It was an unbearably hot afternoon. The asbestos ceilings and roofs of the barrack didn’t help at all. As we stripped and cleaned our rifles, a soldier came in.
“Good afternoon sir!” he saluted. “The Intelligence Officer (IO) would like to see you now, sir!”
“Thank you Ranger.” I left the platoon to my acting platoon sergeant, Corporal Mohd Maisa or Mat Enambelas (Mat Sixteen) as he was popularly called. His regimental number ended with number sixteen. This was to differentiate him with the other Mats in the unit. There was Mat Pucat (pale looking), Mat Taugeh (his favourite vegetable was beansprout), Mat Pouches (he once left his pouches in the jungle), Mat Harimau (he was a hot-tempered man), Mat Jepun (he looked like a Japanese) and many more I couldn’t remember.
Serian Camp was located within the Serian Police Contigent Camp. It was split in half by the Kuching/Serian trunk road. Being an operational camp, the building was most basic: made of wood, painted with termite-resistance, black and pungent chemical paint. When it had served its purpose, these buildings would be dismantled.
Serian Camp in 1973 (today it has been demolished)
The Operation Room was no different. There were no air conditioners. The fans were spinning at breakneck speed, trying in vain to cool the sweltering heat inside.
The IO, Lieutenant Suseelan Selvarajah was studying a map that covered an entire wall, oblivious of the heat. He was the Battalion’s heavy weight boxing champion. Like the rest of the young officers in the unit, he was also a fitness fanatic. However, unlike the others, he pumped irons. That explained his well-toned and muscular upper body.
“Unggal!” (an Iban word equivalent to buddy) He thundered. “We have good news for you”
I was excited and eager but didn’t want to show it. I knew what the good news would be. I needn’t be told. My Kilat (lightning) platoon would be required to check out a sighting report, track down, engage and eliminate a group of CTs in the Battalion’s area of responsibility. I was right.
The IO briefed me on the situation, topography of the area concerned and the enemy I would be facing.
“Bring back a few heads Unggal!” was his last words.
Like a fighting cock, I was equally eager and looked forward to the operation. My heart was pounding harder and faster than usual.
“Sure Unggal! I will do that.” I replied through compressed lips. I would do my very best to keep the unit’s flag flying high.
C Company had been deployed a week earlier in the inaccessible swamps of Nonok (now Asajaya), some fifty kilometres East of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. They had made contact with a group of CTs. True to the Battalion’s engagement rule of one enemy one bullet, a sentry had shot and killed an approaching CT with a bullet to the forehead!
Kilat platoon was to assist C Company in the search and destroy operation in Nonok. The following day we were airlifted into the area. We were in the middle of a raging monsoon. Rivers overflowed their banks and there was water everywhere. All low-lying areas were inundated and turned into vast lakes. Towns and villages were cut off. In that situation, the CTs must have thought they were safe from the reach of the security forces. That mistaken sense of security had lulled them into complacency. They didn’t know that no obstacles were too difficult for me and my Kilat platoon. With spirits brimming and overflowing with confidence and determination, no obstacles could hold us back, no matter how difficult they might be.
On January 24, 1973, we were airlifted into the heart of Nonok – some ten to fifteen kilometres from C Company. From then on, and for the next few days, we couldn’t find a single patch of dry ground. Movement was slow and laborious. We had to wade knee-deep most of the time. At times we were chest-deep in the swamp and had to hoist our backpacks high over our heads to keep them dry. Navigation was based solely on compass bearing and by keeping count on the number of steps we had taken.
Cooking was a simple matter. Clean water was just at our feet. All we needed were trees with branches big enough for us to cook on. Tree stumps that protruded out of the swamp would be ideal. Basing up for the night was equally as simple. Finding trees to tie our hammocks to were no problem at all in the dense primary jungle. I was amused and enjoyed myself. It reminded me of my childhood in Lachau and Kapit, where the rivers were our playgrounds.
On the fourth day, the incessant downpour seemed to show signs of abatement. For the first time, the sun had came out from its hiding place behind thick black clouds. Even in our soaking wet camouflage uniforms, we were sweating profusely in the humid heat. It was like being in a sauna bath. As quickly as it had appeared, it went back into hiding behind the clouds and took away the heat with it. We were relieved.
We suddenly found ourselves on dry ground. The vegetation seemed to have changed. Somehow, the trees were smaller but much denser. There were signs of cuttings. Saplings were sawn at ground level. Strangely, we didn’t see remains of the chopped trees. The CTs had gone to great length trying to avoid detection. I knew then we were on the right track and warned my men to proceed with extra caution.
A few minutes later, the leading scout suddenly stopped and crouched in his track. He gave a signal for me to come forward.
“Sir,” he whispered. “I heard the sound of an empty tin.”
I must have been hard on hearing. I didn’t hear a thing. I decided to check it out and shook up the platoon into an extended line with a section each to my left and right flank. Slowly and cautiously we proceeded towards the direction of the sound.
After barely a hundred metres, a familiar burst from a Baretta 5.56mm automatic rifle broke the tranquility and shattered the silence. A shout of “enemy in front!” followed.
