Cowboy: interpreter, warlord, one more casualty

A guest of the Japanese in the Dutch Indies

[The following was written for the moderated WWII newsgroup by Arie Biemond of Middelburg, the Netherlands, and is posted here by his kind permission. -- Daniel Ford]

Our family, parents, older sister and three brothers, lived in Surabaya. My father was secretary of the board of managers of a big company, Handelsvereniging Amsterdam (HVA), that owned a great number of plantations producing mainly tea, sugar and tobacco in Java and Sumatra. We had a big house in the Javastraat, about 5 servants and a new deSoto car. Across the street lived the Doorman family (the vice admiral that died in the battle of the Java sea), he had a son of my age and we visited each others birthday parties.

There was some "nationalistic agitation' among the the local population (who called themselves Indonesians) but most leaders were arrested in the thirties. Independence for the East Indies was in the opinion of the majority of the Dutch a long term project, requiring a careful guidance, to a distant dominion status.

At the end of the thirties a great and increasing worry about Japan's real intentions grew, as they came closer and closer in their expansion southwards. This fear increased sharply after the occupation of the Netherlands, the German victories in western Europe and the fall of France.

However, anyhow officially, the government of the DEI was confident that together with England, and in case of a real war, probably also the the United States, any Japanese adventure would be halted long before Java could be reached. Each Sunday we invited four or five navy officers whose family lived far away in the Netherlands to join us for dinner.

Some personal memories:

Total mobilization: father (44 year old) came home in the uniform of the Stadswacht (city guard); windows were covered with adhesive tapes and gas masks were issued in the local pharmacy; everybody was constantly listening to the radio.

The first bombardment (interrupting my piano lesson): looking to the black clouds blossoming around planes until a hail of metal debris forced us to an improvised shelter. The constant murmuring of the servants (Allah is great and Mohammed is his prophet) becoming louder and louder when the bombs fell nearer until they were almost shouting (as if they were afraid that Allah could not hear them through all the noise outside).

After the landings on Java: father left (he was digging trenches in the carefully kept greens of the golf club of Surabaya but never saw the enemy); spending most of our time in our improvised shelter. During a quiet period a great number of big explosions, first from the port area in the north and later also from the oil refineries south of our home and great black columns of smoke slowly growing in a windless afternoon. Even to a child it was clear that this was the end.

The radio ending its broadcasting "until better times" with our national anthem. Some time later a group of little soldiers wearing rifles and caps with flaps in their necks came cycling through our street and we nor our servants could really believe that these were our victors. The swiftness of the defeat stunned both the Dutch and the local population, who could hardly grasp the fact that the colonial structures, that had ruled this area for centuries could crumble in such a short time.

The newspaper announcing next day the beginning of a new area of peace and prosperity and the closing of all banks and European schools (they would never open again). Also prominently printed the Japanese national anthem, the Kimigayo, with a Dutch translation, ending with "the reign of the Empire will continue until pebbles will have grown to boulders, covered with moss" (translation out of my memory)--which seemed an awful long time. The issuing of occupation money, one side printed in Dutch (soon to be replaced by Malayan, the universal language in the DEI) and the other side in Japanese.

All Dutch males were almost immediately interned: visiting the prison with my mother to bring clothes and food. The first experiences with the obligatory greeting (with a deep bow) of every Japanese soldier. The confiscation of our car (once we saw it back, painted olive green and carrying a soldier as chauffeur and a high officer in the back seat). The eviction from our home, we got just one day to take away what we needed.

The Greater America

The concentration of the allied civil population in camps (I take the word 'concentration camp' in its original meaning, as they were first used -according to my encyclopaedia- by the Spaniards during the Cuban revolt at the end of the 18th century and the British against the Boer population a few years later, and not in the way the Nazis or communists used it later).

The further concentration of the civilians (you could keep what you were able to carry) in camps around Semarang. Our camp was called "Halmaheira" and had about 3700 women and children (I had the impression that children formed the majority) The first tasting of camp food (inedible even with sugar and cocoa added, but that opinion would change soon). Learning the meaning of tjotskeh (attention), kehreh (make a deep bow) and noreh (come back to attention). Counting in Japanese during the morning and evening roll calls, as the children stood in the first rows of the blocks of prisoners.

Standing for long periods in the sun, listening to some American war crimes in the Salomon Islands (alas far and far away). Further total isolation and having no idea how the war was going on, almost no military activity in the air either. Hunger; almost all thoughts and conversations were dedicated to food.

At the age of 12 transfer to a male camp nearby (it saved my life because I had stopped eating - after a long period of hunger the constant longing for food disappears and your only desire is to be left alone). This was not accepted in the Bangkong male camp and I was forcibly fed until I started eating again.

The sudden and unexpected end of the war: around august 23th 1945 the Japanese camp commander announced after a roll call that the Japanese emperor had decided to make an end to the suffering and stop the war! The singing of the national anthem around a quickly improvised national flag by a group of ragged and mostly bare-footed prisoners: one of the most emotional moments in my life.

The first days thereafter: the exchange of food for textile with the outside local population, something strictly forbidden before; the low flying over of [B-25] Mitchells carrying Dutch registration marks and distributing leaflets.

A strange and until recently even in our country not well known period followed immediately after the war, usually called here the bersiap-period. For the civilian Dutch population it was at that time totally incomprehensible, violent and dangerous.

After the Japanese capitulation the Indonesians declared themselves independent and Soekarno was appointed as the first president of Indonesian Republic. (In the view of most Dutchmen he was a collaborator, urging his fellow Indonesians to work for Japan as romushas, of which the majority would die from exhaustion and starvation). The Allied had ordered that the Japanese authorities remained responsible for the safety of the allied POW's and civil internees until the arrival of the (British) troops. Local young Indonesians started to disarm Japanese military personnel and to round up people suspected of not sympathizing with the new republic. Quickly increasing violent agitation erupted in many places in Java and Sumatra. (comparable to what has happened in Ambon and Timor in recent times).

The same Japanese soldiers that were our camp guards suddenly became our protectors, urging us to remain inside the camps and defending us against attacks from the pemudas (youngsters), as the attackers were called in Malayan. In Semarang things got worse when the pemudas started to kill disarmed Japanese soldiers in their cells with bamboo spears. Other Japanese forces came in and started to "restore order" in a revengeful way. Amidst this chaos the first British troops arrived and after some deliberation a combined British-Japanese force relieved the besieged camps and evacuated the inhabitants, first to a safe area in the centre of the town and later to the capital Batavia, where the situation was more under control.

My father, who suddenly appeared in our camp, was also interned in that same prison and witnessed the execution of the Japanese. The remaining captives were told: "today the Japanese, tomorrow you", but thanks to our former enemies that tomorrow never came! Our family got split in these chaotic times but was reunited and "repatriated" to the Netherlands in January 1946 on board the MS Boissevain, a Dutch passenger ship, refitted for the use as troop transport ship: large decks with vertical poles and three hammocks above each other between them.

We were lucky to get away all six (the average death toll in the civilian camps was between 15 and 20%, mainly in the last months of the war).

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