A Surgeon with Stilwell
Dr. John H. Grindlay and Combat Medicine in the China-Burma-India Theater of World War II
Alan K. Lathrop
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2018, 259 pages
Book Review published on: October 4, 2019
Alan K. Lathrop’s A Surgeon with Stilwell is a collection of journal entries by Dr. John H. Grindlay, a military surgeon serving with the American Military Mission to China (AMMISCA) during World War II. Grindlay’s daily thoughts and observations are cleverly woven into the chaos surrounding Allied efforts against the Japanese army during the Burma Campaign. The book gives the reader detailed accounts of the day-to-day challenges and experiences faced by medical personnel. Also, Lathrop touches on the interpersonal relationships between well-known historical personalities such as Lt. Gen. Stilwell, Chang Kai-Shek, and Chang’s popular, charismatic wife, Soong Mei-ling, as well as countless others who bring substance to World War II’s forgotten campaign.
The book begins with U.S. efforts to support the Chinese Nationalist fight against Japan. Brig. Gen. John Magruder and Clarence Gauss, U.S. ambassador to China, were given the momentous task of forming AMMISCA: manning, equipping, and training the Chinese National Forces headquartered in Chungking, southwest China. The task included the transportation of equipment and material over the Burma Road as part of the U.S. Lend Lease program. Even though the scale is different, the challenges faced by the AMMISCA were similar to the challenges faced by today’s security force assistant brigades and their interagency counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The book continues with the U.S. entry into the war and the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. Stilwell is introduced and becomes the senior U.S. liaison at the request of Chang Kai-Shek, who wanted a senior American advisor. Stilwell’s command absorbs the personnel and functions of the AMMISCA and is renamed the China-Burma-India Theater (CBI). The author highlights the reluctance of British Gen. Archibald Wavell and later Gen. Harold Alexander to have Chinese forces assist in defending Burma, believing that British and Indian forces were more than capable of repelling any attack on Rangoon and the Burma Road. Stilwell argued against this because the risk was too high that the Burma Road would be cut. Their reluctance is later overruled by London and Washington, D.C., and the Chinese Expeditionary Force consisting of the fifth and sixth Chinese armies with Stilwell advising was added to the defense force.
At this point, the author abruptly changes the tone and pace of the book and focuses more on Grindlay’s experience as a combat surgeon forward deployed in Burma with the Seagrave Hospital Unit. The Seagrave Hospital is credited with pioneering frontline field hospitals allowing quick lifesaving urgent care to wounded soldiers. Many of Grindlay’s thoughts and journal entries highlight the day-to-day challenges of running a field hospital, managing personalities, and providing care for wounded soldiers with minimum resources. Lathrop covers the great “walk out from Burma,” the disorganized allied retreat from Burma. Grindlay writes in great detail highlighting the conditions that soldiers faced and how tropical diseases, jungle conditions, and starvation decimated Allied troops.
The book’s ending is a bit awkward. The ending highlights a feud between Grindlay and his commander, Dr. Gordon Seagrave, a notable officer and author who wrote the critically acclaimed Burma Surgeon, a book that laid the foundation for the organization of American field hospitals for both the Korean War and Vietnam War. Many of Grindlay’s grievances with Seagrave seem personal and irrelevant to the scope of the work.
Overall, I enjoyed reading the book. I found the day-to-day accounts of Grindlay’s journal compelling and felt it really gave the reader a sense of what it was like to serve in the Burmese jungle during the war. However, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more insight given about Stilwell and his relationship with Grindlay. It would have been insightful to understand Stilwell’s thoughts and actions during the great walk-out out of Burma and the subsequent counter offensive.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Andrew H. Lanier IV, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas