Those who say that we’re in a time when there are no heroes, they just don’t know where to look.

– Ronald Reagan, USA’s 40th president

Eight VAT 69 Police Commandos were scheduled to parachute from aircraft over Bario on March 25 to re-enact Major Tom Harrisson World War II jump over this highland village 75 years ago.

However, this historic event was called off – no thanks to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and the movement control order (MCO) staring March 18.

Rurum Kelabit president Dr Philip Raja lamented that arrangements had already been made for this unique event which had the blessing of the Inspector General of Police as March 25 is also Police Day.

On this historic day 75 years ago, Harrisson’s mission with his “magnificent” seven Allied Forces commandos belonging to the elite Semut 1 espionage group, parachuted over the remote village of Bario to raise an army of native highlanders to fight the Japanese.

Harrisson’s heroes included his second in command Captain Eric Edmeades, Warrant officer R. D. Cussack and Sgts Jack Tredrea, Fred Sanderson, K. W. Hallam, D. H. Bower and J. J. Barrie

During the 1945 mission, Harrisson decided to jump “blind” into what was a sea of clouds which overwhelmed the whole region.

After several failed attempts to identify where Bario was located, pilot Lt Graham Pockley agreed to complete the job because the Liberator aircraft could have been shot at by the Japanese or at worst, run out fuel.

Indeed, Pockley’s aircraft did not return to base as it is believed to have crashed into the sea on the return journey.

Harrisson had to accomplish this “do or die” mission at all costs. The commandos were fully armed for battle, and were given a cyanide suicide tablet each – just in case they were caught.

When the eight parachutists floated down to earth, the natives thought they were angels from heaven bringing essentials such as food and medicines.   

As the story goes, Harrisson later requested for brassieres to be distributed to the bare-breasted womenfolk; apparently to prevent his men from ogling young Kelabit maidens. In fact, the major had threatened to shoot anyone found fraternising with the womenfolk.

In the first month Harrisson had set up his headquarters at Belawit across the border. H started building a bamboo airstrip with the help of 1,000 Kalimantan Muruts (Lun Dayeh).

The airstrip – the first of its kind in the world – was later used to evacuate about a dozen American airmen who had been shot down by the Japanese in Limbang and Kalimantan.

During the six-month resistance, the European soldiers lived like their native hosts – walking barefoot in the jungle with their uniforms torn to shreds from overuse.

The commandos and the natives were involved in covert operations extending over hundreds of miles; from Bario to Limbang on the Sarawak coast, to southern Sabah and across the Kalimantan border where Semut launched “hit and run” attacks on remote Japanese outposts. 

By the time Maj-Gen Yamamura, commander of the Japanese garrison, surrendered at Pending in Kuching on September 11, 1945, Semut 1 and three subsequent operations had resulted in a tally of more than 1,000 deaths of members of the Japanese Imperial Army throughout Sarawak.

After the war, the decision to follow the ways of the Europeans had a profound effect on their lives because on February 2, 1946 – five months after the Japanese surrendered – Harrisson and Penghulu Lawai Besara had helped build the first Kelabit School in Bario.

The school was run by an Indonesian missionary “Guru” Paul Kohuan and “Cikgu” Agan Raja, one of the first Kelabits to be educated at an American-run bible college-cum-school at Belawit, just across the border,

Among the first batch of 27 Kelabits were students ranging from six-year-old Petrus Lawai Busan and married adults as well as personalities such as Henry Jalla, the father of former Minister in the Prime Ministers’ Department Datuk Idris Jalla, and the first medical practitioner “Ulu Dresser” Ngimat Ayu. 

Later, both teacher Henry Jalla and Ngimat Ayu, now deceased, rose to become Kelabit “Pemanca” or paramount chiefs.

Dr Philip Raja, a pediatric cardiologist, said that a large group of at least 60 Australians, New Zealanders and Americans including the off-spring of Sgt Jack Tredrea and Sgt Sanderson, had to put off their trip.

He said that next year Rurum hopes to organise a “Two-in-One” grand ceremony for the years of 2020 and 2021.

“Together with the help of former army general Stephen Mundaw and the IGP we hope to make a bigger event. This will show our thanks to not only Harrisson’s heroes but also our own local pioneers who were willing to sacrifice themselves for peace.”

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.