THE JUNGLE OF A LIFE

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By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

He was a smoothie and a cad, walking and swaying up and down U Street as if he owned the town. Young women swooned over Herman Perry in those pre-World War II days. He liked silk suits and white shirts, soul food and dancing at night. The war, as it had done to so many others, caught him in mid-stride.

Shipped out to the Indo-Burmese theater, he found the terrain strange and the heat wicked. And when Pvt. Herman Perry dashed into the jungle, fleeing the Army and the hangman's noose, then settling in with a tribe of headhunters, he knew quite well that he was a long way from U Street.

It is one of the more bizarre sagas of that war. Herman Perry's military service involved murder, arrest, escape, a young jungle bride and the mind-altering groove of opium. There was also the tangled brew of race: A black man, Perry served in a segregated Army overseen by white officers.

The story and shame of Perry's life, however, all but vanished as the years passed. Historians had so many heroic war stories to focus on. Perry's family lived, until recently, in a state of bewilderment as to the circumstances surrounding his death: His remains were returned to them only last year, 62 years after his death.

The life and death of Herman Perry might have remained a footnote -- some crazed military cat doped up and living in the jungle -- were it not for Brendan I. Koerner.

Koerner could hardly believe Perry's story when he first stumbled across a mention of it in an Army document while he was researching an article about military executions. He became obsessed with the case and left his Manhattan home to go in search of Perry in the Burmese jungle. He got frightfully ill looking for the ghost of a soldier who used to hang out at Meridian Hill Park listening to music on sweet summer days.

* * *

During World War II, American military officials set about building a road along the Burma-India border that would ferry supplies to aid the Chinese. It was a massive construction project that would tax thousands of troops. And it involved the 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion (750 black soldiers, Herman Perry among them, and about 50 white officers), which headed overseas from Staten Island in July 1943. None of the black soldiers were told their destination.

A 33-year-old first-time author is sitting in a diner on U Street. He has black hair and thin features. He's wearing a purple shirt, pinstriped pants and orange and black sneakers. Koerner, author of the just-published "Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II," is a white man living in Harlem with his wife, Courtney, and their infant son, Maceo.

A 1996 graduate of Yale, Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired magazine. To start unraveling Perry's military life, he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Army. A box of materials arrived at Koerner's home, notably the trial transcript of Perry's court-martial. He was astonished at what he read, and became seized with a dream to write a book. "It was this 'Heart of Darkness,' 'Apocalypse Now' type story," he says.

* * *

This is what happened on another side of the world on the sweltering and unforgiving afternoon of March 5, 1944:


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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