GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Now you know all the sayings - dark is before the dawn, calm before the storm. When the chips are down, what matters when you're facing the end of your line - you want to have a friend. SNAP JUDGMENT's Nancy Lopez spoke to Vicki Croke. Vicki is a reporter with WBUR in Boston, and she recently wrote about a special bond. And she's going to help us tell this next story. SNAP JUDGMENT.
NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: It's 1942, and World War II has come to Burma. British forces are scrambling to fight off the Japanese. And to do so, they enlist the help of a teak logger who knows the jungles of Western Burma like the back of his hand - a man by the name of Bill Williams.
VICKI CROKE: He's a real hero. And to me, not necessarily because he fought in World War II, but because of the way that he thought about animals which was pretty unusual for the time.
LOPEZ: Bill loves his elephants. He's been working side-by-side with them in the logging camps, breaking down teak trees for the past two decades. And to him, they're like his family.
CROKE: Bill knew 1,000 elephants by name in Burma. He had a wide network of elephant handlers. And he went to his superiors and said, look, I've provided you a lot of information but what I really can do is gather up my elephants on the other side. By now, the Japanese had really taken over Burma. There was a strip of land - a lot of it where Bill used to do his logging work. And he wanted to get just over the border and tried to bring back his elephants so they could work for the Allied forces.
LOPEZ: But no one is listening to Bill until one day when an officer says to him, hey, I need to build a bridge.
CROKE: And he provided Bill with very fancy blueprints for a very fancy bridge. And Bill took one look at them and said, you don't want me to make this. You want me to make an elephant bridge. He explained what an elephant bridge, was which was these very simple structures where logs were pulled in close to one another by elephants who could not only pull the logs down from the forest, but like cranes, they could heft them up. And they knew enough on their own. They didn't even have to be told. They could squeeze the logs in one by one next to each other until they fit into a bridge. And the officer said, well, I need a bridge that can support two-way traffic. And Bill said to him, well, an elephant bridge can't do that, but I could build two elephant bridges side-by-side that would. The officer gave him the green light.
LOPEZ: Immediately, Bill sets out to recruit as many of his handlers and elephants as he can. This is dangerous work. With the Japanese in control, British pilots are forced to drop Bill down behind enemy lines. As he infiltrates through the forest, he does manage to reach many of his elephant handlers, convincing them to join him.
CROKE: And they trusted him, and they were loyal to him. And despite the fact that what they were about to do was punishable by death, they took their elephants through the forest and brought them back to Bill one by one. He pointed out it was actually easier to sneak elephants under the noses of the Japanese than it would be jeeps because the elephants didn't require headlights, and their motors didn't run, and they didn't run out of gas.
LOPEZ: And in a matter of months, Bill forms Elephant Company, his very own brigade of working elephants. And the troops - they began calling him Elephant Bill.
CROKE: As soon as any of the soldiers or officers in one area saw an elephant bridge go up in a heartbeat and be so reliable, everybody wanted them.
LOPEZ: Bill has over 1,600 elephants in Elephant Company. But the one that matters most to him is a very special one by the name of Bandoola. Standing more than nine feet high - which is pretty tall for an Asian elephant - with lavender skin, pink freckles across his cheeks and tusks that curl up like the arms of a Burmese dancer, Bandoola is Bill's favorite elephant.
CROKE: In my mind, they were like twins. One was a man and one was an elephant, but I think of them both as being enormously courageous and strong and having a sense of humor. And they seemed to feel it in one another.
LOPEZ: Bill and Bandoola are actually the same age, born in the same year and on the same month. When they first met more than 20 years back, Bill was immediately in awe of this magnificent creature.
CROKE: But the most remarkable thing happened, and that is that when Bill Williams walked up to Bandoola, he pressed his palm against Bandoola's skin, and he swore that something magical happened between them in that moment. He knew Bandoola would understand him in a way that most human beings never would.
LOPEZ: Bill calls Bandoola his number one war elephant. He was actually the first one inducted into Elephant Company.
