Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 20

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

Lawang, 28 April 1948

We have moved again. On April 14 we moved from Wonomoeljo to Lawang, a distance of about 15 kilometers. We were in Lawang last year for a day and a half en route to Malang. Lawang lies at a high elevation surrounded by hills and mountains. Last week we could see Bromo Volcano spewing smoke. Bromo is about fifty kilometers from here, but enormous, dense smoke clouds rose up from the crater. Now they have subsided again somewhat. It is cool here, cooler than in Malang. We are stationed in regular homes – our whole battalion is here. Last year our battalion was together for one week, when we marched to Malang. Now the boys are discussing amongst each other that we are here because we will go to Soerabaja to board a ship in a few months. Of the 800 men our battalion counted originally about 500 remain. Some men have died, some were disqualified and sent back to the Netherlands and some were transferred to another post. In the beginning very few were transferred, but now many are allowed to transfer. They move to the M.L.D., the Military Air Force, the Marines and other national agencies, where they re-enlist.

Lawang, 12 May 1948

Our Company Commander went to Batavia to discuss our demobilization. When he came back he didn’t tell us when we would leave, but he did say where we will embark. First we will go from Soerabaja to Batavia. There we’ll stay for several days for administrative purposes and from Batavia we will sail home. We have to take into consideration that there will be very little space on the ship, many of us will have to sleep closely together. All tropical uniforms have to be handed in, we can only keep our underwear and one pair of shoes. Our luggage will be limited to one suitcase, a kitbag and 3 cubic feet of other luggage. That seems rather a lot, most of us will take less than 3 cubic feet of stuff back home with them.

The commander forewarned us to tell friends and relatives not to come to the harbor in Rotterdam or Amsterdam because they will not be admitted. Upon arrival the soldiers will first complete all formalities, then they will receive some money and a brown bag lunch and then they will be taken to the front door of their homes by busses. Whether they will arrive by day or by night, everything will proceed as planned – in a harbor life does not stop. For us it will take at least a few more months.

On May 21 we were invited to go and revisit the places where we had been stationed in 1946 and 1947. We left, carrying only a gun, in a jeep and a large truck, first to Soerabaja, and from there in between the tambaks (fish ponds) to our former post Gendong Tambak, where we were stationed for many months. Right now it is not occupied any more and there is only a post of the N.P. , the National Police. The natives have moved back into the remaining homes again, but there are fewer  than half of the original number. The destroyed part of the traffic bridge has been repaired temporarily and they are in the process of fixing the railway bridge. The tambaks have been partially fixed. The whole town makes an impoverished impression.

After half an hour we continue along an inner road in the direction of Grissee. It is strange to drive in a car on a road we walked all the time for about a year, always alert with our gun at the ready. Through familiar kampongs we drive. Many homes lie in ruins, there is rubble everywhere and the road is in bad need of repair. We talk about our memories: “Remember how hard we fought here?”
“Remember how we chased them away here?”
“Remember how we sneaked away while they kept shooting?”

We drive to the harbor, through the quiet old town and stop briefly at a Javanese cemetery. More than a hundred men are buried there. Small plates indicate the name, date of birth and place of origin of the victim. Fifteen such plates indicate the year 1946, attesting to the heavy battles that were fought there. After that we visit a Javanese place of pilgrimage, home of the holy grave of a holy man who was buried there 1300 years ago. A stone stairway of over a hundred yards leads to the top of a hill with mosques and other holy buildings. The holy grave is in a holy building for which we have to take off our shoes to enter. Through a narrow, low gate we enter, and through another small, low gate we enter the separate area where the grave is; only two people are allowed to enter at the same time. A priest hands each one of us a flower from a bowl of flowers, which we may put on the grave. Facing the grave, bent over, we exit the building backwards and put our shoes back on when we are outside.

We also visit the silversmiths, where you can purchase all kinds of handmade silver items, but at a very high price. On we go on our pilgrimage, and we take a break in Tjermee, one of our old posts. From there to Moro and Bringkang to Soerabaja, where we are allowed two hours on our own. At 5:00 p.m. we leave again for Malang. We all had a great day, visiting the old familiar places.

