This story is based on “Now the Hell Will Start,” – an epic World War II manhunt story written by Brendan I. Koerner, on the quest to apprehend Herman Perry, a black soldier who went to India to help build a road to China via Burma, shot and killed a white commanding officer, then disappeared into the jungles of Naga hills of Assam, where he joined a tribe of head-hunters and eluded capture for months. This story published as a book by Penguin-USA publications in 2008, is an amazing piece of reporting—part thriller & part history. It gets its start as a State “Explainer” (Explainer deals with offenses committed by military personnel, which are punishable by death). Koerner came across this story in 2003 while researching for an explainer about an Air Force translator who was charged with spying for Syria and on conviction of the spying charges; he could face the death penalty. While researching about this Koerner encountered the following titbit about “Pvt. Herman Perry, murderer who long evaded capture by living with Burmese tribe, 1944-1945.” Koerner’s curiosity was increased and he started to search for survivors where the action took place. He spent five years talking to the survivors of the road’s construction and poring over yellowed military documents to piece it all together. Most of the characters in this story are dead, except Earl Cullum, a Texan officer stationed in Burma at that time that was involved with Perry’s capture; it was he who committed much of his memories of the episode to paper in the hope of getting it published in the form of above mentioned book.
HERMAN PERRY – ORIGINS:
Herman Perry was a 19 year old meat cutter from Washington D.C. who was first made to undergo compulsory military service for giving a false birth date to his employers at the slaughter house in 1942. In July 1942, when Herman Perry came out of the training camp in South Carolina after induction into US Army, he donned his uniform for the first time and posed for the photograph (Fig -01)—a souvenir for his family and his girlfriend, a skinny-limbed black beauty named Alma Talbot.
He and scores of other black GIs were then packed into the crowded, poorly ventilated lower decks of a commandeered ocean liner and shipped around the Cape of Good Hope across half of world to work for the US Army throughout allies’ forces locations.
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN MILITARY-SOCIAL STRUCTURE:
During the Second World War, the United States was clinging to a curious policy of racial stratification in its armed forces. The government used to make a concerted effort to make sure thousands and thousands of black men registered for the Army service. But the military brass bolstered by pseudoscience those days held the belief that, because the Afro-American skull undergoes ossification prior to that of Caucasian skull and hence has a low cranial capacity in comparison; black people were cowardly and dim-witted. Hence there was a desire also not to rile up white servicemen by forcing them to work alongside Negros – who supposedly were loath enough to be put into combat situations. Most of the Negro soldiers would find themselves in inferior positions compared to a white soldier and would only be inducted into supporting roles to the main combating army, behind the war’s front lines – more often to work as manual labours. Besides, those were the times when back in states, Negroes could have been lynched by angry white mobs with impunity. The vast majority of GIs, who like Herman Perry were African-American, were assigned to segregated labour battalions run by white officers. It was mostly because of the policies advocated by Jim Crow of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, that the War Department wasted the talents of thousands of patriotic Americans.
THE AMERICANS AT THE INDO-BURMESE-CHINESE WAR THEATRE:
This almost forgotten theatre of World War-two where thousands of brave Americans, many of them black, toiled and died in virtual anonymity is at the famous trisection between India, Burma and China – while India was still under British control, Burma – newly independent but mostly under control of advancing Japanese Army and China, under control of dictator Chiang Kai-Shek – at loggerheads with Mao’s revolutionary army but having the support of allied forces.
Perry’s unit, the 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion, was dispatched to the Indo-Burmese wilderness to help build the Ledo Road. This road was named after the town near its mile zero in Assam and through Burma it was to terminate at the Chinese city of Kunming. The road, which is also known as Stilwell Road after allied forces’ General James Stillwell, was designed – as planned by allies’ strategists – to keep Nationalist China flush with supplies even after the Japanese forces had severed access to the more southerly Burma Road in 1942. But building the road was a far more arduous task than its planners had predicted. An aide to Chiang Kai-shek had initially estimated that the highway would take just three months to build. It instead took two and a half years and incurred so many of casualties that the Americans nicknamed it “the Man-a-Mile Road” on account of its lethality. As the war dragged on, the justifications for the road became looking increasingly flimsy. British PM Winston Churchill had said the road was “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed.” But President Roosevelt and the military brass at the war Department in US dug in their heels. They never could bring themselves to curtail the road’s construction, even as its potential usefulness diminished with the increase in cargo flights between India and China. To halt the construction was to admit the defeat and they were probably too afraid of losing face, no matter how high the human toll was.
HARDSHIPS AT THE LEDO ROAD:
The Ledo Road had a low priority in Washington, so equipment was scarce. The Americans were assisted by thousands of indentured labourers, known as “coolies” in the politically incorrect lingo of the 1940s. Many had previously worked on the tea plantations of Assam, the remote Indian province where the town of Ledo was located. The coolies were forced to slash through the jungle with hoes, pickaxes, and even their bare hands (Fig -03).
The broiling Indo-Burmese jungle receives more than 400 cm of rain per year, so the soldiers’ huts were perpetually awash in mud. Vast arrays of ants and lice swarmed over the sleeping GIs, and Anopheles mosquitoes made malaria endemic. More often than not, the slimy annelids, red or green or chocolate brown in colour, would drop from trees or neck-high grass, waiting to gorge on the blood of passers-by. The leeches had a particular affinity for the body’s most sensitive areas like – the orifices, eyelids, nostrils, and especially the groins. Unexploded artillery shells would also every now and then detonate and rip men in half. Others were picked off by snipers. The monsoon rains drove tigers in the Jungle to higher ground, and in place of livestock they started preying on humans working on the road.
The food was rotten. And then there were the Naga, a group made up of jungle-dwelling tribes who took particular pleasure in headhunting. Several unfortunate souls working on that “quixotic” project perished while those who survived were usually paid the equivalent of four rupee a month, though sometimes their compensation amounted to nothing more than a few fistfuls of rice for some days. Many of the labourers thus supplemented their incomes by peddling “native intoxicants”—opium and marijuana—to GIs. Herman Perry was one of their most avid customers.
The jungle’s harsh conditions caused many soldiers to suffer mental breakdowns, and Herman Perry was among the afflicted ones. Perry’s drug habit further warped his already tattered psyche. Perry would smoke weed and opium to cope with the stresses of his miserable life in the jungle, and he slowly lost his grip on reality. He created an alternate world in his head in which he was back in D.C., married to his girlfriend in the States. On March 4, 1944, 21-year-old Perry was placed under arrest for insubordination as he had missed reveille after spending a night on an opium bender. But Perry, instead of facing the disciplinary committee, ran away from his captors – scared, with tears in his eyes, thinking he was innocent, wrongly framed but still armed and dangerous to people at large. Orders were given for his arrest but he continued to evade both his unit as well as MPs after him. He finally snapped, when his unarmed white Commanding Officer Lieutenant Harold Cady confronted him and tried to arrest him. He shot the officer to death by the side of the road and then things really went berserk. Running amok, Perry immediately fled into the jungle in a daze, with his military-issue carbine over his shoulder, fearing that he’d be lynched if captured by the military police. A dead-or-alive reward of 1,000 rupee was posted (Fig -05). He spent days roaming in and around the parts of the jungle that Westerners avoided at all costs.
While the MPs from 159th MP battalion combed the brothels of Calcutta, Perry ran deeper and deeper into the Patkais – the forested lower Himalayan mountain range that lines the Indo-Burmese border. He eventually stumbled upon a village inhabited by Nagas, members of a fierce ethnic group with proclivity for fights. Against all odds, the charming Perry managed to befriend the tribesmen.
THE EARLY AMERICAN EXPOSURE OF THE NAGAS:
Though the Nagas were historically suspicious of outsiders, the Americans turned many of them into allies during the war. Nagas were very fond of shiny tinned American foods and beverages – particularly syrupy fruit cocktails. A detachment of the Office of Strategic Services had even sent agents earlier into the jungle with gifts of tin and opium in order to win the Nagas’ loyalty. These bribes convinced some tribesmen to assist downed American pilots, who would otherwise have perished in the wilderness. Perry actually followed the OSS’s game plan to some extent: He tapped sympathetic black soldiers to help him by sneaking in and out of American camps to steal rations from Army depots and gave this cache of food to the Nagas. The Army, under the leadership of the then thirty year old Major Earl Cullum, continued to search Perry without any clue as to his whereabouts. The Army’s inability to catch Perry became an embarrassment for the military brass, but among the black GIs, he was a folk hero – The Jungle King. The black GIs, who would give him the tins of food (and also ammunition) before his slinking back into the opaque, forbidding jungle also knew, that his capture meant a hanging at the hands of angry white officers.