CROKE: There was confidence for the first time. I mean, he had established Elephant Camp. Things were going well for him, but the Japanese were moving more quickly than anyone anticipated. There was suddenly chaos in the area where Bill was. And one day when he was in camp, he received a secret code on his field phone that he was to remove all of the elephants that he had in the area - as many elephants as he could and bring them to the safety of India. No one thought he would make it, not even the officers above him - one of whom said to Bill, even if I had the chance to leave the war zone and come with you, I'd rather stay here and starve. That's the extent to which no one around him thought that he could make it. But he had no choice. He knew that if he stayed behind his elephants would be killed.
LOPEZ: Bill has to get out now. He's only able to gather his best elephants, including Bandoola. And just when he thinks his caravan of people and elephants can't get any bigger, a group of refugees are dropped in his lap.
CROKE: He already had a tough mission ahead of him. And bringing these 64 women and children with him he knew would hamstring the effort. But he couldn't imagine saying no and leaving them there. So in April, Elephant Bill gathered his handlers, the soldiers, the refugees, the elephants he had at hand - so this was nearly 200 people and 53 elephants. That's 45 adult elephants and eight babies. He loaded them up with 15-day's supply. That's what he figured it would take to march 120 miles from the battlefield over five Razorback Mountain ranges to the safety of India. He knew every mile would be hell.
LOPEZ: Bill has a primitive map. And he draws a straight line from where he is straight over the mountains to India. And off they go.
CROKE: And they had to slash their way through very dense vegetation. They could hear enemy fire. They knew the enemy was around. Every day of their trip they were afraid of being ambushed and with good reason. On day nine, Bill went ahead, as he often did, to scout new location. He was out ahead. He found himself in a very lush area with a creek, which was good news for feeding the elephants and for getting them water.
LOPEZ: But his sense of relief only lasts a second.
CROKE: And he came to a sheer cliff face - 270 feet high. It was like walking straight into a wall. He looked to the North, and he looked to the South - didn't look like the escarpment ended. And his heart just sank. There's no way he could go back. The Japanese were well-known for torturing, bayoneting, raping the women. His group of human beings couldn't go back to face the enemy, and he didn't want his elephants to face them either. He came back to the creek to meet his party to tell the officers what he had found. He filled them in. And they decided they would camp in this kind of lush, green ball. And in the morning, they would have three parties who would scout out whether there was an end to this escarpment or a way up and over it. By the end of that day, everyone returned to camp to say that there wasn't any way over it and there wasn't any way around it. They just went back to that area dumbstruck, looking at the sheer cliff face. What were they going to do? I mean, it was as grim as it could possibly be. And in that moment, they all notice that there was a ledge high up. And below that ledge, there were some outcrops of rocks. When they looked more closely, they saw some rocks jutting out. And so a crazy thought begins to enter their minds. They wondered, this is porous sandstone, like, could we possibly cut the rock ourselves? Could we make more footfalls. Could we make something like steps? And then they thought, I mean, even if they made it for the people, what would you do about the elephants? And someone said - or they all thought - could we cut an elephant stairway? Could we cut steps that the elephants could actually climb up? And even as they thought that, they knew how impossible it was. Even if they cut those steps, even if they were able to make real stairs, there were some really dangerous points where the best they could do would be to make something like a ladder. And everyone knows that elephants can't climb up ladders. Bill had spent a lifetime trusting elephants and being amazed by them. But even he thought, I just don't - I can't even imagine how they would be persuaded to start. I can't imagine how they could negotiate something. Are they nimble enough to do that? What if another elephant looks down, loses her step and falls. She would wipe out everyone underneath her. He could so easily imagine the horrifying result of even trying this.
LOPEZ: Bill looks back at his elephants. In a river crossing, it's always up to the elephants to decide who leads. It's usually a female. And the process can take hours. But they don't have that kind of time here. Bill consults with his good friend Potoke (ph) who's a master elephant handler. And they both agree that if anyone can pull this off, it's Bandoola.
