Herman Perry (May 16, 1922 - March 15, 1945)
was an American World War II soldier, convicted murderer, and fugitive
from the army in India and Burma.
He was born just outside Monroe, North Carolina. As
a soldier in the U.S. Army, 849th Engineer Battalion, he served in the
China Burma India Theater of World War II constructing the Ledo Road.
On March 3, 1944, Perry's CO Lieutenant Harold Cady
attempted to apprehend the soldier for dereliction of duty and place
him in the area's military prison. Perry had already served in this
prison and was well aware of the abuses there. When Perry was found he
was holding a rifle and repeatedly warned Cady not approach him and to
"Get back." Cady continued his advance, and Perry shot and killed
Cady. He fled into the wilderness and lived out a fugitive's life of
jungle survival, discovering and adapting to the lifestyle of the Naga
people of northeastern India and northern Burma.
He was caught twice by the Army and escaped both
times, receiving his death sentence by a military court on September
4, 1944, during his second capture. A final capture on March 9, 1945
in Assam precipitated his execution by hanging on March 15.
His story was recounted in 2008 as Now the Hell
Will Start: One Soldier's Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World
War II by Brendan I. Koerner; George Pelecanos called it "A
fascinating, untold story of the Second World War, an incendiary
social document, and a thrilling, campfire tale adventure.
The Herman Perry Saga
From: Proud Heritage Vol 3 by DCPA.
The China-Burma-India Theater of World War II is
well-remembered for its air and ground wars, but little is known of
its only major criminal case.
In early 1944 the Ledo Road was being built from
Assam Province in India across Burma to get supplies to China. Among
the American troops building the road was Private Herman Perry of
Washington, D.C., an uninspired worker more interested in drugs and
native women than in the war effort.
In March 1944 Perry disappeared and when he
returned he was ordered into arrest. He refused to surrender his
loaded rifle, and when an officer tried to take it, Perry shot and
killed the officer. He then fled into the surrounding jungle, and was
not seen again for five months, when it was learned that he was living
with a Naga "headhunter" tribe in northern Burma, far away from any
A team of Army Military Police went to the remote
village to arrest Perry, but he escaped, then was wounded and
captured. He recovered in an Army Field Hospital, then was tried by an
Army Court-Martial and sentenced to be hanged, the only American
"death sentence" ever in the CBI Theater.
Months later, as the paperwork was being completed,
Perry escaped in darkness from the barbed-wire Ledo Stockade, and was
once again swallowed up by the friendly jungle.
Weeks later, he entered the U.S. "Advanced Section"
area and robbed two soldiers. The next night he was wounded by an MP
team, but again he disappeared into the friendly jungle. Then General
Joe Cranston ordered my father, Earl O. Cullum, a then thirty-year-old
major from Dallas, Texas, to "bring him in, dead or alive." He was to
give full time to the manhunt, aided by teams from his own 159th MP
For eighteen days and nights Cullum led the
manhunt, trailing the killer through remote jungles and across
unbridged rivers, far away from civilization. Fresh MPs were brought
in as needed, but Cullum personally kept on the trail, getting a
little sleep whenever possible. Perry stole food from the natives'
gardens and holed up during the day, moving only at night. He was
never seen by the pursuit teams, who found where he had slept and
defecated, but not where he was. As the hunt neared the Naga Hills, it
seemed that Perry might never be caught.
Then a native told of an American asleep in a
jungle hut, still wearing his army uniform. One MP and Cullum waded
across a wide jungle river in darkness, and silently approached the
hut. It was empty. Then Cullum turned to a native standing nearby.
When he tried to hide, Cullum grabbed him, and an American voice said,
"You got me." Cullum held his wrists and wrestled him down, kneeling
on him while searching for his gun. But he had recently changed to
native dress, and his uniform and gun were hidden nearby, out of
The other two MPs came across the river and tied
Perry's hands as he admitted who he was. The party then recrossed the
hip-deep river in darkness and on to their hidden jeeps. Then through
the jungle trails and across wide rivers (by native barges), they went
to an American Field Hospital where Perry's accumulated wounds were
treated. He was then confined in an escape-proof stockade.
