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Lessons from the jungle

The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesman and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith Heimann. Harcourt, 2007. 304 pages.

The generation of Americans who fought in World War II, the Americans who landed in North Africa and in Italy, who fought at Guadalcanal and Midway, who fought in places where the enemy was not just the Japanese but kunai grass and mosquitoes, where the enemy was not just the Germans but mud and snow, our armed forces personnel who battled Germans and Japanese on three continents: this generation is swiftly falling away from the tree of life.

Behind them these men and women not only leave a past signed with valorous deeds, but a rich literature of the war they fought. Scores of memoirs of the war record the achievements of individuals. Histories of battles and campaigns, of various special units, and of great and small events crowd the shelves of our public libraries, telling us once again of the shattering events that took place only seventy years ago. Novels and poetry about the war remind us, if we need reminding, that the soldiers who fought this war were human beings. They were, as Kipling wrote, not plaster saints but “most remarkable like you.”

Judith Heimann has added another gem to the crown of World War II literature with The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesman and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II (Harcourt Inc. 978-0-15-101434-7, $26).

In November of 1944, when the war in the Pacific had less than a year to run — short time to most of us who aren’t facing kamikazes or beach landings under fire — a B-24 bomber was shot from the sky by the Japanese. All but two of the 11-man crew escaped the damaged plane before it crashed. Once they had parachuted to the ground — several of them hit the jungle trees and had to slide or climb 100 feet down the trees — the fliers became separated and tried making their way through the jungles and mountains of Borneo in small groups or individually.

Soon all of these men, some wounded, all of them hungry, found themselves in the care of the Dayaks, who less than 50 years before had warred as ferocious headhunters on their neighboring tribes. These tribesmen sent word of their captives to Makahanap, a Christian and the district officer in this part of Borneo. Makahanap is the central character in The Airmen and the Headhunters, for the fate of the airmen rested in his hands, and he was none too certain whether to offer them aid. He knew that his duty lay in turning over the airmen to the local Japanese officials; he was already regarded with suspicion by the Japanese for his religious faith and his work with the Dutch before the war came. To give up the airmen to almost certain death, however, went against his conscience (he had heard what the Japanese did to airmen, and his own cousin and his cousin’s wife had their throats slit with Japanese swords).

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After careful deliberation, Makahanap chose the side of the Americans. To keep the airmen hidden and safe, he enlisted the help of the Dayaks, who, with other people living in the jungle, gathered the American crew in one place. Heimann tells us how Makahanap and his supporters slowly came to wage guerilla war against the Japanese, attacking soldiers and setting ambushes. Eventually the Dayaks even returned to their previous practice of taking the heads of their enemies and brought Japanese heads back to their base camp. The Americans in their care seemed unmoved by the headhunting; their hatred for the Japanese and their love for the Dayak people overcame any qualms they might have felt about such decapitations.

In addition to hiding out from the Japanese, the airmen also had to fight hunger, though the Dayaks did their best to feed them. Judith Heimann, who went to extraordinary lengths to interview the men and women featured in her book, writes that

Despite their hosts’ efforts, the airmen were hungry most of the time. They longed for more and better-tasting food, especially fruit: “One evening, when everybody was sitting on the longhouse veranda after dinner, Mama noticed that Jim was not there. She went back inside to look for him and found him alone in the storeroom, eating an almost ripe banana. She did not protest or blame him, but he never did it again.”

In an interview regarding The Airmen and the Headhunters, Heimann states that “what makes this story different ... is that the real heroes are the people of inland Borneo. The Yank airmen were very young, ignorant and — in the jungle setting — incompetent.” The airmen told Heimann that they would have almost certainly perished without the help of the Dayaks and other tribes.

Heimann draws a lesson from the experiences of these airmen. She told her interviewer that “At present we are engaged in wars in countries whose societies we understand little, and with our reputation as the champion of universal human rights stained. At such a time, it is instructive ... to realize that ... only the good-will earned earlier by decent Americans saved the lives of our soldiers.”

The decent Americans to whom Heimann refers were American missionaries. Considering that we are viewed today as oppressor by certain peoples of the world, we can only hope that others will remember our missionaries, our Peace Corps workers, our generous volunteers, and extend to us this same good will.

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