As World War II raged, they labored day and night in the jungles of Burma, sometimes halfway up 10,000-foot mountains, drenched by 140 inches of rain in the five-month monsoon season. They spanned raging rivers and pushed through swamps thick with bloodsucking leeches and swarms of biting mites and mosquitoes that spread typhus and malaria.
Some died from disease or fell to their deaths when construction equipment slid along soupy mud tracks and dropped off cliffs. Others drowned, or were killed pulling double duty in combat against the Japanese.
They gave their lives to build a 1,079-mile road across northern Burma (now Myanmar) to reinforce Allied troops, a project derided by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as "an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed."
Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest. The road had cost 1,133 American lives, a man a mile.
Evelio Grillo is one of the few vets still alive to tell the tale of the Stilwell Road.
The son of black Cubans who migrated to Florida to roll cigars in Tampa factories, Grillo graduated from Xavier University, a black college in New Orleans, and was immediately drafted. He made staff sergeant in the Army's segregated 823rd Engineer Battalion.
In an old black-and-white photo he sent home during the war, Grillo wears his khaki uniform and garrison cap, one eyebrow slightly arched, his eyes dark and mischievous. His favorite stories of his time in Burma are about cleaning up at poker, taking breaks to look at pretty girls, and talking to tent rats as big as small cats.
He remembers making road trips across the border to India to buy light bulbs when the old ones popped in their sockets most nights in their camp. The new ones exploded just as quickly as the ones they replaced.
Grillo also tells of boneheaded officers who ordered him to measure the road with lengths of chain for hours on end until someone finally pointed out that the Army jeeps had odometers.
"That was probably you," Grillo's daughter Elisa Grillo Clay says from her father's bedside at a nursing home in Oakland, proudly calling him "a professional troublemaker."
Grillo, 89, was one of more than 15,000 U.S. soldiers who put their backs into the punishing work that many thought was futile.
In a little over two years, they completed the road from India to the western Chinese city of Kunming. The U.S. spent almost $149 million to build it and, at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, it was named the Stilwell Road, after U.S. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region who insisted the project would work.
More than half a century later, China now is working to resurrect it as the first major overland trade route since World War II with India, where business leaders, politicians and bureaucrats also are pressing their government to formally commit itself to the road as a link between the world's two most populous nations.
Finding the money to pay for the upgrade, Indian proponents say, is the easy part. Overcoming the fear of more competition and the unwelcome visitors opponents say the road would bring is proving more difficult.
India has already declared China a strategic partner, and for the last six years New Delhi's "Look East" policy has held up increased trade with the rest of Asia as India's best hope for economic growth.
With India's traditional trading partners in the U.S. and Europe sinking deeper into recession by the day, the push to reopen the road should gain new strength, said Mahesh K. Saharia, a leading backer in the powerful Indian Chamber of Commerce.
He and other supporters say that connecting two of the most undeveloped regions in India and China could lift millions of people out of poverty. Indian opponents argue that the risk of insurgents and drug smugglers sneaking across a more open border is too high.