The Airmen and the Headhunters on PBS

November 11th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

The more we speak with veterans of World War II, the more we learn that, beyond the high profile events and personalities, there are hundreds of stories that would make great drama. Such is the case in one of the many campaigns that receives little attention compared to the major actions of D-Day, Stalingrad and Iwo Jima for example. The bombing runs over Indonesia, the former Dutch East Indies, aided the ultimate victory achieved by the Allies in Southeast Asia and the Pacific by striking at the heart of the oil supply that kept Japan mobilized.

One such bombing run occurred sixty-five years ago on November 16, 1944. A squadron of B-24s was on a routine hop over Borneo, where Japan harvested nearly fifty percent of its petroleum supply at the height of the war. On that particular day, rather than targeting tankers, the Liberators were searching for a Japanese carrier reported to be in the vicinity of Brunei Bay when they ran into heavy anti-aircraft fire.

One of the planes dropped out of the sky. Thanks to the skillful flying of co-pilot Jerry Rosenthal, seven of the ten crewmen parachuted to safety before the B-24 crashed in the rugged highland jungle of northern Borneo. The story told in the November 11, 2009, episode of Secrets of the Dead on PBS comes from the bomber’s radioman, Cpl. Dan Illerich. His eyewitness account and many others contributed greatly to the book The Airmen and The Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann, on which the Secrets of the Dead episode is based.

Aware that Japanese soldiers stationed along the coast would likely investigate the crash, Illerich and another crewman with whom he quickly rendezvoused knew they must avoid capture. Photos and stories of prisoner beheadings had been circulated widely among Army Air Corps personnel. But they also knew they were in the land of the storied “wild men of Borneo” whose traditional practices included preparing shrunken heads from their victims. Their first encounter with the Dayaks, the name given to the tribesmen of the region, was a tentative exchange of gestures across a river. After one of the men crossed to the Americans, the tensions relaxed and the two airmen realized they were about to embark on a journey into a completely different culture—one that welcomed them in.

Christian missionaries had preceded Dan and his fellow airmen into these jungles by decades. Earlier in the war, Japanese invaders had scattered and gunned down the missionaries, creating sadness and hatred among the native converts. By rescuing Illerich and his six companions, some of whom were in bad shape from the crash, the resolve of the Dayaks to do something about the invaders was stiffened. Encouraged and helped by William Makahanap, an educated East Indian administrator pressed into service by the Japanese but sympathetic to the natives, the Dayaks not only skillfully hid the Americans, they launched a campaign to torment the enemy occupiers.

One would think the tale of the Dayak people protecting the American airmen and waging a retaliatory campaign against the Japanese would consume this story, but there is more. About the same time an Australian anthropologist who had previously studied the Dayak was given an unusual war assignment. Commissioned a major, Tom Harrisson led a group of his countrymen on a clandestine operation to Borneo called Z Special. The operatives parachuted in, made contact with the Dayak and learned about the downed airmen. The Australian officer and his team took the Americans in and planned for their extraction. At the same time, Harrisson conducted a sustained guerilla effort against the Japanese in conjunction with Dayak warriors and ahead of a major Australian invasion of Borneo. He encouraged traditional warfare for the Dayak, including lifting the colonial ban on headhunting if the victims were Japanese. The tribesmen excelled in using their age-tested blowguns to cut down Imperial soldiers and took advantage of the temporary return to the ancient headhunting practice.

The documentary is quite compelling to watch. Using a combination of vintage film clips, photographs and reenactment scenes, the story unfolds against a timeline narration by the fine actor Live Schreiber. Heimann and another Borneo authority contribute as well but the most fascinating parts of this program are the interviews with Illerich, Australian veterans of Z Special and octogenarian Dayak tribesmen and women who witnessed it all. To hear Dan Illerich tell of the harrowing bomber ditch and then listen to Dayaks who were boys at the time talking about what they saw and did when the plane went down is incredible stuff.

Some of the vintage footage is quite rare and the filmmakers are forced to repeat certain scenes where appropriate. The same explanation can’t be given for the reenacted scenes which are not strong, repeated too often and mixed haphazardly with Borneo scenics. These are beautiful but at times appear in strange spots and without much justification. I would rather see the Dayak eyewitnesses on screen—their faces, adornment and expressions are wonderful. They proudly show off their blowguns and demonstrate how they built a unique bamboo runway to land a military plane in the rugged area in 1945. Thankfully, no modern demonstrations of headhunting are given. “The Airmen and the Headhunters” makes a memorable contribution to the WNET series Secrets of the Dead on PBS.

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3 Responses to “The Airmen and the Headhunters on PBS”

  1. I just saw your fascinating “Airmen and the Headhunters” program. I was a little girl in Borneo just after WWWII when our missionary family traveled up the Kapuas River to the interior to continue working with the Dayaks. There already were 4,000 Christians among them, and my father started a Bible school and trained many of them to start churches. There were rumors of Japanese soldiers still hiding out in the jungles several years after the war. I would love to get a DVD of the program for my 93-year-old father. Thank you.

  2. Jay Wertz said:

    Carol–WNET says you can purchase a DVD of the program at JW

  3. Libby said:

    Very few of the indigenous people in the book/film were Dayaks. Most were orang ulu – e.g Kelabits and Lun Dayeh. I find it disappointing that no-one has made the effort to get this important piece of information correct. It is rather like saying that Japanese people are Chinese or vice versa.

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