Soekoredjo, 21 June 1948

I’m packing for my week’s furlough in Soerabaja. I miss the 6:00 a.m. ride to Grissee but am lucky to catch a ride straight through to Soerabaja on a passing truck, after only a ten minutes’ wait. I am going to visit many old friends, Javanese, Chinese, and four friends from Renswoude. I even plan to go to Gendong Tambak on my bike. Soerabaja has changed a lot since I was there a year ago. It is much more crowded with a population influx of 1000 per year. There aren’t enough homes and no new homes have been built yet. The kampongs in the city are inhabited by natives, the Chinese live in Chinese districts, and many rich Chinese live in European districts. As in all big cities you find areas of the most dire poverty next to those of the greatest affluence. At the edge of town is a used car dump. About 20 to 25 of those car wrecks are actually lived in. The roofs are closed with old scrap metal, car doors, hoods and so on, and they don’t worry about rain, because it won’t rain for a while. Most of the folks who live there are beggars. Recently a few hundred have been rounded up and taken to a camp.

Kaliredjo, 5 July 1948

Last week our Company celebrated Prince Bernhard’s birthday with a banquet. We had a fun day with lots of delicious food, games, races, prizes and other fun things. Rumors are that our demobilization is being discussed in Batavia. In the mean time I have started negotiations with a housing agency to see if I can get a job there. There are many obstacles though. The language, the customs, the situations, the work routine and so on. But obstacles are there to overcome! If I get a job I hope it will be in Malang, where it is cooler than in Soerabaja.

Lawang, 9 August, 1948

And suddenly, the day is here! We have to get up at 4:00, hand in our camp bed, eat, and leave for the station at 7:00. The train leaves at 8:00, at 11 o’clock we are on board the Waterman, and at 12:00 we are leaving!

They call this a troop ship. Life on board is a mixed blessing. The food is alright, and the Dutch potatoes taste delicious. Drinking water is okay too, although you have to walk a distance to get it. Taking baths with seawater is bad. Sleeping in a hold without a single port hole and rows of tall bunkbeds up to five beds high, with narrow passageways in between is the pits; fresh air has to be blown in artificially. On deck it is always crowded and after three days, in Batavia, they added another six to seven hundred men. Life on board does not appeal to me.

On August 12 we disembark at Tandjong Priok (the harbor of Batavia) and drive immediately to Batavia where all demobilized men in large barracks are awaiting the departure of their ship to the Netherlands. I have to get registered, borrow a bed and a klamboe, and the next day the rigmarole begins. From the Administration Office to the Office of Social Services I go; from the Immigration Office to the Inspection Service to the Welfare Office and so on. And some of those places are far apart, so it takes time to go from the one to the other. But finally, it is all done and behind us. We are demobilized and transformed back to Dutch citizens. I immediately arrange for a flight back to Soerabaja to start my new job.

Soerabaja, 20 March 1949

For six months I worked for the Housing Office in Soerabaja as a citizen. At the end of the six months my boss said, “You’d better go back to Holland, Gerrit, because I think that in the long run there is no future here for a belanda (white person) and over there I’m sure you can get a job right away.” Hmm. I have to think about that – about my future.

What has changed here? The road from Soerabaja to Malang is still not safe. A few weeks ago, a gang of fifty men attacked the police office in Malang. But the police managed to keep them at bay, although they didn’t have a quiet night. The trains to Malang are constantly under fire. One time, gangs unscrewed part of the rails and took it out, which stopped all train transport for a whole week. Once, a car was attacked, resulting in 7 casualties and 5 injured. How can all these things still be happening? I don’t have a clue. I am going home.

Renswoude, 1 June 1949

We had a good journey from Batavia to Rotterdam. We were taken home by bus and were greeted by relatives and friends with a wonderful welcome. I served in the military on Java for three years to restore order and peace. Did we reach that goal? No, far from it. The army would have been able to do that easily. But with the political attitude of the wishy-washy Dutch Government it proved to be impossible. In addition, they let themselves be influenced too much by the British and Americans. The majority of the natives in the Dutch East Indies had expected and was hoping that the Dutch Government, the Authority, would restore order and peace. That would also have restored prosperity for them. But because of the influence of the communistic parties it did not work. I could have spent these three years better than in the service of my country.

So here I am, back to work in Renswoude.

Gerrit Vermeulen

Stay tuned for Gerrit’s Vermeulen’s Bio!

I welcome your comments




Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 19

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

Malang, 25 November 1947

It has been a few weeks since I wrote any letters. Nothing much has happened since the last time. Our demobilization has been deferred due to unforeseen circumstances. Without too much political friction it will be close to the end of 1948 before we can return to the Netherlands. Oh well, it’s nice here. It is never very cold here in Malang and the water in the kali (river) is always warm enough for swimming.

Yesterday, I visited a Javanese man. “Toean maoe tinggal di sini?” (Would you like to stay here, sir?) “Maoe.” (Yes, I would). “Kawin nonni Djawa, senang sama sama.” (Marry a Javanese girl, be happy and contented together). That is typical of the Javanese. They wish everybody love and prosperity.

Nadjopoero, 10 December 1947

Two days ago we moved again, farther and farther away from town. The homes here are of a much better quality than in Malang: good brick homes and no mud. We are on an outpost. Every morning the access road gets “swept”, checking to see if any mines were deposited during the night. We assume that the enemy is hiding in an ambush close by, to take any outgoing patrol of ours by surprise. We are not allowed to go outside the camp because the situation is still dangerous.

There are three guard posts, and the guards are taking it easy, reading some, smoking or writing. The most dangerous things that can happen to a soldier here is boredom. Let me state up front that it does not affect me. I read, I write, I take walks, I visit Dutch, Javanese or Chinese friends, I do some exercise, I swim, I play table tennis, volleyball or something else. But there are men who don’t like to read, who hardly ever get a letter, nor write one; who don’t walk unless accompanied by someone else; who don’t like to play games or exercise; who don’t care about pasars (open air markets) after they have seen one, because they think they are all the same; who don’t consider the Javanese equals they can talk to; who don’t want anything to do with the Chinese “bloodsuckers”. If those soldiers are off duty they are bored, day after day and because they often lie on their beds during the day for hours, they can’t sleep at night. Those men grumble all the time and can get into trouble like intoxication and such. Some officers try to encourage their men in their free time to engage in sports or watching movies, but many of them do not care about their men after the day is done.

Boering, 17 January 1948

We are moving again, once every week. This post is close to a bridge. Right after arriving at a new destination we are always busy. We build scaffolding, flatten the terrain, install barbed wire and so on. True, most of the work is done by koelies, (coolies) but we have to help too. We heard over the radio that they are talking about yet another ceasefire.

Five days after this new ceasefire the enemy did another surprise attack on one of the cars of our battalion. Like every morning, a truck from the post went to town (Malang) with about fifteen men, soldiers who had to go to the doctor and several armed men. Suddenly they were attacked on both sides. The truck stopped abruptly and the soldiers were catapulted forward. The enemy threw two grenades and one guy jumped behind the truck and started shooting at the mass of floundering soldiers. One of our men pulled his revolver and the attacker fled. Leaving the truck in the front, over the cabin, they saw they were surrounded by about one hundred extremists. It did not look good.

One soldier who had a gun was disarmed and they wanted to take him prisoner. But he managed to grab the weapon of one of his opponents and keep them at a distance. Yet it seemed that nobody would be able to escape because the situation with one hundred armed men against fifteen, mostly unarmed men was risky. Amazingly however, they were saved. Coincidentally, one of our patrols was in the area close by. They heard the shooting and hurried over. They managed to chase the enemy away with several losses. Our men suffered one heavy and four light casualties. This is ceasefire!

Boering, 6 February 1948

Another ceasefire has been announced. Does that mean that there will be peace? Right after the announcement we were given orders: increase your watchfulness; do not leave the post unarmed and at night do not go into town unless armed and together with others.

The remaining Republican troops in East Java are being moved back to Central Java. They are escorted to their own “territory” with their weapons and full gear, across occupied terrain. Between Dutch and Republican territories is now a “demilitarized” zone, which is taboo for both armies. So if both parties stick to this arrangement there will be no more fighting. Will it work? In my opinion quite a few bullets will fly back and forth before the first battalion of the twelfth infantry regiment will board ship in Batavia.

Wonomoeljo, 11 March 1948

Another move, this time to a very small village about 20 kilometers past Toempang. It is in the “demilitarized” zone, the zone that is forbidden for Dutch and Republican soldiers. How come, you might ask, that you areallowed there? Well, those agreements are ridiculous, really. We are now not soldiers anymore but we’re called policemen, and policemen are allowed in the prohibited zone. We all wear a yellow band on our sleeve with the letters S.P., which stand for Safety Police. We are to wear those bands at all times when we are outside. Yesterday a member of the service committee came to check if we were not violating the order.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments


Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 18

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

Bringkang, 7 july 1947

We arrived here in Bringkang in April. We went on one heavy patrol together with another patrol of 50 men. They suffered one casualty. He was buried in Soerabaja yesterday with military honors.

The ceasefire, as well as continued shootings and negotiations in Batavia, continue. It seems that Soekarno could talk better with the Japanese than with the Dutch.

