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Z Special commandos recognised at last

AAP logoAAP 28/07/2016 Max Blenkin, Defence Correspondent

In the jungles of Borneo, small groups of Australian commandos launched fleeting brutal attacks on Japanese forces in operations never fully recounted, performed by brave men never properly recognised.

Seventy-one years after the end of World War 2, members of Z Special Unit will be remembered with the dedication of a commemorative plaque at the Australian War Memorial.

Twenty-three ZSU veterans will be in Canberra on Monday for this event, along with 20 widows and a large number of family members.

ZSU was was formed in 1942 to conduct special operations against Japanese forces.

Some missions, such as Operation Jaywick, the 1942 raid on shipping in Singapore harbour, and Operation Semut, the reconnaissance and guerilla operations in Borneo, were spectacularly successful.

Others, such as Rimau, intended as a repeat of Jaywick, were disastrous, with all participants killed in action or captured and executed. There was just one survivor from Operation Copper, a reconnaissance mission to the Japanese-held island of Muschu.

The commemorative plaque is the idea of Australian National University anthropologist Christine Helliwell who has conducted extensive field work in Borneo.

In 2015, she embarked on a AWM project to talk to Borneo's Dyak people about their memories of WW2, hearing stories of the ZSU operations. That involved four teams, each of eight men.

"They went in there and formed a guerilla force. They killed, it seems, about 1500 Japanese. They disrupted Japanese transport. They were really incredibly successful," she told AAP.

She subsequently interviewed two elderly Semut participants.

From that it emerged that ZSU veterans felt they had never been adequately recognised. That was because of onerous secrecy provisions imposed at the end of the war, prohibiting them from telling their story, even to family members.

So she wrote to AWM director Brendan Nelson seeking a plaque. That was supported by the veterans, the Special Air Service Association and the army's special operations command.

Professor Helliwell said the secrecy rules meant many families weren't aware until years later that sons, father and uncles been involved in heroic activities.

"There has been quite a lot of anguish about that and also a huge amount of grief. For a lot of families this is actually going to be an incredibly important occasion, marking a recognition at last," she said.

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