War correspondents without a war!
Name: John Grigsby
In September 1955, John Grigsby, a widely-experienced journalist on The Age in Melbourne, was among a group of five journalists and photographers nominated by their papers to be Accredited War Correspondents to accompany the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, to Malaya the following month.
John Grigsby was to represent The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, which also provided a photographer, the Brisbane Courier Mail, Adelaide Advertiser and Hobart Mercury.
Communist Terrorists, or CTs, were infiltrating Malaya's northern states as part of a campaign to overthrow the Malayan Government. 2RAR [the first Australian battalion committed to the newly-formed Commonwealth Strategic Reserve involving Australia, Britain and New Zealand forces], was sent to join the 28th British Commonwealth Brigade already engaging the CTs. Malaya, then, was still a British colony.
Led by the notorious Chen Ping, the CTs, mostly Malayan Chinese, attacked from across the Malaya-Thailand border and thus also were called insurgents. Resplendent in Army officers' uniforms with a large 'C' for correspondent on their caps and shoulder flashes on their shirts and safari jackets saying 'Accredited War Correspondent' the journalists were ready for the fray.
"At short notice we were called back to Army PR and told to bring our shirts and safari jackets with us," John Grigsby recalled. "Our curiosity as to the reason why was soon answered. The Federal Government had ruled that the 2nd Battalion was not going to war but rather it was going into an anti-terrorist action. Therefore we journalists could not be War Correspondents.
"Sharp scissors were produced and the word 'War' was cut from our shoulder flashes. We were now just Accredited .... Correspondents."
After its arrival on the troopship Georgic, in Georgetown, on the island of Penang off the coast of northern Malaya, the battalion was quartered in the historic colonial-origin Minden Barracks.
"We correspondents just did not fit in," John Grigsby said. "The essential military routines and restrictions were a constant irritation. Access to telephones, particularly for calls back to our news desks, were limited with the military having priority. And the clattering of our portable typewriters at night disturbed other officers in the adjacent thin-walled rooms."
The correspondents made the decision to move into the equally historic colonial Eastern Oriental Hotel in Penang.
"It was really something out of the past," John Grigsby said. "It had big, comfortable rooms, elegant dining and bar facilities, to say nothing of daily room services and laundry, which made our life a lot easier. Access to the Cable and Wireless telegraph office and local and international telephone services meant we could file our copy at any time."
Soon afterwards a platoon of 2RAR was ordered out on a familiarisation patrol in a known terrorist area.
"We correspondents, now in jungle green, accompanied them," John Grigsby recalled. "This meant we were protected by two armed soldiers and were lodged in a fortified kampong or village where we whiled away the hours. I was quite at home in jungle greens having worn them while serving with the RAAF in the Pacific in WWII.
"After a boring day hanging about the kampong, dining off army field rations and fruit bought at the kampong stalls and smoking innumerable cigarettes, we were at last called to rejoin the platoon for transport back to Minden Barracks.
"After a briefing by the intelligence officer and supervised interviews with some of the troops, we were at last able to file stories of at least some action by the troops. Up till then, we'd been able to send back only stories about troops settling into Minden, shopping in Georgetown or doing tourist things on leave.
"Although the troops had not had any contact with CTs, the stories told of troops patrolling in oppressive jungle heat, sudden tropical downpours, snakes, scorpions, huge mosquitoes and tension and frustration (or relief) at not locating the enemy."
After nearly a month of waiting around fortified villages or elsewhere in the jungles, well behind patrols and with no sighting of any terrorists, the correspondents decided they would be better off waiting in Georgetown for the return of the patrols, which were now away for several days at a time.
"We were able to interview villagers who had experienced CT raids, local officials who had been harassed and rubber tappers who went out into the plantations each day with exactly enough food for one meal to reduce opportunities for CTs to get food supplies," John Grigsby said. "These and other stories provided Australian newspaper readers with a good picture of what the CT insurgency was doing to the people of Malaya."
After about five weeks the correspondent's group broke up. The news value of the patrols and CT attacks, from an Australian reader's point of view, was declining. One correspondent and a photographer went home. Another decided to stay a few more weeks while John Grigsby and Hugh Clunies Ross, a photographer with the Sydney Morning Herald, set off to work their way down the Malay Peninsular to Singapore, looking for stories of interest to Australians.
They interviewed and photographed British unit commanders about their CT operations. In Kuala Lumpur they interviewed Malaya's Chief Minister, Tenku Abdul Rahman, on Malaya's struggle for Merdeka [independence] and the killings, terrorism and intimidation by the CTs on the Malayan people.
In Singapore, John Grigsby and Clunies Ross spent a week with the RAAF's No 1 Squadron, which was operating Lincolns, and flew with them on bombing raids on CT hide outs and their jungle communication trails.
"This was a case of deja vu for me," John Grigsby said. "During WWII, I was posted to No 2 Medium Bomber Squadron carrying out raids on Japanese forces, operating out of Hughesfield air base near Darwin".
After nearly three months John Grigsby reported to his paper that 2RAR was now operating very close to the Thai border, was away for weeks at a time and although suffering some casualties, he could see no point in going back to Penang. The wire services were now covering the action. He was told to come home.
John Grigsby says one of his greatest 'achievements' during his stint in Malaya was gaining supplies of Australian beer for 2RAR. His story and pictures of the troops longing for a cold Aussie beer, were widely published. The Swan brewery responded quickly with crates of cans on a ship sailing direct to Malaya. Other breweries soon followed. The Malayan beer was not to the taste of the Australian troops and was never cold enough.
"I returned home from an area where civilians and soldiers were being killed and wounded, where British and Australian ground forces engaged in torrid fire fights with the CT and the RAF and RAAF pounded them from the air," John Grigsby said. "I am still wondering why I wasn't a 'war' correspondent."