Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II
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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
The remarkable story of James Howard “Billy” Williams, whose uncanny rapport with the world’s largest land animals transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill
Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a “forest man” for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted “elephant wallah.” Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also championed more humane treatment for them, even establishing an elephant “school” and “hospital.” In return, he said, the elephants made him a better man. The friendship of one magnificent tusker in particular, Bandoola, would be revelatory. In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams’s growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude.
But Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite Force 136, the British dirty tricks department, operating behind enemy lines. His war elephants would carry supplies, build bridges, and transport the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. Now well versed in the ways of the jungle, an older, wiser Williams even added to his stable by smuggling more elephants out of Japanese-held territory. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced his most perilous test. In a Hollywood-worthy climax, 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. Elephant Bill’s exploits would earn him top military honors and the praise of famed Field Marshal Sir William Slim.
Part biography, part war epic, and part wildlife adventure, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism.
Praise for Elephant Company
“This book is about far more than just the war, or even elephants. This is the story of friendship, loyalty and breathtaking bravery that transcends species. . . . Elephant Company is nothing less than a sweeping tale, masterfully written.”—Sara Gruen, The New York Times Book Review
“Splendid . . . Blending biography, history, and wildlife biology, [Vicki Constantine] Croke’s story is an often moving account of [Billy] Williams, who earned the sobriquet ‘Elephant Bill,’ and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth.”—The Boston Globe
“Some of the biggest heroes of World War II were even bigger than you thought. . . . You may never call the lion the king of the jungle again.”—New York Post
“Elephant Company is as powerful and big-hearted as the animals of its title. Billy Williams is an extraordinary character, a real-life reverse Tarzan raised in civilization who finds wisdom and his true self living among jungle beasts. Vicki Constantine Croke delivers an exciting tale of this elephant whisperer–cum–war hero, while beautifully reminding us of the enduring bonds between animals and humans.”—Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time
8 A form of guerilla warfare Wynter, “Guerilla Tactics in Burma.” 9 After the rains Fowler, We Gave Our Today, p 60. 10 They suffered from David W. Tschanz, “Uncommon Misery: The 1944–45 Burma Campaign,” Burma Star Association, http://www.burmastar.org.uk/misery.htm, accessed October 21, 2013. 11 called “yaws” Mark F. Wiser, “Plasmodium Species Infecting Humans,” Tulane University, http://www.tulane.edu/~wiser/protozoology/notes/pl_sp.html, accessed October 21, 2013. 12 most of.
Invariably he left in high spirits. Just seeing her happy life cheered him. At the beginning of one monsoon season, he seized a chance to call on the blind elephant’s camp. When he arrived, it was raining and the river was rising quickly. Mahoo Nee was among the several elephants pushing logs into the water, and he could see Guide Man on the far bank, roaming around but sticking close to home base. For some reason Mahoo Nee looked unhappy, and since the current was picking up speed, Williams.
Disappeared into his tent to bathe and change into fresh clothes, observing, as was the custom, as much formality as could be managed. At least they wouldn’t be eating the usual fare. Susan had grown more than tired of the safe, bland menu that “Uncle Pop” preferred. He relied on good British canned goods from Barnett Bros. in Rangoon: “tinned soup, tinned vegetables and tinned fish, which he liked unadorned,” she wrote later in a memoir. His beloved horses back in Rangoon ate only hay and oats.
Enemy. Again and again, he went out himself to escort uzis and elephants “safely through the lines after dark, with bells, if any, muffled.” Later, air travel helped him cover more ground. Aboard a two-seater observation plane, he penetrated enemy lines, swooping down low over villages to drop personal invitations. One day he and the pilot ventured eighty miles into Japaneseheld jungle. Williams first tossed out “a chit to announce myself” from the air. A few minutes later the pilot landed them.
Them was merely a foot track. Williams then went to the corps commander. Blueprinting the escape route was a waste of time. It was best, Williams argued, if they simply packed up and left. Instead of filing his flight plan, he wanted to be free of red tape so he could head out, improvising as necessary. Permission was granted, providing that at the very least, Williams would stop in the village of Tamenglong to signal he had made it that far. For Williams, it looked like he finally had.