Five days later he was driven in darkness to Ledo,
where he was hanged at dawn, the only American executed in the CBI
Theater in World War II. Cullum got his men in position to watch the
execution, then walked away. He respected the way Perry had handled
himself after his capture and did not want to watch him die. Later his
body was reburied on American soil in Hawaii, apart from the "honored
dead." The case had taken a full year, from murder to hanging.
Cullum was soon promoted to lieutenant colonel and
continued to lead his battalion through the last six months of the
war, when it was de-activated and troops sailed for home. He remained
in the U.S. Army Reserve and was promoted to full colonel and then
recommended for brigadier general (Reserve), but could not accept, as
he was then an FBI Agent. He retired with thirty years' service,
including active duty throughout World War II.
This account is extracted from the seventy-two-page
booklet Manhunt in Burma and Assam, in which Earl O.Cullum fully
recorded details of the manhunt, the only major criminal case in the
CBI Theater. The story also appeared in the Ex-CBI publications Ex-CBI
Roundup and Soundoff.
Earl always regretted his inability to get at least
the Army Commendation award for his key men who did so much in the
case, but "they were just doing their job," and the medals were for
the combat troops. He knew that many of his men deserved more than the
thanks they got for their service.
Earl became an FBI Special Agent in 1947 and
retired thirty years later, after serving in Oklahoma, Indiana, and
north Texas. He worked many criminal cases and personally captured a
"Top Ten Most Wanted" fugitive bank robber, among other hair-raising
experiences. He could write another book.
The fourth president of the DCPA, Earl also has
served as president of Dallas Rotary and as National Commander of the
China-Burma-India Veterans Association.
By Kenneth H. Cullum
Herman Perry: Now The Hell Will Start
By Brendan I. Koerner -
August 3, 2008
Herman Perry killed an officer, fled the American army and found
paradise among Burmese headhunters. His incredible story has largely
It is best to use discretion when confronting an emotionally shattered
man, especially if he's holding a semi-automatic rifle. Harold Cady, a
young lieutenant in the United States Army, should have heeded that
common-sense advice on the morning of 5 March, 1944. But several
fellow soldiers were watching as he drew near Private Herman Perry, a
sobbing, trembling GI armed with a.30-calibre M1. Cady couldn't have
the spectators thinking he was soft, or his hard-ass reputation would
be ruined. He'd show them he could quell this bad egg Perry, loaded
rifle be damned.
Perry was walking toward the muddy roadside, a few dozen yards from
Cady's parked jeep. He glanced over his shoulder and spied the
'Get back!' Perry yelled. 'Get back!'
Cady had left his pistol back at the battalion's camp, near the
Burmese village of Tagap Ga. But he didn't appear fazed by his lack of
firepower: he advanced to within four feet of the quivering Perry.
Perry spun and faced his pursuer. He nervously
pressed the M1's stock against his right hip and trained the muzzle on
Cady's chest. Tears spilt down his gaunt, dark cheeks.
'Lieutenant, don't come up on me,' Perry sputtered.
Cady froze. The dank and toxic Burmese jungle, its
chaotic flora tinted a hallucinogenic green, towered over the two
Americans. To the west loomed the Patkais, the mountain range that
lines the northern border between India and Burma. Their thickly
forested slopes, teeming with monkeys, tigers, and ornately tattooed
headhunters, peeked through wisps of haze.
Courage recouped after a moment's pause, Cady now
crept forward. Perry repeated his six-word warning, this time in a
frantic shriek: 'Lieutenant, don't come up on me!'
