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The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II

By Judith M. Heimann. 304 pp. Harcourt, 2007. $26.

During an attack on a formidable group of Imperial Navy warships at Brunei Bay, Borneo, on November 16, 1944, an antiaircraft shell devastated the B-24 of 2nd Lt. Tom Coberly, 23rd Bomb Squadron, 307th Bomb Group. With Coberly incapacitated, the copilot, 2nd Lt. Jerry Rosenthal, his left ear torn away, managed to hold the plane under control while the able-bodied crewmen parachuted into the hinterland of Borneo. The navigator was already dead; Rosenthal perished with the plane; Coberly did not survive the parachute jump; and one crewman was never seen again. The remaining eight airmen plunged in seconds from the period’s highest technology into the ancient world of the Dayaks, the native people of the island’s jungled forests who only recently had forsworn headhunting, the practice of decapitating an enemy and preserving his head as a trophy.

In this book Heimann, a career diplomat who speaks Malay-Indonesian and lived in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, brilliantly weaves together two overlapping tales: the story of how these airmen and their hosts fared and the story of how an Allied special operation on Borneo mustered the Dayaks to take on the Japanese and arrange the amazing rescue of the survivors of Coberly’s crew and the survivors of a navy PB4Y.

Missionaries from the United States had Christianized some bands of the Dayaks. In the process they ended headhunting, but the relics of this not-so-distant past still decorated the Dayaks’ lodgings—to the initial alarm of the downed Americans. The Japanese reigned loosely over the rugged interior region occupied by the Dayaks, but when they did touch the Dayaks they bared savage teeth: the Japanese massacred the beloved Christian missionaries. This rendered the Dayaks receptive to the idea of taking up arms against the occupiers.

But mobilizing the Dayaks required several catalysts. The first came in the form of district officer William Makahanap. Originally installed by the Dutch colonial administration, Makahanap was also an outsider because he hailed from Indonesia’s Celebes Islands. Though the Japanese chose to keep him in office, Makahanap realized (with no little prodding from his wife) that given the arc of the war’s progress, protecting the Americans rather than aiding his Japanese masters was his wisest course. So Makahanap helped deceive the Japanese about the location of the American flyers, then helped eliminate the Japanese patrols threatening them.

If Makahanap made the crucial initial decision that saved the lives of the Americans, their ultimate fate rested in the hands of extraordinary British major Tom Harrisson. He arrived by parachute as the head of an eight-man special-operations detachment. The Oxford-educated Harrisson had studied the flora and fauna of upland Borneo as a student; that background fitted him admirably to his job with the Special Operations Executive as leader of SEMUT 1, a detachment intended to gather intelligence ahead of the planned June 1945 Australian landing on Borneo.

Harrisson’s incandescent personality cycled between energizing and alienating other white men. His transparent respect and admiration for the Dayaks permitted him to convert them into a guerrilla force while his vivid imagination largely devised the plan to get the debilitated Yanks out. Plucking the Americans from the middle of Borneo required not one but two amazing feats. First came construction of an airfield that could not be detected by the Japanese: to solve this conundrum, a rice paddy was drained, a woven bamboo deck installed, and Dayaks stood by to breach a retaining wall so the “runway” could be submerged temporarily when Japanese eyes were near. Second, light aircraft piloted by men both skilled and brave would have to fly at the very outer limits of their range, find the frighteningly stunted airfield, alight on the bamboo runway, refuel, and then return, carrying only one passenger each time. A squadron of Australians piloting Auster liaison aircraft filled that requirement.

To extract this story required not only a superbly refined set of analytical tools to fit together the pieces and sort out the myriad conflicts; it demanded courage. Heimann traveled to the scene of these events—an adventure in itself—then shaped her research into a beautifully crafted narrative. Makahanap, the team of downed Americans, and Harrisson and his team are etched individually with all their flaws, but more important, many Dayaks emerge as distinctive personalities, not just as generic tribesmen.

Across its immense canvas of worldwide conflict, World War II produced a literature with many thousands of astonishing true adventure stories that effortlessly surpass the most inventive fiction. Heimann’s scintillating narrative of extreme technological and cultural contrasts now must rank right at the top of this literary trove.


Originally published in the March 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here