Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Daring deeds that history forgot

Responsible for some of the most astonishing feats of WWII and sworn to secrecy after its end, the Kiwi and Australian commandos of elite special unit ZSU, many of whom died without their family ever knowing what they did, will finally be recognised, writes Kurt Bayer.
Frank Wigzell with his Certificate of Appreciation from the Australian government for his services in World War II in the highly secret unit called Special Operations Australia. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Frank Wigzell with his Certificate of Appreciation from the Australian government for his services in World War II in the highly secret unit called Special Operations Australia. Photo / Brett Phibbs

They answered the clandestine call to arms. Parachuting deep into the Borneo jungle behind enemy lines, they trained native headhunters, formed ruthless guerrilla resistance groups, gathered critical intelligence and embarked on some of the most audacious raids of World War II.

Many survived but some were captured by the Japanese, tortured and beheaded. Others vanished without trace.

There were 22 New Zealanders attached to Z Special Unit (ZSU), the crack Australian military unit that would form the genesis of the present-day New Zealand SAS (Special Air Service).

After the war, they were silenced by 30 and 40-year secrecy agreements. Their existence never appeared on official army records. Many died without their own families ever knowing what they did in the war. Today, all 22 of the elite Kiwi soldiers are dead.

But, more than 70 years since the war ended, they will finally gain official recognition for their extraordinary feats.

On August 1, a memorial plaque dedicated to the men of ZSU will be unveiled at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

At least eight New Zealand families hope to attend the memorial dedication service, including Judi Millar, daughter of Sergeant Frank Wigzell - the first New Zealander to parachute behind enemy lines into Japanese-held Borneo.

"These men, who put their hands up and disappeared without anyone ever knowing where they had been, have sat nowhere in history. So to be recognised by Australia now is great, to say finally that yes, they were there," says Millar.

Hamilton-born Francis "Frank" Alexander Wigzell was an 18-year-old New Zealand Railways junior clerk at the outbreak of the war. He lied about his age and in August 1942 became a sergeant with the Light Armoured Fighting Vehicle regiment.

After a two-year posting at New Caledonia, and itching for more overseas service, he spotted a notice inside the Trentham military camp barracks, asking for volunteers to a "special assignment".

Kiwi Frank Wigzell lied about his age to join the war effort. Picture / Supplied
Kiwi Frank Wigzell lied about his age to join the war effort. Picture / Supplied

Along with five others, he was part of the second intake of New Zealand volunteers seconded to Special Operations Australia and its Z Special Unit. They were wrapped in secrecy, with only military top brass being aware of their existence.

Wigzell's journey into the elite unit is typical of most of its recruits.

"They were not professional soldiers but rather ordinary men - tailors, surveyors, shop-keepers - who volunteered for special operations," says Christine Helliwell, a New Zealand-born anthropologist and associate professor at the College of Arts and Social Sciences at Australian National University in Canberra who drove the move to getting the men recognised at the Australian War Memorial.

"One of the veterans I interviewed just had a vague idea that he'd volunteered for something pretty special. He went off for training and suddenly gets told, 'Tomorrow you're off to Borneo where you're going to be dropped in by parachute into the heart of the jungle'."

On June 9, 1945, Wigzell parachuted into the Kelabit Highlands jungle of Sarawak as part of Operation Semut, tasked with "passive intelligence gathering" and training and arming native guerrilla fighters.

ZSU soldiers parachuted into Borneo to train the natives and gather critical intelligence to be used in sabotage raids against the Japanese. Photo / Supplied
ZSU soldiers parachuted into Borneo to train the natives and gather critical intelligence to be used in sabotage raids against the Japanese. Photo / Supplied

Making a wet landing in a paddy field, he was met by Kelabit tribesmen who helped him up and disposed of his parachute.

"These natives ... light olive-skinned, clothed only in loin cloths, and some with bark jackets, were my first introduction to Borneans," Wigzell would later write in his book, Blood Brotherz - The true story of a New Zealand commando in Borneo during World War II with Australia's top secret Z-Special Unit.

"Smiling, laughing ... and amused at my wet condition they appeared to be a happy and contented people."

Another New Zealander, Ernie Myers from Invercargill, also parachuted into the jungle - landing in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Within days, the 21-year-old former telegraph worker was captured by the Japanese who tortured him savagely before he was beheaded.

Wigzell spent nine tough months in the dense, stifling and disease-rife jungle, living with the native headhunters who accepted him as a member of the tribe, naming him Tuan Pukal, or white drum-beater. They taught him jungle craft, sleeping huddled on the jungle floor together when the temperatures plummeted at night.

At ever-present risk of discovery by the occupying Japanese forces, not to mention the risk of dysentery, malaria, fungus, infections, leeches, snakes, and tigers, he established a radio link back to Australia and picked up crucial intelligence about enemy movements, transport, and traffic, for sabotage actions.

