Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Copyright Information

Copyright in the works of Francesco Karel Samethini is vested in Elisabeth Samethini of Sydney, NSW, Australia.

The following text and images may be reproduced by permission only: (1) All text from the Author's Preface through the end of Chapter 27; (2) the contents of Appendix A, and; (3) All photos and images designated as "Frank Samethini Collection" or "Han Samethini Collection". However, there is one exception to the latter: the photograph of Han Samethini at Chungkai POW camp, which has long been available through other sources (e.g., the Australian War Memorial).

We encourage links from other Internet sites to this one.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Photo Source: Thailand-Burma Railway Centre
Foreword to the Blog Version of The Sky Looked Down
Author's Preface
The Song of the Railroad
1. Bondi
2. Surabaya
3. Encounter
4. The Darkening Sky
5. The Unspeakable Days
6. Destination Railroad
7. Andre
8. The River
9. Hairbreadth Escape
10. Railroad
11. Bridge on the Kwai
12. Chungkai
13. More of Chungkai
14. Who is the Thief?
15. Tamuang
16. At Sea
17. Nightmare Journey
18. Nippon
19. Ministry
20. Quake
21. Toyama
22. The End of the Road
23. Manila
24. Peace?
25. The Letter
26. The Road Back
27. Lisa and Mary-Em / Postscript

Appendix A: Lisa's Story
Appendix B: Sources on the Burma Railway and Japanese Prison Camps
Appendix C: Music and Songs
Title Photo Source: "The River Kwai",

Foreword to the Blog Version of The Sky Looked Down

Cover of The Sky Looked Down
Source: Frank Samethini Collection

Francesco Karel Samethini (1915-2000) was born in Bondowoso, East Java, in the Netherlands East Indies. He and his younger brother, Henri (Han), grew up on a sugar plantation managed by their father. After receiving primary schooling in the East Indies, the boys were sent to Holland for secondary schooling. They returned to Java in the early 1930s. Han became a musician and band leader. Frank pursued a business career, and by the end of the decade he was working for a steamship line agent in the bustling port city of Surabaya. Here he spent happy nights on the town, fell in love with his future bride, Lisa, and dreamed of blissful years to come with a wife and family. Here he was called to arms by Queen and Country, and here he was taken captive, a prisoner of war, by the Empire of Japan. His story begins in early 1939 and ends in December 1945.

Following the Second World War, Frank and his family lived in Indonesia and the Netherlands before settling in New South Wales, Australia in 1960. He began writing his POW memoir in the mid 1960s at Bondi, but the work was not completed until many years later. In the early 1990s, in Narrabeen, he approached historian Nan Bosler to ask her help in publishing his story. Nan recalls:
I was managing the Narrabeen Community Learning Centre and had established a Local History Resource Unit at the time and Frank came into my office one day to talk. He told me about the story he wanted to leave for his children and how no one was interested in publishing it. We continued to share an occasional cup of tea, sometimes at the Learning Centre and sometimes at his unit at WG Taylor Village with his wife, as he told me more of his story. As an historian I felt that his story needed to be recorded but he was right: publishers were not interested. I suggested to him that I would find the time to type it all so that he would have his story in a readable format.
It took us a while. I would type from his handwritten pages, endeavouring to keep it very much in his words but doing a little bit of editing as I went - not of the story content but slight rearrangement of words, modification of grammar, etc. I would give him the finished work and he would give me more handwritten pages. He would sometimes come back with corrections, particularly when I had misread his writing or to add bits that, seeing that part of his story printed out, had come back to his memory.
By the time I had finished typing all of his story I had become quite engrossed in it. A typed manuscript seemed to be an incomplete project. I suggested to Frank that I could arrange to have it printed as a hard copy book and that it would be a good idea to have enough books printed to be able to give copies to his children. [1]
In 1992 Nan arranged to have five leather-bound copies of the memoir printed and bound in Harbord, NSW. Frank gave one copy to his wife Elisabeth (Lisa) and the others to his four daughters. Nan writes:
I was very happy to see his pleasure and know that the story that he called his love story was now in ' book' form. I just hoped that it would be treasured by his family, who would be much richer for knowing the love story of Frank Samethini. [2]

Title page
Source: Frank Samethini Collection

This blog version of The Sky Looked Down makes the story available to a broader readership for the first time. Illustrations and footnotes have been added to supply a bit of historical context and to enable the reader, insofar as possible, to see persons, events and locations as the author saw them. An immense debt of gratitude is owed to Frank's family, in particular Elisabeth and daughters Mary-emma and Christine, for lending a copy of the book and providing several photos from the family collection. This project would have been impossible without their help and steady encouragement.

