It is well-known who our allies were during World War II. But there are probably few Air Force veterans who know that Naga headhunters in the Burmese jungles should be counted among them. Their friendship and assistance were frequently needed during a desperate time when the Japanese were inching toward India through Burma and trying to cut off vital CBI supply lines for British and American forces. While the AAF was establishing bases in Burma to support the recapture of the Burma Road and provide supplies to China by air over the Hump, ground troops were fighting delaying actions against the marauding enemy in the steaming northern Burmese jungles.
Naga tribesmen fell victim to the enemy’s vicious onslaught and began a war of their own against the Japanese invaders; they fought them by using their savage brand of warfare—ambush and decapitation. Fortunately, they found the Americans generous and friendly, and they assisted to safety many Air Transport Command and Tenth Air Force personnel who had crash-landed or bailed out during Hump operations.
One of the actions taken to slow down the Japanese offensive was the establishment of an air warning system of observation posts set up in a wide circle spaced at intervals of twenty-five or thirty miles around or behind enemy lines. When Japanese ground troops were spotted pushing through the jungle, warnings would be given by any means possible—radio, telephone, telegraph, lights, or smoke signals—to alert friendly ground and air units. The Naga natives, always suspicious but generally friendly toward the British and American forces, were experts at jungle ambush and may have added many Japanese heads to their tribal collections. The Allies hired the Nagas as porters and paid them with coins, mirrors, knives, keys, and similar shiny objects that they prized highly. The natives had no sense of monetary values and were fascinated by any object that was new and different.
Uncertainty Always Prevailed
Although the basic plan to set up the warning posts was a good one, uncertainty always prevailed when dealing with the Nagas. Until the war, outsiders had not traversed their areas deep in the hills of northern Burma since 1880. The Nagas’ primitive culture, including decapitation of their enemies, had survived through the centuries.
Trouble between tribes usually began when a grudge between villages was revived or instigated by some act of aggression or imagined insult. To avenge the grudge properly, a formal war had to be declared. This was accomplished by procuring the freshly severed head of an enemy tribesman. The mission was entrusted by the tribe’s chief to a warrior who had to infiltrate the enemy village and decapitate a male victim with a dow knife, a deadly weapon shaped like a machete and kept sharp as a razor.
The enemy head was brought to the village, boiled in water, and presented to the chief, who displayed it on a bamboo pole as a symbol that the tribe was at war. Most Naga tribes also believed that the capturing of heads was essential for the well-being of a village and that a community that failed to bring in a head would suffer a decline in prosperity.
In late 1942, Lt. William L. Atwell of Marion, Va., was one of the AAF officers who led expeditions into Naga country along the Assam-Burma border to set up the observation posts. He knew from experience that the Nagas maintained a rigid guard on the trails into their territory. Whenever strangers approached, word was rushed by runner to the nearest friendly village. The message was spread with amazing speed from village to village across valleys and rivers and over mountains by beating hollow logs with elephant bones.
The story of how these primitive allies helped American forces has rarely been told. A few stories have been recorded in Air Force archives, and the experience of Lieutenant Atwell and his effort to buy a Burmese mountain from a Naga chieftain is typical of the way American and British forces were assisted during the dark days before the Japanese advance was finally halted.
Lieutenant Atwell was accompanied by Capt. Charles S. Welbourne, James Scanlan, and a Captain Smith, a British officer, two Burmese interpreters, and Naga porters on one of the 1943 expeditions to establish a mountaintop warning station in the hills of northwest Burma near the border with India. En route, the party would have to pass through three Naga villages. It was not known if they were friendly toward outsiders or if the three tribes were at war with each other. Captain Welbourne described what he experienced when he trudged into the dense mountainous jungle:
“We started the long hike with all fears of a Jap ambush allayed because the natives had not seen a Jap in the vicinity for weeks. The sudden appearance of small boys and warriors from behind trees told us we were nearing the first village. In a few minutes, we sighted a bamboo platform extending a few feet from the side of a cliff and used as a lookout post because it commanded a view of the entire valley and the only trail leading to the village.
“Entering the village, we were led to the platform where the chief, surrounded by his warriors, waited to greet us. Word of our kindness to other Nagas and the trinkets we were carrying to give as gifts had reached him hours before. When Atwell presented the gifts of safety pins, coins, and similar objects to the king, we were guaranteed safe passage through the village and through the area controlled by that tribe. Unfortunately, that control did not extend a great distance, as we later learned.”
Walk Through the Village
After the brief gift ceremony, Welbourne and Atwell wandered through the village followed by a crowd of gaping, curious natives. Because of the continual fear of surprise from rival tribesmen, the Nagas lived in thatched huts built on high logs. The door was reached by a ladder, which was pulled up at night. The natives slept on hard bamboo beds suspended like hammocks from the ceiling.
