An intended Ambush. (1963).
Turn a dream to an adventure.
Being not too sure if I should write this story I let time fly by. My health spiralled but gave me time to reconsider as I lay studying a hospital ceiling. You see, it is a part of what happened and others might consider it unimportant. We will never again see our brother Marines as they were back then but Memories last longer than dreams. So all I have to do is close my eyes and sail to another morning.
I thought the places would be impossible to find again but as luck would have it I received information that helped in a telephone director.
The old Gurkha location
The sky was still light and the heavens had yet to call out the faint evening stars. But the mosquitoes ever alert as usual turn out in thousands and formed their squadrons to begin their annoying evening attacks. The Tilley lamp hissed apologetically at the end of the wooden hut that remains a sound I have never forgotten. The first night I spent here was lying next to the lamp, when a sergeant stood behind me and asked if I were a Scot. I said yes and he replied I, thought so, ‘you bastards sleep with one eye open.’ Coming from an Englishman I considered it a complement.
It was an old Gurkha location near a small village in Sarawak called Pang Te Bang. The location as we called it, stood near a river of variant width and depth that ran around the location forming a simple delta. It was considered an ideal defensive position as the river had its steep embankment adding to an open two hundred yards as an ideal killing ideal ground for a Light Machine Gun. The open area was a tangle of wild grass and roots were exposed clearly at night to a moon lamination brighter that the Tilley Lamp. The location was probably chosen as ideal for a patrol to the Kampong Gumbang situated near the Indonesian border. We often went there hopefully to find some indication of enemy movements and to administer first aid to the local children or whatever was of the latest intelligence.
In Pang Te bang we were settling in for the night and slipped into our bashers which was a slit trench covered with battered attap leaf and burst sandbags.
We had a black communication wire tied to our wrist to alert each other in the night like of puppets in series. We hoped there would be no panic as lay as comfortable as possible with the company of large rats that were going to be active when we dozed off. The floor of the basher was emerged in water that had seeped from the river or old rain. We lay on a ledge several feet from the watered base and covered in a mosquito net or silky parachute that made you sweat a little.
The dark was so impressive in this eastern compass covering all in its perpetual path and blanketing the bashers in dank darkness. The night was full of noises, including continual screeching and howling of animals and insects, that were unseen under the coverage of the leafy bushes. There was a continuous racket that alerted the senses and sent a shiver down the neck. My SLR was close at hand.
The location had to be picketed by foot for security each night. Those on duty tended to do so in a sleepy pace. Walking a chosen route that passed the lonely hut and then to pick a way down towards the river hidden in its shadowy embankments. A static sentry stayed in the basher and similar to the roving picket had one up the spout in readiness. The rims of trees were like ink blotches on the horizon and contrasted with the skies pale light. A flock of fruit bats flew silently across the moon looking as if they had just left the gates of hell, their wings slowly flapping in a silent rhythm.
A picket watch at night seemed to last for an unnatural length of time as if the clockworks of time were deliberately slowed by fiendish play goblins. There were times when we would have given a million dollars to close our eyes for a minute or two and not regret the loss of money. The morning was eternally welcome lighting up the basher and relieving us from the uncertainness of the dark and brought its optimism of a new day. One morning I had a large rat sitting on the end of feet examining me like a chief calculating the number of meals I would make. It didn’t take me long to move my legs and had them carry me swiftly outside.
There was one second it had entered my mind to shoot it but common sense took over and I missed the opportunity to lose a toe. Dysentery visited most of us and one marine said he set the record of visiting the bogs fourteen times before breakfast.
The bogs were very elementary, we just a hung over a large tree branch to discharge our waste into the river. We were sure as gun going to return several minutes later. It was of course advisable to wash up stream where the water was a cool caramel colour. I remember seeing a large bull leach hanging from one of my friends chin as he swam by. I thought he was going to be sick when I told him of the leach. One thing I had learned was not to follow Hollywood movies and burn the leach with a cigarette, especially one as large as this. I took a bar of soap and rubbed his lower lip and the leach slid down into the water. This was a remedy we learned by accident but there were of course others. We were saved from our youthful amateurishness by the arrival of Sergeant McCarthy a man of experience. I knew him from the shooting team and had nothing but admiration for him. In the morning he examined the bashers and decided they were one step from useless and obviously rat infested. To prove this he fired rounds into the log walls and watched as they split apart. He moved our firing positions to a more friendly area with better drainage and far superior fireproofing. The first step was to fill in the basher trenches and clear a killer firing zone. We had to dress in shit rig which was anything we considered to be comfortable while we cutaway the long grass and very stubborn bushes.
