Story of Private Herman Perry

the story of private Herman Perry who was the main subject of a man-hunt in the remote corners of India and Burma during World War ll

This is the story of Private Herman Perry as told by Brendan I. Koerner in his remarkable book ‘Now the hell will start’. Brendan has spent chasing the truth to the most remote corners of India and Burma for nearly five years. The book is an exceptional introduction to the Burmese jungles during World War 2 and explains why the Stillwell Road, Ledo, Mon in Nagaland and Digboi, Assam finds special references in the history books.

Brendan Ian Koerner

Brendan Ian Koerner (born September 21, 1974) is an American author who has been a contributing editor and columnist for Wired magazine, The New York TimesSlate magazine, and others. His books include Now the Hell Will Start (2008) and The Skies Belong to Us (2013).

The horrors of moving men, machinery, and supplies in Southeast Asia’s death route – The Burma Road are spine chilling. It is an eye-opening look at the treatment of blacks in the American army at that time. When President Franklin D.Roosevelt took office in 1933, to mitigate the Great Depression he introduced a series of projects and programs popularly known as the New Deal.

It had a second phase too. Well despite what it promised to Americans as a whole, the blacks in Washington were in reality left with menial tasks. It was during this set up that Herman Perry’s mother decided to move to the District of Columbia. It was considered a promised zone compared to the southern states of North and South Carolina.

Herman Perry, eventually landed in Washington where he job-hopped for some time. It seems youth had its own perils during desperate times. Herman seemed to spend a lot of time in the company of young girls and his ideals about romance were drifting in nature. Then World War 2 came along and every perspective changed. Herman Perry found himself in an all-black unit of the army’s 849th engineer Aviation Battalion that headed for Burma, on the notorious Ledo Road. Ledo Road at that point was a brutal labor zone everyone dreaded.

Herman Perry
Herman Perry

Perry’s unit was summoned overseas in 1943. The standard protocol of briefing a unit on its mission was never done. Therefore, the soldiers left the soils of the United States assuming they would be constructing airstrips. It was only when they reached Burma that the harsh reality crept in. They were sent to build a road meant to keep America’s allies fed with supplies in China. Perry was a rebel at heart. He was sent in 1942 to the Myrtle Beach General Bombing and Gunnery Ranges in South Carolina. He was being prepared for a life in Burma.

Herman Perry served in the China Burma India Theater of World War II constructing the Ledo Road.
Herman Perry served in the China Burma India Theater of World War II constructing the Ledo Road.

Perry and his fellow soldiers had to work 16 hours a day on a ration if tinned corn beef, rice, and water. Enough to make any sane human being, especially an American, to snap. The jungle where the road was designed to pass through Burma was dense, putrid, and mosquito-infested. The former buoyant playboy from Washington was fast losing out his color.

And in March 1944, what was expected and being pushed to, happened. Herman Perry fired two shots into Lt. Harold Cady’s chest. Lieutenant Cady was a ‘tough guy’ white officer. Perry fled into the jungles. He was caught between the devil and the deep sea. A life in the foreign hills infested with headhunting tribes was harsh but being caught by the Army was suicidal. He decided to choose the deep sea.

Captured in March 1945, Pvt. Herman Perry is held at the Intermediate Section Stockade near Chabua.

He was caught between the devil and the deep sea. A life in the foreign hills infested with headhunting tribes was harsh but being caught by the Army was suicidal. He decided to choose the deep sea.

Captured in March 1945, Pvt. Herman Perry is held at the Intermediate Section Stockade near Chabua.
Shown here with Perry (center) are Lt. Col. Earl O. Cullum and Capt. Joseph J. Armand.

Perry befriended a Naga headhunters tribe in the jungle. This tribe had been raiding the lowlands for centuries creating terror for so long. But their kindness to Perry was exemplary. He was offered the hand of the chief’s daughter in marriage and they even had a child. Therefore, while the army was strategizing to capture Perry in the city, relying on an Afro American’s voraciousness for paid sex, Perry was spending some quality family time in the jungles of Burma.

One night Perry was sitting in a village hut and suddenly several shots were fired at him. Hearing news that a black man was spotted in the jungles, the army had resumed its manhunt. Perry was shot in the chest and despite escaping from the spot, he was captured. As the makeshift hospital where Perry was taken, he had to be given blood. Blood taken from the blacks and not the whites. Blood with its universal red color lost its essence to racism.

Examining wound in Perry's foot are Colonel Cullum and a medical technician.
Examining wound in Perry’s foot are Colonel Cullum and a medical technician.

The following conclusion is as re-told by Bluesy Daye

Perry’s court-martial began in early September 1944 at a tea plantation in Ledo, India. It lasted just over six hours. His military lawyer, Clayton Oberholtzer, had been a small-town attorney in Ohio. It was his first murder case. 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 some documents.

Perry used his time in a manner he thought wise: He plotted an escape. In December, he vanished, compliments of a pair of wire cutters that someone had slipped to him. Army brass exploded. News of the escape spread widely. Reporters there 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, assigned for a while to Calcutta. He was handsome, no-nonsense, liked having his picture taken, often recited military history, and was not amused at Perry’s wiliness.

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 yet again. His elusiveness left Perry’s pursuers with a feeling they were being taunted.

The urn holding Herman Perry's remains.
The urn holding Herman Perry’s remains.

“A colored Houdini from the USA aided by a few Naga tricks is sure playing ‘hob’ with the traps that have been set for him,” read an article in the Assam Police Gazette, a military newspaper. “He has turned cartwheels and tap-danced over and through rice paddies and tea patches with the grace and abandon of a Gypsy Rose Lee in her best striptease. Woe be unto that colored boy when he takes off his rabbit’s foot cause then he is through and I mean all finished.”

On Feb. 20, 1945, Perry was spotted yet 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 he could. 

Days later, sitting at a campfire, surrounded yet again, Perry was out of energy. “You got me,” is all he said to his captors.

Shortly before his execution, Perry wrote to his younger brother Aaron, who was in basic training at the Army’s Fort Meade: “I did wrong myself please don’t make the same mistake it’s 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: “Don’t answer.”

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 on the road, Army officers were told, they were to immediately kill Perry before defending themselves. The drive went off uninterrupted.

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.’

Six decades after his execution, Edna Wilson, Herman Perry's sister, arranged for his remains to be
Six decades after his execution, Edna Wilson, Herman Perry’s sister, arranged for his remains to be
cremated and brought to her home in Washington, D.C. Her brother’s fate is chronicled in the book
“Now the Hell Will Start,” by Brendan Koerner.

It took several minutes for the crude noose to have its full effect. MPs waited fifteen minutes just to be sure. A black medic confirmed the sentence had been carried out. Herman Perry’s body was placed in a coffin, taken to the Army cemetery at Margherita and buried behind a hedge, about one hundred yards from all other soldier’s graves. A simple white cross marked the otherwise unidentified grave.

Along with his body, the Army also buried his story. There was no official announcement. No story in the Theater Newspaper. No official record of the manhunt. If not for Lt. Col. Cullum (promoted one month after the capture) it may have remained that way for good. Years later he would recount his knowledge of the story in a book. Six decades after his execution, Edna Wilson, Herman Perry’s sister, who lived on a fixed income, scrounged up $1,000 to have her brother’s body dug up to be cremated and brought back home to DC.

DISCLAIMER: Most of the photographs in this blog have been taken from Murderpedia with written permission for reuse. The authenticity lies with them. And any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events other than the one mentioned in the subject is purely coincidental and beyond the knowledge of the post writer. 

Published by Bearded Traveling Soul

My name is Amitabh Sarma and I am a storyteller. People fondly call me the “traveling pundit”; I humbly present myself as the “bearded traveling soul”. I appreciate you taking some time to read my experiences and in case you would like to stay connected, please do get in touch through my social media profiles. Stay Blessed!

4 thoughts on “Story of Private Herman Perry

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  2. Never before has a war been so vividly documented, never before have sentiments from the front scurried their way to the home front with such ease and precision.


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