Mengantie, 22 July 1947

We are moving about once every week now. Yesterday I awoke at the drone of airplanes, something that happens seldom here. The commander announced that the Dutch had occupied republican buildings in Batavia. Furthermore he said that from now on the Government of the Dutch East Indies will be responsible for the peace, order and safety on Java and Sumatra. Which means that the Dutch army has to move to the interior to restore and keep the peace and safety. So what was more and more expected has now become a reality: the new republic in its current form can not be maintained. Big changes are imminent.

We have to stand guard every single night here. On top of that we have to go on patrol often, anywhere from 15 to 25 kilometers. If that would be on a straight road it would be okay, and if they would be held during the day that would be all right too. But often we leave at 2:00 a.m. to go into the hills and on narrow, wet clay trails in the dark. Try to remain standing when you lift your foot up high to climb up a step and you slide down three feet in the mud! We are lucky we don’t often hit enemy fire. But we often have to lay in ambush for two to four hours, in wet grass, in fields or in the jungle. When you then think that the negotiations between Soekarno and the Dutch go on an on, delaying our demobilization another six months, you can imagine that instead of order there is unrest on the frontline. Yet, I imagine that a lot will have changed for the better before the next New Year, the year 1949.

Malang, 15 August 1947

It’s getting boring already after two weeks in Malang. We have to stand guard, often go on patrol during the day, and once heard shooting with automatic weapons coming from a small dessa. We went to take a look. Men, women and children were hunkered down in the hiding places that have been dug next to many of the homes. We didn’t find anything – the shooters had fled to the hilly sawah terrain, right into the arms of another patrol. Two men died and four surrendered with their weapons, which included one machine gun.

Malang, 17 August 1947

Today the “Repoeblik” celebrates the second anniversary of the Sovereign State of Indonesia with Soekarno as its leader. Because of possible riots in town or attacks from out of town we have to stay on our posts and are not allowed to go anywhere. I have to stand guard from 12 to 2 a.m. Around 1 a.m., nearby, we hear shots being fired from guns and automatic weapons. The shooting increases, so we send out light signals and establish radio contact. Red alert is announced, we ready the mortars for firing and occupy all positions.

Through the radio we hear that a post next to us is being attacked. They ask for mortar fire. In the mean time, about 2 kilometers from us on the other side, a fight erupted as well, a seemingly heavier attack. Both mortars give rapid fire, one after another. Sometimes ten grenades are in the air at the same time. Our post, however, is not attacked.

After an hour the shooting gets less and around 3:30 we only hear a shot here and there at a greater distance and we are dismissed with the exception of the guards. It is barely light when the shooting starts again at about 3 kilometers distance, and that takes till noon. We had no casualties. The attackers came as close as 75 feet from the nearest post.

We are still in a ceasefire.

Malang, 20 August 1947

Ceasefire here is problematic. Traffic from Malang to Soerabaja has to go in a convoy in one day, so that they can assist each other in case of possible attacks. Yesterday one car with marines, driving without a convoy, was attacked, resulting in one casualty, two injured and a severely damaged car. One convoy on its way to Malang came to a complete stop at a destroyed bridge. Today the whole city is without water. They destroyed the water main and we are not allowed to do anything because of the ceasefire.

The T.R.I. soldiers (Tentara (army) Repoeblik Indonesia) are like flies on your bread. When you wave your hand over it they are gone, but keep your hand still and they are right back. When we go on patrol during the day there is not a single T.R.I. soldier in sight, but at night they are shooting all around the city. We can’t get back at them because of the ceasefire.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments


Bersiap: the Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 17

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

Tjermee, March 1947

While we were first told we would stay in town for two weeks, now we are moving after one week already. Not to Benowo or Gendong Tambak, but to Tjermee. The road to Tjermee, which is about 20 kilometers from Soerabaja, is so bad that most transports are done by train, and we will be taking the train as well. It will be a nice change after Benowo, Gendong Tambak and Soerabaja all the time. Tjermee is quite a large kampong with a pasar (open air market). There are five or six weaving  and dying mills, where hundreds of people used to work. Now everything has collapsed and all engines from the machines have disappeared.

Don’t imagine these are like the Dutch mills, though. There are no brick walls, the floors are usually clay, the inner walls chicken wire. The light enters through glass roof tiles in between wooden bars. Men and women used to come from near and far to work here when the pabrik (factories) were still operating. In many homes in the kampong women now weave with primitive looms, sitting on the floor.

One day, on a walk, I see a whole row of women planting bibit (young rice plants). Of course I want to take a close-up look. I take off my shoes and socks to keep them dry, and go stand among the women, planting bibit. I don’t think they ever saw this before, because roaring with laughter they call me toean tani (Javanese gentleman farmer). I have some sourballs with me that I hand out to everyone, and of course I have to take a picture. Don’t think that you get cold feet standing calf-deep in the water, because the water is not cold. The planting is easy: you push the little plant in the mud and that’s it. But I don’t feel like joining the men, who pull the young rice plants apart, squatting in the water and muddy clay. I don’t feel like getting my butt muddy and wet.

We don’t have a single patrol while in Tjermee. Even though it is close to the front line, it is pretty quiet. Once we threw a grenade and eliminated an enemy patrol of six men; two dead, two injured and two taken prisoner, plus a loot of three rifles, one mortar, one machine gun and one pistol.

After our short stay at Tjermee we return by train to Gendong Tambak.

Gendong Tambak, March 1947

I arrange my barang (luggage) in my house and get on my bike, curious about my evacuees in the kampong, ten minutes away. They are still all there, except a few who have left for the city to work as baboes, and one very old woman, already sick when I left, who has died. One man has a terrible wound on his foot that has been taken care of by the Medic, but when I come back a few days later he keeps moaning and feels worse, and he passes away the next afternoon. I go to the dessa police to tell them that he had to be buried, but several of the evacuees are not home and people from the neighboring kampong do not feel like doing it.
When I come back the next morning it was done. When the evacuees had come home, five of them buried the man by the light of the moon. Good thing. Because keeping a dead body in a house where 25 people are living close together is not very desirable.

Five people from the kampong always share with the evacuees in the house when I bring food. One blind man, one almost blind, one without a nose and upper lip and two children, a boy and a girl of 5-6 years old. These kids are so skinny and so very hungry. The little boy always checks if there are any crumbs left in the basket after I have handed out the bread. He wipes the crumbs on the floor together and put them in his mouth, dirt and all.

Once I ask the police about the situation and they tell me that on average one to two people die per day on a total number of 900. Under normal circumstances people in the kampong could earn their living, ikan dan nasi (fish and rice), but because of the disruption of the war poverty and hunger are the norm.

When I am in Gendong Tambak, Samila is always my baboe. She also does a little sewing and darns my socks. When I ask what she wants for it she always says, “Roti, Toean.”(Bread, Sir). Once, after I had taken bread to the evacuees in the house and sat down to talk to Samila and her brother, a woman from the kampong appeared, the wife of one of the policemen. She said, “Tabeh toean; toean beloem kawin, Samila nonni Toean, bisa baik, Samila nonni bagoes.” Meaning “Good morning, sir, you are not yet married, so Samila can be your girl, she is a sweet girl.” Upon which I said, “Tida baik, saja orang belanda , dan Samila orang Djawa; saja tida bisa bahasa Djawa dan Samila tida bisa bahasa belanda. Tida baik, soesah banjak.” Meaning “No, that is not possible. I am Dutch and Semila is Javanese. Samila does not speak Dutch and I do not speak Javanese. That is not good, and it will create a lot of problems.” The wife of the policeman did not readily agree, but I said. “Samila maoe laki Djawa dan saja maoe nonni belanda.” (Samila wants a Javanese man and I want a Dutch wife.”)

A week later, finding the evacuees safe but still very hungry, I tell Samila that she should go to town to work as a baboe. I give her some money to buy new clothes, because she is still wearing an old shirt of mine. Then she has to get a soerat, an identity card, so that she can work in the city, and she needs to sign with her thumb print, because she can’t write her name.

I don’t know what happened after that. If she has found work I will probably never see her again.

Gendong Tambak, 22 March 1947

On March 17, at day break, we started an action that lasted until noon on the 18th. We encountered fierce opposition from the best troops of the “Repoeblik“. Sadly, it cost the lives of eleven of our men. Another eleven who will not return to their fatherland – another eleven families in mourning over one of their loved ones. I am starting to think like so many others: I feel the death of our eleven men as a terrible loss but the hundreds of dead on the other side as normal. Yet those, too, are men that would rather be alive and rejoin their families.

Among the extremists there are those who think they are serving their homeland by fighting the Dutch regime, but there are also those who join “just for fun”, because many of them are egged on and incited by some of the extremists.

This will possibly be our final stay in Gendong Tambak and we’ll be heading for a newly occupied area near Modjokerto.

We are still honoring a ceasefire.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments