Posted: November 12th, 2009
The Airmen and the Headhunters
Watch the Full Episode

Watch the entire episode of Secrets of the Dead, “The Airmen and the Headhunters” online! This spectacular long-lost story of heroism, perseverance, and ingenuity follows the tale of lost WWII soldiers, their unlikely rescue and companionship with the Dayak tribe in Borneo, and their eventual rescue conceived by an eccentric British Major — an airway built out of bamboo in the middle of the jungle.

  • Gale Brow

    This story is incredible. It seems that people, no matter where they come from, know when people are evil and need to be dealt with. Wrong is wrong and it is obvious from this story that it doesn’t always take a “world power” to recognize such. These people were incredibly brave and resolved in their own basic knowledge that if one is cruel to others, then they need to be regarded likewise. What an unbelievable story of bravery and honor.

  • doug merrell

    can’t beleive just the fact about “the bamboo airfirld” didn’t get more famous is broynd me much less the fact of this incredible story of humanity. Although not being a vet myself i hope every vet gets the chance to see this. What apitamy of “the best generation”! this IS being another amazing generation btw! Cant begin to thank everyone of these people enough

  • King Lam

    Absolutely fascinating!

  • Alan Ryon

    I am now living in the Philippines but spent 15 years in Brunei, on the island of Borneo. I had the privilege of spending 5 days in an Iban Longhouse, during the Gawai Rice festival, in 1985, 100km up the Rajan and Oyong rivers (past Kapit). This documentary brought back some incredible memories and I got a bit emotional seeing the traditional dress, ceremonies and the blow pipes. The long house (20 door) I stayed in had a shrunken head even though they were all converted to Christianity. Although I never stayed with the Dyaks, the Iban life style was very similar, only they were known more as river dwellers and the Dyaks were more land based. As stated in the documentary, the people were very warm and friendly and accepted us as guests, almost family, and I would love to visit them again. I will soon post the story that I wrote about the Ibans on my site:
    Thanks PBS, you made my day and brought an experience to my family that is hard to describe without being their **Absolutely fascinating**

  • Tim Fish

    Eddie Haviland is my grandfather. He was the one who had glass in his eye, my mom can still remember be able to feel the glass under his eye when she a kid. My aunt has the blow pipe and my mom has the hat of natives. We were so excited to watch this on tv and it could not have been done any better

  • Danita Ng

    I grew up in Sarawak, one of the 13 states of Malaysia. This is the kind of stories I would heard from my grandparents when I was growing up. However, never have I had the opportunity to research or document anything in detail. Thank you for documenting this incredible story. Well done!

  • Dan MacFarlane

    Dan Illerich is my stepfather and to hear the story first hand is amazing. We are very proud of his wartime experience and glad you enjoyed the documentary.

  • Lisa Stowell

    This was so interesting! It must have been totally fascinating for those of you whose family members were involved to see and hear this show! Very well done.

  • Dan MacFarlane

    If you are seeking information from Dan Illerich, please email me at and I will pass the request on to him.

  • Diane Hampton

    This is an amazing story but the documentary itself is disjointed, particularly in its presentation of the different tribes of the Borneo interior. There is only nominal mention of the incredible diversity among the tribes – linguistic, cultural, religious and even geographical – and the photos, videos and interviews of the disparate tribes are streamed together more for dramatic effect than for historical accuracy. I found Judith Heimann’s inexpert commentary particularly distateful. As a Kelabit American and long-time PBS supporter, I had hoped for more scholarly work from PBS.

  • Kristie Long Robinson

    I grew up in Western Borneo as a missionary kid (MK) until we left in 1983. This amazing true story captured me and reinforced my love for the Dyak people. I can remember as a child going into the “skull houses” and seeing them lined with enemy skulls. The jungle shots brought back so many memories. Thank-you for a job well done. I greatly respect these airmen (US, British, Australian) and now, even more, the Dyaks.

  • Borneogal

    Lord Cranbrook is wrong in saying timber extraction was impossible before WW2 in Borneo – there was the important British North Borneo Timber Company which extracted much hardwood and sold it around the world, which had been operating for a long period of time before the Japanese invasion in 1941. I’m sure there were similar companies in Sarawak, Brunei and Dutch Borneo on the island.

  • Borneogal

    Heimann is wrong in saying that the missionaries and other westerners including a number of Dutch soldiers were rounded up and taken to a camp: on the invasion in January 1942 they chose to escape further in to the interior to a place called Long Nawang, and here the Japanese found them and massacred them in August and September 1942. The Japanese argued that as the westerners had not given themsalves up when the Japanese had invaded and ordered their surrender, they were technically enemy operatives and could be executed in accordance with Japanese military reguilations.