My Machete companion was Juby (Cain), he had another name but that is another story. As we cut towards the river it became difficult when bush routes tangled with the grass. We knew there were snakes around but they didn’t seem interested in us. I hit a large branch and something dropped into my right unlaced baseball boot. I glanced down and was surprised to see two glowing eyes and a pointed nose looking at me. It began to squirm and slide within the boot, it felt slithery and damp. I called Juby over and asked him how you get a snake out of a boot. Juby carried on swing his machete and answered, ‘Take it out.’ Then he carried on his work. It was at least some advice. I did exactly what he said and out popped a little frog.
This event gave Juby a humorous story to tell over the next few days and who could blame him.
Early next morning just as the sun began to raise two Irishmen (one named Wilson) woke me from a very deep welcome sleep. ‘Would you like a good job?’ Before I had time to answer properly he said. ‘Were leaving the unit soon leaving for UK and there will be a vacancy for a lead scout for the company, are you interested?’ Still somewhat asleep I agreed because they promised they would show me the ropes. We left early that morning for a place we called Tringgus ria and then to Tringgus san. (We asked an expert if these were proper place names, but he couldn’t as the military often made them up. Now the trail is a tourist spot). The usual walk time they explained was about nine to eleven hours the journey would take one way. Distance was measured in the number of hours taken to your destination, in my staggeringly simple Malay I would ask’ Berapa jam kampong (wherever). This was where a good water proof watch was a bonus. I lost count of the number of times we crossed a river and the number of muddy hills we climbs. I was not jungle fit which was very different from a running track. Most will remember it fitness being that of strength, agility and endurance in one bundle. When we were near the first kampong the Irish lads left me struggling a bit and it was some time before I caught up. Wilson was cooking rice. ‘Do you know how to cook, we’ll teach you anyhow’. He said as I staggered past completely knackered.
After about six times making the same journey I came to enjoy the tracking and I was no longer a stranger to the Hutan or Ullu. I was told one evening I would be taking a larger patrol next day and this excited me somewhat. I was so excited I found it difficult to sleep. I remember we were told by our CO on arrival to Sarawak that some of us would be like Davy Crocket and we all laughed. Never for a second did I think we could learn such a skill so naturally.
I woke to the busy sounds of cooking and packing and checking weapons. I walked to the front to begin our patrol and was amazed to find a dark-haired scruffy Border Scout. There was an officer who called me aside and explained the border scout would be in charge. Miffed, would be the appropriate word but there but it was an order and that was that. I followed on faithfully looking back to see Sergeant McCarthy and some NCO.
All seemed well until we reached a delta in the river where the scout stopped and pointed to the right. This was where the land rose over ridge upon ridge. It was the way I usually came back as the slops lent themselves to downhill gravity assistance.
In other words this was the easiest way back but the opposite going uphill this way. I told him he was wrong and he was far from amused. He broke in to a furious dialogue of what appeared to be a bit crazy.
The officer appeared and talked for a time with the scout and then tried to impress on me I was wrong. The scout was from the area and was therefore would be right. Thankfully Sergeant McCarthy came strolling along and asked the officer what the difficulty was. He came over to me and we talked for a good ten minutes while I explained the problem. ‘Are you sure Andy?’ He asked. I nodded and gave an assertive yes. McCarthy spoke to the officer and seemed to come to an agreement. I was then placed in front and glad to be back on my job. The scout was in a dark joyless mood his eyes following every move I made. When we stopped for a rest two of the marines came to sit nearby. I’m sure they were Tam and Knoxy who told me. “You’d better watch out Andy he’s fidgeting with his rifle and machete when he looks at you’. I made it known I would shoot the bastard if he intended me harm.
The way was muddy and precarious but all seemed well as we arrived at the Kampong’s. I heard there had been a radio call but I was not privileged to any information. One thing was sure that night I had my beady eye on the scout who hovered around a lot. When it was time to return once again I stepped to the front ignoring the scouts evil glances. This time it seemed much longer to arrive back to our camp and the only incident I remember was one of the lads complaining he had been bitten by a butterfly.
As I neared the lonely hut Sergeant McCarthy touched my shoulder and told me the radio message informed them the border scout had tried to lead us in to an ambush on the way he chose. Two marines hearing this raced towards the border scout rifle ready to use their rifle butts. McCarthy called them back and pointed to a very large Chinese police officer. ‘He’ll get far worse from him’. We all agreed. And that was the end of it.
It seems the border scout who looked quite young was in his late thirties and was an Indonesian trained spy. Whatever the truth we were OK.
P.S. My water proof watch was a Rolex I had purchased from a Marine for £18.00 and included all the paperwork and sold in London three years ago for £600. It was severely damaged but still ticked away. On the Tringgus Trail there is a high remote Bidayah Village close to the Indonesian border, beyond Bua with Limestone hill tracks and ample rivers, where you can travel by Land rover. If I had known I would have taken my fishing rod.
© Copyright Edward (Andy) (Jock) Anderson 2015. All Rights Reseved.