Stilwell Room at Thayer


Joseph W. Stilwell, a member of the Class of 1904, as a cadet captained the cross country team, and ran track. In 1904 he competed in the NCAA National Championships in the 440, 880, and mile races. He was also a quarterback on the football team and was instrumental in a key Army game. Against the great Chicago University football team, with the score tied 6 – 6, Stilwell was back to receive a punt. Seeing the immortal Walter Eckersall, charging down upon him, Stilwell made a split second decision to hold, deliberately taking a crushing hit. The Chicagoan, expecting a run, had interfered resulting in a 25-yard penalty. With only minutes to play Army kicked a field goal resulting in one of the most stunning upsets in gridiron history.

In 1903 he introduced basketball at West Point and coached teams as a cadet and later as an officer. He was inducted into the Army Sports Hall of Fame in 2010 for his accomplishments.

Stilwell’s early career took him to the Philippines with the 12th Infantry and back to West Point as an instructor in French, Spanish, and History. In World War I he was the G-2 of the U.S. IV Corps and helped plan the St. Mihiel offensive. Following the War and desiring a challenging assignment, he became the Army’s first Chinese language student. In 1920 he was assigned to Peking for three years. In 1926 he returned to China to serve in the U.S. 15th Infantry in Tientsin. Following assignments as Chief of the Tactics Section at Fort Benning and with the reserve component in San Diego, he was selected to be the Military Attache’ to China and Siam in 1935.

It was when he was Chief of the Tactics Section that he acquired the nickname of “Vinegar Joe.” One day he was observing a reconnaissance problem in the field and one young officer was trying to bluff his way through his report. Realizing that behavior in combat could result in casualties, Stilwell provided a “significant emotional event” to the class so they would know never to do that in combat. The next morning a drawing of a vinegar jug with a caricature of Stilwell imposed on it appeared on the bulletin board. Stilwell liked it so much he got permission from the artist to reproduce it, and, never one to take himself very seriously, sent it to all his friends. From then on he was “Vinegar Joe”.

Promoted to brigadier general in 1939, he was assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division and participated in the large unit maneuvers in the southeast, earning the reputation as one of the best large unit commanders in the Army. In 1940, he activated and trained the 7th Division at Fort Ord, California. The outbreak of hostilities with Japan found him commanding III Corps and responsible for defending a large section of the California coast.

In late December 1941, he was called to Washington to plan and command the Allied invasion of North Africa. However, when it became obvious that such an invasion could not be mounted quickly, and the need arose to keep China in the war against Japan and tie down the 25 Japanese divisions in China, he was selected by Secretary of War Stimson and General George C. Marshall to go to China. He accepted his new assignment, knowing it would not involved command of U.S. combat forces, with a simple, “I’ll go where I’m sent.”

Arriving in China as the Japanese were invading Burma and threatening to cut off China’s last land or sea supply route, he ostensibly was given command of the Chinese forces sent to defend Burma. However, in reality Chiang Kai-shek was issuing orders directly to his commanders in Burma and that was one factor that led to defenses collapsing. As Chinese forces retreated to China and India, Stilwell, knowing that if he accepted air evacuation he would never have the respect of Chinese troops in the future, led a two-week forced march of 114 heterogeneous personnel to safety in India. His was the only party to reach safety without a loss of life. At a press conference on May 24, 1942, he spoke the famous words, “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.” His honesty was a breath of fresh air to the American public then badly in need of honesty and candor.

Commanding at the theater level, Stilwell’s priority for men and materiel was far below that of the European or Pacific Theaters. Nevertheless, he persevered and pursued his mission with assets he had available to open an alternate land supply route to China. He established a training camp at Ramgarh, India, and proceeded to train two divisions of Chinese troops. He ensured they were given good food, supplies, medical care, tactical instruction, and focused on improving the quality of leadership. In 1944, he led those two divisions, along with the 3,000-man U.S. force known as Merrill’s Marauders, on an offensive in northern Burma to capture the strategic town of Myitkyina and eventually reopen the Burma Road. Stilwell was constantly at the front lines, often carrying his own Thompson submachine gun or carbine and with no insignia of rank, encouraging and pushing his Chinese units, gradually giving them confidence they could defeat the Japanese. They soon became the most effective units in the Chinese Army and were the first Chinese units to defeat a first-class enemy in a sustained offensive. His leadership and methods used to achieve success with foreign troops serve as an example for today’s military.

In recognition of his front-line leadership, Stilwell was award the Combat Infantryman Badge. It was the award he held in highest esteem and he was the only general officer during World War II to receive it.

In 1991 the People’s Republic of China established the Stilwell Museum in Chongqing to honor his service to China

He later commanded Army Ground Forces, and X Army on Okinawa in the latter stages of the War. He was in command of Sixth Army at the Presidio of San Francisco when he died on active duty October 12, 1946.

Stilwell was known throughout the Army as the true soldiers’ general for his personal style of leadership that emphasized belief in the worth of the individual and concern for the welfare of the soldier. Through his initiative the first enlisted club in the Army was built at Fort Ord, and in Burma he established a camp for disabled Chinese soldiers to teach them a skill before they returned to civilian life. His leadership style led the soldiers under his command to give him the nickname of “Uncle Joe”.

Stilwell was a modest man of character and integrity whose life was never tainted by scandal. He was a decisive man of action with extraordinary drive, persistence, and energy, yet he was also a modest man who refused the trappings of office and would not put himself in the limelight. He had a keen insight into what was right and stuck by his positions.

He never wavered in his absolute dedication to his country, and wrote, “If a man can say he did not let his country down, and if he can live with himself, there is nothing more he can reasonable ask for.”

Outside the room, next to the Plaque there will be a 21×26 framed montage of selected photos with captions. The largest and centered will be the photo below of General Stilwell cleaning his Thompson sub machine gun. The additional photos below the Commanding General cleaning his Thompson gives you an idea of what we have available. As I said we will place a leather cover book in the room which will contain many of the over 400 photos we have.

Stilwell cleaning his Thompson during the Walkout

Stilwell at the Presidio of San Francisco, CA when he commanded 6th Army, August, 1946.

1944 General Stilwell back in Burma – If anyone questions if he was a front line General – Note the cloths line and laundry in the back ground.

Brigadier General Stilwell during his assignment to the 2nd Division, Fort Sam Houston, TX – 1939.

Stilwell at a front line briefing, 1944.

Stilwell addressing wounded Chinese soldiers at the training facility
Stilwell set up to provide the soldiers with civilian skills once
they were discharged from the Army.

Stilwell at Myitkyina Airfield soon after the combined force of
Merrill’s Marauders and Chinese troops had captured it. On the right
is Colonel Hunter of the Marauders.

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