Listen

Read

Watch

Schedules

Programs

Events

Give

Account

Donation Heart Ribbon

SECRETS OF THE DEAD: Airmen And The Headhunters

Airs Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: WWII veteran, American Dan Illerich, the sole surviving downed airman rescued by the Dayak tribesmen, pictured in Pearland, Texas, with a L-3 Aeronca, a light aircrft similar to the plane in which he was rescued from Borneo.

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.

British Major Tom Harrisson and some of his Australian commandoes on the bamboo airstrip in June, 1945. Harrisson and his men launched an audacious rescue plan to get the U.S. airmen out of Borneo. To the right of the flagpoles is the head of a senior Japanese official, brought to Harrisson as a gift from one of the local headmen.
Enlarge this image

Above: British Major Tom Harrisson and some of his Australian commandoes on the bamboo airstrip in June, 1945. Harrisson and his men launched an audacious rescue plan to get the U.S. airmen out of Borneo. To the right of the flagpoles is the head of a senior Japanese official, brought to Harrisson as a gift from one of the local headmen.

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

In this photo gallery, see archival images, stills from reenactments, and images of the men today who lived “The Airmen And The Headhunters.” Watch the full episode online.

Video

Preview: Secrets Of The Dead: Airmen And The Headhunters

Above: This documentary investigates the extraordinary survival story of a crew of airmen shot down over the jungles of Japanese-occupied Borneo during World War II. The film recounts the rescue of a U.S. bomber crew by Dayak tribesmen, known for taking the heads of their enemies.

Forgot your password?