Six hours by long boat from the nearest town, the Indonesian village of Lung Barang is not where one would expect to find a story fitting of Memorial Day. Possessing neither strategic value nor storied battlefield, this indigenous village nestled in the Borneo rainforest attracts the occasional adventure-seeking tourist but rarely the military historian.
Yet, like few other places in this part of Borneo — the world’s third-largest island, split between Indonesia, Brunei and Malaysia — Lung Barang’s dense environs mask a remarkable chapter in U.S. military history.
In March of this year, alongside two colleagues from the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia, I traveled to Lung Barang to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the village’s role in saving the lives of 11 U.S. airmen during World War II.
Brilliantly told in Judith Heimann’s 2007 book, “The Airmen and the Headhunters,” the airmen were survivors of two U.S. bombers shot down over Borneo by Japanese forces in November 1944 and January 1945. Members of the 13th U.S. Army Air Force and the Navy’s Patrol Bombing Squadron 101, the crews were among the thousands of Allied forces stationed on Morotai, a small nearby island liberated in September 1944 by General Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign in the southwest Pacific.
The 11 airmen survived because of the ingenuity and bravery of the area’s indigenous people, known as Dayaks, who sheltered the Americans soon after they crashed into Borneo, and later hid them from Japanese troops until their final rescue by an Australian-British-New Zealand special forces team in June 1945.
This amazing rescue was hardly foreordained. As Heimann relays in her book, Japanese forces — which had occupied Borneo in 1941 seeking its rich oil deposits — soon came to Lung Barang, demanding the Dayaks’ assistance in capturing the airmen. The Dayaks instead outsmarted the Japanese, leading them on fruitless searches through the impenetrable Borneo rainforest, always careful to stay far from where they had sheltered their American charges. When Japanese pressure intensified, tribespeople used even more elaborate ruses to divide and confuse their pursuers.
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Why did the Dayaks — at great personal risk — decide to help the Americans? Why would an indigenous people still largely isolated from the war decide to choose sides and invite the almost certain Japanese reprisals?
It was partly a desire to find answers to these questions that inspired our March trip to Lung Barang. According to our conversations, including with one of the original Dayak rescuers and the children and grandchildren of others, it was the Dayaks’ respect for American values of fairness, integrity and tolerance, learned through the area’s positive experience with North American missionaries in the 1930s.
I was struck by how sentiments seemingly so simple — the feeling of being treated as an equal (behavior that was admittedly in short supply in wartime and, earlier, Dutch-colonial Borneo) — could motivate people to risk their lives, and remain etched in their memories through generations.
Yet, for the Dayaks, those values were worth fighting for. And they remain one of America’s strongest attractions. Along with our commitment to democracy and liberty, they provide the moral foundation of our foreign policy.
That lesson is worth remembering on Memorial Day. It was, after all, to preserve these very values that so many of our wartime sacrifices were made. As we gather to remember the American men and women who “gave the last full measure of devotion,” we should also remember those who served alongside them. Honoring them, and the reasons that motivated them, will help ensure the memory of their collective sacrifices never fades.