Cady took another step. He crouched low, like a
wrestler set to grapple, then placed his outstretched arms on either
side of the M1's barrel, as if preparing to clap his hands around the
rifle and wrest it away. It was a risky move, but Cady couldn't
imagine this kid actually being dumb enough to shoot. That would be
suicide: the American army wasn't shy about using the noose,
particularly on black men such as Perry. But Perry was too broken to
care. He'd been working 16-hour shifts crushing rocks along the Ledo
Road, the rugged military highway on which he and Cady now stood. His
limbs rife with leeches, his bowels tattered by disease, Perry had
come to loathe not just the jungle's hardships, but also the officers
who treated him like chattel. He'd found solace in furtive puffs of
opium and ganja, but the narcotic veil was always too fleeting. Stress
and rage had slowly corroded Perry's will.
Now Cady wanted to haul him off to jail. Perry knew
the next stop after that: the Ledo Stockade, an army prison known for
its brutality. Perry had served time there once before, enduring three
grim months of taunts, parasites and broiling confinement in 'the
Box'. He'd sworn that he'd sooner die and go to hell than spend
another day behind barbed wire.
Through his fog of tears, Perry thought he saw
Cady's hands reach forward. The distraught private pulled the M1's
trigger twice in quick succession, and the crack of gunfire pealed
across the hills. A plume of smoke wafted from the rifle's muzzle as
Cady crumpled to the ground, dead. Herman Perry was now a killer, and
soon to be the most wanted man in all of Asia. But he was also on the
verge of discovering his own private paradise.
I vividly recall my first encounter with Herman
Perry, the anti-hero at the heart of my new book, Now the Hell Will
Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.
It was the afternoon of 24 September, 2003, and I was sitting on the
floor of my cramped Manhattan apartment, surrounded by stacks of
books, documents and takeaway containers - a writer's natural habitat.
I was researching an article for Slate, an online magazine, about the
history of military executions in the United States. An Air Force
officer had recently been charged with spying for Syria, and news
reports mentioned that he could be put to death if convicted. My
editor and I wondered when an American soldier had last suffered such
a shameful fate.
In the course of my reporting, I came across a
12-page bibliography from an obscure archive in Pennsylvania. The
document was, for the most part, a list of esoteric sources that only
a professor could love and my eyes were about to glaze over when I
noticed a fragmentary note in the margins of page 10: 'Pvt. Herman
Perry, murderer who long evaded capture by living with Burmese tribe.'
As a lifelong fan of Joseph Conrad's Heart of
Darkness, I immediately envisioned a Mr Kurtz-like character sitting
atop a throne of skulls, tattered fatigues hanging off his sinewy
frame. And though I assumed that this killer's story must be far less
interesting than the bibliographical note made it sound, I was none
the less motivated to scribble 'Herman Perry?' in my Palm Pilot.
When Google and the local library revealed nothing
about the case, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request - an
appeal to the American army for all official documents pertaining to
Perry's crime and flight. To my great surprise, a thick packet arrived
on my doorstep 10 weeks later. Included among the hundreds of
photocopied pages was an affidavit from a sergeant named Robert W.
Davis, an agent with the army's criminal investigation division.
Davis's gobsmacking statement revealed that, if
anything, the bibliography had undersold the grandeur of Perry's tale.
After shooting Lt Cady and fleeing into the Burmese jungle, Perry had
not shacked up with just any tribe - he had managed to ingratiate
himself with the celebrated Nagas, a people widely feared as zealous
headhunters. The Nagas had accepted him as a true friend, and the
fugitive American ended up marrying the chief's 14-year-old daughter.
Enchanted by the joys of tribal society, Perry reinvented himself as a
gentleman farmer of rice and opium, an expert hunter of monkeys, and a
connoisseur of fine ganja. Herman Perry was arguably the world's first
hippie. And I was obsessed.
Prior to becoming headhunter royalty in the jungles
of north-west Burma, Perry was an exceedingly ordinary young man - a
meatcutter in Washington DC. His younger brother, Aaron 'the Anvil'
Perry, was a champion boxer, but Herman preferred pastimes of a
gentler nature - specifically the wooing of young ladies. The
proverbial lover, not a fighter, Herman enjoyed strolling through
Washington's stately parks arm-in-arm with his sweetheart of the
moment. Girls found it difficult to resist his charming patter, as
well as his soulful eyes and slender cheekbones.
The army was no place for a man like Perry - not
just because he was a sensitive soul, but also because of his race.
