The Airmen and
The Headhunters

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

Judith M. Heimann
Towards the end of WWII, several American bombers went down in North Central Borneo, between what had been the Dutch and British parts of the territory. Seven of the airmen survived the crash and spent the next half-year trying to survive in the jungle.

Borneo is the third largest island in the world, and at that time, may have been the least inhabited. Steep mountains, impossible trails, no large cities, vicious humidity in the lowlands and a rainy season of two-hundred inches a year tended to dissuade idle visitors.

There was malaria, TB, dysentery, along with an astounding selection of snakes, venomous pests, fleas and other flying, crawling, creeping, sucking and stinging bugs, plus thousands of hungry leeches hiding in the grasses alongside every river.

And then there were the Lun Dayaks. "The Dayak's religion was the belief that ambushing and taking the head of someone from a rival group and bringing it back to one's own longhouse could turn the head into a spirit that conferred health and good crops for the people of its new home."

    The purpose had never been to decapitate a specific person. The idea had been simply to take a head from a rival group of one that caused trouble to one's own longhouse, and use its spiritual powers for the good of the longhouse.

The British and the Dutch outlawed this head-hunting business and brought in some good Christians to put the nail in the coffin, as it were. But you know how difficult it is to get the old folks to give up their crotchety habits of yore --- our pipe-smoking, our snifter of brandy after supper, our dried heads on the bedpost.

The seven airmen ... joined later by four others who crashed in the forest near-by --- ended up being cared for, and not head-hunted, by the Dayak. Why? These "savages" were not dummies. They had been living under Japanese rule for more than three years. When the Americans appeared, their first question was: "Who's going to win this war?" The agreement was universal. Sooner or later, the Greater Asian CoProsperity Sphere would be a dead duck. More than that, the stuffy Dutch and the British were now encouraging the head-hunting of yore. If the heads were Japanese.

§     §     §

There are a few morals to be drawn from this tale. It is estimated that close to 5,000,000 people alone died in the ten years of Japanese occupation of their far-flung Asian territories. The Japanese, English, Australians and Americans were butchering each other all across the Pacific. And now, towards the end, the Japanese --- with their policy of no surrender --- were subjected to incessant bombings (including atomic bombings) of their cities, which vaporized an additional 5,000,000 men, women, children, babes in arms ... and even the unborn. Should we consider the Dayaks, who were content to smoke a few heads for good luck from time to time, more or less brutish? Who were the savages during this parlous time we refer to as World War Two?

§     §     §

During the six months in the center of Ms Heimann's study, Dayaks cared for American troops in the mountains, brought them food, clothing, herbal medicine, hid them from the Japanese ken kanrikan long enough for them to be rescued. At one point, when airmen Jim Knoch was suffering a terrible malaria attack, "a Dayak woman chewed up his food for him and put it in his mouth."

The author has done her research. We get to know all the characters involved, much about the lives and customs of those who lived in this unforgiving land, attacked by disease, the beasts of the forest, months of famine (usually the rainy months). These were a hard beset people, had to put up with colonists from the east or the west for over a hundred years.

The Dayaks and their customs come to be the most interesting parts of The Airmen. Indeed, in contrast to fire-bombings, machine-gunning armies, sinking transports, blowing up towns and villages, dropping nuclear devices, murdering whole cities, killing the helpless and peaceful, their simple ceremonies of war come to seem almost quaint: "The longhouse girls would form a circle around an earthen, crocodile-shaped mound and pass the severed head from one dancer to the next."

    Normally, the head would then be stuck on a pole and smoked, a process that might take a week.

The heads would then be carried around the village "in a festive procession." What brutes, eh?

--- Richard Saturday
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH