Among the Headhunters

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


By Robert Lyman

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Flying the notorious “Hump” route between India and China in 1943, a twin-engine plane suffered mechanical failure and crashed in a dense mountain jungle, deep within Japanese-held territory. Among the passengers and crew were celebrated CBS journalist Eric Sevareid, an OSS operative who was also a Soviet double agent, and General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s personal political adviser. Against the odds, all but one of the twenty-one people aboard the doomed aircraft survived-it remains the largest civilian evacuation of an aircraft by parachute. But they fell from the frying pan into the fire.

Disentangling themselves from their parachutes, the shocked survivors discovered that they had arrived in wild country dominated by a tribe with a special reason to hate white men. The Nagas were notorious headhunters who routinely practiced slavery and human sacrifice, their specialty being the removal of enemy heads. Japanese soldiers lay close by, too, with their own brand of hatred for Americans.

Among the Headhunters tells-for the first time-the incredible true story of the adventures of these men among the Naga warriors, their sustenance from the air by the USAAF, and their ultimate rescue. It is also a story of two very different worlds colliding-young Americans, exuberant apostles of their country’s vast industrial democracy, coming face-to-face with the Naga, an ancient tribe determined to preserve its local power based on headhunting and slaving.




Harry Neveu looked up at the vast silver bird above him. It was dawn on Monday, August 2, 1943. The ramshackle US Army Air Forces (USAAF) air base at Chabua in northeastern India prepared for another busy day of activity. About eighty aircraft of various types, including C-47 Skytrains (nicknamed “Gooney Bird”), C-87 Liberators, C-54 Skymasters, B-25 Mitchells, and new C-46 Commandos, crowded the dirty concrete apron. Aircraft of the China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) mixed with those of the USAAF and a few of the Royal Air Force (RAF), although for the most part the CNAC and RAF operated from Dinjan, a few miles farther up the Brahmaputra Valley. As the preflight bustle readied the Curtiss-Wright “Commando” transport, the young pilot walked methodically around the huge plane, checking that everything was in order before climbing into the hold. Making his way forward, Flight Officer Harry Neveu, pilot that morning of Air Transport Command (ATC) Flight 12420, adjusted his parachute before carefully placing it just behind the cockpit. This was where the crew always placed parachutes, ready to be grabbed if they were needed.

Following flying training in America, the draft for India had put the twenty-year-old as far from Coleman, Wisconsin, as he could imagine. Early morning at Chabua was always cold, but the fur-lined flying jacket warmed him as he surveyed his checklist. He would need the jacket when he was flying at 15,000 feet later in the day on his way to China. The only way to combat the cold was layering: “Underwear, wool work pants and shirt, issue sweater, zippered flight coverall and leather A-2 flight jacket,” recalled Hump veteran Peyton Walmsley, “with the ‘blood chit’ sewn on the back, later transferred inside, left side.” A blood chit was a square piece of cloth on which was printed the nationalist flag of the Republic of China together with, in Mandarin Chinese characters, promises of a reward for downed air crew to proffer to anyone who found them and kept them alive.

Neveu, who had flown the route several times, worked his way through the checklist automatically—crossover valve (down), emergency brake valve (down), wing flaps (up), glider release (down), tail wheel (locked)—on and on they went. The checks seemed endless. There were thirty-one in all before he was allowed to start the C-46’s twin engines. Beside him copilot First Lieutenant Charles Felix tested the ailerons, throttle, and steering yoke while radio operator Sergeant Walter Oswalt worked the frequencies and established contact with Chabua tower.

Across the vast concrete taxiway ground crew examined the engine cowlings, oil and fuel caps, propellers, and external fittings of scores of C-46’s—the USAAF’s most modern, but insufficiently tested, transport aircraft. Rows of them stretched out beside the apron, awaiting duty in the dangerous skies of the Assam-to-Yunnan air-ferry route, known to everyone as the “Hump.”