- R.K.
[1] Personal e-mail to editor from Nan Bosler, 6/9/2010. Quoted with permission.
[2] Ibid.

Author's Preface

Photo Source: Frank Samethini Collection

The sky looked down on a young Dutchman in the East Indies in the Nineteen Forties. He was enjoying a life of ease and security from which he was suddenly hurled into the abyss of war. This book is not merely a narrative of happenings but a dramatisation of actual events as they took place, sharply outlining the emotional effects on himself and, as observed by him, on others. It is a moving picture of how he met the girl who changed his life in the tumultuous days of preparing for war, the brief wedding ceremony and, shortly afterwards, the outbreak of hostilities with Japan. The unconditional surrender, separation from his family, and transport to Changi and the infamous Burma Railroad.

It also records two examples, never published before, of the perfidy of a former fortress commander and the dual personality of an officer of a famous regiment. It tells of the young man's solitary nightly excursions across the river in the jungle of Thailand, and the hairbreadth escape from detection and death. More than anything else it shows that, in spite of the general privation and back-breaking work under the tropical sun and monsoonal rain, attacks of dysentery and malaria, there was the ever prevailing spirit and sense of humour breaking through.

It was an inexplicable spirit of faith in the ultimate victory over an inhumanly cruel enemy and filth and disease, bringing him and his small group of friends moments of quiet contentment and friendly jest amidst all the squalor and misery.

Then there was the dangerous sea voyage with the torpedo attack and the sweltering heat in the lower hold. The arrival at Japan, followed by more hard labour and the great earthquake lasting six days. The hell of American air force bombardment and finally the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ending the war.

The long trail, delayed by stopovers at rest camps, began back to the Indies and his beloved Lisa.

Frank Samethini, 1992

The Song of the Railroad

Photo Source:

by Frank Samethini

Twinline of steel, winding through hills, plains and steaming jungle,
resting on a thousand sleepers, the bodies of the perished.

Each dawn the rising red ball of sun
Brings a new day of hunger and pain.
Worn out before the struggle's begun,
Why should we resist further in vain?
Why all this harrowing, insane strife
In what little there is left of life?

In the hot, quivering air a whisper, soft but nudging, pulling.
Listen not to that voice, pay no heed!
"Think, think of those at home, those you love."
Don't submit to this devilish creed.
For, true as there's a heaven above,
If you harden yourself, do not bend,
You might conquer it all in the end.
Pain, gnawing pain in legs and shoulders.
Dig! Dig! Lift that spade, move those boulders.
Beware! Creeping shadow of man, gun,
Watching us under the searing sun.
There! The snarl and the sickening crack
Of rifle butt on a comrade's back.

"Lie down, little brother. Lay yourself down to sleep."
Man, blood dripping from his fingernails,
Tumbles down. "I can no more!" he wails.
Pulled upright he is by Nippon scum.
The judo smack, bursting his eardrum,
Knocks him down and he lies there prostrate
While we're looking on in helpless hate.

"Lie down, little brother. There'll be no more to weep."
Hatred rising in a silent cry
Urges you to fight on, not to die.
But you can dig no more. Rest's needed,
Just for a moment. But, oh my God!
His boot kicks your groin - the flaming pain
Shoots from your belly, knots in your brain.

"Come, listen to me. Hear my sigh riding on the wind."
Rain, in sudden, chilling, lashing squall
Weakens the structure - it starts to fall!
The heavy weight at once snaps the rope,
Half the bridge is plunging down the slope.
Flee, you slaves, run, god-forsaken dogs!
Save yourselves from the thundering logs.

"Heed my whisper. Sink down and give in, my little friend."
A broken rail clangs, the deafening blow
Splintering bone, spattering his brain
On green, wet leaves trembling in the rain.
His costly blood drips on muddy ground.
Again, anger surging without a sound
And the voice, though you're free from its spell.

"Lie down, little brother. Lay yourself down where he fell."
Once more that pitiful bundle, still
Lying between the leaves where he died,
Has shocked you into an iron will
To battle and claw, to kick and bite.
To grit the teeth and stiffen the soul.
To hell with them, damn the enemy!
We'll hang on for that ultimate goal,
To live and reach the Day of Victory.

