Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 7

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

Soerabaja, 27 April 1946

I write Soerabaja, but we are about 12 kilometers outside of the city. I don’t know the name of this kampong.

Today we had the heaviest march yet. Get up at 3:00 a.m., leave at 4:00 and home again around midnight, exhausted but safe, thank God.

30 April 1946

This morning, on our patrol trip, we capture two prisoners. One man of 25 and one of 16 or 17. I don’t think they are enemies though, they are not armed. At first it looks like they didn’t know anything, but slowly but surely we get more information out of them than we could get in ten patrol trips. Now, I don’t know if everything they say is true, but they do know the outcome of our combat last Saturday. The number of enemy casualties they mention is 150, but that sounds too good to be true.

4 May 1946

We thought we were going to leave today, relieved from the front, but that has been postponed for two days. I go swimming in the kali every day around noon, when the (salt) water level is at its highest and cleanest and the tide is turning so there is no current. The kali is 40 to 50 yards wide, and swimming back and forth a few times is easy. It’s not dangerous because there are no crocodiles or sharks. The kali separates us from enemy territory, and once in a while we hear enemy fire, even machine gun fire, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t swim back and forth a few times. When the water rises a lot of snakes appear, but they are not poisonous and just looking for fish in the water. We get enough to eat here, but I often hardly eat anything because I don’t like it. There are enough bananas, oranges and eggs, and those are fine. But we are hoping to get out of here soon.

7 May 1946

Hey, we are back in the same place we left for 16 days. We had only taken the bare minimum of our possessions and now we’re getting everything else back. I am strolling through town for a little while and see a second hand bicycle at a Toekang sepeda priced at fl.50 (guilders). Hm, it looks good, has solid tires, I think I can get it for fl.25. But the guy doesn’t want to budge, even when I offer empat pulu lima (45) and walk away, and I end up having to give him fl.50 in exchange for the bike anyway.

On my way home, riding through a part of town I have never been, I discover a Pasar Besar. I am amazed at the number of natives and Chinese people there, and not a single white person. A huge hall and all the streets around it are filled with rows of small booths selling rice, flour, chickens, eggs, shoes, textiles, fish, fruits, vegetables, candles, and everything else you can find in a regular shop. It is quite different from a market in the Netherlands, let me tell you.

12 May 1946

After only four days in Soerabaja, this Saturday we are moving again. When the car stops at the destination I always jump out to investigate our new quarters. I like to get a spot against one wall or in a corner, so that I can put my barang behind it. It’s wonderful here. We have electric light, water, and even a refrigerator. We don’t need to broom the floor, wash our clothes and sew on buttons any more. We have a baboe who does the laundry and ironing for us and a djongos, who cleans the house. The djongos also makes tea for us. We have to pay our baboe and djongos ourselves: they get 50 cents per day from the twenty of us and they cook meals and serve drinks. A car picks them up in the morning and takes them home in the early afternoon.

It is humid and hot here, and I usually sleep on top of the blanket instead of under it. If there are doors and windows, they are open day and night. It is normal here that when we get up in the morning we put on our sneakers and walk around all day in our thin underwear. I have a nice green one, for 3/4 stitched closed in front, and so we work, sit, row and walk. Easy for the baboe, not a lot of kotor (dirty) clothes.

There are many tjitjaks in our quarters. I can count twenty from where I sit. They are little lizards that walk up and down the walls, catching mosquitoes and other insects, so we leave them alone.

May 23, 1946, Airfield Soerabaja

The bay is wide and clean, we can swim and row to our heart’s content. 20 yards from our quarters are locks where we see hundreds of fish. The boys try to catch some with a net and a fishing pole, but are disappointed in their catch.

Across the bay is enemy territory. About 200 yards from our quarters starts the airport with many large hangars, regular planes and seaplanes. There are also about ten Japanese seaplanes, painted in the colors of the extremists: red and white. But they are not in use.

When we go on patrol we have to be in full combat uniform, gun and ammunition, water bottle and a grenade. Uphill, downhill, sometimes steeper than 45 degrees; through forest and field, always on the alert. That’s hot and exhausting. Sometimes the perspiration runs into my eyes. On top of that, they have made me bren helper. The bren is the heaviest weapon we take along, heavier than the mortar even. I don’t really like carrying that thing. I have never used a bren, but still I have to carry it through enemy territory, set it up every time and lay behind it to shoot if there is enemy fire. I would rather practice with it first. It’s the same with grenades and my gun: I only used it once to shoot a snake.

