During World War II, British teak logger and lieutenant colonel James Howard Williams (1897–1958) used elephant power to support the British Indian Army in fighting the Japanese in their advance across Burma. Better known as “Elephant Bill,” Williams directed an elephant corps that built bridges and roads through the Burmese jungle to aid the movement of Allied troops. The infrastructure built by Williams's elephant crew helped the Allies win the Burma Campaign.
After several years spent fighting in the British military, James Howard “Jim” Williams spent two decades in the Burmese jungles, working as an elephant caretaker for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Williams knew some 1,000 elephants by name and considered them his family. After the Japanese began their advance across Burma in 1942, the British workers and families of the teak logging industry were stranded. Williams led them to safety, using the elephants to carry their gear as they marched across the rugged mountains and into India.
Williams was born on November 15, 1897, in St. Just, Cornwall, England. Friends called him Billy, while in his family he was known as Jim. Williams's father was a mining engineer who had worked in South Africa. Williams had two brothers, Nick and Tom. Nick became an attorney and worked in Calcutta, India. Tom followed his father into the mine engineering business.
St. Just, a small seaside village on the southwest tip of England, was surrounded by open, boggy land, and as a boy Williams roamed free, exploring cliffs, grasslands, and caves. He studied the animals he encountered and sketched them. He also befriended a donkey named Prince who traipsed the local countryside. A loner, Williams enjoyed solitude and preferred the company of animals; when it was time to leave for boarding school, he was sad to leave Prince behind. He began his formal education at Queen's College in Taunton, England, and also attended the Camborne School of Mines.
Around 1915, Williams joined the military and spent four and a half years fighting for the British Empire. During World War I, he served with the Imperial Camel Corps in North Africa, the Middle East, India, and Afghanistan, mastering the intricacies of military transport using camels and mules. As the war came to a close, Williams learned about an opportunity to work with elephants in Burma. He liked the idea and contacted the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. Founded in 1913, the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. was a leading exporter of teakwood from Burma, which at the time was a British colony. (In 1948 the country would gain independence as the Union of Burma, and it is now known as Myanmar.)
In 1920, Williams applied for a position as a forest assistant with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp and was hired. Forest assistants took care of the elephants used to harvest the tall deciduous hardwood known as teak. Burma produced 75 percent of the world's teakwood, an oily hardwood that is naturally weather resistant and useful in the construction of outdoor furniture and watercraft. Because Burma had both rugged terrain and terrible monsoons, motorized equipment was not practical and specially trained Asian elephants did the pushing and pulling of the logs. The “tuskers” (male elephants with tusks) were especially prized for this work.
On September 23, 1920, Williams boarded a ship in Liverpool, England, and headed for Rangoon, the capital of Burma. After arriving in Rangoon several weeks later, he received a teak trunk from the Bombay Burmah Trading Corp. that contained everything he would need for life in the jungle. The kit included a manual typewriter, canteen, mosquito netting, canned goods, tea, chocolate, a shotgun, whiskey, magazines, and reference books on elephant management. Williams was then escorted up the Chindwin River via paddle boat and deposited at a work camp.
Within a couple days, Williams—a 22-year-old jungle rookie—was sent off into the jungle, accompanied by four elephants and their handlers as well as an entourage of Burmese helpers: two messengers, a cook, and two bearers. He was given several maps and told to report to a village in the Myittha Valley, where he would find a man named U Tha Yauk who could show him the ropes. A few days in, the elephant known as Ma Oh (or “old lady”) died, and Williams feared he would get in trouble for letting the animal perish.
The elephant reference books Williams received did not include illustrations, so he took the opportunity to perform an autopsy on Ma Oh to learn more about the pachyderm. As he later wrote in his memoir, Elephant Bill, “The Old Lady was scarcely cold before I was literally inside her, with her arching rib sheltering me from the sun. I learned a good deal about elephant construction from her.”
