Major Tom Harnett Harrisson DSO OBE (1911-1976) , was a British polymath (someone whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas...) In the course of his life he was a Broadcaster, journalist, explorer Soldier, Guerilla fighter ethnologist, museum curator, archaeologist, documentarian, film-maker, conservationist and writer. Harrisson was born in Argentina, educated in England at Cambridge, conducted ornithological and anthropological research in Sarawak region of Borneo (1932) and later the New Hebrides (1933-5).Former U.S.
Diplomat Judith Heimann and friend of Harrisson's and author of books on both the airmen and the headhunters and Harrisson himself, describe him as wild as any headhunter more specifically: "the most offending man alive ...A romantic polymath, a drunken bully, an original-thinking iconoclast, a dreadful husband and father, a fearless adventurer, a Richard Burton of his time...[truly] the most offending soul alive. " For those of you too young to remember Richard Burton the Actor to whom she refers, he really was one to the true pioneering 'genius bad boys' British stage and film ,and Harrisson was to have been able to have run circles around him. Harrisson's dark side; hot-tempered, arrogant, hard drinking, with a lifelong penchant for making enemies, he 'married once, probably twice for money' and virtually abandoned his schizophrenic son."
But during the war after initial service in the enlisted ranks, Harrisson was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Reconnaissance Corps on 21 November 1943.He had been recruited (some sources say by a confusion of names, despite his apparent suitability) for a plan to use the native peoples of Borneo against the Japanes On 25 March 1945, Major Harrisson and seven other Z- Force operatives, parachuted from an Australian B-24 Liberator onto a high plateau thus commencing Operation Semut I. The plateau was occupied by the Kelabit head hunters who had until then had not had any communication with the British or Australians (since the War and none spoke english. Harrisson spoke some decent bahasa and was able to communicate with some of the villagers who also happen to speak bahasa which, was not so common at the time. The Liberator that dropped them would be lost on the flight back to Australia after getting shot down whilst attempting to bomb a Japanese destroyer and was neither heard from or seen again by a second Liberator which was aware of the bombing attempt.)
An indigenous people of the Sarawak highlands in Borneo, the Kelabit tribe, lived at a high elevation on a plateau slightly over 1,200 meters. Because there are few roads and the area is largely inaccessible by river because of rapids, the highlands and the Kelabit are relatively untouched by modern western influences. There, tightly knit communities live in inherited long houses and practice a generations-old form of agriculture - they are cultivators of wet paddy in the Bario plains. Hunting and fishing was a norm as was the occassional head hunting.
As the allies moved in to drive the occupying Japanese force of 30,000 troops from North Borneo, the Kelabit, like other natives of Borneo, were co-opted by Harrisson and his Z Force party into fighting the Japanese. His pre-war experience in Borneo and very basic bahasa was invaluable to organizing the tribes as a combat. Harrisson would lead the Semut I operations (one of four Semut operations in the area), which parachuted into their midst in 1945 to make contact; they were supplied weapons by the Australian military and played an essential role in the liberation of Borneo.
As expected from a leader like Harrisson, report from those who commanded him and served under him both loved and hated him. His wild seat of the pants eccentric style of leadership was often not approved by his cadre, but adored by the natives. But he and the few dozen Australian Z Force men under him did train the natives and they were successful in not only killing or capturing some 2,000 Japanese soldiers, but were also able to provide the Allies with intelligence vital in securing Japanese-held oil fields in Sarawak and Brunei. Initially Harrisson established his base at Bario; then, in late May, shifted to Belawit in the Bawang valley (inside the former Dutch Borneo) in modern day Kalimantan. Upon the completion of an airstrip for light aircraft built entirely with native labour and bamboo, it would serve the unit as an intelligence gathering center, radio station and insertion/extraction point for Z Force operatives and US aircrews shot down in the area.
In mid-April, another senior officer by the name of Carter and his team (SEMUT 2) parachuted into Bario, by then securely a Z Force base with full support of the Kelabit people. Shortly after their arrival, members of SEMUT 2 moved to the Baram valley and established themselves at Long Akah, the heartland of the Kenyahs. Carter also received assistance from the Kayans. Moving out from Carter's party in late May, another senior office by the name of Sochon led SEMUT 3 to Belaga in the Upper Rejang where he set up his base of operation. Kayans and Ibans supported and participated in SEMUT 3 operations. The nomadic Punans also extended a helping hand to Sochon and his comrades.
Not knowing Harrisson's personal politics, his actions make him an eccentric idealist. He embraced indigenous people and did become a protector of, and advocate for them, at odds with traditional anthropologists. Harrisson was a forerunner of the contemporary movement to preserve local cultures and ecosystems... a sold conservationist -- something even special forces units contend with from time to time... However even his legend shortly became overshadowed before the exploits could be shared over a long house camp fire, they were swallowed up by the tide of General MacArthur…and history for the most part, has forgotten this outstanding Force Z operative. But for a few.
|Last Updated on Friday, 23 December 2011 14:05|