The Airmen and the Headhunters is the most recent entry in the PBS series Secrets of the Dead, which has been running for nine years on the network. The documentary tells the little-known story of U.S. airmen who bailed out of their stricken aircraft over Japanese-occupied Borneo in 1944. On the island, they encountered Dayak tribesmen, also known as the “wild men of Borneo,” who kept them hidden from the Japanese until they could be rescued in 1945. These tribes were best known for hunting the heads of their enemies.
In the 1930s, Christian missionaries came to Borneo, and were successful in converting many of the island’s tribal people. When the Japanese occupied the island at the start of WW II, they murdered the missionaries and their families, which caused a great deal of anger among the indigenous people of Borneo. That’s why they were only too willing to assist the airmen when they arrived on the island.
By 1945, the tide of the war had turned in the Allies’ favor, and they were re-taking many of the territories that they had lost to the Japanese. The recapture of Borneo, a former British and Dutch colony, was high on their list of priorities. Toward that end, the British sent an eccentric anthropologist named Tom Harrisson to organize a guerilla war to coincide with the coming invasion of the island. Harrisson was only too happy to allow the natives to bring back the practice of headhunting which had been banned at the turn of the century, and the Dayaks were thrilled to resume the practice. Also employing poison blow darts, the Dayaks struck fear into the hearts of the Japanese.
In order to get an airplane onto the island to rescue the American flyers, a landing strip had to be constructed, but the ground was waterlogged, which would have caused any plane that landed to become mired in the mud. Harrisson solved this problem by organizing the Dayaks for the purpose of covering the landing strip with bamboo that would support air traffic. Within two weeks, the evacuation of the Americans began.
The documentary employs testimony from the one surviving airman, Dan Illerich, the Dayaks who protected the Americans, and the Australian commandoes who rescued them. On-location recreations, and archival film footage are also used to good effect. Secrets of the Dead is an intriguing series, and The Airmen and the Headhunters is one of the series’ most interesting episodes.
This program will debut on PBS on November 11. Check you local listings for time and date in your area.
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