Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle Robert Lyman

Da Capo Press

3.5/5 stars

On August 2, 1943, a twin-engined C-46 plane broke down over Japanese-occupied Burma. Nobody aboard had used a parachute before, which meant everyone on the dicey “hump route” between India and China needed to learn the ropes fast.

“Well, if nobody else is going to jump, I’ll jump,” says John Davies, an attaché to the American general Joseph Stilwell, who is also aboard. “Somebody has to break the ice,” Davies adds before leaping out.

The other occupants follow. As the plane crashes in Nagaland on the border between India and Burma, just one of the 21 crew dies – co-pilot Charles Felix. According to military historian Robert Lyman, author of Among the Headhunters, the miraculous event was and remains the largest aircraft evacuation by parachute.

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The roll call of survivors includes CBS journalist Eric Sevareid; a Soviet double-agent posing as an American intelligence operative, Duncan Lee; and former Hong Kong banker William Stanton. Then there is an admired Chinese colonel, Kwoh Li, who is described as “perseverance personified”.

All the survivors needed incredible grit because they landed in jungle ruled by Naga headhunters who practised slavery. Japanese soldiers also posed a possible threat. As in most second world war stories where Emperor Hirohito’s men play a part, they seem monstrous.

“What other so-called civilised nation could produce soldiers who pose for their pictures, proudly smiling, with bayonets dug deep into the backs of stripped Chinese peasants? Where else could you find an Army officer grinning into the eye of the camera, his right hand holding a bloody sword, his left the hair of a severed, sightless but staring head? What they did in Hong Kong, Malaya, New Britain, is also known,” the journalist O.D. Gallagher is quoted as saying.

The 21 survivors trek away from the wreckage and, in a twist, arrive at a village called Wenshoyl, which belongs to the war-like Pangsha tribe, whom British forces have already hammered for practising slavery. Warily respectful, the villagers build the newcomers a separate bamboo encampment.

Meanwhile, because earlier the operations centre at Chabua in Assam detected distress signals from the stricken C-46, others fly overhead to drop rations, medical supplies, socks, boots and a message telling the men to hang tight. Later, through the same medium, it emerges that an imperial emissary named Philip Adams is planning to come and take the survivors over the mountains, out of the jungle.

In the meantime, to keep the natives content, a doctor who has parachuted in to treat a maimed survivor also cares for the natives, which builds rapport.

Finally, on August 13, Adams and his entourage arrive and lead the survivors away, shielded on the ground by his shotgun-armed Naga mercenaries, and in the air by American air force Gooney Birds.

Two weeks later, after brushes with sword grass, the survivors walk the last 22 kilometres of the 225 kilometres they have covered over the past 10 days. After meeting assorted officers and the media, they head into India. At Jorhat airfield in Assam, a Gooney Bird – nickname for C-47 transports – awaits.

A graduate of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Lyman spent 20 years as a British army officer. A holder of degrees from no less than five British universities, which must make him one of the world’s most educated authors, Lyman has published 14 books.

Like another jungle publication released earlier this year, Escape to Pagan, his latest tells an extraordinary story that needed telling. That said, it is complex in parts, thanks to the intricate backgrounds of the survivors pursuing varying agendas.

Another kvetch is that Lyman – a trustee of a group that supports young Nagaland learners – goes overboard in describing past British clashes with natives and ethnic feuding. Because of all the coverage that the old spats get, the main storyline – the gripping jungle ordeal – loses traction.

Still, the characterisation of the fair and slim Adams – also called the “sahib of Mokokchung” in a nod to his fiefdom – is memorable.

“Adams was unforgettable,” Sevareid told Reader’s Digest in 1944. “Soft-spoken and with a genuine Oxford accent, he came with savage guards, with scores of coolies, with peppermints and a chess set. He had the air of one dropping in for tea.”

Readers will be left with a great sense of respect for Adams and the survivors who negotiate the jungle’s gloom interrupted by bursts of vicious, head-height sword grass – the mirror image of those Japanese bayonets that glint on Nagaland’s fringes.