Vinegar Joe's War

ISBN: 0-89141-715-X
Review Date:

As an American, I found that for the most part the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater was nearly non-existent in history textbooks a number of years back when I was a student. The most captivating books came out of the combat across France, or over the expanse of the Pacific, while the siege of Myitkyina and the jungle skirmishes at Loi-Kang only brought up a distant "I think I've heard of those places before somewhere during my studies" from the casual World War II history enthusiasts. Sadly, I was one of them. Growing up, I was told that my own grandfather fought in Burma and Yunnan as an enlisted man in the Chinese Army air corps, but beyond that I knew little of what he or his comrades had accomplished in this unknown land. So, when I saw Vinegar Joe's War: Stilwell's Campaigns in Burma on the sale racks at a bookstore near me, I could not resist picking it up. What I had learned from this book was the harsh reality of jungle warfare, and how the American soldiers of "Merrill's Marauders" and "Mars Task Force" endured during the largely forgotten theater of WW2.

Vinegar Joe's War detailed the history of the two previously mentioned units from the each of their establishments through the details of many engagements they fought in. Although Burma was largely a British theater, American units (which the book focused almost exclusively on) participated in the confusion of jungle warfare in a significant way. Even though Joseph Stilwell's name made its way into the title of the book, the book was largely written in the voice of the common soldier, detailing the happiness when rations were air-dropped and the frustration when their pack animals give in to the harsh jungle conditions. Many of the skirmishes and battles were narrated in detail, almost providing a play-by-play of the actions to the readers. For example, during a Japanese attack, Nisei translator Roy Matsumoto of the "Merrill's Marauders" watched as the Americans cut down the first wave of attackers, but the second waive hesitated to move forth, entrenched behind the foliage in hesitation but firing their rifles with an accuracy that was too close for comfort. Matsumoto turned his head skyward and yelled "charge!" in Japanese, and the dutiful Japanese soldiers charged into the path of the American machine guns, bringing the skirmish to an early end. It is in this kind of narration that the author Nathan Prefer captures the attention of his readers.

Unfortunately, this book did not fulfill one of my expectations - despite the book title Vinegar Joe's War, the book was told in much of a common soldier's voice, therefore leaving little room for the general. Perhaps it was not so much of a complaint that the author did a good job putting the readers in the humid jungles of Burma fighting alongside the American G.I.s, but since the CBI theater is such a niche topic, perhaps devoting more than the few pages every couple of chapters on Stilwell would be rather helpful to understand the theater in terms of how Stilwell planned the operations and how the theater played out in the overall American and Allied strategies. Similarly, while the book did make mention of the many Chinese units that fought in northern Burma, the interrelationship of the war in China and the war in Burma was not always laid out clearly for the reader.

Nevertheless, Vinegar Joe's War remains a valuable resource for those looking for a closer view on how the Americans conducted their campaign in Burma during WW2. Through this book, the reader can gain a sense of the bravery of the volunteer units that fought in Burma, and how they remained effective even though these men were over-deployed without proper rest and recuperation. Prefer did a great job narrating the personal heroism of the soldiers who sacrificed their own lives for the greater good of their comrades. That, perhaps, made the American campaign in Burma more important for a WW2 enthusiast to study, and made Prefer's book a useful primer to this theater of operations.

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Anonymous says:
1 Aug 2010 01:25:48 PM

My Dad died on May 30 1945 when the plane he was in crashed in the Burma jungle His remains were found in 1956. He was a captain in the Army. I found out a few years ago he was in the OSS.

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