61 pages 2 hours read

Vicki Constantine Croke

Elephant Company: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals Who Helped Him Save Lives in World War II

Nonfiction | Biography | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


James Howard “Elephant Bill” Williams, born near the close of the nineteenth century, became a hero during the twentieth, working with his famed Elephant Company during World War II. He began work for the teak logging industry in his early 20s, learning to navigate the Burmese jungle and speak the Burmese language—skills that would become invaluable in the Allied fight against the encroaching Japanese during the war. Bandoola, his most trusted and courageous tusker, would also attain legendary status. Before the war, the elephant helped save Williams’s life, and the bond between them remains unbreakable throughout the bull’s remarkable journey.

Williams himself became something of a legend, fighting in the trenches of World War I, transforming himself into an elephant master in the jungles of Burma, and learning his most important lessons about love, trust, and courage from the great beasts themselves. Elephant Bill represents the epitome of the daring colonial adventurer, for good or for ill, who made his fame and fortune at the margins of an empire. In Vicki Constantine Croke’s Elephant Company, Williams’s story comes vividly to life, interspersed with photos and other visual memorabilia. All quotations in this guide come from the Random House Trade Paperback Edition, published in 2015.


The author introduces her subject with bold regard, noting in the first sentence that Williams “was a World War II legend” (xi). His ability to communicate with elephants and recruit loyal workers—elephant handlers known as uzis in Burma, mahouts in India—is unsurpassed. This allows him to form an elite military unit, the Elephant Company. This force “not only helped defeat the Japanese in Burma, but it also saved the lives of countless refugees” (xi). Williams himself believes that working with elephants made him a better person, as he learned the incalculable values of bravery, cooperation, loyalty, and wisdom.

The action opens as an ailing Williams is being taken across the raging Yu River in an attempt to save his life. Amid his malaria-induced delirium, he realizes that he is being carried by the great bull elephant, Bandoola. This immediately soothes him; he would trust this tusker with his life under any circumstances. As the author claims, the elephant is “the best friend Williams ever had” (4). Williams had nursed the elephant back to health early in his life after Bandoola’s ill-considered tussle with another massive tusker. The two trust each other implicitly.

Part One, entitled “The Making of an Elephant Wallah,” details Williams’s journey from a young man growing up in Cornwall on the southwest coast of England to World War I veteran to logging recruit for the Bombay Burmah Trading Company. He was drawn to animals his entire life, forming a bond with “his childhood donkey,” Prince—“the first animal with which I enjoyed a joke” (12)—and a long succession of dogs, not to mention a few ducks and some camels during the Great War. His subsequent work with elephants seems to fulfill a calling sown early.

He seems ideal for the work in Burma, overseeing elephants and uzis who harvest and transport the valuable teak wood in the service of the British empire. Though most young recruits either succumb to illness or leave out of loneliness, Williams thrives in his work—even under the harsh scrutiny of his first boss, Willie Harding. The author describes Harding as “the picture of the colonial British ‘jungle salt’: reserved, taciturn, and, above all, capable” (26). He and Harding eventually become friends, but only after Williams proves his capacity for both discipline and gentleness with the elephants. His hard-drinking boss actually cares deeply for his non-human charges, and he instills in Williams the values of self-sufficiency and circumspection. On his first assignment, Harding hands over four elephants to Williams, saying, “God help you if you can’t look after them” (32). Williams learns quickly on the job how to inspect and care for the elephants and how to speak Burmese and communicate with his indigenous workers.

He is also introduced to the elephant that becomes the most significant creature in his life, Bandoola. Named for a famed Burmese general who fought against the British colonists, Bandoola is not only an exceptionally intelligent animal but also highly intuitive, physically impressive, and uniquely trained. His handler, Po Toke, had rescued Bandoola as a calf, so Bandoola was never a fully wild elephant. Most elephants used for logging are captured in the wild and broken via a brutal process called “kheddaring,” which uses threats and physical punishment as motivation. Bandoola, on the other hand, was treated with great care and enticed to his work through rewards, such as sticky balls of sweet tamarind treats, rather than negative reinforcement. The bond between him and Williams is immediate: “It was not merely that chance or fortune brought me together with him,” he wrote years later. It was destiny. Rubbing the high-up portion of the tusker’s trunk, he sensed an unbreakable bond being formed” (69-70). Indeed, Bandoola later saves Williams’s life just as Williams saved his. And Bandoola is indispensable in Williams’s efforts to save refugees—both human and elephantine—during the war.

Life in the jungle is difficult, of course, but Williams and the other company men also enjoy the spoils of colonial living: imported food and alcohol from England and Europe; large houses with dozens of servants; and extended periods of leave to recuperate from their hard work. Williams quickly comes to understand that the beasts are not of too much bother out in the jungle, but the bugs—insects and other small creatures—can be dangerous, even fatal. He contracts malaria and other tropical illnesses many times during his career. Still, over time, Williams becomes a highly respected “elephant wallah” (“elephant man, or master”), and his request to found a school for the training of elephant calves is eventually granted. He believes this would negate the need for the cruel practice of kheddaring and produce more trustworthy and hardworking elephants. Williams always maintained, however, that he learned more from the elephants than they ever learned from him.

