Australian War Memorial exhibition to be launched at Bario Community Museum on March 25

Major Gordon “Toby” Carter, officer commanding the Semut operations took photographs of some of the Dayaks that he worked with. This photograph is of Dita Bala, a Kelabit chief from Long Dati, and Carter who was in the Z Special Unit, commanding Officer Operation Semut, Sarawak, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

KUCHING, March 23: An Australian war memorial exhibition titled ‘A Matter of Trust: Dayaks & Z Special Unit Operatives in Borneo 1945’ is set to be launched at Bario Community Museum on March 25.

The exhibition will be open at the Bario Community Museum from March 25 to August 25 on Mondays Wednesdays and Saturdays (4-6pm) or by appointment.

Z Special Unit operatives inserted into Borneo in 1945 were on top secret missions to gather intelligence and to train and arm local peoples, many of whom had already been conducting guerrilla warfare against the Japanese.


The operatives were trained in unarmed combat and how to survive in the jungle. They were briefed not to keep cameras, diaries or notes. The records if captured could endanger the mission and reveal vital intelligence.

Despite this, some of the operatives brought cameras with them and others kept records. Some of these photographs and records are on display as part of the exhibition A Matter of Trust. The photographs provide a unique visual record of the island of Borneo and of the people these operatives fought alongside in 1945.

The exhibition is jointly curated by Professor Dr Christine Helliwell of the Australian National University and Robyn van Dyk of the Australian War Memorial.

According to a press release, this exhibition explores the work of Dayaks and Z Special Unit operatives in Borneo in bringing about the end of Japanese occupation.

The Japanese invaded Borneo in 1941. Despite the risks involved, local populations began supporting the Allies, as they disliked the occupation of Borneo by the Japanese.

Covert Allied operations were organised to insert trained operatives behind enemy lines to gather intelligence and train and arm local peoples, many of whom had already been conducting guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. The highly trained operatives, most of whom were Australians serving in the Z Special Unit, lived and worked in difficult jungle terrain at constant risk of discovery by the Japanese, and depended heavily on support and assistance from the Dayaks.

The exhibition explores the work of Z Special Unit operatives in Borneo and the relationships they developed with the indigenous populations.

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. In the face of discovery and Japanese reprisals, Dayaks and operatives discovered surprising affinities and formed remarkable alliances.

Neither of these groups has ever received the recognition they deserved: 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 the wars were often fought.

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.

Operation Semut took place in the highlands of Sarawak. At midnight on March 25, 1945, a reconnaissance party of eight men under the command of Major Tom Harrisson set off from their base in the Philippines, heading deep into Sarawak’s remote and uncharted highlands.

The men parachuted in close to the longhouse at Bario, and gained the support of the local Kelabit and Lun Bawang people. In the space of just one day, more than 500 locals had come to Bario to help with the operation.

The Australians also had no idea whether the Japanese were in the area. Jack Tredrea, a surviving veteran of Operation Semut 1, remembers being issued with a cyanide pill to swallow if he was captured. The party landed not far from the longhouse of Bario, but their stores were scattered over several kilometres. Soon villagers carrying a white flag came towards them; runners were sent to nearby villages, and by nightfall over 500 people had come in to help find the scattered stores.

One of the two B24 Liberator bombers that dropped the Semut recce party at Bario never made it back to base.

There were three main Semut operations, with a fourth coming in at the end of the campaign to help with “mopping up” activities. They mostly operated in the rugged inland areas of Sarawak, often in dense jungle inhabited only by Dayaks. Travel was either by foot or by river, and was dependent on assistance from the local people.

Chiefs within three days’ walk assembled to discuss the question of supporting the Australians. The Kelabits had no direct experience of the war but had felt its effects, like most people on the island, because they were prevented from trading. They were experiencing great hardship from a lack of medicine and food, and they feared Japanese reprisals if they helped the Allied party.

Harrisson wrote: “I rather think the people who dropped us in half-expected the headhunting hill tribes to chop our heads off as we touched down. But they didn’t. Within a few days it was obvious we could rely on one hundred percent support from them.”

In a festive atmosphere, a significant amount of borak, a local rice wine, was consumed before the men went off on their covert missions.

The war in Borneo ended with the official surrender of the Japanese 37th Army by Lieutenant General Baba Masao on Labuan on September 10, 1945.

But there were many incidents in which Japanese troops ignored the surrender or refused to believe it. It was a difficult situation for the SRD operatives who had pledged to support the locals of the interior and now had official orders to cease hostilities. However, by the end of October civil order was generally restored and a temporary administration installed. The Semut operations in Borneo had been a success, but that had only been made possible with the support of the local indigenous peoples.

Text adapted from material from the Australian War Memorial.

— DayakDaily