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

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Release Date: 
June 6, 2016
Da Capo Press
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Among the Headhunters is another account in a series of little known incidents that occurred in World War II. It should also be noted that this is somewhat of a combination of multiple accounts, of which more below.

There were many incredible stories of survival during the course of the world’s greatest conflict; however, it is the cast of characters here and the rather remote and isolated venue of their ordeal that provide the most interest.

The China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater of Operations was among the most demanding and primitive places in which to conduct a war. China, corrupt and fragmented, was engaged in fighting the Japanese as well as Mao’s own Communist armies. Burma, under Japanese occupation, was a front of its own relative to the threat to Britain’s Raj or rule in India. India, of course, fairly seethed with resentment of British colonialism.

As a result of Burma’s occupation, the Allies were forced to supply China over the “Hump,” flying their cargo aircraft over the Himalaya Mountains with all of the attendant dangers of the unpredictable weather, avoiding the world’s highest peaks, mechanical failures, and Japanese interdiction.

Added to these dangers was the relative lack of knowledge of what was below concerning the people and terrain should an aircraft be forced down or crash which is exactly what happened here.  

In August, 1943, a C-47 suffered mechanical failure and crashed in the rugged terrain on the edge of Burma. The crew and passengers aboard all managed to survive, with one exception. The co-pilot was the only fatality, being unable to bail out. Although there was one broken leg, everyone else suffered mostly bumps and bruises from their parachute experience.

Among the passengers were well-known CBS journalist Eric Sevareid, a Soviet spy in the ranks of the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) and the personal political adviser to General Joseph Stillwell, the highest ranking American officer in China.

As it turns out, the survivors had landed in largely un-surveyed and unmapped territory inhabited by multiple tribes of a warlike people whose culture was based on the accumulation of the heads of their enemies as badges of honor and masculinity.

It is at this point that the story becomes divergent. Although the plight of the survivors is the main focus, the recent history of the area and its people is told as a means of providing context. Author Robert Lyman describes British policies and efforts in the late 1930s to bring some measure of civilization and “progress” to this frontier. Failing that, they launched punitive expeditions against these people to forestall their violent conflicts, headhunting and participation in human slavery.

Unfortunately, these diplomatic, military and even anthropological efforts (to learn more about this culture) on the part of the British tend to take over the narrative, and considerable text, to the point where one wonders when the author will pick up the thread of the fate of the plane’s survivors. Consequently, there is some uncertainty as to the author’s emphasis or intent in telling this story.

In any event, the Air Transport Command (ATC) parachutes in a rescue team as well as almost daily food and medical supplies. In addition, a reward in the form of valuable salt is provided to the headhunters as a measure of gratitude for sheltering and keeping the survivors from the Japanese as well as not taking their heads.

Included is an extensive photographic section that shows the rugged terrain, some of the headhunters, the plane crash survivors, and participants in the punitive expeditions of the 1930s. Many of the photographs were taken by these latter for their anthropological value.

The two maps are of the area where the crash happened, one showing the route taken by the rescuers and their charges. They lack any scale, unfortunately. The three appendices are a diagram of a powerful crossbow used by the natives and two timeline “diaries” of the 1936 expedition to the area and that of the 1943 crash in question.

Whether or not one has a problem with the punitive expedition accounts and/or is perhaps anthropologically inclined, this is an interesting story to read. Many of the aforementioned cast of characters went on to accomplished lives and contributions, especially Eric Sevareid, while the headhunting tribesmen, more recently, have embraced civilization and a more modern, “acceptable” lifestyle.