There are stories of horror that surround any war, yet World War II in particular is surrounded by stories of atrocities. But one of the most shocking losses of life that took place during World War II wasn't caused by fighting. In fact, crocodiles were at the heart of this tragedy.
The Allies and the Japanese troops had been engaged in battle for six weeks. The Allies managed to gain an advantage and flushed about 1,000 Japanese soldiers out of hiding. These troops attempted to escape, intending to travel across Ramree Island to meet up with a larger Japanese battalion on the other side.
In choosing to trek through the swamp, the soldiers made a monumental mistake. The pressure they felt from the Allied troops forced them to stray from familiar territory. And though the soldiers saw the swamp as a possible route to survival, their decision actually led to the end of most of their lives.
What the Japanese troops weren't aware of was the fact that the swamps were populated by saltwater crocodiles. Saltwater crocodiles can grow to be more than 20 feet long. They can also weigh over one ton, each.
Saltwater crocodiles are powerful predators. They're surprisingly fast, especially when they're in the water. The fact that their nostrils are on the top of their heads allows the crocodiles to float near the surface where they're almost impossible to spot. From that position, crocodiles can still breathe and smell, and can quickly lunge out of the water to catch prey.
The crocodiles attacked the Japanese at night, creating a scene of utter chaos and terror. The soldiers, who were already exhausted, didn't stand a chance when they found themselves surrounded by crocodiles. Those who did survive described how soldiers were attacked from all directions, and that they were forced to fire back blindly, not being able to see the crocodiles.
Naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright described the horrific attack in his book, Wildlife Sketches Near and Far. Wright wrote:
"That night was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [marine launch] crews ever experienced. The crocodiles, alerted by the din of warfare and the smell of blood, gathered among the mangroves, lying with their eyes above 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 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 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive."
Estimates of just how many soldiers died vary, but most people agree that the crocodiles caused massive death. The Guinness Book of World Records dubbed the attack as being the "Most Number of Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack." The fate that awaited the soldiers in the swamp was likely far worse than what awaited them in the hands of the Allies.
War is full of tragedies. Returning soldiers can speak of horrific events, and serving as a soldier is a life-changing event. And despite the terrible violence that humans are capable of exerting, the crocodile attack of Ramree Island remains one of the most startling events of World War II.