To 'Hell' and Back: The Greatest Manhunt of WWII

Herman Perry mugshot

hide captionHerman Perry was an ordinary soldier who snapped, says Brendan I. Koerner.

Courtesy of Penguin Press
Herman Perry smoking

hide captionHerman Perry would eventually marry into a Burmese tribe.

Courtesy of Penguin Press
Brendan I. Koerner

hide captionNow the Hell Will Start is Brendan I. Koerner's first book.

Courtney Newman

In 1944, 21-year-old Army Pvt. Herman Perry was working on the Ledo Road, a massive but ultimately pointless military project that ran from northeastern India to the Chinese border. Like most of the others performing the backbreaking work under grueling conditions, he was African-American, drafted and flown halfway around the world, only to be treated as a second-class laborer.

The conditions were horrific, with high rates of malaria and other disease and construction accidents, all in the harsh and unfamiliar jungle. "It is one of the great, underreported stories of that theater of the war," says writer Brendan Koerner, author of Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.

Young Pvt. Perry had to deal not only with the rigors of construction in the jungle but also with the Jim Crow realities of the 1940s-era Army. He turned to opium to help ease the hardship, and one day, while coming down from an opium high after a disagreement over disciplinary action, he shot an unarmed white lieutenant who was trying to arrest him.

Koerner says Perry was just an ordinary guy who snapped under trying circumstances. "I don't think he was cold-blooded," he says. "I think he did it because he was having an emotional breakdown."

Perry was quickly court-martialed and sentenced to death by hanging. However, he managed to escape from the stockade and fled into the dense Burmese jungle, where he narrowly eluded capture many times over. He lived with, and even married into, a Burmese native tribe known as the Naga.

While the story that Koerner tells is one of high adventure, it is also one of even more overwhelming sadness. The Ledo Road was an almost completely futile effort, of no military value at the time, undertaken only to please a whim of China's Chiang Kai-shek, says Koerner. "Americans abandoned the road, quite literally, on V-J day," he notes, and by the next year the jungle had already overgrown much of it.

"It was a tragedy all around," says Koerner. "The whole drama could have been prevented if people had stopped to think about what was going on with the road and with the way the races treated each other at the time in this theater of the war."

Excerpt: 'Now the Hell Will Start'

Now the Hell Will Start

It is best to use discretion when confronting an emotionally shattered man, especially if he's holding a semiautomatic rifle. Lieutenant Harold Cady should have heeded that commonsense advice on the morning of March 5, 1944. But several fellow soldiers were watching as he drew near Private Herman Perry, a sobbing, trembling GI armed with a .30-caliber M1. Cady couldn't have the spectators thinking he was soft, or his hard-ass reputation would be ruined. He'd show them he could quell this bad egg Perry, loaded rifle be damned.

Perry was walking toward the muddy roadside, a few dozen yards from Cady's parked jeep. He glanced over his shoulder and spied the onrushing lieutenant. "Get back!" Perry yelled. "Get back!"

Cady had left his pistol at the battalion's camp, near the Burmese village of Tagap Ga. But he didn't appear fazed by his lack of firepower: he advanced to within four feet of the quivering Perry.

Perry spun and faced his pursuer. He nervously pressed the M1's stock against his right hip and trained the muzzle on Cady's chest. Tears spilled down his gaunt, dark cheeks.

"Lieutenant, don't come up on me," Perry sputtered.

Cady froze. The dank and toxic Burmese jungle, its chaotic flora tinted a hallucinogenic green, towered over the two Americans. To the west loomed the Patkais, the mountain range that lines the northern border between India and Burma. Their thickly forested slopes, teeming with monkeys, tigers, and ornately tattooed headhunters, peeked through wisps of haze.

Courage recouped after a moment's pause, Cady now crept forward. Perry repeated his six-word warning, this time in a frantic shriek: "Lieutenant, don't come up on me!"

Cady took another step. He crouched low, like a wrestler set to grapple, then placed his outstretched arms on either side of the M1's barrel, as if preparing to clap his hands around the rifle and wrest it away. It was a risky move, but Cady couldn't imagine this kid actually being dumb enough to shoot. That would be straight-up suicide: the Army wasn't shy about using the noose, particularly on black GIs like Perry. The slangy repeated warnings, the rifle pointed at his heart? Cady figured it was all part of a childish tantrum, and that this wayward Negro just needed a little correction.

