Joseph Warren Stilwell was born on March 19, 1883, in Palatka, Florida to Doctor Benjamin Stilwell and Mary A. (Peene) Stilwell. He was an eighth generation descendant of an English colonist who arrived in America in 1638, whose descendants remained in New York up through the birth of Stilwell’s father. Named for a family friend, as well as the doctor who delivered him, Joseph Stilwell, known as Warren by his family, grew up in New York, under a strict regimen from his father that included an emphasis on religion. Stilwell later admitted to his daughter that he picked up criminal instincts due to, “…being forced to go to Church and Sunday School, and seeing how little real good religion does anybody, I advise passing them all up and using common sense instead.” Stilwell’s rebellious attitude led him to a record of unruly behavior once he reached a post-graduate level at Yonkers High School. Prior to this last year, Stilwell had performed meticulously in his classes, and had participated actively in football and track. Under the discretion of his father, Stilwell was placed into a post-graduate course following graduation, and immediately formed a group of friends whose activities ranged from card playing to stealing the desserts from the senior dance in 1900. This last event, in which an administrator was punched, led to the expulsions and suspensions for Stilwell’s friends. Stilwell, meanwhile, having already graduated, was once again by his father’s guidance sent to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, rather than to proceed to Yale University as originally planned. Despite missing the deadline to apply for Congressional appointment to the military academy, Stilwell gained entry through the use of family connections who knew President William McKinley. In his first year, Stilwell underwent plebe that he referred to as “hell.” While at West Point, Stilwell showed an aptitude for languages, such as French, in which he ranked first in his class during his second year. In the field of sports, Stilwell is credited with introducing basketball to the Academy, and participating in cross-country running, as well as playing on the varsity football team. At West Point he had two demerits for laughing during drill. Ultimately, Stilwell graduated from the academy, class of 1904, ranked 32nd in a class of 124 cadets. His son, Brigadier General Joseph Warren Stilwell, Jr., served in World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam.
Stilwell later taught at West Point, and attended the Infantry Advanced Course and the Command and General Staff College. During World War I, he was the U.S. Fourth Corps intelligence officer and helped plan the St. Mihiel offensive. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his service in France. Stilwell is often remembered by his sobriquet, “Vinegar Joe”, which he acquired while a commander at Fort Benning, Georgia. Stilwell often gave harsh critiques of performance in field exercises and a subordinate – stung by Joe’s caustic remarks – drew a caricature of Stilwell rising out of a vinegar bottle. After discovering the caricature, Stilwell pinned it to a board and had the drawing photographed and distributed to friends. Yet another indication of his view of life was the motto he kept on his desk: Illegitimi non carborundum, a form of fractured Latin that translates as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Between the wars, Stilwell served three tours in China, where he mastered spoken and written Chinese, and was the military attaché at the U.S. Legation in Beijing from 1935 to 1939. In 1939 and 1940 he was assistant commander of the 2nd Infantry Division and from 1940 to 1941 organized and trained the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, California. It was there that his leadership style – which emphasized concern for the average soldier and minimized ceremonies and officious discipline – earned him the nickname of “Uncle Joe.” Just prior to World War II, Stilwell was recognized as the top corps commander in the Army and was initially selected to plan and command the Allied invasion of North Africa. However, when it became necessary to send a senior officer to China to keep that country in the War, Stilwell was selected, over his personal objections, by President Franklin Roosevelt and his old friend, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. He became the Chief of Staff to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, served as the commander of the China Burma India Theater responsible for all Lend-Lease supplies going to China, and later was Deputy Commander of the South East Asia Command. Unfortunately, despite his status and position in China, he soon became embroiled in conflicts over U.S. Lend-Lease aid and Chinese political sectarianism.
