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!

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