“Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle” by Robert Lyman


Here we have a real curiosity—a history of Nagaland up to August 1943. Nagaland is a state in the extreme northeast of India bordering Myanmar, and the history is a curiosity because the only event of much significance to ever happen there was the battle of Kohima in 1944. Why would someone write a history of Nagaland without mentioning the battle? The answer is that Lyman is an experienced historian with 14 books to his credit. One of them deals specifically the battle and its aftermath. Among the Headhunters is the back story.

For a place you’ve never heard of, the back story is more interesting than you might expect. Right up until Indian independence Nagaland was never fully under British control. The colonial administrators left the primitive inhabitants of the rugged jungle ridges to their own devices as much as possible. Indeed, Lyman describes how many of the colonial administrators became avid ethnographers documenting the traditional way of life and collecting native crafts for British museums.

Unfortunately, the traditional way of life included strong traditions of slavery and headhunting which the administrators could not ignore. So interaction between the British and the Nagas was highlighted by a series of punitive expeditions, one of which Lyman recounts in great detail.

Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle, Robert Lyman (Da Capo Press, June 2016)
Among the Headhunters: An Extraordinary World War II Story of Survival in the Burmese Jungle, Robert Lyman (Da Capo Press, June 2016)

Of course “A History of Nagaland to August 1943” is not a title which will sell many copies. Lyman and his publisher have engaged instead in a little creative marketing. In mid-1943 Nagaland was under the flight path of flights supplying petrol to the Chinese in Chungking. Inexperienced, overworked, ill-supported mechanics and aircrew meant the airlift was losing about a plane a day, mostly to mechanical failure. Most of the downed fliers were never heard from again. On 2 August 1943, however, a plane went down which was carrying passengers rather than petrol. Remarkably, all but one parachuted successfully despite never having used a parachute before. They subsequently walked out 140 miles to the nearest road, and their various accounts of the adventure live on as sources for the historian. Lyman has tried to illustrate their journey with some sketch maps, but they’re hopeless. A large proportion of the locations mentioned are nicely indexed, but not shown on the maps.

Only about 40% of the book is about the subtitle’s “story of survival” and it recounts that story not chronologically, but woven in with the real history. In fact, the title and subtitle are pure marketing. Yes, the local culture still included headhunting, but hunting the heads of rival Nagas, not westerners. The US military had plane-spotting/weather camps in the area which were never molested. Lyman quotes a couple of the survivors’ comments about how well they were treated and that they felt they were among friends. The area today is in Myanmar, but in those days the only connection with Burma was that the British censors insisted the entire adventure be moved to Burma before the story could be published, for security reasons.

But don’t let that blatant deception deter you. This is the only history of Nagaland you’re ever likely to find, and it’s engagingly written.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.