Swayed by the ugly pseudo-science of the day, the military brass
believed that African-Americans were innately ill-suited to combat.
Leading scientists had concluded, for example, that black men suffered
from a variety of anatomical quirks - such as elongated heel bones and
shallow chest cavities - that made them unable to march long
distances. They also held that men of African descent possessed
smaller cranial capacities than their European counterparts, a
deficiency said to be caused by irreversible 'premature ossification
of the skull'.
The vast majority of black draftees were thus
consigned to labour battalions run by white officers. Perry was no
exception: at training camp in South Carolina, he was taught how to
clear brush and break rocks, rather than fight. Perry and his fellow
soldiers quickly grew to despise their white commanders, who were
overly fond of sending smart-mouthed GIs to the stockade.
In July 1943, Perry's unit was crammed into the
bowels of a troop carrier and shipped to Bombay. From there they took
trains across the subcontinent, veering north at Calcutta. Nearly a
week later, deathly ill with dysentery from eating maggoty bread,
Perry spilt out into the sticky heat of Ledo, a ramshackle Indian town
less than 40 miles west of the Burmese border.
Perry might as well have landed on Mars, so alien
was the scene: a polyglot bazaar abuzz with soldiers, refugees and
beggars. Along the train tracks at the market's edge, small and
leathery men squatted in the dirt, smoking strangely fragrant
cigarettes and chattering in a catlike tongue. Nearly naked from the
waist down, they carried square-bladed swords across their chests.
These were the Nagas, an ornery hill people who'd long raided the
surrounding tea gardens in search of labourers to behead: their
animist religion held that captured skulls were powerful talismans.
Upon first glimpsing the Nagas, Perry could
scarcely have guessed that he'd soon be one of them.
Perry and his comrades had been shipped around the
globe in order to build the Ledo Road, a 465-mile highway from
north-east India to the Chinese border. With Japan poised to conquer
all of Asia, military planners hoped the road would keep wobbly China
flush with supplies and keep the Japanese at bay.
The project looked straightforward on a table map,
and some optimists estimated that it would take less than five months
to complete. But such Pollyannas knew nothing of the jungle's malice.
The British, who'd spent decades as the region's colonial masters,
were more realistic about the road's prospects. Among the sceptics was
Winston Churchill, who summed up his opinion of the Ledo Road in a
single, damning clause: 'An immense, laborious task, unlikely to be
finished before the need for it has passed.'
The roadbuilders quickly became familiar with the
cruelty of the jungle. The forests of north-west Burma receive up to
200 inches of rain per year, and punishing monsoons erased the
Americans' gains almost daily. Malaria was endemic, with a rate of 995
cases per 1,000 men. Soldiers were crushed by falling rocks, buried
alive beneath torrents of mud, swept away by flash floods or mauled by
Yet the menace most reviled by Perry and his
cohorts was that of leeches. Red or green or chocolate brown in
colour, these slimy annelids drooped from trees or clustered on blades
of neck-high grass, waiting to gorge on the blood of passers-by. The
leeches had a particular affinity for the body's most sensitive areas:
eyelids, nostrils and, especially, the privates. Woe betide the man
who awoke to discover that a leech had lodged itself in the tube of
his penis or anus, and could only be removed with a crudely fashioned
pair of bamboo forceps.
These hardships warped Perry's fragile psyche, as
did the racist callousness of his battalion's officers. In the October
of 1943, Perry was arrested for making a smart remark to a superior,
and sentenced to three months of hard labour. He served his term at
the Ledo Stockade, where misbehaving inmates were stuffed in 'the Box'
- a windowless concrete cell that measured just four feet long and two
feet across, with a low metal roof that forced men to crouch.
'Few men were able to walk out of this
contraption,' recalled an inmate. 'The guards dragged them out.'
After serving his term, during which he developed
excruciating genital lesions owing to the prison's lack of hygiene, an
embittered Perry found solace in opium and marijuana. On the night of
4 March, 1944, Perry sneaked out of camp and spent hours getting
stoned on 'native intoxicants', floating through a fuzzy reverie while
long-limbed apes gracefully swung by. He didn't return to his bunk
until nearly dawn, then missed the 6am reveille.
