Celebrate Christmas and the End of 2016

Dear readers,

I invite you to take the time to celebrate Christmas and the Beginning of the New Year, as will I.

In January I will continue the letters from Gerrit Vermeulen to his mother in the Netherlands, about the Bersiap, the War for Independence on the Island of Java, which he enlisted for.

So have a Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!


Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 13

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

Benowo, 14 September 1946
, Continued

In between the tambaks (fish ponds) we march, and at daybreak we position ourselves at the far end. From other locations more platoons have advanced in cooperation with us, and 2 to 3 kilometers away we hear the fighting going on already. At the end of the tambaks, in front of us, is an open sawah (rice field), and then the terrain slopes up to expose hundreds of people, shooting at us; bullets fly over and past us. But through the binoculars it appears that most of the people are refugees from the nearby dessa (village). Fleeing to the top of the hill they got caught in the fire and most of them are now returning to their dessa. We advance in a straight line but the closer we get the less the firing. Straight ahead, where we know one of our platoons to be, the firing is fierce, and firing is also continuing with the platoon to our right.

Many fugitives appear, men, women and children; a few of them are carrying some of their possessions. But most of them must have left in a hurry, leaving everything behind. Some mothers are holding a hand in front of the eyes of the child they are carrying. In a kampong where we were last week they told us that the extremists say, “Anak-anak ketjil makanan orang belanda” (white people eat little children). In several dessas little children sometimes scream with fear when they see us.

We stay at this post for a while. In front of us I see something white in a ditch. “What can that be?” I ask one of the boys, “Perhaps a fugitive?” Cautiously I go and take a look in the ditch. Sure thing! About 15 people are crouching down on the dry grass below. Most of them have completely covered their heads with their clothing. A few dare to peek at me through their eyelashes. “Ada Pemoeda?” (are there young rebels?) I ask.
Tida ada toean.” (No sir)
Ada Takoet?” (Are you afraid?)
Saja Toean.” (Yes sir)
No wonder they are afraid with all the shooting going on.

We move back a ways and take a stand in the burning sun for another hour. Another platoon moves across in front of us and disappears in the forest where the fighting has been continuing. Then we move forward again for about one kilometer and position ourselves. The intention is for the extremists to be driven towards us but that does not work this time. Again we move forward for about 2 kilometers and come upon a road. Bullets fly over our heads continuously but our platoon does not fire a single shot. From somewhere a heavy machine gun is participating in the fight. We stop for about an hour at the side of the road while up ahead the fighting continues.

Next, we move back to the main headquarters of this operation, still about 15 kilometers from our base, Benowo. We don’t have to cover that distance on foot; for the first 6 kilometers we go in cars and the rest in a train. We arrive home around five p.m. This operation did not have the success according to the setup and expectations. We had marched out with several hundred men, a lot of shooting had taken place, but we ended up with only a few prisoners and loot. On our side only one man was shot in his foot.

Benowo, 18 September 1946

We are having a few quiet days in camp. We all go to the doctor for a medical checkup and get a shot in the arm against cholera and typhoid. It does not hurt, but the arm is a little red and swollen and sensitive for a few days, and we feel a little under the weather. But after lunch on the second day I feel fine again. They say that negotiations are taking place and there is a ceasefire right now. Although I don’t have much faith in those negotiations, I do hope that they will lead to an acceptable agreement.

Benowo, 21 September 1946

It has been a week since the cannons were blasting here, but this morning they are at it again, blowing tens of grenades into the air. If any of you is interested in one of those large, copper shells, let me know and I will send them to you – at your expense of course. There are hundreds of them all around on the ground for the taking.

I went on a couple of short patrols, had guard duty once, but most of all I have been busy tying knots for a large fishnet. A lady from Ambon that I know gave me the inner net, I bought some rope, and I can find plenty of lead at the airfield, but tying the knots is a big job. I have had a young helper for a week, who worked for me for four to five hours. He gets a dime in the morning and a dime in the afternoon. Perhaps you think that is very little. But if I would give him 50 cents per day, I would run the risk that he would not come back the next day or would not want to work any more. With 50 cents he will feel rich, why then should he work? It’s the same with the men. When a coolie has worked hard one day and he gets 2 guilders he is happy, and he goes home saying, “Terima kasih Tuan, tabeh Tuan, saja poelang sekarang” (Thank you very much sir, good bye sir, I’m going home now). But he is going home with two guilders and the pay for one day is one guilder, so he feels he does not have to work the next day… and so he will not show up. This is not considered stupidity of the natives, it is normal.