Yet even the ostensibly friendly Nagas could still be violent when provoked – especially if a GI dared get too close to one of their women. And as much as they adored opium, the Nagas prized skulls even more highly. Still, mysteriously, Herman Perry not only befriended them but he slowly became a revered member of his Naga village, so much so that, after some initial period of a ritual courtship he even managed to marry the fourteen year old daughter of the tribes’ headman, who bore him a son. He, then, started a small farm in the Patkais, raising rice and marijuana. From here, the tale of Perry’s flight and the Army’s ensuing manhunt is one of cruelty, madness, and survival.
During the Perry manhunt, work on the road continued. On Jan. 12, 1945, the road’s first ceremonial convoy set out from Ledo (Fig – 06, 07). Despite the racial makeup of the project’s work force, the convoy was an entirely white affair for its first 268 miles. But then, a reporter for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, complained about this when the convoy reached the town of Myitkyina in northern Burma. Ten African-American soldiers were thus brought in from India to ward off the negative publicity.
On Feb. 5, the convoy finally reached the Chinese city of Kunming, which was ruled by a one-eyed, opium-addicted warlord named Long Yun. To celebrate the convoy’s arrival, Long arranged a performance of music and dance by danseuse Lily Pons at his palace. The ten African -American GIs were not invited to the show; instead, they were sent back to India within 48 hours, as Madame Chiang Kai-shek had insisted that no blacks should ever set foot in China.
While the convoy advanced towards China, Perry was fleeing through the backwoods of Assam. He was captured in the summer of 1944, then court-martialled and sentenced to death by hanging on 04th September that year. But he escaped from the military prison just before Christmas—a jailbreak probably abetted by fellow inmates and black soldiers – who were divided over the issue of his hanging with their white superiors. Perry thought he could rely on the kindness of other African-American GIs to ultimately get him out of Assam, but he miscalculated—a pair of black soldiers eventually played a key role in the manhunt’s endgame. His death sentence was eventually carried out.
While the Perry drama played out in the wilderness, the road’s beleaguered workers kept plugging away. The highway didn’t officially open until May 20, 1945, twelve days after Nazi Germany’s surrender. Less than three months later, on the day of Japan’s final capitulation, word came down from Washington – The road was to be abandoned immediately and all the construction materials either scrapped or sold for whatever value those could fetch. Thousands of men had died for a project that contributed virtually nothing to the Allied war effort.
THE ROAD TODAY:
In 1946 itself, a reporter for the New Republic news paper visited the road. Most of it was then in bad shape and un-motorable. “The jungle, like a selfish woman, was stretching its green fingers out to take back the Road,” he wrote. “The rains had washed so much of the earth away that there were large bites in the Road, looking as if they had been made by some giant dinosaur.”
Even today things don’t look much better. Though the first few miles of the Ledo Road are now paved and well-trafficked, most of the highway is in dreadful shape (Fig -08) – particularly high in the Patkais, where Herman Perry lived among the Nagas. There have been sporadic attempts to make the road navigable once again, but they’ve all come to naught. Partly because of deep suspiciousness of military junta ruling Burma, which fears that a revitalized road would make life easier for ethnic freedom fighters, and partly by the Indian government’s fear of increase in insurgency and drug – trafficking.
A few miles short of the Indo-Myanmar border, even today is present this wartime cemetery, which is filled with cracked stone crypts and overgrown with jungle vines (Fig -09). No one knows how many bodies of the casualties of the construction army of Ledo road are buried there. Nor does anyone seem to know what happened to Herman Perry’s half-Naga son.
This story, in the context of Border Roads is no different from the saga of our folks today – pioneers, CPLs and others. Many of the roads built by Border roads are testimony to the sheer grit and determination – exemplified by long hours of toiling by those unseen, un-honoured and long-forgotten Heroes who faced the same hardships of nature and Jungle, like the work force of the Ledo road, but gave their today for the region’s and nation’s better tomorrow. In part it may also explain the presence of vagabonds, discipline and alcohol cases like Herman Perry amidst us and why we need to have a different approach towards them – a slightly more empathic one.
- Koerner, Brendan I. ‘Now the Hell Will Start’: One Soldier’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II. New York: Penguin Press, 2008: 142. ISBN 9781594201738
- The Herman Perry Saga. Proud Heritage Vol 3: by Dallas County Pioneer Association
- The Leopard men in Naga-Hills: By J. H. Hutton, Washington University Press