The “deuce-and-a-half” truck raised a dusty wake as it ferried the C-46’s passengers from their canvas billets a mile away. The air crew were billeted in dormitories built of the ubiquitous bamboo, with walls made of woven nipa mats and a roof constructed from bamboo fronds. The floors were made of dirt. Showering took place quite satisfactorily underneath a fifty-five-gallon drum sitting atop a bamboo tower and heated by a wood-burning stove. They had breakfasted on fried eggs flown in on planes returning from China along with fried potatoes, ketchup, and coffee.

Today was unusual. They rarely carried passengers nowadays: “Most loads to China were gasoline only,” recalled Walmsley. “Fifty-five gallon drums, standing on end in a row starboard side each lashed with 3/8 inch sisal [rope] to ring bolts recessed in the floor. Boarding inspection verified the manifest, satisfactory tie-down and absence of leaks or vapor. ‘Leakers’ were removed. Then we queued for takeoff, the first plane down the strip, west to east, as soon as it was light enough to ‘recognize’ the runway.”

Separated by piles of luggage and parachutes, the two rows of men in the truck remained lost in thought. It was too noisy, and too early, to talk anyway. The truck backed up to the fuselage, and each man stood up, collected his hand gear, and stepped directly into the belly of the plane, with Staff Sergeant Ned Miller, from Ottumwa, Iowa, directing them to their seats. Ground staff chucked the eighteen passenger parachutes into the craft, and Miller laid them between the rows of aluminum seats running along each side of the fuselage. Calling for the passengers’ attention, the forty-year-old crew chief demonstrated how to don a parachute. The passengers watched him, but hardly alertly. Surely they would never have cause to use the ungainly canvas-wrapped packs? They didn’t check the contents of the survival pouches on the parachute packs, assuming that everything was present and correct. Each pouch should have contained a range of items that would be helpful during the first few hours or days of survival in an alien environment: fishhooks and line; pocketknife with can opener; Hershey bar; vitamin capsules; iodine to purify drinking water taken from jungle streams; polished-metal signaling mirror; maps; pocket compass; waterproof matches; atabrine tablets to ward off malaria; a clip of .45-caliber ammunition; and several messages written in Urdu, Hindustani, and Burmese asking for help from friendly natives. Don Downie recalled the advice he was given soon after arrival at Chabua: “A ground officer spent perhaps thirty minutes explaining what we might expect following a bail-out. In a capsule: walk downhill, downstream, find friendly natives, follow them to the nearest village, and expect a hand-off to more friendly natives who would see that you were eventually returned to a military outpost. That was, unless they turned you over to Jap patrols for a higher reward of rice, cocaine, or money.”

Within two hours the temperature would climb to 88 degrees. August was the wet season in the upper reaches of Assam—106 inches of rain fell there every year, three times more than the average US rainfall. On either side of the broad valley created by the Brahmaputra River, hills rose in the first stages of their relentless climb toward the sky. Chabua was a combination of two words: “Cha’a” from the Chinese name for tea and “bua”—Assamese for plantation. The British East India Company had been growing tea here since 1826, and, seventy years later, Assam was the world’s leading tea producer. Now Chabua was a concrete megalith, the sprawling air base sustaining massive aerial operations into China, with eighty heavy transports calling it home. Its sister base at Jorhat lay a hundred miles down the Brahmaputra, and similar airfields were dotted across the remote region at various stages of construction, all built on old tea plantations. But only Chabua and Jorhat had the hard, all-weather runways usable during the monsoon.

Existence at Chabua for those who had to work and fly from there was primitive. In early 1942 the difficult job of keeping in touch with China had been achieved by flying over the toughest mountain ranges in the world, day in, day out. The men who flew this route were pioneers of a new age, their work reminiscent of the old ’49ers, or those who had opened up the West, requiring gallon loads of pluck, grit, and personal sacrifice. A legend of their exploits began to build. They sang a ballad about themselves that was self-consciously based on the legend of railway hero Casey Jones:

       It was Sunday morning and it looked like rain,

       Around the mountain came an airplane,

       Her carburetor busted and her manifold split,

       The copilot gulped and the captain spit.

       Cockpit Joe was comin’ round the mountain,

       Cockpit Joe was goin’ to town,

       Cockpit Joe was comin’ round the mountain

       When the starboard engine she done let him down.

In an article in LIFE magazine the journalist Theodore White recorded that in the early days the ferry pilots

flew without weather reports, navigation aids, adequate fields, ground transportation or radio. They took off on instruments, flew by compass, let down by calculated flying time. . . . The officers and men ate together in one mud basha with a dirt floor; there were no lights, native cooks served bully beef and British biscuits. [The days began at 3:30 each morning.] There was just one shift—a 16-hour shift—broken only by sandwiches and hot drinks. The Japs were in the air constantly. The only protection the Hump had was two P-40s loaned by Chennault and two P-43s loaned by the Chinese Air Force.

Chabua got the nickname “Dumbastapur” because on one occasion in 1943, during a Japanese air raid, the men stood around, hands in pockets, watching the spectacle. The shouted encouragement to take cover—from Colonel Gerry Mason—was “Take cover, you dumb bastards!” From that moment the name stuck.

The flight that morning was not one of Neveu’s usual jaunts across the roof of the world. In the first place it was carrying passengers rather than gas, and there were lots of them—eighteen. In addition to nine members of the ATC traveling to join the Tenth Air Force in Kunming were two officers of the Chinese Army returning home after training at the Indian Army training center at Ramgargh. Also on board were four senior figures. John (“Jack”) Paton Davies Jr., Lieutenant General Joe Stilwell’s political adviser from the State Department, was charged with ensuring that political relationships were maintained between Stilwell’s headquarters across the China, Burma, and India (CBI) theater. Eric Sevareid, the hugely popular Columbia Broadcasting Service (CBS) journalist who had broken the news of the German occupation of Paris in June 1940 via live broadcast, had been sent by the White House to take a firsthand look at the issue of China. The third VIP was Bill Stanton, a senior civil servant from the Board of Economic Warfare (described by Sevareid as a “tall American of forty with close-cropped hair and a lilting British accent” picked up during long years spent in Hong Kong) whose task in the CBI theater was to analyze economic information as part of the war effort against the Japanese. The fourth VIP to climb aboard that morning was Captain Duncan C. Lee from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). A distant descendant of General Robert E. Lee, he was also—unknown to his fellow passengers—the most senior Soviet spy to penetrate this predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Jack Davies was later to record that Lee was “the son of missionary parents in China. He had been a Rhodes Scholar, then one of the bright young lawyers recruited by General ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan for his Office of Strategic Services. Duncan belonged to OSS headquarters in Washington. . . . We had travelled together from Washington via London, Algiers and Cairo, to the CBI Theater where he was now on an inspection tour.” One of Lee’s tasks was to interrogate General Dai Li, Chiang Kai-shek’s secretive intelligence chief, about the paucity of usable intelligence reaching the OSS from China despite the cornucopia of hard-won supplies America was lavishing on the Kuomintang.

Sevareid had first encountered Lee and Davies at Khartoum Airport. Under the burning sun he had spotted Davies squatting “in the narrow shaft of shade under the wing of the waiting plane,” at peace with the world and with himself:

He was a man of medium size, with thinning, sandy hair, an obvious civilian, hatless, and dressed in khaki trousers and a cotton army shirt open at the neck. With complete self-possession he continued to sit there, reading a book, oblivious to the activity around him. Here, I thought, is a superior man, who has mastered this nerve-shredding business of doing a civilian job under army routines. I noticed that the book was Laski’s Reflections, and then I recognized the face. He was John Davies of the State Department, political advisor to General Stilwell. . . . I was traveling in good company. . . . A time was coming when Davies’s intelligence, humor, and coolheadedness were to be important factors for personal salvation in a common crisis.

When he first set eyes on Dumbastapur, Eric Sevareid was appalled—it was hardly a fit place for young Americans to live and work, particularly when they were sacrificing so much to support the unscrupulous Kuomintang. The bodies of young American air crew scattered across the roof of the world testified to that.

Save for a few officers who could enjoy the comfort of tea-garden bungalows, they were living in shocking conditions. There were at this time absolutely no amenities of life—no lounging places, no Red Cross girls, nothing cool and refreshing to eat and drink, no near-by rest resort to visit on leave. It was a dread and dismal place where dysentery was frequent and malaria certain, where haggard, sweating men dragged their feverish bodies through the day, ate execrable food, and shivered on cramped cots through nights often made unbearable by the mosquitoes. Men collapsed under the strain, and officers were frequently broken by distant superiors when the statistics of their performance fell short.

Sevareid was keen to leave India. At Dumbastapur he had had the comfort of a tea planter’s bungalow but been irritated by the complacency of an imperial system in which British administrators would spend their lives “in lonely and correct preparation for a lonely and correct death.” His frustration at the apparent British nonchalance toward the US war effort would have been tempered if he had known that the training of the Chinese Army at Ramgargh had actually been funded by Britain. Ignorant of the finer points of the combined Allied war effort but incisive in his judgments about crumbling imperial edifices, Eric Sevareid was relieved that morning to be climbing aboard the C-46 and getting out of the place. Declining British global power was contrasted with the energy of young Americans taking on the world. He wrote in lyrical terms of the youthful men of the ATC who daily sustained the Hump:

They measured the far horizons and calculated the heavens with their stubby schoolroom pencils. They peered through the majestic avenues of castellated cloud and wiped their dime-store colored spectacles. Their young eyes looked into the depths of mysterious seas and regarded the unfolding of the vast continents which showed on their faces the laboring of God’s time and the hands of men, while they munched a wad of Wrigley’s Spearmint, fingered the newly sprouted mustache, and wondered about its effect in Lauterbach’s drugstore back in Des Moines. They knew the lines and corrugations of the ancient earth as they knew the palm of their hands, and took them equally for granted.

Theodore White agreed, observing that these youngsters were doing a man’s job but did not have the experience to “qualify them for a co-pilot’s job on an American airline.”

Low cloud had been forecast in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra Valley that morning but was due to disperse as the day warmed up. Importantly, no higher formations of cumulus were predicted. Despite this, Harry Neveu had carefully studied the sky before boarding, trying to spot telltale signs of the towering white accumulations that could shear the wings off an aircraft. There had been enough pilots’ stories of terrifying journeys over the Hump and the 8,000 square miles of green mountains stretching deep into Manipur and beyond to make crews acutely cloud conscious—not just at the start of the three-and-a-half-hour flight but throughout the perilous 700-mile journey across northern Burma into Kunming. Aircraft caught in clouds that could rise from 2,000 to 40,000 feet had been violently tossed around and sometimes destroyed. Pilots exited cloud formations to find themselves flying upside down; others entered at one altitude to emerge facing completely different directions at wildly differing heights. For pilot Eric Forsdike, flying twin-engine transport aircraft through these monstrous cloud formations was an occupational hazard: “If we could not find a way between the cumuli-nimbus clouds, developing into huge mushroom shapes we reduced speed, sunglasses on to reduce the glare of the lightning flashes which were almost continuous, and hoped for the best.” And if the weather didn’t get them, Japanese Zeros flying from Myitkyina in north-central Burma routinely fell on the transports as they lumbered toward China.

From Chabua’s runway it was impossible to see beyond the mountains reaching high into the sky to the east, north, and west, the dark mass of tangled green hills providing a formidable barrier to the endless Burmese jungle beyond. This remote terrain offered sanctuary to the scattered Naga population, whose exposure to Westerners had increased since the Japanese war had lapped against their shores in 1942. Only those Nagas who had come down from the hills to live in the river valley maintained any contact with the new influx of foreigners—primarily Chinese and Americans who were there to sustain the US support to China over the Hump and, later, via the tortuous land route over the Burma Road from Ledo. Few visitors were allowed to venture into the remote territories that ran east for 200 miles down to the Chindwin and Burma. After subduing Naga head-hunting raids into the Assamese tea plantations in the 1880s, the British had applied a light dusting of imperial paternalism across most of the Naga territories, trying to protect the ethnological purity of the region by controlling visitors through an “inner line” system: only those with a legitimate reason to visit the hills could secure a restricted-area permit from the deputy commissioner in Kohima.aa

A process that didn’t end until 2010.

To the west the hills rose sharply from the wide river valley, the lower reaches of massive mountain ranges originating right up to the roof of the world. Like a great bottleneck, the valley floor to the northeast was hemmed in on three sides by mountains that seemed to punch into the sky. To reach Kunming in China’s Yunnan Province, the standard route was across the 10,000-foot-high Patkoi Hills immediately to the east of Chabua, then over the northernmost reaches of Burma—first the Hukawng Valley, followed by Fort Hertz, then the 15,000-foot-high Kaolikung Range, then the Salween River, after which the massive range separating the Salween from the Mekong, with some peaks over 20,000 feet high, appeared—before dropping to the Yunnanese plateau, 6,000 feet above sea level.

Flying the Hump was one of the scariest things a pilot ever had to do. It repeatedly exposed men to very high levels of risk, as the journey, crossing the upper reaches of Burma, was one of the most dangerous imaginable. This was partly because of the extreme heights at which the unpressurized aircraft had to fly above the complex tangle of snow-covered Himalayan peaks on Burma’s northern and eastern borders. It was also because the Japanese were close by, with fighter planes based in the northern Burmese town of Myitkyina sweeping out daily in pursuit of the lumbering American transport planes making their way to and from China. The word Hump was one “that made men afraid,” observed the Australian journalist Ronald McKie, who visited India in 1943. It was also because so little was known about much of the unmapped green vastness that stretched for hundreds of miles far beneath the thin aluminum air frames making their bumpy way to China. What fierce tribesmen inhabited the wastelands below, far from the comforting certainties of Western civilization?

The first question every pilot involuntarily asked himself when setting out on a journey over the Hump was “What are my chances of getting to Kunming?” The second was “What are my chances of survival if I have to bail out?” There were hundreds of hazards for pilots to face. White listed a few:

Ice can build up so rapidly on the wings that within five minutes a plane loses all flying capacity and drops like a rock into the jungle. In summer there are monsoons—black, solid masses of rain and wind that flick a plane about as if it were a feather. There are convection and thermal currents that send the instruments into crazy spins. The indicated rate of descent may be 1,500 feet a minute going down when the altitude meter shows 1,500 feet going up. A pilot may be putting his plane down as hard as he can and the wind and clouds will be sending it up twice as fast as he is descending; or vice versa, which is worse.

The luggage lay in piles between the passengers, dispersed along the fuselage to ensure that the center of gravity remained just forward of the wing main spar and secured by rope netting to the floor. The men had been searched (a “severe examination,” according to Sevareid) for the alcohol and cigarettes that servicemen routinely smuggled into China, though the searchers missed the bottle of gin that Lee had secreted on his person. Such was Davies’s authority that the rare cognac he carried was deemed a “gift” and waved through. The C-46’s hold luggage weight amounted to less than 7,000 pounds, but when added to the twenty-one passengers and crew (3,150 pounds) it was the maximum that could be carried by the twin-engine plane. Neveu’s primary concern was that the weight of the aircraft be accurately calculated and carefully distributed so that the plane was neutrally balanced, that is, neither front- nor rear-heavy. “If you had something heavy towards the back it could be dangerous, you had to keep the center of gravity,” he recalled. “And as you use your fuel up, your center of gravity changes too, so you had to be concerned with that too. Although with passengers you could move them around too to adjust for it.”

It is almost certain that none of the passengers were aware that they were embarking in an aircraft that had had its license to carry passengers temporarily revoked. The demands of war had resulted in its rushed introduction into service long before all its testing was complete. It therefore arrived in the theater full of niggling faults that gave it a poor reputation for reliability. The first thirty aircraft arrived at Chabua in April 1943, and the crews—inherently suspicious of military equipment produced for the lowest tender—quickly dubbed them “the Curtiss Calamity,” “the Plumber’s Nightmare,” and “the Flying Coffin.” Stilwell—the American whom Roosevelt had loaned to Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the nationalist Kuomintang—testily noted in his diary that “the C-46 is full of bugs. Carburetor ices up. We have lost six over the Hump and the boys’ morale is lower and lower.” Theodore White described the problem of the C-46 in LIFE magazine when reporting that restrictions on ATC operations across the Hump had been lifted in 1945:

The early runs had been made in DC-3s, whose normal ceiling was 12,000 feet and which had to be flown at 17,000 and 18,000. The C-87 had trouble with icing, and maintenance of its four engines was a drain on limited repair facilities. [Brigadier General] Alexander [ATC commander] chose as his ship the new Curtiss C-46—a twin-engine, big-bellied, ugly work-ship. It was just beginning to come from the assembly lines in the U.S., but the need for it was so great that it was rushed to Assam before the bugs had been taken out. There was no time for routine test flying to build up a backlog of pilot experience and knowledge of spare part requirements. The planes came out factory-fresh and were test flown in actual operation under conditions no other plane in aviation history has had to meet. They were subjected to all the climatic conditions of India and the Hump—dust, excessive heat, flight with maximum loads at higher than maximum serviceable altitudes, at maximum rates of climb, through turbulent winds and storms. . . . Critical parts began to give way all at once, at rates which no previous experience could have forecast. Men died in the air and on the ground learning about the ship, ironing out its weaknesses, beating out a body of experience in the presence of overpowering military emergency.

When they arrived in India the C-46’s had been accompanied by Curtiss-Wright test crews, including Chief Test Pilot Herbert Fisher, who completed ninety-six missions into China to remove bugs. Sevareid knew of the aircraft’s reputation—nearly refusing to enter when it dawned on him that this was a C-46—but admitted that he lacked the moral courage to protest. “That’s something one just doesn’t do,” he later observed. With a journalist’s instinct he had discovered that the aircraft had arrived in theater “with 196 alterations still to be made” to make it airworthy.

Like Sevareid, most passengers would have been all too aware of the dreadful attrition rate of the aircraft flying the Hump. Between June and December 1943 the official history of the ATC recorded “135 major aircraft accidents on the Hump route” with 168 fatalities. ATC officials at Washington, New Delhi, and Chabua regretted the casualties but felt obliged “to push the job for all it is worth.” As ATC chief of staff General Cyrus Smith put it, “We are paying for it in men and airplanes. The kids here are flying over their head at night and in daytime and they bust them up for reasons that sometimes seem silly. They are not silly, however, for we are asking boys to do what would be most difficult for men to accomplish; with the experience level here we are going to pay dearly for the tonnage moved across the Hump. . . . With the men available, there is nothing else to do.” The USAAF described the route between India and Yunnan Province as “the most dangerous ever assigned to air transport.” During the second half of 1943, 155 aircraft came down, a rate of nearly one a day.


  • Praise for Among the Headhunters

    "This is an extraordinary story of the sudden confrontation of two civilizations on the edge of the British Empire which ended in harmony and affection. It is excellently told, exciting, vivid, and moving."—Alan MacFarlane, author of Riddle of the Modern World, The Savage Wars of Peace, and Empire of Tea

    "A wonderfully gripping and life-affirming story of a little-known episode of World War II. Robert Lyman's deep understanding of and affection for the extraordinary Naga people and their beautiful forgotten corner of the world infuses this compelling tale of triumph over adversity and of an unlikely friendship between very different people and characters suddenly and unexpectedly thrown together. Beautifully written and researched, it is both highly relevant and a testimony to the power of the human spirit."—James Holland, author of The Rise of Germany, 1939-1941

    "Robert Lyman brings the skills of a born storyteller and the erudition of an historian to this wonderful book. His long engagement with and affection for the people of the Burmese jungle shine through. It is a gripping and immensely humane book."—Fergal Kane, author of Season of Blood and Road of Bones

    South China Morning Post, 6/20/2016
    “[An] amazing true story of wartime grit in Burma.”
  • "[Robert Lyman's] expertise shows through in the book's smooth prose and clear storytelling."

    WWII History

On Sale
Jun 7, 2016
Page Count
304 pages
Da Capo Press

Robert Lyman

About the Author

Robert Lyman, author of fourteen previous books, is widely regarded as one of Britain’s most talented literary historians. A former officer in the British Army and a Royal Historical fellow, he now lives in Berkshire, England.

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