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40 Royal Marine Commando

Based at Burma Camp Malaya

1962 to 1966


The Border Post at Sapit

Some memories of an A/E in Sabah 1963 with 40 Cdo. RM

By Patrick Walker

On the 4th Dec 1963 we flew from the rear echelon base of Padawan by Whirlwind helicopter up to the forward location of Sapit. It was a short flight of about 15 minutes. The landing pad was situated well down the reverse slope outside the kampong for security reasons. As far as I am aware, Sapit is the closest location to the Indonesian border being only about 200yards away. The position sits in the saddle between two steep ridges and is slightly on the reverse slope behind the crest.

The track from the DZ led through the most horrendous thick, black stinking mud and wound its way through the edge of the kampong. It terminated on the far side of a sort of shallow re-entrant at two atap huts built in the traditional style on stilts. This shallow valley separated our area from the Ibans in their huts on the other side but they could be reached by crossing a long, low bridge made from bamboo.

As normal the defenses were set out in roughly a circular shape and comprised six bunkers surrounded by the usual coiled dannert wire and sharpened bamboo stakes pushed into the ground at forty five degrees.

Because there was a section of local scouts under their Ghurkha corporal there were four other trenches that could be manned in an emergency by them on our right flank. They lived in their own hut much closer to the kampong proper and we later found out the corporal seemed to get lots of ‘favours’ with the local women. The priority task was to upgrade all the defences, which were not in a particularly good state, and send out patrols to get acquainted with the local terrain and try and gather any intelligence. We were only two sections strong, so with all this work and guard duties we were going to be pretty busy.

The trenches had only a waterproof cape over the top to try and keep out the weather, so the first thing was to go out and cut down timber to form a solid roof over them as protection against mortar fire. All this had to be done using machetes which caused no end of blisters at the start. One other defensive item that was on trial was an infra red night sight. This cumbersome piece of equipment was mounted on a rifle and comprised a large light source with a black filter and operated from a power source akin to a car battery with crocodile clip leads. It was very unwieldy and certainly not easily manoeuvrable and spent much of its time back at base being repaired.

However, when it was working well you could see on the blackest of nights out to about seventy yards. Despite the Hollywood imagination, the picture you viewed was a foggy green not, in the least red. Things close to you appeared as bright, whereas those further away darker. Trees came out as greeny- white and a man standing in the open appeared as a film negative, with white body and black deep set eyes. The aiming sight was in fact a vertical white graticule, the intensity of which you could alter to suit your self.

Once daylight came and the usual stand-to had finished, the wire across the outgoing track was removed to allow the locals to get out and about to their forage areas. Trip flares had to be disarmed as well and then the daily routine started. We were lucky there was a stream coming out of the ground just outside the wire and where it dropped over a vertical wall of rock a small dam had built and two half bamboo troughs had been erected so that the limited flow of water could be used as a shower.

After breakfast from the ‘compo’ rations and a weapon inspection it was normal for a cutting party of three to go out and search for a suitable timber to cut and bring back for the defences. Four stout poles were dug outside the particular trench we were working on as the corner posts. Fixed to these were cross beams and a framework formed on which galvanized sheets were laid. Round the perimeter of this was placed a two-foot high wall of sand bags, and then the whole of the enclosed area was filled with soil. This would give reasonable protection against incoming mortar fire. Rain, which was an almost daily event, managed to penetrate even the most carefully designed system, so sumps were dug in one corner of the trench and then the floors were covered with bamboo mat to try and keep dry.

Because of the sites elevation it was decided to climb one side of the ridge to the east and find a spot where an observation position could be set up which looked down into Indonesia. A suitable point was found about half an hour away and the local vegetation cut back to give a clear view. This allowed a small ‘atap’ shelter to be erected for shade and from which we could use a large telescope to view a considerable tract of ‘enemy’ territory. There were several tracks visible running in the valleys along with some small patches of cultivation and it was just possible to see one small corner of a village called Goen. You could see the local people going about their daily business and on rare occasions men in green jungle fatigues. The biggest problem was the tendency for a thick mist to hang over the valleys and sometimes this would take several hours to lift before anything could be seen. This OP was connected back to base by telephone cable and one of the items that had to be taken each time was the hand held-cranked set.

Work progressed at a pace and then it was decided that the latrine facilities needed improving so digging stared on a trench that was to be eight feet deep, ten feet wide. Once the initial problem of tree roots had been overcome the work went well until about six feet down, where a hard band shale occurred. It was at this point that the Platoon weapons sergeant suggested he could get over the problem by blasting. Poor naïve things that we were, we agreed. Once he had positioned three charges of what must have been about one pound each of plastic explosive and tamped them down with sandbags, we all withdrew to a safe distance. There was the most almighty thump and the ground seemed to lift as one. Great clods of earth and roots rained down around us for what seemed several minutes. When we cautiously returned to the hole which continued to emit wisps of blue smoke we found it now six feet wide and only three feet deep! All the work had been wasted and we had to start again in another area. This new one was successfully completed and a splendid new four - seater  ‘thunderbox’ was delivered by helicopter and manhandled from the DZ to be set up over the hole to carry out sterling service. The whole thing was sealed with sandbags and some hessian screens put up to afford some sort of privacy. But after the all the hard work and a short speech everyone was too ‘coy’ to want to be the first to use it.

After a while we got to know many of locals as they waited to get out through the wire first thing. It was noticeable that many of the women wore coiled brass rings round their legs about nine inches long and just below the knee. These they kept clean and shiny by rubbing them with handfuls of grass while they washed in the shower area. It appeared that the girls who were not married had to keep covered up, while those who were ‘attached’ just wore a sarong from the waist down. There was the universal habit of chewing betel nut, which stained their teeth and mouths bright red. There must have been some drug they extracted from this for they chewed on it constantly. It was the ‘norm’ to see these women coming back at the end of the day carrying a large, loaded basket on their backs supported by a strap that went round their foreheads. These baskets contained anything that had been cultivated or foraged and ranged from sugar cane, fruit and sweet corn to firewood. The men used to go out hunting with their blowpipes and poisoned arrows and occasionally returned with a monkey. The wild boar type pigs with black hair all seemed to belong to someone, even though they ran about wild. They were a nuisance at night because of their habit of tripping our flares.

It was a revelation when later we asked these men to rebuild one of the huts. The old one was reduced to its frame and then a steady supply of atap was brought in from the surrounding jungle in next to no time the task was complete. There was not a single nail or screw, just lashings and natural materials, and these things were totally waterproof. The floor was covered in split bamboo opened out in papyrus fashion and the access was via a sloping log with foot- holds cut into it.

Sapit was a kampong miles from civilization, unless you were prepared for a long laborious walk. But dispite their isolation and their undoubted primitive existence the locals were very adept at living and surviving in this harsh environment. They had to be totally self sufficient, and therefore had various skilled tradesmen in their midst.

One who always drew admiration was the local blacksmith, who now that we were here found a welcome niche in his repertoire making traditional parangs (jungle knives). He had his shop set up not far from us in a hut with an open work area alongside, his assistant was a young lad, probably his son, and it was his job to work the bellows. The whole thing was very crude but also effective. There was a shallow dish of baked clay into which lighted charcoal was put. Feeding into the bottom was this were two pipes which led up to two further large diameter bamboo tubes above ground level. In each tube was a piston with a handle. The head of the piston were covered with skin and feathers and made a sort of air tight seal as they were forced up and down the bamboo tubes to supply the air needed to get the charcoal really hot. The poor lad had to work quite hard, but once the heat was there he eased back. The blacksmith, in turn, put the metal he was working on into the middle of the fire till it got white hot, then removed it to beat it till it cooled too much to be workable and then replace it in the fire. In this way he could be observed drawing out a chunk of iron into the beautiful long curved shape of the knife, in most cases about two feet. This took several days and when he was happy he would then start to make the wooden handle, which was cut from hardwood and a hole drilled up into it to accept the tapered end of the handle. The final job was to seal this in with some sort of home - made resin.

This scabbard was also a work of art and started out as a piece of wood split down the middle. This was then worked on till it had been hollowed out to accommodate the blade and thinned down to a reasonable thickness. Once the two halved were a good fit they were bound together with thin strips of bamboo lashing and the job was complete. Sharpening the blade was done with a sort of whetstone and they were exceptionally sharp. No self respecting Iban male ever went out without his parang hanging from his waist.

The locals had their own medical man who seemed to dispense various potions but was not averse to coming over to us to collect a few pills for his repertoire. There was one sad occasion when one of the local children became very sick, probably with dysentery, and they tried to cure him themselves. The witch doctor put on all his finery and the drums started to beat for hours. Unfortunately the child died without us having a chance to help.

We had the chance to try out some of the exotic wild fruits that grew in the area. There were bananas which tended to be much smaller than normal ones, rambutan, a bright red fruit with a spikey husk inside which was a hard sweet white fruit round a stone. There was one tree that provided mangostin, a purple fruit about the size of a small apple, inside which were white segments arranged like an orange. Mangos were available but not always ripe and of course the local delicacy durian. There was one large durian tree with very few leaves which had a branch that over-hung our hut. Hanging very precariously from thin stalks from the underside of the branches were large fruits about the size of a big pineapple. These weighed anything up to ten pounds or more and had very hard spiny husks.

During the course of a windy night we heard several dull thumps in the night and then later on a crashing sound and we felt the hut shake. Examination in daylight revealed that one of these fruits had detached and fallen about forty feet and gone straight through the roof and also the floor and embedded itself in the ground under the hut. It had narrowly missed one of the sleeping Marines who could easily have been killed by such a freak accident.

The owner of the tree was summoned and told to either cut all the fruits at risk or do something about them. So valuable were these delicacies that he shinned up the tree and tied a length of raffia from the fruit to the branch so that if it fell it would be left suspended in full view. Of course everyone at some time or other tried this fruit because the locals always said how good they were. It was an experience not forgotten, since once the husk was removed the true smell came flooding out, and was something akin to a septic tank! The fruit, if you were brave enough to get that far was a series of soft pithy stones inside the main shell, a bit like the way conker’s sit inside their husks. There was nothing remarkable about the taste--only the smell.

Because the location was so close to the border, strict black out rules were enforced, and the inside of the huts were lit by Tilley lamps with hessian across the door openings. One evening we were plagued by a swarm of insects, large black flying ants, which had been attracted by a chink of light we had missed. They circled endlessly round and round the lamp until they dropped from sheer exhaustion or from being badly burned on the glass. I don’t think anyone was actually stung, but these visitors were nearly an inch long.

To help out the situation we gave them a good dose of aerosol spray. This thinned out their ranks dramatically, and as the evening wore on the pile of dead grew on the floor under the lamp. But not to be outdone they drew on hidden reserves and another wave appeared. Even so every army has its limits and finally the last one spiralled down in a crazy nose dive, out of which it never pulled up, to become just one more black dot on a large heap. We brushed up the mess and deposited it outside where in the morning we found a long line of marauding red ants scurrying away with the corpses, no doubt to administer the last rites.

While work progressed on the defences, including thickening up the panji stakes around the outside area, we carried  out several patrols to areas to our rear and along the ridge to the west. One of these was to two villages called Cacas and Kidding. Once we had left our kampong behind it was a steady climb the whole way along a very winding track, sometimes passing through small, once cultivated patches, across streams and then back into dense jungle.

The day as usual was scorching hot and the mosquitoes were out in force. After passing through one kampong that was too small to be marked on our maps, we eventually reached Cacas, where we stopped to try and find anyone who might be able to give us some information. Unfortunately there was only one very ancient old man with blood shot eyes and filed teeth, resting in the shade of a hut. He of course spoke no English, and we little Malay, and he did not appear to go very much on our sign language so we hurriedly left.

The lack of locals did puzzle us since it was quite usual to see children peeping out from huts, and our arrival would normally bring out the adults to stare out of curiosity. Another long, arduous, muddy climb, brought us to yet another kampong, where we were fortunate to meet a section of Border Scouts who had come from the other direction, this being the limit of their patrol area. Since they had an English speaker we grabbed him as our interpreter, put out two sentries and then sat down to have some lunch.

Hardly had we sat down than one of these sentries came back with a very agitated local. We learnt through our interpreter that there was a local man in the village who was in need of a doctor. The corporal and two men left to look at the casualty but soon returned with grim faces. He was definitely a ‘casevac’ case for he had badly cut his leg with a parang. We had a radio with us so contacted base for a helicopter and tried to explain our location. After eating a snatched meal we left instructions with the Border Scouts to throw a coloured smoke grenade when the helicopter was nearby so it could spot them. Luckily there was an open area within the village that would just about take a helicopter.

We, in the mean time, pushed ever onwards and upwards and finally arrived at Kidding. Half the patrol was left just beyond the village while the other half continued still further to an even tinier village. We found the head man almost at once, or rather he found us and we had the usual Dyak welcome to join him in his long-house for  a drink of tuak (a very potent brew made from palm berries). After the introductions were over, we tried, by sign language and poor Malay, to ask if he had seen any guerrillas. He obviously got the gist of what we were saying and shook his head vigorously. Up to this time not all patrols carried a good Malay speaker which meant it was sometimes an exasperating job trying to get through to the locals, especially since they were somewhat suspicious of us anyway.

There followed a pause while he lit a cigarette, which we had given him a sign of good faith. Then suddenly he beamed all over his face showing bright, red, stained teeth. He shuffled over to the corner of the hut and we got our first surprise. In the semi darkness we had not noticed them before, but handing from a pole inside a rattan basket, were three skulls, very old and dirty. As far as we could make out they were Japanese heads he had personally taken during their occupation in the last war. There was no doubt as to their genuineness, and slightly taken aback we smiled and signaled that it was time for us to go.

We managed to get through on the radio to say we were starting back and took our leave of our host. The last we saw was a very dejected man leaning against the doorway, probably dying to tell us how he had come to take these trophies, while he finished off his cigarette. We had heard the ‘casevac’ helicopter while we were there and by the time we reached the village the casualty had gone to Kuching Hospital.

We collected the other half of the patrol on the way back and set off. Our route out had involved negotiating many fragile bamboo bridges, crossing guillies and streams, and the patrol signaler was not a small man. Combined with the weight of the A 41 set and a spare battery he proved too much for many of these flimsy structures and many was the time we heard the sound of splintering bamboo followed by cursing as he broke through and landed in the bottom. It was all right for those in front but being at the rear we had to help him out from many ravines and then had to negotiate the drop ourselves. We arrived back in late afternoon covered in mud and exhausted. Nothing can describe the sheer pleasure of removing tight jungle boots and putting on dry plimsoles. Your feet turn green and white. Green from the dye in the boots and white from being waterlogged and starved of air. There was then the ritual of trying to find any leeches that might have penetrated the tightly bound laces at the top of the boots and removing these.

Next day after night guard duties it was back to work on the defences or a patrol to the OP. such was the exhausting routine that we were glad towards the end of the month to return to Padawan for a break and be involved in cordon and searches. In fact when we did get their this led to us being used in the follow up searches after the Corporal Marriot patrol incident.

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

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