Documenting the exploits of our unsung heroes, the Sarawakian guerrillas of the ‘Z’ Special Unit, for perpetuity

By Terry Justin Dit

History has always been a passion of mine as it involves the study of events in the past, many of which had huge impacts on humanity.

In recent years, there has been a shift in the study of history. Not only are the roles played by illustrious politicians, scientists, generals, philosophers and other personalities in a historical time period examined; the contributions of the common folk are now also increasingly given prominence.

The Second World War (1939 – 1945) was a momentous period in 20th Century world history given its unprecedented global proportions and scale of conflict and destruction.

Borneo was not spared because of the strategic importance of its oilfields in Miri, Seria, Balikpapan and Tarakan. Indeed, it was amongst the first strategic targets for expansion by the invading Japanese.

While the coastal areas were easily overrun and then administered by the Japanese, the hinterland of Sarawak was a different matter. The sheer expanse and the impenetrable nature of the virgin forests of Sarawak in the 1940s made it possible for some of Sarawak’s tribes to be isolated from the war and the Japanese administration.

It was this remoteness and isolation that attracted the attention of the Services Reconnaissance Department (SRD, also known as ‘Z’ Special Unit or ‘Z’ Force), an Australian special operations unit that included a small number of New Zealand and British personnel, as it lay the groundwork for the Allied re-occupation of northwest Borneo.

As it was free from Japanese patrols, the Allies planned to use Bario in the Kelabit Highlands as a training area for indigenous guerrillas as well as a staging point to harass and tie up the Japanese forces in Borneo.

Such activities contributed to the success of the Australian landings (codenamed OBOE 6) at Brunei Bay and Labuan in June 1945.

The brave exploits of these mixed teams of Europeans and indigenous tribesmen have been written about by several of the soldiers who commanded the various guerrilla groups (codenamed SEMUT 1, SEMUT 2 and SEMUT 3).

But in spite of this, much is still unknown about their activities as the number of official documents and reports pertaining to the SRD available to the public in archives are scant due to the clandestine nature of SRD operations during the war.

An ongoing project of mine is to document the contributions of the indigenous members of the SEMUT guerrilla groups to the Allied cause during the war. While the exploits of the European members of SEMUT have been widely documented and publicised, the experiences and recollections of the indigenous tribesmen from various tribes such as the Iban, Kayan, Kelabit, Kenyah and Penan have not been formally documented at all.

There is a compelling need to record their stories as many are very advanced in age, and sadly, many have already left us. Since only a few of them can read, let alone write their own stories, their histories are largely oral histories.

Oral histories are stories that living individuals tell about their past, or about the past of other people. To avoid Sarawak losing an important chapter of her history and to provide a balanced account of an important event in our country’s history, it is imperative that the exploits of these men are properly recorded and documented so that future generations will learn and treasure the sacrifices of our Sarawakian heroes.
Since the project is ongoing, I seek assistance from the public, especially those with elderly relatives who had participated in the SEMUT teams, to contribute to this project. Here is the chance to record and document what was truly an important event (the Second World War) through the perspectives of an indigenous person.

Terry Justin Dit is a lecturer in the School of Foundation and Continuing Studies at Curtin Sarawak. He wrote his theses on ‘British Counterinsurgency Operations in Malaya and Borneo’ and ‘Maritime Piracy in East Asia, 1990-2000’. He currently teaches Borneo Studies and 20th Century World History at the university. Terry can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 3209 or by e-mail to terry.j@curtin.edu.my.

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