Stilwell’s assignment in the China-Burma-India Theater was a geographical administrative command on the same level as the commands of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. However, unlike other combat theaters, for example the European Theater of Operations, the CBI was never a “theater of operations” and did not have an overall American operational command structure. The China theater came under the operational command of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, commander of Nationalist Chinese forces, while the Burma India theater came under the operational command of the British India Command and later Allied South East Asia Command whose supreme commander was Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. The British and Chinese were ill-equipped and more often than not on the receiving end of Japanese offensives. Chiang Kai-Shek was interested in conserving his troops and Allied Lend-Lease supplies for use against any sudden Japanese offensive, as well as against Chinese Communist forces in a later civil war. The Generalissimo’s wariness increased after observing the disastrous Allied performance against the Japanese in Burma. After fighting and resisting the Japanese for five years, many in the Nationalist government felt that it was time for the Allies to assume a greater burden in fighting the war.
However, the first step to fighting the war for Stilwell was the reformation of the Chinese Army. These reforms clashed with the delicate balance of political and military alliances in China, which kept the Generalissimo in power. Reforming the army meant removing men who maintained Chiang’s position as commander-in-chief. While he gave Stilwell technical overall command of some Chinese troops, Chiang worried that the new American-led forces would become yet another independent force outside of his control. Since 1942, members of the Generalissimo’s staff had continually objected to Chinese troops being used in Burma for the purpose, as they viewed it, of returning that country to British colonial control. Chiang therefore sided with General Claire Chennault’s proposals that the war against the Japanese be continued largely using existing Chinese forces supported by air forces, something Chennault assured the Generalissimo was feasible. The dilemma forced Chennault and Stilwell into competition for the valuable Lend-Lease supplies arriving over the Himalayas from British-controlled India — an obstacle referred to as “The Hump”. George Marshall, in his biennial report covering the period of July 1, 1943 to June 30, 1945, acknowledged he had given Stilwell “one of the most difficult” assignments of any theater commander. Arriving in Burma just in time to experience the collapse of the Allied defense of that country, which cut China off from all land and sea supply routes, Stilwell personally led his staff of 117 men and women out of Burma into Assam, India on foot, marching at what his men called the ‘Stilwell stride’ – 105 paces per minute. Two of the men accompanying him, his aide Frank Dorn and the war correspondent, Jack Belden, wrote books about the walkout: Walkout with Stilwell in Burma (1971) and Retreat with Stilwell (1943), respectively. The Assam route was also used by other retreating Allied and Chinese forces. In India, Stilwell soon became well known for his no-nonsense demeanor and disregard for military pomp and ceremony. His trademarks were a battered Army campaign hat, GI shoes, and a plain service uniform with no insignia of rank; he frequently carried a .30 Springfield rifle in preference to a sidearm. His hazardous march out of Burma and his bluntly honest assessment of the disaster captured the imagination of the American public: “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.” However, Stilwell’s derogatory remarks castigating the ineffectiveness of what he termed Limey forces, a viewpoint often repeated by Stilwell’s staff, did not sit well with British and Commonwealth commanders. However, it was well known among the troops that Stilwell’s disdain for the British was aimed toward those high command officers that he saw as overly stuffy and pompous. After the Japanese occupied Burma, China was almost completely cut off from Allied aid and materiel except through the hazardous route of flying cargo aircraft over the Hump. Early on, the Roosevelt administration and the War Department had given priority to other theaters for U.S. combat forces, equipment, and logistical support. With the closure of the Burma Road and the fall of Burma, it was realized that even replacing Chinese war losses would be extremely difficult. Consequently, the Allies’ initial strategy was to keep Chinese resistance to the Japanese going by providing a lifeline of logistical and air support. Convinced that the Chinese soldier was the equal of any given proper care and leadership, Stilwell established a training center (in Ramgarh, India, 200 miles west of Calcutta) for two divisions of Chinese troops from forces that had retreated to Assam from Burma. His effort in this regard met passive, sometimes active, resistance from the British, who feared that armed, disciplined Chinese would set an example for Indian insurgents, and from Chiang Kai-shek who did not welcome a strong military unit outside of his control. From the outset, Stilwell’s primary goals were the opening of a land route to China from northern Burma and India by means of a ground offensive in northern Burma, so that more supplies could be transported to China, and to organize, equip, and train a reorganized, reequipped, modernized, and competent Chinese army that would fight the Japanese in the China-Burma-India theater (CBI). Stilwell argued that the CBI was the only area at that time where the possibility existed for the Allies of engaging large numbers of troops against their common enemy, Japan. Unfortunately, the huge airborne logistical train of support from the USA to British India was still being organized, while supplies being flown over the Hump were barely sufficient to maintain Chennault’s air operations and replace some Chinese war losses, let alone equip and supply an entire army. Additionally, critical supplies intended for the CBI were being diverted due to various crises in other combat theaters. Of the supplies that made it over the Hump a certain percentage were diverted by Chinese (and American) personnel into the black market for their personal enrichment. As a result, most Allied commanders in India, with the exception of General Orde Wingate and his Chindit operations, were focused on defensive measures.
