September 2007

It Could Be Worse: You Could Be Dinner

Author: Craig Hysell

We all have those days when life is just a big pain in that one side of our moon. Things don’t go our way: unexpected bills arrive in the mail; someone tries to dash our dreams on the rocks of their reality; and other such like-minded “pleasantries” come at us like a semi-truck through a house of cards. We need a pick-me-up. We need a true reality check. We need to know that it could be worse. We could have been part of the most notorious crocodile attack in history.

The Japanese at Ramree Island

Ramree Island sits off the coast of Myanmar (Burma), next to India, flanked by Thailand and China, and looks a lot like Hilton Head’s other shoe. As World War II drew to a close, the fifty mile long by twenty mile wide island became the target of the British Fourteenth Army and their wish to establish sea-supplied air bases there. The Japanese soldiers garrisoned at Ramree had other ideas.

For six weeks in January and February of 1945, fierce battles raged across the spit of rock. But no one was truly ready for the horrors of war to get as horrible as they were about to on January 26.

After putting up a strong resistance, 900 to 1,000 Japanese soldiers found themselves outflanked by the Royal Marines. They abandoned their base in an effort to join a larger battalion of their Imperial comrades on the other side of the island. In their way lay 10 miles of mangrove swamp, full of scorpions, snakes, tropical diseases and thousands of saltwater crocodiles, ranging anywhere from 15 to 21 feet long, some weighing over two-thousand pounds. The Japanese were about to get waist-deep in the land of dinosaurs. The pain would be medieval.

Saltwater crocodiles, or “salties,” spend their wet season in swamps and move downstream to estuaries in the dry season. Males are the bigger of the species and are fiercely territorial, driving smaller crocs or juveniles out to sea, which most likely explains why the salties’ habitat ranges from the east coast of India to the Northern Territory of Australia.

They are ambush predators, can remain unseen in shin-deep water and can reach speeds of 18 mph underwater in short bursts. The saltwater crocodile does most of its feeding at night, kills its prey by clamping down on it, dragging it under water and rolling it over and over until it drowns. Death is obviously painful, terrifying and does not happen quickly. The crocs have been known to attack and kill fully-grown water buffaloes as well as kangaroos, boars, sharks and humans.

The British surrounded the swamp, continually calling for the Japanese to surrender, which, under Japan’s warrior code of bushido, the Japanese could not do and keep their honor. If they tried to escape, they were shot. How being eaten alive rather than surrendering in a war that was more than likely already lost is a secret those starving and exhausted soldiers took to their grave and begs the question: Where does the line between courage and stupidity lie?

For five days, the Japanese slogged through the swamp that teemed with these apex predators without food or water. Most of them were feasted on by mosquitoes, jungle rot and scorpions before they were dragged underwater screaming, drowned and devoured by the mammoth saltwater crocodiles—a species of animal that hasn’t changed much since the prehistoric age.

Of the roughly 1,000 men who went into the swamp, 20 came out alive. The rest were dinner.

Although this number has been refuted over time, the Guinness Book of World Records still lists the events at Ramree Island under “The Greatest Disaster Suffered from Animals.” So look at it this way, if you weren’t going hungry, dying from thirst and dysentery or malaria as your skin rotted off your body before you were eaten alive by a modern day dinosaur after watching all your friends die the same way today, it’s possible that things could be worse…

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