Fighting for recognition
They call themselves 'The Forgotten Army'. Southern veterans who fought in southeast Asia in the political conflict, military tension and proxy wars after World War II remain unrecognised. Bookended by the well-known Korean and Vietnam wars, the conflicts in Malaya and Borneo are buried in Cold War folklore. Jared Morgan reports.
More than 40 years since the guns fell silent, shots are still being fired as New Zealand and southern veterans of the Malayan Emergency and later Borneo Confrontation fight for recognition.
It was the height of the Cold War. Communists had taken over China, war in Korea had ended in stalemate and there was increasing unrest in Vietnam.
When communist insurgency broke out in Malaya, it seemed like the next domino to fall.
The wave of Kiwi soldiers sent into what became modern Malaysia from the mid-1950s on represented the largest continuous troop deployment since World War II.
Some 30,000 New Zealand troops took part in the only stoush the West won against communism and were active in the conflict that followed.
Up to 1000 men from Southland and Otago fought in the Malayan Emergency and Borneo Confrontation.
The lack of recognition sticks in the craw of veterans providing the impetus for them to set up a Southland Branch of the Malayan Veterans' Association – before it's too late.
Chairman Bill South, of Ryal Bush, who served as a private in Malaya from 1963-64 and lance corporal from 1965-66, says recognition, such as the government's apology to Vietnam veterans, has not been forthcoming.
"We served in Malaya, Malaysia, Borneo and Singapore without a word of thanks from our government," he says. "We are more forgotten than any force that left New Zealand."
Korea and Vietnam played out in the world's living rooms on radio and television, but the British command in Malaya kept a stiff upper-lip.
It was more than 12 years of conflict that by design, and tempered by a society jaded by war, played out away from headlines and public consciousness.
Invercargill man Ken Barton, who, as a private, served from 1957-59, reckons it's "bloody terrible – we call ourselves the forgotten army".
For him and the mates he made in the oppressive heat of the jungle – their collective experience is like their own in-joke – without a punchline.
"We know what we did." Invercargill veteran Brian Duncan, whose two-year stint as private began in 1963, says the coverage he read in newspapers at the time amounts to a handful of paragraphs.
Yet he, like many, particularly veterans who served in the 1960s, still suffer the effects.
Health complaints are rife – brought on by the combination of exposure to tropical disease and, more chillingly, chemicals.
Defoliants similar to Agent Orange were used, as were insecticides, including one commonly smeared down the seams of troops' trousers, he says.
The dwindling numbers of men at reunions bear testimony to the effects – many did not live to reach retirement.
As Tuatapere man Rangi Rickard, who left New Zealand in 1961 serving for 27 months, tells it, it took 30 years for veterans to be presented with a medal.
There was no welcome for troops on their return, he says.
The rumblings of the protest movement were beginning to stir and the flow of soldiers back was confined to "dribs and drabs".
"We landed in Auckland about 1am or 2am in the morning – we'd been told to change into civvies ... we had to buy suitcases – our lockers were shipped to us later."
Soldiers simply dispersed and picked up their lives where they had left off.
A former sergeant in the 2nd Battalion New Zealand Regiment, Graeme Henderson, of Riverton, says after Korea any interest in war was gone.
"It was the times, I think ... newspapers didn't want to know ... I don't think people were interested." Undocumented, the conflicts became forgotten, he says.
The Malayan Emergency began with the Chin Peng-led Malayan Communist Party's attempts to overthrow British colonial administration. Kiwi soldiers, sailors and airmen made a significant contribution – 15 were killed. Declared in June 1948, it was the response to the murder of three British planters in northern Malaya by guerrillas linked to the party's military arm – an outfit that had its origins in Japanese resistance.
The tension simmered until 1950 when British forces began to crush the resistance and by 1954 the CTs (communist terrorists), as the guerrillas were now termed, had been forced back into the jungle.
New Zealand's involvement began in 1949 through air force support followed by the navy. More direct involvement began in 1955, with a Special Air Service Squadron to the British Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve.
From March 1958, 1st Battalion, New Zealand Regiment, replaced the SAS, taking part in operations designed to clear northern Malaya of insurgents in a series of deep jungle patrols.
Its achievements in eliminating guerrillas were second to none among 28th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade's battalion and by the time it was replaced by 2nd Battalion New Zealand Regiment in late 1959, most of the guerrillas had retreated into southern Thailand.
The improved situation led to the termination of the Emergency in July 1960, but for the next four years New Zealand infantrymen would patrol the border security area as part of counter-insurgency measures.
It was during this time the Kiwi regiment would be given a royal warrant becoming 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment.
In 1964, Indonesia attempted to wrest control of Malaysia on the Malayan Peninsula then in the North Borneo territories in what was known as the Confrontation Campaign.
This led to New Zealand soldiers mounting covert cross-border raids into Indonesia until 1966.
Kiwi troops withdrew from Borneo in October the same year, but for many Vietnam was still looming.
The Southland Times