During this time in India, Stilwell became increasingly disenchanted with British forces, and did not hesitate to voice criticisms of what he viewed as hesitant or cowardly behavior. Ninety percent of the Chindit casualties were incurred in the last phase of the campaign from 17 May when they were under the direct command of Stilwell. The British view was quite different and they pointed out that over the period from 6 June to 27 June, Calvert’s 77th Brigade, which lacked heavy weapons, took Mogaung and suffered 800 casualties (50%) among those of the brigade involved in the operation. Stilwell expected 77th Brigade to join the siege of Myitkyina but Michael Calvert, sickened by demands on his troops which he considered abusive, switched off his radios and withdrew to Stilwell’s base. 111 Brigade, after resting, were ordered to capture a hill known as Point 2171. They did so, but were now utterly exhausted. Most of them were suffering from malaria, dysentery and malnutrition. On 8 July, at the insistence of the Supreme Commander, Admiral Louis Mountbatten, doctors examined the brigade. Of the 2200 men present from four and a half battalions, only 119 were declared fit. The Brigade was evacuated, although Masters sarcastically kept the fit men, “111 Company” in the field until 1 August. The portion of 111 Brigade east of the Irrawaddy were known as Morris Force, after its commander, Lieutenant-Colonel “Jumbo” Morris. They had spent several months harassing Japanese traffic from Bhamo to Myitkyina. They had then attempted to complete the encirclement of Myitkyina. Stilwell was angered that they were unable to do so, but Slim pointed out that Stilwell’s Chinese troops (numbering 5,500) had also failed in that task. By 14 July, Morris Force was down to three platoons. A week later, they had only 25 men fit for duty. Morris Force was evacuated about the same time as 77th Brigade. Captain Charlton Ogburn, Jr., a U.S. Army Marauder officer, and Chindit brigade commanders John Masters and Michael Calvert later recalled that Stilwell’s appointment of a staff officer specially detailed by him to visit subordinate commands in order to chastise their officers and men as being ‘yellow’. In October 1943, after the Joint Planning Staff at GHQ India had rejected a plan by Stilwell to fly his Chinese troops into northern Burma, Field Marshal Wavell asked whether Stilwell was satisfied on purely military grounds that the plan could not work. Stilwell replied that he was. Wavell then asked what Stilwell would say to Chiang Kai-shek, and Stilwell replied “I shall tell him the bloody British wouldn’t fight.”
After Stilwell left the defeated Chinese troops that he had been given nominal command by Chiang Kai-shek (Chinese generals admitted later that they had considered Stilwell as an ‘adviser’ and sometimes took orders directly from Chiang), he escaped Burma in 1942, Chiang was outraged by what he saw as Stilwell’s blatant abandonment of his best army without orders and began to question Stilwell’s capability and judgment as a military commander. Chiang was also infuriated at Stilwell’s strict control of U.S. lend lease supplies to China. But instead of confronting Stilwell or communicating his concerns to Marshall and Roosevelt when they asked Chiang to assess Stilwell’s leadership after the Allied disaster in Burma, Chiang reiterated his “full confidence and trust” in the general while countermanding some orders to Chinese units issued by Stilwell in his capacity as Chief of Staff. An outraged Stilwell began to call Chiang “the little dummy” or “Peanut” in his reports to Washington, (“Peanut” originally being intended as a code name for Chiang in official radio messages) while Chiang repeatedly expressed his pent-up grievances against Stilwell for his “recklessness, insubordination, contempt and arrogance” to U.S. envoys to China. Stilwell would press Chiang and the British to take immediate actions to retake Burma, but Chiang demanded impossibly large amounts of supplies before he would agree to take offensive action, and the British refused to meet their previous pledges to provide naval and ground troops due to Churchill’s “Europe first” strategy. Eventually Stilwell began to complain openly to Roosevelt that Chiang was hoarding U.S. lend lease supplies because he wanted to keep Chinese Nationalist forces ready to fight the Communists under Mao Zedong after the end of the war with the Japanese, even though from 1942 to 1944 98% of U.S. military aid over the Hump had gone directly to the 14th Air Force and U.S. military personnel in China. Stilwell also continually clashed with Field Marshal Archibald Wavell, and apparently came to believe that the British in India were more concerned with protecting their colonial possessions than helping the Chinese fight the Japanese. In August 1943, as a result of constant feuding and conflicting objectives of British, American, and Chinese commands, along with the lack of a coherent strategic vision for the China Burma India (CBI) theater, the Combined Chiefs of Staff split the CBI command into separate Chinese and Southeast Asia theaters.
Stilwell was infuriated also by the rampant corruption of the Chiang regime. In his diary, which he faithfully kept, Stilwell began to note the corruption and the amount of money ($380,584,000 in 1944 dollars) being wasted upon the procrastinating Chiang and his government. The Cambridge History of China, for instance, also estimates that some 60%–70% of Chiang’s Kuomintang conscripts did not make it through their basic training, with some 40% deserting and the remaining 20% dying of starvation before full induction into the military. Eventually, Stilwell’s belief that the Generalissimo and his generals were incompetent and corrupt reached such proportions that Stilwell sought to cut off Lend-Lease aid to China. Stilwell even ordered Office of Strategic Services (OSS) officers to draw up contingency plans to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek after he heard Roosevelt’s casual remarks regarding the possible defeat of Chiang by either internal or external enemies, and if this happened to replace Chiang with someone else to continue the Chinese resistance against Japan.
With the establishment of the new South East Asia Command in August 1943, Stilwell was appointed Deputy Supreme Allied Commander under Lord Louis Mountbatten. Taking command of various Chinese and Allied forces, including a new U.S. Army special operations formation, the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional) later known as Merrill’s Marauders, Stilwell built up his Chinese forces for an eventual offensive in northern Burma. On December 21, 1943, Stilwell assumed direct control of planning for the invasion of Northern Burma, culminating with capture of the Japanese-held town of Myitkyina. In the meantime, Stilwell ordered General Merrill and the Marauders to commence long-range jungle penetration missions behind Japanese lines after the pattern of the British Chindits. In February 1944, three Marauder battalions marched into Burma. Though Stilwell was at the Ledo Road front when the Marauders arrived at their jump-off point, the general did not walk out to the road to bid them farewell. In April 1944, Stilwell launched his final offensive to capture the Burmese city of Myitkyina. In support of this objective, the Marauders were ordered to undertake a long flanking maneuver towards the town, involving a grueling 65-mile jungle march. Having been deployed since February in combat operations in the jungles of Burma, the Marauders were seriously depleted and suffering from both combat losses and disease, and lost additional men while en route to the objective. A particularly devastating scourge was a severe outbreak of amoebic dysentery, which erupted shortly after the Marauders linked up with the Chinese Army in India, called X Force. By this time, the men of the Marauders had openly begun to suspect