ON March 25, 1945, eight British and Australian men parachuted into the Kelabit Highlands to begin an onslaught against the Japanese army occupying Borneo.
Led by Major Tom Harrisson, they were members of the voluntary Z Special Unit participating in a mission codenamed Semut 1 to establish initial contact with the indigenous people of Borneo, train and deploy them as guerilla troops against the Japanese forces. This marked a significant chapter in the fight for freedom and peace in Sarawak and the liberation of Borneo from the Japanese.
Last week, a special ceremony was held in Bario to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Z Special Unit landing. It was attended by Jack Tredrea, the only surviving commando, and descendants of the unit’s members as well as local Kelabit heroes who worked in the Semut operations.
Tredrea, who is now 94, attended the ceremony with his daughter Lynette Behn. He laid a wreath at the commemorative plaque, followed by the descendants of the other commandos.
Speaking with pride and passion, Tredrea paid tribute to his fellow commandos and those who fought alongside them. He also paid tribute to the people of Bario and Sarawak who helped in numerous ways to free Borneo from the Japanese.
“I would not be here today without their help,” he concluded.
Among the descendants of Semut commandos present at the ceremony were Judy and Ariana Millar, the daughter and great-granddaughter of Frank Wigzell; David Sanderson, the son of Fred Sanderson; and Bob Pinkerton, the son of R.J.D. Pinkerton.
The ceremony, the first with Malaysian military honours, was held at the newly-constructed Bario Memorial Park.
In his speech, First Malaysian Infantry Division commander Maj Gen Datuk Stephen Mundaw praised Z Special Unit’s courage and commitment to duty.
“This 70th anniversary is important so that the people will not forget the sacrifices of the Allied forces and the local people in liberating the state from the Japanese occupying forces,” he said.
The landmark commemorative event was organised by Rurum Kelabit Sarawak with the assistance of Sarawak Tourism Federation’s heritage development committee, who designed and created the commemorative plaques.
Rurum Kelabit president Datuk Isaac Lugun said the ceremony was made especially poignant by the presence of the descendants of those who participated in the landing.
“It is our duty to keep the memory of what happened alive and honour our parents and grandparents who showed courage and helped the Allied forces.
“Kelabit leaders such as Penghulu Lawai and Penghulu Miri were instrumental in the war effort and were rightly honoured. Penghulu Lawai was awarded the British Empire Medal while other members of the community were honoured with the Pacific Campaign and King George V medals.
“Penghulu Lawai was the first to greet Harrisson and his men and gathered the entire Kelabit community behind this effort. Our people took enormous risks and played an important role towards the success of the Semut operations. Their effort and the efforts of others should never be forgotten,” he said.
According to Isaac, the arrival of the Allied forces in Bario and the participation of the Kelabit people in the fight for peace had a noteworthy impact on the community.
“The Allied forces’ landing in the Kelabit Highlands brought about changes and awareness of this remote community. It brought education and development to subsequent generations.
“Major Tom Harrisson, in his own capacity and later as curator of the Sarawak Museum, played a large and significant part in the years after the war.”
Isaac also said the 70th anniversary memorial service was important as a historical touchstone, adding that there were few other events in history that carried such significance.
“It links the past to the present and enables people to remember and respect the sacrifice of those who fought and gave their lives in the conflict. It is just one of the many ways we can honour the bravery of the Allies and our own people.”
The ceremony concluded with an Ode of Dedication by David Sanderson and the raising of the flags of Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Britain.
Later in the evening, special prayers and dinner were held at the Bario Asal longhouse, where the delegates were hosted by headman Leju Balang and Dr Roland Dom Mattu, the grandson of the late Penghulu Lawai.