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Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World WarII

38 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594201738
ISBN-10: 1594201730
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Segregation is the context for Koerner’s biography of Herman Perry, and the Burma theater of World War II is the stage. Shipped to Asia with thousands of black American draftees to build the Ledo Road, Perry generated considerable documentation in his short life, and Koerner fully capitalizes on it. Producing a riveting personal drama, Koerner glimpses Perry’s essentially ebullient personality forming in the Jim Crow world but rebelling against its army version on the other side of the world. Not glossing over Perry’s transgressions of military discipline, one of which was a capital offense at the tragic heart of the narrative, Koerner solidly anchors them in their emotionally stressful context of miserable road construction in a pestilent jungle amid contemptuous treatment from some white officers. There were two extraordinary consequences of Perry’s central misdeed: his court-martial, whose procedures Koerner critiques, and beforehand, Perry’s escape and year-long survival in the Burmese wilds as an adoptive member of the Naga people. With arresting pacing and empathy for its participants, Koerner’s skillful rendering of the Perry saga exerts certain appeal for the WWII audience. --Gilbert Taylor


“Journalist Koerner recounts an obscure 1944 murder whose story is linked to the building of the Ledo Road, a massive and ultimately useless American project that linked India to Chinese forces. Most African- American soldiers spent WWII doing menial jobs. One man, Herman Perry, was shipped to northeast India to work on the Ledo Road. The labor was backbreaking; with rudimentary living conditions and no access to most recreation facilities, blacks had few pleasures besides drugs. Psychologically fragile, Perry had already been jailed for disobedience when he wandered off, carrying a rifle. When a white lieutenant grabbed it, Perry shot him and ran into the jungle, eventually reaching a village of Naga tribesmen. Pleased by gifts of canned food, they allowed him to stay, and he reinforced this welcome by stealing from the builders’ camp only six miles away. He married a local woman, but after three months, word of his presence filtered out; he was captured by Americans, tried and hung. Koerner’s engrossing story illuminates one of WWII’s fiascos as well as the disgraceful treatment of black soldiers during that era.”
--Publisher’s Weekly

“Compelling niche history about a black soldier who murdered his lieutenant then fled into the Burmese jungle during World War II.
Journalist and first-time author Koerner has unearthed a minor treasure in the criminal records of Herman Perry, a meat cutter drafted in 1943. Since military leaders considered African- Americans unfit for combat, Perry was shipped to India in 1944 to join 15,000 mostly black laborers building the Ledo Road, an immense project extending nearly 500 miles through mountainous jungles to China. Working conditions were nightmarish. The project had low priority, so supplies and food were inadequate, and black troops received the worst. Amenities, R&R facilities and even brothels were off limits. Morale under white officers was terrible. Miserable and depressed, Perry had already served one stockade sentence and found himself threatened with another when, on March 5, 1944, he lost control, murdered an overbearing white officer and fled. Believing that blacks were sexually ravenous, his pursuers focused the subsequent manhunt on brothels in distant Calcutta. Meanwhile, Perry stumbled through the jungle into a village of the Nagas, a primitive tribe of headhunters who occasionally traded with the soldiers. Won over by a few gifts and the supplies he stole from construction sites less than ten miles away, the tribe accepted him. Perry married the chief’s 14-year-old daughter and settled in, but rumors of a Negro living in the jungle eventually filtered out, and a patrol arrested him. Shortly before his death sentence was confirmed, he escaped and spent two months frantically trying to reach his village before being captured and hung. The long description of his trial may offer more information than most readers want, but few will be unmoved by the stinging depiction of Perry struggling to live first in an oppressively racist society, then in an army whose leaders considered him subhuman. Gripping and cringe-inducing.”

Now the Hell Will Start is a fascinating, untold story of the Second World War, an incendiary social document, and a thrilling, campfire tale adventure.”
--George Pelecanos

"Now the Hell Will Start is a dazzling look at a heretofore unseen and untold drama of WWII. Koerner takes us inside the Burmese jungle, where tigers and headhunters roam, and into the mind of an American, marooned by injustice, who struggles to survive as a man without a country. As Koerner points out, the hero of his tale, the pursued Herman Perry, may have just been the world's first hippie, certainly a father to Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Koerner is a startling writer of great humanity and a driving sense of plot, and this tale of survival and race enlarges our sense of American history."
--Doug Stanton, author of In Harm’s Way

"Koerner wandered into the jungles of Burma in search of a fugitive whose name indeed was buried in time. What he has come out with is a first-rate portrait of muscle and bone and soul."
--Charlie LeDuff, author of US Guys

“Brendan Koerner's Now the Hell Will Start rockets you from the WWII jungles of southeast Asia, to the streets of Washington DC, in a meticulously crafted narrative so wild it must be true. With a painstaking eye for detail, and the kind of prose that edges truth into art, Koerner's one of those journalists who nearly makes fiction irrelevant.”
--David Matthews, author of Ace of Spades --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (May 29, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201730
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201738
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,464,527 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and the author of The Skies Belong to Us and Now the Hell Will Start, the latter of which he is currently adapting for filmmaker Spike Lee. A former columnist for both The New York Times and Slate who was named one of Columbia Journalism Review's "Ten Young Writers on the Rise," he has also written for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN the Magazine, and many other publications. Visit him at and follow him at @brendankoerner.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Gary Brumley on July 7, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I first heard of this book when I read a small blurb about it in Newsweek. Being an armchair World War II historian, I have read many books about the war, but knew very little beyond the basics of the war in the China/India/Burma theater. I was interested to know more. However, the main reason I read this book is because I love a good adventure story, especially a true one. Truth is almost always stranger than fiction, and this book illustrates that perfectly.

The author paints a colorful portrait of Perry, his mind-set, and the colliding factors of war, poverty, crime, and racial discrimination that land Perry in the worst situation possible. Though Perry suffered more than most people could imagine and perhaps was justified in his crime, the author does not paint Perry as a saint. Perry had big problems and made some wrong decisions. The reader is left to wonder how he would react in the same situation.

The other character in this book is the jungle itself. The jungle is so real, so tangible, so deadly that it becomes almost a sentient being. The jungle is unstoppable in its ability to grind machines and equipment to rust and rubble and suck the life out of the men who came to work there. It shows no mercy and exists without pity. Contending with the Japanese was preferrable than contending with the jungle. The author treats the jungle not just as the setting of the story, but as one of the cast.

Make no mistake; this book is the story of a tragedy. Nobody wins, except the jungle.

There were some elements of writing style which bothered me a bit. At times, some of the language seems like it has a bit too much pop culture infused into it. The book doesn't suffer much from it, but it is something that I noticed at times.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 31, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Among the many strange and sad tales of World War II, one of the most peculiar ones is that of Private Herman Perry, who died in the jungles of Burma, one of the Americans sent there for the expensive and doomed Ledo Road that was to link India and China. Perhaps his story has been forgotten because of the futility of that particular expedition; perhaps it was because Perry was executed as a murderer; perhaps it is because his story is part of the shameful Jim Crow attitude of the Army, and of the nation, at that time. Whatever the reason, there are many important aspects of history surrounding Perry's story, and Brendan I. Koerner has done an admirable job covering a previously untold story in _Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier's Flight from the Greatest Manhunt of World War II_ (Penguin Press). Although Koerner has written most extensively on technology, he was researching military executions when he came across Perry's story, and became obsessed with telling it. He has produced an insightful book of history, in addition to telling Perry's sad and forgotten tale.

Perry was drafted after Pearl Harbor, but there was a delay in his entry because the Army didn't have enough segregated facilities to train black enlistees. He was one of the fifteen thousand American troops assigned to Burma to build the Ledo Road, whose ostensible purpose was to keep supplies flowing into America's Chinese Allies. Perry and the other soldiers worked sixteen hours a day. They got rations of corned beef and rice, and water with bacteria in it. Most of them got malaria. They fought off leeches and lice. Some were mauled by tigers. Perry's carefree disposition would not last in such an environment. He shot and killed a Lt.
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14 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Rick Shaq Goldstein on June 23, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This story of the life and death of Herman Perry plays out mainly on the stage of World War II. The author recounts Perry's life from the cotton fields of North Carolina to Washington D.C. to the searing hot, disease infected jungles of South Asia. Perry a drug-addled African American soldier, shoots and kills an unarmed white United States Lieutenant named Harold Cady, and flees into the untamed jungles that are inhabited by tigers, head-hunters, leeches, and armies of malaria carrying mosquitoes among other things. Perry becomes the object of the greatest manhunt of World War II.

The reader is told of this murderous crime on the first and second page of the book, so you are not kept in suspense very long as to the felonious offense the protagonist commits. From there the author spends the next one-hundred-forty-one laborious pages getting you to the point in time portrayed on the first two pages. That is not to say those pages don't have many historically interesting facts imbedded in them, they do... but the seemingly endless trip from New York to Asia via troop ship and railroad, seems like they'll never end. With endless detail of the close quarters, dank circumstance, and very little daylight, makes the reader get seasick and claustrophobic.

One point is made powerfully clear, and that is the hate and prejudice in the world during World War II. Of course it goes unsaid that there is still too much in today's world, but sometimes we need a reminder that racial, religious, and ethnic hatred is not solely indigenous to America.
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