"Now the Hell Will Start" by Brendan I. Koerner

Brendan I. Koerner's "Now the Hell Will Start" follows the true-life story of Herman Perry, a young black playboy from Washington, D.C., drafted into the Army and shipped to the Indo-Burmese jungles to build the Ledo Road, a Sisyphean attempt to connect Allied supply depots with China during World War II. Years of nigh-on-forced labor in the sweltering, tiger- and headhunter-infested slog caused many of the soldiers to clutch consolation in cheap drugs, getting high in dark, wet tents while their uniforms literally rotted off. Perry succumbed. Worse, his drug use provoked insubordinance against the white officers who commanded the predominantly black recruits, awarding him multiple visits to the brig. Horribly, after a year of hard work, incessant rain, flippant officers and cheap opium, Perry — provoked — killed a superior officer. He escaped into the jungle, certain he'd be captured within hours. Instead, he became the focus of one of the most notorious manhunts of the war, living with the mountain tribes of headhunters and becoming a folk hero some called "The Jungle King." Koerner's an amazing reporter — my first mentor, along with Choire Sicha, to drum into my head how effective informed, dense writing could be — and has a knack for transmuting reams of research into taut narrative. (He was one of Slate.com's excellent "Explainer" columnists for years.) It doesn't hurt that Perry's story cuts a path through subjects with which I am endlessly entranced: racism, drugs, survival, war, sorrow, and death — all wrapped in one man's outrageous, tragic adventure. It should be implicit since I'm writing this in the first place, but "Now the Hell Will Start" is recommended! If all goes to plan, we'll get Brendan online soon for a Q&A session on the #boingboing IRC channel. Link


  1. For those interested in the Ledo Road and WW2 in Burma, I can recommend “The Burma Road” (Donovan Webster), a fast read that covers a good deal more than the road building, including the hellish conditions the combat troops and engineers were in in that theater, as well as the frequently conflicting nationalities and personalities of the bigwigs in charge (on the Allied side) (Stilwell, Slim, Wingate, et al).

  2. I cannot condone the man’s actions but I do empathise – I have been in the kind of conditions that cause one’s clothing to rot on one’s body, where sweat-salt grinds the fibers into mud because the clothing – and the person wearing them – never fully dry out, and boots exist only to prevent punctures but not blisters, and one stringers bait fish from one’s belt so the water mocassins go after /that/ rather than one’s thigh.

    Thank goodness for air conditioning and desk jobs.

  3. because the reason you are at war is because some other son of a bitch(usually in another country) convinced some people (the first generation of officers) to gang up and attack you in the first place. Which provided the opportunity for the officers (ie: professional soldiers who only learn and make war) in your country to draft your ass into uniform and land you in some stinking jungle somewhere.

    After Saddam Hussein was installed by the CIA and friends, where did he get his bully boys from? The same way the army of your nation gets its professional soldiers. “Oh, we gotta have an army! The other guy has an army!” Some people enjoy killing, others reluctantly do it after attack. Guess which kind provides the initial aggression that makes a dictator possible?

    I don’t buy into the “inevitability of war” crap. Some enjoy it, some are unfit for any other work and some just lack imagination. If my home is attacked, I’ll fight. And go back to my farm when the war is over. I believe this was the common attitude of every average soldier in every war ever. Scum bag politicians and career killer generals are the real enemy of humanity here.

  4. #3

    The draft is military slavery. Killing one of plantation guards is thus morally justified.

  5. My grandfather was there in Burma in WW2. The documentary ‘Stillwell’s Road’ is an excellent illustration of the insane world these men were in. He told us you could buy a necklace of human right ears from the Naga’s for a shilling.

  6. Re Takuan @5 & Vonmises @6 –
    That explanation makes some sense in the context of the draft that was part of this account (and for what it’s worth, I think it looks like a damn interesting book) but is somewhat weaker as a general statement.
    In the military at present, the officers and enlisted are all volunteers. The primary difference between a commissioned officer and a private is a bachelors degree. An officer isn’t necessarily joining up for any greater period of time, nor are they automatically more interested in killing than enlisted men. They also aren’t the ones responsible for instituting a draft. Politicians do that.
    There are some officers who may be monsters. This guy may have earned a fragging.
    I still question the worth of #2 as a general statement because in the context of an all-volunteer army (as America presently has) every “average soldier” made the same choice every officer did.

  7. #8

    “every “average soldier” made the same choice every officer did.”

    Most of the enlisted men I have met are poor and uneducated. They are looking for a way out of their current situation, or hope to get into school to have a better life for themselves and their family. They are the ones on the front lines giving up their lives for whatever cause we come up with.

    Officers on the other hand are college educated, and have a lot more options in life. They are not the first to die in most situations and generally enjoy being in the military. They make the decisions that cost people their lives, on both sides.

    I would certainly not go as far as saying that they deserve to die, but they are certainly more culpable.

  8. To #11 Trial Monkey.

    In the Air Force, it is the officers who are the first to die, for they are the ones who fly the planes in to combat.

    As for your comment about enlisted troops being “poor and uneducated,” bear in mind that the education levels of the military far exceed that of the civilian side…

  9. @ Trial Monkey, 11
    Officers do have more responsibility for the lives under their command, I agree. The danger they face, at least for the lower officer pay grades, vary based on posting — geographically and by specialization (MOS or what have you). An infantry second lieutenant in Afghanistan might die more readily than an Spc fixing Jeeps on Okinawa.
    In general, what you suggest about motivation and necessity rings true, but isn’t universally the case. I’ve met some enlisted men, Marines and Sea Bees primarily, who had other options and enlisted anyway. I’ve known officers who joined up because the military would pay for them to go to university.
    I’m not a current or former serviceman, and I don’t generally agree with the wars (operations? “police actions?”) that our military are presently embarked upon. I just think that “anyone who kills an officer is probably OK” is an awfully broad statement, and was interested in context and defense. The initial responses focused on draft-specific defenses. Given the present lack of a draft, I still feel that they’re a little weak. While, as you point out, the situations of folks who willingly enlist are likely somewhat different from those who receive commissions, both groups chose to go to war. If you one feels that people who chose to wage war (especially non-defensive war) deserve to be killed, that ought to transcend rank.
    Most people who oppose war, particularly “preemptive” war, tend to be fairly pacifistic. Saying that the warlike deserve to die just doesn’t jibe right with that. Thus, I was interested in additional context.
    Sorry if I thread-jacked somewhat.

    @Takuan, 10
    Yeah, there are definitely some sadistic bastards in the mix. There are probably officers who restrain their sadistic troops from killing civilians as well, though.
    The whole institution is in sad shape. As far as my country’s military goes, just look at things like the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy or the treatment of non-Christian soldiers. Ethical issues stopped me from enlisting when I was considering doing so. But it’s still a broad bush.

  10. if I stood on a heap of all the dead bodies made in Iraq this past five years,how far would I be able to see?

  11. I wouldn’t mind the killing, if it didn’t involve so much work. I guess I will have to stick with CoD4 for the moment.

  12. Seeing as War tends to be a pissing match between two people who happen to have thousands or hundreds of thousands of surrogates to do their pissing for them, why not just lock the two primaries in a room to either work their crap out or finish one another off?

    Just sayin’.

  13. @17:

    Seeing as War tends to be a pissing match between two people who happen to have thousands or hundreds of thousands of surrogates to do their pissing for them, why not just lock the two primaries in a room to either work their crap out or finish one another off?

    Sounds about right to me. Most people don’t want to take us to war.

    I’m betting the incidence of antisocial personality disorder is much higher in the ranks of our politicians than in the military.

  14. Given that the killer was black, the officer was white, and the unit was segregated, I’ll wager that the procation was racial; and although the response was certainly excessive, I’ll further wager the officer probably had some sort of collective retribution coming to him; Pvt. Perry just got to him first.

    It was my lot to be in uniform during the years the US military was integrated. There are a million stories about that period, but it went a lot better (and slower) than anticipated. There were, however, many ugly incidents; and I can easily imagine a man being driven to rage by a racist officer, even a rage that results in death.

    I do not like officers as a class, and I refused a commission because of it. They seemed to me a fearful lot, nervous and posturing, alternating between seeking notice and avoiding it. I actually felt sorry for the junior officers much of the time, and if any were ever in danger from their men it was solely because they were endangering them.

    The great killers, however, are the members of the military-industrial-congressional complex who wage wars that slaughter millions in the name of abstract slogans that obscure the advancing all-consming beast that is modern industrialism.

    “Daddy had to kill all those people, honey—to secure your freedoms.”

  15. Buddy66
    It seems from much of what I’ve read like a lot of problems with the officer corps in Vietnam was just that – they were inexperienced and posturing. Rather than commissioning men from the ranks the Army ended up with junior officers who were “90 day wonders” fresh from OCS, without much more real leadership ability than any other recruit. They weren’t familiar with conditions in the field, couldn’t relate to the troops, and put people in dangerous situations due to their forced bravado.
    It’s my turn to throw a book recommendation into the ring. Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America are surveys that use Homeric tales as a reference point to explain the structural and political problems of the military that destroyed cohesion and set the stage for increased trauma. A bit gimmicky, maybe, but approachable to those of us unfamiliar with the combat experience.
    As to Perry killing his officer, I wouldn’t want to be a black man in civilian life in the 1940s, much less one in the segregated army. Combining the disregard for the humanity of black people in that era with the sort of authority imbued by the chain of command, you’re set up from the start for disharmony and growing hatred.

  16. Clinton Pardons Black World War II Sailor
    Clinton praised Meeks as a man who “returned to civilian life, where he quickly established himself as a stable, law-abiding and productive citizen, who has been an asset to his community.”

    Meeks’ pardon was one of 37 pardons granted by President Clinton in unrelated incidents.

    The 1944 explosion killed 320 men. Lawmakers, veterans and the NAACP had argued that the sailors were victims of racial prejudice. The Navy agreed with them in a 1994 review of the case, though it did not overturn their convictions.

    The other known living survivor of the incident, Jules Crittenden, had not sought a pardon. He said in August that he was more interested in seeing each family of the 320 victims get full death benefits from the military, with interest.

    Crittenden said each family should have been entitled to $5,000, but Congress reduced the payment to about $3,000 for the survivors of Port Chicago.

    Meeks said he is still haunted by the tragedy a half century ago and by memories of the hazardous work of stacking materials used in ammunitions.

    “It would scare you to death,” he recalled. “Sometimes I get nervous thinking about how that ammunition would come down so fast,” he recalled.

    Two thirds of those killed were Black sailors. The blast also wounded 390 people and destroyed two transport ships. It was the worst domestic loss of life during the war.

    White officers were given 30-day leaves after the blast. The Black sailors were ordered back to work. Meeks and others refused.

    They told us, `You know you could be shot,'” he said. “But we made up our mind–you go back, you might be blown to pieces. So we didn’t go back.”

  17. “The Greatest Manhunt of World War II”? This isn’t good journalism – this is hype to sell a book – I think they might have put a little more effort into the attempt to capture top Nazis than they did for a private who’d shot somebody – the man that was assigned captured him only spoke about using teams taken from one battalion of MPs to find him – hardly a massive manhunt -http://www.dallaspioneers.org/stories/ww2.php?ID=225 – and most of the construction battalions that built the road were black – some of which had been there for longer than Perry – and they managed to endure the same things as he did without finding it necessary to murder their comrades. Koerner has rewritten history to suit his narrative – “Thousands of men had died for a project that contributed virtually nothing to the Allied war effort.”


    “The building of this section allowed much-needed supplies to flow to the troops engaged in attacking the Japanese 18th Division, which was defending the Northern area of Burma” – Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ledo_Road
    ( Koerner seemed to think that planes would have been able to supply them just as well – 1940s vintage planes, flying through monsoons…)

  18. Takuan-
    You cut out the part of the article that says what “crime” the sailor was being pardoned for.
    The article, here, begins:

    President Clinton recently pardoned a Black sailor who was court-martialed for mutiny during World War II when he and others refused to load live ammunition after a disastrous explosion at a naval storage facility.
    Freddie Meeks, 80, of Los Angeles is one of only two known survivors of the 50 Black men who were sentenced to prison and hard labor following the incident at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine near San Francisco. He alone sought a pardon.

  19. I think they might have put a little more effort into the attempt to capture top Nazis than they did for a private who’d shot somebody

    My experience has been that ‘searchers’ try to capture whomever they think will be easiest and safest to capture, not whomever has committed the greatest crimes. Do you have any citations that might support your accusation of “isn’t good journalism”?

  20. @#17 “Seeing as War tends to be a pissing match between two people…”

    Sorry, but that was LBJ’s big Vietnam misreading. For him it was indeed a pissing match, but it wasn’t, as he thought, with Uncle Ho; he was in a pissing match with millions of nationalist revolutionaries. The dumb peckerwood knew nothing of Vietnam and wouldn’t listen to anyone who did. I don’t think he could even imagine a nation of people who fiercely believed in a cause enough to die for it.

  21. Tiny copy edit, Joel:

    I think you mean “insubordination,” not “insubordinance.”

  22. Yes, I cleverly hid them in the sentences that followed the ones you quote…. it’s bad journalism to call something “The Greatest Manhunt of WWII” because it was only one officer who spent a couple of weeks looking for him, with the aid of MPs who were rotated in from one battalion – there were whole intelligence sections of the Allies and Soviet military devoted to tracking down Axis war criminals – that’s why I called it hype.
    And it’s not an accusation, it’s an opinion – some people consider it good journalism to not let the facts get in the way of a good story – it’s just that I don’t.

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