Friday, November 28, 2008

The Banana Tree Trunk That Saved My Life By Supt. Lee Heng Pong ( Retired) Royal Malaysian Police Force

The Friday morning of August 1948 dawned dull and dreary.
The atmosphere in the standby room of the Flying squads of the Negeri Sembilan State Police Headquarters at Seremban, Malaya ( Now called Malaysia ) was tense with pent up expectations. The situation report of the Communist Terrorists activities in various parts of the State the night before, gave no cause at all for any joyful celebrations. This was especially noticed in the faces of the men of flying Squad No. 3 under my command.

My squad came up for duty at 0930 hrs. when we were ordered to investigate a communist terrorist sighting in a rubber estate at the 10th milestone Seremban-Tampin Road.

Inspector Moby, the commanding officer of Flying Squad No 1 which was on Priority-2 stand-to order, was having a cup of coffee with me.
The big boned, always smiling Paskitani officier was as usual, telling his never ending funny encounters when the intercom on my desk buzzed. "Is that you Lee ?" boomed the OC Operations over the receiver.
Before I could reply, the OC Operations informed me that a chinese rubber estate contractor had been abducted by a band of 5 to 6 armed Communist Terrorists in the Sikamat Village. This tiny village was about 12 miles from Seremban town where the incident happened about 20 minutes ago. The communist terrorists and their victim was seen going toward the hilly jungle on the east side of the banana plantation situated at teh edge of the village.

I gave the order for my squad to mount their transport which consist of 2 jeeps and a 15-cwt army truck. While grabbing my carbine and jungle hat, I requested Inspector Moby to be good enough to continue his stories on my return.

I rushed out of my office and jumped into the seat next to the driver of the leading jeap. In accordance with standard operation procedure, the driver let off a blast on the jeep's horn and the other 2 drivers replied in the same way. This indicated that all were in order and the squad was ready to move.

We pushed off and proceeded towards the Sikamat Village. As we rushed along, I briefed my men via the walkie talkie sets. The Patrol Sergeant who was in the last jeep, and the Patrol Corporal who was in the 15-cwt truck, in the middle of the convoy. After some clarifications by me, the 2 NCOs replied "Briefing understood and wilco".

During the whole period of the EMERGENCY most of the roads outside town limits are classified as "RED" due to communist terrorists ambushes on vehicles using them. As armoured vehicles were not available to the Police untile early 1949, movements on the roads were restricted to Flying Squads on operations or answering urgent calls for help from the public, estates or tin mines.

To counteract communist terrorists ambushes, the Flying Squads had to depend to a very large extent, the smoke grenades and the firing power of the bren gun.

At about 1530 hrs we arrived at the village. We stopped at the village's only coffee cum eating shop. I instructed Patrol Sergeant to set up a temporary defensive perimeter around it. I wanted to use this shop to interview witnesses. Although I learnt that the victim was abducted from this very place whilst having a drink, yet I could not get a single person there to tell me what had happened.

However, on contacting the victim's wife I was told that many people were having their drinks there at the time, and that everyone knew what had taken place.They were in such great fear of the communist terrorists that nobody would say anything.

From the rubber estate manager, whose office cum house was about a quarter of a mile from the village, I learnt that the victim was his contractor and that it was he, who reported the abduction to the Police.

All these fact finding interviews have taken away about half and hour of the precious time space within which we hoped to catch up with the communist terrorists. As there was roughly about 2 hours of daylight left, we must hurry if we were expected to hunt those communist terrorists down.

Using the rubber estate's telephone I reported to the OC Operations my plan of action. After instructing the senior driver of our transports to wait for us near the rubber estate's office, we made our way into the banana plantation. The Patrol Corporal and a Police Constable moved ahead as forward scouts. I followed behind with the bren-gunner and his assistant. The rest of the patrol, in single file, moved along, one behind the other roughly at 6 foot interval. Patrol Sergeant was bringing up the rear. Everyone was fully awared that we might meet communist terrorists ambush or come upon a communist terrorist booby trap any time.

