Built during World War II, the 1,072-mile-long Ledo Road once connected North East India, North Burma and Southwest China. A monumental, even amazing, work of construction, the road went through miles of untamed jungle and rough mountains, interspersed with rainforests and tall elephant grass. In some places, it went through swamps which bred mosquitoes and leeches.

Constructing the road took the efforts of thousands of men – adivasi tea plantation workers, Chinese labour, soldiers from British-Indian and American armies, American engineers and workmen, most of whom were African-Americans. The Ledo Road, later renamed Stilwell Road after American General Joseph Stilwell, was meant to shore up Allied efforts in the China-Burma-India war against the Japanese, who had advanced quickly through Southeast Asia between the end of 1941 and early 1942.

Among the African-Americans sent to help in the gargantuan effort was a young man who “liked silk suits and white shirts, soul food and dancing at night”, who was a “smoothie and a cad”. In 1944, that young man, Herman Perry, deserted the American army and lived among the head-hunting Heimi Naga tribe, exchanging his supplies for shelter, food and finally, a wife.

Perry’s story came to light in 2008 when the American journalist Brendan I Koerner wrote his book,Now the Hell Will Start: One Man’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II. Koerner tracked down Perry’s story from the US military’s court-martial proceedings against him, after which the American soldier was sentenced to death by hanging.

First trucks along the Ledo Road. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A road through the jungle

Herman Perry was 22 when he set off with his unit, the 849th Engineer battalion, for a three-month-long voyage from New York via Cape Town to Bombay. It was mid-1943, and the Ledo Road, whose construction had commenced in October 1942, had made some advance: from Ledo, a tea plantation town in east Assam, to Lekhapani, a train depot farther east, and then the Assam-Arunachal border (then known as the North-East Frontier Agency).

Perry had grown up poor, in a family whose forebears once served as slave labourers in a North Carolina cotton plantation. His brothers loved boxing and the two of them would eventually make a name for themselves as fighters in the welterweight category. Perry’s mother, long abandoned by her husband, was the first to move to Washington DC. Poverty compounded with segregation constrained Perry’s opportunities – he never went to college and when war came, he found work as a local butcher.

In America, the War threw the complexities of race into sharp relief. In the 1940s, patriotism and fighting for one’s country were considered the duty of every able-bodied male citizen, but even then, military personnel made every effort to dodge and delay drafting black people, whom they considered inferior.

Perry ignored the draft notice – only to be arrested for this recalcitrance. Soon after, he was drafted into the engineers’ battalion – a misnomer, for his primary duty was menial, janitorial work, suffering abuse from senior, mainly white, officers.

When Perry and his crew-mates were told to depart from New York in mid-1943, they had no idea of their destination. At New York, they boarded a requisitioned luxury liner revamped to serve as military carrier. On board, the racism manifested itself in terrible living conditions – black Americans were confined to the lowest levels, never allowed to come up on deck, always served at the end, and ordered to eat standing up.

From Cape Town, they travelled to Bombay and then to Deolali in Maharashtra, where Perry and his unit stopped to acclimatise themselves. Next stop was Calcutta, and then Ledo. Forced to travel in packed, miserable conditions, Perry had contracted dysentery on the journey. For a few days before re-joining his unit, he spent time at the Ledo hospital. This was when he and the rest of the unit realised why they had been brought all the way from New York: to build the Ledo Road.

African-American soldiers in Burma. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

By now, the road had crossed the almost unsurpassable Pangsau Pass, which led through the Patkai Hills, into north Burma. South of this was the Lake of No Return, where several Allied planes had already perished, flying across the low mountains in blinding rain.

Crossing the Pass was arduous. It was through this region, in ancient times, that the Ahoms had entered Eastern India. Now, workers and soldiers had to move through thick forest, blast thick ancient rock, and brave incessant rains to carve the road, with its hairpin bends and steep drops.

Meanwhile, Ledo Road had curved down to meet the old Burma Road in North Burma. The southward extension of the old Burma Road was already in Japanese hands, as was the strategic town of Myitkyina. The Allied troops wanted to secure access to towns north of the road. According to plans, the Ledo Road could meet the old Burma Road and swing upwards to Wanting on the Burma-China border, from where flights to Kunming in Yunnan (the headquarters of the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek) were possible.

Lt Gen Joseph Stilwell with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Kai-Shek. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Doubts had already begun to creep in concerning the grand Ledo Road. It seemed as though the road was being built for the sole purpose of satisfying a few egos. It had become a bone of contention between General Stilwell, who had his heart set on building the road and Claire Lee Chenault, the American head of the air force. Both Chenault and the Chinese Nationalist Party now preferred to wage war using airpower – light combat aircraft – over building the road. America was keen on appeasing China because it wanted the country to remain in the war.

As work progressed along North Burma, Perry’s spirit was perhaps already broken. Along with the poor living conditions, the mosquitoes and leeches, there were long hours of work (for Ledo Road was already behind schedule). The ill-treatment meted out by their superiors continued – the most minor transgressions met with the harshest of punishments. Perry’s first act of disobedience led to solitary confinement for 90 days, for which he was driven back to Ledo Stockade. Isolated in a narrow cell, Perry was kept there for two weeks beyond his time.

Like many in his unit, Perry had taken to opium as the drug was available in plenty. In his few months near North Burma, Perry had also picked up some of the local dialects spoken in the area.

The death of an officer

Claire Lee Chenault with Madame Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Kai-Shek. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

After his first solitary confinement, one morning in March, 1944, Perry did not turn up for reveille – the compulsory procedure to monitor attendance. A few hours later, he was spotted walking away with his rifle. Commanding Officer Harold Cady, along with some junior officers, attempted to stop him. As Koerner writes, a nervous Perry, aware of the punishment that awaited him for indiscipline, warned Cady not to advance. Cady ignored the warning and Perry fired twice at the officer, just as Cady tried to grab him by the shoulder.

It was this that prompted Perry’s subsequent five-month disappearance. Koerner pieces together some of this story in his book: armed with his rifle, Perry disappeared into the forests. As Cady died from his wounds, a manhunt was launched for Perry, who knew he was in the worst kind of trouble – he had killed a senior, white officer.

The search for Perry saw some comical missteps along the way – detectives first raided Calcutta’s famous brothels, certain they were the first place a soldier would show up. Instead, Perry had threaded his way through the jungle and chanced upon a morung, or a bamboo structure on stilts built over a pig sty. The structure evidently served as a bachelors’ quarter for a certain Naga tribe, which Koerner suggests were the Heimi Nagas, a tribe of head-hunters. It is unclear how Perry managed to win them over, especially their chief, who was known as ang, but undoubtedly, his familiarity with their language helped. He showed off his rifle and, over the next few days, offered the tribesmen goods filched from the military stores, including cans of dates and soup tins.

Perry’s actions had also won him some empathy among his fellow African-Americans, who Koerner suggests, clearly helped him evade detection and even plied him with goods. The names of those who helped him will never be known for fear of reprisals. Even later, Perry was never asked to reveal their identities – the military was too embarrassed by the fact that he had managed to evade them multiple times.

In those four months, Perry lived among the Nagas, he married the ang’s 14-year-old daughter and had his own small rice patch, went hunting and had long opium smoking sessions with other men in the group. But soon the rumours of a black man who had gone native spread far and wide, ultimately reaching the American army.

Perry evaded capture the first time US officers came for him. He was smart enough to recognise the flickering lights in the forest for what they were – the flashlights of a raiding party out to nab him. He was careful not to return to his hut and ran for his freedom. He dodged bullets, evaded sniffer dogs, suffering only some injuries, but was finally found when he could no longer run.

Perry’s second escape

In September 1944, Perry was imprisoned once again in the Ledo Stockade. Court martial proceedings against him began soon. Though arguments were made about Cady’s arrogance, his general unpopularity and that Perry killed him almost in self-defence, Perry was given the death sentence. Perry did not wait for appeal, he knew it would be futile. Instead, this time he escaped prison at the Stockade using a pair of wire-cutters smuggled to him, crawling out through an empty ditch and evading the watchtower guards.

For the next two months, Perry was on the run again. This time, he remained in the forests around Ledo, living among the tea plantation labour, but staying on the move, instead of settling in like the last time. His ability to evade detection – even when a decoy lorry full of supplies was sent to trap him – gave him the moniker “Jungle King”, Koerner writes. It is unlikely though, that the name was free of its racist connotations.

By March 1945, Perry’s luck ran out. A local police officer finally trapped him, weak and suffering from malaria on March 9. Perry was hanged to death in the following week. His shocked and distraught family had no way of making inquiries about him. Nearly 60 years later, with Koerner’s help, they managed to secure Perry’s ashes which were interred in a Hawaiian cemetery.

As for Ledo Road, it fell into disuse soon after it was completed in December 1944, as the war ended in the following year. By early 1945, Japan, which had already suffered losses in the Pacific theatre and in the battles of Imphal and Kohima, had begun its retreat from Southeast Asia.

Perry’s brothers could not make too much headway in the boxing ring, though they did set up a dry-cleaning business in Washington DC. Segregation in the US military would end once and for all on July 26, 1948, when President Harry Truman’s executive order 9981 made it effective. Perry’s story couldn’t have been a more tragic, and as Koerner tries to establish, a more unfair end.

Wikimedia Commons