25 May 1946

We are moving back to Gendong Tambak where everything is still the same. No coolies, no djongos, no pasar shoppers, no traffic except that of the soldiers. Yesterday the camp was under fire, thank goodness without losses. In many places in the forest heavy fire is still going on. The boys don’t trust it and check their weapons before dark, and put their equipment at the ready, including two grenades instead of one, because a fierce fight is likely. Is there a cease-fire or not?


Stay tuned!

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Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 6

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

Monday, April 22, Continued

Now and then shots ring out by enemy snipers, countered right away by our brens. That enemy fire is most likely not aimed at us because we don’t hear bullets hit or whistling by. No one in our group of eight has a radio so we can’t communicate with the others. Calling is out of the question of course because we can’t betray our location to the enemy who may be close. One of us returns, creeping through the vegetation to try and find the group. When he comes back he indicates he has found them and we have to turn around. With one of my comrades I have been hiding behind a tall rock outcrop. Carefully, on hands and knees, we turn back. A marine crawling right in front of me suddenly disappears: he tumbles several yards down into an invisible ditch. Pretty soon he appears again in between the bushes and on we go. To back us up our artillery detonates several grenades and when they hit, some 50 yards behind us, we feel the blast and shrapnel flies over our heads.

We have traveled for several hours already, it is warm and we are exhausted. Other than walking with full combat gear, the constantly being on the alert is tiring as well. We arrive at a road we continue to follow away from our camp. We inspect an abandoned kampong. We kick or hit with bayonets or rifle butts any doors that are closed and jump inside, bayonet aimed straight ahead. Across a bridge we move into another kampong. One of the marines says, “Last week Friday we got this far and one of our comrades was killed.”

Homes are being searched. The Sergeant Major and one of the marines walk in front. About 60 yards ahead of us the road curves. The Major searches the bend in the road with his field glasses and whispers to the marine: “Do you see a machine gun post?” Next to us the soldiers walk in between and into the homes and six of us cautiously proceed along the road. The marine raises his field glasses and suddenly right in front of us enemy machine guns rattle, immediately thereafter followed by fierce enemy gunfire and automatic weapon sounds, left and right, from behind homes and bushes and trees. It takes only a second to drop down and seek cover. Immediately our two foremost brens are set up. One of them empties two magazines on the enemy’s position and silences their machine gun.

I am lying behind the second bren marksman as his helper, behind our foremost men. Several of our soldiers are firing at random in the direction from where they perceive enemy fire is coming. Bullets are flying around us from all directions. Leaves and branches rain down on us. Roof tiles are shot to pieces and tumble down in the narrow street. The Major calls for the mortar to come to the front. The enemy uses the house in front of us for cover and shoots from behind it. Our men throw two grenades over the house, which stops the firing. Several mortar grenades are fired. But although shots continue to be fired close by, I can’t detect an enemy from the ditch in which I am hiding.

In the mean time our artillery starts up again and soon the first grenades hit right in front of us but still at a safe distance. The command “Pull back” is given. We are caught in an enemy ambush and it does not look good. We have to try and get out, and after the artillery starts firing enemy fire slows down. We retreat, crawling, hunched, looking around with intense concentration, especially behind us. Our grenades fly over our heads and explode behind us and when a heavy grenade hits one of the wooden hovels it splatters into pieces like a soap bubble.

From all sides several enemy shots are still fired. But to follow us is almost impossible because of our backup grenades. With extreme precautions we cover the three kilometers back to our base. It is a miracle that none of us got hit, despite the hundreds of shots fired mutually. We can’t determine whether our opponents suffered any losses. I did not fire a single shot. I was planning to shoot if I saw the enemy or could determine his location by the shots fired. But that did not happen. We are very happy to come home alive. The cannons have saved us. In the afternoon we suddenly have to go back 3 kilometers to stand guard at our cannons; 2 x 2 hours at night, our head and hands rubbed with mosquito oil, and 1 x 2 hours during the day. But that is an easier job than our previous ones.
Stay tuned!

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Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 5

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

Sunday, April 21, 1946

At 4:00 in the morning we hear voices whispering: “Get up boys, get up right now and don’t switch on lights.” We get up immediately, go to the kitchen to get oatmeal and tea, and after that we get ready for our first patrol in enemy territory. At 5:00 a.m. we are ready and march in the moonlight in one line as silently as possible across the damaged bridge. Our foremost positions are across both bridges, the damaged bridge and the railroad bridge. Beyond those are the hills where we are not safe. Even where we sleep we are within range of enemy fire but we have had no problems yet. In heavily armored platoons we move on. Just across the bridge we notice some abandoned homes and several damaged ones. This is the terrain where we can meet with enemy resistance at any moment.

