How Burmese Elephants Helped Defeat the Japanese in World War II

A British "elephant whisperer" and his best beloved helpers waged guerrilla warfare and carried refugees to safety.
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Taking cues from the mahout on its back, a domesticated elephant uses its trunk to move a heavy teak log.

James Howard "Billy" Williams, the son of a mining engineer from Cornwall, in England, seems to have stepped straight out of the pages of The Jungle Book, by Rudyard Kipling.

Employed as a forest manager with a British teak company in colonial Burma, he was captivated by the strength, the intelligence, and even the sense of humor of the elephants used to haul timber.

In 1942, when the Japanese invaded Burma, Williams joined a British Special Forces unit that specialized in guerrilla warfare. Deep in the jungle, his elephant company built bridges and ferried weapons and supplies. Cornered by the Japanese, they faced their most daunting test, an epic trek across several mountain ranges to India—and safety.

Vicki Constantine Croke, author of Elephant Company, talks about how "Elephant Bill" and his troop of pachyderms scaled a 300-foot cliff, how the logging industry in modern-day Myanmar is helping conserve the Asian elephant, and why she believes that elephants make us better people.

James Howard "Billy" Williams is a fascinating—and largely forgotten—historical figure. What drew you to tell his story?

For me it was the elephants. As a little girl, I loved the Jungle Books—I loved stories about people with a deep and authentic connection to animals, and I haven't changed. I write about animals, and I came across a book about elephants from the University of Chicago Press. In it there was a little black-and-white illustration, showing a man sitting on top of an elephant, high up on a cliff overlooking a valley. The caption said: "J. H. Williams, helping refugees escape Burma in WWII."

I was very intrigued, so I began to do some research. He had written several memoirs, and his wife wrote a memoir. So I could find out a lot about him right away. I immediately liked him, and what I liked about him was his connection to the elephants. He said the relationship between man and elephants is nine-tenths love.

Tell us a little bit about his story.

I'm always interested in what makes someone who they are. From the time he was a child, he said, "My way has always been the way of animals." What is unique is that he just didn't love them. He wanted to see the world through their eyes—that was always his goal. That's true love: When you want to see the perspective of the person or animal you love.

He grew up in Cornwall, in England, and was always curious about wild animals. By observing wrens, for instance, he could tell where they would nest. He understood what they looked for in a nest. He could put his fingers down into the grass and feel a little nest with eggs in it just from intuiting where they would nest.

He was in World War I, serving in the Middle East and Afghanistan. He hardly ever spoke of the war, though clearly he was deeply affected by it. His solution was to go as far away from England and Western civilization as he could. So in 1920 he accepted a job with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, as one of the forest assistants.

He would go from elephant camp to elephant camp. He became a really gifted elephant doctor and elephant trainer. Elephants became his life mission. By the time he left Burma, he knew a thousand elephants by name—something I find really enviable.

The hero of this tale is the magnificent Bandoola. Introduce us.

Bandoola is the great hero, and I am in love with him. He was a large Asian elephant who was the same exact age as Billy Williams. I think of them as twins: one elephant, one human. Bandoola was nine feet at the shoulders. His skin wasn't just gray; it was lavender, and he had pink freckling against his ears and trunk and cheeks. His tusks were like the arms of a Burmese dancing girl. So he had a kind of rakish appearance.

Bandoola was also different from all the other elephants. The others had been trained by breaking them. Bandoola had been trained by a master mahout named Po Toke in a very different way. From the time he was just a young elephant, he was gentled rather than broken by Po Toke.

That meant that when Billy Williams met him, Bandoola had no scars. Elephants are hugely intelligent; they have great social sophistication, and Bandoola was a wise elephant. He also had a sense of humor, something that was important to Billy Williams.

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At an air base in India in early 1945, an elephant loads a gasoline drum into a military supply plane with the Air Transport Command’s Indo-China Division, bound for China via Burma.

One of the stories that people always told was that he would bring large logs right up to the creek. But as he got to the bank of the creek, instead of just throwing the log in, he would sometimes pretend that he couldn't push it any farther. He would pantomime using all of his strength while not being able to move it another inch.

His "oozie," or rider, would say: Come on, Bandoola! I know you can do it! Stop fooling around; throw the log in!

So when Bandoola was good and ready, he would flick the log in with his trunk, like it was a twig. Those who knew Bandoola swore they could see him laugh after he did that. And having been around elephants, they do have a sense of humor, and you can see in their eye and their facial expression when they think something is funny.

The relationship between mahout and elephant seems much like that between horse and rider, albeit a much longer-lived relationship. Talk about that emotional and spiritual connection between elephants and people like James Howard Williams.

To me, it's magical. When Williams first met Bandoola, he felt his life had changed. He'd already met many elephants, and he was in love with them as a species. But he swore that when he first touched Bandoola, putting his palm against Bandoola's flesh, he felt something pass between them, and that this elephant would know him better than any other human.

He learned largely from the mahouts. Most of his contemporaries used Western texts about elephant behavior and elephant care. It was primitive. They treated them with brandy or allspice or roasted onions. Williams wanted to work with whatever was actually successful. He sensed the mahouts knew what they were talking about. They grew up with the elephants from the time they were boys. It was always kept in the family. They would work with their fathers who were mahouts. So they were incredibly intuitive about these animals. And they always loved their own elephant, no matter if their own particular elephant was the handsomest and largest or the smallest and ugliest. They adored them and knew the habits and the minds and hearts of their own elephants. The mahouts saw these animals as worthy of the kind of understanding you would have with a fellow human being. It was a beautiful thing. And Williams wanted to learn about that kind of understanding.

