Memoirs from The Borneo Confrontation Years 1962-1966
Friday, March 09, 2007
So across this great chasm of time which divides me today from the man in the mirror, it seems to me that his life was shaped and could not have been fulfilled in the way it was fulfilled had it not been for a then unrecognised alliance with chance. I could give a number of instances where chance and its synchronicities have intervened to save my life and those of my comrades and friends, and how it has also helped in moments of transition and stress. I am still here, while sadly others I once knew are not, and I don't know why or how, but I am. So whatever else I have done with my life since then, I must have been doing something right all those years ago. Whether it was jumping to the left on one instance because my instinct told me to, while others jumped to the right obeying their training and in so doing were injured, who can say?
Her indoors once said to me, "What is it about that bloody place that has had such an effect on you? Why do you keep rabbiting on about it?". I said, "One day I'll show you". And I did. We spent ten days there, living pretty much as I and my colleagues and comrades once did. Mindful as I was though, of the world she had come from and the world she now found herself in, I added one or two 'refinements', such as toilet paper, talcum powder, soap, insect repellent, and mosquito coils. One night, on a night without clouds and a veritable Christmas tree display of stars, we sat like bookends and she turned and said, "I understand now, it's been one hell of a journey". "Aye my love, that it has". But this was not the trip the young man in the mirror had in mind for me, and he was right. I should go back, and I will, this time alone. My journey however, is to another place. I shall take a decent bottle of wine with me, and two glasses. I'll probably drink some of the wine, and leave the rest and the glasses in a place where I know the spirit of someone I once knew still lives. Those items will accompany others such as old letters, and regimental keepsakes in a box. A sort of 'Kilroy was here', I suppose. I will be going back to say, "Thank you".
Joseph Conrad once felt compelled to write his story of 'Lord Jim' because Jim was (as he put it), "one of us". This man in the mirror was not some cold product of duty and pre-determined intellect and conditioning, he too was and is 'one of us'. He was and is 'one of us' as all the leaves of a tree are part of the thing to which they owe their shape, colour, and the sound they make in the wind.. They belong one and all, to the same tree yet are different from one another.
I believe that this is the pattern in which the life of the young man in jungle green I saw in the mirror had fulfilled in Borneo, and in such a manner that he became 'one of us'. So something out there had lit my fire alright, and it burned oh so brightly not once but a number of times there in Borneo and elsewhere, and there awakened in me a resolve and qualities I never knew I had until those moments. I have never been so alive since. So I am happy to commit to memory the words of someone who spoke with similar feelings on a bad day at Khe Sanh, an American base in Vietnam. "Until you have had to fight for it, you are never going to know how sweet life can be".
Although we had seen warning signs some time before regarding the expansionist plans Indonesia had for the 'annexation' of certain parts of Northern Borneo under Soekarno's rule, it is generally reckoned that the 'start' of the proceedings for us was initiated by the Brunei Rebellion of December 1962. At that time, some of us had only just returned from mainly seaborne exercises in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. Upon arrival back in Singapore, we barely had time to draw a breath before the ships which brought us back were turned around immediately, re-fuelled, re-supplied, and transported some of us to Brunei, and various areas of Sarawak and Sabah, together with our supporting equipment and heavy guns. There then began over the next couple of years or so, a large scale deployment of Malaysian, British, Australian, and New Zealand forces of all kinds. There were also naval and air force committments from the western and eastern approaches to Borneo from the same nations.
At its height in 1965, the commitment grew so large that at one stage some 74,000 men were involved in the guarding and patrolling of an 1100 mile frontier which stretched from the Malacca Straits to the southern islands of the Philippines. Many of us saw service in the hill-top forts depicted in the b/w photo of an air drop re-supply (see pic on the left), and our time was generally spent between land and river patrols as well as seaborne ones. We also made extensive use of helicopters. The then government of Malaysia, and the state governments of Sabah and Sarawak had previously asked us for assistance through various channels, which is how we came to be there in the first place.
The confrontation years in Borneo can quite rightly be said to be one of Britain's small and 'dirty' guerrilla wars. Any engagements that did take place tended to be rather fleeting affairs, where usually the maximum amount of time spent in a 'firefight' was probably no more than a few minutes. Although there were occasions when longer engagements took place between larger, and more evenly matched and equally determined forces. My own part in all this was usually concerned with the 'hit and run' and 'dirty tricks' tactics, classic components of guerrilla warfare and a little less on more involved fighting. My first experience of being under fire though was a very real 'in your face' baptism, up close (about thirty feet) and very personal. It wasn't a few random shots fired roughly in the direction of myself and my comrades, the 'opposition' were making a determined attempt to kill each one of us. When I had time to catch a breath, I found I had wet myself in fear, and Christ knows how, but I had also managed to eat a whole tube of sweets all at once without taking the individual wrappers off or the outer one. I was twenty one then, and my hair started going grey quite quickly after that. By the time I was twenty eight I had a head of hair the colour of an old man's, like it is now. But it can't all have been down to chance, not after 'escaping' that amount of times physically at least. I should recognise the contributions made by others, and I do so willingly and gladly. I especially add my eternal gratitude and deepest respect to the' true' people of the rain forest and the coastal regions of Borneo, the Kadazan, the Iban, the Dayak, the Murut, the Kelabit, and the Penan, and their way of life, all of of whom added much needed survival and spiritual dimensions to the education of an "honorary Orang Asli", a by-product of a previous life from urban Britain. The wildlife played its part too, observing how animals and birds went about their business also provided valuable lessons. But I didn't escape completely, like all those that have gone before, and no doubt all those who will come after, my experiences have left their mark in other ways.
