Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

To 'Hell' and Back: The Greatest Manhunt of WWII

In 1944, 21-year-old Army Pvt. Herman Perry was working on the Ledo Road, a massive but ultimately pointless military project that ran from northeastern India to the Chinese border. Like most of the others performing the backbreaking work under grueling conditions, he was African-American, drafted and flown halfway around the world, only to be treated as a second-class laborer.

The conditions were horrific, with high rates of malaria and other disease and construction accidents, all in the harsh and unfamiliar jungle. "It is one of the great, underreported stories of that theater of the war," says writer Brendan Koerner, author of Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II.

Young Pvt. Perry had to deal not only with the rigors of construction in the jungle but also with the Jim Crow realities of the 1940s-era Army. He turned to opium to help ease the hardship, and one day, while coming down from an opium high after a disagreement over disciplinary action, he shot an unarmed white lieutenant who was trying to arrest him.

Koerner says Perry was just an ordinary guy who snapped under trying circumstances. "I don't think he was cold-blooded," he says. "I think he did it because he was having an emotional breakdown."

Perry was quickly court-martialed and sentenced to death by hanging. However, he managed to escape from the stockade and fled into the dense Burmese jungle, where he narrowly eluded capture many times over. He lived with, and even married into, a Burmese native tribe known as the Naga.

While the story that Koerner tells is one of high adventure, it is also one of even more overwhelming sadness. The Ledo Road was an almost completely futile effort, of no military value at the time, undertaken only to please a whim of China's Chiang Kai-shek, says Koerner. "Americans abandoned the road, quite literally, on V-J day," he notes, and by the next year the jungle had already overgrown much of it.

"It was a tragedy all around," says Koerner. "The whole drama could have been prevented if people had stopped to think about what was going on with the road and with the way the races treated each other at the time in this theater of the war."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit