I gathered the team together and told them we would mount a hostage rescue mission that night.
It was 53° C (128° F) in the shade and 100 percent humidity for a week straight. Every time we fired more than ten rounds through our guns the paint would start to burn off the upper receivers. There was no shade on the range and in those conditions it was actually cooler with our shirts on than without them. Even the Borneo Boys seemed a bit lazy from the heat that clung to our faces like a mask. At night the temperature would drop to a chilly 27° C (80° F) causing us to shiver in our sweat-soaked, mosquito-netted bunks until morning brought a beautiful half hour respite between night and day. We tried to eat as much as we could during that interval before the heat killed our appetites completely. Mr. Goh, the Chinese octogenarian running the little canteen, served eggs and chicken patties for breakfast; a skill he had learned from the British Army in the 1940s when they built this training center in Hulu Tiram, Johor. For the rest of the day we would be stuck eating in the field with the Rangers and that meant rice with fish head curry; not a problem for me but some of the guys preferred to just go hungry.
The Royal Malaysian Ranger Regiment – “1-Ranger” – is one of the few “Royal” units in the Malaysian Army. Though the Regiment was formed in the 19th century as a constabulary force called the Sarawak Rangers, it was reorganized hurriedly in 1941 in response to the Japanese threat to oil fields near Miri. Two full months after the fall of Singapore, it was one of the last Commonwealth units left standing against Japan in Asia. Its ranks filled with Iban and Dayak headhunters, the Rangers joined the lengthy jungle hunt for Communist Terrorists after the war. Twenty years later, they were absolutely critical to the defense of Sarawak during the “Confrontation” with Indonesia that flared over incorporation of northern Borneo into the modern state of Malaysia. The unit maintained its unique tribal demographics even after being absorbed into the Malaysian Army in 1963. When I arrived in April 2004, 1-Ranger was still manned almost exclusively by Iban “Borneo Boys” and led by Malay NCOs and officers. The only exception was their extremely talented and Sandhurst-educated Colonel; a Chinese-Malaysian named “Johnny”.
Johnny’s excellent leadership was representative of the proud and very effective Malaysian Army. The 1-Ranger staff was adept at planning and proficient at coordinating complex operations. The Malaysians had their own doctrine and were not easily impressed by our tactical recommendations though they were confident enough to adopt techniques that worked for them. They considered themselves experts in their jungle environment and insisted in operating with us as equal partners rather than as a supported proxy force more in line with what we were trained to deal with. Though they enjoyed the vast amount of ammunition we brought to the joint training event, they did not view our visit as a money-making opportunity the way other militaries with which I’ve worked in the past did. They came well equipped, highly disciplined, and in good order. For this and other reasons the Malaysian Army is worthy of respect. If there is a criticism to be made, it is that for national political reasons the Army is constrained to preparing itself for a Communist Terrorist threat that was last seen in 1989.
My Special Forces team bonded easily with the Christian and pagan Ibans. They were disciplined and skilled soldiers and enjoyed sports, laughter, and the alcoholic witch’s brew they call “tuak“. Made of rice or sago starch fermented in clay jars, tuak and its distilled version langkau, is a cultural staple of Iban hospitality. The Borneo Boys never seemed to run out of the stuff that seemed equally as effective at repelling mosquitos as it was for keeping away their tee-totaling Malay Muslim NCOs. After several weeks of guzzling tuak and sharing bushmeat with the Ibans, we felt a bit distant from their Muslim leadership. I tried to bridge this gap whenever I could but there were cultural differences and the Global War on Terrorism wasn’t helping them trust us. In the eyes of some Malaysian Muslims, the United States was waging war against Islam. I actually had to answer for this numerous times while in Thailand and Malaysia. Though there was nothing I could do about that, I grew concerned by an incident that drove a wedge between us and the Borneo Boys.
One morning we woke to a curious sight on the Malaysian side of the courtyard. The Ibans were abuzz over a little monkey that ended up in one of their snares the night before. They had tied him to a post on the porch in front of their barracks and were taunting him as the little guy valiantly tried to fight them off by throwing his water bowl and pieces of fruit at them. I didn’t think much of the situation as I tried to ingest as many eggs and chicken patties as I could before heading out. But after yet another sweltering day of training I noticed the little monkey was still there in the sun. Due to the orientation of the buildings he wouldn’t have had much time in the shade at all and I knew what that felt like. Worse, every time any of us approached within ten feet of him he would hurl his water bowl, making a harmless mess but casting off the only thing that would keep him alive in that heat. I didn’t like it at all. On the second day I decided to act.
I gathered the team together and told them we would mount a hostage rescue mission that night at around two in the morning during one of our guard shifts. I decided the raid would require four of us; a left and right side security element, a holder (me), and a cutter. Not wanting to break rapport with the Borneo Boys, speed and silence were critical and I made it clear we would back down in the event of a confrontation. Only Brett, positioned at the door of the Malaysian barracks, would be authorized to use force, and only then to prevent accidental violence by soldiers surprised by intruders in the middle of the night. Thinking this a simple task I went to sleep.
