Elephant Company

Elephant Company

The Inspiring Story of An Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

Book - 2014
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The remarkable story of James Howard "Billy" Williams, whose uncanny rapport with the world's largest land animals transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill
Billy Williams came to colonial Burma in 1920, fresh from service in World War I, to a job as a "forest man" for a British teak company. Mesmerized by the intelligence, character, and even humor of the great animals who hauled logs through the remote jungles, he became a gifted "elephant wallah." Increasingly skilled at treating their illnesses and injuries, he also championed more humane treatment for them, even establishing an elephant "school" and "hospital." In return, he said, the elephants made him a better man. The friendship of one magnificent tusker in particular, Bandoola, would be revelatory. In Elephant Company, Vicki Constantine Croke chronicles Williams's growing love for elephants as the animals provide him lessons in courage, trust, and gratitude.
But Elephant Company is also a tale of war and daring. When Imperial Japanese forces invaded Burma in 1942, Williams joined the elite Force 136, the British dirty tricks department, operating behind enemy lines. His war elephants would carry supplies, build bridges, and transport the sick and elderly over treacherous mountain terrain. Now well versed in the ways of the jungle, an older, wiser Williams even added to his stable by smuggling more elephants out of Japanese-held territory. As the occupying authorities put a price on his head, Williams and his elephants faced his most perilous test. In a Hollywood-worthy climax, Elephant Company, cornered by the enemy, attempted a desperate escape: a risky trek over the mountainous border to India, with a bedraggled group of refugees in tow. Elephant Bill's exploits would earn him top military honors and the praise of famed Field Marshal Sir William Slim.
Part biography, part war epic, and part wildlife adventure, Elephant Company is an inspirational narrative that illuminates a little-known chapter in the annals of wartime heroism.

Praise for Elephant Company
"I have to confess--my love of elephants made me apprehensive to review a book about their role in World War II. But as soon as I began to read Elephant Company, I realized that not only was my heart safe, but that this book is about far more than just the war, or even elephants. This is the story of friendship, loyalty and breathtaking bravery that transcends species. . . . [Vicki] Croke is a natural storyteller. . . . Elephant Company is nothing less than a sweeping tale, masterfully written." --Sara Gruen, The New York Times Book Review

" Elephant Company is as powerful and big-hearted as the animals of its title. Billy Williams is an extraordinary character, a real-life reverse Tarzan raised in civilization who finds wisdom and his true self living among jungle beasts. Vicki Constantine Croke delivers an exciting tale of this elephant-whisperer-cum-war-hero, while beautifully reminding us of the enduring bonds between animals and humans." --Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Lost in Shangri-La and Frozen in Time
"The true-life heroics of Elephant Company during World War II  highlight how animals and humans together can achieve extraordinary things. Croke's evocative writing and deep understanding of the animal-human bond bring vividly to life Elephant Bill's great passion and almost mystical connection with his magnificent beasts. This is a wonderful read." --Elizabeth Letts, author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion
Publisher: New York : Random House, ©2014.
ISBN: 9781400069330
Characteristics: xiv, 343 pages :,illustrations, map, portraits ;,25 cm.


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Dec 27, 2017

Having attended Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and being a reader of WWII history, this book seemed a perfect combination. The portion of the book devoted to the war is relatively small, but by the time I reached this part of the book I was totally engrossed in the story of Billy Williams and the amazing elephants. Mr. Williams arrived in Burma in 1920 following service in WWI to harvest teak for his British company. He was a fish out of water who came to be one of the greatest experts of his time on Burma and elephants. He knew almost 100 years ago what researchers now believe concerning the intelligence, emotions, and special means of communication possessed by elephants. He started a program of "elephant school" where newborns were raised and trained with gentleness. This was at a time when the vast majority of baby elephants perished thru the neglect caused by working mothers. They were perceived as having no value. He believed that the established cruelty of the training of wild elephants that either had to be captured or purchased could be replaced by gentle care of the newborns. This would involve less cost and allow the new elephants to learn thru gentle training and their natural mimicry of their mothers. He knew that if you could capture an elephant's heart you had a loyal partner for life. He bonds most strongly with an elephant named Bandoolah. Mr. Williams and his elephants played a significant role in assisting the American and British troops fighting the Japanese in Burma. There specialty was in building bridges and establishing routes of transportation. I enjoyed this book tremendously and was sad to have it end. Highly recommend!! Kristi & Abby Tabby

Mar 06, 2017

One of the best reads ever -

Aug 14, 2016

Recommended by Anne - Burma

Dec 30, 2015

Elephant Company is such a good book! Like, I am not very much the travel adventurer type, and this book had me wanting to go to the Burmese jungle!

Elephant Company is, in my humble opinion, slightly mis-titled. Don't get me wrong: fantastic book about an incredible guy... but very little of the book is about the elephants in WWII. A little over 2/3 of the book is about James Williams and the start of his career in Burma with a logging company. He was hired to oversee the elephant "workers" at multiple camps throughout the northeast of the country. On the job, he learned a ton about the elephants and their care, and the culture of the uzis (the elephant caretakers) and mahouts (elephant overseers/trainers). With this knowledge and his empathy for the gentle giants, Williams institutes new training and management techniques.

Then toward the end of the book we get to hear about the elephants in WWII. I don't remember ever learning much at all about WWII in Burma, but it was not good. Lots and lots of lives lost, unfortunately, and many of those were civilian lives. Over and over, Williams worked to coordinate teams of elephants to help ferry supplies and build "elephant bridges" to help the Allied troops. I don't want to give any spoilers; you'll have to read the book to find out about the incredible human life rescue mission that the elephants helped with!

Not overly dense, this is a great narrative nonfiction. Oh, and lots of pictures throughout. Not all crammed onto five glossy pages in the middle, but scattered among the text! I love love love that.

PimaLib_SheilaB Jul 14, 2015

This is a very interesting book exploring the teak trade in Burma through the eyes of Billy Williams, and the use of elephant labor. It was amazing to discover that the elephants could climb a mountain using a narrow ledge!

d2013 May 24, 2015

Billy Williams always had a love of wild animals and while working for the East India Company in Burma he developed a special bond with the elephants, among them one called "Bandoola", who helped hauled logs through the jungles and later proved their weight in gold during the 1942 Japanese invasion. The elephants became useful in not only carrying supplies and building bridges but also saving the lives of many. Good inspiring story!

Feb 20, 2015

Much of this book is a six star, but the post WW II ending is a real let down. I suspect that's because it was a let down for Elephant Billy himself, which made me sad. He came to Burma an untried young WW I vet, knowing only that he loved animals, and allowed the elephants and their keepers, the uzis, to teach him. Several high points struck me, and I don't think they're spoilers, as the reviews reveal them. One is how immediately he attained rapport with the massive beasts. When he made severe mistakes in dealing with them, he learned. The other two are the evacuations from Burma during WW II that made him world famous. In 1942 he and the elephants took the women and children from the Teak Company over several mountain ranges, the Japanese on their heels, to the relative safety of India. The second, in 1944, when it seemed Japan might win the war, meant another evacuation, this time of sick Ghurka women and children. His compassion led them over impassible mountains, since the exhausted elephants couldn't handle the crowds of refugees now on the few roads. Food was minimal, medicine and maps nonexistent. They had to carve an "elephant stairway" when they came to a 275 ft. cliff, hoping the elephants would climb it. Not a person or elephant was lost. After getting them to safety and reuniting with his family, Williams went back to his elephants, working in Burma to haul and carry; finally he convinced Allied command to use them to build bridges, which helped win the war in Burma. He was mustered out of the service and retired to Cornwall, but nothing in life could ever be so exciting, and he missed his elephants. From here, the book falls apart too. Still well worth reading for the complexity of characters, human and animal.

Jan 13, 2015

Best book I read in '14 (out of 46). You will enjoy it!


bibliotechnocrat Jan 06, 2015

I really wanted to love this book about Elephant Bill - it has a lot of the right ingredients... but in the end it is just a bit plodding. I loved the details about the elephant personalities, and the connections between Bill and the animals in his care, but the chronological structure of the book is too focused on how Billy Williams got established in Burma and then the narrative peters off just as the drama of the war escalates. Much of the first 2/3 of the book could have been flashback. The material covering the war period is confined to the last section and seems hurried by comparison. Not a bad book, just not a great one.

Nov 22, 2014

Beautifully written story of Billy Williams, his work in Burma with elephants, and their role in defeating the Japanese in Burma and saving the lives of countless refugees. Inspirational and heart-warming!

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