HMAS Curlew, Anecdotes from "Tawau"
Anecdotes, some funny, some serious but all mostly true, from "The Real Up Top", a personal view from the decks of HMAS Curlew, a Royal Australian Navy Minesweeper during the Indonesian Confrontation, October 1965 to April 1966.
Tawau in Sabah, Borneo
Tawau was the major town on the east coast of Sabah, North Borneo, however since the second world war when most of the town was demolished, had been neglected with no development taking place in 20 odd years. "Industries" included fishing and trade in rubber and rice. During the Confrontation, Tawau was an easy target for the Indon being surrounded with jungle and close to the border of Kalimantan. The defense of Tawau was assigned to the Tawau Assult Group or "TAG".
One afternoon while in the day anchorage in the Nunukan River, near Tawau, to break the boredom at anchor, I organised a hunting party. I asked the CO for the assault boat so several of us could go into the swamps hunting for mouse deer but all we found was a group of orang-utan high up in the jungle foliage so with no other quarry in sight, opened fire on them with our Owen guns. The result was that a young monkey fell from a fleeing mother and landed in the water. It was recovered, immediately assuming that Rusty with his red beard was it's mother, and taken back onboard to be our third mascot, together with our Alsation bitch, "Elvis" and the little green monkey. The orang-utan was called "Nunukan" after the Indonesian commando base on the other side of the sea border (1.5nm. from the shore of Paulo Nunukan) where Curlew anchored every night.
On board Curlew in Tawau we had an army portable radio (Type A41) for communications within the area in particular the army base in Wallace Bay. Our newly acquired mascot, "Nunukan" looked a bit poorly so we asked in plain language for "some fresh fruit for Nunukan". Soon we were visited by a British Army Major, Major Hopton, a Scots Guard and OIC of Wallace Bay army base, who came on board to lunch with the CO. Before lunch he asked for the story of our "Nunukan", which I was allowed to tell. The three of us were alone on the sweepdeck when the major looked quite grim and politely informed the CO that allowing us to go off hunting was indeed very foolish, "what if they ran into an Indon patrol?" As the skipper was blushing with embarrassment the Major cracked a smile and informed us that the radio messages about fruit, bananas and apples for "Nunukan" had been intercepted by the Indons and they were "a bit rattled" by it all. The commando base had been observed posting extra patrols and manning defenses and gun batteries. The Major suggested that as the Indons may think that a bombardment or attack on their positions was imminent we should keep up the radio requests.
The CO and the Major must have lunched rather well because when they came on deck the Major, when showing off his new Remington 9mm. automatic pistol, accidentally discharge a round into the deck in the port waist. On another occasion an army type in Tawau showing off his new Colt .223 rifle ("taken from a dead Indon") discharged it and a projectile penetrated the deck and hit an ERA (Bluey) having a snooze in his bunk in the POs mess, penetrating his leg. Bluey J had the projectile mounted on a gold chain and still wears it round his neck with pride.
The orang-utan continued to sulk so I gave it to the Malay Rangers as they told me it would be good meat. The following day, at the appointed time I took the assault boat and collected the Malay Rangers from one of the patrol boats and took them to the other patrol boat and together we lunched on poor little "Nunukan" and it was indeed good meat.
Late in the afternoon Curlew left the daytime anchorage and moved to anchor on the actual border, using radar ranging, 1.5nm. from Nunukan Island and the 2 launches would then come alongside for the crew to mess, shower and maybe watch a movie below decks as the ship was darkened at night. That evening the ship was engaged and fired on from Pulau Nunukan and I believe this was as a direct result of the mischief that was caused by asking for fresh fruit for "Nunukan".
Curlew Bar Firebombed
There was only one bar in Tawau, an absolute rat hole with an open sewer in front, access to the bar was over a plank, and it was renamed every time a ship berthed in Tawau so on this occasion it was called "Curlew Bar" and displayed a hand painted sign, with "Kiwi Bar" clearly visible as well. HMNZS Taranaki was at that time guard ship in Tawau. The Guard Ship was supposed to provide a bombardment to assist any patrol craft or military operation that needed heavy covering fire. The Curlew Bar was some distance from the waterfront and we had to go to the bar as a party, escorted by a motley bunch of armed local militia. Because we were going on the piss, we were not allowed to carry our own weapons.
On the 28th. of December 1965, the following took place and Item 12 from the December ROP is quoted:
"Curlew berthed port side to RFA Eddyrock at anchor in Wallace bay at 0946 and having completed fuelling proceeded to Tawau and a 24 hour Stand Down at 1100. The ship anchored off Tawau jetty at 1231 and leave was granted. Soon after arrival the replacement part required for the radio was received on board and repair work commenced. It was learnt at approximately 1500 that Curlew would be required to relieve K.D. SRI SABAH (Malaysian patrol boat) which had a defective radar set. Libertymen were (recalled) returning by 2000.The ship weighed and proceeded for the area north of PUTRI LIGHT at 2253, commencing patrol at 0100, Wednesday, 29th. December".