Later that morning, Perry's commander placed the
tardy soldier under arrest. Perry was ordered to march down to the
supply tent and turn in his rifle, as he was once again headed for the
stockade. He seemed docile enough as he gathered his things under a
guard's watchful eye. But at the battalion's supply tent, he had a
change of heart - despite repeated orders, he refused to relinquish
his.30-calibre M1 rifle.
'Nobody is going to get my rifle,' Perry growled.
'Even my mother wouldn't get this rifle.' With those words, he pulled
back the rifle's bolt, so that a brass bullet in the chamber was
clearly visible. The guard froze.
'Don't try to stop me,' Perry said as he slammed
the bolt shut. 'I mean business this morning.'
He then stomped out of the tent like a man
possessed. Minutes later, Lt Harold Cady would be dead.
Wanted for the murder of an officer, an offence
punishable by hanging, Perry fled into a tiger-infested section of the
Patkais. A 1,000-rupee reward was posted for his capture, either dead
While the military police combed the brothels of
Calcutta several hundred miles to the south-west, Perry stumbled
through the jungle's dense miasma of trees and rotting ferns. He
eventually bumped into a British civil affairs patrol, whom he
hoodwinked into giving him whatever rations they could spare. It was
enough food to get him through a few more days of flight, but the
supplies obviously wouldn't last for ever. Perry needed to figure out
a long-term alternative to relying on the kindness of strangers, or
else he'd surely die.
A day or two later, while hiking along a mountain
stream, he spotted something curious on an uphill ridge: a sharply
peaked roof covered with dried palm leaves. The house was positioned
to give its inhabitants an eagle's-eye view of the country below.
Beneath a bamboo porch, fat pigs rutted around in piles of human
Crossing the stream to get a closer look, Perry
noticed something else about the house. Just outside its walls were
cords of vine, hung from poles like washing lines. And dangling off
these vines were several scrubbed and polished human skulls, with the
horns of water buffaloes affixed to their sides.
Perry made his way toward this macabre display. He
soon found himself surrounded by armed, semi-naked men with wavy blue
tattoos running down their cheeks and necks - Naga headhunters.
Whether he would survive this encounter was anyone's guess.
But Perry had two things working in his favour: the
effortless charisma that had served him so well in courting girls in
Washington, and the tins of chow he'd copped from the British. There
was no better way to impress the Nagas than with gifts composed of
lightweight metals, which tribal craftsmen had yet to master.
Disarmed by Perry's kindness, the Nagas invited the
tallest, darkest man for miles around to stay awhile. The ang (chief)
told Perry that the Burmese called their village Tgum Ga. Perry
couldn't quite pronounce those alien syllables, so he mangled the
village's name into something that more easily slid off his tongue:
The British had long feared the Nagas as rank
savages. 'They are the wildest and most barbarous of hill tribes, and
looked upon with dread and horror by the neighbours of the plains who
consider them as ruthless robbers and murderers,' observed Josh
McCosh, a Scottish surgeon, in 1837.
The Nagas did, indeed, have a powerful yen for
human heads, particularly those of infants - the logic being that
babies are exceptionally tough to kill, since they're so diligently
guarded by their parents. The tattooed tribesmen were also reputed to
possess the bodies of leopards and tigers during the moon's waning
phases. 'Possession is not confined to men,' the British
anthropologist J.?H. Hutton wrote in 1921. 'Women also become
were-leopards and are far more destructive as such than men are. Of
men, those who have taken heads are the most dangerous, and are
believed to kill as many men as leopards or tigers as they have done
Yet Naga society was not without more peaceful
pleasures. The tribesmen were renowned for their artistry and music,
and their open-heartedness had captivated several madcap Westerners
over the years.