But Perry was far too broken to care. He'd been working sixteenhour shifts crushing rocks along the Ledo Road, the rugged Army highway on which he and Cady now stood. His limbs rife with leeches, his bowels tattered by disease, Perry had come to loathe not just the jungle's hardships, but also the officers who treated him like chattel. He'd found solace in furtive puffs of opium and ganja, but the narcotic veil was always too fleeting. Stress and rage had slowly corroded Perry's will.

Now Cady wanted to haul him off to jail. Perry knew the next stop after that: the Ledo Stockade, an Army prison known for its brutality. Perry had served time there once before, enduring three grim months of taunts, parasites, and broiling confinement in "the Box." He'd sworn that he'd sooner die and go to hell than spend another day behind barbed wire.

Hell or the stockade? That terrible choice, rather than a vision of the gallows, was foremost in Herman Perry's addled mind on the morning of March 5, 1944. Soon enough he'd visit both those dreaded places. But he'd also discover paradise.

The 465-mile Ledo Road — or at least what's left of it — stretches from the Indian province of Assam to the Chinese border, with much of the route swooping through Burma's northern plains. In the darkest days of World War II, when Japan seemed poised to conquer all of Asia, the road was devised to keep wobbly China flush with supplies. Instead it became a mammoth relic of twentieth-century hubris — a mud-caked Ozymandias jutting from the Indo-Burmese wilderness.

The jungle began reclaiming the Ledo Road as soon as the war ended. The highway's thin gravel layer quickly sluiced away in the drenching monsoon rains, as did many of the bridges that spanned the route's abundant streams. In the fall of 1946, a reporter named David Richardson, who'd covered the Allied military campaign in northern Burma, returned to check on the road's condition. He was stunned by the swiftness of the jungle's reconquest:

The jungle, like a selfish woman, was stretching its green fingers out to take back The Road that had once been part of it. Creepers and weeds were already ankle-high across sections of the highway. In other places, the vegetation came drooping down from overhead. Where The Road had been graded, 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. Erosion had set in, deeply rutting miles of the highway, splitting it open like an earthquake.

Herman Perry toiled along the road's first eighty miles, which today wind through some of the world's dodgiest territory. The route starts just outside the town of Ledo, located in the crook of India to the east of Bangladesh. Once a hub of the American war effort, Ledo is now a dismal collection of tin-roofed shacks abutting an ancient rail station. The road's "Mile Zero" is marked with a commemorative billboard, erected by an Indian politician who yearns for greater trade with Burma (rechristened Myanmar by its sinister junta). REJUVENATE OUR LIFE LINE, the faded sign proclaims, REVITALIZE OUR RELATIONSHIP. Narrow train tracks, over which thousands of American GIs once traveled, lie deserted behind the billboard, overgrown with decades' worth of brush. Frayed ropes tether listless, emaciated cows to the rail joints.

The first several miles of road are paved with modern asphalt, and frequented by trucks piled high with tea leaves or lumps of coal. At Jagun, the road veers right at a red-domed temple adorned with swastikas, the classic Hindu symbol co-opted by the Nazis. The town is patrolled by mysterious men in pleather jackets, AK-47s slung over their shoulders, who glower at the vegetable peddlers squatting in the dust. Trucks and buses are often forced to stop here due to bandhs, road blockades orchestrated by drunken, rockthrowing teenagers.

The Patkais come into view at the town of Jairampur. Few if any Westerners make it this far-a hard-to-obtain permit is required to visit the Indian province of Arunachal Pradesh (formerly the North-East Frontier Agency), of which Jairampur is one of the remotest gateways. A few yards past the Indian Army checkpoint is a clue as to why access to Arunachal is so tightly controlled: a sign decorated with a skull-and-crossbones graphic, accompanied by alarming, allcaps text:

IT'S TIME TO ACCEPT THE REALITY!!! MILITANTS ARE FIGHTING FOR A WORTHLESS CAUSE. THE AVERAGE LIFE OF A MILITANT IS THREE TO FOUR YEARS. WHY SHORTEN YOUR LIFE FOR A LOST CAUSE?

