Noble journey of the ‘Belaga Patrol’

I vividly remember the stories my grandfather told me about the carnage of the First World War, which people tend to forget was one of the worst massacres in human history.

Antonio Tabucchi, Italian writer 

On Sept 10, 1945, more than 30 brave ‘Orang Ulu’ travelled 300km up the Rajang River to investigate the 1942 Long Nawang massacres.

A month after the atomic bombings of Japan, the men were the first to visit the scene despite the dangers of encountering Japanese stragglers.

Kuching-born Cpl Lim Beng Hai, 22, a ‘Semut’ volunteer from the Australian army’s Surveillance Reconnaissance Detachment (SRD), was appointed translator for the mission.

Called the “Belaga Patrol”, his team included aristocratic chiefs from almost all the communities such as the Kenyah, Kayan, Kejaman, Lahanan, Ukit and Punan penghulu and tuai rumah longhouse chiefs.

Among them were the notable Penghulu Oyong Puso, chiefs Lasah Abun, Layieng Joo, Dieng Lisut, Taman Laeng Wan, Taman Marieng Pasu and Baleng Abit.

A St Thomas School student, he was handpicked because he was fluent in English, Malay, Mandarin and Iban as well as other native dialects.

His scope of duties included writing details in a report entitled ‘Report on Long Nawang 1942’ which was presented to the Australian Imperial Force.  

Beng Hai gathered a large dossier of information which he used to pen his memoir which was only released in 2010.

‘Sarawak Under the Throes of War’ is a wealth of information as it helped me formulate a definitive picture of the ordeal.

After the three-week journey with longhouse stops along the way, Beng Hai painstakingly unveiled the grisly details of a horror story.

Interviewing the members of two Chinese families and Kenyah chiefs, the poignant tale of Long Nawang has evolved into Borneo’s worst unsolved war crime.

He wrote: “Carrying out their task in silence, personnel of the Belaga patrol scooped up the soft earth with their bare hands. The silence was broken by the low voice of Private Borhan Blissa (Kejaman Muslim) who held high a child’s canvass shoe.

“This time with a grimace, he scooped up human phalanges with shreds of scarlet colour ligaments clinging to them. He did not shake off these relics of a child but held fast to them.

“Regaining his composure, he slowly replaced them back with much reverence into the hole.”

Beng Hai also visited the residence of Lt Westerhuis where he was killed, and described the wooden bungalow as a scene of dried human blood on the floor and untouched European tea set and exotic chinaware on a table.

One of the untold stories of Long Nawangr was the ‘Imada Plan’ proposal where the Japanese intended to turn Long Nawang into a ‘fortress’ for fleeing stragglers.

The Imada plan fell flat because only two of scores of fleeing invaders – Captain Tanaka and Private Kondo – made it to Long Nawang to await the arrival of the 300 others who had surrendered.

At Long Nawang Tanaka moved into one of the old Dutch bungalows with Kondo thinking the Kenyah would be cowed after they ruthlessly massacred the 70 Europeans. But he was mistaken.

A ‘blood debt’ had to be paid because Penghulu Oyong Lejau, the Lepo Tau chief, was determined to settle the score.

According to Lucas Bira, the Long Nawang village headman Oyong Lejau gathered his bravest men – Larung Adjan, Surang Kule, Ibau Lawai, Pulang Anyie, Adjang Surang, Lalo Sulang, Ala Tului, Adjang Langet, Sulang Apui, Larong, Bila Larung and the strongest Gun Kila – to capture the duo.

Soon after Tanaka’s arrival, the Kenyah visited his residence to bring a fabricated story that a large group of Japanese from Long Pahangai were on their way to join him.

When they arrived at his residence, the were elated; Tanaka thanked the party and stretched out his arm to shake the hand of Gun Kila.

Gun Kila grabbed in a powerful grip and in a short struggle wrestled him down.

Shortly after, Kondo who had gone for a walk returned and was detained.

To wreak vengeance, the wrists and ankles of both were broken and they were forced to crawl under the longhouse with the pigs.

Both were then dragged along the narrow suspension bridge of loose planks and protruding rusty nails to the site of the four graves.

Said Beng Hai: “While Kondo shrieked and yelled in mournful pain, the captain, upholding his integrity as a class of Bushido, remained ever silent.”

After stabbing and slashing them to death, they were buried about 20 yards away from the mass graves.

To commemorate the killings, the names of the 12 Kenyah ‘heroes’ were etched in bronze wall of a concrete monument in the town centre.

“Lest we forget, personnel of the Belaga patrol were given the pathetic task of digging shallow soil in the mass burial sites. A commemorative service was to be held and arrangements had been made with a local priest Reverend Paul Nicholas from Sulawesi,” said Beng Hai.

On June 15, 1950, the Sarawak colonial government and Dutch decided to exhume the four European graves and re-intern the remains at Tarakan’s ‘Field of Honour’.

Until today, the location of the Japanese graves is a mystery!

Next week: Final part – Last leg to Tarakan and Balikpapan

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune.  

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