Journal of Military History
Among the Headhunters:
An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle
Reviewed by Professor Raymond Callahan
On August 2, 1943, an American C-46 "Commando" transport of the USAAF's Air Transport Command took off from Chabua in northeast India for Kunming in China--the famous "Hump" route. On board, in addition to the crew, were twenty one passengers, mostly USAAF personnel being posted to China Three however might have been written into the passenger manifest by a scriptwriter. John Paton Davies, one of the State Department's " China hands", was the political advisor to Lieutenant General Joseph Stilwell, commander of the US Army's China-Burma-India theater (and later a prominent victim of McCarthyism). Eric Sevareid, already a well known CBS newsman, was going to China on an unofficial mission for the White House (a favorite FDR tactic) to produce a candid appraisal of the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek. Finally there was Captain Duncan Lee of the OSS, a key staff officer in that rather chaotic organization--and a Soviet agent.
There was really no routine Hump flight--over 500 planes would be lost during its existence--and the C-46 had been rushed into service before all the bugs were out of its system. Not long into the flight a bug struck, an engine failed, the plane could not maintain altitude and the passengers and crew had to bail out. All but one survived--and found themselves in the largely unmapped territory of the formidable head hunting warriors of the Naga tribes who lived in the wild, jungle covered "hills" ( actually mountains running up to 7000 feet) that straddled the Indo-Burmese border. The authority of the Raj came late to the Naga hills, rested lightly on them, and was never complete--even during world War II there were Naga villages where a white man had never been seen.
The British had banned head hunting. In the "Administered Areas" of the hills, run on Raj lines, the ban was observed. In the "Control Areas", where the British exerted some influence ( usually when a British administrator, accompanied by the paramilitary Assam Rifles, Gurkha in composition, was on the spot) the ban was sometimes honored. In the "Unadministered Area" Raj authority was a vague rumor. The crash site , on the border between Control and Unadministered areas, was very far from effective British authority. Nonetheless, all the crash survivors made it back safely. Some of that was due to the ripples of British power that were sometimes felt in the Control area--the Naga village, Pangsha, that took in the survivors had been burned down by the Assam Rifles in 1936 for head hunting, slaving and general contumacy.
The quick realization by the Nagas that these strangers who had literally dropped from the sky could be the source of hitherto inconceivable largesse helped even more. The crash site was located speedily by the ATC; planeloads of supplies were showered down in a lavish display of American abundance, and a medical team parachuted in to deal with crash injuries. The team also treated every Naga in sight for any and all ailments, in the process saving the life of a village leader's daughter.
The Indian Civil Service administrator responsible for the area, Philip Adams (known to the Nagas as the "Sahib of Mokokchung", after his headquarters town), let it be known that lavish rewards would come to helpful villagers (in salt, rare and precious in the hills). And of course the memory of the Assam Rifles lurked in the background. After a month of Naga hospitality, which was heavily subsidized but ultimately quite genuine ,and a arduous trek over punishing jungle tracks, guided by Adams, the party was back where it started, at Chabua. This is the story that Robert Lyman, the author of three major books on the Burma campaign, tells in a very readable account based on both archives and a thorough combing of secondary sources.
Lyman combines the story of the crash and the adventures of the survivors with an excellent account of the larger context: why the Hump airlift existed (illusions about the Nationalists fostered by the "China Lobby" in the US) and the fascinating story of the Nagas in the twilight of the Raj--a culture living, under the worried eyes of men like Adams, on borrowed time and wildly different from the one that dropped into it, which discarded as garbage items the Nagas thought treasures. A fascinating historical miniature, Lyman's story is very much worth reading.