While we were enjoying the luxuries (!) of Mankubumen camp, my father – totally unknown to us — had been shipped to Singapore. From January to March 1943 he spent in the notorious Changi POW camp. After that he was transported by train to Thailand with thousands of other Dutch, Australian and English soldiers. They had been picked to work on the railway of ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ fame. Five days packed together like sardines in cattle wagons. Roasting heat. Hardly any food or drink. And on arrival in Nong Pladuk the real test: a march.
The march of his life, as he later told us. 260 kilometers through the jungle, often at night, in ten days! A death march. Those who could not walk were shot or left to die. “It was the most grueling ordeal I ever faced”, my father told me. “Many of my friends gave up. I clenched my teeth and kept going. Dusty narrow paths climbing up and down and snaking through never-ending bush. Hunger. No rest. Just stumbling on in spite of wounds and blisters. But I got there.”
To speed up construction of the 415 km long railway between Thailand and Burma, the Japanese spread the POWs over 128 work camps along the whole length of the projected railway. My father was assigned to Camp Thamayo 2 manned by 200 Dutch soldiers. The men had to excavate the track from the hillside, using primitive tools to hack into the rock and to remove tons of rubble. Smaller and larger bridges had to be constructed. A total of 240,000 men worked on the railway, both POWs and forced labour from Burma and Malaya. 98,000 of them died of disease, beatings and starvation.
The Japanese army failed to provide the camps with regular supplies of food. Since my father was good at languages, he was sent out by the camp commander, under armed guard, to procure provisions from the local Thai villagers. Also, while in Singapore he had picked up some Japanese words so that on occasion he was summoned to serve as interpreter.
One day, my father told me, an important colonel visited the camp and insisted on addressing the POWs. My father was called upon to translate his speech. As the man raved on, pausing from time to time to give my father a chance to interpret, my father played the part. “I have no clue of what the chap is saying”, my father kept telling his comrades in Dutch. “As far as I can see he’s hopping mad. For God’s sake, don’t laugh! This banzai buff is getting terribly worked up. Pretend you are impressed!” By just chatting on and on he kept filling up the gaps. The Jap did not notice.
On another occasion he was walking through the jungle with an 18-year old Korean soldier as his guard. Many Koreans served in the Japanese army. My father needed a rest and sat down. The boy soldier was afraid of the jungle and wanted to carry on.
My father refused to budge.
The Korean took my father’s spectacles and put it into his shirt pocket. This was really cruel. My father’s eyesight was abysmal and he could not bear to think of losing his glasses . . .
But he refused to give in.
The Korean now pointed his rifle at my father. Then, as he failed to make an impression, the Korean slung his rifle over his shoulder and walked away, spectacles still in his pocket.
After half an hour my father heard a wailing sound in the distance. It was the Korean who had lost the way.
“Nikkeeeh! Nikkeeeh!”, he kept screaming.
“Nikki” was what the Japanese called my father whose name in Dutch was ‘Niek’ from ‘Nicholas’. My father sought him out and retrieved his spectacles.
“The poor chap was crying and shaking”, my father said.
“Wasn’t it risky?”, I asked. “Letting him walk off like that – with your specs!”
“Perhaps”, he replied. “The game of survival is complex. Diplomacy is your best tool. Stay as far away as you can from real brutes. Make sure you make allies of the good guys. Fight when you need to. And at no time show any weakness!”
It was advice I could have used very well in our own camp.
Baring my knuckles
It is said that children undergo their social birth when they enter school. Parental nurture and protection recede. Peer group pressure takes over. The child struggles to survive the seduction and bullying of teachers and classmates. If that is so, my social birth happened in the camp. Crammed with thousands of others in small enclosed spaces, we learned how to share the little there was. Give & take. I rub your back, you rub mine. But also, as we say in Dutch: ‘Don’t let anyone snatch the cheese from your slice of bread!’
I soon had to engage in my first real fight.
In a group of boys of my age I found myself harassed by a lad stronger and taller than I was. In the beginning I took the humiliations, to maintain peace. It led to more humiliations. I suddenly realized I could not let this happen. A ferocious anger, as I had never felt before, took hold of me. I remember it like the day of yesterday. I decided to enter the arena, for better or worse.
We came to blows. I got a beating but I kicked and punched in return, refusing to surrender. We rolled on the dusty ground holding each other. My heart pounded. I felt tears welling up in my eyes. My body trembled. But I did not let go. A beast had been unleashed in me. I scratched his face. I sank my teeth into his arm. He was equally vicious to me . . . When a woman finally tore us apart we were both bleeding. He growled. So did I. After that he never bullied me again.
On 29 May 1945 we were transported to our last camp. I now know why. The Germans had surrendered in Europe. The Americans had conquered the Philippines and had begun to occupy the Japanese island Okinawa. A possible next target was Indonesia. The army expected an invasion in East Java. All prisoners of war were promptly clustered together in central locations, away from the coast. Ten camps sprung up around the hill towns Ambarawa and Banjubiru. We were destined to spend the final months of the war in notorious Ambarawa 6.
It so happened that when we were suddenly hauled out of Mankubumen camp to board a train, I had sprained my ankle. So I was carried by a friend to the railway coach. Trouble broke out at our arrival in Ambarawa.
The others were taken to lorries outside the station for further transport to various camps. I had been carried out and laid down on the platform. My mother and brothers stood nearby, hanging on to our few belongings. A Japanese officer returned to the platform to see why we were dragging our feet. When he saw me lying on the floor, he ordered a soldier to heave me back onto the train. At that moment my mother intervened.
She placed herself firmly in front of the door of the railway carriage and refused to see me carried back on.
The officer yelled.
My mother yelled back.
The soldier tried to push my mother aside.
She did not budge.
Still shouting with anger the officer gave in. I was dropped back onto the floor of the platform. And then – my heart still stops when I think of it! – the train pulled out of the station . . .
If my mother had not stood up for me, I might well have been separated from my family forever. Believe me, it happened to quite a few children at the time.
I am still wondering why the officer ordered me back on the train. Maybe he presumed that I would eventually land up in the boys’ camp. Boys over ten years old were routinely rounded up and consigned to such a camp. Or maybe he saw an opportunity of ‘adopting’ me into his own family. Japanese fathers were at times looking for substitutes to take the place of their own lost sons . . . Just the thought of it! I would have grown up eating sushi and sashimi delicacies – and tell a different tale!
Whatever his intention may have been, I owed my life and wellbeing for the second time to the care and courage of my intrepid mother.
I cried with joy that evening as we were all huddled again under our mosquito net, this time crammed with seventy-two other families in danky barrack no 10, right at the end of crowded Ambarawa 6.
The end game
I do not want to bore you with endless tales of the misery that awaited us. People died like flies. I myself had contracted permanent dysentery and, because of the lack of proper food or medicines, the prospects looked bleak. Our camp doctor later told my mother that he had already written me off. If the war had lasted another month, I would not have survived, he said.
Meanwhile girls in our camp were picked up ‘for exclusive operations’. After the war it turned out that they had served as ‘comfort women’ in the Japanese army brothels of Semarang. My good-looking but thirty-year old mother escaped this fate. She was considered too old . . .
We noticed that our guards were getting frantic. In spite of tight military censorship rumors were trickling in that battles had been lost. A group of Korean soldiers went on a rampage and took over part of our camp. Regular Japanese troops moved in and suppressed the mutiny with ruthless efficiency. The rebels were shot.
On the 15th of August our Japanese camp commander flew into a rage. He went round brandishing his sword and smashing everything in sight. With hindsight we know the reason. Emperor Hirohito had addressed the Japanese nation in an Asia-wide radio broadcast announcing Japan’s defeat. He ordered all Japanese forces anywhere in the world to lay down their arms . . .
From the frying pan into the flame
It took days before we were informed about the victory of the Allies. But immediate improvements began to happen. Our meal ration was increased fourfold. Instead of one meal, we now also got food in the mornings and the evenings. The women were even allowed to leave the camp to shop in the local market. My mother promptly did so and returned with a bag full of eggs which she bought with rupiahs she had hidden in the seams of our clothes.
We ate boiled eggs till we were all sick. My mother herself ate 15 eggs she told me later. It is amazing what hunger can make you do and in those days we never knew if tomorrow we offer the same opportunity. Which, in fact, proved to be true.
The Japanese had lost the war, but another war had begun. For years Indonesian freedom fighters had prepared for their own rule. With the Japanese out of the way, they declared independence on the 17th of August. They decided to take control of Indonesia before the Dutch army could move back in.
Unknown to us, it came to violent clashes in Surabaia. The British had promised to secure Indonesia for the Netherlands. They landed troops in Surabaia. The permuda youth brigades resisted. Hastily a truce was arranged. When the British officer in charge, Brigadier Anthony Mallaby, was killed on the 30th of October, the British retaliated. They counter-attacked on the 10th of November with two full brigades. Planes were sent in to bomb Surabaia. Tanks confronted tens of thousands of freedom fighters who had converged on Surabaia. Not all were fully armed. It is estimated that 6000 of them were killed before Surabaia was firmly in British hands.
All this had instant repercussions for us. Remember that in our area ten camps with Dutch POWs lay isolated in the middle of mountainous Java. Freedom fighters surrounded us on all sides. They broke into a neighboring camp, herding people together and shooting on them with machine guns. We escaped that ordeal. The British dropped a platoon of Ghurkas and a set of heavy guns near our camp.
Two anxious months of a siege followed. From the adjacent mountain tops the Indonesians bombarded our camp with heavy shells from which there was no running away. We were sitting ducks. Casualties were often buried within the camp itself just hours after their death. There were days we had no food or even water as supplies were cut off from outside. From time to time food parcels were dropped from the air. For the time being our handful of brave Ghurkas kept thousands of freedom fighters at a safe distance.
Finally British military convoys from the coast began to fight their way through to our camp. It was only on the 5th of December, almost 4 months after the victory over Japan, that such a convoy brought me and my family out of Ambarawa to the relative safety of harbor town Semarang.
John Wijngaards, My Story – My Thoughts, From the pincers of death