How a black soldier killed an officer, disappeared into the Burmese jungle, and joined a tribe of headhunters.

By Brendan I. Koerner Posted Thursday, May 29, 2008, at 12:33 PM ET

In his new book, Now the Hell Will Start, Brendan I. Koerner tells the story of an epic World War II manhunt: the quest to find Herman Perry, a black soldier who shot and killed a white commanding officer, then disappeared into the jungles of Burma, where he joined a tribe of headhunters and eluded capture for months. The book is an amazing piece of reporting—part thriller, part history—that got its start as a Slate "Explainer." When Koerner wrote the column back in 2003, he came across an account of an Air Force translator who'd been charged with spying for Syria. "If convicted of the spying charges," noted the New York Times, "he could face the death penalty." As Koerner researched this "Explainer" (detailing which offenses, when committed by military personnel, are punishable by death), he encountered the following tidbit: "Pvt. Herman Perry, murderer who long evaded capture by living with Burmese tribe, 1944-1945." Koerner's curiosity was piqued—it sounded so very Kurtz. Five years later, Koerner presents Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, which tells Perry's story in full.

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-BurmaIndia 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.

In July 1942, Herman Perry, a young meat cutter from Washington, D.C., was inducted into the United States Army. Before he set off for training camp in South Carolina, he donned his dress uniform and posed for this photograph—a souvenir for his family and his girlfriend, a skinny-limbed beauty named Alma Talbot.

Two years later, Pvt. Herman Perry would be on the lam in the jungles of northwest Burma, accused of killing a commanding officer. He flourished in the malarial wilderness, finding refuge amid a tribe of ornately tattooed headhunters who loved him as a brother and revered him as a hero. The tale of Perry's flight and the Army's ensuing manhunt is one of cruelty, madness, and survival. But Perry's story is also part of the larger, little-known history of the China-Burma-India theater of operations—the war's so-called forgotten theater, where thousands of brave

Americans, many of them black, toiled and died in virtual anonymity.

Perry's unit, the 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion, had been dispatched to the IndoBurmese wilderness to help build the ill-fated Ledo Road, named after the town near its mile zero. The road was designed to keep Nationalist China flush with supplies after the Japanese had severed access to the more southerly Burma Road in 1942.

Building the road was a far more arduous task than its planners had predicted. An aide to Chiang Kai-shek, China's conniving dictator, initially estimated that the highway would take just three months to build. It instead took two and a half years and incurred thousands of casualties: The Americans nicknamed it "the Man-a-Mile Road" on account of its lethality. But President Roosevelt and the War Department never could bring themselves to curtail the road's construction, even as its potential usefulness diminished with the increase of cargo flights between India and China. They were too afraid of losing face, no matter the human toll.

The vast majority of GIs who worked the road were, like Herman Perry, AfricanAmerican. They were assigned to segregated labor battalions run by white officers. The military brass thought that men of African descent possessed smaller cranial capacities than their European counterparts, a deficiency said to be caused by irreversible "premature ossification of the skull." As a result, most black draftees were deemed unsuitable for combat and were forced to toil as manual laborers behind the war's front lines. Blinded by Jim Crow, the War Department wasted the talents of thousands of patriotic Americans.

The jungle's harsh conditions caused many soldiers to suffer mental breakdowns, and Herman Perry was among the afflicted. The broiling Indo-Burmese jungle receives up to 200 inches of rain per year, so the soldiers' huts were perpetually awash in mud. Ants and lice swarmed over the sleeping GIs, and Anopheles mosquitoes made malaria endemic. Several unfortunate souls were mauled by tigers as they crushed rocks along the road or were swept away by floods that cascaded down Burma's abundant streams.

The menace most reviled by Perry and his comrades (Change this word), however, was the jungle's vast array of leeches. Red or green or chocolate brown in color, the slimy annelids drooped from trees or neck-high grass, waiting to gorge on the blood of passers-by. The leeches had a particular affinity for the body's most sensitive areas: eyelids, nostrils, and especially the privates.

