By: Georgia Edwards | Contributor
Published in 2014, Elephant Company continues to be one of the most requested books at the Charlotte Library. Vicki Croke’s true story of J. H. “Billy” Williams and the role his elephant company played during World War II is a testament to the mutual friendship and loyalty between man and animal.
English Lt. Col. James Howard Williams had a deep affection for animals and possessed an innate ability to communicate with them. As a child, he was devoted to Prince, a pet donkey with a sense of humor. During his service in World War I, Williams developed a close bond with a camel named Frying Pan. Following that war, Williams successfully applied for the job of elephant wallah with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation’s teak harvesting operations. Upon arrival, he faced a row of Asian elephants and was told, “Those four on the right are yours, and God help you if you can’t look after them.”
Williams set out to learn everything he could about the world’s largest land mammal. He observed them to be domesticated during the working day and foragers and socializers when turned out for the night. Most of these elephants had been captured from the wild and trained by a process called kheddaring— tethering the animal’s ankles and instilling terror until it became compliant. Williams abhorred this method. After meeting Bandoola, a bull elephant who had been born in captivity and raised with gentling rather than breaking, he embraced an “elephant whisperer” approach. Calves born to domesticated mothers started school at age five with much of the curriculum consisting of bananas and bribery. A young uzi (handler) was assigned to each animal and attended school along with his charge. “Elephant Bill” intuitively understood his elephants, caring deeply for their psychological, as well as physical, well-being.
Williams’ elephant company was mobilized at the start of World War II to help with the war effort. The gentle beasts transitioned from teak harvesting to moving supplies, building roads and bridges, and evacuating refugees. In 1944, during its occupation of Burma, Japan demanded that all uzis and their elephants report for duty—noncompliance was punishable by death. Williams was not about to let this happen. In a daring move, with the intrepid Bandoola at the lead, he and his elephants trekked to safety around and over the perilous cliffs of the India-Burma frontier. This nail-biting portion of the book evokes the resilience and fortitude demonstrated in Unbroken.
Croke has done her research on the Asian elephant, providing many fascinating facts. It is clear she is captivated by animal behavior, and much of the book is devoted to Williams’ unique relationship with these magnificent and intelligent beasts. In them, he discovered “… courage, loyalty, the ability to trust … fairness, patience, diligence, kindness and humor.” He once told a reporter that he “… learned more about life from elephants than I ever did from human beings.” The almost mystical bond he shares with Bandoola is the heart of the story.
It is said that an elephant never forgets. Elephant Company is an unforgettable tribute to elephants everywhere.
Editor’s note: One of Georgia’s book reviews was printed for a second time in our last issue. We apologize for this oversight and hope not to repeat it.