In the jungles of Burma, during the days of the British Empire, Asian elephants were the animal equivalents of all-terrain vehicles. Big, sturdy creatures, they could carry massive loads and traverse tough jungles. Standing over 9 feet tall in some cases and weighing several tons, these beasts were marvels of nature — massive and intimidating, but also gentle and intuitive. Their probing trunks and finely calibrated sense of smell — five times more potent than a bloodhound’s — gave them almost uncanny powers of awareness.
When war came to Burma from 1942 to 1945, both the Japanese and the British mobilized elephants, enlisting the massy beasts in their respective war efforts. But the British Army had a secret weapon that made all the difference in this remote front with its vast mountain ranges, dense foliage, and formidable water barriers. His name was J.H. “Billy” Williams. He had spent decades working as a forest manager in the logging business. He was also an elephant whisperer of sorts, who understood them on an intuitive level, working them strenuously, yes, but also tending to their every need. He nursed them and salved their wounds, both psychological and physical. He also learned from them, following their complex social rituals, distilling them into a code of behavior he would draw on in the most perilous of circumstances.
Williams is the protagonist of Vicki Croke’s splendid new book, “Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II.” Despite the overblown subtitle — the World War II part comes only at the end and feels somewhat underplayed, given the drama and danger that unfolded — Croke’s story is an often moving account of Williams, who earned the sobriquet “Elephant Bill,” and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth.
Blending biography, history, and wildlife biology, Croke builds her story around Williams’s exotic adventures. As the book opens, Williams, an English World War I veteran, is just arriving in Burma in the 1920s to work in the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp.’s teak-harvesting operations. It was a lucrative business that contributed to the Empire’s riches, one that took its toll on European recruits, who had to contend with malaria and other tropical maladies. Williams, however, took to the isolated, nomadic existence of the forest manager, traveling hundreds of miles on his rounds.
It was a rigorous vocation, but the elephants who did the heavy lifting — dragging heavy teak logs; carrying men, supplies, and other goods — were a constant source of enchantment. An animal lover, Williams came to Burma with little knowledge of elephant behavior; by the time he left, he was a world-renowned expert. Croke’s account of Williams’s elephant education forms the heart of her episodic and anecdotal book. He was a keenly observant fellow, who fell in love with the social rituals of elephants, the bonds between mothers and offspring, their intricate vocabulary of subsonic rumblings, squeaks, and grunts, and the ways they expressed emotions.
“Living day by day with elephants,” Croke writes, Williams “absorbed their deeper more philosophical cues. In fact, he discovered in them the virtues he would work to develop in himself: courage, loyalty, the ability to trust (and the good sense to know when to be distrustful), fairness, patience, diligence, kindness and humor.” In fact, Williams once told a reporter that he’d “learned more about life from elephants than I ever did from human beings.”
Animal behavior fascinates Croke, and two-thirds of her book is devoted to Williams’s experiences with elephants and the complex interplay between him, their Burmese handlers, called “uzis,” and the elephants themselves, who are enthralling characters in their own right.
Perhaps none was more captivating than Bandoola, an impressive tusker (male bull), who Williams revered. Distinctive and distinguished, Bandoola was loyal, but possessed of a unique personality. (He was also a bit of a mischief-maker — he once broke into a supply shed and sucked down “an untold amount of dry rice with his trunk.” The gallons of water sipped afterward made it a recipe for digestive havoc. (I have also read elsewhere that Bandoola once went to town in a pineapple grove, ate 900 fruits, and contracted acute colic, but Croke does not report this further bit of indigestion.) Bandoola and Po Toke, the Burmese handler who raised him, inspired Williams to reform the way elephants were deployed in the logging operations. Culling elephants from the wild could be a brutal process, but Williams implemented gentler methods that benefited both elephant and human alike.
Bandoola would play a starring role in Williams’s World War II exploits. When the Japanese invaded Burma, Williams swung into action behind enemy lines. His vast knowledge of roads, waterways, railways, and jungle paths made him indispensable to British forces. With Bandoola as his “No. 1 War Elephant,” he built bridges for the British Fourteenth Army. All of his skills were needed on a dangerous trek across the India-Burma frontier in 1944 that required a steep climb over a nearly impassable cliff face. With Bandoola leading the way up a specially fashioned “elephant staircase,” Williams and his party of refugees made it to the top safely. Such dramatic moments recall the celebrations of human resilience in other World War II-themed books like “Unbroken”; yet Croke’s culminating passages lack the depth and authority of the beautifully rendered early sections of “Elephant Company.”
Williams survived the war; Bandoola, alas, did not. He was found shot with a bullet in his head and one of his tusks sawn off. It was a shocking end to a regal life. Williams suspected Po Toke of the crime, believing that the handler had killed Bandoola “out of a deranged attachment to the great animal.” Po Toke, coming to the end of his working days, could not give up his beloved charge. The elephant was buried a hero, the following words carved on a teak tree: “BANDOOLA BORN 1897, KILLED IN ACTION 1944.”
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com.