The fighting in Burma would be the longest campaign of World War II, under conditions so bad that the Japanese called the place jigoku—hell. Soldiers hiked across hot, dry plains one day and slogged through mud under pelting rain the next. They fought off blackflies, mosquitoes, ticks, and leeches, as well as dysentery, cholera, dengue fever, scabies, trench foot, yaws, and malaria. Imagine pitch-black nights, vegetation so dense it induced claustrophobia, bitter water or none at all, deadly snakes, and soldiers who coped with diarrhea in combat by cutting off the backside of their trousers.
Elephant Company tells the story of Lieutenant Colonel James Howard Williams of the British Army, who became famous as Elephant Bill for leading a troop of elephants that hauled and placed logs to make bridges for Allied supply lines in Burma. No one else realized how useful the elephants could be or knew them so well. Vicki Croke, who won a trove of source materials from Williams’s son, portrays a man without doubts or flaws. The real man must have been a phenomenon; the reader feels virtuous by association. It’s easy to forget Joseph Conrad and Apocalypse Now and instead think of Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay” or “If” (“You’ll be a man, my Son!”).
Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920 to work as a “forest man” for a British teak company. The job had colonial perks—in even the most remote outposts, natives served dinner on white tablecloths and bone china—but it also meant braving loneliness, heat, monsoons, and disease. Many forest men died. Only great demand could justify the bizarre and dangerous teak industry.
Impervious to termites, and especially treasured by the Royal Navy, teak grew over large areas, scattered among other trees, in dense jungle far from roads. It was difficult, and slow, to harvest. First, a ring of wood was removed from the tree, which was left to die and dry out for two to three years. This was necessary because green teak sinks, and the logs would be transported by water, sometimes as far as 1,200 miles. In non-monsoon season, working elephants hauled dry logs to dormant creeks. When the waters came, the logs hurtled downstream to larger rivers, such as the Irrawaddy, where they were bundled into rafts and steered into the Rangoon River, which carried them to the mills of Rangoon. Five to 20 years might pass before a log became a milled plank.
As a forest man, Williams traveled among camps to supervise some 300 local workers and provide medical care to about 100 elephants. Croke describes him as unusually interested in the elephants and respectful of the locals, particularly of a man named Po Toke. At the age of 15, Toke had taken on the care of a baby elephant born in captivity. Usually, these calves died, but Toke had nurtured his into a magnificent tusker named Bandoola.
In the colonial system, Po Toke’s enterprise and skill didn’t make him a candidate for Williams’s job. Instead, he taught Williams and convinced him to create an “elephant school” for the calves of working mothers. Eventually, Williams persuaded his bosses that it was more efficient to raise tame elephants than to capture and subdue wild ones. It was a hard case to make: Bandoola, at 23, was still too young for the most strenuous logging and wouldn’t reach full maturity until his 40s. Raising an elephant is a long haul.
We learn how teak-company elephants went wild each night, set free to forage, mate, or practice their fighting skills, often with wild elephants. Each elephant had its own uzi, a local man trained from youth in elephant lore, who would retrieve the animal in the morning. An uzi could unfailingly pick out his own elephant’s footprints and determine from the droppings what the elephant had eaten—and, therefore, its possible route. Once within earshot, the uzi would sing from a safe distance, so as not to startle the elephant, before coming near to rub its trunk and coax it back to camp.