War can be terrifying enough when humans are the only combatants. Imagine how much worse it can be when nature takes sides. Such was the case during the Battle of Ramree Island when more soldiers were slaughtered by saltwater crocodiles than by enemy bullets.
Ramree Island is located off the coast of Burma. It was captured by the Japanese in 1942, but the British Imperial Navy determined to reclaim it. The Battle of Ramree Island began on January 14, 1945. The fighting was primarily confined to the coastlands for the first couple of weeks. On February 1, when British forces captured a strategic Japanese stronghold, the 900 Japanese defenders were ordered to abandon their positions and join with their comrades on the other side of the island. To get to them, they would need to trek through 16 km (9.9 mi) of mangrove swamp.
The British remained outside the swamp, encircling it, and trusting that what awaited their enemy inside was worse than anything any Allied forces could inflict. The thick swamp was an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes, so it wasn’t long before tropical disease worked its way through the waterlogged troops.
It wasn’t just the disease, mosquitoes, and scorpion that lurked in the swamp. Even more deadly and terrifying were its largest residents: saltwater crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptiles in the world. Typical male specimens can reach 17 feet (5.18 meters) long and 1,000 pounds (453.6 kilograms). It is not unusual for the larger ones to reach 23 feet (7 meters) and 2,200 pounds (nearly 1,000 kilograms). The mangrove swamp of Ramree Island was a haven for the massive, horrifying creatures, and all they had to do was wait for the Japanese soldiers to come to them.
To make matters worse, saltwater crocodiles are largely nocturnal. Imagine the horror of being under fire, having already fought nonstop for two weeks, spending your day slugging through the thick swamp, fighting mosquitoes, scorpions, and malaria. Then, just as it gets dark and you lose what little ability you had to see your surroundings, the crocodile attacks begin.
In his 1962 book Wildlife Sketches Near and Far, British soldier Bruce Stanley Wright recorded his eyewitness account:
“That night [of Feb. 19, 1945] was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. The crocodiles, alerted by the din of warfare and smell of blood, gathered among the mangroves, lying with their eyes above the water, watchfully alert for their next meal. With the ebb of the tide, the crocodiles moved in on the dead, wounded, and uninjured men who had become mired in the mud…
The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of the 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.”
Captain Eric Bush of the Royal Navy described the hazardous condition in the mangroves in a report submitted to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty on May 2, 1945:
“Disadvantages to the Japanese lay in the indescribable horrors of the mangrove swamps. Dark during the day as well as during the night, acres of thick impenetrable forest; miles of deep black mud, mosquitoes, scorpions, flies and weird insects by the billion and—worst of all—crocodiles. No food, no drinking water to be obtained anywhere. It can hardly be possible that in their decision to quit the Island the Japanese could have been fully aware of the appalling conditions which prevailed. It proved to be beyond even their endurance to exist for more than a few days. Prisoners taken out of the mangroves during the operations were found to be semi-dehydrated and in a very low physical condition.”
The estimates of Japanese deaths from the crocodiles range from 500 to over 900. Of the nearly 1,000 Japanese soldiers who started the march across the swamps, only about twenty were taken as prisoners. The rest were either killed in battle or met their end in the “cacophony of hell” that Wright described.
In 1962 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized the Battle of Ramree Island as the “worst crocodile disaster in the world” and “the most number of fatalities in a crocodile attack.” This record stood, undisputed for half a century. In recent years, however, some historians have cast doubt on the true number of fatalities due to crocodiles. As a result, the 2017 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records added a question mark after the entry “Worst Crocodile Attack in History,” noting that questions have been raised about the full extent of the massacre.
Regardless of the actual number of victims of the crocodile massacre, there can be no doubt that the Battle of Ramree Island must be recognized as one of the most horrifying experiences anyone would ever have to endure. The saltwater crocodile showed itself the true conqueror of the disputed island and earned itself a place among animals that shaped history.
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