The story behind The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War may sound like the plot of a movie but it is a true tale of survival. Judith M. Heimann draws on her long career as a diplomat and author to bring this little known episode of World War II to life. Q: You spent a decade piecing together the events in The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War IIfrom hundreds of different sources. How did you first learn of this little-known but harrowing episode of World War II? JH: In 1992 I was sitting in the War Memorial Library in Canberra, Australia, going through the papers of Tom Harrisson. I was writing a book about him because he had led a little-known special operations unit behind enemy lines in Borneo in the middle of WWII. One of the documents I came across was a letter addressed to Major Harrisson that was written in the rounded Palmer Method handwriting taught in American schools in the 1940s. The letter was signed by nine U.S. airmen—some army, some navy, with their ranks and serial numbers—who were being hidden in the jungles of Borneo by natives. I knew then that there was a story here that had to be uncovered and told. Q: What kind of research went into understanding the unique psyche of airmen who flew in the B-24 bomber, both before they were shot down and after? Was WWII aviation new ground for you? JH: In all, eleven U.S. airmen were shot down over Borneo, survived the war, and returned home. Of these, I was able to track down five while they were still alive; I interviewed each of them several times. I used taped interviews, memoirs, diaries, and other documents from these men and two others. I also interviewed wives and widows. I drew on all these sources to understand what was going on inside the airmen’s heads at various times in the story. I also read some very insightful comments about what this particular generation of flyers was like. I found Samuel Hynes’sThe Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to a Modern War, Paul Fussell’s Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic, James Bradley’s Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, and Studs Terkel’s The Good War: An Oral History of World War II especially helpful. Q: How did the surviving airmen and their families respond to your interest in their experiences? JH: With unstinting generosity and unswerving frankness. All of them felt the story should be told—and to a wider audience than they had been able to attract or reach on their own. Their interest was not mercenary at all; they just felt that the story—and the role the Borneo tribespeople play in it—deserved wider recognition. Q: Set primarily in the jungle forests of Borneo,The Airmen and the Headhunters offers a rare glimpse of the daily lives of the island’s native tribes, the isolated Dayaks. By contrast, you are a seasoned world traveler. How did you find common ground with the Dayaks when you interviewed them? JH: As a diplomat, I am less of a world traveler than I am someone who has lived for years at a time in different places where I’ve tried to fit in and feel at home. This way, I have a better sense of what the place and the people are really like, so that I can find things where we agree, work together, or at least understand where the other side is coming from. (That is why diplomacy can never be reduced to telegrams, phone calls, e-mails, or even teleconferences and occasional visits.) In this case, I had already lived in Borneo for two years (in the 1960s) and I spoke the lingua franca (Malay). Also, the Dayak people already knew what I was interested in. In 2000 I had arranged for a woman they had known as a baby, Thea Makahanap, to come and ask questions on my behalf. She is the daughter of their wartime district officer (an Indonesian from another island), and she traveled there with her teenage son, Stefan. Then, in 2003, I made this journey, also accompanied by Stefan. He spoke no English but knew where to find the people I wanted to meet. As guests, we sat in front rooms of the houses of the people I wanted to interview; that was probably the most useful element in setting up successful interviews. I also had enough experience of interior Borneo to know how not to behave: not to loom over people, talk loudly, wear shoes indoors, or touch people on the head. To me, it seemed obvious how to behave politely: dress simply but modestly, look people straight in the eye, shake hands, accept refreshment graciously, speak softly, and ask permission before taking photos or recording interviews. Q: Your book paints the Dayaks as patient storytellers who draw out their tales for hours or even days. How did their culture of storytelling affect your research? JH: I spoke Malay well enough that we could understand one another; not so well, however, that they did not feel the need to keep things as simple and clear as they could for me. Our conversations stayed pretty straightforward. I know of their long nights of storytelling from other occasions, when I was living in Sarawak, and from books I have read by or about these people. The most useful book I read on this topic wasChanging Borders and Identities in the Kelabit Highlands by Poline Bala, an inland tribeswoman who is now preparing for a doctorate in anthropology at Cambridge University. Q: The Dayaks had moved away from their practice of headhunting by the time the Americans crashed on Borneo. Yet their decision to help the downed airmen elude Borneo’s Japanese occupiers sparked a return to this long-renounced ritual. How did the Dayaks feel about discussing this part of their past with you nearly sixty years later? JH: They were perfectly comfortable talking about it. It was a known part of their not-so-distant past (the early 1930s). In any case, this 1945 activity was not headhunting per se. These Japanese men had been killed in a modern war because they were enemies, not to take heads. Once the enemy soldiers were dead, there seemed to be no harm in honoring these heads as they had honored heads from rival longhouses in the past. Q: Have you always been a writer? What’s the secret to squeezing research and writing time into the busy life of a diplomat? JH: Yes, I have always been a writer since childhood. My father and three uncles were all professional writers; my daughter and sister also write. I have done a lot of writing as a diplomat, much of it drawing on interviews with politicians and people who have valuable insights or information. Many of these interviews were conducted in what was for me a foreign language. I find people are more themselves in their own language and so, if I have the choice, I use their language rather than mine. My books have been researched as opportunities arose but they have been written at times when I was in a period of doing little or no diplomacy. Currently, I work as a diplomat only a few days a week and only six months a year, which gives me time to write. I am already working on my next book, which takes place in Java, Indonesia. Q: You’ve now written two books about WWII soldiers, including The Most Offending Soul Alive. What drives your continued interest in that era? JH: I would start by saying that the chief interest for me is finding subjects where East meets West. My first overseas experience was living three years in Southeast Asia in the late 1950s, and it changed my life. But my interest in World War II in the Pacific has grown as I have learned more about it. I guess the biggest appeal for me is that this was a war all Americans can be proud of, up to and including the decision to save probably hundreds of thousands of lives—Japanese as well as American—by using the atomic bomb against an enemy that simply did not know how to surrender.