Ordinary, courageous men regarded as the forerunners of today's elite Special Air Service Regiment, who parachuted into the jungles of Borneo behind Japanese lines, will be recognised at the Australian War Memorial.
Many were tortured or shot dead, yet those who survived rescued prisoners of war and inflicted devastating losses on the enemy during World War II.
Anthropologist Dr Christine Helliwell has spent 30 years working with indigenous Dayak
people in Borneo, and more recently with the Australian War Memorial on memories of WWII, when she uncovered these special men who had operated there, and found several still alive, and interviewed them.
An associate professor at the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the ANU, Dr Helliwell trekked for six months in Sarawak, Borneo, collecting Dayak memories of the war and went to where men of Z Special Unit operated and found people who still had memories of them.
"These men performed extraordinary feats, yet there is almost no knowledge of the work of their activities within Australia," she said.
"In large part this is because of the secret nature of the unit and its work. On return from the war they were forbidden, under the Official Secrets Act, from discussing their activities with anyone, even their families, for decades."
Dr Helliwell says the prolonged secrecy has caused much sadness and even bitterness among many of the surviving men and their families, as well as among the families of those who did not survive.
Established in 1942, the Z Special Unit (ZSU), worked secretly against the Japanese throughout the Pacific and Southeast Asia, intelligence gathering, recruiting and training of local peoples, and guerilla warfare including attacks on Japanese military targets and shipping.
Z Special operatives were in completely foreign environments, dependent on local people for food and shelter yet often without prior familiarity with local languages or customs.
"In Borneo they were highly effective, responsible for the killing of thousands of Japanese, and disrupting supply lines and traffic," Dr Helliwell said.
"Z Special operatives rescued five of the only six survivors of the 2500 POWs who were killed by the Japanese in camps at Sandakan and Ranau and on forced marches between the two places – the single worst atrocity committed against Australians during the war. They were at risk of discovery by the Japanese. Indeed, many were captured, tortured and executed. Many others simply disappeared."
Most of the men were not professional soldiers but ordinary men – tailors, surveyors, shop-keepers – who volunteered.
"Yet their activities provided the genesis for most intelligence work carried out by the Australian military in subsequent campaigns. The contemporary SAS in Australia sees itself as directly descended from ZSU."
Dr Helliwell is working with the Australian War Memorial and the Australian SAS Association to organise a plaque that she hopes will be unveiled at the end of July.
In the meantime Dr Helliwell continues trying to contact surviving members, and their families. She wants to hear from families of survivors, who should email her at: email@example.com.
Working with the ACT SAS Association president, she has tracked down 17 surviving veterans, mostly 90 or older, and nine widows from throughout Australia.
"We will bring all of them who are fit enough to travel to Canberra for the ceremony, Dr Helliwell said.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.