And so they went, day by day, week by week, month by month,
To the bridge on the River Kwai.
With sullen stubbornness, unyielding to impossible odds,
Struggling on to perish or to do the formidable,
Building the bridge for the twinline of steel
Winding through hills, plains and steaming jungle,
Two hundred and fifty miles long,
Resting on sleepers, resting on the memory of the perished,
Worked to death on the Burma Railroad.

1. Bondi

Bondi Beach
Sydney, New South Wales
Photo Source:

The sky. Deep, all encompassing, blazing in the noonday sun. White clouds drift lazily towards the thin line of horizon. The beach, only yesterday sweeping down from the promenade in a wide arc of spotless white sand, is now thickly studded with people. A multitude sprawled in almost complete nudeness permissible for the occasion, exploited with profound dedication. Young womanhood in cleft, freckled tautness, bared to an inch from the last remaining punctuation of female anatomy, is languidly reclining within easy hand span of their escorts, fur-chested, sunglassed males in pouched briefs. Further down on the beach mums and dads, with blotches of sand clinging on pallid thighs and varicose veins, watch their young in the surf romping with squeals of laughter in bursts of splattering spray. Transistored pests twang discordantly in the steady crunch and whoosh of breakers on the sands.

Look, there by the water: that blonde in the summer dress. Slender figure, clean, delicate cut of the jaw, head tossed high with hair billowing. Barefooted, she holds her skirt above dimpled knees while stepping gingerly with flashing legs over seaweed littering the beach where it runs into the hissing water. Her dainty feet leave shallow imprints in the flat shelf of sand, left gleaming wet by each wave drawing back into the sea.

She, that girl. How she commands all attention amidst the cloying generosity of bikinis! See those man-heads turning avidly to the skirt-and-blouse lass. A cause for wonder - and for a memory of long ago.

Photo Source:

The rock path leads to a patch of grass on a secluded spot, away and high over the beach, overlooking the wide expanse of the Pacific. Dull, shimmering, tiny flashes of sunlight caught on water ripples break the monotony of the vast, blue haze. One may bask here in the sun and scan the horizon. Look, there is a white speck way out on the ocean. A sailing boat. Where is it going? To another part of the world. To the old country? The binoculars do not discover anything else of interest, and swing back to focus again on the tiny, triangular sail, floating all on its own in the wide ocean. Is it really moving? Yes, but slowly, very slowly, breaking through a barrier of wind and water to get across to wherever it is going. Then, out of nowhere, the sudden, stirring thought. It is not just a sailing boat, but a trick of light. It is an idea, a plan materialised in vision. Something I wanted to do all these months. Don't I know? That boat is on a journey to years gone by, as my thoughts are, breaking through a barrier of time.

The wind carries snatches of bustle and clamour from the beach. A whistle, shrill and piercing, the deep roar of a sports car, the chime on the ice cream truck back on the road. High aloft, a seagull is wailing dolorously. In the sights of the binoculars the little boat is protected in an orbular sphere without sound. No, not quite without it. It seems to lie waiting in a rushing silence, out of which a note rises to fly across the waters. A faint, far note calling me to embark on a journey.

On a journey to happenings of the past, to a procession of faces appearing before my closed eyes. Faces with features still, or with moving lips forming the words which all these years have lingered on in memory. A journey to scenes and sounds embedded in mind forever, some good and pleasing, and some ugly and revolting. Some faded far away, some as clear as if they happened yesterday.

To the laughter and chuckle of friends, the cry, the snarl of hate. The colour of bottomless deep water, the splitting and trembling earth. Lips moist and alluring, lips drawn over the teeth in death. The sough of a gentle breeze through tall grass, clouds racing before the gale. The ice cold snap of a gun breech, the hoarse bark, and blood flung on the sand. The whispering, the kisses, the fragrance of smooth, fair skin.

To the goodness and bliss, the fear and anguish of those turbulent days. To recapture the feeling of the soul as it came to life, or as it died within, as it was exposed in men, and in beast-men.