Our patrol consists of about 60 men, among whom several marines who have patrolled here before and several native soldiers who know the tropics and the sounds of the jungle: they are a great help for us inexperienced soldiers. Watching and listening intently we slowly and silently march forward on the berm along the road. On the corner of a side street posts are stationed until all the platoons have passed that street, to prevent unpleasant surprises by the enemy. On both sides the terrain is densely covered by grass, bushes and trees. We only have occasional limited visibility on the sides in the bright moonlight.

Suddenly, about four hundred yards up ahead and thirty yards to the left, we hear a crowing sound, like a young rooster that tries to crow for the first time. Could that be one of the secret signs of our opponents? We have been told that the enemy sends signals to each other by whistling, knocking and animal sounds. But…the ones-in-the-know don’t pay attention so we are not worried.

Slowly the sky is lightening. We deviate from the road onto a jungle path. Strange bird sounds surround us; whistling, chirping, screeching, cooing, or whatever you’d call them: to us unknown sounds by unknown birds. We only recognize swallows and the dozens of little doves like the ones we have back home. It is wonderfully peaceful and quiet in jungle and field. But we can’t enjoy the beauty that surrounds us. We have to be on guard at all times because the enemy can be expected from all sides. We march up, and down, along a flat area and uphill again, crossing a dry stream bed, on and on. We stop every so often to give the scouts the opportunity to investigate the terrain with their field glasses. Only a few whispered words are exchanged. Orders are given by hand signals. Because of the winding paths only a few of our comrades are visible at any time.

Our jackets are getting soaked with sweat. We leave the path and dive into the wilderness through alang-alang, bushes, and underneath tall bamboo clusters. Those clusters vary from 10 to 50 and have sharp thorns at the bottom that rip into our helmets. Listening intently we slowly approach a kampong. Several burnt houses, and the others stand empty. No native and no enemy in sight.

We move on, straight through the jungle, then following a dry creek bed, across rocks, along a steep abyss. Rocks are everywhere on the paths, in the fields and in the jungle. A dry stream bed often resembles a rocky path. We search and and pass several other abandoned kampongs. It’s stop and go because the scouts up front have to check out the terrain ahead. We end up at the paved road again. We position a bren pointing backwards and continue in the direction of our barracks.

The artillery gets the order to provide shellfire to back us and deter possible invisible pursuers. Presently we hear gunshots and grenades whoosh over our heads and hit the area behind us. Wirelessly we signal to the camp that we are on our way back, in order to prevent them from shooting at us as perceived extremists. We arrive in camp at 10:30 and have mandatory rest until noon. We march out again at 3 and return at 5 without having encountered the enemy. Easter Sunday has come and gone.

Monday, April 22, 1946

Last night, while most of us were already underneath their klamboes, the Sergeant Major came in and said, “Boys, in case we have to withdraw at night, do not leave any weapons and ammunition behind. Everything else has second priority. The foremost posts are just 300 yards away.” We do not sleep well at all. Dozing off, we are wondering if we can expect an attack. We have our loaded weapons at the ready. Suddenly, gunshots awake me: enemy gunshots. They are immediately returned by one of our heavy machine guns and a bren. More shots are fired back and forth, but the quiet returns.

At 3:15 a.m. we hear again the whispered order: “Get up!” With the crescent moon high in the night sky we get going again and at dawn we have already penetrated several kilometers into enemy territory; just like last time, uphill, downhill, into and out of the jungle. I am among the first ones crossing a Chinese cemetery, when suddenly, close by, several shots are fired. Immediately we duck. A little later, quickly, we move forward a little ways. But unexpectedly, one of us can’t keep up. He does not know what way to go and so here we are, with 8 men out in front, cut off from the platoon.

Stay tuned!

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Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 4

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

Soerabaja, April 6, 1946

We are living in barracks several kilometres outside of town. The whole area is deserted, all homes stand empty. They have been gutted and often damaged in the process. We are getting used to our environment. Good buildings, good food, we can’t complain about the work. We have to dig, fill sand bags and chop alang alang, three feet tall, tough grass which we chop just like we chopped reed in Holland: grab a bunch with one hand and chop it off with the klewang (a single-edged longsword).
Day before yesterday four of us had to patrol the main road for an hour. Chinese and natives are very friendly and courteous. When you say “Berenti” (stop) they take off their hats, smile and show their papers. Yesterday we went to Soerabaja for a nasty job; we unexpectedly returned with a prisoner. There is no time to go to church today. I have to work till 11:00 a.m. and after that it is too late to go to town.

