The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II is a book written by Judith M. Heimann.
It tells the story of how a group of American airmen was rescued by the locals during the Japanese occupation of Borneo.
The event was also made into an episode of the PBS television series “Secrets of the Dead”.
One of the key players of the rescue was Major Tom Harrisson, a British polymath who later served as Sarawak museum curator after WWII.
During the war, he was attached to Z Special Unit, as part of the Service Reconnaissance Department (SRD).
On March 25, 1945, Harrisson parachuted with seven Z Force operatives into the Kelabit Highlands.
That was when he and his unit became credited for helping the stranded American airmen.
The Airmen and the Headhunters, according to Australian-British Reward Mission
After the war, Major R. K. Dyce who represented the British government in the Australian-British Reward Mission wrote an article “Heroism in the Limbang” for The Sarawak Gazette (June 2, 1947).
“About the end of January or in early February 1945, a US Liberator made a crash belly landing about a mile from Kampung Telahak on the Sungai Limbang in Sarawak. Nine of the crew survived the crash. One was dead.”
From there, the story continues on how these nine American airmen were harboured and escorted by different groups of different races in Sarawak, British North Borneo (now Sabah) and Dutch Borneo (now Kalimantan).
The first group of locals who rescued them was the residents of Kampung Telahak led by their village head (ketua kampung) Mohamed Dolamit.
“The kampung people led the Americans out of the sodden paddy field on which they had landed into the village; washed them, fed them, helped them bury their dead comrade, equipped them with parangs, and planned their escape.”
The escape plan for the nine Americans
Then, Mohamed started to draft an escape plan for the nine Americans. His plan was to guide the Americans by paths which avoided Japanese-occupied localities to a wise and influential old Penghulu Masing to the southeast on the Pandaruan river.
“The practice is, in an operation of this kind, to hand on the “passengers” from longhouse to longhouse and kampung to kampung,” Major Dyce reported.
After being handed over from one community to another community, the nine airmen finally arrived in Ulu Matang, somewhere near Long Pa’ Sia, Sabah.
This was where they separated with the first party proceeded to Dutch Borneo where they met up with Harrisson’s SRD party. Meanwhile, the other four who headed north were killed by the locals.
Dyce reported in 1947, “The story of the episode and its aftermath is still alive in the kampungs and longhouses, but most of the helpers concerned looked for no material reward.”
Local administrations knew how much these heroic natives had helped the Americans.
However, Dyce explained that the shortage of staff and overwork by the then local administration back then delayed in giving them proper recognition.
Tom Harrisson’s article on The Airmen and the Headhunters incident
According to Harrisson, Major Dyce’s Heroism in Limbang did not quite “give a complete picture of the amazing Borneo careers of those American airmen and of other who were cared for and protected with the same extraordinary loyalty and self-sacrifice by the peoples of the Limbang, Trusan, Padas and Mentarang rivers.”
Harrisson clarified the exact date when the plane was shot down, stating that it was on Jan 12, 1945.
The crashed crew proceeded from Limbang to Padas where they split up just as Dyce reported. The pilot Lieutenant-Commander Smith heard that there were American guerrillas in Kudat, the northern side of Sabah.
He decided to head there and three of the crew agreed to follow him.
Unfortunately, the moment they reached Tomani near Tenom, the group was betrayed by the locals.
A Japanese unit which came from Beaufort via Tenom surprised them in a village at night.
One of them was speared by the locals while another one was shot by a British North Borneo constable officer.
Their bodies were decapitated and distributed among the locals. Meanwhile, Smith surrendered and the fourth man escaped into the jungle. They spent a week hunting him down, but in the end, he too was captured and taken to Beaufort together with Smith.
According to Harrisson, his unit was about to make a rescue mission and kidnap General Masao Baba when the war ended.
At the same time, the Japanese quietly executed the two American soldiers as they were dangerous witnesses.
What happened to the other five crew member?
The other five men, “not Kudat-Krazy” men as Harrisson described in his article, went up the Padas river.
From there, they then came over into Kemaloh river in Dutch Borneo. Here, they were looked after by the Pa Putuk people of the Krayan Highlands.
Harrisson stated, “They were also fortunate in meeting a remarkably fine native missionary, William Mohgan of Makassar who could speak some English (and a little American). The Japs, of course, knew these men were somewhere in the interior, but as in the Limbang the people did not betray them, often at grave risk or cost to themselves.”
Nevertheless, they were forced to hide in jungle shelters and suffered great impoverishment through lack of medical supplies, mosquito nets and footwear.
By that time, the five had reunited with six other Americans who were survivors from an American 13th Army Liberator shot down on the Dutch side.
The former museum curator pointed out, “One of this crew wandered alone through the jungle for fourteen days before reaching a lonely mountain village, where he was nursed back to life and became, in a few weeks, quite fluent at Potok (a Lundayeh dialect)- the others never even got beyond the bagus stage of Malay.”
Harrisson and his unit to the rescue
Harrisson added that he first heard of these airmen in March 1945, who were then about ten days’ walk eastward from Bario.
“Our only medical man at that time, Sergeant F. Sanderson, made a forced march to them, carrying all the stores we could possibly spare and all our comforts (at that time all supplies had to be dropped from Moratai, thirteen hours flying; so the lifeline was slender, with three out of six planes lost in the first weeks).”
Finally, the American airmen had the help they needed from the British soldiers. Harrisson continued: “When they were fit to walk by easy stages over the mountains -harder going in Dutch Borneo than in Sarawak – we brought them into better country, where we prepared an airfield. Some RAAF pilots came in without maps or radio signals to pick the Americans out.”
Harrisson stressed that the behaviour of the native people (except those who betrayed them in Tomani) is a lasting symbol of native morale in these lands.
“And I hope that if it comes to a question of rewards (of which the helpers had no thought at the time) the British North Borneo and Dutch helpers will not be forgotten. For it is sad to admit, but true, that from that day to this no one of any race has had a word of thank you (let alone a tin of peanuts) from those boys to whom they gave back life, liberty and Nashville, Tennessee.”
Sadly, KajoMag’s own digging so far has found no official recognition of the locals’ efforts and contributions (particularly in Pa Putuk and Kampung Telahak) to helping the American airmen evade capture.