Ursula Graham Bower, a British anthropologist who
spent the Second World War in the Indo-Burmese hills, was among those
to fall under the Nagas' spell. 'I think [they] were a great deal
happier than we,' she declared after returning to England. 'There one
derived pleasure from small and transient things, from kindness,
friendships, loyalties and the like, which because of their simpler,
barer state were more deeply felt and of greater meaning.'
Perry was similarly bewitched by jungle society. He
revelled in the joys of Naga culture: the communal spirit, the
eloquent rituals of love and celebration, the loose sexual mores. In
Tgum Ga, amidst headhunters whom the rest of the world rightly feared,
Perry managed to find a strange measure of peace.
To earn status among his newfound kin, he trekked
down to the Ledo Road and took a major gamble: he flagged down passing
African-American soldiers and begged them for tinned food and a fresh
M1 rifle. To his great relief, the black GIs happily agreed to aid
their murderous comrade. Perry had already become something of a folk
hero among the road's enlisted men, many of whom harboured dark
fantasies about lashing out at their commanders. These admiring
soldiers had even given Perry an adulatory nickname: the Jungle King.
Bearing cartons of fruit cocktail, Perry was
greeted with boisterous adoration back in Tgum Ga. The chief took
notice of the newcomer's largesse; he urged his 14-year-old daughter
to 'make nice' with the American.
Perry and this Naga girl were wed shortly
thereafter, in a ceremony involving strangled chickens and copious
amount of zu (rice beer). The ang had a hut built for the newlyweds,
and Perry used some of his remaining rations to purchase seeds for
planting - rice, of course, but also opium poppies. He had enough
wealth left over to hire several Nagas to till his fields; Perry
himself preferred to spend his days hunting monkeys. At night he'd
smoke ganja until late, while watching the nocturnal jungle come alive
with fireflies, bats and cacophonous apes.
Perry's wife was soon with child, a final reason
for the fugitive to lay down roots. 'I intended,' Perry would later
state, 'to pass the remaining years of natural life in the jungles...
and live with the Naga girl who I claim as my wife.'
Yet it was not to be. Word of Perry's location
eventually spread from gossiping Nagas to British colonial officials,
and then to the American military police. An armed posse was sent high
into the Patkais, and Perry was shot and captured on 20 July, 1944. He
survived his grievous wounds, only to be found guilty of murder by a
military court-martial. He was given the harshest possible sentence:
to be hanged by the neck until dead.
Judicial foot-dragging saved Perry from a quick
trip to the gallows. The army brass took months to complete its
required review of the death sentence. And as the weeks flew by, Perry
plotted a daring escape from the Ledo Stockade. Just before Christmas
1944, he wriggled his way through a drainage ditch and fled back into
the Indo-Burmese wilderness. The Jungle King was once again on the
run, to the delight of his fellow black soldiers.
Perry was trying to get back to Tgum Ga to see his
infant son. But with the military police now hot on his trail,
tracking him through rice paddies with German Shepherds and shooting
to kill, it would be a futile quest. On 10 March, 1945, the sick and
exhausted Perry was finally captured near the town of Namrup, India.
He was executed just five days later.
Before making his final ascent up the gallows'
steps, Perry turned to his guard and uttered a grim farewell: 'Now,'
he said, 'the Hell will start'.
Soldier fled justice and injustice long ago
He was a smoothie and a cad, walking and swaying up
and down U Street as if he owned the town. Young women swooned over
Herman Perry in...
By Wil Haygood - The Washington Post
June 7, 2008
WASHINGTON He was a smoothie and a cad, walking
and swaying up and down U Street as if he owned the town. Young women
swooned over Herman Perry in those pre-World War II days. He liked
silk suits and white shirts, soul food and dancing at night. The war,
as it had done to so many others, caught him in midstride.
Shipped to the Indo-Burmese theater, he found the
terrain strange and the heat wicked. And when Pvt. Herman Perry dashed
into the jungle, fleeing the Army and the hangman's noose, then
settling in with a tribe of headhunters, he knew quite well that he
was a long way from U Street.
It is one of the more bizarre sagas of that war.
