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.
Vicki Constantine Croke has been chronicling animal life for more than two decades – tracking polar bears, Tasmanian devils, and Madagascar's top predator, the fossa. She now covers all creatures for WBUR-FM, Boston's NPR news station, on air and as The Animalist online (theanimalist.wbur.org). Her work there earned a 2013 regional Edward R. Murrow Award. She is the author of The Lady and the Panda: The True Adventures of the First American Explorer to Bring Back China's Most Exotic Animal, and The Modern Ark: The Story of Zoos – Past, Present and Future. Croke has worked on nature documentaries for Disney and for the A&E channel and anchored The Secret Life of Animals on NECN-TV. She also wrote The Boston Globe's Animal Beat column for thirteen years, and has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The London Sunday Telegraph, Time, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gourmet, National Wildlife, and Discover magazine, among others. She lives in the Boston area.
"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
"A spellbinding, true story of elephantine and human courage, set in one of the Earth's most exotic jungles during the Second World War, Elephant Company is a triumph that will make you cheer!"
– Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig and Journey of the Pink Dolphins