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Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War IIby Brendan I. Koerner
Synopses & Reviews
Part history, part thriller, Now the Hell Will Start tells the astonishing tale of Herman Perry, the soldier who sparked the greatest manhunt of World War II — and who became that war's unlikeliest folk hero.
A true story of murder, love, and headhunters, Now the Hell Will Start tells the remarkable tale of Herman Perry, a budding playboy from the streets of Washington, D.C., who wound up going native in the Indo-Burmese junglenot because he yearned for adventure, but rather to escape the greatest manhunt conducted by the United States Army during World War II.
An African American G.I. assigned to a segregated labor battalion, Perry was shipped to South Asia in 1943, enduring unspeakable hardships while sailing around the globe. He was one of thousands of black soldiers dispatched to build the Ledo Road, a highway meant to appease China's conniving dictator, Chiang Kai-shek. Stretching from the thickly forested mountains of northeast India across the tiger-infested vales of Burma, the road was a lethal nightmare, beset by monsoons, malaria, and insects that chewed men's flesh to pulp.
Perry could not endure the jungle's brutality, nor the racist treatment meted out by his white officers. He found solace in opium and marijuana, which further warped his fraying psyche. Finally, on March 5, 1944, he broke downan emotional collapse that ended with him shooting an unarmed white lieutenant.
So began Perry's flight through the Indo-Burmese wilderness, one of the planet's most hostile realms. While the military police combed the brothels of Calcutta, Perry trekked through the jungle, eventually stumbling upon a village festooned with polished human skulls. It was here, amid a tribe of elaborately tattooed headhunters, that Herman Perry would find blissand would marry the chief 's fourteen-year-old daughter.
Starting off with nothing more than a ten-word snippet culled from an obscure bibliography, Brendan I. Koerner spent nearly five years chasing Perry's ghosta pursuit that eventually led him to the remotest corners of India and Burma, where drug runners and ethnic militias now hold sway. Along the way, Koerner uncovered the forgotten story of the Ledo Road's black G.I.s, for whom Jim Crow was as virulent an enemy as the Japanese. Many of these troops revered the elusive Perry as a folk herowhom they named the Jungle King.
Sweeping from North Carolina's Depression-era cotton fields all the way to the Himalayas, Now the Hell Will Start is an epic saga of hubris, cruelty, and redemption. Yet it is also an exhilarating thriller, a cat-and-mouse yarn that dazzles and haunts.
"Journalist Koerner recounts an obscure 1944 murder whose story is linked to the building of the Ledo Road, a massive and ultimately useless American project that linked India to Chinese forces. Most African-American soldiers spent WWII doing menial jobs. One man, Herman Perry, was shipped to northeast India to work on the Ledo Road. The labor was backbreaking; with rudimentary living conditions and no access to most recreation facilities, blacks had few pleasures besides drugs. Psychologically fragile, Perry had already been jailed for disobedience when he wandered off, carrying a rifle. When a white lieutenant grabbed it, Perry shot him and ran into the jungle, eventually reaching a village of Naga tribesmen. Pleased by gifts of canned food, they allowed him to stay, and he reinforced this welcome by stealing from the builders' camp only six miles away. He married a local woman, but after three months, word of his presence filtered out; he was captured by Americans, tried and hung. Koerner's engrossing story illuminates one of WWII's fiascos as well as the disgraceful treatment of black soldiers during that era. Photos. (June 2)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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' 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 yardleyj(at symbol)washpost.com. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Now the Hell Will Start is a fascinating, untold story of the Second World War, an incendiary social document, and a thrilling, campfire tale adventure." George Pelecanos
"[F]ew will be unmoved by the stinging depiction of Perry struggling to live first in an oppressively racist society, then in an army whose leaders considered him subhuman. Gripping and cringe-inducing." Kirkus Reviews
"Now the Hell Will Start is a dazzling look at a heretofore unseen and untold drama of WWII. Koerner takes us inside the Burmese jungle, where tigers and headhunters roam, and into the mind of an American, marooned by injustice, who struggles to survive as a man without a country. As Koerner points out, the hero of his tale, the pursued Herman Perry, may have just been the world's first hippie, certainly a father to Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Koerner is a startling writer of great humanity and a driving sense of plot, and this tale of survival and race enlarges our sense of American history." Doug Stanton, author of In Harm's Way
"Koerner wandered into the jungles of Burma in search of a fugitive whose name indeed was buried in time. What he has come out with is a first-rate portrait of muscle and bone and soul." Charlie LeDuff, author of US Guys
"Brendan Koerner's Now the Hell Will Start rockets you from the WWII jungles of southeast Asia, to the streets of Washington DC, in a meticulously crafted narrative so wild it must be true. With a painstaking eye for detail, and the kind of prose that edges truth into art, Koerner's one of those journalists who nearly makes fiction irrelevant." David Matthews, author of Ace of Spades
A true story of murder, love, and headhunters, this work tells the remarkable tale of Herman Perry, a budding playboy who winds up in the Indo-Burmese jungle — not for adventure, but rather to escape the greatest manhunt conducted by the U.S. Army during World War II.
An epic saga of hubris , cruelty, and redemption, Now the Hell Will Start tells the remarkable tale of the greatest manhunt of World War II. Herman Perry, besieged by the hardships of the Indo-Burmese jungle and the racism meted out by his white commanding officers, found solace in opium and marijuana. But on one fateful day, Perry shot his unarmed white lieutenant in the throes of an emotional collapse and fled into the jungle.
Brendan I. Koerner spent nearly five years chasing Perry's ghost to the most remote corners of India and Burma. Along the way, he uncovered the forgotten story of the Ledo Road's GIs, for whom Jim Crow was as powerful an enemy as the Japanese-and for whom Herman Perry, dubbed the jungle king, became an unlikely folk hero.
About the Author
A contributing editor at Wired whose work appears regularly in The New York Times and Slate, Brendan I. Koerner was named one of Columbia Journalism Review's Ten Young Writers on the Rise.
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