Photo Source:

There was a tree, a big wide tree, and its branches and leaves spread fanwise like a broad green umbrella. It stood apart from the other trees, which was as it should be, for this tree was something special. It was one to talk to. There was also the garden with the flowers, shrubs and a pond. A shallow pond, its coping flush with the lawn, with green and yellow tipped ferns hanging over the water. Often the water in the pond was still and clear with slowly swaying tendrils of weed on the mossy bottom, the slimy slush of rotting stems and leaves that had died. Behind the low fence of the garden were the hills. The ever green hills of Java, sloping down to the dark outline of the forest. And behind the fence, there was that tree, the one to talk to. In a whisper, or in a loud voice when nobody else was around. I could say anything to that tree, and it would answer, just in a way as I knew it would. Or it would slip into an embarrassed silence.

Photo Source: Flowtography

It was nothing but a game I had made up, in the tender years of early youth.

All that was a long time ago. I had forgotten about it, and if I hadn't, I would certainly not talk about it with anybody. Until later, much later, the game is played again, and a tree is once more important to me. Very important, for it saved my life.

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2. Surabaya

Photo Source:

The river they call Brantas. Winding its way through Surabaya, the merry town of the Thirties, in the Netherlands East Indies. Entering the town in the suburb of Darmo, it flows for a while by a rolling green vista of well-kept gardens and lawns sweeping down from the terraces of residences where the prominent live. Dignity and firm security displayed in robust granite ballustrade and stained-glass doors and windows at the front.

The boulevards and avenues respectably quiet and undisturbed. A stillness accentuated by the rustle of the wind in tall casuarina trees along the riverbank, and the distant jangle of the tram. A mile further down, the Brantas enters the Gubeng district, passing by fenced-in backyards of dwellings of lesser status, the boarding houses and private hotels. A street vendor calls monotonously. The clip-clop of the horse of a hire-surrey is momentarily drowned in the low-humming swoosh of a motor car. With measured intervals a gong is struck before a cottage near the corner, announcing the forthcoming public auction of the departing householder's furniture and other possessions. At the upper-town railway station, a hissing of spurting steam, a mournful hoot and clanging engine. On the sharply curving street leading to the Gubeng bridge, tyres screech beside tram wheels grinding in their rail grooves. Under the bridge oddly shaped clusters of garbage and flotsam riding the quietly moving water halt, revolving slowly. Then, still turning lazily, they resume their trip, passing close to the reed banks of the park with its lotus pond and canna beds, and the silvery, glinting gossamer of water sprinklers. Magpies scamper on the sun-dappled grass under the sycamores.

Photo Source: Moesson

Photo Source: Surabaya Memory/Petra Christian University

Further down, the river flows by lofty palm fringed driveways to stately offices of authority and government - frowning, rigid and aloof in marble and colonnade. The Dutch tricolour flies proudly from the mast. Further down again, the river, sluggish and muddy now, passes by the agitated hustle and bustle of William's Quay in downtown Surabaya. Domain of merchants, brokers and bankers, money-making amidst clattering typewriters, ringing telephones and buzzing ceiling fans. At the door the name of the company is richly embossed on copper plate, leaving an impression of infallibility and trustworthiness.

Photo Source: Surabaya Memory/Petra Christian University

Photo Source: Surabaya Tempo Dulu

On the opposite bank of the river lies Chinatown and the Red Bridge, where that forever industrious race live in a confusion of narrow lanes and alleys. Two-storeyed shophouses vividly splashed with crisscross symbols, the wail of Chinese music from an open fronted cafe where, in passing by, a glimpse is seen of deftly manipulated chopsticks picking food from hand-cupped rice bowls. In the air a mixture of typical smells of the Orient: gums and spice, with an occasional whiff of gutter stink and incense. The klaxon hooting and ringing of bicycle bells, the noise of the always congested traffic on the street, until dusk falls and the office front door is slammed shut.

Finally the river reaches its estuary with the bobbing masts of gaily adorned native sailing craft from Madura and Makassar, the river water casting dancing reflections of light on the slender prows, moored in clusters along the ancient quay and its mossy dents, notches and century-old, corrosion-bated mooring rings.

Nimble-footed coolies walk rhythmically on narrow, swaying gangplanks, heavy baskets with dried fish and copra on neck and shoulders, the corded ridges of their deep brown backs dripping with sweat. A flock of sparrows peck madly at rice grains spilled on the quay. On a small, barnacle-rimmed jetty a native woman squats, beating her wash on a flat stone. Her shoulders, back and bottom, in the faded sarong hitched under the armpits, flow out in the contours of a guitar. Flitting black streaks of swallows skim the river that now finally, languidly delivers its water into the sea in gradually deepening colours of blue and green. Out in the Roads of Surabaya, on the slowly rising and falling swell, white-dotted with seagulls, a towering ocean liner growls, drowning out the clang of busily spinning winches and long-necked cranes on the wharves. Below the storm warning mast on the harbour master's office roof, a tugboat hoots an answer, her screws eagerly churning the brackish water. The dockyards and quay of Surabaya where shirt-drenching heat shimmers as a glistening pool on the tacky-hot bitumen. Where ships come from all over the world, each containing an atmosphere typical of her home port.

Photo Source:

Visible and invisible little things in master and crew that make up the Briton, Norwegian, Dutchman and Greek. The world of big shipping. After work, one may be invited to come on board again for a quiet beer while listening to tales of Liverpool, Piraeus, Oslo and Vancouver.

Day is done, darkness has fallen, the worst of the heat gone. Pastel-coloured lampshades shine gently through a filigree of potted plants and shrubs. In the warm, scented evening we read and talk out in front on the open porch. A thin spiral of grey smoke eddies up from a coil of mosquito repellent burning on a saucer on the floor. A wide-eyed brown kitten stalks, with great display of fuss, an imaginary prey between the magnolias. Back in the house the clock ding-dongs through soft radio music. The light circle of the porch lamp does not quite reach the dark hibiscus hedge at the front gate, where a lone cricket chirps incessantly. It is Saturday evening, after dinner time. All the news is read, all events of the day discussed, bemoaned or laughed about.

Photo Source: Zoo Leven Wij in Indie

A drive is then suggested and agreed upon. Soon we have joined the long line of motor cars out on the road for a little cruise to the entertainment district of Surabaya and on to the harbour for an hour of cool, refreshing sea breeze. The hood of the car is let down to make the most of the cool evening air. The motor sings, the wheels fly with a soft burr. Tall arc lights are caught in a dull shine moving along the gleaming body of our car. Everyone is in a lighthearted mood of Saturday evening, the whole night in front and all the free Sunday after that. When we enter Palm Lane we spot a burst of red neon on the left side. That's the "Tabarin" bar and dancing establishment, closed now, its opening time of ten o'clock catering to the after-theatre and supper folk. Opposite is the "Shanghai" restaurant, adorned with strings of pastel-coloured Chinese lamps on the open terrace. Munching and drinking people served by wooden-faced Indonesian waiters deftly balancing trays laden with delicacies. At the front of the restaurant a few native boys carrying boxes with cigarettes loiter about. They will be there the whole night. On the corner of Palm Lane and Simpang Road, the Maxim Cinema blazes in floodlights, flanked by a file of Fiat Balilla taxis waiting for the end of the first session. The traffic signal switches to red, halting our car with a silent throb of its motor. We are facing the whitewashed facade and marble floors of the Simpang Club, select and suave, its members restricted to a better salaried class of people. Cozy little lampshades glow on small wicker tables on patios in front, where gentlemen with their lady companions are seated, sipping an aperitif or after-dinner coffee and liqueur. Blue cigar smoke and, now and then, a quiet sparkle of jewelry. Tyres crunch on the gravelled drive to the carpeted club entrance. The solid snap of an expensive automobile's door. New guests have arrived.

The signal flashes to green. Our route goes by the park. In the distance strings of orange lights adorn the bandstand from which come muffled snatches of drums and clashing cymbals. We drive through the Tunjungan now with its numerous bars, hotels and theatres. The brilliant shop windows of the newly opened Japanese department store Tjijoda, and the more soberly illuminated facade of Whiteway Laidlaw. High above in the night air, the jumble of multi-coloured neon advertising, motionless or in running flashes. Further down the road, Town Hall Gardens with trees full of red, white and blue lights. Something must be on again there in Town Hall Gardens, where the small-income man finds diversion in word, music and dance. Perhaps a jubilee or congress of sorts, doubtlessly celebrated with endless speeches and a boring play. Then, to top it off, a ball with the inevitable Hawaiian band with its guitars twanging sweet melodies of moonlight and dreams come true in Waikiki and Honolulu. Girls, some in rather garish coloured dress, will try to follow the astonishingly complicated dance maneuvers of their escorts in suits of every taste and shade.

Entering downtown, the night seems here deeper and still, with myriads of tiny moths circling the globes of tall lamp posts on William's Quay and Red Bridge, strangely quiet and deserted at this hour. An oil wick flutters in the small cabin of a native barge on the dark river. Glowing pinpoints light up and darken again in the porticoes and doorways of the locked up business houses along the quay, where Madurese wharf labourers are smoking their favourite cheroots of clove-saturated tobacco rolled in maize leaf. Proud and independent, spending the night outdoors on a bed of jute bags, anywhere they may fancy, rather than having to return dutifully to the one and same address.

Finally we reach the Heads and the car is brought to a halt. At the mouth of the Brantas the last ferry boat from Madura eases along her berth with a deep throb of her engines, her green and red lights shining through billows of swirling steam. High above, invisible in the darkness, a night bird cries for its mate. Far out in the Roads a yellow beacon winks slowly with measured intervals across a sea which lies there serene and peaceful. The Western Fairway, between two citadels armed to the teeth, Fort Menari and Fort Piring, their big guns rendering suicidal any attempt to enter the harbour by an aggressor, whoever it may be.

Another car pulls up near where we are. For a while we hear the intonation of its passengers filter through the mild sea breeze. They laugh a little, then fall silent. So pleasingly quiet it is here.

This town, this beloved Surabaya, twinkling its lights, breathing under the stars. [1] [2]

On the porch, back home, the mosquito repellent has collapsed into a brittle whitish coil of ash. The air is chilly. Inside now, perhaps to a game of cards or to bed. Tomorrow is another day.

Frank Samethini
Photo Source: Frank Samethini Collection

Another day breaks through in Surabaya, where generations of carefully planned colonisation have left a stamp of prosperity, peace and unshakable security. This town with its unforgettable memories of leaving school, first job, first pay envelope. That terrific feeling of young manhood, when life seems at its best, exciting, promising. The homecoming on Saturdays from work, with all that long, free weekend waiting; the girls, the big soccer match. The ups taken for granted, the downs shrugged off, in the Golden Indies of pre-war time.

Visible through the open porthole in the cabin, the Madura Straits in late afternoon. Wind blowing hard on a taut sail, flash of sunlight exploding soundlessly off a speedboat's windscreen, the spray from her bow flaring out in a glittering transparent fan. The workday over, it is good to rest a while before going home. Even the buzz from the only surviving fly in the captain's cabin, deftly darting away from his angry, slapping hand, seems to belong, to fit in the drowsy atmosphere of satisfaction. Conversation, in the beginning rather agitated, has settled to a bored monotone. The Old Man has been upset about a character called Hitler, who has been much in the news lately. The chap appears to be up to some mischief in Germany.

So what? That's thousands of miles away, too far to bother about. It's nice and cool here, and that's a good drop of beer. The captain says that the people in Germany are drawing a blueprint for another big war. But lots of people say that is not so. Was not the Great War fought to end all wars? It'll blow over in time, you'll see. All one should be concerned about is having a good time. Why not? You're young only once, so make the most of it. In another half-hour or so, home for a shower, dinner and later that redhead. Should be an interesting evening with that figure and temperament. And in two more weeks, holidays coming up. That little bungalow in the hills, walks through the coffee plantation, Mum pottering in the vegetable garden, a dip in the mountain stream at the back, great fun. How am I to know about what is to come? The terrible blow, the kick sending me reeling down the hill, rolling and tumbling over and over, until I finally hit the bottom and cannot sink lower any more.



[1] The Dutch names of the Surabaya landmarks and geography Frank mentions are:
William's Quay = Willemskade
Red Bridge = Rode Brug (today called Jembatan Merah)
Palm Lane = Palmenlaan (today called Jalan Panglima Sudirman)
The Western Fairway = Het Westerwater

Photo Source: Surabaya Tempo Dulu

[2] Whiteway Laidlaw (Whiteway, Laidlaw & Co., Ltd.) was a Scottish firm that operated a chain of department stores throughout the Far East. This photo shows the Surabaya store as it appeared in the 1930s.

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3. Encounter

Photo Source: Documenten en Fotos Indie 47/50

The town's climate is typical of the tropics, sultry. Swimming is a favourite pastime, in the big pool of Tegalsari, almost every evening for a game of water polo or just swimming. Good sorts there, many of them in swimming gear which should be a full size larger, the clinging wet material accentuating their bodies. Ostensibly unaware of that, the girls hang about on the springboards or recline on the floor before the shower recesses. Sometimes with a boyfriend, sometimes alone with a quasi-forbidding allure about them. Yet if the right approach is made you might be lucky.

