Things That Are Not: The Horrors of Ramree Island

There’s something intrinsically horrifying about man-eating animals. Being bitten a venomous snake or mauled by an angry bear isn’t enough; the idea that humans, Earth’s dominant species, could be laid low by lesser animals, devoured like some mindless fish or common squirrel, inspires stomach-churning horror among the most civilized people. Maybe it’s an ancestral fear that never fully vanished through evolution; maybe it’s because, as David Quammen feels, it denies humans the dignity and closure of ordinary death. Or perhaps, as Alistair Graham muses in Eyelids of Morning, it’s because “to be eaten by a croc is to be consumed forever by evil. One forfeits all hope of immortality. One’s soul is irrevocably Satan’s, one’s body is dung.”

Becoming crocodile dung is compounded by the idea that carnivores are cunning psychopaths who deliberately stalk humans, killing either for prey or for fun. Innumerable books and horror movies play on these fears, vastly overstating their occurrence. Numerous cases certainly exist: the Tsavo River lions, the Jersey Shore shark attacks and the Sankebetsu brown bear are perhaps the most notorious. But these incidents result from opportunism or external pressures: urban and infrastructural development into their territory, disruption of food resources, sick or old predators hunting humans from desperation. Without context or understanding, these attacks let us condemn creatures driven by fear, hunger and instinct as bloodthirsty monsters. Or, to invent horror stories from whole cloth.

Ramree Island lies off the coast of Myanmar (Burma), incorporated into Rakhine State but separated from the mainland by a strait in the Bay of Bengal. With a population of 400,000, the island features a deep water port at Kyaukpyu, and oil reserves which traditionally allowed locals to sustain themselves. Recently, Ramree became the terminal of a multinational pipeline, carrying oil from the Middle East and gas from Myanmar. This development triggered protests from islanders not consulted by the Chinese and Burmese governments, nor guaranteed to profit from its construction. Declaration of a “Special Economic Zone,” designed to secure local employment and ease the construction of a high-speed railway, further triggered fears that development will destroy villages, coastline and natural wonders: forests, hills, lakes and mangrove swamps.

British troops land at Ramree

During World War II, Ramree became the target of Allied forces in Burma. Field Marshall Sir William Slim thought Ramree “would provide the sea-supplied airfields that could nourish my army in a dash for Rangoon.” Accordingly, Major General Cyril Lomax’s 25th Indian Division, an amalgamation of British and Indian units, launched an amphibious landing on Ramree, Operation Matador, on January 14, 1945 with massive air and naval support. Faced with superior Allied strength, a Japanese force of 1,000 men fought a bloody rearguard action in the forests and swamps: Ramree wasn’t secured until February 22nd, with about 500 Japanese survivors escaping to the mainland.

Yet most remember the Battle of Ramree not for the military drama but for a singular (and singularly improbable) nightmare. Towards the end of the campaign, it’s claimed, hundreds of Japanese soldiers fled into the island’s swamps, attempting to escape British encirclement. On the night of February 19th, they encountered an even deadlier foe. Bruce S. Wright, a Canadian naturalist who supposedly witnessed the event, recounted it years later:

That night [of the 19 February 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M. L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left…. Of about one thousand Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about twenty were found alive.

This single colorful paragraph, from Wright’s book Wildlife Sketches: Near and Far (1962), birthed a legend that endures to this day. Not only on websites more credulous than Robert Ripley, but occasionally in serious works of military and natural history as well. The Guinness Book of World Records, with their eye for the strange and sensational, dubbed Ramree the “worst crocodile disaster in the world.” Like similarly dubious stories of sewer-dwelling alligators, it’s proven extremely hard to banish this tale, playing as it does on our primordial fear of ancient, toothy reptiles.

Bruce Wright
Bruce S. Wright

Bruce Wright was, indeed, a well-regarded biologist and nature writer. Teaching at the University of New Brunswick, he was known for his research into cougars and waterfowl, and the environmental impact of pollution and pesticides. Along with Rachel Carson, Wright was among the first to demonstrate the damage wrought by DDT on bird populations. During World War II, Wright served with a Royal Navy commando unit in Burma; besides his account in Wildlife Sketches, he wrote a more detailed memoir, The Frogmen of Burma (1968). Much of that book’s given over to descriptions of local animals: between missions, Wright studied marine creatures in the Indian Ocean and tangled with snakes, crocodiles and monitor lizards inland.