  • Borneogal

    Heimann is also wrong to say most of the missionaries were rounded up and murdered – only two missionaries (Revd Jackson and Revd Sandy) were murdered, as was Mrs Jackson; the rest ended up in Batu Lintang Camp in Sarawak

  • nawan

    where should i get this video?i like it



    Does it matter how the western missionaries in Borneo were arrested? History shows that the Japanese comitted mass atocities on all westerners in Borneo.

    To say also that unarmed civilains were enemy operatives is no excuse for murdering men, women and children either. I am quite happy that many of the heads of the Japanese army in Borneo were executed after the war.

  • Rolf Oudraad

    My Mother was born and raised on Borneo in Bandjermeasin. She told me some stories of the Dyaks and their headhunting practices, but never anything about their warmheartedly nature. Seems that there’s good and evil in all cultures. Goes to show that you cannot judge a book by its cover. As for the fate of the US Airmen; this was truly a fascinating WWII story of the allies and of course the Dyaks working together for a common cause.

  • Jim Aldred

    This has just been shown on UK terrestrial Channel4 and very intersting ti was too. My congratulations to the team concerned.
    I’d say yes, it does matter. If historians and tv researchers don’t get their facts straight, how are we to trust anything they say? Sloppy research is unforgiveable.

  • Judith Heimann

    I am so happy that most of the comments on the documentary are so positive. It is hard to cram a whole book’s story into less than an hour. I agree with Jim Aldred that sloppy research is unforgivable. I worked ten years on my book to try to make sure that I avoided it.

    @borneogal I find your statements (or perhaps you are quoting Japanese statements) to be inaccurate. The missionaries who went, along with other non-combatant Westerners, to Long Nawang were indeed rounded up there and taken to a place where they were all murdered, including eventually the wives and the babies.

    You are right that those missionaries who were lucky enough to be living and working in Sarawak mostly fared better, being imprisoned in the Batu LIntang POW camp, where only some torture and killings of civilians took place — but that was another place and another story. There is still another story involving torture and killing of some civilians in British North Borneo, famously told in Agnes Keith’s Land Below The Wind. Borneo is the world’s third biggest island and our story only covers one small piece of it. When I said “all the missionaries,” I thought it was clear that I meant the ones in the region of Dutch Borneo where most of the story takes place. My book specifies that there were two missionaries killed among the 40 murdered Westerners who had been in Long Nawang. I am sorry if my oral statement confused you.

    But in your statement that only two missionaries were killed, you seem to have forgotten about John Willfinger. As I say in the book and in the documentary, Willfinger happened to be up in British North Borneo when the others had gone to Long Nawang and he insisted on coming back to Long Berang to give himself up to the occupying Japanese — because, as he wrote his parishioners, he had come to bring the Truth and he did not want the local people to tell lies on his behalf. After he surrendered, he was taken down to Tarakan by the Japanese and beheaded on Christmas Eve 1942.

  • Neil Marsden

    What an excellent documentary and such an amazing story. I’ve watched it twice already and yes the book is ordered too. Thank you for a great work!


    NO. 14, 2010

  • joanne taylor

    My father Rod Cusack was one of the 8 Aussies who parachuted in as Z unit
    he is mentioned in your Book as being the first contact for Dan and Phil
    he spoke little of his experiences, but to say how wonderful the Dayak tribes people treated the allies
    he passed away in 1986,It is wonderful we are able to read of his experiences during WW11 and also pass this information on to his grandchildren and great grandchildren
    thankyou for taking the time to write the story of their bravery and heroism.

  • DavidBaru

    Hi, i’m a Dayak from Borneo. Could someone load the full episode into youtube? My university doesn’t allow videos of more than 50mb’s to load. Would really appreaciate that.

  • LipangMayau

    Hello evryone…i am the 4th generation after my great grandfather excepted Christ. And i am from Lun Bawang tribe, which was known as the Head Hunters Tribe. Stories that being pass down to us about our past, how terrible our culture was..and how King James Brook wants our tribe to be ‘washed away’ from face of the earth..makes me think back why did God saved us.. Is to prepare things that will happen in the future..which already happen and to reunite us someday.. I’m so glad to watch and listen though it didn’t show it all…but i know the story. For the involved families, no one is perfect but we will do the best we all could. God bless you all. Happy New Year. Once again…thank you for making the ‘once known Head Hunters Tribes”appears’ in your documentary..