The road soon curves upward, its surface deteriorating throughout the climb; the asphalt turns worn, then cracked, then finally to dirt. Hovels built of woven bamboo mats alternate with hillside tea gardens, their bushes studding the slopes like emerald-colored sheep. Leathery, hunched-over women pick the tea leaves by hand, tossing them in papoose-like baskets strapped to their heads.

Above the village of Nampong, a wooden archway marks the formal entrance to the Patkais. FRIENDS OF THE HILL PEOPLE is posted on its crossbeam, a message from the Indian Army to the impoverished, ethnically distinct "tribals" who inhabit the jungle. The locals chuckle at this slogan, for the military and the tribals are anything but close.

Beyond the Nampong archway, the road disintegrates into reddish goop. Reed-thin men in dhotis crouch along the roadside, breaking rocks with chisels or eating fistfuls of yellow-stained rice. A mile or two on, any vehicle short of a bulldozer can no longer navigate the sludge; anyone wishing to proceed farther must do so on foot.

The road's bogginess makes for a grueling hike. Each step emits a scatological squish as boots sink into rivulets of mud. Walls of trees and vines, sprouting atop cliffs created by American dynamite, keep the path cast in shadows. The only travelers here are barefoot tribals, lugging sacks of food or cloth; bored, greasy-haired soldiers hassle them for bribes.

Finally, the border: a crooked limestone plaque with one arrow pointing toward India, the other to Burma. The terrain morphs as the road snakes down the Patkais' eastern slopes: the mud dissipates, replaced by boulders embedded in scarlet clay. Small settlements, reeking of pig dung, chili paste, and cheap cigarettes, crop up along the road's periphery. Peering down at the plains below, one can glimpse the placid beauty of Lake Nawng Yang; the Americans called it the Lake of No Return, on account of all the crashed planes concealed in its depths. Skeletons of U.S. Army trucks occasionally protrude from the chest-high elephant grass, headlamps dangling free like popped eyeballs.

Though the road beyond the lake seems drivable, working vehicles are rarely seen. The Burmese instead travel on foot: schoolchildren in billowing longyis, wispy women with cheeks painted a creamy white, paranoid military thugs in high-cuffed pants and knockoff Members Only jackets. It is not only poverty that keeps the motor traffic to a minimum, but also the road's dilapidation; the rocks are murder on tires, and many streams are only passable via bamboo ferries. It is hard to believe this hardscrabble trail was once considered an engineering triumph for the ages.

The Ledo Road's decrepit fate would have come as no surprise to its American builders, who knew firsthand the jungle's malice. They suffered heavy casualties due to accidents, disease, snipers, booby traps, and ravenous animals, all for the sake of a road that ultimately contributed precious little to the Allied cause. The GIs grimly dubbed it the Man-a-Mile Road, though based on the official death toll, a more accurate nickname would have been the Two-Man-a-Mile Road. The British, meanwhile, used the moniker White Elephant Road, after a breed of sacred pachyderms known for being absurdly expensive to feed and care for.

The American leadership could have avoided this fiasco simply by owning up to reality. The lethality of the Indo-Burmese wilderness, with its lashing monsoons and endemic malaria, was certainly no secret. And everyone could see that China's dictator, Chiang Kaishek, was an extortionate rogue, keen on squeezing the West for gold rather than battling the Axis. The journalist Eric Sevareid, who covered the war in Asia for CBS Radio, offered the pithiest take on Chiang's brutal, kleptocratic regime:

I had some familiarity with dictatorships which used the complex apparatus of propaganda, censorship, and secret-police terror to hide what they were really doing; but this was the first one I had seen that used the machinery to hide the fact that they were really doing nothing. Worse: they had no intention of doing anything. They were simply sitting out the war, making a gesture here and there for the benefit of their allies. No one was fooled.

Yet the Americans still built the road for Chiang, squandering blood and treasure on a duplicitous tyrant. The military brass, afflicted by egoism, myopia, or indifference, never could bring themselves to alter plans. The men in the field paid the price.

