A WWII Tale of 'The Airmen and the Headhunters'

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Judith Heimann

Judith M. Heimann is a career American diplomat and writer. She spent seven years living in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and speaks Indonesian. Her first book, The Most Offending Soul Alive, is about Tom Harrisson, a British soldier, anthropologist and explorer. JMB hide caption

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Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Author and retired U.S. diplomat Judith Heimann was researching her first book, The Most Offending Soul Alive, about British Army Major Tom Harrisson, when she came across a letter addressed to him that sparked book No. 2. The Airmen and the Headhunters is the fascinating tale of an event that took place in the final year of World War II. A small band of U.S. Army airmen parachuted into the dense jungles of Borneo after being shot down by the Japanese.

"Remember, these folks had no radio," says Heimann. "They had no briefing materials. And all they knew of the world's third biggest [island] could be summed up in the Barnum and Bailey Circus phrase, 'the wild men of Borneo.' These 'wild men' had been headhunters ... and, who knows, maybe some of them still were."

Heimann, who speaks Indonesian and lived in Borneo during her diplomatic days, pieced together the narrative through interviews with all of the surviving airmen and tribespeople. The Dayaks, as they're called, had never written anything down, she says.

"What happens to us ... is that the written word replaces our memory and then becomes the fact for all purposes." This story, on the other hand, "was still in their heads the way it had happened then."

By all accounts, Heimann says, it was the young airmen's good behavior that saved them: They acted like guests, not soldiers. In return they were fed, clothed and hidden from the Japanese until their dramatic rescue — with Major Harrisson's help — seven months later.

Heimann recently published an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, titled "Guests Can Succeed Where Occupiers Fail." It suggests that U.S. soldiers might try a similarly respectful approach today. She writes: "Our huge footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan may be hurting more than it helps."

This discussion of The Airmen and the Headhunters took place earlier this month at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

Excerpt: 'The Airmen and the Headhunters'

Book Cover of 'The Airmen and the Headhunters'

Chapter Two: Into the Jungle

John Nelson and Franny Harrington were the first men out of the plane. Elmer Philipps had been chuted up and was standing at the open camera hatch, but John had sensed the photographer's hesitation, so he had moved Philipps out of the way and jumped. After Franny leaped out, Philipps followed.

Jim Knoch, having gone back to the waist to fetch Tom Capin, was just in time to see all six-feet-five inches of the redheaded gunner disappear down the camera hatch. Jim rushed back to the flight deck to get the sedated Tom Coberly chuted and harnessed. Dan Illerich had already slipped out the front end of the bomb bay, thanking God that Jim had opened the bay doors before centrifugal force would have made the task impossible. Next went Coberly, then Jim. Up front in the nose wheel hatch, Phil Corrin helped the half-blind Eddy Haviland out and then jumped himself. Jerry Rosenthal, the dying copilot, remained on board with the dead navigator.

Phil Corrin jumped from the nose when the plane was already below one thousand feet. Once out of the plane, he quickly yanked the rip cord and said a brief prayer. As if in answer, the chute blasted open. The beautiful, big white flower had barely blossomed above the broccoli green jungle canopy when Phil landed in a tree. Phil had survived his first parachute jump.

Phil had known Tom Coberly from their California boyhood before the war, and his thoughts at this moment must have turned to the almost certain death of his friend. He realized that — unless Tom had somehow managed to make it —he was the only surviving officer. In that case, his primary job was to figure out how to stay alive and take care of what were now his men.

Dan Illerich landed some seventy-five feet away from Phil. His G.I. Elgin watch showed the time as 12:35. He reread the dial. It was hard to believe that only an hour and five minutes had elapsed since that big Japanese naval shell hit the front of their B-24.

He heard Phil call out to him.

He yelled back, "I'm okay. Are you?"

Shouting to each other through the undergrowth, they finally met. Never had two men shaken hands so fervently. Phil didn't have a scratch on him; neither did Dan. As far as they could tell, nobody else from Coberly's was nearby, so the two of them decided to find the wreckage of the plane.

They set off through the Borneo jungle. Under the dark trees — between fifty and a hundred feet high — they found the underbrush relatively sparse, making progress easier. They soon learned to avoid the more open areas, where the foliage was a lighter green because the underbrush there was almost impenetrable.

