Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 3

An eye-witness account by Gerrit Vermeulen, a young Dutch soldier from Renswoude
In his own words:

Nevasa, Semarang, March 28, 1946

This morning at 7:00 a.m. we anchor outside the harbor of Semarang. Part of the T Brigade disembarks on a landings craft. Around 2:30 p.m. we weigh anchor again and tomorrow afternoon we are scheduled to arrive in Soerabaja. The food we get here on board is ok, but it is so boring. It’s the same every day: cold, canned food, called emergency rations. For 6 people we get one box every day. In the box are fish, corned beef, meat and kidney pudding, cake, peas or carrots, pudding you can slice, rolled oats (which we can’t do anything with because we can’t cook), powdered milk, bacon, potatoes, sugar, matches, mepacrine tablets (against malaria), vitamin tablets, tea, chocolate, candy, cigarettes, salt and salt tablets and biscuits. All good quality, but we’d rather have a good meal. The salt tablets are not to add salt to your food but to just swallow, to replace the salt we lose through excessive perspiration because of the tropical temperatures; the salt we need to prevent cramps. I manage to get one of the few available hammocks to sleep in, hooked on the ceiling in the hold; it’s better than a place on deck, but it’s difficult to turn over.
I’m thinking about the imminent future: a dangerous time lies ahead, perhaps on the battlefield. I am not afraid of battle. In case I should die I know that my Redeemer lives! He fought the ultimate battle for me.

Nevasa, March 29, 1946

The native crew always walk barefoot. The British soldiers on board have shoes and uniforms like us. They are less stocky than the Dutch, but not as slender as the natives in Malaysia. They don’t use spoon and fork to eat, they mold the rice into a ball, dip it into the gravy and put it in their mouth. Some natives have long hair, down to their waist. They wear it in a bun on the very top of their heads and look like women from the back, until you see their full black beards and mustaches in the front!

Soerabaja, March 30, 1946

We embark at 7 a.m. and arrive in camp at 8:30 a.m. At 3 p.m. we are back in service. Glad to have escaped the muddy camp at Chaah airfield; glad to get off the dirty ship. But although Chaah was bad and the ship was worse, the camp is worst of all. I’d better not write about that any more. In the distance we hear gunshots again, the first after April 1945. But we don’t hear the screeching and hits of artillery shells – we’re too far away.

Soerabaja, March 31, 1946

Soerabaja seems to be safe, yet we are not allowed to into town unless we go with four or more and are heavily armed. We want to go to church this morning but can’t find the church in time, so we walk through town and are back home at 11:30 a.m.

Soerabaja, April 3, 1946

We started packing up yesterday and arrive in our new camp, a ways out of town. The barracks are in reasonably good condition, but the water supply, lighting and toilets are out of order.

The first night seems to last forever. We set out guard posts that change every two hours. Suddenly I hear gun shots. Immediately thereafter a bren rattles. I grab my loaded revolver and quickly load my gun. It is pitch dark outside and I can’t see anything through the window and door openings. There are no windows and doors in the building so I don’t have to open anything to look out. A few more shots are fired. Then silence. Later in the night we hear a few more shots while we are dozing. But in the morning we hear that one of our comrades in our battalion was shot through the middle of his head and died instantly. None of the attacking extremists has been killed or captured. “Were we actually attacked by extremists?” one man asks.
“Yes”, someone says.
“No”, someone else says, “we shot at each other.”
We need to set rules: Don’t shoot unless you are absolutely sure you are facing an enemy and are sure you can hit him.

Soerabaja, April 4, 1946

The second night in the barracks has passed. It lasted even longer and was more terrible than the first night. In one of the Psalms David says: My soul longs for God like a guard longs for the morning. I have stood guard before, in Holland, in England, in Malaysia. But not until now do I know how badly a guard can long for the morning. Here we feel the breaking of the dawn as a relief, a liberation.

We sleep here on hard boards, but are getting used to that. After 7:30 p.m. all lights have to be out and nobody except for the guard may go outside. We all go to bed early. I have no guard duty tonight. Suddenly, around 11:30 p.m., without any preceding shots whatsoever, fire from several automatic weapons very close by me rattles loudly and jolts me awake. I am suddenly scared to death. I jump up, grabbing my revolver and my gun. But what can we do here? Through the window and door openings we can’t see anything in the dark night except the flashes of firearms. Is there a friend or an enemy where we see the light? Should we fire in that direction or not? If we go there with our password the enemy will know immediately who we are. If we creep in that direction our comrades can take us for an enemy and shoot us down.

Slowly the firing gets less frequent, then stops. A moment later someone asks for bandages and a gurney. Through our building, passing me, five men are carried away. We are ordered to stay in our building. But to know that, so close by, our comrades are involved in a terrible fire fight, and having to helplessly stand by is almost as unbearable as being involved in a fight ourselves. We hear a few more shots and fire from an automatic weapon that night and can’t quite find the peace to go back to sleep.

The following morning we hear what has happened. The extremists, trained snipers, crept unseen through the posts of our camp until they were about thirty feet from the guard room, a building completely open on one side, where guards who were off duty rested in total darkness. They fired their automatic weapons, killing our Platoon’s Commander Lieutenant v.d.Werf and one other man, injured seven others, among which one critically, and three who will be invalids for the rest of their lives.

Today we are building scaffolds, making barbed wire barriers, installing booby traps and trip floors, leveling terrain, and so on. We have to stop things like the ones that happened in the past nights immediately.

This night is better. One man gets injured by accident. But several things are desperately bad. Food does not taste good, the kitchen is a stinky mess, there is no hot water to wash the mess kits; who does not get shot by the enemy could get sick of the filth: hygiene in the tropics!

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments

Until next time,


Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 2

An eye-witness account by Gerrit Vermeulen, a young Dutch soldier from Renswoude
In his own words:

Atlantic, January 26, 1946

Across from Portugal, January 27, 1946

Every day, forming a chain, we have to carry 40 bags of potatoes, heavy loads of flour, oatmeal, and more provisions from the hold to the kitchen upstairs. Today, after duty, I attend the church service.

Mediterranean, January 28, 1946

We passed Gibraltar during the night. I would have loved to see the Rock of Gibraltar, but that was not to be. We now see, in the distance, the coastline of Spain, and on the other side the coast of North Africa.

The first days on board were easy, but that is changing. We have roll calls three times a day, drills, Malay lessons, weapons theory and so on. It’s good to be kept busy – we have enough free time left.

Mediterranean, January 31, 1946

We have wonderful spring weather here on deck; because of Princess Beatrix’s birthday we get the afternoon off. This evening we see many lights in the distance: we are approaching Port Said. It was bedtime before we sailed into the harbor but we heard a lot of commotion around the ship with loading supplies.

Suez Canal, February 1, 1946

We wake up to discover our ship is slowly crossing the Suez Canal. There is a lot to see on both shores; the Egyptian side has palm trees, a road and a railroad, homes, lots of brown skinned Egyptians and groups of British soldiers.
Every ship traversing the Suez Canal needs to pay a fee depending on the size of the ship. Our ship needs to pay a toll of about fl 40.000, guilders that is, for one passage!

At dusk we arrive in Suez and go at anchor a couple of miles off shore. Alongside a huge tank boat refuels the ship with thousands of gallons of fuel oil, and on the other side two tank boats supply us with thousands of gallons of fresh water. Another boat hoists up thousands of kilos of meat, and people in several small boats offer merchandise in exchange for English money or cigarettes.

The merchants speak a little English, and when the deal is made they raise the merchandise in a net on a long stick and the money returns the same way. We call out to those Arab or Berber or black merchants, or whatever they may be ‘Hey, Ali Baba!’ and they all listen.

Today I received rations. Every soldier received 500 cigarettes, 24 chocolate bars, 8 bags of cookies, 8 1/2 oz cans of tobacco, 2 jars of shaving cream, 7 bars of soap, 36 razor blades, 2 tubes of toothpaste, 1 tube of hair cream, 6 boxes of matches and 2 cans of shoe polish. We received £2 pay, and the rations cost us 38 shillings, so I have 3 shillings left. I don’t know for how long this is.

In the afternoon we sail through the Red Sea. I reflect on the many battles that were fought here, the many wars that raged, going all the way back to Biblical times.

Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, Sabang, February 2 -13, 1946

Today we pass Sabang, a small island in the Dutch East Indies at the northern tip of Sumatra. It looks like we will go on to Singapore first. Today we have to hand in our coats, overcoats and regular uniforms, plus two blankets; I still have my nice new beret. We haven’t received any mail yet.

Straits of Malacca, February 15, 1946

In the Straits of Malacca we are sailing at less than half the regular speed, as we did in the Suez Canal, because of the mine fields all around. Scary.

