Generals throughout history when confronting the problems of crossing wide rivers have dreamed of having enough boats to get thousands of their men across before the enemy has time to react effectively. General Joseph W. Stilwell, Commanding General of the China, Burma, India Theater during most of World War II, made that dream come true. He ordered and received thousands of 3-man pneumatic boats for his infantrymen, and trained them in their use. Those simple boats were so lightweight that a soldier could backpack a boat for miles in addition to his combat load. A single C-47 could transport and drop hundreds at a time. Infantrymen in Burma used their units' infantrymen's boats to get themselves across rivers, some hundreds of yards wide, without help from engineers or engineers' boats.
With helicopters and other aircraft becoming increasingly vulnerable to shoulder-fired weapons such as Stingers, soldiers should not count on being flown over rivers and other obstacles, even in low intensity wars.
Tens of thousands of infantrymen used hundreds of the thousands of little breath-inflated boats provided by General Stilwell to make successful surprise crossings of the two largest rivers in Burma, the Irrawaddy and the Salween. Those crossings combined surprise and speed. Stilwell’s pioneering foresight prevented his forces from suffering river-crossing snafus like those that befell several Allied offensives in Europe, described later in this chapter.
An informative although incomplete account of General Stilwell’s unorthodox, now forgotten means to enable thousands of foot soldiers to cross rivers quickly is given in the following article from a 1944 issue of the CBI Roundup, the service newspaper in the China, Burma, India Theater. A friend tore out this article describing a surprise night crossing of the Irrawaddy, the second largest river in Burma. He mailed it to me just after I had been evacuated from China, apparently crippled for life, a wheelchair case in the Army-Navy General Hospital at Hot Springs, Arkansas. I was heartened by this additional proof of the usefulness of the simple, breath-inflated, multi-bladdered boats which I had invented. Those boats often were called “rubber boats,” although actually only their inflation tubes were made of rubber.
The CBI Roundup article describes how many thousands of U.S. equipped and trained Chinese infantrymen quickly made a surprise night crossing of the Irrawaddy, a great river that flows out of the Himalayas. The Chinese used hundreds of lightweight boats parachuted to them by a single C-47. No engineer boats or help from engineer troops was needed or requested. The infantrymen, who had received prior boat training, in a few minutes breath inflated the 12 separate vinyl-film bladders of each of those 3-man boats. A boat weighed only about 14 pounds, including the weight of its two spare bladders, emergency repair kit, and two 9-oz. plywood paddle blades like the one pictured in Fig. 2-1, and in the Appendix. A nylon copy of the best late World War II 12-bladder boat, one of the few hundred made in 1967 using lighter materials, is shown in Fig. 2-1. This updated 3-man boat when fully equipped weighs only 8 pounds. With a little practice, three young men can breath inflate it in less than three minutes. Pictured in Fig. 2-2 is a 14-bladder nylon model, which is 9 ft., 4 in. long.
Thousands of the World War II 12-bladder, very light, inexpensive boats were used by American and Chinese infantrymen to get themselves across rivers in the reconquest of Burma. They were commonly called “rubber boats,” although the only rubber parts were the inflation tubes of their plastic-film bladders. Their hulls were made almost entirely of pieces of lightweight, uncoated cotton cloth sewn together. In most of the World War II models the only waterproof material used to keep the men and equipment in a boat dry was a separate sheet of thin vinyl film, which was sewn to the hull under the load-supporting bottom of uncoated cotton cloth. The load-supporting bottom is pictured in Fig. 2-2.
Fig. 2-1. A Vietnam-era, nylon-fabric copy of a World War II 3-man breath-inflated boat with 12 bladders. In this 1988 photo, two men are using its accompanying plywood paddle blades, which are more effective if tied with their attached strings to sticks or rifles.
Fig. 2-2. A 14-bladder nylon boat, photographed in 1989 after the then 75-year-old author had breath inflated it in 7.6 minutes. With the best Vietnam-era bladders, this boat weighs 9 pounds, and is 9 ft., 4 in. long. For today’s infantrymen, who are bigger, often wear body armor, and typically carry heavier loads of ammo than did their World War II predecessors, a 14-bladder boat this long would be a more practical 3-man boat than an updated World War II model.