Soerabaja, April 11, 1946

Yesterday I had to stand guard with three others for 24 hours, which is all right during the day, but no fun during the night. We have to report at 6:00 p.m. and stand guard, without a pause, without a change, until 6:30 a.m. We are not allowed to talk, smoke, cough, walk, only whisper softly if it is absolutely necessary, and we have to pay attention, look out and listen intently. Once we hear three shots in the distance, but those are the Gurkhas’ (of the British army). One trap floor burns down, but that’s all.

Soerabaja, April 12, 1946

We are moving again! We arrive in another barracks, in Soerabaja; a large, beautiful building, that has been vacated by the British yesterday. What a mess they left behind! We first have to broom and scrub our quarters, then furnish it: closets in place, desks in front of the windows. Everyone finds a bed, but I am last and all the beds are gone. Lucky me: I find a double kapok mattress which nobody wants because it has a large tear in it. No problem.


It takes me a few hours of sewing to fix it. I have already picked a nice private spot and a bed frame: a large standing hat-and-coat stand put flat, upside down on the floor with a drawer underneath on one end for support. Mattress on top and there’s my perfect bed! A tempat tidoer like I have not had in three months. Add the klamboe (mosquito netting) over it and I am all set.


Soerabaja, April 13, 1946

Ahh! I haven’t slept as well in weeks! No pain or stiffness because of the hard floor or planks. We always sleep on top of our blanket, naked, except for thin underpants. The food is good and we are being kept busy. I find a “bikin gigi” (dentist) in town after I lost a filling in a molar. The first one I find is not interested. The second one says “Filling no good, I will make crown, nice, gold crown”. After bargaining back and forth in broken English, I pay ten guilders, he takes a mold of my molar and tells me “You come back Saturday.”

Soerabaja, April 14, 1946

Today, for the first time after the beginning of the year, I attend a church service that is not only for oldiers. But the people attending are mostly soldiers anyway because few members of the congregation have returned to their homes yet. Walking home after church an Indo woman invites us in for a cup of coffee after we have investigated a shooting behind her house. The walk home takes us an hour and a half instead of just a half hour because we don’t know the way.

Soerabaja, April 19, 1946

Last night we were told that we have to get ready today, Good Friday, to leave. We have to do laundry and sorting, because we can only take a few things: two uniforms, toiletries, underwear, spoon, fork and knife, and most importantly, our weapons and ammunition. Gone are my wonderful mattress, my wonderful bed, our light and airy room.

Because I am last in line, only large uniforms remain and I hurry to find a toekang djait (tailor) to have two pants shortened and hemmed – they will be ready in the afternoon.
Just before 9 a.m. they announce that we can take a ride to church; Quickly I put on my jacket, grab my bible and revolver and am just in time for the ride in the pouring rain. After church I go back to the bikin gigi, although it is a day early, and after some drilling, adding a little cement, some pounding and doing some filing my tooth is fixed. I don’t have a lot of faith in his work, but for now the tooth is ok. Things at a bikin gigi here are quite different than at a Dutch dentist. The door is always open. The front room is waiting room, consulting room, family sitting room and playroom for his four young children. In the window hangs a display of gold-crowned dentures and dental tools. A large sign outside shows his name and Bikin Gigi. He has no office hours; you can walk in any time, and since there is no bell, if there is nobody in the room you just call. The wife then comes out and when she sees a white person she points at her mouth, and when you nod yes she calls her husband.

The final night in our beautiful barracks has passed. After a half hour’s drive we arrive in our new place. With ten of us (a platoon) we get one hut, without doors, without a back wall, without a floor; the wind can blow through it from all sides. But the roof is solid and the many geckos are our mosquito catchers. The rats only show up at night but they don’t bite although they are very noisy. In the afternoon we get good camp beds and have time to get organized. Our compound is surrounded by deserted, muddy sawahs, separated by small dykes. We are close to the coast and close to a kali (river). That is our border: we are not allowed to go beyond the kali across the two damaged bridges that are still passable. We bed down for a short night before entering enemy territory.


Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments