Photo gallery: Serviceman who won Malaysian tribe’s hearts goes back to the jungle

Lt Neil Burns-Thomson from Bungay talks about being a survivor of a helicopter crash whilst serving

Lt Neil Burns-Thomson from Bungay talks about being a survivor of a helicopter crash whilst serving with the 845 Naval Air Squadron in Malaysia,1965. - Credit: Nick Butcher

On February 14, 1965, his helicopter's control system failed and he went crashing into a notorious Malaysian jungle.

Accident investigators assessing the wreckage couldn't believe that Lieutenant Neil Burns-Thomson and his passengers had survived, yet alone walked away unscathed.

But the next day he was up in the air again, as he continued to fly troops back and forth during a conflict with Indonesia.

For 18 months, seven days a week, Lt Burns-Thomson, now of Bungay, flew navy helicopters in Malaysia as part of the 845 Naval Air Squadron.

It was a vital role taking troops across the border and flying those who had been injured to much-needed care.

But Lt Burns-Thomson played another key role during his time there, as he formed a bond with the local Iban people.

He spent time socialising with them and learning their language as he gradually became accepted into the tribe with tattoos and gifts of a woven waistcoat and necklace.

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Despite the pain of seeing fellow servicemen die, the time there was the highlight of his nine-year service, so when he heard that the current 845 Naval Air Squadron were planning a visit to pay tribute to their former comrades, he asked to go with them, allowing him to return for the first time in 48 years.

'It was the highlight of my service, an incredible experience, it was once-in-a-lifetime experience to be there,' he said.

'I heard about the trip and said you can't go out and re-establish the relationship without me. My job when I was not flying was to win the hearts and minds of the operation with the Iban tribe. I know a lot about them and speak some of their language.'

Together with fellow veteran aviator Lt Mike Thompson RN (Rtd), now 71 and living in New Zealand, and former 42 Commando Cyril Goodhand, they joined 17 current members of the 845 Naval Air Squadron during their visit to the country.

Lt Burns-Thomson (Rtd), 74, said: 'It was quite emotional coming back. What struck me was how much local people appreciated what I and the fellow pilots were doing. Their welcome and enthusiasm was overpowering, they really were very pleased to see us.'

Lt Burns-Thomson was based in Malaysia from December 1963 until June 1965.

During this time he saw a number of fellow pilots die, but managed to escape his own crash in February, 1965.

The father-of-two said: 'There were six of us onboard at the time and we all survived. And that is why the indigenous Iban people named me 'Antu Gayo Ulu Mirana' - Long Lived Spirit of the River and the troops on the ground called us 'Junglies'.'

He worked hard to organise a memorial for those who died and on June 14, 1965 it was unveiled, one day before the squadron left.

The modern day squadron, which is now based near Yeovil, wanted to retrace the footsteps of the 'Junglie' pilots of the 1960s and as part of their visit went to the Nanga Ga'at memorial, where Alex Linggi, Malaysia MP for the Kapit constituency in Sarawak, announced that a government grant of £2,000 had been allocated to maintain it.

Mr Linggi said: 'Your visit is significant because this year Sarawak is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Malaysia. Words are not enough to describe how much 845 Naval Air Squadron has done for us in Kapit and Sarawak.'

A spokesman for the 845 Naval Air Squadron said: 'For seasoned and less experienced personnel it was marvellous to have the veterans along. Each added a dimension to the visit and revealed personal insights into the squadron's 'Junglie' heritage and the immense contribution also made by the Royal Marines during the conflict.'

Major Mark Johnson RM, Senior Pilot 845 Sqn, also laid a wreath on behalf of 845 NAS, the 'Junglie' Association, and the FAA Memorial Church at a memorial in Limbang town, which honours five Royal Marines who died saving the British Empire Representative and his family from communist insurgents in 1962.

The squadron went on to spend time in Borneo where they helped to renovate a classroom at a local school, and were welcomed at a local Longhouse, where 50 families live together.

The sailors, airmen and veterans were also the honoured guests at a welcome feast, with traditional Sarawak songs.

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