Is the Ramree Island Crocodile Massacre a Myth?

By: Dave Roos  | 

Ramree Island troops
Troops of the 15th Indian corps land on Ramree Island off the coast of Burma during World War II, February 1945 Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

In early 1945, as part of the Pacific War during World War II, Allied forces pinned down 1,000 Japanese soldiers in a mangrove swamp off the coast of Burma (now Myanmar). Only 20 of the Japanese fighters made it out alive. The rest were reportedly eaten alive by hordes of prehistoric-looking saltwater crocodiles. According to one Allied commander:

"That night was the most horrible that any member of the M. L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced. 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."

This horrific event is known as the Ramree Island crocodile massacre, and in 1968 the Guinness Book of World Records awarded it the dubious distinction of "most human fatalities in a crocodile attack" at roughly 900 dead.

But in recent decades, historians and herpetologists have cast doubt on the ghastly tale. While it's clear that scores of Japanese soldiers died in the battle for Ramree Island, there's no mention of a "crocodile massacre" in official military reports (either British or Japanese), and saltwater crocodiles aren't known for "feeding frenzies" of this scale, especially on live human prey.

So where did this apocryphal tale come from, and how did it spread so far and wide?

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The Origins of the "Ramree Island Massacre"

The gruesome passage quoted above was written by Bruce S. Wright, a Royal Canadian Lieutenant Commander credited with inventing the idea of "frogmen units," SCUBA-diving soldiers who could spy on the enemy from the water.

In 1945, Wright took part in the joint British and Indian assault on Ramree Island, which the Allies hoped to capture from the Japanese and use as a strategic airfield. As the leader of his frogman unit, Wright's job was to perform reconnaissance, but he also spent hours documenting the local sea life, which included sharks and octopi. After the war, Wright became a respected wildlife biologist and author.

Interestingly, it may have been Wright's clout as a naturalist that helped launch the myth of the crocodile massacre into the public imagination.

Wright wrote his one-paragraph account of the killer crocodiles in his 1962 book, "Wildlife Sketches: Near and Far." But then the story was picked up by another scientist, the conservationist Roger Caras. In his 1964 book "Dangerous to Man," Caras called the Ramree incident "one of the most deliberate and wholesale attacks on man by large animals that is on record." Caras admits that "had the story come from a source other than Bruce Wright, I would be tempted to discount it. [But] Bruce Wright, a highly trained professional naturalist, was there at Ramree."

The problem is that while Wright was technically at Ramree, he wasn't among the witnesses who claimed to have heard the cries of the Japanese as they were mauled by the giant crocodiles. According to a later retelling of the story in his memoir "The Frogmen of Burma," Wright heard the story from British comrades on the boat crews patrolling the island.

If you read the passage closely, you see that Wright never said that he personally witnessed the massacre. "That night was the most horrible that any member of the M. L. [motor launch] crews ever experienced," wrote Wright using the third person. But it's precisely because of Wright's reputation as a careful observer of the natural world that his secondhand (and likely embellished) account was accepted as fact.

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Are Saltwater Crocodiles Man-eaters?

Yes, the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), also known as the estuarine crocodile, is one of two crocodile species that "regularly prey on humans," according to herpetologist Steven Platt.

Saltwater crocodiles can grow to lengths of 23 feet (7 meters) and weigh more than a ton (0.9 metric tons), and unlike alligators and smaller crocodiles, saltwater crocs will aggressively defend their territory and snack on the occasional human. Every year, dozens of people are killed by saltwater crocodiles, like the unfortunate 8-year-old girl who was attacked and eaten in front of her friends in Indonesia in 2021.

How common are saltwater crocodile attacks? In 2015, there were 180 total crocodile attacks in Southeast Asia, coastal India and Oceania — the regions where saltwater crocs live — and 79 of those were fatal.

Given that fewer than 100 people are killed by saltwater crocodiles each year across all of Southeast Asia and Oceania, what are the odds that 900 Japanese soldiers could have been eaten alive by ravenous crocodiles in a matter of weeks — much less during one horrific night — on one small island?

Historian Frank McLynn, in his book on the battle for Burma, concluded that the Ramree Island crocodile massacre "offends every single canon of historical verifiability" and also defies ecological logic. "If 'thousands of crocodiles' were involved in the massacre," McLynn asks (according to this account in The Avocado) "how had these ravening monsters survived before and how were they able to survive later?"

saltwater crocodile
A saltwater crocodile looks for dinner. Saltwater crocs are the most aggressive types of crocodiles.
Bill Birtwhistle/Getty Images

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Piecing Together the Real Story of Ramree Island

If the 900 Japanese soldiers weren't gobbled up by crocodiles, as reported by Wright, then how did they die?

Well, for starters, the Japanese didn't lose 900 soldiers at Ramree. According to two investigations — one by the National Geographic show "Nazi World War Weird" and another by herpetologist Steven Platt — roughly 500 of the original 1,000 Japanese soldiers were able to escape the mangrove swamps alive. That information was found in the Japanese military archives. (Note that the battle took place over a month and was not an overnight event.)

That still leaves 500 Japanese soldiers dead on Ramree, but very few of them, if any, were victims of crocodiles. According to local Burmese villagers who were alive during the battle for Ramree, including some who were conscripted by the Japanese military, most of the Japanese casualties in the swamp were due to dehydration and disease caused by exposure and lack of clean food and water.

So, what were those terrifying sounds that British boat patrols reportedly heard on that fateful night in February of 1945? There might be an answer for that, too. According to British military records accessed by the National Geographic investigation, in the early hours of Feb. 18, 1945, the Allies discovered a "desperate attempt" by hundreds of Japanese soldiers to swim across a channel separating Ramree Island from the Burmese mainland.

"Except for a few swimmers, it's doubtful that any survived the crossing," reads the official British report (according to the National Geographic show). "It's estimated that at least 100 Japanese were killed or drowned that night ... 200 killed is regarded as a conservative estimate — about 40 loaded boats were known to have sunk. Possibly another 50 Japanese died in the mangrove from exposure and want of food and water. 14 prisoners were taken."

This was most likely the real Ramree Island massacre, one perpetrated by human soldiers in an awful war, and not by bloodthirsty predators.

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Was the Crocodile Massacre Entirely Made Up?

Even though the vast majority of the Japanese casualties at Ramree Island were from conventional causes, there is some credence to the crocodile story.

When Steven Platt's team interviewed local villagers, they said that 10 to 15 Japanese soldiers may have been attacked and killed by crocodiles as they tried to swim the channel. Another Allied commander reported that the escaping Japanese soldiers fell victim to naval patrols — and sharks — while attempting to reach the mainland. So, there's evidence that at least some soldiers were killed by large predators lurking in the water.

And then there's this gruesome clue to the origin of the Ramree Island myth. The morning after the Allied forces mowed down hundreds of escaping Japanese soldiers, the British military noticed the arrival of some opportunistic hunters to feed on the dead.

"The next day presented a grim appearance to add to the horror of the scene," says the official British report. "Crocodiles previously reported as rarely seen appeared on the channel banks in increasing numbers."

Special thanks to Christopher Saunders and his article at The Avocado debunking the Ramree Island myth.

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