U.S. foreign policy, Chinese domestic policy and Britain's Asiatic aims.
In his campaign to reopen a road to China through northern Burma, "Vinegar Joe," at 59, proved himself a crack field commander, a masterly tacticianand also a driving, red-tape-be-damned anti-diplomat. His men, Chinese and American, saw him frequently from their jungle foxholes. He jeeped across the tortuous terrain indefatigably, injected his high-octane personality into every advance.