Singapore, Malaysia, Camp Cha’ah, February 16 – March 23, 1946

We spend the time training, marching through jungles and wading through muddy kalis (streams), sleeping in a makeshift hammock or on a hard coconut mat under a klamboe (mosquito netting). We have drills, church on Sundays, encounters with a large snake, huge spiders and stinging ants, sounds of monkeys high in the trees, lukewarm drinking water, sometimes rationed. The jungle is beautiful.

During one morning’s march the scouts hit upon an enemy patrol, which we defeat. Later on they tell us that there are more enemies up ahead and we should go straight at them, no matter the road situation. We are crossing a kali, march across dry terrain, through muddy marches, until we find the enemy. After an exchange of fire we march back to camp.

Nevasa, March 23, 1946

In the middle of the night we have to get up, pack, march for 2 1/1 hour, catch a train to Singapore, and board Nevasa, a large size British troop ship, which is by far not as well appointed as New Amsterdam. Without designated sleeping places, mostly on the hard floor, cold, canned emergency rations, poor bathroom accommodations and so on we are happy to know that it will be only for a few days.

Nevasa, Tandjong Priok, the harbor of Batavia, Java, March 26, 1946

We have arrived on Java, are waiting to sail on to Soerabaja, our final destination.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments

Until next time,


Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 1

An eye-witness Account by Gerrit Vermeulen, a young Dutch soldier from Renswoude
In his own words:

An army of volunteers – I am one of them – is being trained in the Netherlands for deployment to the Dutch East Indies, which, on August 17, 1945 was declared The Republic of Indonesia by Dr. Ir. H. Sukarno. We will be sent to the Island of Java to restore peace and order.

Renswoude, December 1, 1945

My last day at home, last day in church with my congregation, farewell visits to friends and relatives before we depart, at first to Great Britain for two weeks, then to Egypt for three weeks, then to the Indies. Many people ask, “Why are you going there? You can get a decent job here, where all your friends and relatives live and your life will be easier and safer than as a soldier over there. Those natives have been dominated by the Dutch for hundreds of years and by the Japanese for four years, so let them have their freedom and create a republic of their own.”

Well, people, right now, this is the situation. In the Indies about 200,000 Europeans are still incarcerated in Japanese POW camps in dire circumstances with an enormous death toll due to illness and hunger. They must be liberated as soon as possible. Right after Japan’s capitulation nobody was able to do this. The remaining Japanese certainly don’t try to restore order and peace, no one is in command, there is no authority, and rebellious gangs, indoctrinated, incited and provided with weapons by the Japanese can freely roam the country, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. For the Netherlands to stay away now would be a crime, politically and economically, against all the Europeans and other peoples living there. So I am joining the army, ready to fight for justice and peace.

Zuidlaren, December 2 – 31, 1945 – Training

We are confined to the barracks for training. Daily roll call, standing guard, cleaning and polishing our gear, 6-mile marches, drills, shooting exercises with bayonets, brens, stens and the like.
(The STEN was a family of British submachine guns used extensively throughout World War II and the Korean War. The simple design and very low production cost made them effective insurgency weapons for resistance groups)120px-smg_sten_mk_vi(The BREN (or Bren gun), was a light machine gun made by Britain in the 1930s and used in various roles until 1992)bren1We all have to learn Malay. Once or twice a week the lieutenant gives a language class and the rest of the time we have to study on our own. If I can study during work, I have more time at night for other work, like laundry, writing letters, darning socks and so on. We get vaccinated, once, twice, three times. It did not bother me. But on December 21, I am vaccinated against smallpox, and that affects me for the next two days with swollen lymph nodes and a fever.

The last day is spent getting ready for our move. Everything has to be spic and span; floors scrubbed, windows washed, walls behind cabinets cleaned, trash picked up, all our stuff packed in exactly the way we were instructed. We also learn English manners.

On January 1, 1946, we march off to the train station after inspection. At 6:30 p.m. the train is leaving; without heat, without lights, without windows, with freezing temperatures… a fine day to start the new year! Better not think about home, how wonderful it was each year to wish friends and relatives a very Happy New Year. Our long journey has begun.

East Hampstead Camp, January 4, 1946

The troop transport ship that takes us from Oostende, Belgium, to England has a capacity for 1000 men. Embarking a battalion is quite an operation. Every platoon, every squadron has to be taken to its designated place on board. We have to don life jackets the minute we get on board, because the ship will be crossing the Channel through mine fields and if we should get hit we won’t have time to find our life jackets before the ship is airborne! When we are all situated in our quarters and know the way there, we are allowed to go on deck.

We arrive at 6:00 p.m. in Tilbury harbor on the Thames, and disembark. I stand watch for two hours with 9 others, take the 10 o’clock train to arrive at the designated station at 1:00 a.m., and after a two-hour march arrive in camp. I tumble in my crib at 3:00 a.m., exhausted.

East Hampstead Camp is about 70 km (44 miles) from London. It is very different from Zuidlaren: a large terrain with tall trees and many barracks in groups of six, each with 15 – 20 men. There are toilet barracks here and there, kitchen barracks, cafeterias too, and it takes a good fifteen minutes to walk from one end of the terrain to the other. In the cafeterias we have to pay with English money, pennies, pounds, crowns, half crowns, sixpence, etc. which is not so easy to get used to at first. Cigarettes are available without coupons here, and there is plenty of tobacco, cigarette lighters, flashlights, fountain pens, delicious cake, fried fish, sewing materials and more things that are not available in the Netherlands since the war without coupons.

January 5 – 24, 1946

After roll call we all have to get our teeth checked; about 50 men were disqualified last month in Zuidlaren because of bad teeth. On a walk in the neighborhood I saw squirrels, many large black pigs, red-and-white cows, all different than back home. Along the roads you see large metal storage containers full of ammunition.

The barracks are sparsely furnished: cribs, but no chairs, table or benches; easy to clean, but very dark, with only two windows and one door, and an air vent high up on both sides. There is no central heating in the barracks so at night we sit around a stove – kind of cozy. The days are kind of easy here; we had to hand in our weapons for we will be getting new ones soon.

On January 15, we have to report to the field, all 1600 of us, for a visit of Prins Bernhard. He points out the importance of our duty to restore and keep order in the Indies, and mentions his expectations that many of us, after finishing our time in military duty, may stay to do important and necessary work in the Indies. He then sends us off with God’s blessings and suggests three hoorays for our beloved Queen Wilhelmina.

The tropical outfits we received consist of 3 uniforms, 2 with long pants and 1 with shorts, underwear, coats, a large backpack and a kit bag, all designed for the tropics. Then a new sweater, shirts, 1 pair of new boots and 1 pair of sneakers.

January 25, 1946

Finally, the moment to leave Europe has arrived. At 4:00 a.m. we march off, heavily loaded, including weapons. Then on the train to Southampton, where the New Amsterdam, Netherlands’ largest passenger vessel, awaits us at the station to depart at exactly 2:00 p.m., after we don life jackets again. After a little while, even the last glimpse of the coast disappears from sight and there is only water, water and water.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments.


The War after World War Two in the Dutch East Indies

From East Indies Camp Archives


The large majority of the Dutch in and outside the Dutch East Indies did not realize that the situation in the colony had changed drastically as a result of the war. They blindly assumed that Dutch colonial rule would be restored. They did not take the Indonesian declaration of independence of 17 August seriously. On the contrary: many saw the Republic of Indonesia as a monstrosity conceived by the Japanese and proclaimed by native collaborators.

However, the Dutch were not in a strong position. The British troops that had landed on Java had no intention of brushing the Republic aside. The only purpose of their arrival was to evacuate the internees and to disarm and take away the Japanese. The British commander on Java, lieutenant-general Christison, expressed the intention of bringing the Dutch and the Indonesians to the negotiating table.

Meanwhile, the Japanese troops wanted to be rid of their responsibility for maintaining order as quickly as possible. They started to withdraw into camps they had already prepared (‘self-internment’). The Japanese furthermore handed over weapons to the Indonesian youth groups, the so-called ‘pemudas’, on a large scale; often voluntarily, but sometimes under duress. A chaotic situation ensued in which no single party was able to adequately fill the power vacuum left by the war.

As it became increasingly clear that the Dutch authorities were busy preparing their return to the Dutch East Indies, the nationalist forces rebelled more and more. Sukarno and the other nationalist leaders were unable to fully control their young and excitable followers. Hundreds of local Indonesian combat groups, formed ad hoc and armed with Japanese weapons, often operated without any central leadership and without any control from the older leaders.

The final three months of 1945, the so-called bersiap period (bersiap means ‘be ready’), were characterized by violence, chaos and anarchy. There were street fights and former Dutch internees in and outside the camps were systematically attacked and fired upon. Assaults, kidnapping and murder took place everywhere, and the Chinese and Indo-Europeans in particular were targeted by radical Indonesian nationalists.

The Indos outside the camps were in an extremely vulnerable position, while the internees in the camps were protected by the Japanese and/or the British. Hundreds of men, women and children were murdered in gruesome ways. In addition tens of thousands of Dutch people were, probably partly for their own safety, (re)interned by the Republic of Indonesia, often in camps in the interior of Java. Their number is estimated at around 46,000 persons.

The British could not prevent the pemudas starting to view them as being pro-Dutch also; gradually they, too, became targets of the Indonesian youths. Sometimes Japanese were victims of the violence. In most places the attitude of the Japanese was quite ambivalent, but in general they guarded the camps well, and in Semarang, led by local commander Kido, they intervened strongly to rescue the threatened Dutchmen.

In cities like Surabaya, Semarang and Bandung the British, British-Indian and Japanese soldiers fought fierce battles with the nationalist combat groups before they could start evacuating the former internment camps. In Surabaya the British had to fight street to street for three weeks before they gained control of the city. The former internees in Ambarawa, Banjubiru and Magelang in Central Java – mainly women and children – were evacuated by the British to Semarang with great difficulty. In Bandung the southern part of the city had to be evacuated to make a better defence of the northern part possible.

The refugee problem was considerable everywhere. Thousands of former internees in East and Central Java were therefore evacuated to Batavia, Singapore, Bangkok, the British-ruled Indies, Ceylon, Australia or the Netherlands. As a result of the hasty evacuations and sustained fighting, a degree of peace was re-established in the British-controlled key areas in early 1946. Even after the bersiap period there were skirmishes in many places, but the violence was not as intense or widespread as it had been in the final months of 1945.

How many people died on the Indonesian side during the bersiap period is difficult to determine. Estimates range from 30,000 to 100,000 pemudas killed on Java. Up to December 1946 the British and British-Indian forces suffered 655 dead (600 of whom on Java), 1,663 injured (1,420 on Java) and 320 missing persons (all missing on Java). The conflict with the Indonesian nationalists cost the Japanese army 402 dead, 239 injured, and 88 missing men. The number of Dutch and Indo victims of the bersiap is not known exactly; estimates range from 3,500 to 20,000 dead. A total number of approximately 5,500 victims is probably most realistic.

The nationalist violence did not focus exclusively on the Dutch and Chinese. Thousands of Indonesians also became victims of the revolutionary violence. Indonesian civil servants and the native elite in particular were targeted. In the Dutch period, but also under the Japanese, these officials and this elite had served as pillars for the ruling regime. In addition to an anti-colonial uprising, this was therefore also a social revolution.

The shock of the bersiap convinced many Indo-Europeans that there would be no room for them in an independent Indonesia. After the transfer of sovereignty in December 1949 the large majority of Indo-Europeans left their native country.

In November 1945 in the Netherlands, young men, mostly volunteers, were being trained for deployment to the Dutch East Indies. Their purpose  would be to protect the exhausted civilians from the bloody attacks of the extremists and restore order wherever possible. A young man named Gerrit Vermeulen from Renswoude was deployed to Soerabaja, on Java – the city where we lived when the war broke out, where my father worked on the Naval Base, and where we were first incarcerated by the Japanese in 1942.

Gerrit Vermeulen wrote letters to his mother and friends back in the Netherlands about his experiences as a soldier in this very dangerous time right after the war: the Bersiap. I have translated his interesting letters and will post them on my Blog in the weeks to come.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments.

Until Next time,


September 2, 1945: Signing of the Instrument of Surrender

USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay, Japan

Representatives of the United States, Republic of China, United Kingdom, Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, Commonwealth of Australia, Dominion of Canada, Provisional Government of the French Republic, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Dominion of New Zealand and the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas Mac Arthur, gathered on the deck of the USS Missouri to accept the Document of Surrender on September 2, 1945, at 09:08 a.m. signed By Command and in behalf of the Emperor of Japan and the Japanese Government and By Command and in behalf of the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters.Deck Seal USS Missouri

A large commemorative brass seal was placed in the deck of the ship on the spot where the Instrument of Surrender was signed.

Fifty years later, in the harbor of Bremerton, WA, I stood on the deck of the USS Missouri, looking down at the seal, reading the words “THUS BRINGING TO A CLOSE THE SECOND WORLD WAR”.

It was then that I fully realized that this moment in time, fifty years ago, was the beginning of a new life for me. Life as it was meant to be, free of hunger, free of fear, free of pain and scary punishments, full of joy and love and family. It brought tears to my eyes and gratitude in my heart for the heroic men who fought for us, and for my courageous mother who kept believing in God’s goodness and in the day the war would end, until finally that day arrived and we were free!

I will hang out the flag every year on September 2nd, as I celebrate Life.


I welcome your comments!

Until next time,