On March 4, 1944, after months of triple-digit temperatures in the steamy Burmese jungle—as well as battles against deadly typhus, a 96 percent malaria rate, man-eating tigers, and the endless harangues from the white officers who mercilessly supervised his segregated army unit—Private Herman Perry had had enough. He didn’t get up at reveille, and he didn’t report for another 16-hour tour of futility—the building of a supply road from India to China that ultimately played no role in World War II.
Questioned the next day, Perry played dumb. Told he was heading to the stockade, Perry retorted: “That’s what you think, Lieutenant.” Hours later, Perry was looking down the smoking barrel of his rifle as the white officer who’d tried to arrest him lay dead at his feet. From there, Perry, a 21-year-old city slicker from Washington, D.C., made the unlikely transformation into the “King of the Jungle,” as his fellow troops dubbed him. He found refuge with a tribe of tattooed, opium-smoking headhunters and eventually married the chief’s 14-year-old daughter while evading an all-out Army manhunt.
Perry’s amazingly improbable run is chronicled in Brendan I. Koerner’s Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II. After five years of work and a momentous trip to the jungle, Koerner—a former Voice writer—has crafted a deeply detailed, highly entertaining story about a forgotten corner of World War II and a unit of black soldiers sent halfway around the world to build a road that the Army knew beforehand was a hopeless effort.
Koerner’s book—his first—is part thriller, part war history, and written in a thorough, straightforward style that confirms the Columbia Journalism Review’s prescience in naming him, back in 2002, as one of its “Ten Young Writers on the Rise.”