Stilwell’s commitment to their welfare. Despite their sacrifices, Stilwell appeared unconcerned about their losses, and had rejected repeated requests for medals for individual acts of heroism. Initial promises of a rest and rotation were ignored; the Marauders were not even air-dropped replacement uniforms or mail until late April. On May 17, 1,310 remaining Marauders attacked Myitkyina airfield in concert with elements of two Chinese infantry regiments and a small artillery contingent. The airfield was quickly taken, but the town, which Stilwell’s intelligence staff had believed to be lightly defended, was garrisoned by significant numbers of well-equipped Japanese troops, who were steadily being reinforced. A preliminary attack on the town by two Chinese regiments was thrown back with heavy losses. The Marauders did not have the manpower to immediately overwhelm Myitkyina and its defenses; by the time additional Chinese forces arrived and were in a position to attack, Japanese forces totaled some 4,600 fanatical Japanese defenders. During the Myitkyina siege, which took place during the height of the monsoon season, Marauders’ second-in-command, Col. Hunter, as well as the unit’s regimental and battalion level surgeons, had urgently recommended that the entire 5307th be relieved of duty and returned to rear areas for rest and recovery. By this time, most of the men had fevers and continual dysentery, forcing the men to cut the seats out of their uniform trousers in order to fire their weapons and relieve themselves simultaneously. Stilwell rejected the evacuation recommendation, though he did make a frontline inspection of the Myitkyina lines. Afterwards, he ordered all medical staff to stop returning combat troops suffering from disease or illness, and instead return them to combat status, using medications to keep down fevers. The feelings of many Marauders towards General Stilwell at that time were summed up by one soldier, who stated, “I had him [Stilwell] in my sights. I coulda’ squeezed one off and no one woulda’ known it wasn’t a Jap who got that son of a bitch.” Stilwell also ordered that all Marauders evacuated from combat due to wounds or fever first submit to a special medical ‘examination’ by doctors appointed by his headquarters staff. These examinations passed many ailing soldiers as fit for duty; Stilwell’s staff roamed hospital hallways in search of any Marauder with a temperature lower than 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of the men who were passed and sent back into combat were immediately re-evacuated as unfit at the insistence of forward medical personnel. Later, Stilwell’s staff placed blame on Army medical personnel for overzealously interpreting Stilwell’s return-to-duty order. During the Myitkyina siege, Japanese soldiers resisted fiercely, generally fighting to the last man. As a result, Myitkyina did not fall until August 4, 1944, after Stilwell was forced to send in thousands of Chinese reinforcements, though Stilwell was pleased that the objective had at last been taken (his notes from his personal diary contain the notation, “Boy, will this burn up the Limeys!”). Later, Stilwell blamed the length of the siege, among other things, on British and Gurkha Chindit forces for not promptly responding to his demands to move north in an attempt to pressure Japanese troops. This was in spite of the fact that the Chindits themselves had suffered grievous casualties in several fierce pitched battles with Japanese troops in the Burmese jungles, along with losses from illness and combat exhaustion. Stilwell also had not kept his British allies clearly informed of his force movements, nor coordinated his offensive plans with those of General Slim. Bereft of further combat replacements for his hard-pressed Marauder battalions, Stilwell felt he had no choice but to continue offensive operations with his existing forces, using the Marauders as ‘the point of the spear’ until they had either achieved all their objectives, or were wiped out. He was also concerned that pulling out the Marauders, the only U.S. ground unit in the campaign, resulted in charges of favoritism, forcing him to evacuate the exhausted Chinese and British Chindit forces as well. When General William Slim, commander of British and Commonwealth forces in Burma, informed Stilwell that his men were exhausted and should be withdrawn, Stilwell rejected the idea, insisting that his subordinate commanders simply did not understand enlisted men and their tendency to magnify physical challenges. Having made his own ‘long march’ out of Burma under his own power using jungle trails, Stilwell found it difficult to sympathize with those who had been in combat in the jungle for months on end without relief. In retrospect, his statements at the time revealed a lack of understanding of the limitations of lightly equipped unconventional forces when used in conventional roles. Myitkyina and the dispute over evacuation policy precipitated a hurried Army Inspector General investigation, followed by U.S. congressional committee hearings, though no disciplinary measures were taken against General Stilwell for his decisions as overall commander. Only a week after the fall of Myitkyina in Burma, the 5307th Marauder force, down to only 130 combat-effective men (out of the original 2,997), was disbanded.
One of the most significant conflicts to emerge during the war was between General Stilwell and General Claire Lee Chennault, the commander of the famed “Flying Tigers” and later air force commander. As adviser to the Chinese air forces, Chennault proposed a limited air offensive against the Japanese in China in 1943 using a series of forward air bases. Stilwell insisted that the idea was untenable, and that any air campaign should not begin until fully fortified air bases supported by large infantry reserves had first been established. Stilwell then argued that all air resources be diverted to his forces in India for an early conquest of North Burma. Following Chennault’s advice, Generalissimo Chiang rejected the proposal; British commanders sided with Chennault, aware they could not launch a coordinated Allied offensive into Burma in 1943 with the resources then available. During the summer of 1943, Stilwell’s headquarters concentrated on plans to rebuild the Chinese Army for an offensive in northern Burma, despite Chiang’s insistence on support to Chennault’s air operations. Stilwell believed that after forcing a supply route through northern Burma by means of a major ground offensive against the Japanese, he could train and equip thirty Chinese divisions with modern combat equipment. A smaller number of Chinese forces would transfer to India, where two or three new Chinese divisions would also be raised. This plan remained only theoretical at the time, since available airlift capacity for deliveries of supplies to China over the Hump barely sustained Chennault’s air operations, and were wholly insufficient to equip a new Chinese Army. In 1944, the Japanese launched the counter-offensive, Operation Ichi-Go, quickly overrunning Chennault’s forward air bases and proving Stilwell partially correct. However, by this time, Allied supply efforts via the Hump airlift were steadily improving in tonnage supplied per month; with the replacement of Chinese war losses, Chennault now saw little need for a ground offensive in northern Burma in order to re-open a ground supply route to China. This time, augmented with increased military equipment and additional troops, and concerned about defense of the approaches to India, British authorities sided with Stilwell. In coordination with a southern offensive by Nationalist Chinese forces under General Wei Li-huang, Allied troops under Stilwell’s command launched the long-awaited invasion of northern Burma; after heavy fighting and casualties, the two forces linked up in January 1945. Stilwell’s strategy remained unchanged: opening a new ground supply route from India to China would allow the Allies to equip and train new Chinese army divisions for use against the Japanese. The new road network, later called the Ledo Road, would link the northern end of the Burma Road as the primary supply route to China; Stilwell’s staff planners had estimated the route would supply 65,000 tons of supplies per month. Using these figures, Stilwell argued that the Ledo Road network would greatly surpass the tonnage being airlifted over the Hump. General Chennault doubted that such an extended network of trails through difficult jungle could ever match the tonnage that could be delivered with modern cargo transport aircraft then deploying in-theater. Progress on the Ledo Road was slow, and could not be completed until the linkup of forces in January 1945.
In the end, Stilwell’s plan to train and modernize thirty Chinese divisions in China (as well as two or three divisions from forces already in India) was never fully realized. As Chennault predicted, supplies carried over the Ledo Road at no time approached tonnage levels of supplies airlifted monthly into China via the Hump. In July 1945, 71,000 tons of supplies were flown over the Hump, compared to only 6,000 tons using the Ledo Road, and the airlift operation continued in operation until the end of the war. By the time supplies were flowing over the Ledo Road in large quantities, operations in other theaters had shaped the course of the war against Japan. Stilwell’s drive into North Burma, however, allowed Air Transport Command to fly supplies into China more quickly and safely by allowing American planes to fly a more southerly route without fear of Japanese fighters. American airplanes no longer had to make the dangerous venture over the Hump, increasing the delivery of supplies from 18,000 tons in June 1944, to 39,000 tons in November 1944. On August 1, 1945 a plane crossed the hump every one minute and 12 seconds. In acknowledgment of Stilwell’s efforts, the Ledo Road was later renamed the Stilwell Road by Chiang Kai-shek.
With the rapid deterioration of the China front after Japanese launched Operation Ichi-Go in 1944, Stilwell saw this as an opportunity to gain full command of all Chinese armed forces. In a separate effort based on the same appreciation of the situation, Roosevelt sent an ultimatum to Chiang threatening to end all American aid unless Chiang “at once” place Stilwell “in unrestricted command of all your forces.” An exultant Stilwell immediately delivered this letter to Chiang despite pleas from Patrick Hurley, Roosevelt’s special envoy in China, to delay delivering the message and work on a deal that would achieve Stilwell’s aim in a manner more acceptable to Chiang. Seeing this act as a move toward the complete subjugation of China, Chiang gave a formal reply in which he said that Stilwell must be replaced immediately and he would welcome any other qualified U.S. general to fill Stilwell’s position. On October 19, 1944, Stilwell was recalled from his command by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Partly as a result of controversy concerning the casualties suffered by U.S. forces in Burma and partly due to continuing difficulties with the British and Chinese commanders, Stilwell’s return to the United States was not accompanied by the usual ceremony. Upon arrival, he was met by two Army generals at the airport, who told him that he was not to answer any media questions about China whatsoever. Stilwell was replaced by General Albert C. Wedemeyer, who received a telegram from General Marshall on October 27, 1944 directing him to proceed to China to assume command of the China theatre and replace General Stilwell. Wedemeyer later recalled his initial dread over the assignment, as service in the China theater was considered a graveyard for American officials, both military and diplomatic. When Wedemeyer actually arrived at Stilwell’s headquarters after Stilwell’s dismissal, Wedemeyer was dismayed to discover that Stilwell had intentionally departed without seeing him, and did not leave a single briefing paper for his guidance, though departing U.S. military commanders habitually greeted their replacement in order to thoroughly brief them on the strengths and weaknesses of headquarters staff, the issues confronting the command, and planned operations. Searching the offices, Wedemeyer could find no documentary record of Stilwell’s plans or records of his former or future operations. General Wedemeyer then spoke with Stilwell’s staff officers but learned little from them because Stilwell, according to the staff, kept everything in his “hip pocket”.
Despite prompting by the news media, Stilwell never complained about his treatment by Washington or by Chiang. He later served as Commander of Army Ground Forces, U.S. Tenth Army Commander in the last few days of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and as U.S. Sixth Army Commander. In November, he was appointed to lead a “War Department Equipment Board” in an investigation of the Army’s modernization in light of its recent experience. Among his recommendations was the establishment of a combined arms force to conduct extended service tests of new weapons and equipment and then formulate doctrine for its use, and the abolition of specialized anti-tank units. His most notable recommendation was for a vast improvement of the Army’s defenses against all airborne threats, including ballistic missiles. In particular, he called for guided interceptor missiles, dispatched in accordance with electronically computed data obtained from radar detection stations.”
Stilwell died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1946 at the Presidio of San Francisco, while still on active duty. His ashes were scattered on the Pacific Ocean, and a cenotaph was placed at the West Point Cemetery. Among his military decorations are the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Legion of Merit degree of Commander, the Bronze Star, and the Combat Infantryman Badge (this last award was given to him as he was dying from stomach cancer).
Stilwell’s home, built in 1933–1934 on Carmel Point, Carmel, California, remains a private home. A number of streets, buildings, and areas across the country have been named for Stilwell over the years, including Joseph Stilwell Middle School in Jacksonville, Florida. The Soldiers’ Club he envisioned in 1940 (a time when there was no such thing as a soldiers’ club in the Army) was completed in 1943 at Fort Ord on the bluffs overlooking Monterey Bay. Many years later the building was renamed “Stilwell Hall” in his honor, but because of the erosion of the bluffs over the decades, the building was taken down in 2003. Stilwell’s former residence in Chongqing – a city along the Yangtze River to which Chiang’s government retreated after being forced from Nanjing by Japanese troops – has now been converted to the General Joseph W. Stilwell Museum in his honor.