Chapter 17.


Time was passing.  The extra days spent in battling the swamp had put us behind schedule and a move was necessary. A native guide to the next village would help catch up and Bob asked Sam to try and get one of the local natives to lead the way.  A little bribery in the shape of stick tobacco did the trick and we were ready to move on.  But our delight was soon dashed when, much to our disappointment, the combined Dutch party decided to accompany us!

Of course we were reluctant to travel with such a large party.  We were a much smaller party and were mainly there for intelligence gathering and definitely not looking for a show down with the Nips.  We could not see the Dutch party, because of it's size, keeping out of trouble and besides that, were far from impressed by their lack of skill, experience and fitness, which had almost immediately become apparent.

Nevertheless, on the morning of the 26th March we moved off, following the local native, on the way to Lereh. For the greater part of that day we walked in a northerly direction over a chain of thickly wooded hills, interspersed every few hundred yards with creeks and small swamps.  It was difficult walking as the hills, though low in altitude, were quite steep and in the afternoon the rains came yet again to make a slippery slide of the narrow track.  The Dutch party, thank goodness, much quieter now due to exhaustion, tagged along behind like Brown's cows, with many of them suffering severe leg cramps.

Along the way we met three more natives and Sam, with the aid of some trade goods, prevailed upon them to help the Dutch party with their gear.  One of the Malay policemen had become very sick with bouts of unconsciousness and needed to be carried on a makeshift stretcher.  Our progress, of necessity, had become snail like and we were regretting the decision to combine.

The Dutch, in our opinion, had made a mistake by having such a large party, almost four times as many as ours. Their size had made them unwieldy and robbed both parties of the mobility that is essential in order to maintain secrecy, and at the same time cover distances quickly.  Furthermore, as stated earlier, we could see that their European personnel, with one exception, were not sufficiently experienced, and the Malay members, especially the police, were entirely unsuitable and seemed a particularly sullen and unwilling lot.

That afternoon, we reached Hiwagen, a village consisting of a single hut and a native garden.  We camped the night in the adjacent scrub and about 10 o'clock in the morning two Mitchell bombers appeared and dropped a total of ten storepedoes.  Nine arrived safely and the tenth 'chute failed to open spilling the contents over a wide area.  The broken one contained mainly rice and the four local natives managed to salvage a goodly amount from the wreckage.  That it was mixed with a fair amount of soil didn't seem to trouble them!

The food drop was most welcome and we divided it up between the three parties as best we could.  The problem was now, how were we going to carry the extra loads?  In other areas we had never had any trouble getting native porters to carry the excess stores, but here there were very few natives and those that were on hand were rather disinclined to act as carriers although they were quick enough to come forward and claim the cloth from the parachutes.  This left us with the dubious choice of either leaving some stores for the natives, or becoming grossly overloaded by carrying the excess ourselves.  Heavy packs are one thing but overloading is dangerous because then one tends to become pre-occupied with the extra weight and trudges along without keeping a proper look-out and in the event of an ambush or surprise attack it is very hard to spring into action when weighed down with the extra baggage.

The reluctance of the natives to act as porters seemed to stem mainly from the mistrust they had of the Malay police in the Dutch party.  Sam had questioned one of the natives at length and had been told that, before the war, the natives had suffered much harsh treatment from these policemen.  This statement was supported by their willingness to provide, whenever possible, as many porters as we needed when separated from the Dutch parties.

Finally on the 28th, after a long and tiring day, we staggered into the true Lereh village and found a number of scattered hamlets, and the guru's house, all deserted.  There were a few native huts and gardens, all in a neglected state, and the inhabitants though small in number, were friendly enough.

We spent the next day interrogating the natives but obtained very little information to become excited about.  All they could say was that the Japs visited every now and then but did not stay in any of the houses.  It was inhospitable country and the climate and the terrain were particularly unfriendly and we could not blame them for not stopping.  To us the land was a succession of steeply wooded hills, often with clouds at their tops, divided by large areas of swamp and cursed with a seemingly continuous rainfall.  Bob, who had plenty of experience, called it filthy country!  And we agreed!

On the 30th March at 11am a single Mitchell flew over and dropped one storepedo and left word that there would be another drop on the 3rd April.  We had not ordered a drop but were happy enough to get it.  I had told HQ we would be at Lereh on this day and they had taken it upon themselves to send us some extra supplies.  This storepedo contained stick tobacco for the policemen and, wonder of wonders, some chocolate bars and cigarettes as well as the usual food rations.

It was disappointing that the unasked for drop did not contain the trade goods that had been promised earlier. We needed the goods badly as bribery seemingly was the only way we could get any help from the locals and on my late radio sked we were further disappointed when advised that instead of the 3rd April the next drop would not be possible before the 7th April.

In view of this alteration Bob decided that, for the present, we would make Lereh our base camp and carry out all patrols and reconnaissance from there until the Dutch parties had become better organised and, we hoped, set to go on their own.

To Chapter 18 ->