How a thousand retreating Japanese troops were eaten by crocodiles in Burma

ramree island crocodile
Ramree Island Saltwater crocodile.

The Burma Campaign is an often overlooked front of WWII, but it’s an area filled with interesting stories and incredible heroics. The Battle of Ramree Island might be the most interesting story of the war. For just about six weeks in the beginning of 1945, 6,000 British and Indian forces invaded the 100 square mile island with the goal of capturing its port and airfield from its 1,000 Japanese defenders. Naval and air forces strafed, bombed and shelled the Japanese before the British landings. The Japanese garrison would abandon its defenses and attempt an escape through a mangrove swamp – few would survive.

The British effort in Burma was a masterstroke for Gen. William Slim. Attacking Burma’s Japanese garrison of 100,000 men with just 21,000 of his own, he used his superior logistics and mobility to reduce the Japanese to pockets of resistance that were undersupplied and often starving. Concentrated forces were attacked and the British stayed on the offensive.

His plan required the ability to reinforce and supply pockets of his own men via the air, even when they might be surrounded. Ramree Island’s port, airfield, and proximity to the mainland would give his air forces range over nearly the entire country, including Mandalay, the central plains and the capital of Yangon. 

The fighting on both sides of the campaign was brutal. The British and Indian forces matched the Japanese brutality in conquering the country. Japanese forces took no prisoners and those that were wounded were killed by their comrades in line with the bushido code. On Ramree Island, the British were able to fight the Japanese into another pocket, a pocket that looked as if it might collapse at any moment. 

Rather than massacre the defenders of the island, the commander of the British force, Gen. Cyril Lomax, sent the Japanese a surrender demand. Surrender was not an option for the defenders, so they hatched a plan to slip away from the enemy in the middle of the night. The British had been fighting the Japanese for so long, they knew a surrender was unlikely, so they watch the Japanese and shadowed their movements at all times. This is how they know what happened next. 

Battle of Ramree island troops
British troops in a landing craft make their way ashore on Ramree Island, 21 January 1945.

On February 19, 1945, around 1,000 Japanese soldiers slipped away from the battle via the island’s impassible mangrove swamps. In the dark, with no boats and through waist-deep water and mud, the Japanese garrison attempted its escape. The deep mud and tangles of mangrove roots kept the force moving at a snail’s pace. On top of that, they had to deal with scorpions, clouds of mosquitoes, and the most important factor they hadn’t considered: saltwater crocodiles.

Saltwater crocodiles are the largest reptiles on Earth. They can be as big as 23 feet long and weigh upwards of more than a ton. They have the highest bite pressure of any animal in the world and are fairly indiscriminate when it comes to what they will attack and eat. The Japanese either didn’t know this included humans or they didn’t care. Either way, they entered the animals’ kingdom with a cavalier attitude and paid the price for it. British troops followed the Japanese column in motor launches and in the night, they could hear the crocodile massacre that unfolded. 

“That night was the most horrible that any member of the Motor Launch crews ever experienced,” wrote Bruce Stanley Wright, a veteran of the campaign and a naturalist. “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.”