A secret Australian military unit that operated behind enemy lines during the Second World War is being honoured due to the work of ANU anthropologist Christine Helliwell, as ROSS PEAKE reports.
Dr Helliwell’s project to gain recognition for the role of the commandos of Z Special Unit, many of whom were killed by the Japanese, led to a ceremony in August at the Australian War Memorial.
Helliwell, an Associate Professor in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, travelled for several months in the jungles of Sarawak on Borneo in 2015, recording the memories of local people about the Second World War.
In 1943, Z Special Unit members had sailed from Australia to Singapore on the Krait, disguised as an Asian fishing boat, in Operation Jaywick to conduct a successful raid on Japanese shipping in Singapore Harbour.
The unit subsequently conducted around 80 raids in the south-west Pacific, but many members died in these operations or were captured by the Japanese and tortured and beheaded. “They had a very high attrition rate,” she says.
During the last six months of the war, the commandos roamed the jungles of Borneo in Operation Semut – the Malay word for ant.
The soldiers had parachuted into the jungle, not knowing how they would be received by local people.
“There’d be groups of six to eight men, moving through the jungle on their own, recruiting guerrillas, operating over vast areas, with the Japanese hunting for them,” Helliwell says. “They all survived, that’s partly why it was so successful – it was extraordinary.”
Shroud of secrecy after the war
The men did these extraordinary things and then came back and for 30 years were forbidden to tell anybody, including their families, about what they had done.
After the war, the decades-long shroud of secrecy about the work of the commandos produced bitterness in some families.
Helliwell is conducting extensive interviews with one of the few remaining Operation Semut veterans, 96-year-old Jack Tredrea who lives in Adelaide.
She says a lot of Z Special men were killed in action but their families were never given details about the missions.
“They didn’t even know the men were engaged in secret missions,” she says.
“They tried to find out that information from the military after the war, but the military really fobbed them off.
“The men did these extraordinary things and then came back and for 30 years were forbidden to tell anybody, including their families, about what they had done.
“Some had seen and experienced awful things and were never allowed to talk about it so a lot of them were harmed psychologically as a result of that.
“That’s why the ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in August this year was so important – because Z Special Unit was one of the last remaining Australian military units that had not been recognised at the memorial.”
Helliwell’s research began with the memories of the local Dayak people about the Second World War including Operation Semut.
Soldiers and Dayak people working together
Why didn’t the locals kill them or ignore them? What was it about the Allied soldiers that convinced them to take part?
Now she is focusing on the relationship between the Semut personnel and the local Dayak people and why they managed to work together so effectively.
“Why didn’t the locals kill them or ignore them? What was it about the Allied soldiers that convinced them to take part?” she says.
“Various views have been put forward – one factor is that the Japanese behaved appallingly on Borneo, they treated the locals with incredible cruelty.
“Initially, a lot of local people were inclined to welcome the Japanese or at least they felt neutral. But after the Japanese occupation for three years, many locals had become very hostile to the Japanese because of the way the Japanese behaved.
“But I think there was more going on, such as the way the Semut men behaved towards the local people: they treated them with incredible respect.
“The commanding officers of the three main Semut parties were all men who had spent time in Borneo before the War, so they knew the locals, they knew about Dayak culture, they all spoke some Malay. That was a huge advantage in terms of going in there, but I think there were a whole range of other very complicated reasons for why they got along so well.”