I was promoted to the rank of Captain in July 1973 and knew my days with Kilat platoon had ended. I remained the platoon commander for the next four months, until a vacancy was created when Captain Ahmad Rafiee of D Company was posted out of the unit in October 1973. I was immediately available and was appointed by the Commanding Officer to command the company. Barely a couple of days later, D Company was deployed in the swamps of Nonok. After having operated there before, I knew conditions there very well.
I was there in early January of the same year, when the monsoon season was at its raging height. And now in October, the monsoon season was just beginning and I didn't expect the swamps to be as extreme as when I had found it in January. Based on the patterns of sightings in the area, it was firmly believed that the 1st Company of North Kalimantan Communist Party (NKCP) had established a firm base there. I was given its most likely position. Just like James Bond, I was given a mission - to seek out and destroy this remaining, elusive and largely intact group. But unlike James Bond, I was not given any sophisticated gadgets, beautiful partners and a self-destruct tape recorder.
On October 4, 1973, my Company was airlifted to a landing point (LP) in the heart of Nonok peninsular, about five to six thousand metres from the target area. No troops had ever ventured that far. The inaccessibility of the swamp had probably given the CTs the false sense of security. What they didn't know was that no obstacles, however difficult, could hold us back.
To effectively cover my area of responsibility, I broke up my company into three groups – my company headquarters combined with no. 11 platoon, no. 10 platoon commanded by Sergeant Zakaria and no. 12 platoon commanded by Second Lieutenant Zainil Annuar Ariffin (he later changed to the Military Police Corps and retired as a Major).
On 6 October 1973, which happened to be my twenty-fifth birthday, a patrol from no.12 platoon on returning to their base, made a head-on contact with a group of CTs. Thinking they had reached their base, the leading scout relaxed his guard. And in that split-second indecision, the CT fired first. The leading scout, Ranger Mohd Salleh, was killed instantly. An immediate follow up by Second Lieutenant Zainil Annuar brought him to an old, large empty camp which could accommodate 60 to 70 CTs.
Early next morning, I met up with Zainil Annuar and his platoon in the CT camp and planned out my next move. Judging by the condition of the camp, it could have been used in excess of five years. It was smack in the middle of the target area given to me.
Except for the discovery of a recent, well-trodden track that led in a South Easterly direction, we found nothing else of importance. I was absolutely certain the 1 st Company of NKCP we were after, was in the camp as recently as one or two days before.
My next course of action was obvious. We must follow the track the CTs had made.
At first light the following day, 8 October, no.12 platoon spearheaded the follow up. I moved some 1000 metres behind, while no. 10 platoon brought up the rear. We moved cautiously following the track that was consistently heading South Easterly towards Sadong river.
On 9 October, Zainil Annuar and his men came across a resting place that showed signs of recent use – most probably an overnight resting place.
As the follow up went into the third day, the tell-tale signs left by the CTs seemed to be getting fresher. Then at about 10.00 a.m on October 10, 1973, no. 12 platoon made contact with the rear guard of the retreating CTs. In the brief exchange of fire, both CTs were killed. It was obvious that the main group was not far away. As I studied the map of the area, I was concerned on the closeness of Sadong river. I knew, if the CTs could reach it before I could get to them, I was quite certain I would lose them for good. Visions of a boat waiting to ferry them across the Sadong River played in my mind.
Haunted by these possibilities, I decided to go all out to stop them from escaping across the river. After giving instruction to Zainil Annuar to make the necessary preparations to winch out the bodies of the two dead CTs out of the operation area, I continued with the follow up with my team. By 7.00 p.m, there was still no contact with the CTs. The traces were now very fresh, indicating they were only a few hours ahead of us. Darkness was coming in very fast. In the jungle, it came down very much earlier than usual. But, come what may, I had to make a night follow up. We skipped the habitual evening meal. Speed and surprise were of utmost importance now. I decided to go light and left our packs and heavy equipment behind.
Six men, enough numbers to fend for themselves, were left to guard the equipments. The night had descended and it made our job trying to follow the track almost impossible. Under day light, it was easy to see the trampled ground, broken twigs and flattened leaves. In pitch darkness, even with torch lights, it was almost impossible to see these signs. However, the constant South Easterly direction the track had been heading for in the last three days had helped me a great deal to maintain my direction.
The damp night air was becoming colder and heavier. Our tired bodies could not generate enough heat to keep us warm. We had been in the swamps for seven days now and our feet were beginning to feel the adverse effect of being soaked in water over long period. Our camouflage uniforms too, were never dry. They were stuck to our bodies like a second skin. To make matters worse, it started to drizzle at about 9.00 p.m; and as if to add salt to the wound, our torch lights ran out on us. I felt as if I had hit a concrete wall and seemed to have reached a dead end.
I pondered over the situation. Visibility was zero. We couldn't even see our own hands in front of us. Sadong River very close - at most 3,000 to 4,000 metres from where I was. The CTs couldn't be very far away. And with the thought that they could escape across the River was unthinkable. I didn't want to be haunted for the rest of my life with the failure. I was in control of the situation and it was up to me whether I wanted success or failure. I decided to push on – regardless of the zero visibility. All was not lost. I still had my magnetic compass to guide me and keep me on the South Easterly direction that the CTs had been steadfastly sticking to.
Mother Nature, too, decided to lend me a helping hand. I saw patches of glowing white lights emitted by certain fungus that grew on rotten leaves and twigs on the jungle floor. Where there they were broken by continuous dark break, that was the path the CTs had taken.
We kept on moving, very slowly in tight single file formation. I peered at my luminous wrist watch. It was almost midnight. Our limbs were numb and we were cold, tired and hungry. Our short rest became more frequent. Finally, my Company Sergeant Major, Warrant Officer Class 2 Norizan Bakri approached and said to me, "Sir, the men are tired and hungry. Perhaps we should stop for the night. We'll continue first thing tomorrow morning."
I knew the situation the men were in and perhaps shouldn't flog a dead horse. On the other hand, we were already so close to the enemy that I just couldn't give up and abandoned my effort. Besides, by tomorrow, the enemy could have been safe and sound on the other side of Sadong River.
"All right Encik, we will continue for another hour. If nothing comes up by then, we will stop for the night and continue at first light tomorrow morning." I told my Sergeant Major. I had to make a compromise.
God was on our side. Before that hour was over, my leading scout, Lance Corporal Peter Bat Wan, whispered to me that he had detected the familiar whiff of lighted mosquito coils. I didn't smell anything. So Peter and I went further forward to confirm his finding. He was right. We saw some faint flickering lights ahead. Torch lights, perhaps. It was with an unbelievable realisation that we at last, had caught up with the 1st Company of NKCP. At that instant, the drizzle suddenly turned into a torrential downpour. It was a blessing in disguise for us. It helped drowned the noises we were making and at the same time kept the CTs confined to their tents. I took full advantage of the rain and withdrew some fifty metres back, so that I could plan and deliver my orders.
Based on the intelligence assessment given to me earlier in Serian Camp, I knew there were between sixty to seventy CTs in the camp. With only fifteen men, I was numerically outnumbered. However, I had a far superior fire power as every one of us was armed with 5.56mm automatic rifles. The CTs perhaps, had a few automatic weapons. The majority of them were, however, only armed with home-made shot guns. More importantly was our element of surprise. They knew we were hot on their heels but had never expected we were so determined to even make a night follow up. The scale was therefore heavily tipped in my favour.
I divided my men into two groups – the seven-man assault group under my command and the eight-man cut-off group under the command of my Sergeant Major Norizan Bakri. My plan was simple. The cut-off group was to be in position early that night, some fifty or sixty metres behind the enemy camp, to cut off their withdrawal route when I launched the attack. The assault group was to be in position one or two hours prior to H hour at 6.30 a.m on October 11, 1973. We were in pairs and spaced out between five to ten metres apart. Alternatively, just in case the CTs would break camp much earlier, the signal to attack would the sound of firing.
At about 2.30 a.m, the cut-off group, under the cover of the torrential down pour, moved slowly and cautiously to their positions. I was told later, in the pitch darkness, they bumped into a tent!
I didn't want the assault group to move in at the same time as it was still too early. We needed the few hours to rest and get some sleep. Hopefully, we were able to recover from our fatigue, before the big task ahead.
We took shelter from the merciless rain under a makeshift tent we had erected with a poncho in between the buttress roots of a giant tree. Soaked to the skin and chilled to the bones, we huddled closed together, in order to get some warmth into our shivering bodies.
I told the men to catch some sleep, if they could. But I doubt if any of us were able to do so. With a battle coming up in just a few hours, and the enemy just a stone –throw away, who in their right sense of mind could? We were excited, enthusiastic and raring to go. After what we had gone through and worked at, we didn't want to botch it up and threw away this once-in-a lifetime golden opportunity!
At 3.30 a.m, the rain had fizzled down to light drizzles. Then, suddenly, I heard some noises in the direction of the CT camp. Ten minutes later, red lights flickered, glowed and danced in between the foliage – some fifty to sixty metres away. I realised then, the CTs had woken up – possibly getting ready to break camp early and make it to the Sadong River before we did. What they didn't know was that we were already on top of them!
They had kindled a bonfire. We found out later, they were actually cooking breakfast and drying out their wet clothes over the fire. With the CTs already awake and rain that had fizzled down to light drizzles, I realised our task of moving into our assaulting positions would be more difficult to conceal. The sight of the bonfire and the dying drizzles prompted me to change my plan. I decided to move in immediately.
That twenty metres was the longest and most difficult twenty metres I had ever gone through all my life. We were up to our shins, at times up to our knees in the swamp. Each step had to be taken carefully in order to avoid the sucking and squelching noises the mud and marshy ground were making. Each step had to be slowly cleared of leaves and twigs. Each step had to be retracted slowly and carefully from the swamp. As if those problems weren't enough, mosquitoes attacked us in swarms.
As minutes ticked slowly by, the heat from the sun was beginning to be felt. Or was it the adrenaline rush? About forty minutes later, we were in positions. I and my Radio Signaler, Ranger Md Desa were directly in front of the bonfire – about fifteen metres away. In order to get a clearer view, I moved closer to the bonfire, while Ranger Md Desa remained behind a big tree where he hid his radio set. Before I left him, I had pointed out a couple of tents visible to the right of the fire. He was to attack those tents. I would attack the ones to the left.
As I watched the CTs moving around the bonfire, I prepared myself for the coming battle - ensured my magazines of ammunitions were in the right pouches and my webbings were properly secured. I knew, in the heat of battle, I mustn't fumble and every seconds counted.
At 5.30 a.m, I began to notice the pitch dark night was beginning to turn smoky grey. The young saplings and bushes around me began to take shapes. As the light became brighter, I began to feel insecure. I was in the open with little cover from view and practically with no protection from enemy fire. There was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't move. My Radio Operator was a couple of yards behind me. The rest of my assault team was strung out to my right and out of sight.
At 6.15 a.m, the sky was clearing. Silhouettes of trees were visible against the dawning sky. The CTs had ceased to move about. I could see only two still remained by the fire. They were ill at ease and must have sensed our presence. They exchanged some words. The silence and inactivity in the camp was most worrying. I sensed they were up to something. Were they about to break camp? Could they had detected our presence and were getting ready for our attack? All these thoughts went through my mind and they made me worried. I had another fifteen minutes to my H Hour. It was too long and I couldn't wait much longer. The longer I waited the longer time I would give the CTs time to prepare themselves for our assault. I didn't want to lose my surprise factor. Convinced that it was the most opportune time, I launched the assault immediately at 6.15 a.m on October 11, 1973 – five days past my 25th birthday. I grabbed
an M 26 grenade, pulled the safety pin out, released the striking lever from my hand, counted three seconds and lobbed it in between trees, at the two CTs near the bonfire. It landed with a splash in a puddle of water to their right. To my horror and dismay, it didn't explode! Swiftly, I grabbed my 5.56mm Baretta automatic rifle and released two long bursts at the two CTs who were looking at the direction of the splash the grenade had made. Instantly, all hell broke loose.
My radio operator immediately left his tree and charged towards the two tents I had indicated earlier, shouting out challenges to the CTs and with his Baretta spitting fire. I told him not to shout as his voice could indicate his position to the CTs. But in the midst of battle I doubt he could hear me.
The jungle came alive. There were a lot of shouting and screaming in Chinese. My men on my right flank were also firing into the camp. I veered left to follow the sounds of retreating CTs. My cut-off group also fired. Sandwiched, the CTs escaped through the open left flank.
