Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 15

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

Gendong Tambak, 10 October 1946

Yesterday a pretty large patrol went out. We had no casualties of our own but made nine hostages and gained five rifles and one bren (possibly bought for a low price from the British). The enemy suffered at least eight deaths. Today, we are taking three of the hostages back. Apparently they are not extremists but regular natives. We lead them across the bridge, blindfolded. I have to hold one of them by the hand across the narrow temporary bridge so that he won’t fall into the water. I reassure him: “Baik djalan, poelang, anti roemah.” (You are doing very well, you’re going home, you will be home later). On the other side of the bridge their blindfolds are removed and they can return to their homes. They are very happy: “Terima kasih toean, tabeh toean. Ja baik, selamat djalan poelang, tabeh.” (Thank you sir, good bye sir. I will be all right going home, bye!).

I am going to catch some crabs. The natives always catch those to eat or sell. They are as large as a fist with eight legs and two tongs and are considered a delicacy, tasting like shrimp. I think I will sell my catch and stick to regular fish to eat.

Benowo, 18 November 1946

There was not much to write about recently, and we have been in Benowo for two weeks already. When we got here the regular young camp visitors welcomed us. “Toean Nain, toean Nain!” They call me Toean Nain, Nain’s boss, because my djongos (boy servant) is always with me when I am here. Sure enough, Nain is there and immediately helps me carry my barang (luggage). And again, like before, he comes three times every day. In my room, a room without windows because plenty of light and air are coming through the roof and walls, he has spread out two large bags, which serve as his table, chair and bed. He sits on them while he eats out of his can, with his hands of course, like all the natives do, without fork and spoon. Afterwards, he washes his hands or wipes them on his shorts, and that’s it.

Last week we had the first rain. Not much, but it is a beginning. We are now in between the dry and the wet monsoon; it’s very much like summer in the Netherlands. Sometimes sun all day, sometimes overcast, and often clouds. One day I decide to go for a walk. I first take the bike, then station it in a kampong against a wall and continue on foot. We don’t have to be afraid that a bike will be stolen in a kampong.

Somewhere people are sowing padi (rice). A man makes small holes, just like when we plant potatoes, only closer together. A woman and four children first sprinkle a handful of ashes in the holes and then a few grains of rice. I say to the man that we do this differently in the Netherlands. “You can take a bowl of padi in one hand and then scatter handfuls with the other hand in a broad sweeping motion. That goes much faster!” But he says, “tidak baik, itoe baik.” (that’s not good, this is good).

A little further a boy is cutting bamboo. Bamboo grows in clumps, and the lower, thick trunks are full of thorns. He can’t get the last one cut because it gets caught in the other thorns and so I walk over to help him. He tells me that there’s rain coming, and I should go home. But I say, “Tidak takoet hoedjan” (I am not afraid of rain) and continue on my way.

But the rain storm comes and the dense tree under which I take shelter soon is no use anymore and for the first time since Malaya I get really, really wet. The locals working in the field continue their work as if it is not raining. They don’t really care. It is never cold, and when it stops raining they just wring out their shorts and put them on again. Their shoes don’t get full of rain or mud either, because they are not wearing any. But I have difficulty walking, with large clumps of mud sticking to my shoes. After twenty minutes I arrive at my bike and think my worries are over. But it is only the beginning. After ten yards the wheels of the bike are stuck, full of clay, and trying to clean them does not work. They can’t turn anymore! The only thing to do is carry the bike and walk home on my soppy, muddy shoes. When I get home, I don’t know if I am wet with sweat or with rainwater!

24 November 1946

“Pindah kapan toean?” (When are you moving again sir?) the djongos asks. “Hari senen, Nain.” (On Monday, Nain). We have been here for three weeks already, quite a long time. I haven’t seen our section for two weeks. We’re planing three weeks in Gendong Tambak, then three weeks in town. That will be nice, in town for Christmas and New Year’s. But when will all this end? Will the inciting radio addresses by Sitomo and others go on and on for much longer? Do the thousands of natives who perished on the Island of Madoera (an island across the strait of Madoera from Soerabaja with a population of two and a half million) have to become tens of thousands? I have talked to some of them who came swimming from Madoera to Soerabaja with the help of a bamboo pole. Despite the danger of the many sharks, they risked their lives and swam across. “Kapan disini?” (why do you come here?) I asked. “Di Madoera makanan tida ada.” (There is no food on Madoera).

The soldiers here are usually not busy. Of course there are always those who have regular work, like drivers, cooks, medics and so on. The medics are much busier treating the natives than the soldiers. Every single day many natives come with sakit kaki (tropical ulcers on their legs), sakit mata (eye sores), sakit panas (fevers) and so on. Even the section of mortar soldiers stationed here, not going on patrol, is not busy. The captain calls me and says, “Vermeulen, you need to make a model camp bed of bamboo. You can get canvas from the quartermaster. Tomorrow morning that model has to go with us for size when we go to several kampongs to get enough bamboo poles for 120 camp beds. The stretchers we have now have to be turned in and every soldier has to make a camp bed for himself.” And so for the next two to three days everybody is busy making beds. It is pretty simple. Two long bamboo sticks and two short ones, the 4 bamboos stuck through the hem of the canvas, and with everything having the right size the canvas is taut. We put the long ends that are sticking out on either side on top of two crates and voilà, the bed is ready. I must say it sleeps well, although it is not a kapok mattress.

Stay tuned!

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