The 12 year-old boy who was with me here ten weeks ago has been here every day again. He arrives at six thirty, gets the leftovers of the five men in the hut, washes the bowls, cleans the table, gets water for us and leaves around eight. He comes back at eleven thirty till one thirty and from four till five thirty. When he also has to do our laundry he stays longer. Every other day he buys a bunch of bananas for me. At night I give him one guilder for pisang and a dime for himself, and on his way here in the morning he buys a bunch of 20 to 30 pisangs at the pasar (market).

Officially children are not allowed in the camp, but around mealtimes several children always hang around; sometimes they get chased away only to get in again from the other side immediately. But Nain, the boy, is safe with us. I told him “Nain djongos saja.” (Nain is my houseboy).
Saja,” (Yes) he said.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments




Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 12

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

Gedangan, 5 September 1946

It is 7:00 in the morning and we hear shots coming from Benowo. That is strange, there has never been any fighting in Benowo so we call to find out what’s going on. Mercy! They tell us that most of the soldiers left early today on patrol, leaving only 40 men in the camp, which is now being attacked from two sides by about 200 men. Wirelessly the patrol is called back to relieve the camp. In the mean time, leaving a trail of casualties and injured, the attackers flee, straight into the arms of the returning patrol. Again there are many casualties and injured. We usually don’t get told how many dead bodies there are, but this time we think the number is anywhere between 70 and 100, plus the injured and the prisoners. Benowo is about 5 kilometers from Gedangan. Attacks in Bobo and Maro have similar results. But we suffered no casualties whatsoever, thank God.

Gedangan, 6 September 1946

I wonder how it is possible that the enemy in Benowo, Bobo and Maro suffered several hundred deaths and we did not have any. The attacks on those three places were carried out by about 1000 men, gangs of robbers, pesindo’s, (youths of the Communist Party), and a bunch of extremists. They had been told to go and kill the orang belanda (white people) in those three places and then to go to Soerabaja where there were 40 more orang belanda to kill. But those were actually killed by the Indonesians in Soerabaja, so they could just continue. These gangs were so poorly armed that it was pitiful. Most of them only had a spear. We later heard that the commanders considered them an unmanageable gang and sent them into battle assuming that they were going to be killed by our army, so that they would not bother the Indonesians any more. This is the hopeless way the so-called Republic of Indonesia is operating. There is no order, command, or leadership but only terror, plunder, murder and misery, and still there are people in the Netherlands who say, “Oh, leave those poor people alone! They are fighting for their freedom.”

Tuesday, 10 September 1946

Today the patrol has another catch. The men visiting the pasar on the square are interrogated. One of them, with an impudent face and carrying a large briefcase is quickly found out. The briefcase contained thousands of Japanese guilders. The commander of Grissee had sent him to Soerabaja to purchase car tires and bicycle tires for the extremists. On top of that he had a list with addresses of extremists in Soerabaja he could go to. But I think all those will have been imprisoned by now.

Thursday, 12 September 1946

Last night I went to bed around 8:30, but I did not fall asleep right away. When I was fast asleep around 9:30, I woke up suddenly by a loud bang. I was annoyed that the boys were making so much noise and turned over. But then the major came storming into our hut: “Set up the mortar, quick!” A sudden burst of grenades close by made me realize that I had been awoken by the sound of a grenade. Quickly we fired two light grenades out front but saw nothing. One of the guards said he had seen several men out front, who had thrown the two grenades that we had heard. But I think it was imagination because nothing happened and we went back to bed and I slept well.

Today, after work, as we are sitting in front of our hut where we sleep with five men, one of them yells “A snake, a huge snake in the hut!” Quickly we get a few sticks. But the snake is already invisible in the rubbish on the side and crawles out on the other side. I run around the outside and kill it; then one of the boys flattens the head with his rifle butt. I had hit it in the center, and one of the boys lifts it up by its tail. Suddenly a large frog falls out of the hole in the middle, a very large frog, still alive, with only a broken leg. But he can jolly well jump away and disappears in the tall grass.

Benowo, 14 September 1946

We have an early call tonight. At 12:30 we’re told: ” Get up boys, we leave at 2:30.” First along a path through the sawahs (rice fields) then along the embankments  in between the tambaks (fish ponds). After more than an hour we come to a largely destroyed dessa (village) and a kali (river), a wide, deep kali. There is no prauw (sort of canoe) to get across.

On the other side is a kampong, clearly visible in the moonlight. One of us takes his clothes off and swims across. Not a very pleasant job, to walk naked and unarmed into a kampong that is possibly occupied by armed extremists. He asks one of the natives if there is another canoe available but gets told that the extremists took all of the canoes the day before. One large canoe by the side of the kali is full of holes and totally useless.

There is nothing else to do but build a raft, because all of us swimming across with weapons and equipment is impossible. Then… we find two canoes on our side. A large one that we can’t lift and a small one for 7 or 8 men. We move the small canoe through the mud and into the water and with five men at a time, about ten times back and forth, bailing water after every crossing, we all make it across.

In between the tambaks we march and we position ourselves at the very end of them.

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments


Bersiap: the Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 11

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

Gendang Tambak, 6 August, 1946

In the night multiple shots are heard, close by and far away. The post that is considered absolutely safe is attacked by a group of 100 extremists. With a little planning they could have taken the five men that manned it by surprise, but instead they tried to find out if the post was on the alert by firing a few gunshots first, which of course immediately alerted our men. Assuming by the number of shots that the group of the attackers was large, our men called for immediate reinforcements. Upon the arrival of two trucks full, the enemy retreated. The reinforcement troops turned back and immediately 25 men went on patrol to try and cut off the retreating enemy, a move which was successful beyond expectations. Several men were shot down and a few were taken prisoner. They fled to a kampong from where they continued shooting. It’s a shame that several civilians were among the casualties. The enemy force of over 100 men, as was discovered later, was completely defeated by our patrol of 25 men. The battle lasted until our small patrol had used most of its ammunition.

Later, the prisoners told us that the plan was to blow up the bridge on post One, where they attacked us. They carried with them explosives, two heavy machine guns and one heavy mortar. They did not use the machine guns and the mortar, fearing our men would rush in to try and take them. On our side only one man had lost part of a finger. We estimated the losses of the enemy to be 25 men. Had we had a larger patrol, it would have even gone better.

Gendang Tambak, 8 August, 1946

Yesterday, it was up at 2:00 a.m., on patrol until noon. Three hours of rest, standing guard at 3:00 p.m. till 6:00 p.m., standing guard at 9:00 p.m. till midnight and back to bed until 7:00 a.m.

I sleep outside here, behind a bridge pillar, bulletproof from the front, nice and cool. It won’t be fun when it rains, but it won’t rain any time soon. The sun acts strangely here. In the Netherlands the sun rises in the east and travels through the south to the west. Here, the sun rises in the east, and travels through the north to the west, where it sets. For now, everything is quiet.

Reflecting on the situation, we are fighting the extremists in their Bersiap, their fight for independence from the Dutch, with a relatively small army in the vicinity of Soerabaja. But the violent Bersiap is taking place all over Java and other islands as well, killing hundreds of thousands of white people and Indo’s (mixed blooded civilians) every day. And it has been going on for a whole year now. Will we make a difference? Will the fighting ever end? (RHdJ)

Morokrembangan, 12 August 1946

It’s behind us: seven weeks in a row on duty at the front, now a few weeks of rest, which means rising at 5:30 a.m., serving until noon, then guard duty. But we are lucky to be at the best spot on the airfield: “Zeepost”. We are not allowed to swim in the ocean, because one of our men was attacked and killed by a shark. But we may go into town once in a while. And we go fishing with my net, fabricated from chicken wire and four long sticks, catching 27 beautiful, big fish the very first time. I sell ten of them in town for Fl.22 (22 guilders) and buy 25 kilos of sugar, which comes in handy, since we brew our own coffee and tea for the 25 men here.

Zeepost, 19 August 1946

“Sunday, a nice and quiet day”, I think, but no, the order comes at 6:00 a.m.: “Get up boys, we leave at 8:30. Take your weapons, beds, and let’s go.” We jump in the car, close the sailcloth around the back and sides so they can’t see us from the road, and off we go. It is bloody hot in the closed car and we are glad when we get to our destination, Gendong Tambak near Grissee. We attend a church service at 3:00, go to bed at 7:00 after watching many more soldiers arrive: a heavy patrol is awaiting us tomorrow.

We get up at midnight, leave at 2:00 a.m. and for a long time we are marching through jungles, across hills and valleys, until it finally gets light. We have arrived in enemy territory and the shooting begins. However, it takes a few hours before our group actually sees the enemy. Then we see, from the top of a hill, tons of extremists running across a street in the village of Grissee, at least a kilometer ahead of us. Yet they are also shooting from other positions closer by. We fire at them for at least an hour from our position, with the bren and the guns. Back and forth bullets fly over our heads, and we throw a few mortar grenades at them once in a while. Finally the others have caught up with us and we can move forward. First our artillery delivers an incredibly rapid fire up front, and we storm forward till we reach the edge of town; we remain there for about an hour and only see a few native men, women and children, without firing at them. Is the enemy waiting in the small town with ten or with hundreds of men? Did they flee or are they taking cover? It is too risky to advance now. Besides, our orders are to advance till here, and after eight hours we are not fresh anymore. We get home around 1:00 a.m. without any losses and with two prisoners, one of which is injured; the enemy suffered several casualties. It’s good to finally be back at Zeepost.

For your information: Today, in Dutch News NL you can read an article about upcoming research into the Bersiap period. Follow the link.


Stay tuned!

I am looking forward to your comments

Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 10

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

Gendang Tambak, 28 July, 1946 – Continued

Along the road are low embankments which provide cover for us as we open deadly fire at the enemy. Immediately several of them quickly disappear behind the hilltop ahead of us. We also see one man tumble and fall and lie still. He lies pretty close by. Now we don’t see anyone anymore. But there, there! A few of them jump up and try to reach the hilltop up ahead. But there is no escaping for them any more. Immediately we open fire with brens, stens and guns, and they fall down. This is repeated a couple of times and then nothing. Five or six of our men dash forward to see if there are any enemies left behind the hilltop. But there are none, and on the way back they count the dead bodies and take their weapons. About a kilometer up ahead another part of our patrol is still in heavy combat. But we relax, light a cigarette, drink something and wipe our sweaty faces, while closely looking around. One of us got a bullet through his leg but he can still walk. Slowly, the firing diminishes, until only a single shot in the distance disturbs the silence. We are master of the terrain. The enemy is completely defeated.

We start heading home. With great caution still, because the enemy may still be hiding somewhere. Far behind us we hear several more shots, but they can’t harm us. The majority of the patrol takes the road and others go through the forest to provide side cover. But all remains quiet. We get home at 10:30 a.m. after eight heavy hours. The booty consists of 16 guns, 2 heavy machine guns, about 10 grenades and a nice pile of ammo. We guess the number of enemy casualties to be 50, of which 32 dead: a hefty loss for the extremists in men and weapons. Apparently they thought that we would be intimidated again by loud gunfire. They must have been totally surprised by our offensive. There is no telling of how strong the enemy is, but they sure exceed our troops in numbers.  We have 13 prisoners, five men, three women, a child of 4 or 5, two babies of 6 and 2 months, and two goats. I don’t really know if they are prisoners or liberated evacuees, but extremists they are not.

However, even though this fight was successful for us, I hope they will soon reach a cease-fire, so that we won’t have to shoot at our fellow human beings any more, our fellow citizens really, (even though they are straying citizens). We count one Japanese among the dead, but I know there were more of them. In the afternoon I go into town for a little while on the bike. That is the life of a soldier on the front line: a deadly fight in the morning and a bike ride in the afternoon.

Most of our men go to bed around 7:00 p.m. We get up again at 1:30 a.m. for a long, hard day on patrol. Not in the mountains this time, but on level terrain: along a jungle path, through a field and a kampong, in between fish ponds, across a small kali, then crossing a large kali. This river has a ferry, and we can get across in a rowboat. On the other side we find a kampong, where we rest for a while and talk to the people. When we leave none of us has any cigarettes left. We get home at 9:30. That has been the last patrol for us for a while.

29 July, 1946

Today we are moving again. We have to watch a bridge in an occupied kampong with friendly, helpful people. Nothing dangerous happens.

Kalianak, 1 August 1946

Reflecting on the heavy battle we fought against the extremists, I think they are just a bunch of young men in their twenties, armed and instigated by the Japanese and by each other, led by a few of the Japs. They realize that they are no match for a real army and try to lure us into ambushes and attempt nocturnal attacks. But when it comes down to a real battle, their fate is a fast retreat or destruction. In the mean time, they make our lives stressful.

In the afternoon we get a telephone order that Ab de Bruin and I will have to join the patrol tomorrow. It will be a very large patrol with several men from each post and also one or two platoons stationed in town.

Kalianak, 5 August 1946

They pick us up at 5 p.m. but it is already dark when we arrive. In the dark we find an empty hut, hoist our klamboes and go to sleep, because we have to get up again at 3:00. Extremists disturb our sleep by shooting at our camp a few times but they don’t cause any damage.

Friday morning. Usually we are among the first, but today among the last, designated to protect the First Aid post, a little behind the front. I am ordered to carry the injured, a stretcher on my shoulders. We stay behind in a kampong until, at the break of dawn, the shooting starts: confrontation with the enemy. Now it is silent again, then it starts again, from various directions. When the enemy keeps shooting from one spot, we use artillery fire and sometimes mortar fire. We clearly discern our guns and brens as well as the enemy carbines and machine guns. The battles last more than three hours. We have nothing else to do than keep an eye on the vicinity. Kind of boring after a while, sometimes it is better to join the fight.

Finally we get the message: We will be coming back. The enemy fires another few mortar grenades, a little too close for comfort, I think. It still takes quite a while before our men get back. The enemy has several casualties, we have none. We have four prisoners: three natives and one critically injured. I have to help carry the injured man. The booty consists of two guns and the bottom part of a heavy machine gun.

On Saturday I have to do kitchen chores. Wash, polish, clean up, take out the trash in the truck, make sandwiches and so on. We get shot at for a while longer. Bullets fly over and around the kitchen, hitting the ground. But as usual, nobody gets hit. I work until six and then have to get up twice in the night to stand guard.
Stay tuned!

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, my dear friends. I’m going to be celebrating with my family and will return with the story of Gerrit Vermeulen two weeks from now.


Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 9

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

Gedangan, 1 July 1946

At 7:00 a.m. during roll call the Captain says: “Hey guys, we are at the front, and the necessary work has not been completed. So hurry up, for your own safety.”

I get 7 coolies, all different ones than yesterday. One of the coolies jumps into the air, reaches down into the water and grabs a huge turtle, which had bitten him in his foot. Yesterday he caught a kodok besar (large frog), which he took home to eat. Frogs here are twice the size as in the Netherlands. The ditch finally gets done.

Next, we have to clear the terrain, clean trashcans and fabricate lids for them, and dig a hole for empty cans waste. Outside the kitchen is already a large pile of empty cans. But when the coolies go home at 3:00 p.m., all the empty cans go with them. They can re-use them for all kinds of purposes.

This afternoon I get the order to pack up and move again. Quickly I get ready and jump on the first available car. The road is full of potholes – thank goodness it’s only 6 kilometers to the next post: a small railway station with two small buildings for us to use. Kampong Gendangan lies about 500 yards from the tracks.

Gedangan, 2 July 1946

Part of my platoon arrived here yesterday. I get 12 coolies for my work and two of our own boys, who have to cut down the tall alang-alang (hard, tough grass). I have to clean out a well, fill other holes and drains, clean an existing toilet and dig another one, at about 50 yards out, amidst tall grass; a 3-feet deep ditch, which can be closed when it’s full. Tomorrow we’re going on patrol – a heavy day ahead.

Gendang Tambak, 28 July, 1946

Last Thursday they showed a movie under the stars. Attending was not mandatory, we could go if we wanted and if we were not standing guard. It is still wonderful to sit outside at night. First we saw a trainings film: how to stay healthy, how to treat injuries, how to put broken arms an legs into splints, how the Japanese fight and how we have to fight, and how to best kill people.

A few bursts of bren fire sounded through the silent night. We didn’t care: it was more than 400 yards away. Then we watched a beautiful movie about Javanese life and customs on Java. More shots were heard, about 300 yards away, so across the kali. We thought it safer to sit on the floor rather than a bench or the roof of a car. And the movie continued. Then two brens started rattling and an enemy machine gun shot bullets through the air, without doing damage. The movie stopped and all went dark. Because it was 9 o’clock already we went to our huts and to bed.

It’s Friday, and two cars arrive with soldiers, several nurses, the battalion’s doctor, the battalion’s commander, Major Erne, and a few other officers. We are getting ready for a patrol to Indro tomorrow. The name of that kampong is bringing up bad memories. The marines lost one man whose body they couldn’t even take with them because of the heavy firing. And we ran into an ambush there once. We always run into the enemy in Indro. One of my friends remarks: “I wish I had to stand guard tonight, so I wouldn’t have to go on patrol tomorrow.” And I say, “I wish it was Saturday afternoon already.”

Early Saturday morning the command sounds: “Get up boys, it’s time to get up.” We get up, get dressed, have breakfast and get ready. It’s two o’clock. We leave at 2:30 a.m., a large patrol. A dark moon in the clear night sky, the weather is nice for a night walk. Slowly and carefully we move forward. We do make a lot of noise though: a few hundred yards up ahead one of our carts with two heavy mortars bumps loudly over the uneven road. It’s almost like calling out: “Watch out! Here we come!”

The group gets divided. We have to leave the path and continue into the forest. Before daylight we hear three shots, but so far away that they can’t very well  be meant for us. Take cover, walk on, take cover again. Our patrol forms a line of several hundred yards. Suddenly, loud firing not too far up ahead. It’s most likely part of our patrol connecting with the enemy. We move ahead again until we hear shots close by. We take cover behind palm trees and low embankments but we don’t see anything. Will it be just like other times? Fire back when we get fired on, if necessary with grenades. The army commanders don’t take any risks with their men. But it feels like the extremists are mocking us: they fire a little, then pull back a little; at night they circle our camp to scare us.

Anyway, we move forward again, take cover again. Enemy fire rattles straight ahead and close by, but because of the dense undergrowth and the hilly terrain we can’t see a thing. Suddenly enemy war cries erupt in front of us: “Madjoeoeoeoe Merdèkaaaaa”. It’s what they shout when they attack (Move ahead, Attack, for Freedom).

The lieutenant commands: “Raise the bayonets! Don’t pull back! Fire when you see them! Fire to kill and string them on your bayonets! Do not hesitate! Hold on!” One minute passes. We are tense. It’s kill or cure. Is there a large or small number out there? Will we get many of them against us? Another commando from the lieutenant: “Forward, hold on! String them on your bayonets!” Screaming loudly we jump up and run forward, across the open terrain, into the dense undergrowth, across open terrain again, then take cover again. We don’t see the enemy but the shots keep being fired and bullets fly over our heads. We don’t think of the danger, we are not afraid. Again “Forward!” sounds the commando, and again we cross open terrain, run through the bush, across open terrain again and through a palm jungle until we reach the road. And there, we suddenly see the enemy, running ahead of us, crawling, hiding behind embankments…

Stay tuned!

I welcome your comments


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!

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Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War after WWII – Part 7

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

Soerabaja, 27 April 1946

I write Soerabaja, but we are about 12 kilometers outside of the city. I don’t know the name of this kampong.

Today we had the heaviest march yet. Get up at 3:00 a.m., leave at 4:00 and home again around midnight, exhausted but safe, thank God.

30 April 1946

This morning, on our patrol trip, we capture two prisoners. One man of 25 and one of 16 or 17. I don’t think they are enemies though, they are not armed. At first it looks like they didn’t know anything, but slowly but surely we get more information out of them than we could get in ten patrol trips. Now, I don’t know if everything they say is true, but they do know the outcome of our combat last Saturday. The number of enemy casualties they mention is 150, but that sounds too good to be true.

4 May 1946

We thought we were going to leave today, relieved from the front, but that has been postponed for two days. I go swimming in the kali every day around noon, when the (salt) water level is at its highest and cleanest and the tide is turning so there is no current. The kali is 40 to 50 yards wide, and swimming back and forth a few times is easy. It’s not dangerous because there are no crocodiles or sharks. The kali separates us from enemy territory, and once in a while we hear enemy fire, even machine gun fire, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t swim back and forth a few times. When the water rises a lot of snakes appear, but they are not poisonous and just looking for fish in the water. We get enough to eat here, but I often hardly eat anything because I don’t like it. There are enough bananas, oranges and eggs, and those are fine. But we are hoping to get out of here soon.

7 May 1946

Hey, we are back in the same place we left for 16 days. We had only taken the bare minimum of our possessions and now we’re getting everything else back. I am strolling through town for a little while and see a second hand bicycle at a Toekang sepeda priced at fl.50 (guilders). Hm, it looks good, has solid tires, I think I can get it for fl.25. But the guy doesn’t want to budge, even when I offer empat pulu lima (45) and walk away, and I end up having to give him fl.50 in exchange for the bike anyway.

On my way home, riding through a part of town I have never been, I discover a Pasar Besar. I am amazed at the number of natives and Chinese people there, and not a single white person. A huge hall and all the streets around it are filled with rows of small booths selling rice, flour, chickens, eggs, shoes, textiles, fish, fruits, vegetables, candles, and everything else you can find in a regular shop. It is quite different from a market in the Netherlands, let me tell you.

12 May 1946

After only four days in Soerabaja, this Saturday we are moving again. When the car stops at the destination I always jump out to investigate our new quarters. I like to get a spot against one wall or in a corner, so that I can put my barang behind it. It’s wonderful here. We have electric light, water, and even a refrigerator. We don’t need to broom the floor, wash our clothes and sew on buttons any more. We have a baboe who does the laundry and ironing for us and a djongos, who cleans the house. The djongos also makes tea for us. We have to pay our baboe and djongos ourselves: they get 50 cents per day from the twenty of us and they cook meals and serve drinks. A car picks them up in the morning and takes them home in the early afternoon.

It is humid and hot here, and I usually sleep on top of the blanket instead of under it. If there are doors and windows, they are open day and night. It is normal here that when we get up in the morning we put on our sneakers and walk around all day in our thin underwear. I have a nice green one, for 3/4 stitched closed in front, and so we work, sit, row and walk. Easy for the baboe, not a lot of kotor (dirty) clothes.

There are many tjitjaks in our quarters. I can count twenty from where I sit. They are little lizards that walk up and down the walls, catching mosquitoes and other insects, so we leave them alone.

May 23, 1946, Airfield Soerabaja

The bay is wide and clean, we can swim and row to our heart’s content. 20 yards from our quarters are locks where we see hundreds of fish. The boys try to catch some with a net and a fishing pole, but are disappointed in their catch.

Across the bay is enemy territory. About 200 yards from our quarters starts the airport with many large hangars, regular planes and seaplanes. There are also about ten Japanese seaplanes, painted in the colors of the extremists: red and white. But they are not in use.

When we go on patrol we have to be in full combat uniform, gun and ammunition, water bottle and a grenade. Uphill, downhill, sometimes steeper than 45 degrees; through forest and field, always on the alert. That’s hot and exhausting. Sometimes the perspiration runs into my eyes. On top of that, they have made me bren helper. The bren is the heaviest weapon we take along, heavier than the mortar even. I don’t really like carrying that thing. I have never used a bren, but still I have to carry it through enemy territory, set it up every time and lay behind it to shoot if there is enemy fire. I would rather practice with it first. It’s the same with grenades and my gun: I only used it once to shoot a snake.

25 May 1946

We are moving back to Gendong Tambak where everything is still the same. No coolies, no djongos, no pasar shoppers, no traffic except that of the soldiers. Yesterday the camp was under fire, thank goodness without losses. In many places in the forest heavy fire is still going on. The boys don’t trust it and check their weapons before dark, and put their equipment at the ready, including two grenades instead of one, because a fierce fight is likely. Is there a cease-fire or not?


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Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 6

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

Monday, April 22, Continued

Now and then shots ring out by enemy snipers, countered right away by our brens. That enemy fire is most likely not aimed at us because we don’t hear bullets hit or whistling by. No one in our group of eight has a radio so we can’t communicate with the others. Calling is out of the question of course because we can’t betray our location to the enemy who may be close. One of us returns, creeping through the vegetation to try and find the group. When he comes back he indicates he has found them and we have to turn around. With one of my comrades I have been hiding behind a tall rock outcrop. Carefully, on hands and knees, we turn back. A marine crawling right in front of me suddenly disappears: he tumbles several yards down into an invisible ditch. Pretty soon he appears again in between the bushes and on we go. To back us up our artillery detonates several grenades and when they hit, some 50 yards behind us, we feel the blast and shrapnel flies over our heads.

We have traveled for several hours already, it is warm and we are exhausted. Other than walking with full combat gear, the constantly being on the alert is tiring as well. We arrive at a road we continue to follow away from our camp. We inspect an abandoned kampong. We kick or hit with bayonets or rifle butts any doors that are closed and jump inside, bayonet aimed straight ahead. Across a bridge we move into another kampong. One of the marines says, “Last week Friday we got this far and one of our comrades was killed.”

Homes are being searched. The Sergeant Major and one of the marines walk in front. About 60 yards ahead of us the road curves. The Major searches the bend in the road with his field glasses and whispers to the marine: “Do you see a machine gun post?” Next to us the soldiers walk in between and into the homes and six of us cautiously proceed along the road. The marine raises his field glasses and suddenly right in front of us enemy machine guns rattle, immediately thereafter followed by fierce enemy gunfire and automatic weapon sounds, left and right, from behind homes and bushes and trees. It takes only a second to drop down and seek cover. Immediately our two foremost brens are set up. One of them empties two magazines on the enemy’s position and silences their machine gun.

I am lying behind the second bren marksman as his helper, behind our foremost men. Several of our soldiers are firing at random in the direction from where they perceive enemy fire is coming. Bullets are flying around us from all directions. Leaves and branches rain down on us. Roof tiles are shot to pieces and tumble down in the narrow street. The Major calls for the mortar to come to the front. The enemy uses the house in front of us for cover and shoots from behind it. Our men throw two grenades over the house, which stops the firing. Several mortar grenades are fired. But although shots continue to be fired close by, I can’t detect an enemy from the ditch in which I am hiding.

In the mean time our artillery starts up again and soon the first grenades hit right in front of us but still at a safe distance. The command “Pull back” is given. We are caught in an enemy ambush and it does not look good. We have to try and get out, and after the artillery starts firing enemy fire slows down. We retreat, crawling, hunched, looking around with intense concentration, especially behind us. Our grenades fly over our heads and explode behind us and when a heavy grenade hits one of the wooden hovels it splatters into pieces like a soap bubble.

From all sides several enemy shots are still fired. But to follow us is almost impossible because of our backup grenades. With extreme precautions we cover the three kilometers back to our base. It is a miracle that none of us got hit, despite the hundreds of shots fired mutually. We can’t determine whether our opponents suffered any losses. I did not fire a single shot. I was planning to shoot if I saw the enemy or could determine his location by the shots fired. But that did not happen. We are very happy to come home alive. The cannons have saved us. In the afternoon we suddenly have to go back 3 kilometers to stand guard at our cannons; 2 x 2 hours at night, our head and hands rubbed with mosquito oil, and 1 x 2 hours during the day. But that is an easier job than our previous ones.
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Bersiap: The Bloody Independence War After WWII – Part 5

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

Sunday, April 21, 1946

At 4:00 in the morning we hear voices whispering: “Get up boys, get up right now and don’t switch on lights.” We get up immediately, go to the kitchen to get oatmeal and tea, and after that we get ready for our first patrol in enemy territory. At 5:00 a.m. we are ready and march in the moonlight in one line as silently as possible across the damaged bridge. Our foremost positions are across both bridges, the damaged bridge and the railroad bridge. Beyond those are the hills where we are not safe. Even where we sleep we are within range of enemy fire but we have had no problems yet. In heavily armored platoons we move on. Just across the bridge we notice some abandoned homes and several damaged ones. This is the terrain where we can meet with enemy resistance at any moment.

Our patrol consists of about 60 men, among whom several marines who have patrolled here before and several native soldiers who know the tropics and the sounds of the jungle: they are a great help for us inexperienced soldiers. Watching and listening intently we slowly and silently march forward on the berm along the road. On the corner of a side street posts are stationed until all the platoons have passed that street, to prevent unpleasant surprises by the enemy. On both sides the terrain is densely covered by grass, bushes and trees. We only have occasional limited visibility on the sides in the bright moonlight.

Suddenly, about four hundred yards up ahead and thirty yards to the left, we hear a crowing sound, like a young rooster that tries to crow for the first time. Could that be one of the secret signs of our opponents? We have been told that the enemy sends signals to each other by whistling, knocking and animal sounds. But…the ones-in-the-know don’t pay attention so we are not worried.

Slowly the sky is lightening. We deviate from the road onto a jungle path. Strange bird sounds surround us; whistling, chirping, screeching, cooing, or whatever you’d call them: to us unknown sounds by unknown birds. We only recognize swallows and the dozens of little doves like the ones we have back home. It is wonderfully peaceful and quiet in jungle and field. But we can’t enjoy the beauty that surrounds us. We have to be on guard at all times because the enemy can be expected from all sides. We march up, and down, along a flat area and uphill again, crossing a dry stream bed, on and on. We stop every so often to give the scouts the opportunity to investigate the terrain with their field glasses. Only a few whispered words are exchanged. Orders are given by hand signals. Because of the winding paths only a few of our comrades are visible at any time.

Our jackets are getting soaked with sweat. We leave the path and dive into the wilderness through alang-alang, bushes, and underneath tall bamboo clusters. Those clusters vary from 10 to 50 and have sharp thorns at the bottom that rip into our helmets. Listening intently we slowly approach a kampong. Several burnt houses, and the others stand empty. No native and no enemy in sight.

We move on, straight through the jungle, then following a dry creek bed, across rocks, along a steep abyss. Rocks are everywhere on the paths, in the fields and in the jungle. A dry stream bed often resembles a rocky path. We search and and pass several other abandoned kampongs. It’s stop and go because the scouts up front have to check out the terrain ahead. We end up at the paved road again. We position a bren pointing backwards and continue in the direction of our barracks.

The artillery gets the order to provide shellfire to back us and deter possible invisible pursuers. Presently we hear gunshots and grenades whoosh over our heads and hit the area behind us. Wirelessly we signal to the camp that we are on our way back, in order to prevent them from shooting at us as perceived extremists. We arrive in camp at 10:30 and have mandatory rest until noon. We march out again at 3 and return at 5 without having encountered the enemy. Easter Sunday has come and gone.

Monday, April 22, 1946

Last night, while most of us were already underneath their klamboes, the Sergeant Major came in and said, “Boys, in case we have to withdraw at night, do not leave any weapons and ammunition behind. Everything else has second priority. The foremost posts are just 300 yards away.” We do not sleep well at all. Dozing off, we are wondering if we can expect an attack. We have our loaded weapons at the ready. Suddenly, gunshots awake me: enemy gunshots. They are immediately returned by one of our heavy machine guns and a bren. More shots are fired back and forth, but the quiet returns.

At 3:15 a.m. we hear again the whispered order: “Get up!” With the crescent moon high in the night sky we get going again and at dawn we have already penetrated several kilometers into enemy territory; just like last time, uphill, downhill, into and out of the jungle. I am among the first ones crossing a Chinese cemetery, when suddenly, close by, several shots are fired. Immediately we duck. A little later, quickly, we move forward a little ways. But unexpectedly, one of us can’t keep up. He does not know what way to go and so here we are, with 8 men out in front, cut off from the platoon.

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