Suddenly, amidst the chaos and sounds of battle, I saw and heard a couple of unfamiliar bursts of automatic fire from an unfamiliar weapon – it sounded slower and the pitch lower. It must had been directed in my direction, because the fire from the muzzle was directly in front of me. Instinctively, I hesitated and didn't retaliate! My first thought was of my cut-off group. Could that be their fire? By the time I realised it was not, the sounds of the fleeing CTs were well to my left. I kept up the pressure, firing as I went.
As the sounds of the splashing disappeared, I stopped to check my ammunitions. I had used five of my seven magazines. I had to conserve my remaining ammunitions just in case the CTs might want to counter-attack.. As I was taking stock of the situation, I heard approaching footsteps. I drew my dagger and prepared myself for a hand to hand combat. Somehow, when it was about a couple of metres from me, the footsteps stopped. I crouched low and waited for about five minutes. Satisfied there was no one there, I decided to retrace my footsteps and went back into the camp to take control of the situation and quickly organised an all round defence, just in case the CTs might try to counter attack.
The jungle was filled with acrid white smoke of gun powder. I didn't notice it before. I met up with my assault team and searched the camp.
The camp was actually an overnight camp. There were only makeshift tents made of plastic sheets. Some of the CTs were sleeping on the jungle floor while others were in hammocks. One of the CTs killed died in his hammock.
The way they left the camp showed that they were totally caught by surprise. Blankets were strewn all over the place. They didn't have the time to pack up their belongings. We recovered about 35 packs and assorted items such as torch lights, Iban parangs (long knife), home-made shot guns and pistols, some ammunitions and even a couple of transistor radios. One of the radios was still running a Chinese program. We found seven dead CTs – four females and three males. One of the astonishing find was a talisman written in Arabic found in the jungle boot of one of the male CTs. He had, presumably, got it when he was in Kalimantan, Indonesia, when the Sarawak Communist Organisation decided to go underground soon after the Brunei Rebellion broke out in December 1962.
For the success, however, we had to pay a price. My radio operator was killed and one of my section commanders was wounded on the head.
After locating my radio set, I managed to relay the good news to my Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Philip Lee Khiu Fui, through our Mortar Platoon which had established a firing position at the fringe of the swamp. I visualised the excitement the good news would have created at the Battalion, Brigade and Division Headquarters.
Next day, I was told to rendezvous with 3 Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Hassan Hj Salleh and my Commanding Officer at a clearing some one thousand metres away from my location. The Brigade Commander wanted to personally congratulate me for achieving the biggest success for the year.
The ripples of excitement were felt as far as the Armed Forces Headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. A week later, the Chief of the Armed Forces Staffs, Tan Sri General Ibrahim Ismail came down to Kuching to get a first hand picture of what had happened and to meet me and my men.
Unknown to me at that time, the CTs in the First and Second Division of Sarawak, under its Director and Political Commissar, Bong Kee Chok, were mulling over the idea of giving up their armed struggle and return to society. This was the result of the relentless pressure from the Security Forces. Bong Kee Chok was further demoralised by the lack of cooperation between factions.
He later wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Yaacob, seeking to negotiate favourable terms for himself and his men. The meeting was held over three days in the residency of Simanggang and was concluded on October 21, 1973 – just ten days after I had attacked their camp in Nonok. That attack must have been the last straw for him. Subsequently, the town of Simanggang was renamed "Sri Aman" to mark the historical event.
That historic operation was the last for me before 3rd Rangers returned to its home base in Taiping in December 1973. I was given the honour to be the parade commander of the Battalion farewell parade. The Chief Minister of Sarawak, Tan Sri Abdul Rahman Yaacob fittingly took the salute. Dressed in camouflage uniforms and wearing the distinctive red mufflers around our necks, a fashion I introduced into Kilat platoon, we braved the rain. It was a resplendent and awesome sight to behold.
It had been a most successful year for the Battalion. Thirty CTs were eliminated – the highest ever achieved by any battalion in a single year. I and Lance Corporal Ahmad Adnan who hails from Johor were awarded the nation's second highest gallantry award – the Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB). Another soldier, Lance Corporal Peter Bat Wan, a Kenyah, was awarded a Mentioned-In-Despatch (KPK).
A total of twenty-one soldiers and officers were each awarded a commando knife for having killed at least one CT. This special award was mooted by Commander 3 Brigade, Brigadier General Hassan Hj Salleh, who knew and understood the importance of appreciating and recognising soldiers' contribution in the field, especially in war. He learned this from the British Army.