“Semut: The Untold Story of a Secret Australian Operation in WWII Borneo” by Christine Helliwell

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The fighting on Borneo during World War II is often forgotten because in the larger picture of the Pacific War it was relatively insignificant compared to the battles in New Guinea, the Philippines, and smaller islands of the central Pacific and southwest Pacific. The fighting on Borneo occurred near the end of the war between March and September 1945. Most of the heavy fighting took place on the small island of Tarakan, along the east coast near Balikpapan, and in Northern Borneo along the coast near Laubuan. 

There was also, however, guerrilla warfare that involved a relative handful of soldiers and indigenous civilians. Casualties in the guerrilla war were comparatively light. Australian anthropologist Christine Helliwell is devoting two lengthy volumes to the story of those special services operations entitled Semut: The Untold Story of a Secret Australian Operation in WWII Borneo.

 

Semut: The Untold Story of a Secret Australian Operation in WWII Borneo, Christine Helliwell (Michael Joseph Australia, paperback edition, July 2022)
Semut: The Untold Story of a Secret Australian Operation in WWII Borneo, Christine Helliwell (Michael Joseph Australia, paperback edition, July 2022)

The “untold story” part of the guerrilla campaign is the contribution of Borneo’s indigenous peoples to the Allied efforts. Helliwell has studied the indigenous peoples of Borneo, especially the Dayaks, for forty years. She lived among the indigenous peoples and grew to admire them, and learned stories of their wartime heroism that had never appeared or simply had disappeared into history.

Her book is about the Australian, British, New Zealand, and Canadian special services soldiers of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD) who were inserted into the jungles of Borneo to recruit local tribesmen to establish guerrilla networks to conduct clandestine operations against the Japanese occupiers. It was called Operation Semut, a Malay word for ant. The operation was divided into four separately-commanded but related campaigns. Helliwell’s first volume focuses on the activities of Semut II and III, teams of special service troops and Dayaks and other indigenous volunteers who operated in the large Sarawak region of Borneo.

The forces for Operation Semut were placed under the overall command of US General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded Allied forces in the southwest Pacific. Helliwell notes that MacArthur’s successful New Guinea campaign paved the way for the subsequent landings in the Philippines and the planned landings at Brunei Bay on Borneo. Ever since leaving the Philippines in early 1942, MacArthur recognized the opportunities for, and the value of, establishing guerrilla networks in lands conquered by Japanese forces, who routinely treated the conquered peoples with cruelty and savagery. Helliwell notes that Japan’s occupation of Borneo “brought only a steady deterioration in the quality of life for most inland Dayaks.” To be sure, the Dayaks never cared very much for European (British and Dutch) rule either, but the war and Japanese atrocities made them ripe for recruitment by the Allies.

Helliwell notes the daring and leadership qualities of the SRD commanders, especially Captain Toby Carter, a New Zealander who led Semut II in the region dominated by the Barum River in northwest Sarawak, and Australian Captain WLP Sochon who commanded Semut III in the region of the Rejang River located in the center of Sarawak. The forces under their command endured and overcame the challenges of the Borneo jungles, which included intense heat and humidity, heavy rains, deep mud, ubiquitous leeches and mosquitoes, steep terrain, rough and rocky ground made dark by giant trees. But that was only possible because of their Dayak allies. As Helliwell notes, the Dayaks

 

took the operatives in, cared for them, fed them, advised, carried and guided for them, and taught them how to survive a seemingly deathly environment.

 

The Dayaks also “ate, slept, fought and died beside” the special forces.

 

Helliwell details the skirmishes, ambushes, air strikes, and massacres that occurred during Operation Semut. Some of the indigenous peoples who helped Allied forces were headhunters, and SRD commanders encouraged them to sever the heads of Japanese soldiers they killed, even paying them per head. Helliwell views such atrocities within the context of a war full of atrocities. “Such are the cruel choices inevitably generated by war,” she writes.

Semut II lasted five months and succeeded in driving Japanese forces out of the Barum River area, including the town of Marudi. It also dissuaded more than 2000 Japanese troops from moving farther inland. Semut III lasted a little longer and involved fighting in Belega, Pasir Nai, Kapit, Kanowit, Sibu, and Kuching. The operatives of Semut III helped liberate the notorious Batu Lintang POW camp–a liberation that, ironically, was delayed by Japan’s formal surrender. Fortunately, most of the camp’s inmates survived, unlike those in Sandakan-Ranau camp in North Borneo where Japanese forces killed all of the POWs, including executions up to the day of formal surrender.

The author managed to interview some of the surviving special forces soldiers, all of whom praised the Dayaks for their indispensable assistance in Operation Semut. One SRD operative said simply: “The Dayaks were our saviors.” Indeed, Helliwell concludes that “Dayak guerrillas were the backbone and mainstay of the operation.”

Helliwell’s second volume will focus on Semut I and IV.


Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.