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.
Stay tuned for Gerrit’s Vermeulen’s Bio!
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