SABAH NORTH BORNEO
JULY 1964 - AUGUST 1964
by Terry Aspinall
............We sailed right around to the most eastern side of Sabah and then headed South to a small coastal town of Tawau, which had a population of around four thousand five hundred people. Tawau was where the Eastern Brigade Headquarters was located and from here the whole of North Borneo was controlled during its state of Emergency. Its Commanding Officers was a Malaysian Officer while the Brigade Major was a British Officer.
............We spent five very uncomfortable days on board the M.V. Auby. Therefore, it was a great relief when we finally disembarked at the port of Tawau. After each company was allocated a different area in the country to secure and Patrol, we were immediately transferred to three smaller craft.
............A Company headed across the bay and up a very large river heading towards the small timber town of Kalabakan. The river in this area twisted and snaked sometimes almost rejoining itself. In some places, just to travel ten miles by land you would sometimes travel almost double or treble that distance on the water.
............During the entire trip all the Marines were vigilant and in action station positions, just in case. It was a well known fact that many cross border raids had taken place in this area. In fact that was the reason we had been sent to the area, so we could cut down on the insurgents. However our long trip was all very uneventful, except for the wonderful scenery.
............Kalabakan was a timber village and housed a very large saw mill that was managed by an Englishman and was to be our base for the next few weeks. Just like Lundu in Sarawak, our first order of the day was to set about fortifying the mill and building some sort of camp to house us. Although this time everything was on a much larger scale, as the whole of A Company was to stay together. Once we had settled in, things really started to hot up in this area, with all three of our Companies reporting action, but with no losses so far on our side.
............Tawau was also used as a base for the Royal Marine's Special Boat Service raiding teams. It was all unofficial, but these teams would follow the coastline on the Indonesian side of the border. They would swim ashore and complete a Recce to get the lie of the land. Latter a raiding party would go in using the same sort of tactics. These teams had a lot of success and killed many of the enemy, while our own boys only sustained the lightest of casualties. These actions also made the enemy feel insecure and uncomfortable in his own country, something they had always tried to do to us. Now they were finally receiving some of their own medicine and they did not like it. The end result was that they moved deeper into their own country, further away from the border. This area was just a maze of waterways, and so the Royal Navy tried out their new Hovercraft SRN-5, with great success. Any helicopter work was hard, as there were not many jungle clearings. Most times, we had to rope down from the choppers through the dense jungle, an operation we had perfected when we first arrived in Sarawak and is still used to this day.
............One of the raiding party’s attacked the Island of Selbatik, that over looked the island of Nanukan, a known base for Indonesian Marines. This attack was by Gemini inflatable’s launched from a small motor cruiser 'The Bob Sawyer'. Lt Seeger led the attack and later received the Military Cross for the way he conducted the assault. Ram as he was better known was the only Marine hit, taking a bullet right through his elbow at the very beginning of the attack. Sergeant Costley and Corporal Tomlin were both mentioned in despatches for their part in the attack. There was never time for a head count of the dead at the OP Station, but several bodies had been seen. At one time the fighting became so viscous that it ended up in hand to hand combat.
............At Kalabakan, with our camp fortified, we began the usual routines of patrols and ambushes. Because all of A Company was housed in the camp, the patrols were much larger, consisting of at least two sections. We set one ambush on a smaller river that had a very steep hill on one side overlooking the water. The Marines dug in at different heights up the hill. There were so many of us scattered up the hill that at one time it looked like an auditorium in a theatre looking down at a stage. We had picked up information that a large party of Indonesians were moving up the river. They never arrived, which left us feeling very frustrated, having put in so much work in to our effort and not to get a result. Mind you if they had come, I’m sure we would have blown them out of the water as we were all spoiling for a fight.
............After a couple of weeks 2 Troop were sent to a hut on the Seradong River. The hut was positioned very close to the river and was to become the centre of our camp. So the usual fortification was under taken. The river marked the border which meant that the far bank was Indonesian territory so we had to expect an attack from that direction. We trained all our weapons which included a new two inch mortar we had brought with us, on the far bank. To achieve this we had to have a couple of practice shots that went almost straight up. I do not mind admitting that first shot I thought was going to come right down on top of us. The river would have been only about fifty feet wide, but it worked, so the mortar was left set up and sand bagged in to position so it was always at the ready.
............I started to get a little worried now, I was within a couple of weeks of returning to the UK, I had almost completed my eighteen months service and I thought it would be just my bad luck to get shot on during my last few week. After going through all of what I have just described, it would not have been fair.
............We had a couple of shots fired at us, but no damage, so it turned out to be a little uneventful. Don and Geordie had already left for the UK, soon my day came around and I was taken back to Tawau were I met up with Jock Stone, Jock, Minnock, we were to have a couple of days leave while arrangements were made to get us out and back to Singapore.
