Posted: November 3rd, 2009
The Airmen and the Headhunters
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In 1944, as war raged across the globe, an incredible drama unfolded in the remote jungles of Borneo. A U.S. bomber was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, and as the plane went down, the surviving crew ejected and parachuted into the wilderness. Pursued by Japanese soldiers, they were taken in and protected by members of the Dayak tribe—the so-called “wild men of Borneo,” who were infamous for their grisly custom of hunting and smoking enemy heads. Months later, the airmen were found by an eccentric British Major, who arrived in the jungle to set up a guerilla army, and built a runway out of bamboo so rescue planes could pick up the stranded airmen. Harder to believe than a fictional Hollywood thriller, their true tale is one of courage, survival, and compassion from the most unlikely sources. Based on the book of the same title by Judith Heimann and featuring exclusive testimonies from the last surviving airman, veterans and Dayak heroes, dramatic on-location recreations, archival film footage, and never-before-seen photographs, THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead series pieces together a thrilling jungle adventure in “The Airmen and the Headhunters,” premiering nationally on Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, 2009 at 8 p.m. (ET) on PBS (check local listings). Actor Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Taking Woodstock) narrates.

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“Not only is this a spectacular long-lost story of heroism, perseverance, and ingenuity, it also reveals a remarkable shift in perception for the downed airmen,” says Jared Lipworth, executive producer of Secrets of the Dead. “They went from fearing the ‘savage’ Dayaks to admiring them as compassionate and skilled saviors, and that’s a lesson we can still learn from today.”

Mainly told by Dan Illerich, the last surviving airman; the original Dayaks who protected the Americans; and the Australian commandoes who helped get them out, the story transports viewers deep into the heart of Borneo at the height of the Second World War revealing fantastic tales of survival, bravery and ingenuity. The Dayaks, who hated the Japanese for occupying their country and killing their beloved missionaries, hid the Americans deep in the jungle. When the Japanese soldiers approached from the coast, the tribesmen used blowpipes and the banned practice of headhunting to stop their advances. They even set up an ambush using naked women as bait, and once the killing was over, invited the Americans to a rare headhunting feast.

The clash of cultures didn’t stop there. Months after the airmen went down, they were found by British Major Tom Harrisson and his group of Australian commandoes, who had been tasked with setting up a guerilla army to attack the Japanese from the interior. Harrisson enlisted the Dayaks to fight, encouraged headhunting and the use of blowpipes against the Japanese, and concocted a daring plan to build a runway out of bamboo so that planes (and their very brave pilots) could land in the jungle and take the Americans home—which they eventually did.

THIRTEEN’s Secrets of the Dead: The Airmen and the Headhunters is an Icon Films production for THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG, Channel 4 and National Geographic Channels International. Mark Radice is producer/director, and Harry Marshall and Laura Marshall are executive producers. At THIRTEEN, Jared Lipworth is executive producer. William R. Grant is executive-in-charge.

  • Jeff E.

    I’ve read the book and this is an amazing story!

  • Daniel MacFarlane

    Lt.Col.Daniel Illerich (ret.) is my step-father and the story is truly amazing and to hear him tell it face to face is fantastic. An heroic effort by the Dyaks to save this aircrew from execution by the Japs.

  • Jamie Parkey

    Please tell your stepfather”Thank you” for his story and courage.His was the greatest generation.
    Jamie Parkey

  • Uchu Keling

    Where can we get this movie on DVD or VCD. Thanks.. a Dayak from Borneo.

  • Lorena

    I can’t wait to watch this tonight. I agree with Jamie they were the greatest generation young men now could learn what it means to have courage from your step-father.

  • Lynne Ferguson

    Lt.Col. Illerich is my uncle. This thrilling and adventurous story has been a fabric of our family. His mother Dorothy (the original storyteller) would be so proud. Thank you PBS for sharing this with the nation. Uncle Dan, From a greatful American our family thanks you.

  • Helen Cassino

    My husband’s uncle John Nelson, was one of the airmen in this story. A true hero and sadly passed a few years ago. I wish he could have seen this show and read the book.

  • Scott Rains

    Unless there is more than one story of an incident like this my uncle Ray Mazalan loved to tell the story of trading away his watch to the chief while pantomiming and and saying “No Nipponese!” There was nothing else about the story he was ever willing to share however. Brave man!

  • Walter Matera

    I am furious that KCET, my local PBS station, has decided to run POV instead of this thrilling story of heroism and cross cultural partnership.