The terrain of the banana plantation was slightly hilly. The banana trees have been planted in a most disorderly manner. Here and there, one will encounter groves of them with dead or cut down ones lying in their midst making excellent ambush positions. The scouts, not only have to move with extreme caution, but also have to ensure that they were not welcomed with booby traps as they moved forward, literally, step by step.

Although we were essentially fighting against time, the slow advance and care taken to detect ambushes and booby traps have to be maintained much against the spirit of the men who were all keyed-up to confront the enemy.

We were now at the edge of the banana plantation. The banana trees were getting less and less and in their place were secondary jungle and undergrowth.

About 20 odd yards further on was a long shallow ravine of roughly 4 to 7 feet in width and about 6 feet deep with a stream of 2 to 3 feet of water flowing along its sandy rock strewn bed. On the other side of the ravine was another stretch of about 50 yards of light secondary jungle. This stretch of land ends abruptly at the foot of the hill which slopes at 60-70 degree upwards into thick virgin jungle 200 to 300 feet above.

I have reason to believe that the band of communist terrorists have retreated into this area. From where I was standing I could see a winding foot path hugging the side of the hill and ends up on the edge of the thick jungle atop the hill. This path quite clearly indicated that humans and/or animals must have used it often.

While I examined the terrain, my patrol was on stand-to and the men were either behind some tree trunks or other available cover. Directly in front of where I was now crouching behind a dead forest tree trunk, I noticed a fallen banana tree trunk lying across the ravine. It looked strong enough to carry my weight. I made a mental note of this.

Our advance across the banana plantation was slow and uneventful but laced with the usual emotional feeling of men who were hot on the heels of an evasive enemy. So far there was nothing to suggest or indicate the presence of communist terrorists – which we estimate there must be at least 5 of them and all fully armed! What is the matter with them? Why were they behaving so unterrorist like ?

Here they were on the terrain of their own choice and obvious advantage with the ravine, the hill on the edge of the jungle, the steep climb to reach the hill top and before that the stretch of near open ground from the ravine to the foot of the hill. All these combined would make an ideal killing ground with and ambush position set up on the edge of the jungle clad hill.

Yes! That was it ! That was why there was no activities all the way from the village, through the banana plantation and up to the very edge of the ravine !

The explanation was very, very clear indeed ! We were being carefully and slowly drawn into this trap. What a plan to kill police personnel ! What a plan to get police weapons! What a plan to create propaganda materials for the Malayan Communist Party ! I almost shouted out when these factors crossed my mind. This was indeed a most brilliant plan to accomplish, 2 objectives with a single manuever – eliminating a so called traitor (the rubber estate contractor) and using his kidnapping as a bait to lure the police to the prepared killing ground!

Strange as it seemed, all of a sudden I felt quite exhausted. I sat down behind the tree trunk and rested for a few minutes. During this time I made up my mind that we must take the hill top. It was incumbent that this must be done not only to fulfil our obligation to try our best to rescue the contractor but also to show the communist terrorists that we were prepared to fight them anytime at any place.

I then signalled for my 2 NCOs to come to me. I have decided to attack the hill top NOT in accordance to the plan as would be envisaged by the communist terrorists. I was quite sure that they expected us to cross the ravine in our usual Indian file formation.

So instead of this we would cross the ravine in an open frontal advance. Our bren gun would be in a commanding position to open up on the communist terrorists once they were spotted.

At the same time, the bren would give us cover whilst we were crossing the ravine and advancing toward the foot of the hill. The advance however would freeze as soon as the communist terrorists fire were drawn. When this happened the bren gunner was to pin point the enemy’s position and to blanket that area with sporadic firing. All the other men would seek whatever cover they could and to hold their fires and wait for further orders from me.

After my briefing the 2 NCOs joined their men. While they were preparing the men for the advance, I briefed the bren gunner and his assistant and instructed them to position their bren behind the trunk of an old dead forest tree lying on high ground which had a good commanding view of the jungle clad hill.

When the 2 NCOs informed me that all were ready, I gave the order to advance.
Getting up from behind the dead forest tree trunk, I sprinted toward the banana tree trunk that was lying across the ravine. From the corners of my eyes I could see my men getting up and running forward. On reaching the edge of the ravine I stepped onto the round, rather smooth trunk which must have fallen across the ravine due to the action of strong wind. As I was crossing I have a feeling that the trunk, although appearing to be strong outwardly, had in fact a weak inner structure. Nearly halfway across, the trunk dipped as if to warn me that my 142 ibs was a weight it could not take. I hesistated for a moment but decided to go on. At my second step, the communist terrorists on the top of the hill, started to pour bullets at us with all the weapons in their possession, which included a bren gun.

As if to save me the trouble of deciding whether to turn back or jump forward onto the other side of the ravine, the banana tree trunk just collapsed and I was plunged into the shallow stream about six feet below.
As I fell, I was accompanied by the trunk, which thus cushioned my undignified landing onto the stream bed. After a minute or so, my Patrol Sergeant’s very worried face appeared over the edge of the ravine. “Tuan, Tuan ada baik kah ?” ( Sir, Sir are you all right ? ). His words were followed by another staccato bark of our bren gun. I opened my mouth to answer, but the bren drowned all my words. I therefore just looked up at him and smiled.

With the exception of being slightly shakened and perhaps, losing a bit of my dignity and hopelessly drenched, I was otherwise unhurt.

I passed my carbine to the Patrol Sergeant and climbed out amidst the angry barking of our busy bren gun, enthusiastically operated by the gunner in accordance with my instruction to blanket the communist terrorists position and to create time for our men to seek cover. This interim firing also helped to cover my climb out of the ravine.
On getting out I could not help but to notice that some young banana trees, about 3-4 feet in height, growing in grove that faced the ravine, and from which my BANANA TREE TRUNK came, were minus their top parts – shot off by the communist terrorists’ bren when it opened up at us.

My standing on the TRUNK was in direct like of fire ! I would certainly have stopped at least a few of the bullets if that good old TRUNK had not decided to give way at that particular moment ! It was just that closed!!

The Patrol Sergeant pointed out to me that the communist terrorists bren position on the edge of the hill top. I studied it for a few minutes and then ordered our bren gunner to cease fire. For almost 2 minutes all seemed quiet. No firing from the enemy. They seem to have gone.

To make sure I ordered my E.Y. rifleman to loop a couple of grenades into the enemy’s position. And to make extra sure I ordered our bren gunner to rack the area along the whole edge of the jungle on the top of the hill again. After that I ordered an advance on the double toward the foot of the hill. From there my whole patrol, except the bren gunner and his assistant who were keeping a vigil at their position, managed to overcome the rather steep climb and secured the hill top without meeing with any enemy whatsoever. They must have had enough from our grenades and bren gun.

A thorough search of the area was carried out but there was no trace of the contractor. By this time, the sun had already gone down the horizon and it would be too dark for us to continue. I gave the order to make our way back to the village. On the way, I stopped and had another look at the good old BANANA TREE TRUNK, now lying awfully alone in that ravine, waiting serenely for the slow progress of Mother Nature to disintegrate its once banana bearing trunk. As I turned away I was thinking how it would react if it knew that whilst coming to the end of its life span, it had given me a new lease of life that day !

The end.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Poem - The Tree - Dad's version 1

His variation from the poem by ~Joyce Kilmer~

I think that I shall never see,
A thing so beautiful as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lift her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in Summer wears,
A nest of magpies in her hair;
Wounded by tropical heat and winter frost,
But into Mother Earth its life will restore;

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a TREE.