British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by L Jock Holliday
In 1947, after RAF aircrew service, I was accepted into the Civil Aviation Branch of the Colonial Service as an Air Traffic Control Officer at Lydda Airport, Palestine where I remained until the mandate ended. Thereafter I undertook duties in Singapore, Sarawak and North Borneo. As with most other branches of the Colonial Service, we trained local staff to take over, in the fullness of time, our respective duties. However, in the case of the two latter countries, our department carried out airfield and airstrip surveys for overall and financial development and to facilitate travel more rapidly and conveniently than by river and jungle track.

Thus it was that in July 1958 as Operations Officer, North Borneo, I found myself leaving the capital, Jesselton (now Kota Kinabalu), by air in a de Havilland Rapide for Keningau in the interior, almost due south of Jesselton. The object of the exercise was to find suitable airstrip sites at or around Sepulot (Sepulut) and Pensiangan, the latter being adjacent to the Indonesian border.

The travelling time from Keningau would be five days to Sepulot and another two to Pensiangan, carried out on foot, by pony and on river by prahu. On the fifth day from Keningau, on turning a bend in the track, Sepulot appeared ahead standing above the confluence of the Talankai and Sepulot rivers which flow on to become the Longonan. It was a nice village, typical of what most people envisage when they think of a village deep in the jungle by the banks of a river abundant with fish.

Relics of a North Borneo Wartime Episode: Tampat Bersumpah
Sepulot Cairn
A jambatan or sway bridge connected the village with the far bank and to the left of the bridge was a fence surrounding a rock cairn in the middle of which in an upright position was a .5 calibre machine gun from an aircraft. At one end of the cairn was a wooden cross. This had been the grave of three American airmen who were killed in the latter stages of the war when they were bombing oil tanks at Brunei.

On talking with the headman and villagers at Sepulot and later at Pensiangan, I could only gather that the aircraft described was a Flying Fortress (in their words, “sa’ekor dan empat kepas” - one tail and four engines). It had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, then crashed and burnt near the village of Ta’ Tabunan on the Talankai river. I was told that three of the crew were killed, whether due to the accident or before could not be said. Five other crew bailed out before the crash. (I am not certain how these numbers correlate to the full Flying Fortress complement.) Three landed near Sepulot, one was brought to Sepulot the next day and the following night one who had drifted down near Pandewan village was brought in by the local headman. The first three were kept and hidden by the native Muruts in the small courthouse and the other two were kept in the school further up the hill.

On the third day after the crash three of the crew went out to stretch their legs near the bridge by the river. They saw and were seen by a Japanese patrol who were aware of an aircraft having been hit. Both lots opened fire but the Americans only had pistols for which the range across the river was too great. They were killed. The other two who heard the firing escaped into the jungle, but unaware of jungle survival techniques were unable to exist and hunger drove them to surrender to the Japs who sent them to Keningau and later to Beaufort, one of their headquarters near the coast. What happened to them is not known. The Japs ordered the Muruts to take the heads of the three who had been killed and said that they were the common enemy. The bodies were buried in a grave by the bridge and the heads were sent to Pensiangan.

Relics of a North Borneo Wartime Episode: Tampat Bersumpah
Tampat Bersumpah
Before I set off on this trip, I read some archival material by a government District Officer, one Maxwell Hall, pertaining to this area. He had written in flowing terms an account of this incident and how Colonel Hill, the Head of the Civil Administration of the Liberation Forces, on finding out about the heads had ordered them to be returned to Sepulot, where they were buried with the bodies in the grave. (I should perhaps add that the Murut had been headhunters of yore.) Quite some time after the surrender, about 1951, American authorities removed the bodies to their homeland.

Maxwell Hall said that whilst in the Pensiangan area Colonel Hill gathered the native chiefs and in order of seniority all knelt and took an oath of allegiance to the Crown. To mark the occasion a stone was inscribed - “TAMPAT BERSUMPAH” and it was placed high above the flood water level on the banks of the Sungai Sibangali. Hall also said that in all his travels in the interior he had never come across the Sibangali so had never seen the stone and inscription. (Tampat or Tempat in Malay means “Place”; Bersumpah means “Taking an Oath”).

One day we were paddling upriver beyond Pensiangan when I noticed a tributary coming in from the left and asked the jaragon (head boatman) if he knew its name. Back came the answer, “Sibangali, Tuan”. I almost fell out of the prahu and asked him to turn into it. When we stopped on the bank I queried him about the '"Tampat Bersumpah". He knew of it and said that the place was so remote and isolated that people hardly went there so the stone had been removed to Pensiangan and now stood in front of the little courthouse! On our return to Pensiangan I found the stone overgrown with grass which I then had cut. The inscription had weathered a bit so I went over it in white chalk before taking a photograph. I wonder if it stands there still as a memorial to past British rule.

Relics of a North Borneo Wartime Episode: Tampat Bersumpah
Belvedere at Sepulot
The results of my surveys for the prospective airstrip sites were submitted to the Secretariat for consideration on my return to Jesselton.

Later accounts of these events offer some different details. Maxwell Hall’s material stated “as far as the Murut chiefs were concerned paramount amongst them all was one Pamiang whose name long deserves to be remembered in the annals of the history of North Borneo”. When I arrived in Pensiangan I spoke with some of the headmen and asked if they had taken the oath at the Tampat Bersumpah. They all replied in the negative and said that at that time they were in the jungle fighting the Japs. Further questioning revealed that the oldest remaining men had been lined up in alphabetical order to take the oath and that Pamiang, who was a police corporal and knew them all by name, had arranged this and obviously gave himself a lift in the hierarchy at the same time.

Tom Harrisson was a Major in the Green Howards when he was inducted into Z Special Unit to be parachuted in 1944 into Borneo in command of Operation Semut (semut is Malay for ‘ant’). He was literally on the spot, and he gave his version of the events in his book World Within - a Borneo Story (Oxford University Press 1959). Tom arrived in Borneo the day after the crash and his comments suggest that the aircraft was a Liberator (twin fin and rudder and four engines) which was shot down by a single Japanese fighter. Three extracts from his book are as follows:

P241 “Some of these (Americans) were survivors of the same plane which had been shot down the day before my own first flight over Borneo. The American plane which had first taught me the splendour of Batu Lawi, shown the first glinting hope of a hole in the jungle far inland, had been from the same Navy squadron, searching for these very boys. Their plane had crash landed just behind Brunei Bay in a swamp. This highly armed bomber had been shot down by a single Japanese fighter, out of the blue. The pilot, a naval lieutenant-commander, staggered out (they said) into the swamp declaiming: “Gee, I didn’t know the Japs were that good”.

The crew could not agree on the best thing to do. So they split up. Four headed inland and got into the Murut-Kelabit country on the Trusan in north Sarawak after great tribulations. The Japanese were hunting them, at times hot on the trail. But the Trusan people, although anxious to pass them on and away as quickly as possible, fed and led them further and further inland, never gave them away. Several Sarawak Muruts were brought down to the coast and interrogated by the Japanese on this account. At least three of these were cruelly put to death by torture, without giving their own people or the Americans away. This Trusan-American party continued up from village to village, ‘very very slowly’, mostly hiding out in the jungle. By early 1945 they were scattered about in the remoter valleys of the interior, where the people continued to look after them as best they could, individually, at enormous risk.

The other half of this crew unhappily elected to cross north-east from the Trusan in Sarawak over the Crocker Range into the Padas river valley in the territory of North Borneo. Here, before very long, they were betrayed by the Tagal people, who sold them to the Japanese. As well as the reward, the Tagals were allowed to keep their heads.”

P262 “We already knew that the Tagal alone had betrayed some American airman where all other people had protected them, even with hardship and danger to themselves.”

P330 “In the Official War History volume Military Administration in the Far East, by F S V Donnison (HM Stationery Office, 1956) it is stated (p184) that Japanese forces in the Upper Trusan surrendered on November 8, 1945. The British Borneo Civil Affairs Unit (BBCAU) then established ‘a simple form of administration even in this remote area’. This simple form can only have been me? Later I am referred to by name (p 192) as taking a prominent part inland, in civil affairs, along with Lt Col G P Hill. Between us, ‘a more ambitious administration was established than the area had known before the war’. I cannot conceive, though, who Col Hill was. Surely I cannot have become so irreparably ‘Z’ as to develop dual personality and draw double pay?”

My accounts were derived personally from discussions with ketuas (headmen) and others at Sepulot and Pensiangan, as, I imagine, were those of Maxwell Hall. Tom Harrisson’s account was from a different standpoint. Who knows which presentation is the more accurate?

Colonial Map
North Borneo Map, 1973
Colony Profile
North Borneo
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 86: October 2003


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