The bulk of those star-crossed soldiers were, like Perry, African American. Of the roughly fifteen thousand American troops assigned to build the Ledo Road, at least two-thirds or more were black-the highest concentration of African American troops in all of World War II. They were so prevalent in the Patkais, piloting bulldozers and dynamiting hilltops, that some tribals claim they didn't realize until years later that white Americans existed, too.

The pervasiveness of African Americans along the road was no accident. Influenced by the pseudoscience of the day, the U.S. Army deemed blacks innately dim and gutless, and plotted to keep them off the front lines. "The average Negro is naturally cowardly," one Army colonel wrote when asked if blacks were fi t for combat. "Every infantry combat soldier should possess sufficient mentality, initiative, and individual courage; all of these are, generally speaking, lacking in the Negro."

Home-front politics compelled the Army to form a few black combat units, but the vast majority of African American draftees were shunted into menial jobs: construction, cooking, trucking, laundering. The Army viewed the Ledo Road as an opportunity to create a distant wartime ghetto, where thousands of black conscripts could be quietly dumped and used as manual laborers.

As a bastion of Jim Crowism, the Army required black GIs to be commanded by white officers, an arrangement that inevitably led to strife. Generations of segregation had ensured that men of differing skin color regarded one another as virtually alien species. As a result, racial animosities fl ared in the stateside training camps, where blacks and whites were forced to cross paths. Those divisions only deepened in the Indo-Burmese jungle, exacerbated by the traumas of daily life: rotting clothes, voracious insects, unpalatable food, excruciating loneliness. Many black troops came to despise their white superiors as vicious dolts; many whites, in turn, reviled their black charges as lazy or inept.

The acrimony often caused soldiers to tumble into madness and despair. Among the most seriously afflicted was Herman Perry, considered an irredeemable "fuckup" by his commanders. Perry shirked duties, back-talked, and smoked ganja and opium whenever he could; he seemed destined to spend the war in the Ledo Stockade alongside other GIs who couldn't toe the Army line. Instead he became a folk hero to comrades and natives alike, lionized for his near magical ability to dodge bullets, tigers, and the military police as he trekked through the jungles of Burma and Assam. Again and again, Perry's exotic journey appeared on the verge of coming to an ignoble end; again and again, he'd slip behind the tree line, salve his wounds with a patch of moss, and vanish back into the tribal realms, surviving to run another day.

Perry found more than refuge in the Indo-Burmese wilds. Like an opium-scented version of Mr. Kurtz, the deranged ivory trader in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Perry was bewitched by jungle society. He charmed his way into the hearts of the Nagas, a fearsome, head-hunting people who'd inhabited the Patkais for untold centuries. By the summer of 1944, Perry had started anew in an isolated Naga village-not as a guest, but as honored royalty. Like several madcap Brits before him, Perry reveled in the primitive joys of Naga culture: the communal spirit, the simple rituals of love and celebration, the loose sexual mores. To a young man accustomed to a cramped, segregated corner of Washington, D.C., and before that to the deprivations of the Jim Crow South, the Nagas' protohippie lifestyle must have seemed a splendid, tranquil dream.

As Perry's legend flourished, his Army superiors grew to respect his genius for survival. A lesser man, they realized, wouldn't have lasted a week in the hostile Patkais. In their more gracious moments, some officers called Perry by his well-known nickname: the Jungle King. Others, however, couldn't let go of the fear and hatred they'd been raised on: they referred to Perry as a hunted rodent, rather than a man.

For one military policeman in particular, a stoic Texan named Earl Owen Cullum, Perry's saga would become the yarn he'd tell a thousand times, the defining event of his long, accomplished life. Wracked by insomnia in his final years, Cullum would creep downstairs to record memories of his days traversing the Brahmaputra Plains, hot on Perry's trail. And he would contemplate the role he'd played in sealing Perry's fate.

But it is Perry, not his adversaries, at the soul of this tale. And his story begins along a highway worlds apart from the one that slashes through the Indo-Burmese jungle: a thoroughfare known to Tar Heels as Morgan Mill Road.

Excerpted from Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, by Brendan I. Koerner, courtesy of the Penguin Press, 2008.

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