Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle by Robert Lyman - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

Down & Out in Nagaland

Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle


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On 2 August 1943 a twin-engined Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft of the United States Army Air Force Air Transport Command took off from Chabua in northeast India for a flight across the ‘Hump’ to Kunming in China. The twenty-one American personnel on board, en route to postings with Chiang Kai-shek in China, can hardly have appreciated the extreme peril of the journey they were about to undertake. The Hump was the name given by the Americans to the eastern Himalayas, the stretch of mountains that lay between India and China, an area that constituted probably the most fearsome stretch of airspace in the world. Severe turbulence, 200mph winds and icing were just some of the hazards. The worst danger was the banks of cumulonimbus clouds, which could reach an altitude of 25,000 feet, above the flight ceiling of the C-46. Pilots caught in these spoke of being tossed about like an egg in a tin. Since it was impossible to control a plane in such conditions, crashes into Himalayan peaks were frequent. It is estimated that some seven hundred US planes were lost during the Second World War in the China–Burma–India sector and that five hundred of these crashed while attempting to cross the Hump. There was also the threat from the Japanese, not so much from their Zero fighters but from troops on the ground. Those lucky enough to survive plane crashes often found they had gone from the frying pan into the fire. The Japanese, cleaving to their Bushido code, regarded all bombers and, by extension, all enemy planes as carriers of war criminals who were to be executed on sight, either by bayoneting or (preferably) beheading. Additionally, any ditching in the early stages of the flight would result in the plane coming down in territory controlled by Naga headhunters.

It was the latter fate that loomed for the Curtiss C-46 that day in 1943. When one engine failed in difficult flying conditions, the order was given for a mass bail-out. None of the twenty-one passengers had ever jumped from a plane before. The terror experienced by, say,

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