The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II

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Overview

November 1944: Army airmen set out in a B-24 bomber on what should have been an easy mission off the Borneo coast. Instead they found themselves unexpectedly facing a Japanese fleet?and were shot down. When they cut themselves loose from their parachutes, they were scattered across the island's mountainous interior. Then a group of loincloth-wearing natives silently materialized out of the jungle. Would these Dayak tribesmen turn the starving airmen over to the hostile Japanese occupiers? Or would the Dayaks risk...

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The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II

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Overview

November 1944: Army airmen set out in a B-24 bomber on what should have been an easy mission off the Borneo coast. Instead they found themselves unexpectedly facing a Japanese fleet—and were shot down. When they cut themselves loose from their parachutes, they were scattered across the island's mountainous interior. Then a group of loincloth-wearing natives silently materialized out of the jungle. Would these Dayak tribesmen turn the starving airmen over to the hostile Japanese occupiers? Or would the Dayaks risk vicious reprisals to get the airmen safely home? The tribal leaders' unprecedented decision led to a desperate game of hide-and-seek and, ultimately, the return of a long-renounced ritual: head-hunting.

A cinematic survival story that features a bamboo airstrip built on a rice paddy, a mad British major, and a blowpipe-wielding army that helped destroy one of the last Japanese strongholds, The Airmen and the Headhunters is a gripping, you-are-there journey into the remote world and forgotten heroism of the Dayaks.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
"[F]ew writers could have tracked down this captivating story. [Heimann] paints a vivid picture of the indigenous people who comfortably inhabited the dense jungle and carried on a flourishing trade with the coast... A fascinating anthropology lesson, delivered with the bonus of a dramatic adventure and a happy ending."
Kirkus Reviews
In 1944, seven Americans bailed out of their crippled bomber over the Borneo jungle, where local tribespeople hid them from the Japanese. Heimann (The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life, 1999, etc.) lived in Borneo and speaks Indonesian; few writers could have tracked down this captivating story. She paints a vivid picture of the indigenous people who comfortably inhabited the dense jungle and carried on a flourishing trade with the coast. Despite the title, they were former headhunters. Some were Christian-it depended on the village headman; if he converted, everyone followed-but they retained most of their ancient culture. The Japanese, who had conquered Borneo in 1942, paid little attention to the interior. Starving and sick after only a few days in the jungle, the airmen followed their tribal rescuers to villages where they were cared for. Everyone knew the terrible consequences of protecting downed airmen; the Japanese were searching hard for them and would surely kill not just the Americans but anyone who had helped them. But the risk seemed small in this remote area, and everyone agreed to keep quiet. Learning of the airmen, the local Japanese commander sent armed patrols into the jungle, but native guides led them astray. Aware they were not getting cooperation, the Japanese grew increasingly abusive, finally provoking the tribespeople to kill them. After four months, Australian special forces parachuted in to organize resistance to the Japanese, but two more months passed before a space was cleared for an airfield, and the airmen were able to fly out. A fascinating anthropology lesson, delivered with the bonus of a dramatic adventure and a happyending. Agent: Eric Simonoff/Janklow & Nesbit Associates
From the Publisher
"Heimann brings a visceral urgency to one of WWII's most unlikely tales." —-Entertainment Weekly
author of THE FEW Alex Kershaw
"The Airmen and the Headhunters is an engaging and unique tale of courage and rescue. Heimann has created a nuanced portrait of Borneo and a fascinating group of truly heroic tribesmen."
author of FLYBOYS James Bradley
"At first the downed Flyboys thought their hosts to be savage. But by the end of their remarkable journey, the Americans learned just how civilized headhunters can be. Judith Heimann has uncovered a dramatic, touchingly human tale in the jungle forests of Borneo."
author of SHIP OF GHOSTS James Hornfischer
"Sixty years later, World War II is still giving up its secrets. The Airmen and the Headhunters recovers a forgotten tale from the far Pacific that should interest anyone who cares about the gallantry of our aviators who flew into harm's way."
Washington Post Book World
"Heimann rivets one's attention."
Entertainment Weekly
"Heimann brings a visceral urgency to one of WWII's most unlikely tales. Along the way, she makes us like the airmen rethink our definitions of civilized and savage."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400155095
  • Publisher: Tantor Media, Inc.
  • Publication date: 12/1/2007
  • Format: MP3 on CD
  • Edition description: MP3 - Unabridged CD
  • Product dimensions: 5.41 (w) x 7.51 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith M. Heimann is a career diplomat and the author of The Most Offending Soul Alive.

Susan Ericksen, an Audie Award and AudioFile Earphones Award winner, has recorded many audiobooks, including Naked in Death by J. D. Robb.

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Read an Excerpt

The Airmen and the Headhunters

A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II
By Heimann, Judith M.

Harcourt

Copyright © 2007 Heimann, Judith M.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780151014347

 CHAPTER ONE
 
A B-24 Over Borneo
 
About twelve thirty midday on November 16, 1944, District Officer William Makahanap looked up from his draft report on the expected rice production in his East Borneo district of Mentarang and realized that for the past few minutes he had been hearing a whining noise. The overhead fan in his old office back in the Celebes used to sound like that, but here in the little settlement of Long Berang there was no electricity to run a fan. The whine could have been from mosquitoes, but it was the wrong time of day for their assault. Such a loud noise was unusual in the quiet midday period, when able-bodied Dayaks (the general term for the various tribes of inland Borneo) were away in the rice fields or the jungle, and nearly everybody else was dozing. Even the schoolchildren, curled up on mats in the schoolroom down the road, would be taking a nap while the day was hottest.
 
            The whine grew louder and Makahanap finally recognized what it was: the engines of a big airplane. Then, above the engine noise, he heardpeople yelling out in the fields. What could be disturbing the Dayaks? He stepped outside and heard them shouting that “the big thing in the sky” was “breaking apart” and “going to fall to the ground.”
 
            Standing on his office steps, he squinted up into the shimmering sky above the jungle at the edge of the little settlement. He could see that the plane, flashing in and out of the cloud cover, had four engines and big wings, but he did not know enough about aircraft to recognize a B-24. Nor could he tell whose plane it was, Allied or Japanese. What he did realize was that the Dayaks were right. It was about to break apart and fall out of the sky.
 
            Standing there on his front step, blinking at the bright sky, Makahanap’s first reaction was probably annoyance at being interrupted. But his next would have been anxiety. In his experience of the past three years, the arrival of something new was rarely a blessing for himself, his family or his district.
 
            He could see, though, that the Dayaks were filled with wonder. None of them had ever seen anything like this thing in the sky. He could no longer see or hear it. Had it gone down somewhere behind the mountains to the northeast? What had happened to it? Where was it now? Above all, was it Japanese or Allied?
 
 
November 16, 1944, had begun as a routine Thursday for pilot 2nd Lt. Tom Coberly, USAAF, and the ten men of the crew of his B-24 (a four-engine bomber also known as a “Liberator”). They had been awakened shortly after two in the morning and given breakfast: a choice of hot or cold cereal, along with powdered eggs scrambled and Spam fried and liberally doused with tomato ketchup. They washed it down with tall glasses of milk and orange juice and enough coffee to wake them up.
             It was the coolest, best time of day at their air base on Morotai, a small island of the Moluccas in the Netherlands East Indies. Just south of the Philippines and hundreds of miles due east of Borneo, Morotai was built on a foundation of coral and was relatively bare. Much of its scrub plant life had been cleared away to make the coconut plantation thatwas now an airfield. There was nothing to do there but wait to fly out.
 
            Lieutenant Coberly’s crew, simply called Coberly’s, had been on Morotai less than a month. Their Twenty-third Squadron belonged to the Bomber Barons, the Fifth Bomb Group that was an arm of the tiny Thirteenth Air Force (sometimes called the Jungle Air Force) of the USAAF whose missions were to retake the Japanese-occupied Philippine Islands and cut off Japan’s Pacific oil supplies.
 
            In response to the prewar U.S.-led oil embargo against Japan after the latter took Indochina, the Japanese military had launched a brilliant offensive in 1941–1942, starting with the December raid on Pearl Harbor that had destroyed an unprepared American sea-and-air armada. Next, Japan’s troops had taken over the American and European holdings in the Pacific, virtually without a struggle, while America devoted most of its energies to beating back Hitler’s armies in Europe and North Africa. Japan hoped its new empire—which it called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere—would make it self-sufficient in the oil, tin and rubber needed for its growing industrial economy. But the effort to secure and run such a far-flung empire was making Japan the victim of its own success.
 
            Its forces were spread so thinly across an area that ran from China to the South Seas that it risked losing all or part of its new colonies if the natives rebelled or the Allies invaded. Lacking the manpower to match its territorial ambitions, Japan relied in part on the fear inspired by the harshness of its occupation to keep the subject peoples in line.
 
            Japan really needed Borneo’s oil: In 1943 and 1944, it counted on Borneo for 40 percent of its fuel oil and 25 to 30 percent of its crude and heavy oils. By 1944, cutting off these Japanese oil supplies had become a major goal of the Thirteenth Air Force’s bomber arm.
 
            Liberator squadrons of the Bomber Barons had had increasing success bombing Japanese shipping, including the ships bringing oil home from Borneo. The Bomber Barons were not just attacking transport vessels; in October 1944, some squadrons had taken part in the massive naval battle of Leyte Gulf, in which the Japanese navy had lost close to a hundred ships, including three battleships, four carriers, six heavy and four light cruisers and eleven destroyers.
 
            With this naval victory, the Allies began to feel that a corner had been turned. From now on, the Allies reasoned, not only would the Japanese have more trouble protecting their shipping, but they would be unable to prevent the tropical islands from being liberated by the Allies and serving as stepping stones for the planned invasion of Japan itself. Moreover, the Imperial Navy now lacked enough carrier platforms for the fighter planes needed to protect the Japanese homeland from air attack.
 
            Today, Coberly’s squadron had been scheduled to attack a Japanese-held airfield in the central Philippines. But the previous night, after supper and a briefing on the morning’s raid, the men were watching an outdoor movie when they were summoned back to the briefing tent. Their mission had changed.
 
            They were now told to prepare for an attack against a Japanese heavy cruiser. There might also be an aircraft carrier, which had been seen “lazing along like a fat duck in Brunei Bay.” Their orders were to hit the largest ship. Coberly’s plane was quickly reloaded with weapons appropriate to its new mission: five one-thousand-pound, armor-piercing bombs.
 
            Before the predawn breakfast that Thursday, flight engineer/gunner Cpl. Jim Knoch and armor gunner Cpl. John Nelson decided to launder their khaki uniforms using a new technique. They tied their dirty clothes to a long rope and threw them into the dark surf at the edge of the airfield, so that the ebb and flow of the waves would scrub them clean by the time they returned from their mission. Like all such busy work before a combat flight, this helped the men avoid thinking about what was to come. Some men would play a little mind game, telling themselves, “Don’t worry, you’re dead already; you died last week,” to steel themselves for what might happen this time.
 
            The original crew of Coberly’s had been together since June 1944, when these airmen were assigned to phase training at March Field, near Riverside, California, not far from Los Angeles. Perhaps the most striking thing about Coberly’s was their youth. Tom Coberly himself, at twenty-two, was the eldest on board.
 
            Nineteen-year-old Cpl. Jim Knoch was the leader of the plane’s seven enlisted men, because of his position as flight engineer. Jim was tall, slim but powerfully built, with dark eyes, a permanent tan and dark blond curly hair. Though he liked to laugh and could play the clown, he had an imposing presence. He had been raised in Sacramento, the son of a mechanic with the Otis Elevator Company. His father hated bureaucracy and did not like being told what to do or how to do it. An only child, Jim had inherited his father’s skills and prejudices. At eighteen, he had become a crew chief, directing the grown men at McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento who were building the B-24, and he knew the plane intimately. Though he was one of only two in the crew from a blue-collar family, he had the respect of everyone in Coberly’s for his skill as an engineer and for his spunk.
 
            Jim led Coberly’s into practical jokes and minor acts of rebellion against authority. He had a mischievous sense of humor and did not mind flouting the rules. He had a natural gift for making things work and liked not only to repair but to prevent mechanical problems. Crewmates remembered one terrifying occasion when they had been on a training flight in a B-24 about twelve thousand feet above downtown Los Angeles. Jim was practicing pumping fuel from the bomb-bay tanks to the main-wing tanks when, without warning, all four engines quit. The plane sank like a stone to about three thousand feet before the pilot managed to get the engines restarted. The others would never forget how Jim had calmly continued the refueling until it was done.

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.
 
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at www.harcourt.com/contact or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Continues...

Excerpted from The Airmen and the Headhunters by Heimann, Judith M. Copyright © 2007 by Heimann, Judith M.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface     1
A B-24 Over Borneo     3
Into the Jungle     21
The D.O.'s Dilemma     35
"Good-bye, Mister"     57
Another Part of the forest     71
Becoming Lun Dayeh     81
A Letter from the Japanese     95
Polecat Gulch     109
The Pangeran Forces the Pace     131
The D.O. Declares War     147
The Navy Crashes In     165
Help from on High     189
SEMUT Finds Work for the Yanks     205
A Way Out     225
The Allies Arrive     243
Acknowledgments     261
Glossary     267
A Note on Sources     273
Index     281
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 12, 2009

    Captivating!

    Started reading it @ 9:00 a.m. Finished it @ 11:00 p.m. that same day. An unusual and little known story of WWII quite different than any other I've read. Combines elements of historical & sociological interest, humor, suspense, courage and savagery in an enthralling true life tale.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 15, 2012

    Excellent Book - stranger than fiction

    Stranger than fiction is an overused term that means real life usually one-ups fiction and that is a just description of this little know story. These events did not change the world but they do give us insight into how we (western civilization) has changed so many other civilizations. I

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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