SARAWAK Tribune executive director James Ritchie presenting ‘Tuan Doc’ with a personal gift of a painting of Sarawak Hornbills by local artist Mr Owat and a poster of the book “Journey into the Central Highlands” which is about the history of the Kelabit community. PHOTO courtesy of James Ritchie.

KUCHING: On 25 March, 1945, the Australian intelligence and espionage unit launched a special mission called ‘SEMUT One’—to raise an army of Native Guerillas to fight the Japanese who had occupied Sarawak for almost four years.

Among the first eight operatives who landed in the padi fields of Bario was Sgt Jack Tredrea, a tailor who later became a village “doctor”, healing many sick Kelabits.

Last week Jack, now 97 years old and the only survivor of the SEMUT One group, made his seventh tip to Bario to meet his Kelabit friends.

On hand to meet and give him a ‘Hero’s Welcome’ were First Malaysian Infantry Division Commander Major General Stephen Mundaw , the head of RURUM Kelabit association Dr Philip Raja and Kelabit chiefs.

SARAWAK Tribune executive director James Ritchie (right) with artist Muyang Kumundan@ Mr Owat and Jack Tradrea (centre) with a painting presented to the Australian war veteran. PHOTO courtesy of James Ritchie.

On his way back home, Tredrea stopped over at Kuching and gave an exclusive interview to the New Sarawak Tribune speaking about the impressive development that has taken place Sarawak, particularly the Kelabits over recent the years.

Jack who was accompanied on this trip by his daughter Lynette, son-in-law Collin Behn and grandson Jonathan Behn, said: “I’ve been back seven times (since 1945) and the improvement I’ve seen among the young ones, it absolutely amazes me. When they tell me there are 15 Kelabit doctors and how many Kelabits was in Parliament (political representatives) the improvement is amazing; it astounds me.”

Tredrea said that for the first 30 years after the War, the Semut operatives were sworn to secrecy. But now he is able to tell the sacrifices of the Allied Forces and the Natives, particuraly the Kelabits, Iban and Penan of Sarawak and the Lundayeh of Kalimantan.

He was only 20 when he landed in Bario as a trained medic with seven others under British army Major Tom Harrisson who later became Curator of the Sarawak Museum. The other senior NCOs were Captain Eric Edmeades who was in charge of the Trusan valley in Lawas and Australian Sgt Fred Sanderson who was in charge of the Limbang Valley. 

SARAWAK Tribune executive director James Ritchie presenting ‘Tuan Doc’ with a personal gift of a painting of Sarawak Hornbills by local artist Mr Owat and a poster of the book “Journey into the Central Highlands” which is about the history of the Kelabit community. PHOTO courtesy of James Ritchie.

Tredrea spent the first five weeks together with Penghulu Miri visiting all the villages in the southern part of the Kelabit highlands.

On his first medical assignment, he operated on an old Kelabit man at the old Bario longhouse who had a large boil in his groin. He said: “ I moved his cawat aside and he had a golf ball size lump on his side. I got some hot water and cleaned him up.

“So I got one of the boys to hold his shoulders and another to hold his feet, said this was going to hurt a little. I opened it up and pus spurted everywhere. The next morning (when he was well) the man came tottering down the passageway of the longhouse and said,”Tuan Doc, Terima kasih Terima kasih,” added Jack who from then on he was known as ‘Tuan Doc’.

After his medical mission, Tredrea was sent to hunt down the Japanese in the East Kalimantan region—from Lembudud to Melinau and Tanjung Selor on the Sulawesi coast.

Together with 30 ‘Warriors’ including four Ibans and two Penan, his group ambushed and killed 129 Japanese before he finally left Borneo in mid October—five months after the War ended.

He said: “We didn’t know the war had ended but a messenger finally caught up with us with a letter from Tom Harrison who said we were to head for Tarakan and pack our bags to go home. So we paddled our perahus across the sea, from Tanjung Selor to Tarakan—a journey of 11 hours—and that was it. My soldiers stayed the night and then to the mainland and made the long journey back to their homes.”

Tredrea had spent a total of seven months fighting the Japanese and when he returned to Australia was admitted to the hospital for hookworms and amoebic dysentery.

Like the quiet hero, he and the other ‘Orang Putih’ guerillas were, he went back to his old job and started a tailoring business.

Whether Jack would be coming back to Bario for the 8th time next year, Jack said: “That I don’t know. Nowadays I leave everything to the last minute. As long as I am fit enough to do these kinds of things, I am happy.”

Indeed in his vintage years he has had several mishaps and falls and had to replace both his knee caps, recently. On this trip, he had a deep gash on his right shin after he walked into his bed at the Kuching Hilton.

Bon voyage ‘Tuan Doc’, stay health and hopefully we will see you next year.