We were sitting in the restaurant at the Royal Maritime Club in Portsmouth last week with some pretty excited “boys” soon to embark on a journey to a country that some have regarded as their second home.
These “boys”, in their 70s, smartly dressed in their uniforms and berets, had their medals proudly displayed.
One of the medals was the Pingat Jasa Malaysia (PJM), awarded to them for their services defending the newly-born Malaya from enemy incursions.
They wore the PJM even when they were not allowed to by the Monarch of England. And now that the ban is lifted, they can wear them on any occasions such as the annual Malaysian Carnival in Brickendonbury, which they visit without fail, to taste the food, try their rusty Malay language and even exhibit black-and-white photographs of their stint in the jungle.
One even brought his old accordian that he played to entertain his mates.
On the 60th Merdeka celebration in Kuala Lumpur, the PJM will be gleaming again under the tropical sun, as the party of thirty or so will be marching on the padang, most probably making their last march-past at the Merdeka padang.
“It is like going home,” said John Measham, the international liaison officer for the National Malaya and Borneo Veteran Association (NMBVA). Like a few others in the group, he goes back to Malaysia almost every year.
When Malaysia celebrated her 50th Merdeka celebration, it was Measham who led the party of old boys and their spouse or partner in the Merdeka parade.
“When I left in 1964, I was homesick,” he laughed, couldn’t quite explain the feeling that made him go back year after year. Admittedly, there were scary moments when they engaged the enemies at the border.
Like Measham, Joseph Hawley goes back to his second home every year. He was 18 in 1966 and he was newly married.
He never saw ‘”angry bullets” but the time out in the East must have some wonderful memories as the newlyweds spent a few years of their lives there, travelling the country.
“For our 25th wedding anniversary, we went back and had been going back every year even after my wife’s death.”
For some, this trip tomorrow will be the first since they left in the 1960s although their memories have never left them.
Who could forget the tour of duty in Sarawak where a jungle patrol would take them not just on the scent of the enemies, but to longhouses.
And, dangling from the roofs of these longhouses were war trophies staring forlornly from their absent eyes.
“It was a totally different world for a lad of 17 from England,” said Brian Farndell, who was with the 1st Green Jackets in Penang.
What Fardnell remembered about his tour of duty was the Brunei Revolt not long after his arrival.
“I was called with a few others to be told that we were too young.
“So, we were kept in Brunei until we turned 18 and joined the batallion.”
The trip, which will take them to Penang, the cenotaph and war graves where they will lay wreaths, will jolt memories.
Some will remember the bars and the brawls, but most will remember their Iban trackers with fondness: the trackers whose professionalism was legendary in picking up enemy scent.
Sadly, says Measham, judging from the average age of the members, this will be their last trip en masse.
Hopefully, Malaysia’s jubilee celebrations will give them something to bring back to cold, grey England.