Most of the crew granted leave were in the Curlew Bar during the afternoon attempting the impossible of trying to get drunk on warm Tiger beer !! and late in the afternoon a member of the duty watch arrived and informed us that there was a Blue Peter (Papa) and we were to repair on board at 2000hrs to replace another boat on patrol. Shortly after 2000 we were escorted back to the wharf and embarked in a small launch which proceeded to where the Curlew was at anchor in the stream. During the short passage to the ship there was a loud explosion ashore and a glow from a fire was evident. Unknown to me at the time, the Curlew Bar had been blown up and set on fire by Indonesian Infiltrators as we repaired to the ship. Had the recall not happened we would have been in the bar and targeted by the Indon. As it was we had only left the bar 10 minutes prior to it being blown up.
Picket Ship in Tawau
The ship had an addition to the family whilst in Tawau. This telegram was received on 21st. December 1965 and was reason for a celebration when we next had leave as we were a close knit crew. The duty ROs name brings back memories too, unfortunately he has sailed from port.
During our time in Tawau, Curlew was picket ship for a week over Christmas 1965. We were actually on duty Christmas day. The picket ship anchored off the Port of Tawau and all small ships, fishing boats and ferries were required to come alongside and be searched before entering port during daylight hours. From first light the fishing boats returning to port were the first to be searched, followed by a steady stream of trading and passenger vessels (ferries) throughout the day. Because Christmas day was but a few days away we demanded part of the catch from all fishermen and had a stockpile of fresh fish and beautiful big green prawns for our Christmas lunch. This was akin to stealing and sometimes the fisherman had to be threatened with an Owen gun or pistol while he fulfilled the request for fish product by the interpreter, and there was no payment.
The way we dressed is worth mentioning, while away from port most crew wore brightly coloured chokee pyjama pants and nothing else apart from a short time towel wrapped round the neck as a sweat rag. There was a bit of a competition on board to see who could buy the most outrageous and brightly coloured chokee pyjama shorts. In port we conformed to dress of the day ( photo: Alongside in Tawau, notice the covered Vickers, bullet proof vest and tin hat, the struck guard rails and the beautifully scrubbed white wooden deck, but take no notice of the slack crew.)
Someone had bought two plastic American cowboy pistol holsters with imitation revolvers. It only took a flash to realize that the holsters would accommodate our 2 service revolvers, the S & W .38 cal. which were kept in the bridge, so the holsters were pressed into service while we were picket ship.
Searching a stinking barter boat or a crowded ferry was close quarter work often with not enough headroom to stand upright. The watch on deck provided a boarding party of two or three or more depending on the size of the boat to be searched. They dressed in chokee shorts, steel helmets, bullet proof vests, plastic tied down holsters with the trusty S & W and carried Owen guns with the butts withdrawn so the Owens could be operated as machine pistols in confined space if it ever came to a showdown. The vessel was kept covered from the ship by the two brens. Before leaving Singapore HMAS Curlew was already dubbed "McHales Navy" and goodness only knows what would have been thought of us if NHQ had seen us in operation in Tawau.
The Malay Ranger as interpreter was particularly good at assisting in the searching of these small vessels/ferries and he was really a huge asset to our operations. I was always extremely apprehensive about going on board to carry out the searches as often the boats were crowded and one had no way of knowing the goodies from the baddies because they all looked and smelled alike to me. At all times I posted someone to act as lookout in the vessel, with weapon cocked, whilst the rest of us searched. I was always concerned for my safety and the safety of my party. Some of the things we looked for were all infiltration or explosive related such as bicycle handle bars, these were closely examined as were the frames, looking for joins or new paint work indicating that explosives may be hidden inside the pipe frames. Arms of course, and explosives hidden in the cargo of stinking dried fish, rubber bales and bags of rice. Some of the fishing boats had wet holds with live fish in them but as the water was so clear we could see inside them otherwise the wet holds would have had to be searched by a diver.
For one period the Curlew was assigned to Darvel Bay to the north of Tawau and was the only ship there. Following night patrols which were mostly uneventful apart from one night when we illuminated a Phillipino smuggler that was just so fast poor Curlew stood no chance of following or catching it, the ship would anchor off a small island which became our Island. The water was so deep the ship could anchor about half a cable or less off and during the day anyone could swim ashore for a walk or a sun bake in the sand. The island was so small it could be circumnavigated on foot in about 15 minutes.
There was also a reef close by and the assault boat was used to bomb fresh fish using scare charges. A lot of the ships side was burned back and repainted at this anchorage. This area of Borneo in those days was unspoiled and equal to the Australian Great Barrier Reef. Day patrols of the western shore and some Dyak villages were carried out using the assault boat if it was not being used for fishing, as we had our priorities because the ship carried one 44gal. drum of mixed outboard fuel and it was important not to burn it all up doing inshore patrols. An allowance had to be made for a pursuit and most importantly, going fishing!.
Relieved from the TAG
HMAS Curlew was relieved from the TAG on 31st. December 1965 by HMS Wilkieston and proceeded towards Singapore. To qualify for war service at that time a unit (ship in our case) had to have 30 days "continuous" service in a declared zone and the Admiralty had the degrading practice of withdrawing units under the 30 days to prevent war service benefits being earned by the crews of those units. It was impossible in Singapore Strait or Malacca Strait to gain any more than a week in the declared zone as returning to SND was considered as returning to a safe port. To complete our 30 days in Borneo, the ship slowed down and hugged the coast, thus remaining within the zone for 31 days, until abeam of Kuchin before heading over to Singapore. In the mid 1970s the qualifying period was later amended to 30 days "accumulated", thus bringing in the times spent in Malacca Strait and Singapore Strait.