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40 Royal Marine Commando

Based at Burma Camp Malaya

1962 to 1966


A Green Marine in Sarawak

Pang Amo September 1963

By Patrick Walker

We had left our commando carrier HMS Albion just 24 hrs. before, and now waited on the grass landing area at Serian to be flown to our first location of Pang Amo. This was my first operational Tour since completing training so it was all a bit nerve wracking.

Our section, with all our kit and equipment sat in the Wessex, and as the noise of the rotors increased, the helicopter lifted off. Through the open door we watched those below clasping their hats, and we saw the rotor wash make patterns in the grass. We skimmed the thirty miles or so across a solid green jungle canopy and some twenty minutes later came in to land in a clearing at Pang Amo.

Everything was grabbed and we jumped out and moved away, to kneel down in the long grass under the severe down draft from the blades. The 'chopper' departed and the silence was deafening, but not for long. as all the local children came running across with screams of delight. The noisy gathering throng immediately offered to carry our packs and stores. They were a dark brown-skinned people of whom some  showed signs of malnourishment, but despite this they were extremely strong. They all knew the rewards for carrying out the duty of porters. The children would get boiled sweets or biscuits, and the men would get a couple of cigarette each.

We trotted along in single file behind them across the open area, through the village and crossed a rickety log bridge over the river. They mostly preferred to wade through the water with a ten-man ration pack balanced on their heads. This was a small troop location and at this time was on the far side of the river. The defences were dug in around a large wooded house vacated by a Chinese merchant, and sat on high ground just above the river. Guards were posted and then we were given a guided tour round the area. Part of one section set off immediately up the track towards another village called Kujang Tembawang which was some forty minutes away. This was an advanced position to give fore warning of any attempted approach by guerrillas.

Stores and rooms were allocated and then after a briefing we sat down to a meal. It was after this that we were sitting and talking in the downstairs room by the light of a hissing tilley lamp. The blackout was enforced and hessian draped over all doorways and openings. The coils of Dannert wire had been pulled across the access track and the trip flares had been armed.

'Jock' J. was on guard in a trench some twenty yards from the front door, and it was he who fired a burst from the Bren gun. It was so sudden and so loud that for a full second nobody moved , then there was a scramble to grab weapons and equipment that were hanging from nails on the wall. Nervous hands reached up and turned out the lamp and we were plunged into darkness. it took several minutes before we had gained anything like night vision, during which time we had sorted into three groups. We knew which trenches we were to go to and as soon as the door was opened, we scurried out like frightened rabbits.

There was much fumbling and tripping because some of the trenches were reached by steps, and in the dark more than one man  ended up with muddy trousers and bruised shins. We squeezed into our trench and hardly daring to breathe carefully looked over the top of the sandbags. The sound of the shots was still ringing in my ears, but now all I could hear was the heavy breathing of three men, each one trying to catch the faintest sound. There followed the thump of the 2" mortar as the crew fired a parachute illuminating flare. There was a 'pop' as it burst into brilliant light, and then slowly fell to earth swinging gently on its parachute. We heard the crash as the empty container fell some distance away in the trees. But now as the flare drifted down, fast moving shadows were produced by every tree and fold in the ground. We nervously watched these but there was no answering fire from outside the perimeter.

A second and a third were fired and once more the Bren opened up with two short bursts. There followed an unearthly silence as the last of the flares burnt out and we were plunged into pitch black again. We stood there for half an hour and then quietly returned to the accommodation. The troop officer explained the sentry thought he had seen something crawling towards him near the wire. The result of all this was double-guards for the rest of the night.

Daylight revealed a small area of flattened grass probably the result of a wild pig. The wire obstacles across the track were removed and the trip flares disarmed and then the way was open for the locals to go about their business since the curfew was now lifted.

Pang Amo sat astride the main track between here and the forward location and had five defensive bunkers ringing the central area. There were layers of Dannert wire in different configurations and fields of 'panjis', ( sharpened bamboo stakes) pushed into the ground and all facing outwards. There was also wire on the far side of the river from us and flares to warn of approach from that side. The local school teacher (a Malay) came over from the village, and introduced himself in pretty good English. He enquired about the shooting and we had to rather sheepishly blame it on first night nerves.

We settled into a routine and the troop signaller, who had some basic first aid, started a morning clinic for the sick. Word soon got around and each morning he was greeted by a queue, though what you could do with codeine, sticking plaster, triangular bandages and the enormous white tablets (for stomach upset) was somewhat limited. Mother brought all her children, knowing that we wilould give them a sweet, grandma came with all her aches and pains, real and imaginary, and dad had to come so he was not left out.

There was one amusing case one morning when an old man came in complaining of a stomach ache. To the local psyche a pill would cure any ailment and in this instance he was given two codeine tablets, one to take then with water, and one for later. he promptly waved away the water and proceeded to chew the tablet. His next reaction was to spend several minutes spitting it out with various moans and groans, and from the horrified looks on the faces of the rest, they must have thought we had tried to poison him. We now offered him the other tablet but he assured us in no uncertain terms that the pain had gone. The result of this was that the sick parade was a quarter the size the next day - it seemed only the real cases were prepared to be poisoned!

