War Letters – Borneo: 24 July 1945, Brunei; Afternoon tea with the local villagers

W.E. Pidgeon
C/o Public Relations
1 Aust Corps
Tuesday night
24 July


My dear Jess,

Am now on the mainland of Borneo and am camped at a spot by the river about 1/2 mile out of what is left of the village of Brunei.  I remember seeing an article on the leader page of  ‘The Herald’ in which this joint was described as the ‘Venice of the east’.  If Venice is anything like this God help it!  On the opposite side of the river there must be a couple of hundred native houses built over the water & supported by timbers much the same as the Papuan houses around Moresby.  There is an incessant coming & going of small boats – in & out from the houses, up and down the river – all over the bleeding place.  These houses look drearily squalid but the touch of tropic romance (sic) is supplied by a group of young kids paddling & singing a queer Malayan song which carries well across the water.  A slithering sound & a rasping of dry grass makes me jump & consider horrific images of pythons crushing Willie’s bones.  I escape this pulpy fate & sigh to see a lizard of the brightest cutest green imaginable and he eyes me obliquely & unmovingly.  After time I’ll take without a qualm the pinkest of elephants.  Maybe it was the gin I had last night.

I am escorted by an intrepid bodyguard from the Public Relations.  Apparently his job is to arrange transport for me and to fight off the Japs while I pursue the arts and further the successes of the “Women’s Weekly”.

It took us 4 1/2 hours to cross from Labuan.  After a large trip like this and a modest suggestion of a hangover I would willingly have given Borneo back to the wild men.

Had a bit of a snooze just before tea which is at 5.30 pm.  Incidentally the time the army is operating on is all haywire. I reckon it is about 1 1/2 hours ahead of what it should be.  This close to the equator one must expect normally sunrise about 6 am and sunset about 6 pm.  As it is sunup is nearer 7.30 am than anything and it gets dark at 8.  All this guff merely to tell you we have tea really at about 4 pm.

MP escort on a visit to the village at Brunei
MP escort on a visit to the village at Brunei
Wep with some local children, most likely in Brunei
Wep with some local children, most likely in Brunei

Went over the village (the part that is sensibly built on land) after tea.  Accompanied by an army cop who talked and explained all the doings like a cook’s tour spruiker.  Had two cups of tea in a native home – this palace was underneath the house proper and in the room which I would say was approx. 15′ x 15′ lives 4 couples & an uncountable number of children.  These natives sure know how to reproduce the young.  The provost fellow knew a few words of Malay and all was giggles & tea swilling.  The higher social level here is maintained by the Chinese of whom some are really good lookers.  Many of them are pretty wealthy and live in large & airy homes bounded by gracious tress, bamboos, & banana plants.  Basically it is an interesting enough place although now sadly in need of repair & paint since the Japanese occupation.  The natives here are hard bargainers and see to it that the army boys pay plenty for what they want in the way of souvenirs.  Saw some magnificent sarongs some of the lads had paid 50 dollars for.  50 dollars to you mug, is about £7.10.0.  Quite a whack!

There’s a bug of some sort creeping round here making noises just like dear old Joe Palooka’s “Tch, Tch”.

Some of the little native kids are delightful.  I’d like to buy one for little Graham.  They carry on with the same antics.

Little Wep; The Australian Women's Weekly, 21 Jul 1945
Little Wep; The Australian Women’s Weekly, 21 Jul 1945

Jimmy Smyth’s wife posted him the cover with our little man on it.  I look at it lovingly & it is now travelling Brunei State with me.  Is he looking after you all right?

I think I’ll push off to bed as I’m all wore out.  My salubrious couch consists of a hip hole in the earth – a ground sheet, a blanket, and a mosquito net.

Yours for better sleeping – loving Will.


8.30 am Wed.  The Brunei ground takes the fun for hardness.  It all added up to the longest night I think I’ve ever spent.  At last I have achieved a measure of benevolent dignity.  Graciously I acknowledge the salutes of the astute and discerning natives.  I walk along bowing & beaming like Queen Elizabeth.  The natives are nuts on gold teeth.  One soldier here told of a Malayan who had all his teeth covered & leaving a heart shaped window in the gold in the front – “Very pretty it was too”, says the boy.  I’ll bet?



Smart effect that

Lots of love darling to you & Graham


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