He was a smoothie and a cad, walking and swaying up and down U Street as if he owned the town. Young women swooned over Herman Perry in...

Share story

WASHINGTON — He was a smoothie and a cad, walking and swaying up and down U Street as if he owned the town. Young women swooned over Herman Perry in those pre-World War II days. He liked silk suits and white shirts, soul food and dancing at night. The war, as it had done to so many others, caught him in midstride.

Shipped to the Indo-Burmese theater, he found the terrain strange and the heat wicked. And when Pvt. Herman Perry dashed into the jungle, fleeing the Army and the hangman’s noose, then settling in with a tribe of headhunters, he knew quite well that he was a long way from U Street.

It is one of the more bizarre sagas of that war. Herman Perry’s military service involved murder, arrest, escape, a young jungle bride and the mind-altering groove of opium. There was also race: A black man, Perry served in a segregated Army overseen by white officers.

But the story and shame of Perry’s life all but vanished as the years passed. Historians had so many heroic war stories to focus on. Perry’s family lived, until recently, in a state of bewilderment as to the circumstances of his death: His remains were returned to them only last year, 62 years after his death.

The life and death of Herman Perry might have remained a footnote — some crazed military cat doped up and living in the jungle — were it not for Brendan Koerner.

Koerner could hardly believe Perry’s story when he stumbled across a mention of it in an Army document while researching military executions. He became obsessed with the case and left his Manhattan home to search for Perry in the Burmese jungle.

Escape to the jungle

During World War II, American military officials set about building a road along the Burma-India border that would ferry supplies to aid the Chinese. The massive construction project would tax thousands of troops. And it involved the 849th Engineer Aviation Battalion (750 black soldiers, Herman Perry among them, and about 50 white officers). None of the black soldiers were told their destination.

This is what happened on the sweltering and unforgiving afternoon of March 5, 1944:

A 21-year-old soldier — his handsome features taut and exhausted — began, in plain sight, to walk away from his military camp. He faced disciplinary charges for missing reveille without explanation. He already had served 90 days in the stockade for disobeying an officer. While confined, he had complained about the food, the malaria and the leeches that crawled up and down his body. Like many black soldiers in the unit — men who swung shovels and pickaxes and broke rock all day — he complained of mistreatment. It was quite specific in his case: He had served at least two weeks beyond his 90-day original sentence without explanation. So, on that morning, he walked out of camp as easily as a man strolling across a city park. There was nothing but jungle.

Within hours, Perry was confronted on a road by Lt. Harold Cady, who aimed to arrest him. Perry was sweating and sobbing.

“Get back! Get back!” he called out to Cady, 28, who had hopped from his jeep, unarmed. Three others remained in the jeep. Perry — who, like some other soldiers, had begun using opium — raised his rifle and fired a shot into Cady’s heart, then another into his stomach. He then turned and fled into the jungle. Cady died a short while later. He left behind a young wife and daughter.

Within days, Perry came upon a strange sight and heard voices. It was a camp of some kind. “Just outside its walls were cords of vine, hung from poles like washing lines,” Koerner writes in his chronicle. “And dangling off these vines were several scrubbed and polished human skulls, with the horns of water buffaloes affixed to their sides.” Perry had come upon a group of Naga tribesmen. He charmed his way into their village by using body language, then truly captured their admiration when he backtracked and retrieved some food for them from area farms.

“World’s first hippie”

The Army had a murdered officer to bury — and a runaway soldier to bring to justice. The manhunt began: There were roadblocks, communiqués sent over telegraph wires. But days into the search, frustration set in as nothing turned up. Some Army searchers thought Perry might have been devoured by tigers or fallen victim to headhunters.

Grilled by Army officers, the black GIs who knew Perry had no information about his whereabouts. Many believed a mental collapse had driven him to his murderous act.

What the Naga tribesmen did understand about Perry was that he was not a colonialist. He was not British. Their affection for him grew. In time he took a young Naga bride and fathered a child. “I intended to pass the remaining years of natural life in the jungles,” Perry would confess later, “… and live with the Naga girl who I claim as my wife.”

Koerner came to think of Perry as “the world’s first hippie.”

Four months passed. Word of a black man living in the jungle then seeped out from a rice station run by the British. The Army resumed its manhunt. One night, Perry was sitting inside a village hut and spotted a beam from a flashlight. He bolted, and several shots were fired. A bullet tore through Perry’s chest, but he kept going. He found a slope to descend, but his pursuers were at his heels.

