70th Anniversary Commemoration

Bario commemorates 70th anniversary of WW11 Allied Landing

70 years ago on March 25, 1945, eight young men from far-flung corners of the world parachuted into the Kelabit Highlands to begin an onslaught against the Japanese army.

The young British and Australian men were members of the voluntary Z Special Unit and their mission was codenamed Semut 1. The Ants as they were called were led by Briton Major Tom Harrisson in the first aircraft accompanied by Sergeant CF Sanderson, D H Bower and J K Barne. In the second aircraft were Harrison’s Lieutenant EA Edmeades, Warrant Officer RD Cusack, Sergeant KW Hallam and Staff Sergeant H J Tredrea.

Their mission was to establish initial contact with the indigenous people of Borneo and to train and deploy them as guerrilla troops against the Japanese forces. This marked a significant chapter in the fight for freedom and peace in Sarawak and the liberation of the island of Borneo from the Japanese.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary, a special commemorative ceremony was held in Bario and was attended by the only remaining member of the initial Unit, Commando Jack Tredrea and families of the descendants of the ‘Z’ Special Unit. Also in attendance were local Kelabit heroes who worked within the Semut Operations.

Tredrea, who is now 94, attended the ceremony with his daughter Lynette Behn. Clearly overwhelmed, Tredrea laid the 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 the island of Borneo from the Japanese. “I would not be here today without their help,” he concluded.

Among the descendants of Z Force who are assuming the mighty task of keeping alive the history of the Operation Semut and were present at the ceremony were Judy Millar and Ariana Millar, daughter and great grand-daughter of Frank Wigzell and David Sanderson, son of Fred Sanderson, Bob Pinkerton, son of Bob Pinkerton. Also present at the event was Judith Heimann, the author of The Most Offensive Soul Alive and The Airmen and the Headhunters.

The solemn ceremony, the first with Malaysian military honours, was held at the newly constructed Bario Memorial Park was a touching and dignified event made even more decorous with the presence of First Malaysian Infantry Division Commander Major General Datuk Stephen Mundaw and his unit. In his speech, Major General Mundaw praised the courage and commitment to duty of the Z special Unit. “This 70th anniversary is important so that the people would 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 the Rurum Kelabit Sarawak on behalf of the Kelabit community with the assistance of Sarawak Tourism Federation Heritage Development Committee who designed and created the commemorative plaques. In his address, Lim Kian Hock, Chairman of the Sarawak Tourism Federation Heritage Development Committee thanked the families and descendants of the Commandos and the local heroes for reliving the patriotic spirit and their selfless contributions and sacrifices for peace and freedom.

Representing the Kelabit community, Dato Isaac Lugun, President of Rurum Kelabit Sarawak said that the momentous event with the presence of the descendants of those who participated in the following the arrival of the ‘Z’ Special Unit was especially poignant. “It is our duty to keep the memory of what happened alive and honour our parents and grandparents who had shown courage and helped the Allied forces.”

“Kelabit leaders such as Penghulu Lawai and Penghulu Miri were instrumental in the war effort and rightly, they were honoured,” he says. “While Penghulu Lawai was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) other members of the community were also honoured with the Pacific Campaign and King George V medals. Penghulu Lawai was the first to greet Harrisson and his men and garnered 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.”

According to Dato 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 Kelabits. “The landing of the Allied Forces in the Kelabit Highlands brought about changes and awareness of this remote community. It brought with it 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.”

He added that the 70th Anniversary memorial service is important as it acts as a historical touchstone and believes there are few other events in history that carry such significance.

“It links the past to the present and enables people to remember and respect the sacrifice of those who fought, participated and those who gave up their lives in the conflict. It is just one of the many ways we can honour the bravery of the Allies and the bravery of our own people.”

The ceremony concluded with the playing of Rouse/Reveille, the Ode of Dedication by David Sanderson, son of Fred Sanderson, the raising of the flags of Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and the United Kingdom, as well as the playing of the national anthems of the nations.

Later in the evening, the celebrations continued at the Bario Asal Longhouse with special prayers and dinner. Hosting the delegates and the community was Ketua Kampung Bario Asal, Leju Balang and Dr Roland Dom Mattu, the grandson of the late Penghulu Lawai Besara who was the first Kelabit to welcome Harrisson and his men when they landed in Bario 70 years ago.

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