MALAYSIAN TRIP By Mark Stewart, 8/9 RAR
My Malaysian trip started when an officer came into the Assault Pioneer Course rooms asking if I would like to go to Malaysia. The Assault Pioneer Course started in September 1978 and was due to finish a week after I flew out to Malaysia, The course was being held at 6 RAR; the staff on the course were very helpful and I actually completed the demolition phase of the course on the Saturday. I then flew out with D Coy 8/9 RAR to Malaysia by Hercules transport on the Sunday, having never worked with the section or platoon that I was allocated to.
Our first stop was RAAF Base, Darwin. Remembering that Cyclone Tracy had only devastated Darwin two years prior, the place was still flattened.
Early Monday morning, we flew over Darwin in a circular path.
Looking out the window, it was hard to fathom how people had survived. We flew into a dirt airstrip in the northern Malaysian province of Perak. As soon as the back ramp went down, we felt the Malaysian heat and humidity. Our uniforms were soaked with sweat by the time we got to the trucks. We loaded into Unimog-like trucks, to be taken to a fortified camp at Alor Setar (now Alor Star).
On arriving at the camp, the first thing we noticed was the manned Mag 58 at the front gate, inside a pill box. We were taken to our barracks – one barrack block to a platoon. The ablutions were a learning curve – one foot pad either side of a hole in the ground, and these holes really got a workout in the coming days. Our section was short by two members when we landed as they hadn’t made the flight Monday morning. One was the gunner and the other was the gun number two.
These two were charged and jailed when they caught up with us. They were lucky. The first day we were issued with one mag of live ammo per weapon, per person, and a 50-round belt for the gun. We were also given three days’ rations to carry. Early the next day we were heading for the bush or jungle to acclimatise. We lost 75% of the company the first day through heat. Everyone went back to camp. We started again the next day in a less hilly area and with plenty of water. This time we went out for two days. The first night saw us hootched up in the J; movement at night via hootchie cord. The area where I was sleeping had a distinct cat urine smell. The next morning we learnt from our Malaysian guards that there were tigers around.
When we first rocked up at the camp, there was one young fellow walking around without a foot. After our first two weeks working the area, there were four blokes without a foot. We later found out that these guys were going ahead of us, clearing the track and therefore tripping booby traps. They didn’t realise that Australians didn’t use tracks, we ambushed them.
Week three saw us with two days off and we were allowed to go into the town of Alor Setar. We came across a beggar woman with no feet and using a skateboard thing to get around. We were told not to give them anything otherwise they’d keep pestering you. We went to a hotel for steak and beer and afterwards went for a massage and a hand job – excellent.
On our way back to the camp we came back across the beggar woman. She’d died. I went over and told a copper, who came over and up ended her into a monsoon drain before returning to work. Life in Malaysian then was cheap and harsh.
The next day we went to the Sultan of Perak’s palace for a tour before being dropped off in town. We had to be back before 6 pm because there was a curfew due to communist insurgents in the area. We got in the shit for being late and were lucky that the guard in the pill box didn’t shoot us when we were hanging off the camp gate, asking to be let in. No more trishaw races for this bloke while six extras fixed that.
The next day saw us back into the J for another week and a half. We were going through blokes with severe diarrhoea and I ended up on the gun. Whether I was eating or drinking, it was done with my pants around my ankles and shitting at the same time – everything was going straight through. After a week of being geographically displaced we were coming out of the J and we could hear this ding-ding sound. I asked Jacko, the section 2ic, “What’s that?”
He answered, “How the fuck would I know?” We’d run out of water about two hours previously and everyone was cranky. It turned out to be an ice-cream vendor.
Now, I remembered those old blokes telling me to always carry some money and always in small dominations. So we camped by that causeway and ate and shitted out ice blocks. We cleaned the leeches off us. I had one on the very end of my knob – a big bull leech, which I turned inside out with salt. When the trucks came, we were all fucked and slept well that night back in camp.
Our last trip saw the whole section back on deck so it was back to Tail End Charlie for me. ‘Fuck.’ I thought. ‘Dutchy can keep the pig.’ The fucking thing was too heavy. Later in my career I would come to love the gun, and even as a section commander used to love carrying the gun on runs and especially in Ghurkha shoots.
The final patrol accumulated with a Malaysian attack on known communist positions in the area. The company was to set up a linear ambush on the western side of the AO; we were cut off. Moving into position, we could hear Malaysian jungle canons firing constantly. We later found out that the Malaysian Army had made major gains in the region, forcing the communists to retreat into Thailand.
The following week saw us packing up and heading to guard the air base at Butterworth. The following week after getting to Butterworth we took a little unauthorised trip to the Thai border for R&R. We packed into a car and off we went. About an hour from the border we came to a road block, manned by members of the battalion we had been working with. They didn’t recognise us so we got roughed up until one of them saw our dog tags and after some questions we proceeded. On arriving at the next road block, they waved us through, all the way to the border town of Padang Besar. The car was left with a Buddhist monk at a Buddhist temple for him to look after it; he slept inside it.
Once we arrived there, we walked through the fence with the locals to party. It was New Year’s Eve 1979 in Thailand. Just after midnight a machine gun opened up in the street outside the bar we were in. Our natural instinct was to hit the deck but the bar girls laughed at us and told us it was all right. The only one not on the top floor was Craig, who was on the middle floor trying to get up to us. Papa-son had locked the individual floors so the girls couldn’t get out.
The next morning we were having breakfast in a restaurant when this Thai official came up. He had breakfast with us and asked us for identification. We showed him our service ID cards and he just laughed as he knew who we were. He showed us around the Thai side of Padang Besar. We spent the day with him before driving back to Butterworth. We were again recognised at the first checkpoint and waved all the way through.
Another incident that happened on that trip was the locals chasing Gippo and me. We were returning from George Town on Penang Island about four one morning and couldn’t get a taxi, so we had to walk back to camp. On coming level with the first mosque, we stole all their left sandals and as we walked along, started throwing them into the moomy drain. When they spotted us, we had to bolt, only to be picked up by friendlies 500 metres down the road.
We also got into trouble on the airbase ladies’ golf day. We’d been around late the previous day playing golf and as you do when you get pissed and desperate to have a shit, you shit in the green cup. The ladies didn’t see the funny side of that. Needless to say, we weren’t allowed to play golf anymore.
Weather ain’t neutral.