MORE than 50 years after serving his country in a ferocious guerilla war in the Far East, Rastrick man Derek Ilett has been honoured for his gallantry.
Mr Ilett was only 17 when he joined the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and was sent to Malaya with other Commonwealth forces to join the fight against communist insurgents as the country struggled for independence.
Now his service has been recognised with the presentation of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia - the Service to Malaysia award - at a special ceremony at Eden Camp military museum in North Yorkshire.
He was among a group of Yorkshire-based veterans who received their awards from Brigadier General Othman Jamal, defence attache with the Malaysian Embassy, in recognition of their ‘chivalry, gallantry and loyalty’ during the Malayan Emergency.
Mr Ilett, aged 71, and his wife Sonia, 68, both originally from Essex, were delighted to attend the ceremony with other veterans of the Malaya campaign.
The couple, who live at Mayster Grove, met as teenagers and wrote to each other constantly during the three years that Mr Ilett was away.
Mrs Ilett said: “I was only 13 when I first met Derek. A year later, when he was 17, he joined up and then he was sent to Malaya. He asked me if I would write to him and I said I would. I think there was a competition among all the young lads out there to see who could get the most letters from home!
“The postman used to wait for me in the morning to give me Derek’s letters because he knew I was so excited. Our courtship was through our letters.”
After Mr Ilett returned to the UK in 1959, the couple started going out together and were married in 1961 when Mrs Ilett was 18. Mr Ilett became a builder and the couple moved to Yorkshire in 1967. They have three children - Peter, Tracy and Julie - and the family moved to Rastrick in 1983.
Mr Ilett said he looked back on his time in the Jahore Bahru region of Malaya with fond memories.
“There were times when it was scary but at that age you don’t really think of the danger. It was a great experience. We were all lads away from home for the first time and there was great camaraderie.
“Our camp was about six miles from the depot where all the military vehicles were kept. Making that journey every morning was sometimes frightening and there were occasions when we had to run for cover.”
Coping with the heat and the constant humidity of the jungle was also a challenge. “It was very hot and there were the monsoon rains to cope with. Some of the men had skin complaints because of the humidity.”
Mr Ilett joined the Army in 1955, rather than waiting to be called up for National Service, and underwent six weeks basic training in Blackdown, Surrey, before being sent to Malaya.
The Pingat Jasa Malaysia was first awarded to veterans after an approach by the Malaysian Government to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 2006 and so far 11,000 medals have been handed out to proud recipients at ceremonies all over the country.
“I am very pleased and proud to be have been given a medal by the Malaysian government after all these years,” said Mr Ilett. “It was a very enjoyable ceremony.”