Because we were well off the beaten track and miles from the nearest road all re-supply was by air, normally every three days. On the first one I was detailed off at 10.30 to go to the DZ and await an air drop. I collected my equipment and with my rifle made my way across the river and through the village, and past a shop that seemed to sell everything from dried fish to tin plates. At the edge of the open area used for the DZ there was a bamboo lean-to for shade and by the time I had reached this I was like the Pied Piper with a string of the local children following.

The grass was fairly long and on the far side of the DZ was a cultivated area for vegetables and a section laid out with black pepper growing up tall poles rather like hop plants. The drop time came and went and I was almost on the point of returning when at 13.15 I heard the distant sound of an aircraft. It eventually got louder and then flashed over the clearing at about 800ft.

I could clearly see the dispatcher on his safety line standing in the open doorway. He threw out a weighted streamer for the wind drift and the aircraft banked and started to turn. It was a Hastings, and with a turning circle of about 5 miles I think, he had to be careful not to cross the line of the border. It came back several minutes later and when it was overhead an object was pushed out of the door and after about 50ft. this jerked to a stop under a bright red parachute. While this slowly drifted down the aircraft went off on another circuit. The load landed well inside the area but I now had to try and stop the children running over to it before the next run in case we had any 'streamers'. On the next pass two loads come down  one under a blue and the other under a brown parachute, and landed further away. The last pass produced two further chutes, and then with a wave from the dispatcher, the aircraft flew off.

Of the last two one drifted well up into the pepper plants and the chute snagged across some of the poles.
At the first sound of the aircraft the local men had appeared again and with their help the chute was retrieved. The children obviously knew the routine and were busy stuffing the nylon chutes back into their canvas bags, which would go back to base for re-packing Meanwhile the men brought the stores into a central pile. When everything was accounted for, everyone picked up a box and I followed the long file as they trotted back to base. There they got their reward of boiled sweets or biscuits. Occasionally if we did not have enough to go round we would give out tins of produce from the ration packs. Because they could not read the wording their trick was to shake the can and guess what it might be. Sugar and tea made a very distinctive rustling sound, but explaining what was in a can that made no sound was beyond me. It could have been mutton stew, rich fruit cake or even sausage and beans; they had to take potluck.

Whilst on patrol we sometimes nailed up foot-square yellow and black metal signs in Malay and Chinese to advise and warn the locals what to do should they come across any guerrillas.

On another day, as part of the hearts and minds, an Auster flew over several villages in this area and scattered showers of leaflets. These exhorted the locals to dig defences and man them in time of trouble, and if all the security forces and themselves joined together we could beat the common enemy, the Indonesian guerrillas. I managed to get one of these leaflets to keep as a souvenir.

Since most of the locals were illiterate we didn't know if the gist of the message was getting through !

Our other main contribution to the hearts and minds campaign was if we came across a medical problem beyond the locals ability and ours, we could then call up a Chopper' to take them to Kuching. Luckily these were not too frequent but one was a small boy with some sort of eczema on his scalp. His hair, or what was left of it, was full of large scabs.

A rather more serious one appeared early one morning. One of the locals came to us and tried to explain in Malay his problem, but none of us could understand what he wanted. While some one went for the school teacher to translate, he motioned us to follow, and standing very shyly round the corner with what we assumed was her mother, was a rather attractive girl. She was holding  her left hand, which was wrapped in leaves. Our 'Doc' led her into his surgery and while I steadied her hand by holding her wrist he unravelled the leaves. Beneath was a congealed mass of blood and dirt. After cleaning this away we were confronted by the real wound. This girl had been cutting sugar cane and whilst slashing with her perang (knife) she had missed and buried it in the knuckle of her index finger almost severing it. The horrifying fact was that she had done it three days before and been too shy to come and see us. We called up for a helicopter immediately to take this case to Kuching, and they would have had their first mind-blowing trip flying like a bird in a helicopter!

We did see her some time later when she had recovered but she had severely restricted the movement of this finger. Our own most serious casualty during our first month was the Troop Officer, Lt. 'C'. Whilst returning from disarming the trip flares outside the wire he had slipped on the winding muddy track and put a 'panji' through his leg. As he fell he ripped a nasty hole in the calf muscle. He was carried in cursing himself for being such a damm fool, but from the look on his face he was obviously in great pain. A helicopter was called immediately.

He was wrapped in a blanket and put on a stretcher but the blood had drained from his face and he was starting to sweat heavily, a sure sign he was going into shock. In the end he was given a dose of morphine and seemed to settle better. As soon as the helicopter was heard we had to manhandle the stretcher down the steep muddy track to the river, wade across and up the far bank and get him to the DZ. (The log bridge was quite impossible to use since it was only a foot wide.) We never saw him again although he made a good recovery and eventually became a Wessex helicopter pilot.

Our total existence at Pang Amo comprised guard duties, strengthening the defences, patrolling rear areas and every other week to change over duties with the advance location and from there occasionally set night ambushes on the border tracks. It was hard work and not helped by the lack of sleep. The  very high humidity and perrenial rain, making it an uncomfortable existence whilst under constant attack from mosquitoes and the all-pervading leeches. We did have a small volleyball pitch alongside the accommodation on which we took on some of the locals and even if they did not completely understand our rules it was a way to relax.

By the time we left some weeks later, after handing over to a troop of Malay soldiers, we had gained valuable experience of how to live and survive under these conditions and flew to Padawan ready for our next location further along the border.

© Copyright Patrick Walker 2006....All Rights Reserved

This article is also published on the Britains Small Wars (Borneo) website