New Book Details World War II Manhunt

Alex Chadwick talks with Brendan Koerner about his book, Now the Hell Will Start. It's the true story of Private Herman Perry, an African-American soldier in World War II who murdered his commanding officer and fled to the jungles of Burma.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. "The Greatest Manhunt of World War II" - part of the subtitle of a new book that tells the unbelievable true story of a GI on the run in the jungles of Burma. Sex, drugs, murder, race, the story keeps unfolding to a very dark end. We know Brendan Koerner from Slate.com "Now the Hell Will Start" is his first book. Brendan, hi.

Mr. BRENDAN KOERNER (Writer, Slate.com): Hey, thanks for having me, Alex.

CHADWICK: So this is the story of a man named Herman Perry. Who was he?

Mr. KOERNER: He was an ordinary guy. He was a young African-American meat cutter from Washington D.C. who was drafted into the army in 1942. Shipped off to the Indo-Burmese border region to work on the Ledo Road, which was a military highway that was being built from north-east India across northern Burma, and then linking up the old Burma road and China, to keep Nationalist China supplied during the war.

CHADWICK: That was a huge project and undertaking, and one that was extremely difficult. You write about the circumstances of this place - just brutal. Leeches, disease, terrible heat, humidity, rain, mud and the headhunters.

Mr. KOERNER: And the headhunters. These were the Naga. This is an ethnic group, a multi-tribal ethnic group that lives up and down the Indo-Burmese border in the hills there. And this was a tribe renowned and feared for its practice of headhunting. It really was the linchpin of society at the time.

CHADWICK: So these people are all over the hills. Also tigers, snakes, a lot of dangerous things. But maybe the worst part of daily life for the soldiers like Herman Perry - this is an all-black kind of construction brigade that he's in - are these racist white officers. I mean they have a very difficult time there.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah. This is a segregated army during World War II, you have to keep in mind. Many, many black soldiers were consigned to labor battalions because the War Department really bought into the racial science of the day, thinking that black soldiers weren't necessarily fit for combat. So most black soldiers were consigned to these kind of menial, manual labor chores and often to the worst assignments, the Ledo Road being one of them.

CHADWICK: Well, Herman Perry snaps after months and months and months working on this road, very bad conditions. He's being maybe harassed or maybe disciplined, by a white lieutenant. And Herman Perry shoots him, kills him and runs for the forest.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah, that's right. The other factor in this is that he'd also been coming off an all-night opium vendor, and that's why he'd missed the call of reveille in the morning. And so he'd been placed under arrest, actually. And he'd been to the stockade once before and had a very horrific experience there. They use very extreme punishments on the inmates in the stockade in India. So when he learned that he's was going to be under arrest once more and heading back to the stockade, he just absolutely snapped, and ends up shooting this white lieutenant who was unarmed, I should add, to death, on Ledo Road.

CHADWICK: So he goes into the forest. He's just got the clothes that he's wearing, nothing else. And what happens?

Mr. KOERNER: Well, first he actually wanders back into camp. After three days he kind of goes through a dissociative episode and kind of forgets what happens. He goes back to camp as if nothing had happened. And he learns, much to his horror, that he had killed this white lieutenant, and there was this 1000 rupee price on his head. He has a rifle with him, and his friends give him a few tins of food. And he starts running. But he realizes pretty early on during his flight that he has to find a place to settle down permanently, or he'll never make it in the jungle. And one day he's walking along a stream up on the Pa-kai(ph) mountains and he sees the glimpse of this peaked longhouse with palm fronds and he starts walking towards it. And this is the village where he kind of reinvents himself as a member of the Naga tribe.

CHADWICK: How is it that this black American GI, on the run, and really being pursued by the army, how is he able to ingratiate himself with a tribe of headhunters living in this remote village in the mountains of Burma?

Mr. KOERNER: On the most basic level, bribery. He actually enlisted the aid of some fellow, sympathetic soldiers, African-American soldiers, who stole rations for him, especially a tin fruit cocktail. And the Nagas love this, not just for the food, but also for the tin. They didn't really have lightweight metals. He also had an M-1 rifle. The Nagas just had spears and swords, and so the rifle came in very handy for hunting.

But I think the other aspect is just his personality. I interviewed his sister. And the thing that came up again and again about Herman is just he's a very, very charming man. He really had the gift of gab. And he picked up some of the tribal language while working on the roads. He really used that to his advantage, in becoming a member of this tribe.

CHADWICK: And Herman stays on in this village, he meets the daughter of the - I guess of the village or clan chief. And they fall in love and he marries her. They have a child - I mean, I'm thinking - no, Brendan's got to be making this up, right? I mean what a story!

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah, it's such a story. And there are many times in researching it I thought I'm going to hit a brick wall here, it can't really get any more incredible. And if it does become more incredible, there's no way I can verify that these things actually happened. But every time I surprised myself and found a way to fact check myself and to verify that these events actually took place. And a lot of that is actually just in official army documentation from his court-martial.

CHADWICK: He was court-martialed. This manhunt, the great manhunt did succeed at last. He was caught, he was tried, he was sentenced to death for the murder of this lieutenant. And then - he manages to escape.

Mr. KOERNER: Yeah, he escapes from Death Row in India. He actually lucked out in that the appeals process was held up by a variety of kind-of quirks of fortune. So it took a few months for his death sentence to be approved by the military brass. And during that time he was able to plot his escape.

CHADWICK: Brendan, we'll stop there, because I don't want to give away the ending. But I do want to know this. How do you get this information, because none of the really central characters here are still alive?

Mr. KOERNER: There are many people involved in the drama who are still alive. I managed to track down the prosecutor involved in the court-martial. A military policeman who actually shot Perry during one of these phases of the manhunt. And at the time, this was a really big story out there in Indian Burma. There actually is a lot of documentation of what occurred. It just took a lot of elbow grease to find it.

CHADWICK: You couldn't interview Herman Perry. The accounts of what he did and why he did it, they're drawn from documents and accounts from that time. Were you ever able to figure it out, what did happen with him?

Mr. KOERNER: I really think that the story's both more complex and more simple than I think a lot of people would assume. On a very basic level, he was a jungle freak-out. There were a lot of them. He experienced what would be now be called PTSD. He was traumatized, he was a psychiatric casualty. And that led to the tragic circumstances that ended in Lieutenant Harold Katy's(ph) murder. So I think that's part of it. But also you have to realize that he became a folk hero to a lot of people along the road, especially African-American soldiers. So there was a lot of mythology that grew up around this decidedly ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

CHADWICK: Brendan Koerner, his new book is "Now the Hell Will Start," it's the story of Herman Perry and the greatest manhunt of World War II. Brendan, thank you.

Mr. KOERNER: Thanks a million, Alex.

CHADWICK: You can find a link to a slide show about Private Herman Perry and the Burma Road at our website, npr.org. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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