Cornered and bleeding, Perry collapsed and was taken into custody.

At the makeshift Army hospital, Perry had to be given blood. It was blood from the black soldiers; the Army would not allow a black soldier to be given blood from whites.

Another escape

Perry’s court-martial began in early September 1944 at a tea plantation in Ledo, India. It lasted six hours. The verdict: guilty. The sentence: death by hanging.

Perry awaited his fateful day in the Ledo stockade shackled to a log “like a chastised dog,” as Koerner puts it. The weeks rolled on, into December, because an appeal was automatic. There was further delay as the Army misplaced documents.

Perry used his time in a manner he thought wise: He plotted an escape. In December, he vanished, compliments of wire cutters that someone had slipped to him. Army brass exploded. Reporters coined a nickname for Perry: the Jungle King.

The Army turned to Earl Owen Cullum and ordered him to recapture Perry.

Cullum had been a Dallas police officer before joining the military. In the Army, not surprisingly, he became a military policeman. He was handsome, no-nonsense, liked having his picture taken, often recited military history and was not amused at Perry’s wiliness.

Cullum and his men caught sight of Perry at a woodcutter’s camp on New Year’s Day 1945. Shots were fired, and one grazed Perry’s ankle. But he escaped again. His elusiveness left Perry’s pursuers with a feeling they were being taunted.

On Feb. 20, 1945, Perry was spotted again. More shots were fired, and he was wounded in his Achilles tendon. A day later, he popped up from some jungle bush after hearing yapping dogs. A bullet nicked the tip of his nose. But he hobbled away as quickly as he could.

Days later, sitting at a campfire, surrounded again, Perry was out of energy. “You got me,” is all he said to his captors.

Date with the gallows

Shortly before his execution, Perry wrote to his younger brother Aaron, who was in basic training at the Army’s Fort Meade in Maryland: “I did wrong myself please don’t make the same mistake its very easy to get in trouble but hell to get out of … ” He then urged Aaron to spend as much time as he could in the upcoming days with their mother: “While I die once she will die a thousand times … ”

The letter closed with a blunt, chilling phrase: “Don’t answer.”

On the morning of March 15, 1945, Perry was driven in the dark to his date with the gallows. The convoy included 17 military police officers. Army brass feared the convoy might be stopped and fired upon by those sympathetic to Perry’s plight: He had come to embody, albeit in a spasmodic and murderous act, some of the frustrations of the oppressed black soldier. If there were any confrontation, Army officers were told, they were to kill Perry immediately before defending themselves. The drive went off uninterrupted.

Before he died in 2003 at the age of 89, Cullum received a letter from Hank Johnson, Perry’s half brother, who had been trying to find out about Perry’s last days. The two began a brief correspondence. Cullum seemed to have adopted a gentler attitude toward Perry: “If he had used the right attitude, and if the Army had used his abilities, he could have been an excellent jungle scout,” Cullum wrote Johnson. “But in the 1940s he was a roadbuilder.”

“He’s home now”

The sister of the hanged man recently sat at a dining-room table in Anacostia, D.C., in her son Kirk’s home. Edna Wilson, 83, lives next door, but she didn’t want to disturb her guard dog. She is the sole survivor of the five Perry siblings.

She recalled her youthful brother Herman as being “happy-go-lucky, always asking about the girls.”

She has pictures of him: wooing a pretty girl at Meridian Hill Park, in his Army uniform with a cigarette in hand; in a suit with a smooth smile on his face.

She said she could tell her brother was disappointed with his treatment in the military. “It was tough for him all along. Going overseas in the bottom of that ship like that. The colored soldiers were treated like a bunch of animals.”

When news of Perry’s death reached her family in 1945, she said they were all perplexed. “I felt helpless,” she said. “There was nobody to turn to to help you do anything. … He was just a kid. And to go from the city to the jungle like that … ” Her voice trailed off.

“He didn’t have nobody on his side,” she added.

For years, Perry’s family did not even know where his body was buried. “We thought someplace over there in the jungle,” Wilson said.

Cullum told them of Perry’s resting place in a military cemetery in Hawaii. Wilson asked Koerner if he could help them bring Herman back.

So Wilson, living on a fixed income, scrounged up $1,000 to have her brother’s body dug up and cremated. Seven months ago, there was a knock at her door. The mailman had delivered a box holding her brother’s ashes.

“He’s home now,” she said of the Jungle King.