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September 1, 2008
Over the years I have found myself, on at least a few occasions, reclining on the couches of European friends, watching Saving Private Ryan or some similar theatrical recounting of America's triumphant liberation of the world from the clutches of fascist Germany or imperial Japan. As battle sequences in which wholesome Iowa farm boys and tough Brooklynites invariably fell scores of cold-hearted Germans or shoot down Kamikaze killers, I inevitably find myself fielding questions, as if I were privy to some otherwise restricted historical archives on the American military. One of the first and most universal questions is, Where are all the black guys?

Though there were hundreds of thousands of minorities in the American military during World War II, relatively few were charged with roles that involved direct combat. When the United States actively engaged in the war after the Japanese bombing of Hawaii there was good reason for African Americans to worry about the draft, yet equally good reason to expect the war to pass them by. What author Brendan I. Koerner describes in Now the Hell Will Start as the US military's being "reluctant to darken its collective pigmentation too much" manifest itself in intricate formulas for conscription put in place to keep African Americans at or below 10-percent of personnel. The drafting and training of minorities was further hampered by the military's segregationist policies, which reflected the Jim Crow status quo of the nation at large: "[The] Army couldn't even hit that modest target [of 10-percent], due to a shortage of segregated training facilities," Koerner writes. Nonetheless, after a short grace period spent wooing girls and fathering a child, Herman Perry, the brother of promising young boxer, born in North Carolina and raised in the nation's capital, found himself sucked into the American war machine.

Renamed Stilwell Road in 1945, the Ledo Road eventually ran from Ledo, India, to Kunming, China.


Perry, a high school dropout, landed at the General Bombing and Gunnery Range in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, in 1942, one of many facilities where, "rather than learning how best to kill or outwit Nazis, black draftees instead found themselves peeling potatoes and scrubbing toilets." The separate and unequal treatment of African American soldiers features prominently in Now the Hell Will Start, from beginning to end; a year after being drafted, Perry, assigned to the Army's segregated 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion, was shipped off to Southeast Asia, but not to fight the Japanese. On a journey that itself was harrowing - spanning 32 days and 14,000 miles, with stops in Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town - Perry and his fellow African American soldiers were confined below decks aboard a Navy transport, in foul and alarmingly unhealthy conditions, and subjected to physical and mental anguish that would only hint at the hardships of the experiences to come.

Given no indication as to their destination, the men of the 849th Engineers arrived at the port of Bombay in the heat and humidity of India's monsoon season. After several weeks of additional "toughening up" at the hands of merciless drill instructors, the battalion ultimately made their way to the country's remote northeast corner and their until-then undisclosed project. Though they had been trained for and told to expect the task of building airstrips, the men would in fact be forcing a modern road from the Indian frontier through the dense and dangerous jungles of Burma and into China, where Chiang Kai-Shek's army was leisurely fighting the Japanese. Already understood as a wasteful token of bribery for the Chinese before it was even underway, the Ledo Road was an infamously ill-fated project of a scope and scale that makes the Halliburton blunders of Iraq look like hiccups in comparison.

American GIs and "coolies" break rocks on a work crew.


Charged with not only 16-hour days of backbreaking labor and deplorable housing and rations, in Burma Perry and his fellow GIs also faced a 95-percent malarial infection rate, and the constant threat of vicious tigers, poisonous snakes, and flesh-eating creepie-crawlies of every stripe. With few distractions from the endless toil many of the American men became mired in the escape of drug use, and so it was that in March of 1944 Perry missed a morning roll call while sleeping off an opium bender and promptly found himself being escorted to the guardhouse. Already frazzled from the jungle heat and, as Koerner illustrates, not of the most stable constitution to begin with, in short order Perry had not only gone AWOL but had murdered a white officer in the process, setting into motion a remarkable story of evasion and survival that is equal parts The Fugitive and The Thin Red Line.

The graves of the thousands of American and native workers who died on the Ledo Road are largely forgotten.


Even with today's advantages of GPS devices, malarial pills, and portable water purifiers, the decision of a lone American from the streets of Washington DC to attempt survival in the wilds of an inland jungle on the other side of the world would be suicidal at worst, and the ultimate test of survival at best. For Perry, however, there was virtually no other option, for he knew that to surrender would assuredly lead to execution. Perry was in fact captured later that summer and court-martialed, with the expected death sentenced coming down in the first week of September. But he escaped again just before Christmas; for Perry, as Koerner aptly puts it, "jungle life, however daunting, was preferable to death."

Immediately after his escape Perry was, thanks almost entirely to the systematic bigotry and ignorance of the military command, afforded a head start. Citing what Koerner describes as their belief in "the inborn African American penchant for sexual voraciousness," military police began scouring the whorehouses of India's cities while the fugitive GI headed into the denseness of Burma's forest. There Perry would, as Koerner lays out in the bulk of his story, elude capture for months by taking up with the Naga people, a tribe of notoriously vicious jungle-dwellers known for their traditional tattoos, their lethal square-bladed swords, and a warrior custom of beheading their enemies and decorating the captured skulls as talismans. While on the lam Perry married the 14-year-old daughter of a Naga chief, fathered a son, and became a folkloric legend to the GIs who continued to toil on the Ledo Road, where he would come to be known as "King of the Jungle."

A convoy of US military trucks on a stretch of the newly completed Ledo Road.


Having stumbled upon the name of Herman Perry by accident, over the course of five years Brendan Koerner unearthed a remarkable tale with a myriad of interlocking themes, all of historical significance. There is the Jim Crow status of African American GIs, widely marginalized and largely forgotten for their roles in World War II. There is the political bartering by American planners of tens of thousands of lives - both of American soldiers and of the native "coolies" who labored with them - to satisfy the whimsy of Chiang Kai-Shek's calculating demands. There is the futility and absurdity of the Ledo Road itself, which contributed no part to the war effort and was never a successful link between India and China. There is the preemptive condemnation of a black GI for the murder of a, by all accounts, arrogant and abusive white superior officer. There is the fugitive flight of an American soldier in the jungles of Burma. There are the skull-toting, marijuana-cultivating headhunters. And, in the end, there is Herman Perry's execution by hanging. In Now The Hell Will Start - the title taken from a quote of Perry's own - Koerner recounts them all in a crisp and straight-forward journalistic style, taking enough liberty to color the commentary with realistic vibrancy but never going off on fantastical tangents. By the end of his nearly 400-page text, which includes too many suspenseful twists to give away here, Koerner succeeds in resurrecting one of the forgotten ghosts of America's wartime past, delivering a rich and engaging account of an obscure but completely exhilarating incident that, until now, had hardly been a footnote.

SEE ALSO: www.nowthehellwillstart.com

--
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.

See other articles by Eric J Herboth.

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