The Washington Post review
Among the Headhunters:
An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle
A sudden and dangerous World War II encounter with a primitive Burmese tribe
By Marianne Szegedy-Maszak
Marianne Szegedy-Maszak is a senior editor in the Washington Bureau of Mother Jones and the author of the World War II memoir, “I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls, and Wars in Hungary.”
Yes, yet another “extraordinary World War II story of survival.”
It seems as if the genre would collapse under the sheer weight of all the truly “extraordinary” stories of survival that have emerged from that devastating war. We are all acquainted with young soldiers, old generals, plucky children, cosseted women becoming brave, ingenious young girls outsmarting the enemy, old men heroically rising to the occasion and young boys becoming men too soon, with the requisite defiance of unimaginable odds.
Add former British officer and military historian Robert Lyman’s new book, “Among the Headhunters,” to the list. Yes, extraordinary it is for the sheer improbability of the location, the cast of characters and the way one strain in the winding history of imperialism intersected at a crucial moment — and with astonishing precision — with the fate of 20 men. All but one survived a plane crash in the dangerous Burmese jungle, most certainly populated by brutal Japanese soldiers eager for American captives to put to work as slave labor. But instead of that grim fate, the men were saved by members of the Naga tribe of Burma. This was not necessarily a stroke of good luck; the tribe was partial to human sacrifice and collected decapitated heads like their American counterparts did baseball cards.
Others have introduced us to the singularly dangerous Burmese jungle, most notably Robert Flanagan in his 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North,” which depicted the slave-labor conditions suffered by Allied prisoners of war forced to build a railway between Thailand and Burma. But while fiction demands imaginative plot construction, Lyman is dealing with, yes, extraordinary facts and was fortunate enough to have a few very literate American and British diarists in his cast of characters.
The CBS correspondent Eric Sevareid — who decades later became a Mount Rushmore-like presence on the nightly news — was one of them. One of Edward R. Murrow’s war team in Europe, he returned to the United States and was then sent by the White House “to take a firsthand look at the issue of China,” which was in a state of chaos with the hapless and corrupt regime of Chiang Kai-shek bleeding America of its supplies and men, allegedly to combat the communists. But first Sevareid had to get there, and that involved being one of the 21 passengers who were on Air Transport Command Flight 12420 on Aug. 2, 1943. The flight had to traverse an incredibly dangerous passage over the Himalayas dubbed the “Hump” and the “vomit trail” by American crews because of its strong and unreliable winds, low clouds, and treacherous mountains that claimed many lives. Their journey was further complicated by the fact that the license for Flight 12420 had been temporarily revoked.
The plane crashed in the Burmese jungle, and not only did all but one crew member survive, but after having bailed out at various points during the descent, all the men managed to find one another. How? With the help of members of the Naga tribe. Keen on slavery, human sacrifice and headhunting, the tribe had been discovered by members of the British Raj in the 19th century, and from then well into the 20th century it had been alternately studied, fought and marginally gentled by the British imperialists.
This is where Lyman’s book departs from the familiar trajectory of most heroic World War II narratives. The heart of the book focuses on encounters between the Naga people — who lived in a region perfect for tea plantations — and the British explorers, diplomats and even some American missionaries who appeared in their midst. Lyman vividly describes the conflicts, dangers and deepening relationship between the two cultures “along the fringes of [the British] empire,” so that by the time we return to our surviving passengers, the reader is nearly as well-acquainted with the Naga as with the stranded airmen.
Because the area had been so well-surveyed by the British, the survivors received airdrops for nearly two weeks before they were rescued, impressing their Naga hosts with “their determination of purpose, and their self-confident representation of a new and extraordinary world outside the borders of Pangsha’s self-contained green kingdom.” An unusual relationship between crash victims and savages deepened during that time, and there were moments when Sevareid realized, “I love it here, wouldn’t be elsewhere.” Readers of this remarkable book will discover exactly what he means.
October 21 2016