Lost in Borneo

Conflict: World War II

Some of the Dayaks who helped the airmen

Some of the Dayaks who helped the airmen

In mid-November 1944, a B-24 crashed in the jungles of Borneo after being shot down by the Japanese. Some of the young crew (ages 18 to 22) managed escape by parachute, but when the survivors landed, they were lost in dense jungle on a Japanese-occupied island.

Excerpt from the Missing Air Crew Report

Excerpt from the Missing Air Crew Report

They were found by a local Dayak tribe and, after convincing the people that they meant no harm, were taken back to the village. Not knowing what to do with the airmen, the Dayaks informed their district officer and liaison with the Japanese, Indonesian William Makahanap. Makahanap, a Western sympathizer, convinced the Dayaks that they needed to hide the Americans from the Japanese, but ironically the tribe had been previously converted to Christianity and felt they couldn’t lie, no matter the reason. So Makahanap moved the airmen even deeper into the jungle to a village where the tribesmen still practiced their native religion and didn’t mind a little deception. Makahanap also encouraged the Dayaks to kill any Japanese patrols looking for the airmen.

Excerpt from the Missing Air Crew Report

Excerpt from the Missing Air Crew Report

The airmen remained in the jungle for five months, being unable to make their way out due to the distance to safety and the danger of Japanese patrols. Finally, in April, they received word that a British major, Tom Harrisson, and a small group of seven Australians had parachuted down into the Borneo jungle to start a guerilla resistance among the Dayaks and to keep an eye out for any downed airmen. The Americans made their way to Harrisson, and they tried to figure out a way to get the airmen off the island.

Finally, they came to the solution of asking for a plane with short take-off and landing capabilities that could reach them in a small clearing. The problem was that the ground was too muddy for a plane, so with the help of the Dayaks, they made a runway out of bamboo. Then, in June, a tiny plane came and took the airmen one by one out of the jungle, a full seven months after the crash.

The aircrew that crashed into Borneo

The aircrew that crashed into Borneo

In the meantime, Harrisson’s guerilla resistance was surprisingly successful. He encouraged the Dayaks to fight against the Japanese using their own jungle methods and even reinstated their previously banned tradition of headhunting—as long as the heads were Japanese. Harrisson’s Dayak resistance killed more than a thousand Japanese while only suffering a handful of deaths themselves.

Find out much more about this amazing story from the PBS show Secrets of the Dead: The Airmen and the Head Hunters or from the NPR Book Talk with author Judith Heimann, whose book The Airmen and the Headhunters brought this fascinating story to light. Or read the Missing Air Crew Report for the airmen’s crash on Fold3.