I was a soldier once, and my business once was with certain sections of humanity at the sharp end, aftermath, and 'fallout' of military conflict with all that it entails. As I dragged that out of the silence of my thoughts and into a world of sound and vision, the steam on the surface of the mirror dried and the face of the man in jungle green withdrew. The glass was now empty and the quick had left the silver. It was as if I saw a figure resolving into a charged and meaningful day of cloud and thunder and lightning, and then the monsoon rains in Borneo. All I owed that young man now was a decent farewell and a proper thank you, and I found myself doing it the way that some African tribes do it, or the Inuit of the Far North, or the native peoples of Borneo do it, or some Amerindian tribes. They call after the vanishing person, " we see you, we hear you, we know you, we praise you, and we thank you". These calls can and do continue long after 'the traveller' has disappeared into the landscape. Experiences like this tend to colour your thinking for the rest of your life. I hope though, I shan't always be a 'traveller'. All I ever wanted out of life was a quiet and peaceful heart, wherever I was living. It is just that I've never really minded where that is. Considering where I was at that point in my life, together with what I experienced and saw, Malaysia would have been a good choice. But this journey of the mind and of the heart is not yet complete.
On Christmas Day 1965, I was walking along the edge of an escarpment with my tracker dog Mupundu about 5000ft up and some 7000ft below the summit of Kota Kinabulu in Borneo. At that time in my life I sometimes had jobs in long range scouting and reconnaissance after my superiors found that after training and assessment I was particularly well suited to such tasks because, among other things I could by then speak local languages fairly well, I didn't mind working for extended periods on my own, and the relevant military skills (including intelligence work) at my disposal were up to spec. As I looked through one of the infrequent gaps in the foliage, I saw the mist rising from the valley floor thousands of feet below me covering everything in a white shroud. The only 'green ' I could see was that in my immediate vicinity, and just above and below me. It was about 5.30 in the morning and not even the cicadas had woken up. Absolutely no sound except for the barely perceptible soft crunching noises my own feet were making in the undergrowth. What a beautiful, gorgeous sight, truly an island in the clouds, full of dancing shadows. I stayed a long time looking at that scene, needless to say it has stayed with me ever since. I only left after the morning sun had warmed things up enough to dissolve the white 'coat' that everything was wearing. And so there I was, on that day of all days, far from home and alone. Alone or not though, I was not afraid, I was at home, I was home. For a short while at least I too felt that I had 'dissolved' into the landscape, and become one of the 'spirits' of the rain forest, one of it's 'dancing shadows'. For those of us who choose to come this far on such journeys, with all that they entail, I can say these experiences have truly tested me to my physical, emotional, and spiritual limits.
Of course, I shall always remember how, once upon a time, among those thousand and one islands of the Malay Archipelago and the Indonesian chain (the "Insulinda" of Conrad's 'Lord Jim') are strung out like emeralds on an ancient necklace, that there was once a land called Borneo, and on the slopes of a great hill near a place called Plaman Mapu, I once stood as a sentry in a 'sangar' under the light of a rising full moon watching a patrol return through the wire. As they made their way to their de-brief and their own 'sangars' disappearing into the night as they did so, I too turned away in the opposite direction at the end of my watch to begin a story of my own. "Once upon a time, long ago and far away,.......................................".
I owe that young man much, as well as the people and organisation that trained him, not so much because of what I once might have wanted for myself, or where I am now, but who I am now. So to him and the others involved I say," I see you, I hear you, I know you, I praise you, and I thank you".
This piece was originally written for E-Borneo website My brief was to write something for the a largely civilian audience from a human interest point or view, without including "Blood & Guts" etc, of any kind this website's owner didn't want this included. The use of photographs which 'didn't show too much'
At its height in 1965, the commitment grew so large that at one stage some 74,000 men were involved in the guarding and patrolling of an 1100 mile frontier which stretched from the Malacca Straits to the southern islands of the Philippines. Many of us saw service in the hill-top forts depicted in the b/w photo of an air drop re-supply (see pic on the left), and our time was generally spent between land and river patrols as well as seaborne ones. We also made extensive use of helicopters. The then government of Malaysia, and the state governments of Sabah and Sarawak had previously asked us for assistance through various channels, which is how we came to be there in the first place. The source.