16 Jan 2022

Book details young NZ soldiers' role in foiling Japanese army in Borneo

8:23 pm on 16 January 2022

A top secret operation in Borneo during World War II to make the lives of the occupying Japanese Army difficult, which involved New Zealanders, has finally been detailed in a book.

It is written by New Zealand-born anthropologist Christine Helliwell, who worked in Borneo for 40 years with the Dayak people.

She used this knowledge, plus the help of the few existing war records, to build a picture of Special Operations Australia, or more popularly known as Z-Special Unit.

Major Toby Carter and Kelabt chief Dita Bala

Major Toby Carter and Kelabt chief Dita Bala Photo: Supplied / Christine Helliwell

Her book, Semut, tells the story of one particular special secret operation, which was undertaken in March 1945.

Helliwell said the unit was carrying out highly secret and very dangerous operations throughout the war in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

''Parachuting in behind enemy lines or being landed by submarines on islands that were occupied by the Japanese. This was very, very dangerous work. They had a very high attrition rate.''

She said they were often just spying out the territory trying to work out what Japanese movements there were, how many were there, but sometimes they were actually engaging in sabotage, by blowing things up.

"Sometimes, as in Operation Semut, they were actually recruiting secret armies from locals to wage secret war against the Japanese. There were a whole range of activities that they were engaged in. As you can tell they were very dangerous activities. They were very brave men.''

Operation Semut was led by New Zealander, Major Toby Carter, who had long experience of Borneo having worked there as a surveyor for 10 years prior to the war. He ended the war with the Distinguished Service Order, DSO.

Seven of the men who took part in Operation Semut were New Zealanders.

She said the operation was planned very carefully and it was one of the last operations carried out by Z Special Unit.

"It was all about winning the hearts and minds of the local Dayak people.''

The operatives being sent in were given rudimentary training in some of the local languages.

''They taught them the real basics of Dayak culture. The courtesies you needed to follow when you climbed up into a long-house in order not to alienate people. They taught them all of these kind of things with the idea being that it was absolutely crucial to get locals on side.''

Helliwell said it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the local people would welcome Allied operatives.

''We whites like to think that local indigenous people are just going to love the Europeans, well certainly that is what people thought back in those days. There was the idea that the locals would want to support them. This wasn't actually the case.

"Dayaks were basically use to having to deal with people from outside, whether they were Europeans, whether they were Japanese or Malays, who came in wanting to rule them. So their lives were kind of oriented to a recognition that there was always going to be people from outside trying to rule them.''

Fed up with Japanese

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A Semut II Iban guerrilla Photo: Supplied / Christine Helliwell

She said initially no one ruler was deemed any worse than the others.

''The Japanese came and threw out the white colonial regimes, they took over and most Dayaks sort of accepted that. That's ok, it's just another external ruler, but after three years the Japanese had behaved so badly that by 1945 when the operation took place, locals were fed up with the Japanese.''

She said they were prepared to join forces with any allied groups that came in.

Helliwell said by that stage Z-Special Unit had recognised the crucial need to get locals on board and had recognised they couldn't just take for granted that locals would help.

She said in earlier operations there had been a large number of complete disasters.

''People being landed in islands like Timor where they were betrayed to the Japanese. They were captured and killed. This happened in quite a number of places so they had learned by this time that they had to plan properly to get locals on side.''

Helliwell said Z-Special Unit managed to develop large guerrilla armies mostly composed of Dayak people who took the Japanese on in a secret war.

''Not like conventional forces, they don't take people on in open warfare. This was jungle warfare. This was warfare down the rivers and through the jungles of Borneo. They were ambushing Japanese patrols, they were tracking Japanese, attacking them when they least expected, while they were sleeping and so on.''

She said they drove the Japanese down the two main rivers in Sarawak.

''They drove them down these rivers towards the coast and actually managed to prevent them from coming back up these rivers again as the Japanese wanted to do when the Australians invaded Borneo in June 1945.''

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A Semut II canoe on Baram River. Photo: Supplied / Christine Helliwell

By the end of World War II around 1700 had worked for Z Special Unit. The majority were support personnel and around 380 took part in the special operations.

Helliwell said there were 23 New Zealanders in the unit, however, there may have been more because it has been very difficult to get accurate information as all files were destroyed at the end of the war.

Nineteen of the 23 were operatives and four were killed on operations.

One of them was Major Donald Stott, who was killed in another Z Special Unit operation in Borneo. He won the DSO and Bar.

Z Special Unit recruited from a number of allied countries and looked for men who were seeking something different.

''These were men who got easily bored with the routines of standard military life. They were men who showed initiative, they were men who showed daring. They wanted to do unusual things.

"They were all volunteers having seen advertisements or having been approached by the recruiters who would approach men who had broken the rules in some way. They might have gone AWOL or something. After they had served their period of being locked up for a week or whatever, there would be someone from Z Special Unit waiting for them.

''They were seeking men who were prepared to think outside the box.''

Sad to wait so long for recognition

Most of the men who took part were very young.

''They were 20, 21, 22, they were just kids by today's standards. They went into this place with the only thing they knew about Borneo was that it was inhabited by head-hunters and that it was covered with jungle.''

Helliwell said the role of Z Special Unit in operations like Semut and many others played an important role in the war and the subsequent Allied victory.

She said it was sad that the contribution of New Zealanders has never been acknowledged.

''I know that the families of those men who took part in Z Special Unit, the New Zealand families feel regretful that this has never properly been recognised in New Zealand, because they were very, very brave men.''

Helliwell interviewed over 100 Dayak people in Borneo for her book in 2015 and 2018 and they remembered the operatives with remarkable fondness.

''They remembered their sense of humour, their kindness and similarly the operatives talked about the Dayak people in exactly the same terms.

''There was this quite remarkable bond that was formed between these two groups.''

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