Western Europe, the Eastern Front, and the Pacific Rim are probably the most notable World War II battlegrounds. But as most of us know, the war expanded well beyond those area. Burma (now Myanmar) was home to three and a half years of fighting, after which the United Kingdom, China, and the United States ended up winning a ping-pong-like back and forth over Imperial Japan and some of its local allies. Over the course of these forty-two months, as many as 140,000 Japanese soldiers died.
Four hundred of them were eaten by crocodiles.
Saltwater crocodiles, like the one pictured above, are the world’s largest living reptiles, with males weighing as much as 2,000 pounds and extending twenty feet long. Typically, these crocodiles lay dormant, but are known to exhibit incredible bursts of speed over short distances in order to attack their prey. And they will eat anything which comes into their territory — they’ve been known to eat water buffalo, monkeys, sharks, and, as the British and Japanese soldiers would soon discover, people.
In late 1944, Allied forces attempted to reoccupy Burma, which had fallen into Japanese control over the previous two years. As part of this campaign, in January of 1945, British troops attacked Ramree Island off the Burmese mainland. (Here’s a map.) The British forces overwhelmed a garrison of approximately 900 Japanese soldiers and demanded that the Japanese surrender. But the Japanese declined, instead retreating to a larger fortification about ten miles away. To get there, the retreating troops needed to traverse mud-filled swamps — home to mosquitoes, scorpions, and thousands upon thousands of saltwater crocodiles.
British forces surrounded the swamps overnight, in hopes of capturing the fleeing solders. They captured only twenty — most of the Japanese soldiers instead took their chances navigating through the inhospitable swampland. One report claims that 500 of the other 900 or so escaped, making their way to the stronghold across the swampland. Another source asserts that none of the non-captured soldiers survived. But either way, scores of Japanese soldiers turned into a crocodile’s meal, many eaten alive while fighting in vain to keep the marsh beasts at bay with their rifles.
This morbid feat earned the fallen soldiers a piece of history; the Guinness Book of Records lists their death as “the Greatest Disaster Suffered [by Humans] from Animals.”
Bonus fact: General Joseph Stilwell commanded the U.S. troops in Burma, India, and China during World War II, but the operational command structure of that theater of war, for the Allies, was left to the UK in Burma and India, and to China itself for campaigns in China. At one point early in the Burma campaign, things were not going well for Stilwell’s forces — when he received a communication from Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of China’s forces (and, in some sense, Stilwell’s boss). According to “Stilwell and the American Experience in China,” a Pulitzer Prize winning biography, t>he letter promised supplies for the beleaguered Americans: one watermelon for every four men. (Stilwell was less than pleased.)
From the Archives: The Aptly Named Snake Island: Another place you probably don’t want to visit.
Related: If you had to imagine an army of crocodiles, you’d probably come up with something like this. According to the product features, it is “historically accurate,” somehow.