There are some downsides to Williams’s life in the Burmese jungle. The simmering agitation for independence breeds mistrust between the colonial company men and the indigenous workers—Harding is suspicious of Po Toke, in particular—in addition to the rumblings of war in the wake of the global financial disaster that is the Great Depression. Most of all, in strictly personal terms, Williams lacks female companionship and longs for a partner. She finally makes her appearance in Part Two (“Love and Elephants”), the cousin of a famed British explorer. Williams quickly falls in love with Susan Rowland, who eagerly reciprocates that love, and the two are on the precipice of an engagement. However, Williams first must scout out the “Cannibal Islands,” the largely uninhabited archipelago technically called the Andaman Islands. If there are valuable resources to log there, the company might invest in acquiring more land. While Williams sees the possibilities, it is ultimately decided that the infrastructure is too undeveloped for a new venture. He returns, disappointed by his failed endeavor but happy in his engagement to Susan—while aware that this marks the end of his adventurous and extended youth. The two are married, and Williams revels in the fact that she seems to enjoy the jungle life as much as he does.

While their colonial existence is nothing short of an Edenic idyll at first, they are soon moved to less lavish accommodations as the financial fallout from the Depression impacts the company. Even that pales in comparison to the encroaching war: after Pearl Harbor is attacked in December of 1941, “the Japanese begin air attacks on Rangoon” (201), the capital of Burma. The Williams family, now including a young son, faces a very uncertain future: “As the elephants were quickly loaded, and their journey [to Mandalay] began, the family had no idea what they would be facing when they came out of the forest” (201).

Part Three, “War Elephants,” covers the period from 1941 through 1944, when Burma is embroiled in the thick of World War II. There is “[a]n exodus of biblical proportions out of Burma” (206) as the Japanese press into the country. Its strategic location gives an advantage to whichever side, Allied or Axis, possesses it; thus, it is the theater for some of the fiercest fighting during the war. Estimates suggest that up to a million Burmese people might have died during this period. Williams himself suffers the loss of his young son, Jeremy, from pneumonia and endures another bout of life-threatening illness.

Still, he cannot bear to step aside when he feels he can be of service to his nation, to his empire. Thus, he forms the elite Force 136 under the auspices of the Special Operations Executive, where he is not burdened by strict rules or a direct chain of command. He forms his Elephant Company, within which Bandoola works mightily, to offer their unique services. In particular, the elephants can rapidly build rudimentary yet durable bridges throughout the forest, allowing for the transportation of soldiers and supplies throughout the country. During this time, Williams picks up his nickname, Elephant Bill, as foreign reporters are intrigued by this iconoclastic man and his massive charges.

As the tide finally begins to turn in the Allies's favor in Burma, the military calls for Williams to take his elephants out of the country and into the safety of India. At first, he is upset, thinking that this is another call for retreat, but he soon learns that a major offensive will shortly be underway. Williams’s job is to get the elephants—along with a group of refugees, primarily women and children—to safety. The trip will be grueling, dangerous, and fraught with obstacles, but Elephant Bill—alongside his best friend, Bandoola—will overcome the seemingly impossible odds. Even when the troupe comes across what appears to be an insurmountable obstacle—a nearly sheer cliff face that they must traverse—Williams remains undaunted.

He conceives of carving an “elephant staircase” out the rock so that the elephants can carry the crucial supplies—and themselves—over the pass and into safer territory. The Japanese are at their heels; there would be no turning back. The men work for two days to carve the makeshift stairs, but the success of the endeavor hinges on the willingness of the elephants to traverse such dizzying heights on such narrow stairs. Bandoola rises to the occasion yet again, taking the first hazardous steps and leading the rest of the elephants over the mountains: “Far from precarious, Bandoola seemed as secure as the mountain itself. The elephant was standing nearly erect, like a person, and in slow motion he heaved himself entirely to the next step” (273-74). Williams witnesses the culmination of his life’s work in the steady steps of his heroic tusker. All of that courage, loyalty, and tender training come to fruition. The elephants and refugees make their way to the safety of a tea plantation in India, to rest and to heal before more difficult days to come.

Williams’s Elephant Company eventually returns to the theater of war, becoming instrumental in the defeat of the Japanese in Southeast Asia. In the wake of war, Williams realizes that his days as an elephant wallah are numbered: the world has changed, and the days of the British Empire are in swift decline. Bandoola would be killed before the war’s end, likely murdered by his devout handler, Po Toke, who would rather see the elephant dead than be cared for by another. Surely this senseless slaughter was the portent of the end of an era. Williams takes Bandoola’s left tusk, a treasure he carries with him for the rest of his life. After his time in the jungle, Williams returns to Cornwall and writes several books about his experiences—but he always yearns to be back among his mammoth friends. Williams himself dies at age 60 from a burst appendix. Stoic to the last, he believes that an ulcer, diagnosed years earlier, was simply acting up. He seeks no medical attention until it is too late.