By Wright’s account, his role on Ramree was relatively limited, performing coastal dives and amphibious beach reconnaissances prior to the invasion. While he recapitulates the earlier book’s crocodile tale, he admits that he wasn’t actually present during the alleged massacre. Instead, Wright heard the story from a British comrade closer to the action, and likely embellished it in his own retelling. Bolstered by Wright’s reputation as a naturalist, this half-believed whopper gained credibility beyond a lay witness’s secondhand description.

Thus Roger Caras, a conservationist generally skeptical of animal horror stories, grants Wright his stamp of approval in his classic study, Dangerous to Man (1964). He calls the Ramree attack “one of the most deliberate and wholesale attacks on man by large animals that is on record.” Caras assures us that “had the story come from a source other than Bruce Wright, I would be tempted to discount it. [But] Bruce Wright, a highly trained professional naturalist, was there at Ramree.” This deference extends to C.A.W. Guggisberg, whose otherwise measured Crocodiles, their Natural History, Folklore and Conservation (1972) dubs Ramree “the biggest man-eating orgy any crocodilians have ever been offered.”

Saltwater Croc
Saltwater crocodile

Despite the story’s persistence, more diligent writers consider it a myth. In his history of the Burma Campaign, Frank McLynn devotes several pages to Ramree. He finds the legend laughable, wondering “if thousands of crocodiles were involved in the massacre…how had these ravening monsters survived before and how were they able to survive later?” Certainly any ecosystem, especially an isolated island swamp, would strain to accommodate enough massive crocodiles to devour a Japanese battalion. Either that, or a handful of crocodiles went on a blood-crazed killing spree, slaying hundreds of heavily armed soldiers with remarkable ease.

Crocodiles have long been imbued with both supernatural powers and unnatural murderousness. The Crocodile Specialist Group, an international herpetologist’s collective, estimates an annual average of 300 attacks (most non-fatal) by Nile crocodiles in Africa and 20-30 by saltwater crocodiles in Asia and Australia. Individual attacks are terrifying enough; how to explain White Back, a saltwater croc who terrorized Sarawak in the ’80s and ’90s, or Gustave, the bullet-scarred Nile crocodile blamed for 300 deaths in Burundi? Sensationalized accounts paint these creatures as serial killers, imbuing them with malice and calculation exceeding their primitive intelligence.

The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), also known as the estuarine crocodile or “saltie,” is a fearsome beast that can grow 23 feet in length and weigh over a ton. They’re certainly capable of eating human beings, though most human victims survive. Whereas most alligators and crocodiles gather in groups (known as basks) for sunbathing and socialization, saltwater crocodiles are extremely territorial. Males fight for solitary control of swamps, ponds and other living spaces, often to the death; humans and animals, too, sometimes fall victim to ornery salties. Nonetheless, attacks on people are less common than with Nile crocodiles, who are more likely to live near inhabited areas.

White Back
White Back, the killer croc of Sarawak

These factors alone seem to debunk Wright’s story. An angry saltwater crocodile attacking, or even eating people tromping through its territory isn’t implausible. But the idea of any large gathering of saltwater crocodiles existing, let alone collaborating in a coordinated, shark-like feeding frenzy against human beings, seems patently absurd. Besides which, even the angriest saltie possesses basic preservation skills: confronted with soldiers armed with rifles, machine guns and grenades, they wouldn’t stand much chance of a sustained assault.

Wright’s account further misleads in implying that 1,000 men entered the swamp that night and only 20 emerged the next day. Operation Matador wasn’t a minor skirmish but a month-long campaign with heavy losses on both sides. While the British initially outflanked Japanese positions by landing at Kyaukpyu, the Japanese withdrew inland, using the hills, forests and swampland as a natural barrier. Not until General Lomax landed Indian troops on the south of the island, effectively surrounding the Japanese garrison, did their position become hopeless. Once the 71st Indian Brigade captured Ramree Town on February 8th, Colonel Kanichi Nagazawa, the Japanese commander, searched for ways to escape.

Per the official British report, by this time “to the Japanese there remained only two alternatives, to stand and fight or to escape from the island by water.” Despite British warships and patrol boats, Kanichi pressed onward, until enemy fire drove his men into swamps on the mainland (notably, not on the actual island). “Dark during the day as well as the night,” the British report continues, “[were] acres of impenetrable forest; miles of deep black mud, mosquitoes, scorpions, flies…and worst of all, crocodiles.” While crocodiles were a concern, it’s clear that the Japanese suffered more from the climate and disease.

Ramree today: outdoor market at Kyaukpyu

In the ’90s, British writer W.O.G. “Bill” Potts reconstructed the battle, interviewing British, Indian and Japanese survivors of Ramree. All recalled the ferocious fighting and inhospitable terrain; none mentioned crocodiles. American herpetologist Steven G. Platt visited Ramree in 2000 and questioned Burmese historians and local residents. A number of islanders, who’d been conscripted as porters by the Imperial Army, recalled the nightmarish march into the swamps, where “fresh water was unavailable and the soldiers were forced to drink brackish water which resulted in severe dehydration. Dysentery and other diseases were rampant among the Japanese, and many succumbed to these privations.”

One of Platt’s subjects claims that crocodiles accounted for some Japanese casualties: “10 to 15 soldiers were killed attempting to ford Min Chaung, a tidal creek near Ramree Town.” Field Marshall Slim, in his memoirs, further recounts that a number of Japanese fell victim to sharks prowling in the channel between the island and the mainland, with British sailors unable (or unwilling) to save them. Such losses proved a minuscule fraction of Japanese losses; it’s likely that Wright heard about these incidents and, whether through careless language or deliberate exaggeration, presented them as a tasty movable feast.

Ramree Temple
The Wiltshire Regiment relaxes at a Ramree temple

Nonetheless, historians estimate 500 of Kanichi’s 1,000 men escaped British encirclement. The “twenty survivors” alluded to by Wright refers to twenty Japanese taken prisoner during the campaign; considering the Japanese Army’s notorious reluctance to surrender, such a low figure shouldn’t be surprising. Instead of 980 men dying in a single, horrifying night, then, 500 Japanese soldiers perished over a period of several weeks – some by disease, drowning or animal attack, most by British gunfire. “The Army and the R.A.F. drove the Japanese off the island into the mangrove swamps,” the British report concludes, “where they were successfully dealt with by the Navy.”

The story may endure, in part, as poetic justice. The Imperial Japanese Army was notoriously brutal in the Second World War, committing atrocities against prisoners of war and occupied civilians alike. Thus, consigning a thousand Japanese to death by crocodile seems a karmic answer to the Rape of Nanking, Bataan Death March and the Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s strangely comforting to think that amidst history’s most destructive war, even man-eating reptiles would choose our side.

Japanese soldiers
Japanese soldiers in China

Then again, mass animal attacks afflicted the Allies as well. In July 1945, a Japanese submarine torpedoed the USS Indianapolis, an American cruiser tasked with delivering the Little Boy atomic bomb (destined for Hiroshima) to Tinian. Due to imposed radio silence, it didn’t send a distress signal and sank, leaving its crew adrift in the Pacific for four days. Only 316 out of 1,195 crewmen survived; most of the dead sailors succumbed to dehydration and exposure, but many were killed by oceanic whitetip and tiger sharks.

The Indianapolis, documented by myriad survivors’ accounts and Captain Charles McVay’s humiliating court martial, then hauntingly recounted in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and other fictional treatments, lingers in the public memory; it also makes Ramree seem superficially plausible. But mass shark attacks are a well-attested phenomenon (being, after all, an extension of feeding frenzy behavior), particularly after shipwrecks and maritime accidents: the British ship Nova Scotia suffered a similar fate several years earlier. A mass crocodile attack like Ramree, in contrast, offers little or no precedent.

That some animals prey on humans is undeniable; that it’s the product of malevolence is a myth, nourished by primal fears that Mankind can’t seem to banish. Or to justify our own depredations against the animal world, whether hunting crocodiles for their skins (Myanmar’s saltie population had, by 2000, been reduced to “a few scattered individuals in the mangrove regions of Rakhine state”), or simply unleashing our own blood lust. In July 2018, a West Papuan man died at the hands of a crocodile, leading villagers to slaughter 300 crocodiles in revenge. By comparison, the mythical monsters of Ramree Island seem positively innocent.

Saltwater Croc2

Sources and Further Reading:

Besides the linked articles, my sources for crocodiles and crocodile behavior are Lynne Kelly, Crocodile: Evolution’s Greatest Survivor (2006) and David Quammen, Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind (2003). For discussions of Ramree, see Roger A. Caras, Dangerous to Man: The Definitive Study of Wildlife’s Reputed Dangers (1975 revised edition; originally published 1964), Frank McLynn, The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph, 1942-1945 (2011) and S.G. Platt, et al, “Man eating by estuarine crocodiles: The Ramree Island massacre revisited” (Herpetological Bulletin 75, March 2001). For the Battle of Ramree, I relied on McLynn and Vice Admiral Sir Arthur J. Power’s official dispatches, available here. The website provides information on the island’s history, culture and economy.

Special thanks to Troubled by Nouns for providing the Platt article, and my friend Tayla for the conversation which inspired this article.