Herman Perry's military service involved murder, arrest, escape, a
young jungle bride and the mind-altering groove of opium. There was
also race: A black man, Perry served in a segregated Army overseen by
But the story and shame of Perry's life all but
vanished as the years passed. Historians had so many heroic war
stories to focus on. Perry's family lived, until recently, in a state
of bewilderment as to the circumstances of his death: His remains were
returned to them only last year, 62 years after his death. The life
and death of Herman Perry might have remained a footnote some crazed
military cat doped up and living in the jungle were it not for
Koerner could hardly believe Perry's story when he
stumbled across a mention of it in an Army document while researching
military executions. He became obsessed with the case and left his
Manhattan home to search for Perry in the Burmese jungle.
Escape to the jungle
During World War II, American military officials
set about building a road along the Burma-India border that would
ferry supplies to aid the Chinese. The massive construction project
would tax thousands of troops. And it involved the 849th Engineer
Aviation Battalion (750 black soldiers, Herman Perry among them, and
about 50 white officers). None of the black soldiers were told their
This is what happened on the sweltering and
unforgiving afternoon of March 5, 1944:
A 21-year-old soldier his handsome features taut
and exhausted began, in plain sight, to walk away from his military
camp. He faced disciplinary charges for missing reveille without
explanation. He already had served 90 days in the stockade for
disobeying an officer. While confined, he had complained about the
food, the malaria and the leeches that crawled up and down his body.
Like many black soldiers in the unit men who swung shovels and
pickaxes and broke rock all day he complained of mistreatment. It
was quite specific in his case: He had served at least two weeks
beyond his 90-day original sentence without explanation. So, on that
morning, he walked out of camp as easily as a man strolling across a
city park. There was nothing but jungle.
Within hours, Perry was confronted on a road by Lt.
Harold Cady, who aimed to arrest him. Perry was sweating and sobbing.
"Get back! Get back!" he called out to Cady, 28,
who had hopped from his jeep, unarmed. Three others remained in the
jeep. Perry who, like some other soldiers, had begun using opium
raised his rifle and fired a shot into Cady's heart, then another into
his stomach. He then turned and fled into the jungle. Cady died a
short while later. He left behind a young wife and daughter.
Within days, Perry came upon a strange sight and
heard voices. It was a camp of some kind. "Just outside its walls were
cords of vine, hung from poles like washing lines," Koerner writes in
his chronicle. "And dangling off these vines were several scrubbed and
polished human skulls, with the horns of water buffaloes affixed to
their sides." Perry had come upon a group of Naga tribesmen. He
charmed his way into their village by using body language, then truly
captured their admiration when he backtracked and retrieved some food
for them from area farms.
"World's first hippie"
The Army had a murdered officer to bury and a
runaway soldier to bring to justice. The manhunt began: There were
roadblocks, communiqués sent over telegraph wires. But days into the
search, frustration set in as nothing turned up. Some Army searchers
thought Perry might have been devoured by tigers or fallen victim to
Grilled by Army officers, the black GIs who knew
Perry had no information about his whereabouts. Many believed a mental
collapse had driven him to his murderous act.
What the Naga tribesmen did understand about Perry
was that he was not a colonialist. He was not British. Their affection
for him grew. In time he took a young Naga bride and fathered a child.
"I intended to pass the remaining years of natural life in the
jungles," Perry would confess later, "... and live with the Naga girl
who I claim as my wife."
Koerner came to think of Perry as "the world's
Four months passed. Word of a black man living in
the jungle then seeped out from a rice station run by the British. The
Army resumed its manhunt. One night, Perry was sitting inside a
village hut and spotted a beam from a flashlight. He bolted, and
several shots were fired. A bullet tore through Perry's chest, but he
kept going. He found a slope to descend, but his pursuers were at his
Cornered and bleeding, Perry collapsed and was
taken into custody.
At the makeshift Army hospital, Perry had to be
given blood. It was blood from the black soldiers; the Army would not
allow a black soldier to be given blood from whites.
Perry's court-martial began in early September 1944
at a tea plantation in Ledo, India. It lasted six hours. The verdict:
guilty. The sentence: death by hanging.
