Review: Kill the Major by Paul Malone

First published 2020 in Malaysia by Strategic Information and Research Development Centre
Republished in Australia in 2020 by For Pity Sake Publishing

This review by Dr A.T. Ross is republished by kind permission of For Pity Sake Publishing

Despite its catchy and slightly misleading title, this is an important work on a long-ignored part of the Second World War in North Borneo.

Major Tom Harrisson led a party of 42 soldiers sent to gather intelligence prior to the landings of Australian forces in Borneo in 1945. Little was known about the natives, the terrain, or Japanese operations in the area of prime interest, the border ranges of British North Borneo and the Dutch East Indies.

Barbie spoke to Paul Malone about Kill the Major

Harrisson and company found themselves in an extremely threatening and complex situation. This could only be resolved by establishing good relations with the head-hunting tribes of the area, while also avoiding the Japanese.

Fortunately, the Japanese had committed many atrocities against the tribes, who were ready to take revenge, if they were given good leadership. The tribes embraced Harrisson and his men who provided weapons and training, leading to the emergence of what was probably the most effective guerrilla campaign anywhere in the South West Pacific region.

By the end of the war, in August 1945, Harrisson’s guerrilla force, with its tribal allies, controlled 41,000 square kilometres of Borneo and had killed over 1,000 Japanese. This was more casualties than the Australian 9th Division had inflicted in its landing in Brunei. But many Japanese in the interior of North Borneo did not surrender in August, and proceeded to terrorise the local tribes. It was left to Harrisson’s force, and its tribal allies, to kill and round up the hundreds of rogue Japanese still on the loose, two months after the wars end.

As the author makes clear, the achievement of Harrisson’s force was gained through extreme hardship that included demoralizing sickness from tropical disease, starvation, and never-ending stress from close action against the Japanese and the risk of betrayal.

At times the force started to disintegrate, but Harrisson always managed to pull it back together. In doing this, he revealed a complex and difficult character that led some of his men to consider killing him; and leaving him hidden in the jungle.

Given the stress that guerrillas operated under in the Second World War, in Europe and Asia, I am sure that many other insurgents also considered killing their determined and autocratic leaders, when under great battlefield pressure. Whatever can be said against Harrisson personally, the facts above speak for themselves. Incredibly, Harrisson brought everyone of his men safely home at wars end.

The author has chosen to put the emphasis of his story on personal relationships, rather than battles and tactics, although the latter are not ignored. It would have been nice if equal emphasis had been given for this fascinating story; assuming that the information had been available.

But the obscurity of Harrisson’s story probably means that the author was unable to do more than he did, because of lack of information. We probably should be grateful for Paul Malone’s dedication in compiling what he has for this forgotten footnote to World War Two in the Pacific.

Dr A.T. Ross
Military Operations Research Analyst and Military Historian
University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy