Films tell story of WWII elephant rescue in Burma

AP News
|
Posted: Nov 01, 2010 6:53 PM
Films tell story of WWII elephant rescue in Burma

British tea planter Gyles Mackrell organized one of the most remarkable rescue missions during World War II _ by using elephants when nothing else would do.

Now researchers have released new information that tells, for the first time, the full story of Mackrell's successful effort to use the animals to evacuate hundreds of desperate Burmese refugees stranded by a rain-swollen river. On Monday, Britain's Cambridge University put online a video shot by Mackrell, which together with his diaries and other documents brings to life a feat that with time had faded from public memory.

The material explains how Mackrell, who spent most of his life working as a planter for a tea company in British India, came to the aid of masses of people desperate to escape Burma as the Japanese army advanced. Through his work, he had access to elephants _ the only safe way to cross the roiling Dapha river at the Indian border.

Tens of thousands of the refugees _ many sick and starving _ had trekked for hundreds of miles through dense jungle in the hope of reaching the Indian border. But by May 1942, those who made it to the border were trapped by monsoons that had turned the Dapha into a torrent.

Mackrell's diaries show that he collected some elephants to travel to the river soon after receiving a call for help from a group of refugees on June 4, 1942. His party rode the elephants for about 100 miles (160 kilometers) before finally reaching the river bank _ only to find themselves helpless as they saw that fierce flood waters had trapping Burmese soldiers on river islands.

"On reaching the bank on a big tusker I discovered a number of men on an island surrounded by high and very fierce water," Mackrell, aged 53 at the time, wrote in his diary. "They signaled wildly and made signs to show us they were starving. I made several attempts to get over but it was utterly impossible."

The video shows Mackrell's elephants flailing against the power of the river, up to their eyes in water and struggling to move forward.

Mackrell and his men were about to give up when, the next morning, the waters retreated briefly and he saw an opportunity for his elephants to transport the men to safety.

"Rungdot, a Kampti elephant was the first to be ready and ... by 7 a.m. he was back in camp with the first three refugees," he wrote on June 10, 1942. "The others came in a few at a time and by midday we had the whole 68."

In the weeks that followed, Mackrell and his colleagues set up camp by the Dapha and helped 200 people cross the river.

His exploits were reported in the British press at the time _ Mackrell was dubbed "The Elephant Man" _ but it wasn't until his family donated the video, his diaries and other accounts by some of those rescued to Cambridge University that the story could be told in full.

"Without the help of Mackrell and others like him, hundreds of people fleeing the Japanese advance would quite simply never have made it," said Kevin Greenbank, an archivist at Cambridge's Center of South Asian Studies.

The donated collection of material will give researchers a new opportunity to study the rescue efforts organized by Mackrell and others like him who helped saved many people during the summer of 1942, Greenbank said.

Annamaria Motrescu, a research associate at the center, said Mackrell was embarrassed by the attention at the time but his story deserves new prominence now.

"It's a remarkable story of courage, spirit and ingenuity that took place at a time when no one was sure what the consequences of the war in the Far East would be. It deserves to be remembered."

___

Online:

The film, "The Elephant Man," at http://www.youtube.com/cambridgeuniversity