Brendan Koerner’s Sprawling, Engaging Tale of Herman Perry and Hell Starting.

Brendan Koerner tells the fascinating story of Herman Perry's flight into the Burmese jungle in Now the Hell Will Start.

Brendan Koerner tells the fascinating story of Herman Perry's flight into the Burmese jungle in Now the Hell Will Start.

I posted yesterday about Memorial Day reading recommendations.

For those interested in more books on the same topic, try Brendan I. Koerner’s Now The Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II, a rich, sprawling and generally rewarding book for which Spike Lee has purchased the movie rights.

Now the Hell Will Start tells the story of Herman Perry, an African-American soldier in the segregated army-President Harry Truman ended this policy with an executive order in 1948-assigned to participated in building the Ledo Road. 

The road was about 465 miles long crossing through jungle and swampy land stretching from India across Burma and to the Chinese border.  The stated purpose was to help Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-Shek fend off pesky Communist rebel Mao Zedung, and Koerner twice quotes Winston Churchill’s assessment that it was an “immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished before the need for it has passed.”

Perry is the book’s protagonist, but just one of its many characters.  His murder of Harold Cady, an abusive white lieutenant, flight into the jungle, capture, escape, recapture and execution constitute the book’s narrative trajectory.

One of three brothers from North Carolina, Perry was in an altered state when he pulled the trigger.  Like many black soldiers far from home, disconnected to the purpose of what they were doing, and bitterly aware of the substandard treatment they were being subjected to in the name of fighting for democracy, he turned to opium and marijuana to sedate himself and make it through his time. 

Like many of his contemporaries, Perry received consequences for expressing his displeasure with the conditions they were forced to endure.  According to Koerner, a contriubting editor for Wired Magazine, Perry’s previous punishment was part of why he did not want to face a court martial during his confrontation with Cady.

Perry flees into the jungle, where he eventually meets with members of the Naga tribe that had not been subject to British colonial influence.  In short order, he gains the confidence of the tribe’s leaders by securing goods for them, marries one of the leaders’ 14-year-old daughter, impregnates her and spends his days smoking opium and marijuana.

In short, Koerner says, he became the world’s first hippie.

His time as the original hippie is relatively short lived, though. 

Perry is captured, but manages to escape and elude a massive manhunt for weeks before eventually being caught a second time.  This time, his days are numbered and he eventually is hanged after a military trial and appeal.

Now the Hell will start contains far more than the individual story of Herman Perry.  Koerner spend close to five years researching the work and has extensive descriptions of the Ledo Road’s stifling conditions, complete with amoebic dysentary, Bengal tigers,  and oppressive heat.  The black soldiers’ treatment gets lots of attention, too, as does the plight of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, Perry’s brother Aaron, an impressive young boxer who at one point fought Henry Armstrong

Koerner also devotes a lot of space to the relationship and maneuverings between Shek and American commander “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who oversee the construction of the Ledo Road.

Koerner deserves credit for uncovering this little known story and using it as a tableau on which to paint a wide ranging tale with a complicated protagonist and plenty of conflict and context.   A writer with obvious talent, he alternates the tone from somewhat formal to downright colloquial at times, which can be a bit jarring.  The ending trails off a little bit, but that mostly serves to underscore the depth and caliber of what has come before.

Memorial Day celebrations generally honor veterans’ service in an uncomplicated way, presenting the warriors’ stints in the armed forces as an undiluted good.  One of the many values of Koerner’s work is that, through its engaging story, it provides the basis for a more historically accurate assessment of the conditions under which black soldiers served, and, in this case, snapped. 

Lee’s purchase of  the movie rights only ensures that the story, and the issues in it, are likely to receive wider distribution and, hopefully, consideration.


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