'A Matter of Trust' Exhibition Opening, 12 April 2018

9 mins read
Professor Christine Helliwell, Australian National University
Professor Christine Helliwell from the Australian National University

Professor Christine Helliwell from the Australian National University delivering the opening speech for 'A Matter of Trust: Dayaks & Z Special Unit Operatives in Borneo 1945'.

In June or July of 1945 – in the final stages of World War 2 – Allan Russell, a 21-year-old member of Z Special Unit working on Operation Agas in Japanese-occupied British North Borneo, formed a remarkable alliance with a local Dusun man named Kulang. Kulang was trusted by the Japanese but worked as a double agent, passing crucial information about Japanese movements and activities to Allan and other Agas operatives.

Meanwhile, further inland in Sarawak, 24-year-old Jack Tredrea, a Z Special Unit operative working on Operation Semut, had formed a group of thirty Dayak guerrillas – Kelabits, Lun Bawangs, Ibans – with whom he travelled throughout the region from the highlands to the coast, clearing out the Japanese.

The special operations carried out in Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War 2 saw two remarkable groups of people come together: on the one hand, the operatives of Z Special Unit, forerunner of today’s SAS and Commando units; on the other hand, the indigenous Dayak peoples of Borneo.

Neither of these groups has ever received the recognition it deserves: the Z Special Unit men because of the highly secretive nature of the Unit and its operations, secrecy which continued to be maintained for 30 years after the War; the Dayaks because Western memorialisations of war tend to overlook the contributions and sacrifices made by the indigenous peoples on whose soils our wars are often fought.

So it is to the great credit of the Australian War Memorial that it has taken the lead in opening here today an exhibition that focuses on both of these groups as they took part in a series of special operations conducted in Borneo in 1945.

This exhibition comes out of a research project on World War 2 in Borneo conducted jointly by the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial, and funded by the Australian Research Council. Its two co-curators, Robyn van Dyk of the Australian War Memorial and myself from the Australian National University, are the two investigators on that research project, and the exhibition is a genuinely collaborative enterprise between the two institutions.

The exhibition focuses on three secret operations carried out by members of Z Special Unit behind Japanese lines in Borneo in 1945: Operation Agas in then British North Borneo, Operation Platypus in then Dutch Borneo and Operation Semut in Sarawak. These three operations all had as their aim the collection of intelligence in support of the Australian landings on Borneo that began in May 1945, and their success depended in large part on the support and assistance of the local Dayak peoples.

The exhibition highlights the partnerships established between the mostly very young Z Special Unit operatives on the one hand, and the Dayak peoples, who worked and fought beside them, on the other: the Bentian, Dusun, Iban, Kadazan, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah, Lun Bawang, Lun Dayeh, Murut, Penan, Punan, Tagals, among others.

And I should pause and note here that I know that the term ‘Dayak’ is used differently in different parts of Borneo: people in Sabah, for instance, use it quite differently from people in Kalimantan. I’m using the term in this speech, and we use it in the exhibition, in the way that contemporary scholars of Borneo use it: that is, to refer to all of the traditionally pagan (today mostly Christian) indigenous groups of Borneo.

The military historian Alan Powell has commented that perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Operation Semut was the fact that young, mostly Australian, men were able to live with and fight beside the people of a world they had barely heard of before they entered it, a world profoundly different from their own. While his observation is about Operation Semut it in fact holds true for many of the Borneo World War 2 special operations, including Agas and Platypus.

The differences between Australian operatives and Dayaks in 1945 were immense, as the photographs and objects spread around the exhibition should make clear. These two groups were universes apart in terms of religious beliefs, social practices and general outlook on life.

These differences existed even at the most mundane daily levels. Take food for example. Rice was the basic foodstuff for almost all Dayaks at the time (they grew it themselves), but many of the operatives had never eaten rice before they joined the army – had never even seen it before except, perhaps, as something that was cooked into sweet puddings. And they’d certainly never imagined eating bamboo shoots, say, or fern fronds, or monkey.

And take the environment. Dayaks in 1945 mostly lived in the astonishing, vast, ancient rainforests that then carpeted the island (these were still there when I first worked on Borneo over 30 years ago, but now, tragically, are almost all gone). There they built magnificent longhouses, high above the ground, mostly along the banks of rivers, full of noise and movement and activity. Again, all this was completely alien to the experience of most operatives.

Remember, too, that these two groups often had no language in common and were reduced to communicating in sign language mixed with very rudimentary Malay.

And yet, in spite of their differences, these two groups in general shared the qualities of courage and determination, as well as a desire to fight the Japanese. And so, extraordinary though it seems, they found ways to bridge their differences.

As a result, under the most extreme of circumstances, with the possibility of betrayal a constant threat, these two groups found ways to trust one another. Hence the name of our exhibition: ‘A Matter of Trust’.

And out of that trust came not simply effective military action – large amounts of intelligence collected, thousands of Japanese killed – but also genuine friendship and respect. Indeed, many operatives and their families went on to establish long-term relationships with Borneo and its Dayaks peoples, relationships that persist to this day.

The stories of Agas, Platypus and Semut that we look at in this exhibition have so, so, so many heroes. Four of them are with us in this room – four remarkable men out of the five still alive who served as Z Special Unit operatives in Borneo.

Allan Russell of Operation Agas 1, who trekked the steamy jungles of Japanese-occupied British North Borneo –full of Japanese (this was the part of Borneo with by far the highest concentration of Japanese) and home to the appalling prisoner-of-war camps at Sandakan and Ranau – for four months, mostly on his own, surveying and documenting Japanese movements.

Barney Schinckel, a radio operator of Operation Agas 4, who transmitted and received messages for three months, part of the time from behind Japanese lines, in both British North Borneo and Sarawak, from areas full of Japanese.

Jack Tredrea of Operation Semut 1, who parachuted into the remote Kelabit Highlands of Sarawak without knowing who or what he would find there, recruited a Dayak guerrilla force, and travelled with them through dense jungle terrain for over six months, clearing the Japanese out of the area from the highlands to the east coast.

And Bill Beiers of Operation Semut 3, who engaged in ‘mopping-up’ exercises against the Japanese down the Rejang River in Sarawak in the final days after the formal Japanese surrender, when many of those Japanese who remained had refused to surrender and were, in many respects, at their most dangerous.

And of course if we’re talking of heroes we must mention all the other men who served on these three operations: more than two hundred operatives in all, around twelve of whom died, mostly on the particularly perilous Operation Platypus.

So, so so many heroes.

Because we must add to this list those Muruts in British North Borneo who attacked and set fire to Japanese munitions dumps. We must add the Iban men who, working with Semut 3 operatives in Sarawak, perched on top of Japanese dugouts during Allied air-raids and ambushed the Japanese soldiers as they emerged after the raids. We must add the Dayaks from many different groups who ambushed and killed Japanese travelling in the jungles – to such a degree that the Japanese in Borneo became terrified of entering the jungles. We must add the Dayak guides, possibly Bentian or Paser, working with Japanese soldiers around Balikpapan, who deliberately led the Japanese away from where Platypus 1 operatives, who had mistakenly been landed in areas full of Japanese, were hiding for their lives. We must add the Dusuns who sheltered several of the Australian survivors of the Sandakan–Ranau death marches, and who somehow managed to get them to Agas operatives, in spite of all the Japanese in the area.

And we must surely also add the people in village after village throughout the region who took the operatives in when they arrived at their longhouses. We must add the women who fed the operatives, sometimes taking food to them in the jungles when it was too dangerous for them to stay in longhouses.

And we must note that many more Dayak irregulars died working for these operations than did Australian soldiers.

Before I end I must add some further thankyous to those already made by Brian Dawson.

Firstly, to my friend and co-curator Robyn van Dyk, without whose incredibly hard work, enthusiasm and professionalism, this exhibition – and the larger research project on which it is based – would not have been possible.

Secondly, to Valerie Mashman, Research Associate on this project in 2015, who travelled with me in Sarawak that year seeking out and interviewing elderly Dayaks who still remembered the war. Valerie has come all the way from Sarawak to be at this opening.

Thirdly to my student Trixie Tangit, who has helped in so many ways, has sorted out many problems with both exhibition and broader project, and has also helped with translation of Dayak narratives. A number of other people have also very generously helped with translation from Dayak languages, and I thank them as well: Jinap Ato, Lyndale Cooper, Michael Heppell and Charles Pasang.

And finally I want to acknowledge and thank those Dayak people who have come to this opening, some of whom have travelled long distances to be here. We have in this room Dusuns, Kadazans, Kelabits and Lun Bawangs. I’m thrilled that you’re able to share in this very special moment with us.

When I first mooted this exhibition to my friend Jack Tredrea several years ago he said: “Well, I hope it’s going to show how much the Dayaks helped us. We were nothing without them”. And in this he reflects the sentiments of most of the Z Special operatives who served in Borneo.

Similarly, when I told Basar Paru, a 92-year-old Lun Bawang man, in 2015 that Lun Bawang and other Dayaks would be featured in the exhibition, he said: “That’s as it should be. The white soldiers came. They were good, brave. But we were also brave”.

These two statements reference a very special partnership. We hope that we’ve done credit to it in this exhibition, which I now declare open.

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