Finally, Williams arrived at the village, which was nothing more than a jungle clearing with ten bamboo huts on stilts. U Tha Yauk lived there, managing dozens of working elephants divided among several camps. Over several days, he taught Williams a great deal about elephants and teak harvesting. Reaching over 110 feet in height, teak trees (Tectona grandis) were planted about ten to twelve to an acre, although the company harvested only one per acre in an effort to sustain a vibrant forest. After a tree was felled and de-branched, the elephants pushed and pulled the massive trunk to a stream bed so loggers could float it downstream during the monsoon season.
Williams was assigned to oversee a harvest area that included about 70 elephants, which were divided among several camps and little cared for. The elephants he encountered suffered from anthrax, tuberculosis, pox, rabies, and tetanus and they exhibited wounds caused by fighting forest tigers. Sometimes, their harnesses chafed, causing sores, and Williams drained these abscesses with a knife. He also removed bamboo splinters from the elephants' feet. There were no antibiotics, so he did what he could. He packed wounds with sugar, which aided healing because the sugar pulled out moisture and prevented bacteria from growing. Instead of using the primitive reference books (written by Europeans) that he was given, Williams sought advice from the oozies, local elephant keepers and Burmese natives who were intuitive with regards to elephant care. Over time, he became a superb elephant caretaker.
Williams loved living among the elephants and often said he learned more from them than from humans. He was moved by the bonds between mothers and calves and found elephants to be extremely loyal to their oozie handlers. Oozies had an intimate relationship with their elephant and stayed with an animal for life. During work, the oozie sat atop the elephant, offering it instructions, and at night he did what was needed to ensure the animal's comfort.
Williams was also struck by how well elephants could problem solve. In his memoir, Williams wrote, “An elephant does not work mechanically, like many animals. He never stops learning because he is always thinking. Not even a really good sheep dog can compare with an elephant in intelligence …. His little actions are always revealing an intelligence which finds impromptu solutions for new difficulties.” Williams also appreciated the mischievous side of the elephant. Each elephant wore a bell carved of teak—and each bell had a unique sound so handlers could identify elephants without seeing them. In his memoir, Williams noted that sometimes, the elephants purposefully clogged the clappers of their bells with mud so they could sneak into the banana groves at night and eat without detection.
In 1931, Williams met Susan Rowland, an Englishwoman who had recently arrived in Burma. Rowland's uncle was a forest conservator living in Rangoon. He was recently widowed and Rowland arrived to keep him company and tend his household. Williams and Rowland courted for several months, in between Williams's trips into the jungle. In May of 1932, he received an extended leave so that he could take Rowland home to England. They were married there on September 9, 1932.
By mid-October, the newlywed couple was back in Burma, living in a small village called Mawlaik. Their first child, a son named Jeremy, died as an infant, and in the fall of 1934, Williams was evacuated to England and hospitalized with dengue fever. A mosquito-borne illness prevalent in the tropics, dengue fever causes raised body temperature, hallucinations, and joint pain, sometimes leading to severe bleeding and death. In September 1935, he was back in Burma and the couple was living in Shwebo. While Susan sometimes accompanied her husband on his trips into the jungle, she often stayed home, particularly after their family grew. On December 12, 1937, their son Treve was born, followed by a daughter, Lamorna, in 1942.
Meanwhile, in December of 1941, Japan launched an air attack on Rangoon. Within weeks, the Bombay Burmah Trading Company ordered that all wives and children be evacuated, but there was no way out. As the Japanese advanced across Burma, they pushed back the British forces, and the southern port at Rangoon became unreachable. Williams realized that the only way to save his fellow workers and their families was to trek north, through the mountains, and reach India.
During the spring of 1942, Williams and a co-worker led a brigade of elephants and evacuees to safety in India. The elephants carried bedding as well as canned food and live chickens and ducks that would feed the group along the way. His entourage included 56 elephants and more than 100 people, and hordes of Indian travelers seeking to escape the Japanese followed them. As Williams later recalled, the paths they followed through the jungle were littered with the decaying bodies of refugees who had run out of food or contracted cholera. After delivering his family safely to India, Williams returned to Burma to aid in the country's defense.