The Americans were assisted by thousands of indentured laborers, known as "coolies" in the politically incorrect lingo of the 1940s. Many had previously worked on the tea plantations of Assam, the remote Indian province where the town of Ledo is located.

The Ledo Road had a low priority in Washington, so equipment was scarce. The coolies were forced to slash through the jungle with hoes, pickaxes, and even their bare hands. An untold number perished while working on the “quixotic” project. Those who survived were usually paid the equivalent of 16 cents a day, though sometimes their compensation amounted to nothing more than a few fistfuls of rice. Many of the laborers thus supplemented their incomes by peddling "native intoxicants"—opium and marijuana—to GIs. Herman Perry was one of their most avid customers.

Perry's drug habit further warped his already tattered psyche. On March 4, 1944, 21year-old Perry was placed under arrest for insubordination—he had missed reveille after spending a night on an opium bender. But Perry ran away from his captors, and, when an unarmed white lieutenant confronted him, he shot the officer to death. Perry immediately fled into the jungle, fearing that he'd be lynched if captured by the military police. A dead-or-alive reward of 1,000 rupees was posted.

While the MPs combed the brothels of Calcutta, Perry ran deeper and deeper into the Patkais, the forested mountain range that lines the Indo-Burmese border. He eventually stumbled upon a village inhabited by Nagas, members of an ethnic group known for its zeal for headhunting. Against all odds, the charming Perry managed to befriend the tribesmen. He eventually married the chief's 14-year-old daughter, who bore him a son, and started a small farm in the Patkais, raising rice and marijuana.

Perry was arguably the world's first hippie.

Private collection of Kathryn Cullum Lee. Though the Nagas were historically suspicious of outsiders, the Americans turned many of them into allies during the war. A detachment of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, sent agents into the jungle with gifts of tin and opium in order to win the Nagas' loyalty. These bribes convinced some tribesmen to assist downed American pilots, who would otherwise have perished in the wilderness. Perry followed the OSS's game plan to some extent: He tapped sympathetic black soldiers to help him steal rations from Army depots and then gave this food to the Nagas. The tribesmen were particularly big fans of syrupy fruit cocktail.

Yet even the ostensibly friendly Nagas could still be violent when provoked— especially if a GI dared get too close to one of their women. And as much as they adored opium, the Nagas prized skulls even more highly. Note the two brass heads on the chieftain's necklace in the photograph: Each represents a foe that he had personally decapitated.

During the Perry manhunt, work on the road continued. On Jan. 12, 1945, the road's first ceremonial convoy set out from Ledo. Despite the racial makeup of the project's work force, the convoy was an entirely white affair for its first 268 miles. But a reporter for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, complained when the convoy reached the town of Myitkyina in northern Burma. Ten African-American soldiers were thus brought in from India to head off negative publicity.

On Feb. 5, the convoy finally reached the Chinese city of Kunming, which was ruled by a one-eyed, opium-addicted warlord named Long Yun. To celebrate the convoy's arrival, Long arranged for operatic soprano Lily Pons to perform at his palace. The 10 African-American GIs were not invited to the show; instead, they were sent back to India within 48 hours, as Madame Chiang Kai-shek had insisted that no blacks set foot in China.

While the convoy lurched toward China, Perry was fleeing through the backwoods of Assam. He had been captured in the summer of 1944, then court-martialed and sentenced to death on Sept. 4. But he escaped from the stockade just before Christmas—a jailbreak likely abetted by a fellow inmate. Perry thought he could rely on the kindness of other African-American GIs to get him out of Assam, but he miscalculated—a pair of black soldiers eventually played a key role in the manhunt's endgame.