  • paul mauregar lalong

    Salam Mrs.Yudith H.

    Nama saya Paul M.Lalong. saya sangat berterima kasih karena anda telah membukukan beberapa kenangan tentang Kakek Pangeran Lagan, Aco Riang dan Tangi Dawat. Saya adalah salah satu cicit daripada kakek2 saya yang menyelamatkan dan memberikan makanan selama dihutan sekitar Long Matuil. Mungkin melalui surat Email ini saya ingin berkenalan dengan pihak-pihak keluarga dari 3 orang yang diselamatkan di Long Matuil itu oleh kakek2 saya.



  • buayeh balang

    lun bawang ba tagap.haha.

  • A busy Friday « Holcomb Happenings

    [...] fish, rice, corn, and carrots.  This evening we are watching The Secrets of the Dead.  It is on The Airmen and the Headhunters.  When we had a missionary over last month, he brought a friend of his that is a pilot with MAF in [...]

  • Curt Rowlett

    What an amazing story (and a great PBS episode). I just purchased the book, “The Airmen and the Headhunters” by Judith M. Heimann in order to learn more details about this. The stories of those men and women from “the greatest generation” are still being told and this is a wonderful addition to the list.

  • Stef Morgan

    Tom Harrisson became Curator of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching after the war, making it the best center on the island for study of Bornean nature and cultures. After 1966 he became a visiting professor at Cornell University, where he taught a dazzling course in ethnography of Sarawak, rich in artifacts and tales of adventure… I took it as a greenhorn grad student, and it changed my life. He was one of those who both did exceptional things and wrote about them exceptionally well, like T. E. Lawrence. See his *World Within* for a powerful description of Kelabit culture, as it was when strangers fell out of the sky.

  • Jacque

    I am a Bidayuh. I remembers stories from my grandparent the japanese soldiers doesn’t to go further into Bau jungle in fear of ending with their heads under a bridge. Ages back we used to sacrifices head to the river spirit.

  • Lashawn Mussmann

    Respected Sir,Good evening. How are you? Just saw few photographs & video of National Award in Facebook uploaded by our fmXT family members.Please Take care.

  • kids clothes

    Yep. Planet’s screwed. Most of it won’t be habitable by human beings within the next century. It’s on runaway thermal cascade and there’s no way it can be stopped without technology that doesn’t exist yet. It’s been too late for the past twenty years. Now everyone’s starting to see that the Titanic is sinking and there are no lifeboats. Pointing fingers of blame is the only thing left to do, and is even less useful than the band playing on while the Earth sinks.

  • Adam James

    I am currently listening by audiobook to “The Airmen and the Headhunters”. My Uncle, Talmadge Cyrus Thurmond, died on or about Feb. 20, 1945. When I heard his name mentioned in the book, and a short explaination of what happened to him; my heart nearly stopped. I have papers released from the Navy describing some of what was thought had happened, but my family never had full closure. The book and the information that I have match almost perfectly. Thank you, Ms. Heimann for writing this very important book.

  • Angelyn Baltzley

    RT Ion Trust Em’,,I Just Duck Em’! (:

  • me

    reddit brought me here

  • Willie

    Judith Heimann says that the “hole in the religion” of the Borneo natives was head-hunting, which she compares to “Mass without the bread and the wine.” Doesn’t anyone find this multi-culty moral equivalence disgusting?

  • Esther (Harrington) Gillis

    Franny Harrnigton was my first cousin. I remember his story of this adventure when he returned to our home in New Bedford, Mass. I was in my early teens when he returned from the war. He later became a postal worker He brought home many artifacts including a blow gun. I saw this program tonight on PBS in Houston KUHF. I have read the book.

  • Robert

    Dear Adam James:

    Is this interest in Talmadge Cyrus Thurmond more than just a heart stopping memory in that you might have in reality more information subconsciously hidden that would be worth while having more knowledge of. There is a possibility that maybe, despite the controversy surrounding it, you were there in a previous life. I have been interested in this sort of CSI investigation for over 32 years. There is a number of interesting reincarnation stories on the Internet, including one of a young 2 year old who recalled being a pilot off of a flat top boat off of Iwo Jima in WWII, James Huston as James Leininger in this life and others of rather certain verifiable information. This one and many others are really interesting that might give you enough interest to explore the possibility that will bring closure to your interest in this part of history.

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