Remembering Operation Semut
By Patricia Hului
“One day we saw an aeroplane very, very high. Suddenly something fell down. Everybody was so frightened. They never seen anything like it,” said Dara Balang.
“When I looked up at the sky then something dropped out of the plane. It was a big, big mushroom and there was something hanging down from it like a small monkey. We thought it was an Orangutan. And the more it came down the clearer it became – it was human,” said David Labang.
Dara and David were sharing their testimonies of that fateful day on Mar 25, 1945 when not just one, but eight humans parachuted from a plane in Bario in a BBC documentary called ‘The Barefoot Anthropologist’.
The only surviving parachutist from that day is Tredrea (real name Jonathan Tredea) who will be turning 95 this May.
In conjunction with the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II this year and also the historical parachute landing in Bario, Tredrea returned to Bario where he landed 70 years earlier, together with his daughter along with David Sanderson, the son of Semut I operative, the late Sgt Fred Sanderson.
In Bario, they were greeted by over 200 people included five surviving women porters from the time of Operation Semut.
Tredrea then came to Kuching and gave a public talk on March 28 at Pustaka Negeri Sarawak (Pustaka) where he shared his life story and his World War II experience in Sarawak.
Fighting from behind enemy lines
The parachutists were part of a mission called Operation Semut, an operation under the ‘Z’ Special unit or ‘Z’ force which was a special forces unit formed between the Allied Forces during the Second World War to fight against the Japanese behind enemy lines in Southeast Asia.
In Borneo, the unit implemented a series of long-term operations codenamed Agas and Semut.
Operation Semut itself was divided into four distinct parties namely Semut I, II, III and IV led by Major Tom Harrisson, Major Torby Carter, Major William Sochon and Major Bill Jinkin respectively.
The eight parachutists who landed on Borneo besides their leader Major Harrisson were Sergeant C.F. Sanderson, D.H. Bower, J.K. Barne, E.A. Edmeades, WOI R.D. Cusack, Sergeant K.W. Hallam and Tredrea himself.
Semut I had its main headquarters in Bario where they first landed before moving to Belawit. Semut II was meant to be the main headquarters for all Semut parties but ended up being an independent group which focused its efforts along the Baram and Tutoh Rivers, from the interior towards Marudi and Brunei. Then there was Semut III, an offshoot of Semut II which operated at Rajang river. Later in 1945, Semut IV was deployed and operated in coastal area between Bintulu and Mukah.
The sole survivor
Born in Adelaide, Australia on May 15, 1920, Tredrea joined the Australian Citizen Military Force in 1938. When his father died in August 1941, he was discharged to help his mother and younger brother.
His absence from the military world was short-lived. In September 1942, Tredrea was reenlisted into the Regular Army as private. He then was accepted into a unit called ‘Z Special’.
At the time, Tredrea couldn’t care less what the unit was, as long as he got to fight. He was then approached by Harrisson to join an unnamed operation. Tredrea immediately said yes without even knowing what or where the operation was.
The group was flown to Moratai, Indonesia via Darwin, Australia on Mar 17, 1945 and were not told their mission until the next day when they were parachuting into the Borneo highlands. That operation was called Semut I.
Semut I parachuted into Bario from two Liberators planes with the first four people landing in the rice fields. Tredrea, who was on the second plane, landed in the jungle.
He remembered his first night in Borneo was spent in festivity: “We had dancing and music, and plenty of ‘burak’ (rice wine).”
Tredrea also remembered his first task on this island.
“The next morning Tom Harrisson came to me and said ‘Jack, there is an old gentleman who can’t walk. Go and see what you can do for him.”
There were lumps on the old man’s legs so Tredrea had to perform minor surgery on him.
The next day, the old man who was slowly recovering went to Tredrea and said, “Tuan Doc, terima kasih, terima kasih.”
“From then on, my seven months in Borneo I was called Tuan Doc,” Tredrea shared.
Tredrea was then sent on a mission; to visit every village around Bario, a task which took him to five weeks to finish on foot. “During that time, I approached the population and asked could they join me and fight the Japanese?”
When he returned to Bario with 30 native recruits, Tredrea discovered that the headquarters had been moved to Belawit in Dutch Borneo (Kalimantan), another two-days’ walk away.
So he and his new comrades left for Belawit where all the local fighters were trained before Tredrea’s group headed to Malinau and Tanjung Selor.
Tredrea told in ‘The Barefoot Anthropologist’ his experience working under the eccentric Major Harrisson who became Curator of Sarawak Museum after the war.
Under Harrisson, all Semut operatives were ordered to walk barefoot to avoid Japanese detection. They were also ordered to live off the land and totally depend on the local people. It was reported that if Harrisson had not practiced his strategy of total immersion with the native community, the Semut operatives would have been betrayed to the Japanese.
Tredrea also acknowledged the contribution of the local community, “I found throughout my time here, if it hadn’t been for the people of Borneo, Semut Operation would never have been as successful as it was.
“When the invasion came, there were 30 Semut operatives, each with their own guerilla forces. That enabled us to stop the Japanese coming inland when Australia invaded Balikpapan June 3rd,” he said.
When Tredrea received word on the third week of October 1945 that the war was over, the last instruction was ‘Get out anyway you can’. He left Borneo through Tarakan by the end of November after paying his native comrades and leaving them with rifles and food.
According to Tredrea, Z Special Units was the second most successful operation in World War II.
The Semut operatives trained 2,000 of the natives warriors to fight against the Japanese, killing a total of 2,800 Japanese soldiers and taking 300 prisoners. Comparatively, they lost about 120 of their native fighters.
But for Tredrea, none of his fighters who joined him since leaving Bario died in conflicts and ambushes with the Japanese soldiers.