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U.S. Airmen and Tribe Face Enemy in Survival Story

In late 1944, seven U.S. Army airmen crashed on the island of Borneo and were thrown into an unexpected game of Survivor.

The shaken men, whose B-24 bombers had been shot down by the Japanese, emerged from their tattered parachutes and began making their way through the wreckage. But soon the island's native Dayak tribesmen — who were formerly headhunters — silently appeared in the jungle and took the confused men to their tribal leader.

In her new book, The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II, Judith Heimann recounts the survival story that followed the airmen's rescue by the Dayak.

Heimann, who spent seven years living in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, speaks Indonesian. To research her book, she traveled to three continents, interviewing surviving Dayaks and airmen. The tribesmen cared for the starving and sick survivors and protected them against the Japanese, who were searching the island for the men. The Japanese sent patrols into the jungle, but native guides led them astray.

Eventually the Japanese realized they were being deceived, a discovery that lead to a showdown with the Dayak. It took four months before the Australian special forces could organize resistance to the Japanese and two more months before the men could fly off the island.

Jacki Lyden spoke with Heimann and Dan Illerich, a crash survivor who was a radio operator on a B-24 bomber.

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