CROKE: Now Bandoola obviously wasn't a female. But in this case, where the men had to make a decision, he felt that Bandoola was a rare male - that the other elephants would follow his lead. So they decide - not that they thought it would actually all work - but that they had no choice. They had to make something. They had to make whatever they could of that cliff - make it passable. And they spent a long day hacking away not only at vegetation but rock itself. And by the end of that day, by sunset, there was kind of a miracle. I mean, here was this rough, zigzagging staircase straight up the cliff face. It was too narrow and too vertical in places, but they figured they'd take one more day and see if they could improve on it again and make it passable. And so they did. And they had before them what they knew - even if it didn't work - was their best shot at getting out.
LOPEZ: And now all they can do is hope that tomorrow the elephants will do their part. The plan is this - Bill will go up the stairway first, Bandoola and Potoke will go next, then the other elephants will start. Women and children will follow. And there's to be absolutely no talking.
CROKE: So the next morning - Bill often scouted ahead of the party. And he did this day less because they needed someone to find the route for them, but because he felt he and Bandoola were so close, he felt that they could read each other's minds. And on this day, when Bill had anything but confidence, he didn't want Bandoola to see what was inside his head. Bill went ahead on his own. And he climbed halfway up the cliff face. He settled in on one of those outcroppings and waited. He could hear the creek below. And he could hear distant thuds of gunfire, as if he needed a reminder of what was at stake here. The enemy, the war was catching up to them. And below, the elephants - all 53 of them in a line, adults and babies, along with the people arrived at the bottom. This is where Potoke led Bandoola. He led him to the base. And he showed him that first step. And he said to him in Burmese, thwar (ph), which means climb. Bandoola was chosen because they thought he had the courage and the intelligence to know what was being asked of him. When Potoke told him climb, Bandoola immediately put his front feet and then his back feet up. But then he stopped.
LOPEZ: He stands on the first makeshift step for one full minute. And then two minutes, three minutes pass and then nine minutes.
CROKE: Everyone's fate was riding on what Bandoola was about to do. No one knew then what Bandoola was thinking. What was he mulling over or considering? While everyone behind him quaked in anticipation, was he going to do it or not? Halfway up the cliff, Bill didn't know what was going on. He didn't dare look down because of his own vertigo. But he couldn't hear the voices. And he had no idea whether Bandoola had started or not. Bandoola's just hovering on that first step, not going forward and not going back. And if Bandoola didn't go, no elephant would go. Finally, he moved forward. And once he moved forward, he just climbed steadily up and up. Bill's sitting up on this perch, halfway up this 270-foot sheer cliff, and he's looking out over a valley. And suddenly, his view is darkened by the beautiful, huge head of Bandoola and his tusks as he made it up. Bill was really excited and really happy, but he didn't dare say anything. What he did as Bandoola came up - he just moved himself. He scrambled on ahead of the elephant. I cannot even imagine what it was like to view for the people standing below. And I would imagine that their hearts were in their throats as they saw each animal begin the ascent and move up. And they had to have been scared out of their minds every moment that it took the elephants to move up there. It would take Bandoola and then each elephant after him three hours to make it to the top. When Bandoola made it to the top and Bill waiting for him, he couldn't even put into words the way that he felt. Not only have the elephants done something that people would've never thought possible, but the fact that they made it to the top meant that everyone was going to live. That they had a chance to get out of this war zone and make it to safety. So for Bill, the elephant that he loved the most, that he thought of as a brother, shared that moment with him, lead the way, brought all of the other elephants up. And for him, satisfaction isn't even the word. The deep emotion that Bill felt - that these animals that he loved so dearly, so dearly that he would say that elephants weren't just his friends, they were his religion. And people always thought he was exaggerating about how intelligent they were, how trustworthy, how courageous. And in this moment, they proved everything he believed to be true.
WASHINGTON: A big thank you to Vicki Croke for helping us tell this story. To learn more about Bill and Bandoola and the rest of the elephants, pick up a copy of Vicki's book, "Elephant Company." And check out her website at vickicroke.com. We'll have a link on our website, snapjudgment.org. That piece is produced by Nancy Lopez, with sound design by Leon Morimoto. When SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we try to make new friends in the desert. And planes, when you're flying, they're exactly where you want to be. When SNAP JUDGMENT, the End Of The Line episode, continues. Stay tuned.
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