Saturday, April 28, 2012

Don't lose your head!

So maybe I'm a little weird but my all-time favorite novels are stories about castaways on tropical islands, and when I read those books it almost sounds like an adventure. Okay, maybe "adventure" is a bit much, since the castaways faced plenty of hardship, but there's something weirdly alluring about the idea – for me at least. But what if your island wasn't deserted? What if your island was inhabited by cannibals or headhunters or worse?

Well, it turns out some headhunters are actually very nice and generous people. In The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith M. Heimann (notice the choice of words in the title?), we learn of the crew of a B-24 which went down in the jungles of Borneo in November 1944 and spent eight months living with the natives. The Dayaks were headhunters who had converted to Christianity and were chaffing under the harsh treatment of the Japanese occupiers. At great personal risk to himself and his family and village, William Makahanap (the District Officer), first hid the airmen and then later organized a rebellion against the Japanese, and for a brief time headhunting was again practiced – Japanese heads only, though.

If you liked Unbroken and Lost in Shangri-La you'll probably enjoy this one, too. It's not quite as well-told as those books but it's a great story nonetheless – although I do have a few quibbles. Hopefully Mrs. Heimann's research into the most pertinent aspects of the story is sound, but some of the peripheral information is wanting. She didn't explain clearly what headhunters did with a head, which I think would have been terribly fascinating. And on page 26 she says the downed airmen didn't know "to look for water in the cups of the many pitcher plant blossoms," except it's the leaves that hold liquid, not the tiny flowers. I don't know if natives really drink from them (and she doesn't give us these details) but since the plant is carnivorous I expect you might get a mouthful of dead bugs if you tried (which might not bother you if you're that thirsty). Also, on page 10, she says "The men of the Bomber Barons, like army airmen elsewhere, loved the B-24." But I think it was Retribution by Max Hastings that tells of very different emotions fliers had for the B-24 and explained the extensive problems the plane was known for in the Pacific war. The B-24 "Liberator" was much more difficult to fly than the B-17 "Flying Fortress" and with less armor was more vulnerable to damage during battle. Wikipedia says it was "notorious among American aircrews for its tendency to catch fire" and was dangerous in crash landing situations where the fuselage tended to break apart. Anyway, just a few quibbles on my part but it does call some of her research into question.

But if the book sounds interesting to you please don't let my concerns dissuade you from giving it a chance, because it really is a good story.

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