............By now, we were into September 1964 and because a few of us were going home, we had been moved into the Tawau camp. We were all allocated a small hut together and left alone, no guard duties, no chores, it was just like heaven. We had two drunken days in the village of Tawau with Lieutenant Bar, who I had befriended earlier. Because we were so drunk and had done our bit, he let us get away with murder. Jock Stone and I bought a case of spirits from a local bar and were stopped at the main gate while returning to camp, by the Military Police. One bottle was accidentally smashed on to policeman’s shiny toecaps. He went mad and confiscated all the booze. The next day Lieutenant Bar got us off all the charges and also managed to retrieve our booze from the guard house. I might add he was with us in town when we got the stuff in the first place. Anyway, a group of us just disappeared into the jungle with the booze and we were lost for a couple of leisurely days and what a couple of days we had.
............Towards the end I started feeling ill and this time it was not the booze, I just knew I had picked up something. Unfortunately a few of the Marines had started to become ill while being near the Seradong River, so the illness attracted the name of the 'Seradong Fever' and I knew it was bad and would knock me about for a couple of weeks. I did not want to miss my flight out, so I tried to look okay and not to report it to anybody. Most of my friends said I looked like death warmed up and I must admit I felt like it.
............I finally managed to get a flight out of Tawau with the two Jocks. First it was a short hop in an Argosy to the RAF station on the Island of Labuan. By the time I got off the aircraft, I was feeling like death it’s self. The sight of food made me feel even worse, after what we had been living on for the past few months. I could not believe what these guys were served up daily with chicken and steak. I had forgotten how to spell it, let alone eat it. Somehow I tried to keep myself walking around, no way was I going to miss my connection and I knew if I told somebody I would end up in hospital here on Labuan.
............Well I made it on board my connection, which was a Blackburn Beverly aircraft, normally used to transport the Paratroops. The large part of the body would normally carry tanks etc. While we were all seated in the very high tail section. I can still remember the excitement as we took off, but that is about all I can remember. It was very hot, so the aircrew opened up the doors that were used by the Paratroops. These two large doors were in the middle of the isle, with seats on both sides. I was told later that I got up to go and finally report my condition to the Sergeant seated at the back of the aircraft. Not knowing what I was doing I almost fell through the very large hole in the isle. Lucky for me I was grabbed by a couple of Marines who were sitting either side of the hole. I dread to think what might have happened without their quick thinking.
............I was laid out on a stretcher at Singapore airport, although I do not know which one. I was carried through the customs and asked if I had anything to declare, I can't remember saying no, but I am told that I did. While outside of the terminal, many of my Marine friends came over to retrieve their smuggled contraband, which had been hid under my blanket. All their stuff came through duty free, while mine that was following the next day attracted a small duty. Anyway, I was taken to a military hospital where I stayed for a couple of weeks. Which meant I missed my connecting flight to England.
............At the hospital, I underwent test after test. However, I was never told by anybody what was wrong with me, and to this day I still don't know. What I do know is that I had one hell of a headache that seemed to last forever, and I was being pumped up by many many injections. Plus the glands in my neck and groin stood right out like tennis balls and were also very painful. To this day, they still stand out in my neck whenever I get a cold or flu.
............I was eventually discharged from hospital and just left to make my own way back to Burma Camp about thirty kilometers away. Somehow I did not understand why there were not many people about. While thumbing, I managed to get a lift with the wife of a Chopper Pilot who was in Borneo. Mainly because she noticed my Green Beret and her husband had told her he was working with the Marines. So we had a lot to talk about, she told me that there was a curfew on in Singapore. Somebody had bombed a hotel a couple of days earlier. She took me all the way to Burma Camp, which was a blessing, as I was still feeling quite weak.
............All my friends had already returned to England, so it was a lonely couple of days while I waited for a flight to be arranged for me. I spent most of the time just walking around the deserted Burma Camp. At that time they didn’t even have a television and there were no newspapers. I would make a guess that there were only about a dozen personnel on the camp at that time.
............Having said all that it was a very exciting time for me, having waited eighteen months for it to come around. Right now all I wanted to do was to get home, just to see what I had been missing out on. Well the day finally arrived, I was given a flight and wasted no time in getting to the airport. Sergeant McCaffery from A Company was also on the same flight, so I teamed up with him. This time it was not a military flight it was a civilian one, a Bristol Britannia aircraft that was operated by Eagle Air. The Sergeant and I teamed up with two other Marines and spent most of the flight drinking. First stop over was at Bombay, where on the side of the runway was a crashed airline, its wing had hit a truck when it came into land a couple of days ahead of us. I hated Bombay, it just stunk terribly and was very hot and humid. I was glad when we flew on to Turkey. Remembering that I only earn eight pound a week, there I bought two cups of tea and a glass of orange juice, it cost me twelve shillings and six pence, let’s get home I thought.
© Copyright Terry Aspinall 1994 ....All Rights Reserved