Stilwell served as CHIANG Kai-shek’s Chief of Staff from 1942-44 and commanded Chinese and American forces in Burma. Stilwell had a long experience of the Far East, having served as military attache to the US Embassy at Peking from 1932 to 1939. In 1941 he was appointed by the War Department to command US forces in China, Burma and India and to improve the fighting efficiency of the Chinese Army, which meant insuring the proper use of American aid. On 10 March 1942 he became Chief of Staff to Chiang. At this time Stilwell campaigned in Burma with the Chinese Fifth and Sixth Armies, unsuccessfully attempting to hold the Burma road against the Japanese. Stilwell rescued the Chinese garrison which was encircled at Toungoo but after intense fighting Stilwell retreated into India. In August 1943 the Southeast Asia Command was organized and Stilwell was appointed Deputy Supreme Allied Commander under Vice-Admiral MOUNTBATTEN. Stilwell had been extremely critical and mistrustful of the British and this appointment enabled them to keep him under control. It also gave the Chinese some official recognition and insured a minimum of cooperation in the attempt to recapture Burma and restore overland communications with China.
During 1943 Stilwell prepared an offensive into Burma and on 21 December he took personal command of the operation to take Myitkyina which only fell in the following August. Stilwell blamed the British units, WINGATE’s Chindits for not fighting well yet they had to be sent home suffering from battle fatigue and in need of hospitalization. In China the air offensive conducted by CHENNAULT had provoked the Japanese to launch operation Ichi-Go and they overran US air bases in East China. The Joint Chiefs decided to appoint Stilwell Commander of all Chinese troops in order to deal with the crisis. However Chiang used the opportunity to have Stilwell recalled in October 1944. Stilwell had one last command: he replaced BUCKNER as head of the US 10th Army on Okinawa.
Stilwell was a brilliant soldier who would disappear for months into the Burmese jungle, but he was too independent a Commander and not tactful or diplomatic in dealing with people he disliked. He thought his mission was to press a reluctant Chiang into direct military action against the Japanese. However Chiang did not have the political power he sought and preferred to use US aid to fight the Communists. Stilwell understood this, mistrusted Chiang and yet had to contend with strong, unrealistic sinophile sentiments in the USA and among his superiors. At the same time he had a low opinion of the British and saw no reason to help them re-establish their empire. Stilwell, nicknamed ‘Vinegar Joe,’ roused controversy and antagonism wherever he went.