To their surprise, even in the darker jungle, nowhere was it really dark. Sunlight pierced the overhead canopy in many places, dappling the jungle floor. There were vines everywhere that twisted, turned and tangled into fantastic shapes hanging from the trees. These could sometimes be used for handholds when the ground rose or fell steeply, though the airmen found the vines were often covered with biting ants. In places, the fronds of young palm trees caught at their clothes and rasped the bare skin of their faces and hands. On the lookout for snakes, which the vines eerily resembled, the airmen saw none. They did not see any recognizable flowers, birds or other animals, though they were surrounded by a blanket of shrill noise produced by a chorus of countless insects and birds. If the men listened hard, they could make out the sound of water coursing downhill, presumably from hidden rivers or streams.

As they walked, they realized they had landed in an area of steep slopes. The airmen could tell from the relatively moderate temperature — no more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit even at midday — that they must be a few thousand feet up. The uneven jungle floor was broken into narrow ridges and knife-edge crests that made it hard to stride ahead. An enveloping dampness added to the difficulty of making their way. Their boots slipped on the wet leaves underfoot. The dark jungle with its giant trees showed no sign of having been touched by man. The utterly unfamiliar landscape seemed unwelcoming.

Though they had seen their plane dive behind a mountain not more than a mile or so from where they had landed, it took the men hours of plodding through the jungle to reach it. Flames and smoke from the still-burning fuselage served as a beacon. But as they moved closer, there came the unmistakable popping of gunfire. It sounded to Phil as if the whole Japanese army was shooting at them. Anything was possible; they had no idea how near the enemy might be. The two men instinctively hit the dirt until the shooting gradually subsided. Only then did they realize that the sounds had been their own plane's ammunition exploding, touched off by the fire.

Approaching, they saw that their brand-new Liberator was now a total wreck. The tail section was gone, and Phil and Dan could see that the charred remains of Fred and Jerry were still too hot to move. All they found worth salvaging were two jungle survival kits and an inflatable life raft. Phil also found a pair of leather gloves.

Phil and Dan opened up the jungle kits, the only emergency supplies the AAF had provided. Inside the ten-pound tan canvas sacks that had been used on board as seat cushions, they found a red paperback booklet titled Survival: Jungle-Desert-Arctic-Ocean Emergencies. Though the first chapter was devoted to the jungle, a glance at the text and the black-and-white drawings showed little information that looked relevant or useful. It announced, for example, that "natural food is plentiful in most jungles if you know where to look for it." Beside the booklet were a few dollars and gold coins, a glossary of useful terms in English/ Dutch/ Malay, a few promissory notes to give to those who helped an airman and a printed card with phrases in Malay and Dutch that a downed airman could use to ask directions.

There was also a small sheaf of official government letters — blood chits, the airmen had been told to call them. The blood chits had texts in English, Dutch and Malay that told why Allied forces were in the area of the South China Sea. The chits stated that the airman holding this paper is a friend, his plane has crashed, he does not speak your language and he needs food and maybe medical attention. The chit went on to ask that the airman be hidden and promised that President Roosevelt, King George or Queen Wilhelmina would reward those who helped him.

The survival kits held other items that someone in the War Department must have thought might be useful: a folding machete (perhaps the clumsiest knife ever made), a stone to sharpen it with, a two-ounce container of Sta-Away brand antimosquito lotion, a pocketknife, a packet of six fishhooks and ten yards of fishing line, a few water-purifying tablets, a few high-nutrition chocolate bars called D rations, a red signal flare, a pocket compass, a few packets of dry crackers, little metal cans of cheese, a packet of Wrigley's chewing gum, four Chesterfield cigarettes and twenty rounds of .45-caliber ammunition.

Each of the survival packs also had a small first-aid kit with bandages, sulfa powder, Band-Aids, a tourniquet, U.S. Army dressings, a box of iodine swabs, a tube of tannic ointment for burns and aromatic spirits of ammonia. The airmen thought that if this was all they had to survive on, their prospects weren't very bright.

Phil and Dan examined the one-man inflatable life raft. With its orange top and bright blue underside, the raft was an ungainly five feet long and weighed fifteen pounds when not inflated. Phil decided to bring it along in case they could find some use for it. They each were carrying a small G.I. New Testament in a protective metal cover and Phil still had his silk map, although they thought they were now south of the area it covered. He put the map back in his pocket along with the pair of leather gloves he had found in the plane.

They had the clothes they were wearing and their sidearms, G.I. Colt .45-caliber automatic pistols. Dan also had his own .32-caliber semiautomatic. The big white silk parachutes completed the inventory of their possessions.

Seeing what they had to survive on made them wish they had taken more seriously the guidance from the Australian soldiers who had spent three days giving them pointers on how to live in the jungle. The Australians had told them to be prompt in putting distance between themselves and the wreck, in case the enemy had spotted it. The Aussies had instructed them to follow streams downhill to a river and then go downriver to the sea, if they were ever lost in a tropical rain forest. Back then, sitting in the comfort of a beery bivouac in New Guinea, such a predicament had seemed almost laughably unlikely.

Phil and Dan now doggedly obeyed the Aussies' advice. When they came across a rivulet, they followed it downstream until it gradually broadened into a larger stream. Nearly four hours had passed since they had jumped.

Hot and wet — partly from their exertions and partly from the air so close they felt they could have parted it with their hands — they sat down in the brush, a few yards from a muddy bank. Their leg muscles ached. (Phil had chronic shin splints, inflammations that resulted from the pounding he had given his legs as an athlete in high school and college.) Massaging their limbs, the men debated whether to continue downriver or to pitch camp for the night. Their chief concern was to find drinking water. They had not known to look for water in the cups of the many pitcher plant blossoms or inside the liana vines all around them. They had a muddy stream beside them and could hear the sounds of flowing water above and around them, but how safe would it be to drink?

They were too tired and overcome with the strangeness of their situation to devote much thought to worrying about snakes or other jungle wildlife, but they were very anxious about what kind of people they might come across. Almost all they knew about Borneo's natives could be summed up by the Barnum & Bailey sideshow "The Wild Man of Borneo." Dan was a great reader but he had not read any books about this part of the world, although he had seen pictures of tropical jungles in his dad's copies of National Geographic. The crew had seen few natives in New Guinea, and the Aussies they met there had had little good to say about any of the Pacific Islanders.

Now the airmen needed to know exactly how wild were these men of Borneo, whom the Aussies had called Dayaks. Were they cannibals or headhunters, as some of the Aussies had said? Were they real men you could deal with? Or were they almost another species, like the pygmy that had once been on display at the Bronx Zoo?

The airmen were even more worried about how near the Japanese could be. They spared a moment of gratitude to Jerry who had brought them so far from the enemy-infested coast, but the Japanese might have outposts inside Borneo, too. If so, how near here? Or maybe the natives near here were cooperating with them. Phil and Dan had heard that after Pearl Harbor the Japanese army had been able to walk into Southeast Asia and take charge because the native people had welcomed them as liberators from their colonial oppressors. Was that true for Borneo? The two airmen knew they were likely to find out soon.

After sitting awhile and delicately picking off the bloated leeches that had left bloody trails on his legs and ankles, Phil peered closely at the vegetation across the river and made out the outlines of a small lean-to. He pointed it out silently to Dan, and they quietly waded across the waist-deep cloudy water to explore it. Inside, they saw what looked like the hulls of dugout canoes propped up against the bamboo walls. Phil made a mental note to remember these longboats, since he and Dan and the rest of the crew — if they were still alive — might need them for their escape. Then Phil noticed a stalk of green bananas on the hut's dirt floor. Someone had been there recently — and would be coming back.

Phil and Dan tried to draw courage from the fact that this hut seemed to be native built, not Japanese. They did not know that Major Saalfield's plane had crash-landed farther west in northern Borneo and that the surviving crew members had all been killed by the Japanese — but such news would not have surprised them. Their survival briefings had included warnings that the Japanese military regarded surrendered soldiers as less than human and that they routinely killed downed Allied airmen.

Phil and Dan came out of the windowless hut so that they could keep an eye on their surroundings. They sat quietly for an hour or so under a tree near the bank of the stream, more fearful than watchful, until a black head popped up above a clump of bushes some twenty yards across the water. Thank God, it did not look Japanese.

Phil stood up and said, "Hi there!" in a tone that he felt sure Dale Carnegie would have approved. The head disappeared, but in a few minutes a dozen or more armed men appeared in its place. These must be the Dayaks. They all had tan skin; each wore a loincloth, had a machete in a holster slung around the hips and carried a long pole with a menacing spear at the end. Their lips were stained black, making them look like the savage Moros of the Philippines, about whom the Yanks had been warned by old Philippine hands.

"Grin," Phil said to Dan.

Both airmen grinned like models in a toothpaste ad. The men in loincloths grinned back, exposing black teeth. Their straight black hair was bowl cut in front and some had it tied in a knot in back while others wore a pigtail. Curved animal teeth adorned their upper earlobes, and some of the Dayaks had brass rings in their lower lobes. Most of them wore a series of tight-fitting wicker armbands at the elbow, wrist and just below the knee. A couple of the men wore sleeveless and collarless beaten-bark vests open in front, exposing well-muscled, hairless chests. They were not as tall as the airmen but they were well built, with powerful thighs and legs. They bowed as one man.

The airmen were all thumbs, trying to get rid of their sidearms. "We're Americans," Phil kept repeating. "We're your friends."

As soon as Dan and Phil dropped their gun holsters, the Dayaks waded across, dropping their machetelike swords on the bank of the stream. Next, they took their poles (actually blowpipes) and stuck them into the mud. They held out their empty hands to shake hands with Phil and Dan.

One of the tribesmen looked down at the gun holsters on the ground and, to Dan and Phil's amazement, shouted out, "U.S., U.S.," and started dancing about. Then he beckoned to Dan and Phil to follow him, and the whole party, including a dozen scarred, ginger-haired curs, moved off together. After a short walk in the mud through thick brush, they arrived at a hamlet, where nearly a hundred Dayaks swarmed around the airmen. For what seemed like an age, Phil and Dan stood while a crowd of gesticulating natives of both sexes and all ages gathered around them and gabbled away in a language incomprehensible to the airmen.

Some of the women (not the youngest or prettiest, Phil and Dan observed regretfully) were naked to the waist. Most of the other women wore woven-reed bibs tied at the neck that loosely covered their breasts. The women's earlobes stretched down to their shoulders, distended by the weight of brass rings. The women, too, were well built, with very few noticeably overweight or too thin. The girls' round faces were open and fine featured, although their smiles revealed that the insides of their mouths were black and many were missing both front teeth.

Phil and Dan had been standing in the late-afternoon light for some time when a middle-aged man who seemed to have some authority approached. He motioned the airmen to follow him into a tall thatched hut about forty feet long that rested on stilts some six feet high. The two Americans awkwardly found their footing on a fourteen-foot notched log that served as a ladder to a raised bamboo veranda. Pigs and chickens protested from their smelly quarters below while the dozen twisted-tail dogs that had accompanied the party now swirled around them, barking excitedly.

Phil and Dan followed their guides through a gap in the long wall that separated the veranda from the indoors. The light inside was dim and the air smoky. The last of the sunlight coming through glassless windows and glancing off the interior longhouse walls and floor gleamed a dull gold. The floors were made of long wooden planks, and the bamboo walls were covered in mats made from woven reeds. There were no interior walls to parcel out the space. Instead, a series of cooking fires was scattered on the floor, with tall shelves behind them to hold firewood. Thin straw mats woven in complicated figurative patterns were spread out in front of most hearths. From within, the longhouse seemed bigger and more solidly constructed than it had first appeared. The underside of the high-pitched roof was neatly stitched together from palm fronds.

Phil and Dan were looking up at the ceiling in admiration when suddenly they froze. They saw what were clearly human skulls on wicker shelves high up under the rafters. The heads looked old and dusty, almost skeletal, but there were bits of what appeared to be fresh food in front of their shriveled jaws. It seemed to the airmen that the warning from the Australians back in New Guinea that the interior of Borneo belonged to headhunters must be true. And they had landed in the midst of them.

Not wanting to raise the subject with their hosts, they looked down and saw their escort motioning for them to sit on reed mats in the center of the floor. The group who had led them to the longhouse arrayed themselves around Phil and Dan, legs crossed or squatting with their arms resting on their knees, their bare buttocks hanging an inch off the floor. They stared at the airmen without expression. Their faces had a curious blankness, which Phil and Dan came slowly to realize was caused by the total absence of eyelashes and eyebrows. A few of the bolder ones came up and touched the fuzzy hair on the airmen's arms, so different from their own smooth bodies. As the silence lengthened, it was clearly the Americans' turn to do something.

Phil and Dan opened up their backpacks and handed every article to the chief: the jungle survival books, the blood chits, the Bibles, the folding machetes (which, when unfolded, provoked a laugh), the one-man inflatable life raft, the compasses, the chocolate bars, the crackers and cheese in their wrappings, the first-aid kit, the guns and the parachutes. The chief inspected each item without comment or change of expression and passed the article on to the others, who eventually passed it back to the airmen. The men sitting around them seemed to be scowling at Phil and Dan.

With their jungle packs empty, Phil hesitated. Then he pulled out of his pocket the last item salvaged from the plane wreck, the leather gloves, and handed them to the chief. The chief threw the gloves back to Phil, who slipped his hand into one of them. The chief's men bolted to their feet and reached for their machetes. Phil quickly put his other hand in the remaining glove and wiggled his fingers. The chief cackled, the others laughed and Phil continued to wiggle his fingers wildly.

The atmosphere was suddenly less strained. Two women appeared, wearing long, dark skirts made of vegetable fiber, their long, brass-weighted earlobes swinging against their nipples, their hands and feet tattooed in elaborate black swirls. They brought Dan and Phil big portions of cooked white rice in leaf packets along with unfamiliar cooked greens in blue-and-white Chinese bowls. Later, when the airmen looked around in the light of the resin torches that illuminated the interior of the longhouse they could see ancient-looking Oriental ceramics — huge, high-shouldered, dark brown jars and brilliant blue-and-white plates. For now, Phil and Dan did not think to wonder how or why these treasures were there.

The chief rubbed his stomach to invite his guests to eat. It was now dark outside and surprisingly chilly — further confirmation they were in the uplands. Three of the chief's men built a fire in the hearth in front of the airmen. Ignoring their survival pamphlet instructions — "Don't stay in native houses and don't eat native food" — the airmen began to eat. Using the thumb and three fingers of the right hand, the way they saw the others do, they got down as much as they could manage of the huge pile of plain, unsalted white rice. They tried the stringy, dark green vegetables alongside and found them bitter. But they eagerly accepted some roasted ears of corn. When they had finished, not knowing what else to do, they put the cobs on the mat beside their Chinese bowls. Their hosts snatched up the discarded cobs and tossed them off the veranda to the noisy pigs and chickens down in the mud below. Phil and Dan put their hands on their bellies to show they were done with the food in front of them. Their hosts gave them green bananas that tasted surprisingly ripe and sweet.

After dinner one of the tribesmen came crouching up to the airmen and offered them dried tobacco tied up neatly in a big green leaf. Phil and Dan sensed that this creeping while squatting on one's haunches was a friendly gesture. The man took out a match from a tiny matchbox. He had started to light the tobacco when Dan and Phil both noticed that the cover of the matchbox was decorated with the emblem of the rising sun, the dreaded Japanese imperial symbol.

The airmen recoiled instinctively. Then they tried to hide their feelings but they could see they were fooling no one. The man lighting Dan's cigar made a gesture as if to throw the box away, which the airmen took as reassurance that these headhunters — if that was what they were — were on the Allied side. Still, the airmen continued to wonder anxiously how and when the man had come by that matchbox.

After the women had cleared the food away, one of the men took Dan and Phil out on the veranda and showed them how to relieve themselves over the edge while keeping their genitals modestly covered. Upon their return inside, the longhouse chief pantomimed sleep by closing his eyes and pointing to the floor by the fire. Although Phil was reluctant to sleep with twenty pairs of lashless eyes on him, he spread out his parachute, lay down on it and closed his eyes. Dan did the same, and the young men, having agreed to stay awake by turns for two-hour stretches, were both soon fast asleep.

Copyright © 2007 by Judith M. Heimann. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Books Featured In This Story

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

Hardcover, 289 pages |


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