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S9 Ep2

The Airmen and the Headhunters

Premiere: 6/13/2012 | 00:00:30 | NR

Investigate the extraordinary survival story of a crew of airmen shot down over the jungles of Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War II. 5/22/2013

About the Episode

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. Actor Liev Schreiber (X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Taking Woodstock) narrates.

“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.



PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.