Internet Review of Books
Among the Headhunters:
An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle
Reviewed by William C. Crawford
Chiang Kai Shek’s motley army was tying up thousands of Japanese troops thereby slowing the Imperial military effort elsewhere against the Allies. 1000 men and 600 air transport planes were lost flying The Hump to resupply the Chinese between 1942-45. Noted historian, Theodore White, called it “the most dangerous, terrifying, barbarous aerial transport run in the world.”
Legendary CBS reporter, Eric Sevareid, and a handful of others parachuted safely out of their stricken resupply aircraft in 1943. They landed in remote territory inhabited by headhunting Naga tribesmen. Sevareid was one of Edward R. Murrow’s “boys” who had previously riveted America with his dramatic broadcasts from besieged France and England. The intrepid newsman was travelling to China on a secret mission on behalf of FDR.
This tightly written little volume chronicles their unlikely rescue. This book is much more than just a historical adventure. It provides keen, cogent insights into a variety of closely related subjects. These include the savage weather and the overwhelming aviation challenges involved in flying in and around the Himalayas. The book also exposes the venal and quixotic exploitation of US largesse by the Chinese Nationalist General Chiang Kai Shek.
The attendant frustrating attempts by US theater commander, General Joe Stillwell, to break through the Chinese propaganda machine and expose rampant corruption to FDR’s Washington bureaucracy are amply documented.
Lyman also explores the fascinating culture of the mountain tribes in China, India, and Burma who remained virtually untouched by the white man’s civilization until the 1930s.
Robert Lyman is an experienced military historian who packs a lot of compelling background into 250 pages. He weaves an interesting web of parallel narratives into a succinct volume. The reader comes away with a good overview of the little known China, India, Burma theater of World War II.
Military aircraft buffs should like this book because of its commentary on the legendary C-46 and C-47 cargo planes. These newly developed aerial pack mules proved to be both heroes and liabilities as they were prematurely rushed into service to fly The Hump. They replaced the generally reliable but mechanically ill-equipped DC-3’s which were hastily borrowed from major US airlines.
This volume focuses on the Allies’ daily struggle to keep an edge on the treacherous weather, rugged terrain, and ever present headhunting tribesmen of the region. Lurking Japanese forces were a deadly afterthought. That Eric Sevareid and the other survivors made it back to civilization with only a single fatality speaks to their guts, committed rescuing soldiers, and a fair amount of good luck.
An organized reader may just want to set aside a few hours to consume this little volume straight through. You won’t be sorry! This story, and indeed the entire BCI campaign, is frequently overshadowed by the earthshaking events of the better known European and Pacific theaters. Flying The Hump makes the Berlin airlift look like a training run.
This solid narrative moves readers a bit closer to understanding that the Allied war effort reached around the world to some fascinating venues. These locations sometimes offered up situational challenges which all but over shadowed the formidable might of our enemies’ armies. I am struck by the chilling possibility that flying The Hump on any given day might have been far more dangerous than venturing into space a few decades later. I am pretty sure that the spectacular lunar golf course didn’t feature any headhunters on the prowl… Just saying.
William C. Crawford was a combat photo journalist in Vietnam