Williams was a member of a British wartime organization, which Ian Fleming was connected with: Special Operations Executive (SOE). What was it?

When the Second World War started, Billy Williams knew he could be of help. And he knew his elephants could be. The British had been driven out of Burma—they were in India planning a comeback. Williams's intelligence was of huge value. He was like a walking map of the western part of Burma.

But he didn't want to be sitting in India giving information. He wanted to be back over the border, using his elephants to help the war effort. The only way he could go back in was with Force 136, which was a cover name for SOE. These were the guys who used whatever means necessary, who were able to move without a lot of troops, stay under the radar, and be able to infiltrate behind enemy lines. At the peak of the campaign, he had more than 1,600 elephants and their riders and mahouts under his command.

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The French enlisted these elephants to carry soldiers and supplies into the jungles of Laos and Cambodia in 1950 in their fight against the Red Guerrillas of Ho Chi Minh.

Williams wrote that his Burmese mahout Po Toke was "my master in the study of elephants and my most trusted assistant in their management." Tell us about Po Toke.

He's a fascinating guy, but we only know him through the eyes of Billy Williams. He didn't leave a record of his own life, which is unfortunate. What's particularly interesting is he's about 15 years older than Billy Williams, and for him to have had this notion of gentling elephants is a fascinating one, and he did it at his own peril. At the time that he was working as a mahout in logging camps, he came up with this idea of being gentle to the young ones and raising them that way.

There was a high mortality rate among the babies. The females, whether they were pregnant or had a baby, were not treated any differently. They had to go to work every day as any elephant did. Po Toke took special care of Ma Shwe, Bandoola's mother, by taking her out of the heaviest work and giving her rest breaks. He was risking his own job. But that's what he did to train Bandoola in a way that had never been done before.

In one of the most moving scenes in the book, Bandoola and the other elephants build an "elephant stairway" to escape the Japanese.

It is remarkable. What happened is that Williams had to take his elephants away from the fighting to keep them safe, because they were so important. His plan was to go over the border into Assam, in India. On top of that, he was asked at the last minute to bring away a group of 64 Ghurka women and children who had been held by the Japanese. Of course he agreed to do that, even though it would probably hamstring his effort.

They had a long way to go over five mountain ranges to reach safety. Battles were breaking out all around. The route they were planning to take was swarming with Japanese, and they couldn't go out that way. Partway into their trip they came to a cliff face. Williams could hear enemy fire. They couldn't go back toward the Japanese. They had to get up and over this cliff. But the cliff face is sheer.

So in this remarkable moment, the whole group decides that, as there are a couple of steps in the cliff and the stone is porous, to cut some other stones, remove vegetation on the ledges, and make an elephant stairway. It was a crazy idea. But they had no other choice. So they spent several days cutting out vegetation to create stairs that would be wide enough for an elephant's foot. They were going to march all 53 elephants up this 270-foot cliff face, led by Bandoola.

For Williams, this put to the test his 25 years of working with elephants. He had always said how miraculous they were, but he wasn't sure whether they'd be able to do something like this. But Bandoola led the whole train of elephants, one by one, up steps that were hardly wider than an elephant's foot. It took three hours for each elephant to climb from base to top. Williams was at the top when Bandoola made it up.

He later said that it was the validation of his life's work. He couldn't believe that they'd been able to do something they'd never been asked to do before in their lives. If one elephant fell, it would wipe out all the other elephants and the people behind them. But every elephant made it up to the top.

Williams helped redesign how elephants are trained for the teak industry, using humane methods. What is the state of the teak industry today? Are elephants still used in the jungles of Myanmar?

Elephants are still being used in logging. I have spoken to several conservationists studying elephants, and it's interesting that there is general disagreement about the status of the elephants and what the future should be.

Everybody agrees that part of the reason Burma has the second largest population of Asian elephants in the world is because they've been so important to the economy through logging. But the concern now is that as the country opens up and large corporations start coming in, the elephants are going to be put out of work.

Many elephants in India are literally begging with their mahouts on the street for money and food. So there's a huge concern how this time of transition will affect Myanmar's elephant population.

This past June National Geographic reported that the giant tusker Satao, one of Kenya's most adored elephants, had been killed by poachers for his ivory. How did that killing affect you?

Even you just saying it to me now makes my heart drop. It's so sad. Billy Williams thought of these elephants like human beings. And I feel the same way. He said during World War II that when they were wounded by bullets or by leaking battery acid from the radios they carried on their backs, it was the same to him as it would have been with human soldiers. It really broke his heart. Elephants are capable of such intelligence and intense emotion toward one another. They live lives as long as ours. And to see them killed, for what is basically their teeth, is heartbreaking.

What do you think makes elephants so special?

The more we know about them, the more there is to respect and love. This is one of the great things about Billy Williams's story. As long ago as 1920, he saw the things scientists have validated today: their intelligence, their sense of humor. They can recognize themselves in a mirror and use rudimentary tools. They have shown many of the traits we think of as uniquely human, including recognition of death. They are as endlessly intriguing as human beings.

You say, at one point, that elephants change people's lives. How has writing about elephants changed you?

I hope that elephants have made me a better person, as they made Billy Williams a better person. He said that he learned more about courage and trust from elephants than he did from human beings. One of the lessons I took away from this is the concept of trust. You only trust someone who's strong enough to deserve your trust, someone you can rely on. Trust is something you earn from someone by having a backbone-which elephants certainly do!

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

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