My heart jumped and missed a beat. We had found the CTs at last! I ran towards the sound of the shooting and a soldier pointed to a tree ahead.
“I saw a CT running that way sir, and fired at him. He must have been a sentry.”
I knew, by then, the CTs were in a hurry to flee. We had to keep up the momentum or we would lose them and signaled my men to move faster. However, in the swamp, we couldn’t move as fast as we wanted to. Besides, with the CTs fully aware of our presence, we had to move cautiously to avoid becoming an easy target.
I was all eyes and ears, scanning and listening for any signs and sounds made by the fleeing CTs. As I reached the edge of a small clearing, I saw splashes in the water, inches away to my left. I scanned the far side of the clearing and saw a figure darting behind a huge tree. He must have been a lousy shot! I knelt down with the butt of my automatic rifle on my shoulder, and waited for the figure to reappear. He did. That fraction of a second was long enough for me to release two short bursts from my Baretta 5.56mm automatic rifle. The figure stumbled backward as bullets slammed into his body.
As I worked myself forward, I realised my men on the right flank had met stiff resistance. But, like a tsunami wave, the gallant soldiers couldn’t stop their charge. Within minutes we overran the enemy position. The “Lightning” had made its first strike and claimed its first two victims.
A few days after the contact, we were recalled to Serian. We headed for the nearest village at the edge of the swamp to rendezvous with a Nuri helicopter that was coming to airlift us home. We landed in Serian Camp and were pleasantly surprised by a welcoming party who drenched us with pails of water. That little gesture of appreciation had gone a long way. We were more determined to do better. We felt as if our energy had been recharged. More importantly, we felt even closer. That was the most important ingredient to becoming a successful unit and a force to be reckoned with. Esprit-de-corps among us was at its highest.
Two weeks in the swamp had its toll. A few of us including me had developed itchy rashes from the knees downwards. After a few days of applying creams, it soon disappeared.
I wanted Kilat platoon to be different from the platoons in the rifle companies. The men must feel, see and experience the differences. They must be proud to be in the team.With the commanding officer’s approval, I made them wear red mufflers and sported long hairs. The red mufflers became Kilat platoon’s trademarks and pride. Red was the Battalion colour. During the Battalion farewell parade, at the end of our one-year tour of duty in Serian, the whole Battalion wore it. I was given the honour to command the farewell parade. The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Yaacob took the salute.
In the jungle, we wore beret, instead of the traditional jungle hats – it looked smarter and more combatant! I was still not happy with only superficial changes. The soldiers themselves must possess the qualities of a warrior that our forefathers in the Sarawak Rangers were so famous for, worldwide. I knew courage couldn’t be instilled over night. There were so many factors that had to be taken into account. Only when soldiers had mastered those factors will courage become a natural instinct.
Firstly, soldiers must have the confidence in themselves and in their comrades – that they will not be a let down; that they will not abandon their comrades in the face of the enemy; that they will not crumble under extreme pressure. They must have the confidence that they are superior and can out-do the enemy in terms of firepower, shooting accuracy, physically and mentally strong, master of tactics and field crafts. Continuous and tireless training could help achieve this level.
Secondly, soldiers must be proud of their unit. They must have the confidence and faith in their leaders. To achieve this, there must be mutual respect. Soldiers must do their parts and the leaders, on the other hands, must carry out their duties and be an example for the soldiers to follow. The bonds between members of the unit, regardless of ranks, will soon grow. The pride of belonging to platoons or Companies or Battalion could be seen in the men. The stronger the esprit-de-corps is, the more willing are soldiers to sacrifice themselves and perform their tasks far beyond their normal capabilities. Therefore, every conceivable activity that could help raise the level of comradeship and esprit-de-corps in the unit must be encouraged.
Soldiers must be a fighting machine. Being able to shoot well is not enough. They must be able to fight and defeat the enemy with their bare hands if the need arise. With this thought in mind, I enrolled my Kilat platoon in a local Tang Soo-Do club and trained under a Korean instructor in the art of self defence. With my Tae Kwon-Do background, I found it easy to learn Tang Soo-Do. They were both Korean art of self defence and had many similarities.
So, for the next one year, in between operations, we trained three or four times a week in the town hall. Most of the soldiers had attained a satisfactory standard and were confident enough to spar with me when I conducted practice sessions in the evenings in the camp. One of my section commanders, Lance Corporal Buan ak Lek was particularly good and was on par with me. We were both brown belts - just a step below black belt. I was unfortunate to have contracted Malaria and couldn’t attend my black belt test in Kuching at the end of 1973.
I was so keen in this art of self-defence that on returning to our home base in Taiping, I formed a Tang Soo-Do club. A few months later, the president of Tang Soo-Do for South East Asia region visited the club. However, due to the intensity of operations, training sessions were on irregular basis. On top of that, Kilat platoon had been disbanded and its members returned to their Companies. And due to differing commitment at different time, I wasn’t able to get all of them together. Sadly, after a year, it just faded out.