April 7, 2013

Judi Millar, Daughter of Sgt. Frank Wigzell


AFTER years of silence, the soldier wrote a book about his war-time experiences in Sarawak – his final task before passing on.
More than six decades have since passed. Would the soldier’s loving daughter still find his connections in the state — the people he had touched from the day he parachuted into the Limbang Valley on March 25, 1945 to fight the Japanese?
To find out, Judi Milla flew all the way from Auckland, New Zealand, to Miri and then Bario for a small but meaninghful event on March 25 (2013), armed with a copy of her father Francis Wigzell’s book titled New Zealand Army Involvement : Special Operations Australia – South West Pacific World War II, an informal invitation from Jack Tredea and stories her father had told her when she was young.
The event was to commemorate the 1945 Semut Operations for which 23 young Kiwis, including her father, had volunteered as part of Allied war efforts in Southeast Asia at the time.
The commemoration is proof that the contributions of Frank Wigzell and his mates have not been forgotten.
And in Bario today, visitors can read their names from the special framed roll of honour brought over from New Zealand by Judi for the commemoration ceremony in the highlands.
Unknown to many, the band of Kiwi volunteer soldiers fought as commandos in Semut Operations under the Z Special Unit. This special campaign was “practically” unknown, in particular to Sarawakians, for a long time.


Wigzell who had also written several books, described the Z Special Unit as a special Allied Unit formed during the Second World War to operate behind Japanese lines in Southeast Asia. The New Zealander volunteers and their names were recorded by Wigzell in his book.
The book detailed Wigzell’s duties as a radio expert, especially in the Limbang Valley, and the whole Semut Operations from his perspective.
In a nutshell, the Z Special Unit conducted surveillance, harassing attacks and sabotage behind Japanese lines in Borneo as well as the training of natives in resistance activities.
The New Zealand volunteer soldiers were trained on Fraser Island, Queensland, in parachuting, unarmed combat, explosives and the Malay Language.
Judi remembers her father teaching her and her siblings the Malay language as they were growing up in Hamilton.
Her father “was linguistically inclined and happy to part with his knowledge of Sarawak and its people.”
Besides Wigzell’s book, information on the Z Special Unit can be found in former Sarawak Museum curator Tom Harrison’s book World Within and also in an episode of the PBS television series Secrets of the Dead called The Airmen and the Headhunters as well as the memoirs of Jack Wong Sue, who died not long ago in Perth, Australia.
There is also a fantastic monograph by Major Tim Truscott et al Voice from Borneo: The Japanese War.
In an article in New Zealand’s Western Leader (April 22, 2004), it was stated: “After nearly 60 years, Frank Wigzell and his fallen friends can officially be remembered as being part of special operations in World War Two.”
The covet nature of the units’ work meant it had been shrouded in secrecy and there has been limited recognition of their contributions.
ut with the last of three memorials, marking the dedication of individuals who served in three special units during World War Two, having now been erected in Bario, the sacrifices of Semut Operations heroes will be perpetually etched in stone.Judi and her husband, Gary, were very touched by the warm reception they received in Bario. Accompanying them is their Miri contact Leong Siew Yin. Her photographer brother came along too.
The group was pleasantly surprised to meet up with some local visitors from Miri, among whom were some writers, including Cikgu Reman Apong Gumbang, a Lun Bawang from Limbang.
Reman’s husband, Cikgu Gumbang Pura, is a Bisaya from Limbang and a history buff himself.
A special book-sharing was arranged by the Society of Sarawakians Writing in English and some local Miri photographers at the Gymkhana Club.
The event brought Judi closer to one of her objective of coming to Sarawak – to find her father’s friends or their descendants from Limbang.
Judi is very happy to make all these connections which will prepare her well for her next visit in two years.
An invitation has also been extended to the Kiwi couple to visit a longhouse in Ulu Medamit. Judi’s father must have stayed in the late Temenggong Ngang’s longhouse and some other longhouses in Tanah Merah and Meruyu.
Perhaps her father’s footsteps in Limbang can once again be traced by those who remember the remarkable Tuan Pukal who spoke good Malay, “played the radio” and walked the paths with their ancestors through the jungles of Limbang Valley.

