Utpal Borpujari

October 27, 2008

Hell of a story!

Tech journo Brendan Koerner rummages through US Army archives to dig out the fascinating story of WW-II ‘fugitive’ soldier Herman Perry, writes Utpal Borpujari

On March five, 1944, deep in the jungles of the Patkai mountains in Burma not far from border with India

, a young Black soldier who never intended to join the Army shot his unarmed, superior White officer in a moment of rage. The act by Herman Perry, a “budding playboy” from Washington, DC, who was shipped a year before from the United States to the region to build the Ledo Road, also known as the Stillwell Road, led to the biggest manhunt by the American forces during World War-II. The Army hunted for him in the brothels of Kolkata, guessing that he would reach the city to catch a ship to return home, but Perry instead vanished in the jungles, and it later emerged that he had married the daughter of a Naga village headman and settled down among the locales.

 

The story of the handsome Perry, who had become a living legend among his compatriots for his great escapade, got erased from public domain, as it happens in the case of many such tales of ordinary soldiers with sometimes heroic and sometimes renegade deeds, till about 60 years later, when technology writer Brendan Koerner stumbled upon a single sentence about him in a 12-page bibliography put together by the U S Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It went: “Murderer who long evaded capture by living with Burmese tribe.” Just that, but it was enough to send Koerner on a virtually wild goose chase, scouring through voluminous chapters of Army records to build up a fascinating story that is all fact, but reads like a roller coaster fiction.

 

The story, built up through painstaking research by Koerner, otherwise a contributing editor to technology magazine Wired, has resulted in “Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II” (The Penguin Press, US), and it is no less dramatic than the title itself. As has emerged from Koerner’s research, Perry was the

unlikeliest character to become a folk hero among his compatriots. A young lad more interested in enjoying the fruits of youth, Perry was shipped off to India, along with many other Black youths like him, even without being told about the destination or that they would be sent to build a road that will connect India with South-East Asia / China through one of the most inhospitable terrains that was described by many as a “a lethal nightmare” beset by monsoons, malaria and insects that “chewed men’s flesh to pulp”.

 

Koerner says in the book that Perry could not endure either the jungle’s brutality or the racist treatment meted out by his White officers, and found solace in opium and marijuana, which warped his fraying psyche. A 1996 Yale graduate, Koerner spent nearly five years researching on the book, travelling to Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, taking the lid off the forgotten story of the Ledo Road‘s Black soldier labourers. Through a Freedom of Information Act request filed with the Army, he got hold of the trial transcript of Perry’s court-martial, to weave out an “Apocalypse Now type” story. “There was plenty of primary-source documentation of Perry’s adventures in North-East India and northwest Burma

. I was also able to track down several people who were involved in Perry’s saga — his sister, the prosecutor, a military policeman who played a key role in the manhunt and many more,” Koerner says.

 

The author makes it a point to emphasise that despite the book’s dramatic content, it is “entirely” non-fiction and “a very serious history of both the manhunt and the Ledo Road.” The number of footnotes – 1,248 – points to the seriousness of research, he says.  “There are some details that may sound recreated, but they’re really not….My goal was to create as richly detailed a book as possible, and that’s really tough when dealing with events that took place over 60 years ago. Memories fade, documents get lost, and even the Ledo Road

itself deteriorates and transforms,” says Koerner who got drawn towards the story because of its “sheer weirdness” and the “culture-clash element” of an African-American soldier melding into a Naga tribe on the other side of the globe.

 

At the same time, he admits that as he poured through the archival documents, “I started to see Perry as a tragic figure as well as a folk hero. He wasn’t a bad guy, really—he just cracked under the pressure of the war and the jungle, which could happen to anybody in similar circumstances. I was impressed by the fact he was able to persevere, even flourish, while on the run, but ultimately saddened by the fact that his grandest dream—to raise a family in the Patkai Mountains—was not to be. His wants were modest, but his crime was too grave to afford him a second chance.” As they say, truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, as Perry’s story is a real testimony to that.

(Published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 24-10-2008)

 

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