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A WWII Tale of 'The Airmen and the Headhunters'

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Author and retired U.S. diplomat Judith Heimann was researching her first book, The Most Offending Soul Alive, about British Army Major Tom Harrisson, when she came across a letter addressed to him that sparked book No. 2. The Airmen and the Headhunters is the fascinating tale of an event that took place in the final year of World War II. A small band of U.S. Army airmen parachuted into the dense jungles of Borneo after being shot down by the Japanese.

"Remember, these folks had no radio," says Heimann. "They had no briefing materials. And all they knew of the world's third biggest [island] could be summed up in the Barnum and Bailey Circus phrase, 'the wild men of Borneo.' These 'wild men' had been headhunters ... and, who knows, maybe some of them still were."

Heimann, who speaks Indonesian and lived in Borneo during her diplomatic days, pieced together the narrative through interviews with all of the surviving airmen and tribespeople. The Dayaks, as they're called, had never written anything down, she says.

"What happens to us ... is that the written word replaces our memory and then becomes the fact for all purposes." This story, on the other hand, "was still in their heads the way it had happened then."

By all accounts, Heimann says, it was the young airmen's good behavior that saved them: They acted like guests, not soldiers. In return they were fed, clothed and hidden from the Japanese until their dramatic rescue — with Major Harrisson's help — seven months later.

Heimann recently published an opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune, titled "Guests Can Succeed Where Occupiers Fail." It suggests that U.S. soldiers might try a similarly respectful approach today. She writes: "Our huge footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan may be hurting more than it helps."

This discussion of The Airmen and the Headhunters took place earlier this month at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.