  • jeanine vaerewyck

    my grandfather moved to Borneo late 19th century. Early 20th century he brought his bride. Somewhere on the way to his property they had to spend a night. Grandmother was warned “if you her screams, they are monkeys”. In the middle of the night she woke up her husband scared by the screams. Scared she woke up her husband but was told to go back to sleep. The next morning when she went outside she found decapitated bodies lying around. My father spent the war in a Japanese POW camp in Borneo, my mother and I in one on Java. Loved to buy the DVD to send to my family in Europe

  • Dpnna S.

    What a fascinating program. I grew up hearing my
    father’s stories about the New Guinea natives who
    rowed over the ocean to reach him when his bomber
    was shot down. I called him to be sure he saw this program tonight.
    Later, he called to ask if I’d noticed the log flooring in one stilt house – he said that was exactly what his safe house looked like in the
    village where he stayed until rescued.
    Fascinating program. Thanks

  • Gail Nelson

    John Nelson was my father-in-law. He was a gunner on the plane. He is the one standing next to Daniel. This was his dream. He would have loved the book and the movie. Something special for his children, grandchildren and now great-grandbabies.

  • Deborah Nelson

    John Nelson, the father of my husband Arne, was the youngest member of the crew at 19. Arne and I watched tonight with rapt interest, a story that I heard about in bits and pieces. Dan and John finally gave us the longer version one night during a reunion weekend in Williamsburg Va. It is a fantastic story, captured now in a great book and now a docu drama. Worthy tale of men of worth: Americans, Allies, and Dayaks. When I saw the faces of the men who protected and saved the Airmen, I said a prayer of thanksgiving for each. Without the action of the Dayak people, I would not have had the life I have led, my husband, my children, and the greater family we belong to. Amazing to know that. Thank you PBS, Icon Films, Dan and Judith for re telling this tale. Thank you also for airing this on Veterans Day. Let us not forget all those who have and continue to serve our country.

  • Pat McPhee

    This hour-long movie was the most esciting story I have heard from WW2. To say the least, I was totally enthralled.

  • John B Magruder III

    I knew Eddie Haviland…the one that was blinded by the glass. We grew up hearing small bits of this story. His family is very close to mine. I wish Eddie could have seen this show honoring thier efforts. I wonder if is will be shown again on PBS anytime soon. I cannot seem to find it on this website.

  • J Heimann

    I have been trying for years to get in touch with Arne Nelson and other members of the family, to pass on my thanks for everything Johhn Nelson did to help me get this book written. He was a wonderful, generous-hearted hero and Ihope somewhere he knows that his generosity bore fruit. Judith Heimann

  • Gail Nelson

    Judith, I just talked to my husband, Chris Nelson, Johns son and he wanted me to send you his email. He would love to touch base with you and thank you so very much for telling the story. We have all spent hours listening to Dad tell his stories that weren’t always easy to tell. We now cherish those times. His email is Again thank you for cherished memories.

  • Ed C.

    This is an absolutely amazing story! Without those natives, the world would not be as good as it is.

  • Jackie Healy

    This is an amazing story. I’m so glad it was made and aired on PBS. I had never heard this story before. How brave the airmen were and the Dayak people as well. We have to thank the original missionaries who helped establish a trust between the Dayaks and the white man for without their efforts this story might have been very different. It also shows that kindness done between different peoples goes a long way while cruelties promote hatred between peoples. Such a fantastic story…thank you all involved with getting this story told!

  • Shannon

    I found this episode by accident. I am so glad I did. The courage, compassion, and will to survive is truly inspirational. I am so thankful to the Dayak tribe who risked so much to save our Soldiers; and so awed by the courage and conviction of those same people to challenge and defeat their enemies. This is an amazing and inspirational story that I really wish had been in my high school history books….

  • Mary Haviland Aspinwall

    Eddie Haviland was my father, he passed in 1994.
    I know he would have been very pleased to see his story in print and on TV. The entire family watched the show and we all felt so proud. I have the privledge of owning the blowgun , it sits proudly in my living room, a daily reminder of how brave these young men were.

  • Ross Hutchison

    If you are at all interested, I believe I have a photo of a gravesite which I was told by the Dyacks at Sapulut belonged to 2 US airmen who died there. The grave site was a heap of rocks painted white with a white picket fence around the plot. On top of the grave was a vickers machinegun. The plot was beside a very long suspension bridge which was built prior to the war. I took this photo in 1966 whilst I was serving with 22 construction squadron Royal Australian Engineers.

