James Howard Williams was OC (Officer Commanding) No 1, Elephant Company, 14th Army, Burma. At one point during the war he was in charge of 700 elephants. His final rank was Lt.Col. J. H. Williams OBE.
Williams’s father was a Cornish mining engineer and his mother was Welsh. He was born in St Just, Cornwall in 1897. When World War I broke out, he was studying at Camborne School of Mines, aged 17. His elder brother had joined up but he was too young. However, he persuaded the Colonel of his brother's regiment to let him enlist, and six months later he was in the Near East. At the end of the war he returned to St Just but he had been bitten by the wanderlust bug. When out in the East he had met a man who had given him an introduction to the Bombay, Burmah Teak Company. Soon he was off again, as a Forest Assistant Ranger in the Burmese jungle. He was to spend the next 25 years there off and on.
In World War II during the battle for Burma, he and his team of elephants first assisted in the retreat of the 14th British Army, and again four years later when they advanced through the jungle to liberate it from the Japanese. They built hundreds of bridges over the rivers, assisted by the elephants. Nicknamed "Elephant Bill" he wrote several books, the most well known being that with the eponymous title, and another titled Bandoola named for one of his favourite male elephants.
After the British left Burma, Williams returned with his family to his parents’ old home in St Just. They decided to try and run a smallholding-market garden growing daffodils and anemones for the early market. Williams had already written the story of his time with the elephants but could not find a publisher. The book lay at home in a drawer. The market garden looked like failing so he took a job selling insecticide sprayers. First he was sent to America to see the thing working on the farms there and to contact the American branch of the manufacturers. Whilst there he was invited to speak at a business lunch and started to talk about his jungle life. Two reporters from the New Yorker magazine who were there interviewed him, asking him why he had not written a book. A short while later the book was sold to an English publisher who had read the article in the New Yorker magazine.
In 1949 the couple bought a farm in St Just near the smallholding and the book was in the shops a few months later. The farm was to be a drain on their finances, as he kept animals whether they were productive or not. He was too tender hearted for the business to prosper. However, his wife maintains in her book that the experience was of tremendous value and gave priceless returns not measured on a balance sheet. Their son was later to study to be a vet after going to Australia.
Their last home was "Menwinnion" just above Lamorna, a dream Bill had always had. He was a gifted watercolourist and Lamorna had been home of many artists, both past and present. It is perched right on top of the cliffs to the south-west of the cove. The name means "Windy Stones". Williams and his family moved into it the early fifties.
"Elephant Bill" became a national figure and his book sold millions. He lectured on the circuits of various schools and universities. He was in great demand and he could hold an audience spellbound. He was to die quite suddenly in 1958 after an emergency appendectomy in Penzance Hospital.