Burma, the Ledo Road, World War II, African Americans and the Like

I just finished reading a new book, Now The Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, by Brendon I. Koerner, and found it fascinating on several levels.

An African American is drafted into the Army in World War I, sent to help build the Ledo Road, connecting northeast India, through Burma, to China under appalling circumstances.  He kills a white officer and escapes into the jungle, living in a remote Naga tribal village (and marrying the 14 year old daughter of a tribal leader), but is later caught and eventually hanged.  A true story.

The story of Herman Perry is itself of interest, but this book is interesting on several levels.  First, it is quite an indictment of the treatment of black soldiers in the segregated army of the 1940s.  I had read before about the difficulty that black soldiers often had off the base (especially in the south), and of course of the heroic efforts of groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen.  But I had never read about the harsh treatment within the military, the contempt with which African Americans were held and the perceived limits of their intellecutual, emotional and physical capacity, and the fact that they were detailed to the lowest and meanest of support jobs, including the building of the Ledo Road (a task which itself should probably never have been started) in the jungles of Asia.

It is also the story of American support of Chiang Kai-Shek, and Chiang’s many shortcomings, and the rivalry between General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell, and Chaing’s advisor, Claire Chennault, as to how American support should be directed.  It is the story of the defeat of the Japanese in the jungle.  It is a story of military justice during World War II, through the court martial and review process.  And it is the story of the Naga tribesmen and their active head hunting ways.

It is a book well worth reading.


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