By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, July 13, 2008
NOW THE HELL WILL START
One Soldier's Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II
By Brendan I. Koerner
Penguin Press. 386 pp. $26.95
In 1931, when Herman Perry was 8 or 9 years old, his mother decided that she'd had it with North Carolina and the Jim Crow South. She moved to the District of Columbia, which Brendan Koerner calls "a promised land for poor African Americans from the Carolinas and elsewhere in the South." It was better than the South, but not all that much. Even after the New Deal came in the 1930s, blacks in Washington were relegated to "busing tables or cleaning white folks' homes" and other menial labor that was, all the same, "less back-breaking and better paying than picking cotton in the Carolinas."
Flonnie Perry got a job as a domestic. Herman made it to Washington a few years later, dropped out of junior high, and eventually found living quarters on Florida Ave. N.W. He held various jobs and spent a lot of time with girls, at least one of whom he got pregnant; they had a daughter to whom he seems to have been devoted, though he drifted on to another girlfriend. Meanwhile, his brother Aaron was making a name for himself as a fighter -- in 1980 he was inducted into the Washington Boxing Hall of Fame -- and things were looking up for the whole family. Then World War II came along, and everything changed. After a series of misadventures, Herman found himself in the Army's 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion, an all-black unit that was bound for Burma and brutal labor on the infamous Ledo Road.
It is here that Koerner, a freelance writer, takes up his remarkable story. Though the evidence he presents fails to convince me that the Army's eventual pursuit of Herman Perry through the Burmese jungle was "the greatest manhunt of World War II," that's about as much hyperbole as Koerner permits himself. Otherwise he tells Perry's story in clear, workmanlike prose. He has done a great deal of digging into obscure corners of dusty records and has managed to reconstruct a tale well worth the telling. Now the Hell Will Start-- the title comes from Perry's own words, in circumstances it must be left to the reader to discover -- is a valuable footnote to the vast history of World War II.
In one important respect it is more than a footnote. Presumably, Koerner was drawn to Perry's story by its inherent drama, but he tells that story within the context of the systematic discrimination and marginalization to which the Army subjected blacks during that war. By now it is common knowledge that this mistreatment of black soldiers -- along with the treatment of virtually all black Americans on the home front -- made a mockery of American slogans about fighting for freedom and democracy and was a crucial ingredient in the formation of the civil rights movement that emerged after the war. There is, however, comparatively little literature, factual or fictional, about the daily lives of black soldiers -- a notable exception being John Oliver Killens's fiery if flawed novel And Then We Heard the Thunder (1962). Koerner's book is especially welcome on that count.
The Army's bigotry and recalcitrance make for a dreary story. In the case of Herman Perry, he "knew he was likely fated to wear an Army uniform" eventually, but months went by after Pearl Harbor before the draft finally got around to him. "Reluctant to darken its collective pigmentation too much," Koerner writes, "the Army was using a byzantine quota system that capped its share of black manpower at between 9 and 10 percent. But the Army couldn't even hit that modest target, due to a shortage of segregated training facilities." Overall, "the War Department prized the principle of segregation over the efficient use of talent," with the result that "African American college graduates were often lumped into battalions alongside illiterates."
In the summer of 1942, Perry was sent to the Myrtle Beach General Bombing and Gunnery Range in South Carolina, but he wasn't there to learn bombing and gunnery skills; he was there to be whipped into shape and primed for Burma. Though his white commanding officer "was smarter and more compassionate than most," Perry was up against the Army's prevailing segregationist attitude regarding blacks:
"Though outwardly committed to quelling racism, the Army allowed many of its training camps to be run like antebellum plantations. Rather than learning how best to kill or outwit Nazis, black draftees instead found themselves peeling potatoes and scrubbing toilets. They were housed in the shabbiest barracks and fed cold or putrid food -- scraps deemed unfit for white consumption. Anyone who dared complain or protested their lot with a wisecrack was quickly punished, either tossed in jail or slapped around."
Perry's unit was ordered overseas in May 1943. He and his fellow soldiers left the States believing that they would be building airstrips, but when they finally reached Burma in September, they learned that they would be "working on a road meant to keep America's Chinese allies flush with supplies." The entire undertaking was a boondoggle designed to appease Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese dictator, "an extortionate rogue, keen on squeezing the West for gold rather than battling the Axis." Chiang had well-placed sympathizers in Washington and the armed services. The controversial American general, "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, wasn't among these, but he believed that the Ledo Road, all 465 miles of it, stretching "from the Indian province of Assam to the Chinese border, with much of the route swooping through Burma's northern plains," could "keep his assault troops supplied as they cleared the Japanese out of northern Burma."
One disbeliever was Winston Churchill, who dismissed the Ledo Road as "an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished before the need for it has passed." The jungle through which the Burma portion of it passed was dense, fetid and malarial. Perry and his fellow soldiers labored 16 hours a day and were fed "a meal of tinned corn beef ('corned willy') and rice, with bacterial water to slake [their] thirst." The "malaria rate along the Ledo Road was astronomical: 955 cases per every 1,000 men." Not surprisingly, "Herman Perry's sunny disposition quickly evaporated in the jungle, destroyed by the sweltering heat and ceaseless routine of corned willy, leeches, and toil." He was court-martialed and jailed once, on charges of disrespect toward a white superior; "the formerly upbeat playboy from D.C. was now dour and combative, seemingly bent on inviting another court-martial."
On March 3, 1944, he finally snapped. In a confrontation with a white lieutenant, Harold Cady, who "had a tough-guy rep to uphold," Perry fired two shots into Cady's chest. As the lieutenant lay dying, Perry fled into the jungle, beginning an odyssey that lasted just over a year. Immediately, he found himself in a bind: "Giving himself up would be tantamount to suicide, but so, too, would roughing it in the hills." His "survival instinct kicked in: jungle life, however daunting, was preferable to death" at the hands of the Army, which had already started a manhunt. It was under the leadership of a captain who "reasoned that, given the inborn African American penchant for sexual voraciousness, Perry would try and whore it up as much as possible while on the lam. Since paid sex was hard to come by in the jungle, Perry would likely head for the nearest center of sin: Calcutta."
Instead, Perry, being considerably smarter than his pursuers, headed into the jungle. There he ran into a series of improbable (but true) adventures, including befriending a settlement of Naga headhunters, who "had been raiding the Assamese lowlands for centuries, sowing terror with their square-bladed daos." They took so kindly to Perry that he was given the chief's daughter in marriage. He was happy with the Naga, but this was only the beginning of his flight, and his idyll among the headhunters did not last long.
This story has so many more twists and turns that it seems fairest to leave the rest of it for you to discover. Suffice it to say that, apart from the story he tells, Koerner provides damning evidence of the Army's self-defeating insensitivity and bigotry at a time when it should have been utilizing each man's skills to the fullest. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.