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Leisure

Memoirs from The Borneo Confrontation Years 1962-1966

Contributed by Keith Scott

"To the People (and the wildlife) of the Land Below the Wind", 'a thank you from an old soldier'

 

One of Us

(A Personal Journey)

 

"To see the world in a grain of sand,and heaven in a wild flower, to hold
infinity in the palm of your hand,and eternity in an hour
". -- William Blake
from "The Auguries of Innocence".

 

"Homo sum, humani nil e me alienum puto".-- Anon

("I am a man, nothing human is foreign to me")

 

To my mates, and all the other fellow 'Jungle Bunnies' and 'Swamp Rats' that I met, to those that have gone before, and those who one way or another will surely come after. Take care dear hearts, I wish you well.

 

I shall be 60 soon I said to myself as I carried on shaving, watching the hot water strike the cold enamel and creating clouds of steam. Considering what I like others were once a part of, life and all it can throw at you hasn't been all that bad.. I look at my reflection in a steamed up mirror at a much younger man dressed in jungle green and ask in the third person, well what about you?

The younger man of forty years before replies, "Well you haven't been back to Borneo have you? Considering the effect it has had on your life, I would have thought at least one trip is in order if only as an acknowledgement of the inner strength you now find you have at your disposal".

Thirty years before, when in uniform, I had some personal effects stolen from my heavy baggage when it was in rear party stores. I was extremely angry about that, because some of those items were valuable, were destined as presents for my family, and others had a value of another kind. A few years back, I received a parcel with a London postmark. In it were some photograph albums I had all but forgotten about. There was a short letter with them too. It said, "sorry I took those things, it's taken me a long, long, time to realise that of all the things some people tend to collect and keep, photographs are in a sense the most valuable of all". Think about that dear hearts, clearly someone had spent a great deal of time and effort over many years trying to locate me just to say "sorry". Morever, they had kept my albums all those years.

The effect of this was something so complete that I had this vision of a younger man in jungle green, not so much as someone directly observed, but as the face and figure of someone who had crept up silently behind me and was looking over my shoulder into a mirror where his reflection joined mine on that quicksilver surface. I had a feeling then, which I have always had in a sense but which has grown more profound over the years that everything is much more at a given moment that it appears to be and than we can conceive.

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An ordinary patrol on exercise. Not to be confused with another kind!

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Lorries taking troops from Kuching to Serian, which became one of our main forward bases, during one tour of Sarawak. Our forward locations on this tour were Plaman Mapu, Pang Amo, Kujang Sein, and the police station at Tebedu.

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.

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Click on images for a larger view

Embarking on 'operations'.

Main Base 'park up' and re-fuelling area.

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Click on images for a larger view

'Lifting out', and looking forward to some nice showers

and the 'smelliest' soap and talcum powder available.

An aircraft of the type that used to re-supply us and act as a general transport. There was a four engined version of an aircraft of this type we know as the C130-Hercules.

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 committment 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.

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"Life out in the sticks"

 

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.

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Click on images for a larger view

Click on image for a larger view

Early morning at sea, prior to dis-embarking. Things got quite busy after the photo was taken.

"Re-supply at sea", otherwise known as a 'RAS'

"The hangar deck", other wise known as 'the belly of the beast'

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A picture of one of our Barracks/Garrisons in Singapore, called Dieppe Barracks on the road to Sembawang. When we left I think it was turned into a teaching/university hospital campus. What happened to it after that I don't know. Perhaps readers may be able to tell me. We had a second barracks across the airfield from where the photo was taken.


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".

Copyright Keith Scott All Rights Reserve.

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