The theme for this month’s TBR Challenge is Freebie, so I chose a non-fiction eBook I downloaded from my library.
What I read: Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II by Vicki Constantine Croke, originally published in 2014.
In 1920, Billy Williams came to colonial Burma as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence and character of the great animals who hauled logs through the jungle, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams’s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude.
Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite British Force 136 and operated behind enemy lines. His war elephants carried supplies, helped build bridges, and transported the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced their most perilous test. Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Part biography, part war epic, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism.
I picked this up because I often like animal stories and survival tales, and this has both. World War II in Burma hasn’t been written about nearly as much as the other theatres. Troops that served in Burma are often called the forgotten army. This book serves as both biography and war story for James Howard Williams (known as Billy to friends and Jim to his family). He came to Burma after serving in the first world war, was employed by the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, and was responsible for–among many other things–the care of the working elephants in the logging camps.
The author provides extensive notes at the end of the book, but her sources are primarily from the personal papers of Williams and his family, public records, and news sources, so the story itself is limited to the Williams family viewpoint and more broadly the British expat experience. Many of the locals that Williams worked with in the logging camps probably died during the war or just weren’t traceable or would not have left written records. Consequently, Williams’ story comes across as a little romanticized and one-sided. Some events felt skimmed over and a bit of mysticism in human-animal relationships creeps in. However, the personal anecdotes, detail about life in the jungle, and elephant stories were all very fascinating. I never knew what a forest man for a timber company does, and now I feel that I at least have a general idea. The war section, as one would expect, was also very compelling though it’s only a third of the book.
There are quite a few stories of various elephants that Williams met (ranging the emotional gamut from amusing to heart-felt to sad), but the most important and life-changing was a tusker named Bandoola (named after a Burmese hero who fought the British in the 1820s). Of Williams’ introduction, the author writes:
The moment with Bandoola seemed transcendent. And yet there were earthly reasons, too, for him to feel so drawn to the tusker. They were classmates in a way: born in the same month and year, November 1897. At the time of their meeting, they had both just turned twenty-three and were beginning their adult lives in the jungle.
Williams had a complicated, up-and-down relationship with Bandoola’s trainer (a master mahout) named Po Toke who had nationalist leanings that did not endear him to his British bosses. Po Toke had trained Bandoola since he was a calf and deliberately developed a reputation for him as a special animal to ensure Bandoola got special treatment. This was unusual because most calves of working elephants died from neglect while their mothers were working. Elephants were usually released after work to feed on their own and sometimes got pregnant by wild bulls. They wore bells so their uzis could find and bring them back in the morning. An elephant was not considered mature enough for heavy work until around age 21. Corporations were often unwilling to invest 20 years in the care, maintenance and training of a young elephant when they could just buy a captured one. According to Williams:
While baby elephants were being thrown away to die, the company was spending a fortune obtaining grown elephants. In a single decade, it would purchase nearly two thousand mature workers for Burma logging alone. And each one cost anywhere between $500 and $3,000, as much as $180,000 today. Meanwhile, what would it cost to keep the babies alive?
Williams was able to persuade them the cost would be less. Eventually, he was able to convince the company to give him a trial run at starting an elephant school. The elephant mothers were given lighter loads until their calves were sent to elephant school around the age of five. Each calf would be paired with two handlers plus young boys who wanted to be trained as uzis. Williams also started an infirmary to help with veterinary care and keeping the animals healthy.
Of the retreat from Burma once the Japanese invade, the author provides this sobering statistic:
All told, about six hundred thousand desperate refugees headed for India, most heading west, but some taking the inhospitable northern route through the Hukawng Valley. It was the largest migration of people in history up to that point. Only about fifty thousand were British; most were Indian. Eighty thousand may have died in the effort.
Williams got his family out of Burma in the first wave, but several of his servants and employees from native ethnic groups who had close ties with the British were left behind (either because he felt they would be safer going home to their families or were not allowed into India). During the war, he went back as an elephant advisor for the military and with the help of his elephants led a second much more dangerous exodus by a different route.
This was a page-turner and has reminded me that I have the war memoir Quartered Safe Out Here in my TBR. I may move that up in my NF reading queue.