 

Because of his expertise, the Ibans in Limbang called Wigzell Tuan Pukal or Tuan Prank (Frank) as most of them could not pronounce ‘F’ for Frank.
Readers might like to connect with the family of Ramlee anak Kaya and relatives of Temenggong Ngang who remember Tuan Sandy and Tuan Pill. They would be the ones who remember the Japanese soldiers in the Limbang Valley and the work of the “radioman Frank.”
Any connection made can be forwarded to The Borneo Post Office or this writer.
During the function, Judi said: “My father never came back to Sarawak because it was a terribly sad part of his life to lose his friends in untimely deaths in a tropical war. He was a starry-eyed volunteer soldier from New Zealand called up to help the Allies. He was just a boy of 20.
“Out of the 23 who left New Zealand, most fell during the war. He lived to remember the horrible days. I was horrified when he told me four of his friends who parachuted with him in Semut Operations fell right into the Japanese camps. They were beheaded immediately.”
Wigzell’s book also mentioned that Tom Harrison who had been to Borneo before 1945, was chosen to lead the commandoes in training the locals in Bario.
The units of the Z Special Force were each given “a few hundred locals to help do the scouting, spying and patrolling — and even killing.” They were actually training local guerillas to fight the Japanese.
Later, as part of Semut Operations, Wigzell was to set up his radio station in the Limbang Valley.
“Dad was a radio expert. The commandoes depended on him to receive news from the US and the UK. He had to carry his huge and heavy radio set on his back. He would usually set up a hut up on a hill. He had to plan on his own and set up his radio station in the jungles all by himself — with only the help of a few tribal people.
For Frank Wigzell, 1945 was a year of diseases, jungle life, hardships and uncertainties, Japanese firefights and all the war-time horrors in Sarawak.
His uniform was totally worn out. By the time he was met by other allied troops, he only had a piece of loin cloth on him. This was, indeed, a traumatic image for Judi to carry in the recesses of her mind.
However, according to Judi, when her father wrote the book, he was very professional. He took painstaking measures to make sure it was a good documentation of the work he and his 22 friends did for Sarawak.
The book also carries several never-seen-before photos of the Japanese war period, a careful collection of newspaper cuttings Wigzell kept from the wartime.
Judi showed her new friends the part in book where her father wrote about Jon, a man of Kelabit parentage and a faithful companion.
Her father had given Jon his “trusty old US carbine, web-gear, ammunition and magazines, plus all the army gear he possessed, including a blanket.”
Zigwell wrote: “I came to Borneo with nothing and did the same going out with the exception that I carried a couple of souvenirs to remind me of this adventure.”
He almost lost his life and for years after returning to New Zealand, suffered from terrible bouts of Malaria which never left him until his death at the age of 93 and Judi had been witness to his terrible suffering.
Malaria is still a scourge in our part of the world.
Foreign tourists pay as much as RM800 for malaria injections or medications as part of their personal protection in their home countries before coming to visit Malaysia and other parts of the tropical world.
Judi has said she and her family are planning to return to Sarawak in two years and will be visiting Limbang specifically. She hopes to meet up with the descendants of people her father knew in 1945. Would she find the descendants of Jon?
There is now a memorial in Bario to commemorate Semut Operations. There is also a mini Bario museum with a small gallery dedicated to Second World War events where the Kelabits had provided the manpower for the war effort.
In a recent search, it has been found that the new jetty at Rockingham, Western Australia, has commemorative plaques to the Z Special Unit on each lamp post.
For all the heroes who had gone before, there should be a sense of gratefulness to bring about a closure to the chain of events.
May the souls of those who had fought a good fight rest in peace. And for those who live after them, may they find peace and courage to go on with their lives, bearing the significant memories of their heroes.
For Judi, the journey to trace her father’s footsteps and his friends may just have begun. She is thankful to the people of Bario for the wonderful ceremony held to remember the heroes of Semut Operations.

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