When the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 I was fifteen years old and lived with my family, consisting of my mother, father and brother Ivan, in Surabaya on the island of Java, in the former Dutch East Indies – now Indonesia. Surabaya was the Dutch naval base, and consequently, became a target for Japanese air raids. They started in early February 1942, and the first one, aimed directly at the heart of the city, caused many deaths and a lot of damage.
By this time there were air raid shelters built in most private backyards and also in public places, and soon, with sirens wailing often twice a day, we were spending more time in the shelters than anywhere else. It was an anxious time, spent listening to the hum of the bombers, the whistle and thud of falling bombs, and wondering whether we were going to survive yet another day. School was suspended and soon all outdoor activity, such as swimming, playing tennis, etc. ceased.
Halfway through February came the shocking news that Singapore had fallen, and my mother urged my father to pack up and leave. But he could not be persuaded. Broadcasts remained optimistic – to boost morale – even when the Japanese marched through Sumatra, beating back every resistance, and then landed on the shores of Java. By then it was too late to flee. Within a matter of days the Japanese Imperial Army came marching into Surabaya.
It was a black day, that 8th of March 1942, in more than one sense. The oil tanks on the southwestern edge of the city were being blown up by the Dutch to prevent the precious fuel from falling into enemy hands. From early morning there was a huge pall of smoke hanging over the city, and against this ominous backdrop we watched the occupying army’s progress through our street. First we saw tanks with the red-on-white flags flying, then trucks and armored cars, then masses of soldiers on foot and on bicycles. They looked triumphant, but we were trembling with apprehension at what was in store for us, whilst peeking through the louvers of our locked front door.Immediately after the occupation we had to register at the Town Hall and obtain identity cards, which we had to carry on us all the time and show on demand. Whenever we met Japanese military personnel in the street, we had to stop and bow deeply. If we were on our bikes, we had to step off, and bow – or risk having our bikes confiscated. Cars, including doctors’, were requisitioned, radios had to be handed in to be sealed, so that only the local stations could be received. Very soon all public servants were rounded up and imprisoned – from the Governor General down to the most junior clerk. This included all male teachers. So school ceased altogether. Some school buildings were used as POW camps, and some continued with native teachers teaching native children. Whenever I passed my old school I could near the kids singing “Asia Raya”, the song of Free Asia, and there were posters everywhere proclaiming “Asia for the Asians”. The Japanese were out to extinguish all European influence in Asia, and establish their own ‘Greater South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ with Japan as supreme leader. It was part of their ideal to establish Japan as the dominant power in our part of the world and to eradicate all white colonialism. To be replaced by Japanese colonialism one presumes!
To be continued…
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Until next time,