Perry awaited his fateful day in the Ledo stockade
shackled to a log "like a chastised dog," as Koerner puts it. The
weeks rolled on, into December, because an appeal was automatic. There
was further delay as the Army misplaced documents.
Perry used his time in a manner he thought wise: He
plotted an escape. In December, he vanished, compliments of wire
cutters that someone had slipped to him. Army brass exploded.
Reporters coined a nickname for Perry: the Jungle King.
The Army turned to Earl Owen Cullum and ordered him
to recapture Perry.
Cullum had been a Dallas police officer before
joining the military. In the Army, not surprisingly, he became a
military policeman. He was handsome, no-nonsense, liked having his
picture taken, often recited military history and was not amused at
Cullum and his men caught sight of Perry at a
woodcutter's camp on New Year's Day 1945. Shots were fired, and one
grazed Perry's ankle. But he escaped again. His elusiveness left
Perry's pursuers with a feeling they were being taunted.
On Feb. 20, 1945, Perry was spotted again. More
shots were fired, and he was wounded in his Achilles tendon. A day
later, he popped up from some jungle bush after hearing yapping dogs.
A bullet nicked the tip of his nose. But he hobbled away as quickly as
Days later, sitting at a campfire, surrounded
again, Perry was out of energy. "You got me," is all he said to his
Date with the gallows
Shortly before his execution, Perry wrote to his
younger brother Aaron, who was in basic training at the Army's Fort
Meade in Maryland: "I did wrong myself please don't make the same
mistake its very easy to get in trouble but hell to get out of ... "
He then urged Aaron to spend as much time as he could in the upcoming
days with their mother: "While I die once she will die a thousand
times ... "
The letter closed with a blunt, chilling phrase:
On the morning of March 15, 1945, Perry was driven
in the dark to his date with the gallows. The convoy included 17
military police officers. Army brass feared the convoy might be
stopped and fired upon by those sympathetic to Perry's plight: He had
come to embody, albeit in a spasmodic and murderous act, some of the
frustrations of the oppressed black soldier. If there were any
confrontation, Army officers were told, they were to kill Perry
immediately before defending themselves. The drive went off
Before he died in 2003 at the age of 89, Cullum
received a letter from Hank Johnson, Perry's half brother, who had
been trying to find out about Perry's last days. The two began a brief
correspondence. Cullum seemed to have adopted a gentler attitude
toward Perry: "If he had used the right attitude, and if the Army had
used his abilities, he could have been an excellent jungle scout,"
Cullum wrote Johnson. "But in the 1940s he was a roadbuilder."
"He's home now"
The sister of the hanged man recently sat at a
dining-room table in Anacostia, D.C., in her son Kirk's home. Edna
Wilson, 83, lives next door, but she didn't want to disturb her guard
dog. She is the sole survivor of the five Perry siblings.
She recalled her youthful brother Herman as being
"happy-go-lucky, always asking about the girls."
She has pictures of him: wooing a pretty girl at
Meridian Hill Park, in his Army uniform with a cigarette in hand; in a
suit with a smooth smile on his face.
She said she could tell her brother was
disappointed with his treatment in the military. "It was tough for him
all along. Going overseas in the bottom of that ship like that. The
colored soldiers were treated like a bunch of animals."
When news of Perry's death reached her family in
1945, she said they were all perplexed. "I felt helpless," she said.
"There was nobody to turn to to help you do anything. ... He was just
a kid. And to go from the city to the jungle like that ... " Her voice
"He didn't have nobody on his side," she added.
For years, Perry's family did not even know where
his body was buried. "We thought someplace over there in the jungle,"
Cullum told them of Perry's resting place in a
military cemetery in Hawaii. Wilson asked Koerner if he could help
them bring Herman back.
So Wilson, living on a fixed income, scrounged up
$1,000 to have her brother's body dug up and cremated. Seven months
ago, there was a knock at her door. The mailman had delivered a box
holding her brother's ashes.
"He's home now," she said of the Jungle King.