(Random House, 2014)
While this book carries a lengthy sub-title, “The inspiring story of an unlikely hero and the animals who helped him save lives in World War II”, even that worthy explanation does not do justice to this fascinating book.
Croke has delivered a really fine story that introduces us to “Elephant Bill”–J.H. Williams–and the many many awesome elephants he worked with during his years in Burma. Williams came to Burma after service in the first world war and it is in the jungles and in the company of elephants that he hits his stride. He quickly learned the teak trade and of the central role that elephants played in this colonial business. Williams, however, was not one to blindly follow the patterns laid down for him. He was instantly drawn to the brave and intelligent elephants he worked with and set about finding more humane ways and more profitable ways to work with elephants.
Croke’s book also provides many pictures and drawings from Williams’ journals to help us to connect to the story. We learn the names of many elephants, the uzis (or elephant riders), and so many pets animals at the heart of Billy Williams’ life. And we also meet colonial lumber men, and Williams’ wife and children–but the story is always really about the elephants. The life and times of Bandoola, the giant tusker, who is the great love of Williams’ life is at the heart of this story and of the adventures which will play out during the turbulent 1940s.
As World War II and the Japanese invade Burma, Williams is recruited to be in charge of elephant company, an elite force that will play a massive role in the fight to save lives and ultimately defeat the Japanese in this jungle war. Croke does a fine job of sharing the daring, loyalty and courage which marked the exploits of elephant company, Bandoola and Billy Williams.