“We slept in the village that night,” Welbourne continued, “and, early next morning proceeded up the mountain toward the second village. Everything went according to plan until we were a few miles from our destination. Suddenly the native porters dropped our equipment and demanded payment. Questioning by Atwell revealed that the two villages were at war, and the porters feared the loss of their heads.”
Atwell reluctantly paid them off. As each native received his payment in coins, he placed his thumbprint on a document signifying that he had worked for the United States Army and had received his compensation.
Atwell, Welbourne, Smith, and James Scanlan, a civilian photographer, accompanied by the two Burmese interpreters, decided to go on alone. “Although the jungle was silent,” Welbourne said, “we knew we were being watched by the Nagas intensely. We continued until we sighted a platform where the chief of the second village waited, surrounded by his council.
“As we entered the village, the natives made no attempt to greet us. We were flanked by a dozen silent warriors carrying heavy dow knives. The situation left no alternative but to appear bold and confident. Atwell didn’t flinch. He walked straight toward the chief, followed by the interpreters. Scanlan, Smith, and I stopped a short distance away.
“Atwell asked the interpreters to convey our greetings to the chief. The chief’s reply was silence. Atwell tried another approach. He heaped praise on the warriors, the tribe, and the village. Still there was no reply. Then he pulled the trick that had not failed him before. He took out the trinkets he had brought—spoons, glasses, flashlights, safety pins, locks, and hairpins—and presented them to the chief. The chief passed them to the council without comment. Finally, Atwell took some coins from his pocket and explained that he was willing to pay the warriors if they would help him set up the observation post. The chief looked at the coins. He threw one back and kept the rest.
“Go!,’ he said sternly in Naga. “Atwell turned and said, ‘Let’s scram out of here!’
“We made a slow retreat, trying not to show how scared we were. We backtracked down the trail to where we had left our equipment, knowing we were in a spot. We could not force the Nagas to let us go through, and we could not bypass the village as there were no other trails to get to the third village where we were to set up the air warning station.
“Atwell thought there was a possibility that the chief did not understand what we wanted. After a discussion with the interpreters, we decided that when the chief said ‘Go!’ he did not mean ‘go back’ or ‘get out’ but rather that we could go through his village.”
Atwell was right. The expedition, without the equipment, hiked back through the second village toward the third village located on the top of the mountain and did not experience any difficulty in dealing with its chief, King Tong.
Buying a Mountain
“He was very obliging,” Welbourne said, “especially when he understood that Atwell wanted to buy the mountain.
“After contracting for the services of the porters from Tong’s village, we hiked to the top of the mountain, accompanied by the king, to select a site for the station. We found a ledge that commanded a view for miles on all sides, and Atwell bought the mountain from the king for 30 rupees ($9) and a jackknife.
“Now that we had purchased the site for the station, we thought our only problem would be to get the equipment to the site from the area of the second village. This was simplified by the fact that King Tong’s village was at peace with the second tribe. However, when we started to load up, the chief of the second village had already learned through the jungle communication system what we had paid King Tong for the top of the mountain and demanded equal payment.
“Feeling that failure to comply would incite a war between the two tribes or place us in jeopardy, Atwell paid for the mountain a second time—another 30 rupees and another jackknife. The chief was now our friend and assured us that his tribe would let no Japanese through.”
Over the next few days, Atwell and his party, assisted by Tong’s tribesmen, built some thatched huts. When the camp was complete, Atwell radioed to his base that “Mount Atwell” was ready for airdrops of supplies.
When the job was complete, King Tong invited the new owners to his hut to view a rack filled with skulls of enemies who had fallen victim to his warriors. He assured his guests that he would protect them and add to the collection the heads of any Japanese who threatened them.
In the following weeks, the Nagas proved to be excellent companions, readily learning card games and American sports. They shared their food with their new friends; in turn, they received salt, sugar, candy, and household trinkets in payment for services rendered.
As a result of the friendship born of war, the Nagas proved to be valuable allies by rescuing American aircrews forced down in the jungles. The Nagas passed the Americans from tribe to tribe until they reached safety; their services were always rewarded with the simple items they prized so highly.
As a result of the courage of men like Bill Atwell in the trying days when it seemed the Japanese could not be stopped, the Nagas played an important role in keeping them at bay. The Nagas became allies to the American forces as staunch as their more civilized counterparts by assisting in neutralizing enemy infiltration and guaranteeing that no Japanese soldier would survive for long in headhunter country.
C. V. Glines, a retired Air Force colonel, is a free-lance writer, a magazine editor, and the author of numerous books. A frequent contributor to this magazine, his most recent offerings have included “The Low-Level World of the Bug-Smashers” (February ’88 issue), “Wanted: Yesterday’s Airplanes” (July ’87), “What Has Happened to the Airlines?” (May ’87), “Brain Buckets” (August ’86), and “A Bolt From the Blue” (May ’86).