>As The Courtier has rather a busy day today, I wanted to just briefly commend to you an excellent and absolutely fascinating documentary I caught on PBS’ “Secrets of the Dead” series last night, entitled “The Airmen and the Headhunters”, which originally premiered back in November (the full episode is available here.) Based on the book of the same name by historian Judith Heimann, the film tells the story of U.S. airmen downed over Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War II. The local tribes, despite their fierce reputation, not only kept the men safe by hiding them deeper and deeper in the jungle, but with the help of British special forces, eventually formed themselves into guerrilla units to attack the Japanese troops who were in occupation of the island.
Among the tactics used by the Dayak people to take back their island and to defend the Allies, one of the most effective was the shooting of a poisoned dart from a blow gun. As one of the warriors explained, if you shoot an enemy with a handgun or a rifle, they might survive. On the other hand, if you even pricked the little finger of an enemy combatant with a shot from a poisoned dart blow gun, the fellow was sure to die.
As part of their efforts, the Dayaks brought back the abandoned custom of taking the heads of enemies killed in combat, smoking them over an open fire to cure them, and then distributing them among the villages. This was not done for the purpose of cannibalism, but rather as part of their cultural rituals. Dan Illerich, the only one of the airmen still with us today, was asked about what he thought of the practice; his very reasoned response was that as he was a guest in their country, and as the Dayak people were going to great lengths to protect and care for him and his fellow airmen, he was hardly in a position to criticize their practices. One of the tribesmen, who had been horribly tortured by the Japanese and permanently scarred, was pleased in 1945 to accept from his fellow tribesmen the head of the chief of the Japanese police force, who had been responsible for ordering his torture.
Despite the element of gruesomeness, the film does not dwell in any particularly gory detail on this part of the story. There are photographs of heads, yes, but not so as to be offensive to any but the most sensitive and ladylike of temperaments. Although wartime documentaries are not, in general, films which I usually find interesting, there is something very inspiring and Tolkien-esque about this relatively unknown bit of history, as the reader will readily appreciate. The supposedly unsophisticated but generous and kind-hearted Dayaks rising up for themselves, despite the overwhelming military advantage of the Japanese, cannot help but put one in mind, if even slightly, of the Hobbits.