Headhunters and diplomats

This drawing was made on a file card by John Paton Davies, second secretary of the American embassy in Chungking, China, in 1943, just after Davies and 20 other men had parachuted from a floundering C-46 transport plane into a remote region of Burma (Myanmar).

It was part of Davies' attempt to communicate with the Naga, the native Burmese who found him and his compatriots after their plane crashed. The problem: None of the Americans spoke Naga. And the Naga spoke neither English, nor Chinese. Meanwhile, Davies and company were terrified of the Naga, who had a reputation for headhunting. Hilarity ensued.

Trying to determine where signs of western civilization might be, he sketched a locomotive with cars and uttered “choo-choo, chuff-chuff.” The response was “blank incomprehension.” Next he drew a Japanese flag and tried to vocalize the sound of battle. Again, there was no understanding. He also drew British and American flags and outposts in an effort to determine where his group might find assistance and rescue. Davies’ jots also included men parachuting from airplanes, perhaps his way of communicating to the Nagas how he and his men had arrived in their company.

The Nagas’ reaction to Davies’ written and oral efforts was impassive attention, but, significantly, not hostility. The Nagas led the men to their village, and the fear Davies felt when one of the tribesman made a cutting motion across his throat was relieved when the victim ended up being a goat that was sacrificed for a banquet.

The National Archives: Headhunters and Diplomats in the Truman Library

Via Brian Mossop



  1. That’s a pretty horrible attempt to communicate with a primitive culture.   They have most likely never seen a plane from profile, and what the hell is up with drawing a suitcase.  Even if they could figure it out, how would that help the situation?

  2. a year later the Nagas would play a definitive role in reversing the Japanese advance into British India at the battle of Kohima…called the “Stalingrad of the East” by many historians. So…. i just think they were playing dumb when they picked up the ‘mericans 

  3. This was such a good read.I love the drawing of what looks to me like when something lightweight falls from a height – that squiggly line in the lower left quadrant of that picture. I can imagine the pencil moving back and forth to make it. Humans and briefcases aren’t lightweight but I might still draw a falling trajectory that way for the concept of coming to a soft (non-lethal) landing after falling from a great height.

  4. @ sarah: squiggly line? Perhaps yes, perhaps not. I believe he has drawn only two straight lines originated from the profile plane, to show that a man and this mystery suitcase may have fallen in different places. I am not certain the other line means what you think, but then, who knows what a captive may do with a pencil…

  5. I am wondering if that sketch was trying to relay that he had lost or left his baggy in the mountains, and wanted the tribe help to find or fetch it.

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