Remembering the attack on Semporna town in 1954

Patricia Hului

The attack on Semporna town in March 1954 is considered one of the major incidences of Sabah cross-border crimes.

A group of 30 armed Filipino pirates with two policemen and four others were killed.

The news of the attack travelled fast, especially among European communities.

In a news report by Reuters published on Mar 31, 1954, stated that, “One European, one police sergeant and two constables were killed when an unknown number of men in two boats, believed to be Filipino pirates from the South Philippines, raided the small town of Semporna, on the east coast of North Borneo, last night.

“The pirates, who were well armed with automatic weapons, tried to rob the town but were opposed by the small police force of 14 men.

“The European killed in the exchange of fire was the Assistant Conservator of Forests of Tawau (Mr Barnard).

“The North Borneo police, headed by residents of the east coasts, are scouring surrounding waters for the pirates.

“Semporna has been raided a few times by pirates in the past but last night’s raid was the most serious.

“Nearby waters are haunts of murderous Sulu and Moro pirates who find protection in the multitude of islands.”

The beginning of the attack on Semporna town

So what actually happened on that fateful day? How did the European Mr Barnard get caught in the fire between the police and the pirates?

The answer lies in a special report by Sabah Forestry Department.

Mr Barnard or Thomas Robert Barnard, to be precise, was the District Forestry Officer (DFO) of Lahad Datu.

He was in Semporna to carry out grading work at a log pond, about half a mile from town, owned by a prominent timber merchant Pua Din Kok.

Barnard went there with Timber Inspector Ahmad Nawi, along with boatman Damsik and his assistant.

They arrived at 5.30pm and they moored their boat at the Customs jetty where the Police Station and the Forestry Checking Station were also located.

While Ahmad was securing the boat to the jetty, he suddenly noticed two suspicious boats.

As the boats came closer, Ahmad realised the men on board were armed with automatic firearms and parangs.

Realising that the men were Filipino pirates, Ahmad immediately warned Barnard and the others.

Together with the boatmen, Ahmad jumped into sea and swam towards the mangrove trees nearby to hide.

Barnard, however, took out his shotgun to fire at the pirates, who at this moment already started to shoot at the police station.

While he managed to kill a pirate and wound another, Barnard was unfortunately shot in the back and died on the boat.

The shootout at Semporna Police Station

The pirates then proceeded to attack Semporna police station with intent to take control of it.

At the same time, the police who had heard the gunshots from the jetty were returning fire.

During the attack, the officer in-charge, Sergeant Sagar Singh was slashed in the neck. In other reports, it was stated that he was shot.

Regardless, Sergeant Singh was attacked while trying to unlock the firearms safe to retrieve more weapons and ammunition.

With the attack on the sergeant, the pirates got hold of the weapons and ammunition in the safe.

For the next three hours, the pirates looted the town, robbing the locals at gunpoint.

They finally left at about 8.45pm that same evening.

Besides Barnard and Sergeant Singh, the attack took the lives of a Chinese tailor, a 12-year-old Bajau boy and another two police constables.

The aftermath of the attack on Semporna town

After the bloody incident, BNBC set up an armed force of marine police in North Borneo.

They proved themselves to be an efficient organisation as they successfully patrolled and kept order in North Borneo waters in subsequent years.

Meanwhile, Barnard’s courageous and selfless act was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.