Compelling niche history about a black soldier who murdered his lieutenant then fled into the Burmese jungle during World War II.
Journalist and first-time author Koerner has unearthed a minor treasure in the criminal records of Herman Perry, a meat cutter drafted in 1943. Since military leaders considered African-Americans unfit for combat, Perry was shipped to India in 1944 to join 15,000 mostly black laborers building the Ledo Road, an immense project extending nearly 500 miles through mountainous jungles to China. Working conditions were nightmarish. The project had low priority, so supplies and food were inadequate, and black troops received the worst. Amenities, R&R facilities and even brothels were off limits. Morale under white officers was terrible. Miserable and depressed, Perry had already served one stockade sentence and found himself threatened with another when, on March 5, 1944, he lost control, murdered an overbearing white officer and fled. Believing that blacks were sexually ravenous, his pursuers focused the subsequent manhunt on brothels in distant Calcutta. Meanwhile, Perry stumbled through the jungle into a village of the Nagas, a primitive tribe of headhunters who occasionally traded with the soldiers. Won over by a few gifts and the supplies he stole from construction sites less than ten miles away, the tribe accepted him. Perry married the chief’s 14-year-old daughter and settled in, but rumors of a Negro living in the jungle eventually filtered out, and a patrol arrested him. Shortly before his death sentence was confirmed, he escaped and spent two months frantically trying to reach his village before being captured and hung. The long description of his trial may offer more information than most readers want, but few 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.