While the Perry drama played out in the wilderness, the road's beleaguered workers kept plugging away. The highway didn't officially open until May 20, 1945—12 days after Nazi Germany's surrender. Less than three months later, on the day of Japan's final capitulation, word came down from Washington: The road was to be abandoned immediately and all construction materials either scrapped or sold for pennies on the dollar. Thousands of men had died for a project that contributed virtually nothing to the Allied war effort.

National Archives In 1946, a reporter for the New Republic visited the road. Most of it was impassable. "The jungle, like a selfish woman, was stretching its green fingers out to take back the Road," he wrote. "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."

Today things don't look much better. Though the first few miles of the Ledo Road are now paved and well-trafficked, most of the highway is in dreadful shape— particularly high in the Patkais, where Herman Perry lived among the Nagas. There have been sporadic attempts to make the road navigable once again, but they've all come to naught. India and Burma are deeply suspicious of each other, and both fear that a revitalized road would make life easier for ethnic insurgents and drug traffickers.

A few miles short of the Indo-Burmese border lies this wartime cemetery, filled with cracked stone crypts and overgrown with jungle vines. No one knows how many casualties of the Ledo Road's construction are buried there. Nor does anyone seem to know what happened to Herman Perry's half-Naga son.

HERMAN PERRY: THE AMERICAN SOLDIER WHO MARRIED A NAGA PRINCESS
PRELUDE: This story is based on “Now the Hell Will Start,” - an epic World War II manhunt story written by Brendan I. Koerner, about the quest to find Herman Perry, a black soldier who went to India to help build a road to China via Burma, shot and killed a white commanding officer, then disappeared into the jungles of Naga hills of Assam, where he joined a tribe of headhunters and eluded capture for months. This story is an amazing piece of reporting— part thriller & part history. It gets its start as a Slate "Explainer" (detailing which offenses, when committed by military personnel, are punishable by death). When Koerner wrote the column back in 2003, he came across an account of an Air Force translator who'd been charged with spying for Syria and if convicted of the spying charges, he could face the death penalty. As Koerner researched this "Explainer", he encountered the following tidbit about “Pvt. Herman Perry, murderer who long evaded capture by living with Burmese tribe, 1944-1945." Koerner's curiosity was piqued and he started to search for survivors where the action took place. He spent five 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. HERMAN PERRY - ORIGINS: Herman Perry was a 19 year old meat cutter from Washington D.C. who was first made to undergo compulsory military service for giving a false birth date to his employers at the slaughter house in 1942. In July 1942, when Herman Perry came out of the training camp in South Carolina after induction into US Army, he donned his dress uniform for the first time and posed for the photograph (Fig -01)—a souvenir for his family and his girlfriend, a skinnylimbed beauty named Alma Talbot.

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 to work for the US Army throughout allies’ forces locations. AMERICAN SOCIAL STRUCTURE AROUND WW-II: During the Second World War, the United States was clinging to a curious policy of racial stratification in its armed forces. The government used to make a concerted effort to make sure thousands and thousands of black men registered for the draft. But the military brass bolstered by pseudoscience those days held the belief that, because the Afro-American skull undergoes ossification prior to that of Caucasian skull and hence has a low cranial capacity in comparison, black people were cowardly and dimwitted and hence there was a desire not to rile up white servicemen by forcing them to work alongside Negros – who supposedly were loath enough to be put into combat situations. Most of the Negro soldiers would find themselves in inferior positions compared to a white soldier and would only be inducted into supporting roles to the main combating army, behind the war’s front lines – more often to work as manual labours. Besides those were the times when back in states, Negroes could have been lynched by angry white mobs with impunity. The vast majority of GIs, who like Herman Perry were African-American, were assigned to segregated labor battalions run by white officers. Blinded by Jim Crow of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, the War Department wasted the talents of thousands of patriotic Americans. THE AMERICANS AT THE INDO-BURMESE-CHINESE WAR THEATRE: This almost forgotten theatre of world war-two where thousands of brave Americans, many of them black, toiled and died in virtual anonymity is at the famous trisection between India, Burma and China – while India was still under British control, Burma - newly independent but mostly under control of advancing Japanese Army and China, under control of dictator Chiang KaiShek – at loggerheads with Mao’s revolutionary army but having the support of allies. Perry's unit, the 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion, was dispatched to the Indo-Burmese wilderness to help build the ill-fated Ledo Road, named after the town near its mile zero in Assam. The road was designed, as planned by allies’ strategists, to keep Nationalist China flush with supplies after the Japanese had severed access to the more southerly Burma Road in 1942. But building the road was a far more arduous task than its planners
Fig 01

had predicted. An aide to Chiang Kai-shek had initially estimated that the highway would take just three months to build. It instead took two and a half years and incurred so much of Fig 02 casualties that the Americans nicknamed it "the Man-a-Mile Road" on account of its lethality. As the war dragged on, the justifications for the road became looking increasingly flimsy. Winston Churchill said the road was “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished until the need for it has passed.” But President Roosevelt and the military brass at the war Department dug in their heels. They never could bring themselves to curtail the road's construction, even as its potential usefulness diminished with the increase in cargo flights between India and China. To halt the construction was to admit the defeat and they were probably too afraid of losing face, no matter the human toll. HARDSHIPS AT THE LEDO ROAD: The Ledo Road had a low priority in Washington, so equipment was scarce. The Americans were assisted by thousands of indentured labourers, known as "coolies" in the politically incorrect lingo of the 1940s. Many had previously worked on the tea plantations of Assam, the remote Indian province where the town of Ledo was located. The coolies were forced to slash through the jungle with hoes, pickaxes, and even their bare hands. The broiling Indo-Burmese jungle receives up to 200 inches of rain per year, so the soldiers' huts were perpetually awash in mud. Vast arrays of Ants and lice swarmed over the sleeping GIs, and Anopheles mosquitoes made malaria endemic. Red or green or chocolate brown in color, the slimy annelids drooped from trees or neck-high grass, waiting to gorge on the blood of passers-by. The leeches had a particular affinity for the body's most sensitive areas- the orifices like, eyelids, nostrils, and especially the groins.
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. Several

unfortunate souls working on the “quixotic” project perished while those who survived were Fig 03 usually paid the equivalent of 16 cents a day, though sometimes their compensation amounted to nothing more than a few fistfuls of rice. Many of the laborers thus supplemented their incomes by peddling "native intoxicants"—opium and marijuana—to GIs. Herman Perry was one of their most avid customers. THE CRIME: The jungle's harsh conditions caused many soldiers to suffer mental breakdowns, and Herman Perry was among the afflicted. Perry's drug habit further warped his already tattered psyche. 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. On March 4, 1944, 21-year-old Perry was placed under arrest for insubordination as he had missed reveille after spending a night on an opium bender. But Perry ran away from his captors - scared and with tears in his eyes, and he finally snapped, when an unarmed white lieutenant confronted him, he shot the officer to death by the side of the road. And then things really got crazy. Perry immediately fled into the jungle in a haze, with his military-issue carbine over his shoulder, fearing that he'd be lynched if captured by the military police. A dead-or-alive reward of 1,000 rupees was posted (Fig 04). He spent days roaming in and around the parts of the jungle that Westerners avoided at all costs.

While the MPs combed the brothels of Calcutta, Perry ran deeper and deeper into the Patkais, the forested lower Himalayan mountain range that lines the IndoBurmese border. He eventually stumbled upon a village inhabited by Nagas, members of an ethnic group Fig 04 known for its zeal for headhunting. Against all odds, the charming Perry managed to befriend the tribesmen. THE EARLY AMERICAN EXPOSURE OF THE NAGAS: Though the Nagas were historically suspicious of outsiders, the Americans turned many of them into allies during the war. As in present days, Nagas were then particularly fond of shiny tinned American food and beverages particularly syrupy fruit cocktails. A detachment of the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, sent agents into the jungle with gifts of tin and opium in order to win the Nagas' loyalty. These bribes convinced some tribesmen to assist downed American pilots, who would otherwise have perished in the wilderness. Perry actually followed the OSS's game plan to some extent: He tapped sympathetic black soldiers to help him by sneaking in and out of American camps to steal rations from Army depots and gave this food to the Nagas. 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. The black GIs, who would give him the tins of food (and ammunition) before his slinking back into the opaque, forbidding jungle also knew, that his capture meant a hanging at the hands of angry white officers. Yet even the ostensibly friendly Nagas could still be violent when provoked - especially if a GI dared get too close to one of their women. And

as much as they adored opium, the Nagas prized skulls even more highly. Still, mysteriously, Herman Perry not only befriended them but he slowly became a revered member of his Naga village, so much so that, after some initial period of a ritual courtship he even managed to marry the fourteen year old daughter of the tribes’ headman, who bore him a son. He, then, started a small farm in the Patkais, raising rice and marijuana. From here, the tale of Perry's flight and the Army's ensuing manhunt is one of cruelty, madness, and survival. THE ENDGAME: During the Perry manhunt, work on the road continued. On Jan. 12, 1945, the road's first ceremonial convoy set out from Ledo. Despite the racial makeup of the project's work force, the convoy was an entirely white affair for its first 268 miles. But a reporter for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, complained about this when the convoy reached the town of Myitkyina in northern Burma. Ten African-American soldiers were thus brought in from India to head off negative publicity.
Fig 05

On Feb. 5, the convoy finally reached the Chinese city of Kunming, which was ruled by a oneeyed, opiumaddicted warlord named Long Yun. To celebrate the Fig 06 convoy's arrival, Long arranged for operatic soprano Lily Pons, to perform at his palace. The 10 African -American GIs were not invited to the show; instead, they were sent back to

India within 48 hours, as Madame Chiang Kai-shek had insisted that no blacks set foot in China. While the convoy lurched toward China, Perry was fleeing through the backwoods of Assam. He was captured in the summer of 1944, then courtmartialed and sentenced to death on Sept. 4. But he escaped from the stockade just before Christmas—a jailbreak likely abetted by a fellow inmate. Perry thought he could rely on the kindness of other African-American GIs to get him out of Assam, but he miscalculated—a pair of black soldiers eventually played a key role in the manhunt's endgame. His death sentence was eventually carried out. While the Perry drama played out in the wilderness, the road's beleaguered workers kept plugging away. The highway didn't officially open until May 20, 1945—12 days after Nazi Germany's surrender. Less than three months later, on the day of Japan's final capitulation, word came down from Washington - The road was to be abandoned immediately and all construction materials either scrapped or sold for whatever value these could fetch. Thousands of men had died for a project that contributed virtually nothing to the Allied war effort. THE ROAD TODAY: In 1946 itself, a reporter for the New Republic visited the road. Most of it was then in bad shape and un-motorable. "The jungle, like a selfish woman, was stretching its green fingers out to take back the Road," he wrote. "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." Today things don't look much better. Though the first few miles of the Ledo Road are now paved and well-trafficked, most of the highway is in dreadful shape - particularly high in the Patkais, where Herman Perry lived among the Nagas. There have been sporadic attempts to make the road navigable once again, but they've all come to naught. Partly because of deep suspiciousness of military junta ruling Burma, which fears that a revitalized road would make life easier for ethnic freedom fighters, and partly by the Indian government’s fear of increase in insurgency and drug – trafficking.

A few miles short of the Indo-Myanmar border, even today is present this

Fig 07

Fig 08

wartime cemetery, which is filled with cracked stone crypts and overgrown with jungle vines. No one knows how many bodies of the casualties of the construction army of Ledo road are buried there. Nor does anyone seem to know what happened to Herman Perry's half-Naga son.