Vicki Constantine Croke presents “Elephant Company”
"I've written about animals my entire career," New York Times bestselling author Vicki Constantine Croke said as she presented her new nonfiction book “Elephant Company” on August 17 in the library.
Inspired by an illustration captioned “J. H. Williams escapes from Burma with his elephants,” Croke discovered the story of a World War II hero, James Howard Williams.
Also known as “Elephant Bill,” Williams dedicated his life to working with pachyderms. His career began shortly after World War I, when he went to work for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation logging teak. “He had an ability to thrive in the forest,” Croke said, the forest being a tropical jungle filled with headhunters, leeches, and tigers.
Elephants were essential to the operation. They were used to haul the teak to the river, where the logs floated to the nearest city. Williams soon taught himself how to care for and work with them.
“He found his identity with the elephants,” Croke said. Williams soon demonstrated that better care of the animals would benefit the company, and established an elephant hospital and an elephant school.
He met the legendary Bandoola, a massive and especially talented elephant, during his work with the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation. Williams had a special bond of trust with Bandoola, which came in handy when Williams recruited the pachyderm for his World War II efforts.
During the war, Williams joined the Royal Indian Army’s elephant corps, which used the beasts to carry supplies and build bridges. The corps started small, but eventually grew to a peak of over 1,500 elephants.
When Japan invaded Burma, Williams and fifty-three of his elephants carried Burmese refugees over the mountains into India, as depicted in the illustration that inspired “Elephant Company.” The elephants had to climb up a cliff on hastily-chiseled steps barely wider than an elephant’s foot. Had one elephant fallen, the entire mission would have failed. But led by Bandoola, the rescue mission made it into India, where the group was sheltered at a teak plantation. For his courage, Williams received the Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).
As part of her research for “Elephant Company,” Croke befriended two elephants at Buttonwood Zoo in New Bedford. She discovered that elephants have discrete personalities—Emily loved to drum, and Ruthie was an affectionate “lap elephant.” A film was made of her interactions with Emily and Ruthie for WBUR.
“There’s so much to discover about elephants,” Croke said. In fact, evolutionary biologists are studying the teak logging elephants; each working elephant had a log book of biographical and genealogical information that is being digitized for research purposes.
Burma, now Myanmar, retains the largest population of pachyderms in Asia. They are still used for teak logging, which has saved both the elephants and the forests; unlike clearcutting, teak logging removes one tree at a time and keeps the elephants employed and valuable. In India, however, elephants and their handlers are unemployed and forced to beg in the street.
“I think there’s something so magical about Myanmar,” Croke said.
“Elephant Company” has not yet been translated into Burmese, though it may become a movie; Eddie Redmayne has expressed interest.
“When you fall in love with people and their story, you’d really like to see it on the big screen,” Croke said.