Semut: The untold story of a secret Australian operation in WWII Borneo by Christine Helliwell, Penguin Random House Australia: Michael Joseph


Shortlist year: 2022

Shortlist category: Australian history

Published by: Penguin Random House Australia: Michael Joseph

March 1945. A handful of young Allied operatives are parachuted into the remote jungled heart of the Japanese-occupied island of Borneo, east of Singapore, there to recruit the island's indigenous Dayak peoples to fight the Japanese. Yet most have barely encountered Asian or indigenous people before, speak next to no Borneo languages, and know little about Dayaks, other than that they have been – and may still be – headhunters. They fear that on arrival the Dayaks will kill them or hand them over to the Japanese. For their part, some Dayaks have never before seen a white face.

So begins the story of Operation Semut, an Australian secret operation launched by the organisation codenamed Services Reconnaisance Department – popularly known as Z Special Unit – in the final months of WWII. Anthropologist Christine Helliwell has called on her years of first-hand knowledge of Borneo, interviewed more than one hundred Dayak people and all the remaining Semut operatives, and consulted thousands of military and other documents to piece together this astonishing story. Focusing on the operation's activities along two of Borneo's great rivers – the Baram and Rejang – the book provides a detailed military history of Semut II's and Semut III's brutal guerrilla campaign against the Japanese, and reveals the decisive but long-overlooked Dayak role in the operation.

But this is no ordinary history. Helliwell captures vividly the sounds, smells and tastes of the jungles into which the operatives are plunged, an environment so terrifying that many are unsure whether jungle or Japanese is the greater enemy. And she takes us into the lives and cavernous longhouses of the Dayaks on whom their survival depends. The result is a truly unique account of the encounter between two very different cultures amidst the savagery of the Pacific War.

About the author

Semut: The untold story of a secret Australian operation in WWII Borneo by Christine Helliwell, Penguin Random House Australia: Michael Joseph

Christine Helliwell

Christine Helliwell is a New Zealand-born anthropologist, author and academic, currently Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University. She has been carrying out research on Borneo's indigenous Dayak peoples – including living with them in their communities for months at a time – for almost forty years, and has written widely on Dayak social and cultural life.

Christine lives in Canberra. Her book 'Semut' – on the most important of the Borneo 'Z' operations – took her almost four years to write.

Judges' comments

'Semut' is a work of great narrative power that goes directly to the heart of Australia's place and identity in the Southeast Asian region. Helliwell marries military history and anthropology to bring to vivid life the secret guerrilla campaign Australia's Z Special Unit launched against the Japanese in Borneo in March 1945. In particular, she documents the neglected but crucial role played by Borneo's Dayak peoples, who risked devastating retribution to take up arms against the Japanese and to shelter, protect and guide Australian operatives.

Without this support, Helliwell makes clear, Semut would have failed at the outset, its operatives perishing quickly in the island's rugged jungle interior.

'Semut' is a deeply researched work, harnessing a forensic interrogation of existing reports and thousands of official records, new interviews with Dayak and Allied survivors, and expert knowledge of Dayak culture acquired over decades. The result is a seamless, gripping, and visceral narrative history that transports the reader between Borneo's punishing jungle environment, the capacious Dayak longhouses located along its majestic rivers, and the atmosphere of fear, tension and rivalry surrounding the Australian operation. Helliwell's revelations regarding the role of headhunting in securing Dayak support for guerrilla campaign are among the most remarkable in a work that illuminates our enduring debt to all who contributed to the wartime Allied cause.