The horrific crocodile massacre of Ramree Island

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Located right off the coast of the Rakhine State, Myanmar, Ramree Island and its white beaches and swaying palms are the perfect slice of heaven that every island should be. However, its infamous place in the history books comes from eyewitness reports of an animals-gone-wild style massacre during World War II. Also known as Rakhine State, Myanmar, strategically placed at the tip of the Bay of Bengal, Ramree Island was famously thought over during WW2 by the British and the Japanese. More recently it is the location for a Deep-Sea Port, pipeline and train line linking the Indian Ocean to China. The area of the island is about 1,350 square kilometres and the main populated centre is Ramree. The island is also known by Yangbye or Yanbye Island (Burmese).

The island is separated from the mainland by a narrow canal-like strait, which is only 150 metres wide in average. There is a bridge over the strait connecting the island with the continental shore. Originally, the island was a trading post for the Kingdom of Mrauk-U, with fishing villages spread across it. The island is also the location of a gas pipeline system that transports oil and gas from the Indian Ocean coast to the province of Yunnan in China. From a deep-water port on Kyaukphyu in Rakhine State and from Ramree Island, oil from the Middle East and gas from Myanmar’s ocean coast is transported through the pipelines to China. The pipelines enable China to rely less on ocean-transported oil and gas through the treacherous Strait of Malacca and also cut two weeks off the transport time. The pipeline transport fees are a source of revenue for the Burmese government, on top of the sale of the gas.

The mangrove forests of Ramree Island are home to thousands of saltwater crocodiles which are recognized as the most magnificent reptiles in the world. The largest of all crocodilian species, these crocodiles are not only deadly, but they are aggressive and known to attack people who enter their natural habitat. These prehistoric holdovers can grow to more than 20 feet and 2,000 pounds in some cases, and although examples that size are rare, even a midsize crocodile of the species could easily kill a full-grown adult human. In addition, saltwater crocodiles are far from a misunderstood monster. The crocodiles have a long history of attacking humans who wander into their habitats, seeing them as little more than taller, more awkward prey.

During World War II, Ramree Island was the site of a number of military battles, but the truly terrifying action began after the military manoeuvres ended. Ramree Island, a small muddy landmass on the Burma coast, caught the eye of British military forces that wished to create a supply point for troops operating on the mainland. The uncultivated island had no harbour; British soldiers were dropped on the beaches by landing craft. Their task was to capture the island from occupying Japanese troops in order to build an airfield. The Japanese army had captured the island during the invasion of Burma in 1942 and the British Army decided to recapture Ramree island 70 miles from the south of Akyab (Now Sittwe). The British forces wanted to build an airbase in Ramree Island to launch more attacks against Japanese forces in Burma and Malaysia. Exactly on January 26, thousands of British troops surrounded the island resulting in a weird and exhausting battle that was fought for more than six weeks. They had to drive off the Japanese invasion force that had already claimed the island. After a bloody but successful campaign against the Japanese. The Japanese force got split into two groups, and one group of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers got isolated. They had no way to reach the safety of the larger army and were trapped. But the soldiers never learned to surrender or accept defeat. Then they decided to make their way through a mangrove swamp and started their eight-mile journey. That is when things worsened. They had no clue of what they were going to face. The mangrove swamp was covered with thick mud, which made the journey slow-going. The Allies knew what their enemy was going to face — a natural death trap full of crocodiles. Soon after entering the mudhole, the Japanese soldiers started yielding diseases. Dehydration and starvation were weakening them. Spiders, poisonous snakes, and scorpions were hidden in the thick forest. When they got deeper into the swamp, crocodiles appeared.

So, when nearly 1,000 panicked soldiers came dripping blood and sweat into the cramped confines of the Ramree mangrove swamp, the toothy monsters likely had the feast of their lives. Crocodiles, nocturnal predators, struck at night-time shortly after the Japanese entered the mangrove swamp. Eyewitness Bruce Stanley Wright recalled in his 1962 book, “Wildlife Sketches Near and Far,” that the crocodiles began gathering among the mangrove trees during the battle and moved in as the tide ebbed, targeting Japanese soldiers stuck in the mud or trapped near the water’s edge.  Only a few days after entering the mangrove swamp, the surviving Japanese surrendered. Aside from the crocodiles, lack of food and drinking water made it impossible for the soldiers to endure. Out of 1,000 soldiers, only 480 managed to survive. More than likely, most Japanese victims were men too sick or wounded to continue or those stuck in the mud. Many of the Japanese soldiers died of other causes like disease and starvation. When this Japanese army came out of the swamp, 20 of them were eventually recaptured by the British forces who had set up a perimeter around the thick wilderness. All the rest died in the ten miles of swamp, making what happened at Ramree island the worst recorded instance of crocodiles preying on humans. The survivors told horrific tales of dozens of crocodiles attacking the soldiers en masse and appearing seemingly out of nowhere to drag off some poor soul. The nights were said to have been filled with dire screams, gunfire, and the sounds of animal attacks.

The exact number of men killed by crocodiles remains a mystery. British survivors of the battle estimated that about 1,000 Japanese were attacked by the giant reptiles—a claim which gave rise to sensational stories and has been disputed by historian. Despite the numerical debates, the fact remains that Japanese combatants were killed by crocodiles while resisting British troops. Crocodiles were an environmental hazard in many battlegrounds across Southeast Asia and the Pacific. British soldiers in India and Burma took measures to protect themselves from ambushes by freshwater crocodiles during manoeuvres across inland canals and waterways.

The story of the Ramree massacre was reported in a number of papers, but the tale is still largely apocryphal. However, this has not stopped the Guinness Book of World Records from crediting the incident with the “Most Number of Fatalities in a Crocodile Attack.” A dubious distinction for a horrible event, no matter the real numbers.

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