In the fall of 1942, Williams joined the British 14th Army as an advisor and was promoted to lieutenant colonel. The Japanese were intent on pushing north and invading Britishcontrolled India, and the army's goal was to beat them back. Williams's knowledge of the creeks and paths through the jungles of north-central Burma was essential for battle planning as the army tried to re-take Burma. He assured his commander that elephants could help speed the movement of soldiers by forming rudimentary bridges and transporting supplies to isolated areas.
Williams was assigned to special operations Force 136 and sent behind enemy lines to recapture the Bombay Burmah Trading Company's elephants. As Japan advanced its armies across Burma, the oozies had taken their elephants into hiding. Unfortunately, many elephants were captured and put to work by the Japanese. Williams asked for help locating elephants from villagers and oozies, and the first elephant he enrolled was Bandoola, who was his favorite. By December 1942, dozens of elephants were at work, building bridges to move British troops.
As the fighting continued, Williams recaptured elephants that had fallen into enemy hands. The Japanese used the animals to transport mortars and ammunition, and those who were recaptured required significant medical care. Some had acid burns on their backs from transporting batteries, and others were injured in Royal Air Force bombing runs. Many had lost their tusks, which had been harvested for the ivory, and could no longer be used for bridge-building.
During its peak, the elephant corps had 1,652 pachyderms in service, and stories about Williams and his elephants received significant coverage from a press struggling to find “feel good” stories for the British public. Besides building bridges, the elephants carried the sick and wounded out of battle. They also moved refugees. In 1944, as the British withdrew from the Kabaw Valley, Williams evacuated a large group of women and children using elephants. To escape the Japanese, they had to climb a 300-foot-tall wall of “stairs” up a mountain.
Over the course of World War II, Williams's elephant corps built hundreds of “elephant” bridges: essentially, stacked piles of teakwood logs that, reinforced by pylons, were sturdy enough to support tanks. The bridges helped the British advance faster than the Japanese anticipated, and in May of 1945, the British and Indian armies recaptured Rangoon. Before leaving Burma, Williams visited 417 elephants he was able to locate and personally tell them goodbye.
In February of 1946, Williams returned to England with his family and settled in Cornwall. After living for more than two decades in the jungle with his elephants, he felt lost. He bought some land and grew daffodils for the market, and when this venture proved unprofitable, he became an executive for a pesticide corporation. In 1948 Williams visited the United States and was interviewed by the New Yorker. When an extensive profile of his war work appeared in this prestigious magazine, he was approached by a publisher and contracted to write his memoir.
That memoir, Elephant Bill, appeared in 1950 and propelled its author on a lecture tour. He wrote several more memoirs, including Bandoola (1953) and The Spotted Deer (also published as The Scent of Fear; 1957), the latter focusing on the timber trade and the people of Burma. He was 60 years old and living in Penzance, Cornwall, when he began to experience sharp pains which he mistook for an ulcer. In fact, his appendix had burst and he died during emergency surgery on July 30, 1958. In 1962 Susan Williams published The Footprints of Elephant Bill, which shared her perspective on their life together in Burma.
Croke, Vicki Constantine, Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II, Thorndike Press, 2014.
Williams, Lt.-Col. J.H., Elephant Bill, Doubleday & Co., 1950.
Williams, Susan, The Footprints of Elephant Bill, D. McKay, 1963.
Life, April 10, 1944, Philip Wynter, “Elephants at War: In Burma, Big Beasts Work for Allied Army.”
Reno Evening Gazette, June 23, 1945, Henry B. Jameson, “Correspondent's Notebook.”
National Geographic, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/09/140928-burma-elephant-teak-kipling-japan-world-war-ngbooktalk/ (September 27, 2014), Simon Worrall, “How Burmese Elephants Helped Defeat the Japanese in World War II” (interview with Vicki Croke).
National Public Radio, https://www.npr.org/2014/08/22/342429813/bandoola/ (December 7, 2018), Glynn Washington, “Snap Judgment” (interview with Vicki Croke).□