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VIDEO: Cornish hero Elephant Bill who rescued refugees in Burma during WWII is the inspiration for new book

By CMJohannaCarr  |  Posted: January 18, 2013

  • Screengrab of the film made by Gyles Mackrell. He filmed his elephants and his men marching through the jungle and struggling to cross torrential waters and rescue 200 people.

  • Screengrab of the film made by Gyles Mackrell. He filmed his elephants and his men marching through the jungle and struggling to cross torrential waters and rescue 200 people.

  • Elephant Bill about to operate on a dangerous tusker.

  • Book cover of Elephant Moon

  • Elephant Moon author John Sweeney

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It is a story that captures the imagination – a brave Cornish hero in a foreign land, majestic animals of the jungle and rescues from certain tragedy.

No wonder BBC Panorama reporter John Sweeney was fascinated by the tale of St Just's Elephant Bill during his time in Burma.

In fact Mr Sweeney was so "enraptured" by James Williams' account of his work in the south east Asian country he has decided to write a novel – Elephant Moon – about  it and that of another famous elephant man.

The 54-year-old journalist said: "It is based on the elephant men of Burma and the greatest of those was Elephant Bill. I have always loved the story and I loved him as a story teller."

"He was great fun and people liked him, you can tell from the way he tells the story."

Lt Col  Williams who was known as Elephant Bill was born in St Just in 1897 to a Cornish mining engineer and a Welsh mother.

He served in the Devonshire Regiment of the British Army during the First World War.

Christine GendallI of the St Leven History Group, who has researched his life, said that after the war he managed to gain employment as a forester with the Bombay – Burma Trading Company where elephants were used to transport teak.

Here he was in charge of the giant animals and their riders and he learnt about their care.

She said: "In 1942 Williams used elephants to help to evacuate European women and children, including his own family, from Burma, when the Japanese invaded the country. He then joined the staff of the Eastern Army as elephant advisor to the Elephant Company of the Royal Indian Engineers. He was a Burmese speaker and was renowned for his care of the elephants."

Williams returned to west Cornwall to live in 1946 after 25 years in Burma and in 1950 he published the book Elephant Bill.

It was this book that inspired Mr Sweeney to take a closer look at the elephant men of Burma but he was still struggling to write a fictional account of the time.

He said: "I sat down and wrote something around 2000 but it did not quite gel in my head. I did not quite know how to focus the book."

It was not until he found out about another inspirational character – Gyles Mackrell – that the book came to life.

Mackrell, was a tea planter, whose elephants were used to bring tea down from the slopes and he made a film of  his elephants braving a raging torrent to save refugees fleeing from the Japanese.

Mr Sweeney added:"One of the books I read told this story of this orphanage and these kids whose mums are Burmese and their dads are British and American, who once the Japanese invaded are not white enough to be evacuated but they are too white to be safe once the Japanese arrive.

"I thought rather than make the centre if the story the elephant men, I will make the centre of the story the kids.

"I've taken strands from both real-life stories for my novel."

Williams died in 1958, aged 62, following surgery for appendicitis at West Cornwall Hospital, Penzance.

Elephant Moon by John Sweeney is published by Silvertail Books, priced £18.99 but is available on Amazon Kindle for £1.99.

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