The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

WoWasis book review: Judith Heimann’s The Airmen and the Headhunters (Borneo)

Written By: herbrunbridge - Oct• 12•11

Judith M. Heimann’s The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen, and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II (2007, ISBN 978-0-15-101434-7) is more than just an adventure story, encompassing many fascinating anthropological elements of the Dayak culture of Borneo. It starts off slowly, but becomes a real page-turner as the dynamic among the downed soldiers, Dayaks, and Japanese army unfolds. We here at WoWasis feel it’s an important component to the library of anyone interested in Borneo or the Pacific War.  The book is essentially the story of U.S. Army and Navy fliers crashing into the jungles of what is now Indonesian Borneo, and encountering the local Lun Dayeh tribe, as well as a number of other individuals. The area was occupied by Japanese Imperial forces, and the Japanese used draconian measures against indigenous peoples that attempted to assist allied personnel.

Heimann, a career diplomat, spent seven years in the general area, including two in Borneo, and speaks Malay/Indonesian. She utilized documents, oral transcriptions, and personal interviews to tell the story, and includes fascinating information on Dayak culture, including bathroom habits, greetings, food sources, and headhunting, all of which quickly became important to the fliers, who were in constant threat from the nearby Japanese. Headhunting becomes more common as the book unfolds, as British Major Tom Harrisson, commanding the Australian SEMUT I forces, encouraged the Dayaks to take Japanese heads, and even lined the bamboo airstrip at Belawit with them.

The book is well-documented, with a terrific glossary, index, and exceptional maps hand drawn by Helen Phillips, which show, in addition to Indonesian Borneo, adjacent areas in today’s Sarawak and Sabah Malaysian states, in which some of the action took place. She painstakingly tracked down all of the surviving fliers, documenting their post-war lives and deaths.

This is a compelling book, and highly recommended. Order it now at the WoWasis eStore.

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