It's so important to ensure that New Zealand's contribution is never forgotten.
Judi Millar, daughter of Sergeant Frank Wigzell

Wigzell also trained a guerrilla army, armed with both automatic and carbine rifles, but also poisonous blowpipes and machetes.

The natives were also keen to collect Japanese heads, a move encouraged by the British commander of ZSU operatives in Borneo, Major Tom Harrisson - a figure despised by Wigzell and his Kiwi comrades - who paid them a bounty for each head taken. The skulls were hung with pride from the rafters of villagers' longhouses. "Now with the help and supply of arms from their 'Z' friends from the sky, vengeance was being exacted on the Japanese for their treatment of the tribespeople of Borneo over the last three years," Wigzell wrote after the official secrecy had lifted.

"I was glad I was on the right side of the fence at this point in time. To be confronted by these well-built, strong muscular-figured native warriors was menacing indeed."

Major Gordon Senior "Toby" Carter, an Aucklander who had worked in Sarawak prior to the war as a surveyor and road engineer for Shell Oil, served with the British and Australian armies and took command of an Operation Semut unit.

He would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his covert work in controlling a 15,000 square km area and causing havoc for the enemy.

Carter's citation noted that his forces were responsible for killing 258 Japanese in hit-and-run operations.

"His full strength of white personnel was 17. His own casualties were 5 guerrillas [sic] killed. The excellent results reported above were obtained mainly by Major Carter's enthusiasm, ability and self-sacrifice ... On several occasions this officer personally led his guerrilla bands into attacks which inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy," his citation read.

Major Donald Stott (left) and Lieutenant Robert Morton served with the ZSU in Borneo. Photo / Supplied
Major Donald Stott (left) and Lieutenant Robert Morton served with the ZSU in Borneo. Photo / Supplied

Four New Zealanders were killed during operations in Borneo, including unit leader - another Aucklander - Donald Stott, who was also awarded the DSM.

The 29-year-old Battle of Crete veteran, who had escaped from a German prisoner of war camp and had worked with the Greek resistance, died in tragic circumstances.

On March 20, 1945 as commander of Operation Robin 1 tasked with sabotage and intelligence missions in Southeast Borneo, his boat got into trouble sneaking ashore. Stott and a fellow Kiwi Captain Leslie Thomas McMillan of Dunedin were never seen again, and were presumed drowned.

Once the veil of secrecy around Z Special Unit's activities was finally lifted, details of one of the most daring and successful raids of World War II was revealed.

In September 1943, 11 Australian and three British army and navy personnel headed for Singapore harbour in an old Japanese wooden-hulled fishing vessel, renamed the Krait, in what was codenamed Operation Jaywick.

Disguised as a Malay fishing boat, its crewmen endeavoured to look Malay by staining their skin.

As they got close, they climbed into three canoes and silently paddled into the harbour.

They attached limpet mines to several vessels and snuck off before the mines exploded early on September 26, 1943.

Some of the Malayan headhunter tribesmen taught Frank Wigzell jungle craft. Photo / Supplied
Some of the Malayan headhunter tribesmen taught Frank Wigzell jungle craft. Photo / Supplied

Seven Japanese transport ships, amounting to 39,000 tonnes, were sunk and the crew successfully made it back to Australia.

But in a subsequent mission, Operation Rimau, the raiding party was detected by the Japanese, hunted down, and 17 men were executed.

Helliwell has spent the last 30 years working with indigenous Dayak people in Borneo.

In 2014, she began a project with the Australian War Memorial (AWM) on memories of World War II in Borneo. It was then that she first became aware of the ZSU and its remarkable exploits.

She interviewed the two remaining veterans of Operation Semut and was "appalled" to discover that they'd seemingly been forgotten by history.

She and 96-year-old Australian Jack Tredrea, the oldest surviving ZSU veteran who was on Operation Semut with a number of New Zealanders, wrote to the AWM director to make a special case to recognise the men.

"We got a letter back the next day to say we were right. He approved it immediately," Helliwell says.

Discovering that there were 22 "extraordinary" New Zealanders who also served with the commando unit, she started tracking down their families to invite them to the ZSU plaque dedication ceremony at the AWM on August 1.

"The men of ZSU did extraordinary things, yet there is almost no knowledge of their activities within either New Zealand or Australia. As a result, their activities have never been publicly recognised - something which deeply grieves the surviving veterans and their families, as well as the families of those who did not survive," she said.

"For many family members this will provide their first real opportunity to publicly recognise and mourn those who were lost."

Millar will be there. Since her father's death in 2008, she has kept in touch with the Australian veterans.

"It's so important to ensure that New Zealand's contribution is never forgotten. After all these years, it's the least we can do," she said.

- NZ Herald

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