  • Geneva Thurmond Shisbey

    I can’t believe I have had the privilege to see this documentary! All my life I’d known my father, Talmadge Thurmond, was killed in Borneo. I never knew him as I was born in late 1944 and his plane went down in January,’45, he was killed in February. One surviving man came after the war to talk to my mother and that info. I’ve lived with Now to see the land and hear and see the tribemen is to learn even more about what happened to this beloved man. I am overwhemed with emotion and am so thankful

  • S Foster

    What an incredible story! It provides a redefinition of just who the “savages” were.

  • Andy McCain

    Great story, glad to see the Dyak remembered for their loyalty and courage, I lived with them for 4 years as an NGO helicopter pilot, they are to this day as loyal to those who treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.

  • nick palandech

    amazing story savages helping men how where born civilized

  • LN

    I grew up in this area of Borneo hearing stories of the Japanese and Tom Harrison and knew some of the missionaries. One old man I know told stories about killing Japanese and eating their hearts. No one in my tribe took Japanese heads but the Ibans did. Many of those in the guerilla armies were members of the small Kelabit tribe, a Dayak group.

  • Art Hoch

    Fascinating and wonderfully produced film. Evidently I’m seeing this the 2nd time around. Still good though

  • Mark Junker

    What an amazing story. In ways in reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia but has the added element of rescue. Can’t wait to teach this. From blowguns to Atomic bomb in a matter of months.

  • Mark Junker

    What an amazing story. In ways it reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia but has the added element of rescue. Can’t wait to teach this. From blowguns to Atomic bomb in a matter of months.

  • Dsp

    i’m born as dayak from sampit clan as known as the Headhunters ,

  • Redbone360619

    I am watching this fascinating story even now, a nearly unbelievable tale of survival,. teamwork and unlikely heroism that transcended cultural barriers and resulted in victorious triumph against a sadistic enemy. The Germans and Japanese lately like to whine about how they were portrayed in wartime cartoons – which various guttless nuttless people caved in to these protests and banned them – but the documented evidence is more than clear that those people committed hideous atrocities upon innocent defenseless people. That in this unfortunately not widely known sequence of wartime events the Dayaks – regarded as usual by the Japanese as nothing more than lowbred savages useful only as slaves – were able to exact merciless revenge on their occupiers was as thrilling as the more well-known Pacific skirmishes such as the Battle of Midway. I will be adding this to my DVD collection & recommending it highly to others.

  • Frank J. Vargas, Jr. AIA

    Dan Illerich spoke at our Commemorative Air Force West Houston Squadron monthly meeting this weekend. It was an honor to hear him talk about his experiences.

  • SeMpUrAi

    So proud to be born as an Iban (Sea Dayak/Dyak)..still have my family’s sword that decapitated so many Japanese soldier..currently we the new generation trying to preserve out tribe’s tattoo design and hand tapping proud when a lot of our tattoo design on movies..thanks for those who appreciate us Dayaks..and AGI IDUP AGI NGELABAN!!! (still alive still fighting)

  • Ian Darby

    Public and private beheading was often used by the Japanese during WW11. It was one of their ways of keeping what they called discipline in their POW camps. Seeing those decapitated Japanese heads reminded me of one I had seen for sale on the black market in Australia in 1944/5. My parents-in-law and their two sons were unwilling guests at a camp near Mt. Ceremai in Java during the war. Photos taken after their release show them to be little more than skin covered skeletons in very baggy clothes. They survived after a fashion which is more than could be said of the many Javanese who were killed indiscriminately. If they had helped a foreigner it would have meant torture for three days and nights before being killed if they weren’t dead already.

  • Mark Capin

    My father wasTom Capin whom was shot down he’s the tall one in the back of the main pitcher.
    When I was growing up he would not talk too much about it, later in life after he passed away I got a box full of stuff he brought back. Then my mom called and said there was a book, so I bought it and started reading about what had happened so many years ago. Then the TV show was real interesting to watch and I dvrd it so I can see it any time. I still have my dad’s machete and a book to translate English to dayka. A bamboo pouch full of tobacco and an old pipe amongst other stuff like an old bible he was given when he was there.

    I still miss him to this day

  • Paul Mauregar Lalong

    I proud with my great grandfather save sevent crew B-24 in WW2.

  • Paul Mauregar Lalong

    Date 20 -23 September 2011, I went to up mentarang river to visit B-24. And I found the plan, wing and some machine, fan around the body of plan. in radiant 250 meter. Coordinat point is N. 04°00″36,1′E.116.14″42,0′
    Sea Level. Elevation. 599 meter.

    If you want to see the area of B-24 plan in Long Kesurun, you need 5 – 7 days.

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