Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WW II – Part 8

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

Soerabaja, 12 June 1946

It has been quite a while since I wrote something, but nothing much is happening. So let me tell you about my little “Javanese girl.” We had seen her roaming around, sleeping on a bench in the bus stop, then back on the grounds of the compound. We said to each other, “why don’t we ask her to sleep with us in the waiting room.” We put up a stretcher, add some curtains and other cloths and ask if she wants to sleep there. “Yes,” she says. We guess her to be about 8 – 10 years old. A skinny little girl, she says she has no home, no father, no mother, and happily accepts little treats from the soldiers. She soon finds the kitchen and when I take her to the cook she gets plenty of food, which she devours without fork or spoon. We call her Sarina, after the song (Sarina, the child from the dessa).

We’re packing up and leaving again, but two months later, riding my bike through the other side of town, I see a group of young children with a Catholic nun. And there is our Sarina! She recognizes me too – the nun says her name is Daria. None of us knows where Daria is from, but I am happy that she is in good hands now.

Benowa, 26 June 1946

We’re getting up at 5:45 a.m. At 7:00 the cars for my platoon come by, but they don’t stop! Now what? “Let me take you to the kitchen – we can still catch up” says the cook.
“Toean, sepeda?” (your bike, sir?) asks the djongos.
“Saja, djongos, lekas, lekas”. Yes, quick, quick!
We load everything on top of the kitchen car, and race to the station, where a crazy activity is in full swing. We load sand bags, barbed wire, kitchen stuff and more onto the waiting train, which leaves the station an hour later.

Very slowly, because of the danger of land mines, we go towards our goal. We stop before we get there to give one division of us the opportunity to explore the terrain up ahead. After all, it’s possible that the enemy in large numbers are waiting for us. But all appears to be safe. The train pulls up again and then we arrive in Benowa, a dessa (small town, larger than a kampong), about 20 kilometers from Soerabaja.

The first thing we do is set out posts to prevent unexpected enemy attacks. We pile up sand bags for a wall to hide behind. Two officers, a few men and I walk to the kampong that has been vacated for us. All is safe and we split up among the houses: I choose one together with my two best friends and three others. Then we get to work. First of all we dig a deep trench to use as an emergency toilet: quite a job in the dense clay soil. Then we fortify our hut on its most dangerous side. With wood and soil we create a barrier to protect us somewhat from enemy fire when we lay on the floor inside. The terrain in front of us slopes down, so that it will be more difficult to hit us from below. The six of us hit the sack early that night.

Benowa, 27 June, 1946

Together with a few others I have to build latrines over a small kali (stream), but we first have to clean out that kali in order for the feces to be flushing down. A dirty job, cleaning that sticky clay kali – our progress is slow. We ask the Kepala Kampong and the Loerah (head of the kampong and the district) for 20 coolies, but none show up, and we struggle on until night. One of us has to go to the hospital for an ulcer on his foot. My two friends reinforce our barricade even more; everyone is busy from morning till night, building barbed wire fences, constructing barriers, standing guard, and so on. The cannons have arrived and are put into place. And then we worry: will there be a nighttime attack? There is no electricity here, so we retire early.

Benowa, 28 June, 1946

Roll call at 5:30; breakfast at 6:00; the sick report in at 6:30 and roll call and start of work at 7:00. Lunch from 12:00 to 1:00; roll call at 5:15, then dinner and end of work. This morning at 7:00 the Kepala Kampong arrives with 20 coolies and a little later the Loerah with 80 more. So now we have 80 coolies! When more show up in the course of the day we send them home: we have enough. These coolies are not lower class men, but regular kampong people, thankful for our arrival and help to fight the extremists. They get fl.1 (one guilder) per day. I get 9 men to help me dig a trench. But it is tough work. At first I can’t get the shovel into the clay, then I can’t get it out, and when it is finally out, the thick clay is stuck to the shovel and I can’t get it off! But now watch how the natives are doing it! There is a little water in the ditch. They dig into the soft spots with their bare hands and throw the clay up on the side. The harder spots are treated with their bare feet, shaped into a ball which they throw up on the side with their hands. If it is harder still they use a patjol, (a kind of hoe) to break up the clay and throw the pieces up on the side. It’s too bad I can’t converse with them: they speak Javanese and I get nowhere with my few words of Malay. Two words they know, however: makan (eat) and minoem (drink). And then two other words: Tabeh Toean (goodbye, sir). When they stop work at 3:00 p.m., a nice part of the ditch is finished. Saluting me in their own way, bowing, they say: “Tabeh Toean” and leave for their homes.

Benowa, 29 June, 1946

Nothing special happens today except for a terrible accident. We are strictly forbidden to shoot here. But twice that day I heard a shot. Then again, around 2:30 I think I hear another shot. ‘Darn! Why do they do that,’ I think. Then one of my two best friends comes running in shouting “The doctor! The doctor! They are shooting with the bren!” He is clasping both hands to his bare chest and both his chest and his hands are full of blood. He is passing me on his way to the doctor and I run along with him. I notice a wound on his back as well and conclude he has been shot through his breast. Thank goodness on the right, not in his heart. Two other men run in with another in between them, wounded in his shoulder.

Another soldier appears, calling, “Get the doctor! He is needed more over there!” ‘More casualties?’ I am thinking, while I run with the doctor to the place of the accident and there, on the floor, lies my other best friend: dead. They lift him onto a gurney and carry him away. When all that is finished, I go to my hut, sit down in the darkest corner and cry my heart out. A soldier, I should be ashamed to cry like that, but I can’t help myself. My best friend is dead; my other best friend, wounded.

However, as a soldier in a combat zone, I must stop thinking about that. So I quickly go back to work. One casualty and two heavily injured men because of someone’s carelessness is truly appalling. The three men that were hit were placing barbed wire near one of the barriers when a burst of fire came out of the barrier because of someone’s carelessness!

Stay tuned!

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