Elephant Company

ElephantCompany_Trade“This book is about far more than just the war, or even elephants. This is the story of friendship, loyalty and breathtaking bravery that transcends species… A sweeping tale, masterfully written”

–Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants
in The New York Times Book Review

The remarkable story of James Howard “Billy” Williams and his bond with the elephants of Burma. In 1920, Williams took a job in the teak business, drawn by the lure of working with the world’s largest land animals.  It was love at first sight.

Impressed with their intelligence, courage, kindness, and humor, he believed that just living with them made him a better man. He worked to cure their ills and he fought for their humane care. Over time, Williams’s uncanny rapport with the elephants transformed him from a carefree young man into the charismatic war hero known as Elephant Bill.

1st clan of elephants

What’s an elephant stairway? Vicki Croke tells the most dramatic story from “Elephant Company”–when the enormous animals did something miraculous–they scaled a sheer cliff. Have a listen on Snap Judgment:


Vicki talks with John Harwood on NPR’s On Point:



33 thoughts on “Elephant Company

  1. I have just finished Elephant Company and wanted to thank you for this extraordinary book. It allowed me to remember my first trip to Thailand and the (staged) demonstration of the elephants moving huge teak logs around. The life and experiences of Jim Williams are so noteworthy and noble that I am glad you took the time to write them down with such sensitivity and insight.

    David M. Carlson, Ph.D.
    Irvine CA

  2. Just finished reading Elephant Company and just loved it. Thank-you for writing about this great story.
    Linda McHugh
    Quebec, Canada

  3. I have just finished listening to Vicki Croke reading an excerpt from “Elephant Company” on American Public Media, carried in my area by KUHF-FM in Houston TX. I was absolutely enthralled. I love stories like this, and this one reminds me of Dr. Alan Rabinowitz and his bond with the big cats. I almost never listen to NPR at 1 PM on a Saturday, but today it was still on after Weekend Edition and I feel incredibly lucky to have heard this remarkable story about Bill and Bandoola. Likewise, I never listen to the radio at 6 AM on a Sunday, and can’t explain how my radio came on at that ungodly hour one morning last year, but I spent a most wonderful hour listening to OnBeing with Krista Tippett interviewing Dr. Rabinowitz. These two unlikely events make me wonder about coincidence vs. synchronicity. I’m a teacher of 5th & 6th graders in a Jewish school, and my students share my love for animals and nature. They love it when I read parts of the transcript from OnBeing, and they’re going to love it this year when read from my copy of “Elephant Company” which I’m going to order from Amazon.com as soon as I’m finished with this email! Thank you NPR and APM for your excellent programming.
    Pat Rose

  4. I have read Elephant Bill and spent a lot of time in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka, India and Sumatra the past decade. My travels are all about elephants and the people whose lives are so entwined with theirs and heard Vickie Croke read from Elephant Company just now. I, too, will be ordering my copy of this book as soon as I finish this email.
    Thank you for introducing NPR’s public to a truly magnificent creature whose future is in our hands!
    Linda Reifschneider, President
    Asian Elephant Support http://www.asianelephantsupport.org

  5. After all the stories of cruelty among people of late, it was very comforting to hear the story of caring people working so closely with elephants. Thank you so much Vicki for bringing this tale to life.

  6. Exciting, gripping book. I was not on the disastrous, evacuation “death” treks retreating into India but lost one cousin on southern route. Still have three surviviors who were on the southern and central routes into India.

  7. Elephant Company resonated with me as I lived in Burma for five years as a child. When the Japanese invaded my father walked out of Burma to India on a similar route to that of Elephant Bill. Unfortunately he was alone much of the time and suffered terribly with malaria, lack of food and water not to mention the grueling march through jungle and over mountains. You have described Burma depicting the settings with amazing detail and accuracy.

  8. Thank you for your fascinating, riveting, and wonderfully written and illustrated book. The astonishing feat of “The Elephant Stairway” puts me in mind of Ernest Shackleton’s equally astonishing feat of rescue in the South Atlantic in 1916, as recounted by Caroline Alexander in her wonderful book The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.

    On page 218 in your book, you mention the bungalow called “East Knoll” which Susan and Treve Williams shared “with another woman, Mrs. Robertson and her two small sons.” I was the younger of the two and have a distant memory of Treve and Shillong. My elder brother Struan, who lives in Scotland, would remember more. At the time of the Japanese invasion, my father owned McGregor & Co. with teak operations in Rangoon and Prome, where we were born.

    Peter John Robertson
    Ontario, Canada

  9. Dear Vicki,
    My husband read Elephant Company first and, laughing out loud or with tears in his eyes, would tell me I had to read it, too. I did, my nightly treat for many nights. I also laughed and cried. Last night after reading the very last page, I came here ‘for more’. Yours is the kind of book I miss when it’s finished. The kind of story that breaks my heart for the cruelties people can inflict on each other and animals in time of war – as well as every day. The kind of story that fills me with heart-lifting joy for the extraordinary love, courage and beauty within so many people, especially those stellar few like ‘Bill Williams’.
    The elephants themselves, however, were the reason I first opened the book. Your descriptions of those magnificent creatures and their innate and learned behaviours were breathtaking. I didn’t need to be convinced of the power of the human-animal connection, I believe in it fully and have experienced it deeply. I am grateful to you for so expertly sharing that message. I fervently hope my own book, a novel in progress that features the healing power of horses, will touch my readers in at least some small way as your true story touched me.
    Thank you for the incredible, detailed work you put into Elephant Company. I enjoy your clean yet evocative writing style.
    Cathy Kern

  10. I am reading your wonderful book out loud to my 10-year old. We are having fascinating discussions—cultures, vocabulary, war, life cycles, conservation,… This book has it all. We cried when Guide Man and his mother died; we cheered when the young female led the convoy across the mile-wide. Every night we run upstairs get into bed and carve out enough time to read a few chapters. It is going by too quickly. This could be a great history-day project for school. Thanks for opening our world to the amazing world of elephants and to Billy Williams.

    • I share your love of this book and I learned so much about elephants. I knew they were intelligent, but l enjoyed learning the details of a day in the life of an elephant. I too, fell in love with the magnificent Bandoola and cried upon learning of his senseless death. I shared your emotions in regard to Guide Man and his mother and their tragic loss in the torrential river.
      I look forward to more such books that educate and allow the reader to become one with an animal.

  11. Dear Ms. Croke,
    I just finished reading “The Elephant Company” and want to tell you what a magical experience it was to learn about Elephant Bill, elephants, the Burmese, and human nature. I’m a former Navy officer and read a lot about military history, and this was one of the most absorbing stories about WW II that I’ve ever read. Thanks for telling this story for people like me.

  12. I just completed reading Elephant Company! Your story was so heartwarming! Written with grace and style, I feel that J. H. Williams is now a personal friend! Thank you for bringing his story to life!!! Your book only adds to my love of elephants! This has been an exceptional read and I highly recommend it! Thank you again for the gift of this amazing story!!

  13. Just finished reading your magnificent book. I didn’t think it was possible to love these amazing creatures even more than I already do. So glad the story of “Elephant Bill” is being told. What an incredibly gifted and brave man he was. Thank you.

  14. I saw a short section of this wonderful story in the Readers Digest and just had to read the rest of it. If you are only going to read one excellent book about the elephants, this is the one to read. thank you, Vicki!!

  15. Just finished the book – Just needed to thank you for reminding me of the courage and loyalty of animals and the courage of the people – stunning story – beautifully written – loved it. Trish Murphy

  16. A tremendous book, so well written that Vicki Croke seemed to be writing a first-hand account. It sweeps the reader into difficult times, and reminds us of our humanity, even under the duress of war. I will be sad when I finish it shortly. It has been very hard to put down.

  17. I read the article “The day the Elephants Danced” in the Reader Digest and was immediately prompted to bu the book “The Elephant Company” , What a fascinating, moving book with such fascinating information about elephants, Burma and Billy Williams. I will certainly be reading your other books Vicki. Thank you so much for all your thorough research to produce such an insight into Billy Williams and his elephants.

    If the article in the Digest comes another book I would be grateful to have information please. I’ve photostatted the article and stuck ii in the back of my copy of your book.

  18. Vicki -I had only heard of your book through correspondence with Denis Segal and Larry Brown, so I have purchased a copy and reading it now – very enjoyable. Have you read the book “Flight By Elephant – Untold Story of World War Two’s Most Daring Jungle Rescue” by Andrew Martin, which concerns the rescue by elephants organised by Gyles Mackrell – a very good book, that complements two other books – “Far Frontiers” and “And Some Fell By the Wayside”by A R Tainsh.
    Best regards

  19. Just finished reading Elephant Company. I loved it, loved it! I became enamored with elephants several years ago, but learned even more after reading this book. “Bill” Williams is one person I would have loved to have met, talked with, befriended. Vicki, your book was so well written that I didn’t want it to end; I kept thinking of passages in my mind for days afterwards. The book made me cry, made me laugh, and also taught me. Thank you Vicki.


  21. I came across Elephant Company while researching wartime Burma. This is a fabulous book and a wonderful story, beautifully and engagingly written. Your endnotes are a masterly example of how it should be done.

  22. With great anticipation, I’m looking forward to reading Elephant Company, Since the book was thrust into my hands by a Trinidadian friend, yesterday, who knew my connections to that country, since I was born in Burma, 1935
    ( Maymyo) where my father Eric Beadon, my Uncle Roger Beadon, and ( George Orwell), were all in the Colonial police force in Burma. But my grandfather, also was a mining engineer in the oilfields there; so the book is going to utterly entrance me.

  23. Thank you, Vicki, for Elephant Company. At age 87, I hate wasting my time with a worthless book. Your book brought treasure after treasure. God bless you.

  24. Merci, gracias, grazie-
    So many thanks, on so many levels.
    Truly enjoyed the tales of elephant Bill, Bandoola and more.
    I needed to snap pics of passages with my phone to be able to reread later.
    Someone told me: “you will never think of elephants the same way again” when I mentioned reading your book.
    It is true.

  25. A total stranger helped my daughter pick out a special book for her father’s Christmas present. I got to it first and read it in a little more than a day. Besides the obvious wonder of its content, I am in awe of the writing that can transform such reality into a book that reads like fantastic fiction. Your gift is your writing talent; mine is its reading. Thank you

  26. After reading “Elephant Company” a powerful and beautiful account of man and animal, I was sincerely touched by the magnificence and intelligence of this largest of land animals. You outdid your self in the portrayal of the sequence of events that occurred in war torn Burma. Also, it highlights the continuing plight of elephants to this very day as poachers have reduced herds for the bloody business of ivory. Oh for some more Elephant Bills in places of power to put a stop to the senseless slaughter of these incredible creatures.

  27. There are few books one comes across in a lifetime that touches the heart and soul as deeply as Elephant Company. This is one of them. I cried at the end because Ms. Croke encapsulated what all animal lovers understand but cannot put into words. Thank you for writing this story. Steven H. Berliner

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