I woke at the appointed time, dressed, and grabbed the thick blanket I would use to hold the monkey down while Kevin, my weapons sergeant, cut the rope. The hostage was tied tightly around the waist by a pink nylon rope that would be easy to see and cut. The full moon provided plenty of light and I was confident the raid should be over in seconds. Wearing running shoes to ensure silence on the smooth concrete, we moved quickly across the courtyard and crouched under the windows of the Malaysian barracks. Once Brett and Bruce were in their security positions, I initiated the action by throwing the blanket over the monkey and pinning him to the floor.
Having never wrestled a monkey before I was absolutely astonished by the strength and ferocity of the little beast! Thinking he was fighting for his life, the tiny primate had become his own worst enemy. I struggled to muffle his screams and manhandle him into a position where the pink belt would be exposed to Kevin’s blade. I found myself pleading with him. “Stay calm! We’re American and we’re here to help!” He responded by biting my right hand through the blanket. I could feel the contours of his canines through my fighting gloves and I hissed at Kevin to just hurry the fuck up.
Unfortunately, being a motivated weapons sergeant, Kevin had brought a massive bowie knife more appropriate for slaughtering grizzly bears than carefully severing a nylon cord in close proximity to our wiggly hostage’s belly. He hissed back at me. “The cord’s too tight, I can’t get the knife under it! I’ll have to cut the lead.”
“Whatever!” I replied, grimacing in pain. “He’s biting me, just cut it!” This was taking too long and my sympathy for the monkey was fading quickly. The last thing I needed was an embarrassing trip to the hospital on account of a bite from this ingrate. Avoiding embarrassment is second only to mission accomplishment in Special Forces priorities.
Acknowledging the decision, Kevin cut the rope, leaving the monkey wearing a fashionable pink belt with about two inches of cord sticking out the front. We hurried the liberated hostage around the corner and set him loose next to a tree. Flushed with adrenaline and the satisfaction of a mission accomplished, we giggled as one of the team saluted the little guy scampering rapidly to freedom in the canopy. We returned to our command post across the courtyard for an after action review and a celebratory shot of tuak. Though we identified some shortcomings – the size of the knife for one, and our having left the severed cord on the porch for another – it was undoubtedly a successful operation. The hostage was free and uninjured and as far as we knew we had not been detected. “Tonight,” I announced, hefting my tuak in the air, “we lived up to our motto: ‘De Oppresso Liber‘” – “To Free the Oppressed.” America. Fuck yeah!
The next day things were a bit awkward on the range. No one said anything about the missing monkey but we were keen to avoid the subject. Secretly, I was proud of what we had done and wasn’t too concerned about hiding it. Besides, the severed cord probably told the Malaysians all they needed to know about their prisoner’s escape. In the Asian way, all is well as long as everyone can pretend there is nothing wrong. The problem with the Asian way is that peace lasts right up until the moment revenge becomes possible. I wondered when that would happen and how ugly it would be. Considering we all had guns, this was no small concern. Thankfully the day passed without incident and we satisfied ourselves watching our little buddy with the pink belt swinging freely through the trees with his family.
After a couple of days however we started to notice something alarming about our friend. He seemed always to be a little separate from his cousins. As the troop of monkeys moved through the canopy he always lagged behind. He began to act desperately, chattering at the other monkeys as they presented unmistakably dismissive gestures. It became obvious that our hapless little buddy had been ostracized by his family.
One night, about a week after our daring rescue, I hurried across the small courtyard between the barracks and followed the sound of Iban voices to the barbecue pit in the back. I was late to the party and was hoping they hadn’t run out of meat yet. The last time the Borneo Boys caught something in their snares I dined happily on a massive, roasted monitor lizard, some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted. Anticipating more of the same tonight I brought a healthy appetite and a large cup for tuak. Arriving at the fire pit I held out my cup and asked about dinner. With an embarrassed grimace, the Rangers each indicated regret that there was very little left but they were happy to report they had saved me a choice morsel. My mouth watered as one of the Rangers reached into the fire and pulled out the charred remnants of a monkey’s forearm. Desperate and hungry, our little buddy had once again ended up in an Iban snare.
Our hosts watched closely as my men munched submissively on little bits of bitter bushmeat. Corporal Letan, best of the Borneo Boys and their informal leader, poured me a full glass of tuak; his smile glistening in the firelight. Looking him in the eye, I bit off the entire blackened hand. Somehow it felt cold in my mouth, just like the revenge Letan was serving up.
A special thanks to Marhalim Abas of MalaysianDefence.com for helping me with some historical details about the Ranger Regiment.
Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC