Herman Perry. Image from Slate.
During the Second World War, the United States was clinging to a curious policy of racial stratification in its armed forces: the government made a concerted effort to make sure thousands and thousands of black men registered for the draft, but bolstered by the pseudoscience of the day that held that black people were cowardly and dimwitted — and a desire not to rile up white servicemen by forcing them to work alongside Negros — was loath to put them into combat.
But the Army found something to do with hundreds of them: the Ledo Road. The massive boondoggle in northwest Burma was supposed to help the United States supply China with war materiel in its fight against Japan. Winston Churchill said the road was “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed.” As the war dragged on and the justifications for the road looked increasingly flimsy, Roosevelt and the military brass dug in their heels. They needed to save face, and to halt the construction was to admit defeat.
For the soldiers (60% of whom were black), and lower-caste Indians forced to crush rocks in the malarial jungles, it was a balmy, Sisyphean hell. Monsoon rains washed away weeks of work — and people — in seconds. Leeches latched onto any orifice they could find. Unexploded artillery shells would detonate and rip men in half. Others were picked off by snipers. The monsoon rains drove tigers to higher ground, and in lieu of livestock they preyed 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. As you might imagine, a lot of American soldiers on the Ledo Road nervous breakdowns.
One of the black soldiers trapped in this nightmare was Herman Perry, whose story is told in the fascinating and deeply unsettling Now The Hell Will Start by Brendan Koerner. A meat cutter from Washington D.C., Perry wouldn’t have been drafted had he not tried to keep up a lie about his age he gave an employer. Instead he and scores of other black GIs were packed into the crowded, poorly ventilated lower decks of a commandeered ocean liner and shipped around the world — cue the Middle Passage comparisons — to work in Burma on the road. Even there, the Army thoroughly segregated its troops in everything from the jobs they held to where they were allowed to fraternize on leave. 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. One morning, scared and with tears in his eyes, he finally snapped and killed a white officer by the side of the road. Perry fled into the jungle — and set off the biggest manhunt in World War II.
And then things really got crazy.
Perry ran into the woods in a haze, his military-issue carbine over his shoulder. He spent days roaming around in the parts of the jungle that Westerners avoided at all costs, before he was eventually taken in by a Naga village and adopted by its leader. The Naga coveted the shiny tins from American food rations, and Perry plied them by sneaking in and out of American camps to steal rations. He got some help from the black GIs, who would give him the tins of food (and ammunition) before slinking back into the opaque, forbidding jungle. The black GIs knew his capture meant a hanging at the hands of angry white officers, an end to which they were particularly attuned in a time when black folks stateside were lynched by angry white mobs with impunity.
The Army’s continued inability to catch Perry became an embarrassment for the military brass, but among the black GIs, he was a folk hero: The Jungle King. Perry slowly became a revered member of his Naga village, so much so that he was invited to marry the chief’s fourteen-year-old daughter after a ritual courtship. Not too much later, the couple was expecting their first child.
Koerner stumbled upon Perry’s story after it was mentioned in passing somewhere, and spent years talking to the survivors of the road’s construction and poring over yellowed military documents to piece it all together. Most of the principals in this story are dead, but Earl Cullum, a self-aggrandizing Texan officer stationed in Burma who was obsessed with Perry’s capture, committed much of his memories of the episode to paper in the hope of getting it published.
The Perry story is as overlooked as the rest of the combat in the Chinese-Burma-India theater of the war. Some of the veterans of the CBI formed a national organization, with local chapters organized into bashas, after the hut-like domiciles in which the Naga lived. The get-togethers were bull sessions where the vets reminisced about the shitty rations and playfully argued about the best way to burn leeches off of skin. Membership was open to anyone who served at least three weeks in the CBI, but despite those pretty open standards, the meet-ups were always full of white veterans. “Not once have I seen a black face at any CBI meeting,” said an officer’s wife who had gone to basha meetings for decades. For its black veterans, the Ledo Road was a memory they weren’t trying to revisit.