In early 1944 during World War II, American troops started building a road along the Burma-India border that will ferry supplies to aid the Chinese. The huge project involved the 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion which consisted of about 50 white officers and over 700 Black soldiers. Among these Black soldiers was Herman Perry of Washington, D.C., who would become the target of the “Greatest Manhunt of World War II.”
From his “happy-go-lucky” pre-World War II days that came with “soul food and dancing at night”, Perry’s military service turned to include murder, arrest, escape, life in the jungle with a “headhunter” tribe in Burma, and opium. “I don’t think he was cold-blooded,” said American journalist Brendan I Koerner who brought Perry’s story to light in the book, Now the Hell Will Start: One Man’s Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.
Basically, Koerner and many others believe that the young African-American soldier had become an uninspired individual due to life circumstances that had constrained his opportunities.
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Born in poverty on May 16, 1922, in rural Monroe, North Carolina, Perry had grown in a family whose predecessors once worked as slave laborers in a North Carolina cotton plantation. Perry never went to college, and when the war began, he got a job as a local butcher. Soon, he was drafted into the engineers’ battalion despite his protest.
In mid-1943, Perry, aged 22, and his unit set off for a three-month-long voyage from New York via Cape Town to Bombay. He and his Black colleagues in the engineers’ battalion had no idea of their destination. They later found out that they had been brought all the way from New York to build the Ledo Road. But constructing the 1,072-mile-long Ledo Road that ran from northeastern India to the Chinese border wasn’t an easy task. Perry and his fellow Black soldiers had to endure 16 hours a day of hard labor in the harsh jungle. Their work was under horrific conditions, coupled with high rates of malaria, construction accidents, harsh punishments, among others.
What’s more, Perry was serving in a segregated Army overseen by White officers, thus, to ease the pain and hardship, Perry started using opium. And on March 5, 1944, after spending more than a 90-day sentence in the stockade for disobeying a white officer, Perry “snapped”. He killed a White officer — Harold Cady — who was trying to arrest him that fateful day for walking off from his work camp carrying a rifle instead of the tools typical battalion laborers were using.
Right after shooting a 28-year-old Cady, Perry then turned and fled into the jungle, where he chanced upon the Heimi Nagas, a tribe of head-hunters. Being someone who had picked up some of the local dialects in the area, Perry gradually won over the tribesmen, giving them food and other items he allegedly took from military stores with the help of his fellow Black soldiers. In the four or five months that Perry lived among the Nagas, he even married the chief’s 14-year-old daughter and started hunting and smoking opium with tribesmen.
During these months, the Army, which had lost a senior officer, had launched a manhunt. As sources said, there were roadblocks while communiqués were sent over telegraph wires. Yet, they never found him until after five months when word spread that a Black man was living in the jungle. In September 1944, Perry was wounded, captured, imprisoned, court-martialed, and sentenced to death.
But he escaped again. He fled from prison at the Stockade using a pair of wire-cutters smuggled to him. For the next two months, Perry was in the forests, but this time around, he was always on the move to avoid detection.
Becoming well-known by the nickname, the Jungle King, Perry was finally arrested on March 9, 1945, and hanged six days later. “You got me,” is all he reportedly told his captors before he was executed and buried in a military cemetery on American soil in Hawaii.
For years, Perry’s family did not even know where he was buried. “We thought someplace over there in the jungle,” said 83-year-old Edna Wilson, Perry’s sister, in 2008. A year before, thanks to the research of Koerner, Wilson received the cremated remains of her brother in the mail. “He was just a kid,” Wilson said of her youthful brother. “And to go from the city to the jungle like that … He didn’t have nobody on his side.”