It is a beautiful April evening. There are quite a few swimmers about with the usual sounds of laughter, calling and splashing. At the head of the large, oblong space of water is a raised platform of tiles where occasionally Sunday dances are held. This platform runs from the upper landing of the entrance staircase to the edge of the wading pool. At the far end of the deep water section the boys are practising shots with a polo ball. "Wham!" slams the hard leather against the crossbar.

From the platform the water looks invitingly cool, reflecting the lights in dancing strings of flashes.

"Look, Dad, I can swim!" cries a small boy splashing about in a kapok girdle.

"Wham!" That ball again.

One of the good sorts, emerging from the water, pulls herself up the iron rungs, her hands high up on the railing. And she does it slowly. Heavy breasts beneath scanty wool, dark, dripping cowlicks in armpits. The fountain basin set in the wall of the wading pool gushes a blue, transparent veil of water.

"Daddy, Daddy, look now, I can swim!" But Daddy is all eyes for the girl.

Come, let's swim. I start walking toward the change rooms and I come by the wading pool. There, in the shallow water, is another girl, standing upright, ready to throw an orange coloured ball.

"Well now, that's good son. Keep close to the side," says Daddy finally.

A blonde. She is pretty, very pretty. Sixteen or seventeen, no more. Nothing fleshy and sexual about her. Just an attractive girl in a two-piece bathing suit. Plenty of blondes around, salesgirls in department stores or shopping with Mum, well guarded and warned against menacing males. So she's not for you, boy. But, oh, isn't she beautiful! The boys are calling me to join them but for some inexplicable reason I don't feel like swimming, not just yet. She is an eye-full in that two-piece suit but there is something different, something arresting about her. The lankiness and awkward grace of youth have just begun to bud into a warm femininity, but there is that other thing - a wholesomeness of bearing so refreshingly natural, without that studied pose commonly adopted by beautiful girls. But enough of it; she's definitely not for me. Bet her mother is around somewhere, watching her like a hawk.

Photo Source: Documenten en Fotos Indie 47/50

Let's join the boys - but then, who wants to throw around a stupid ball? Better get changed and get in the pool so you can see her real close. Among all the people I see only her face, already trusted and familiar. Again I try to reason, to withdraw, but I am helpless. Her features are flawless, a cream-rich complexion and a lovely figure. She's got that ball again, throwing it back and lifting her arms to set her bathing cap right. Fine young breasts press against the fabric. A droplet of water runs down from her ever so slightly tilted nose to parted lips, delicately formed, revealing even, white teeth. She smiles. A million dollar smile.

Then her eyes, blue, notice my helpless gaping. With a studied air of cool indifference she turns her head away, bends down in a brief posture of tenderly provocative curves and swims to the opposite edge of the pool. Staying where I am, I force myself to look elsewhere. But a minute later I hear a movement in the water, and to my surprise I see her now quite nearby, hanging on to the railing. With her is a little girl, clearly a younger sister. My heart beats faster. She is so excitingly close that a small birthmark on her arm is visible. Then I blurt out, "Is she your little sister?"

"Can't you see that for yourself?" is all she says before swimming away. She and her sister leave shortly after that, and the pool becomes terribly empty.

"What happened?" says Mum to me when I am home.

"What do you mean? Nothing, of course. I just had a swim, that's all."

"You seem to look different. I don't know, but anyway, different."

"Mum, I said I had a swim as I always do, almost every day!"

Before going to bed, I look sharply at myself in the mirror but can't see anything special.

Back at the pool, the following evening, I marvel at the sight of her stepping down the steps. What is it that she has, that makes my heart beat faster? Standing on the edge near the water, she pauses a moment to strap her cap on, turning her head slightly sideways. I drink it all in, openly and shamelessly. She must have noticed it, perhaps remembering my staring eyes, for a fleeting smile is on her sweet face before she dives into the water. Now for a careful approach. It is very important that she should not be offended by too bold an advance. Or worse, that she should become bored by silly talk like that of yesterday. But first, get her undivided attention.

Soon it becomes evident that all the display of fast swimming and fancy diving from the high board does not make the slightest impression on her, but it does draw the curiosity of my mates, who call out to each other with insinuating remarks aimed at me. At last, stopping the nonsense, I swim straight to her to say, without any preliminaries, "How are you? Isn't it a beautiful evening?" We start talking to each other.

An hour later we are still at it, leaning against the partition of the wading pool or hanging on to the railing with one hand while running softly through the water with the other. Then, of course, an exchange of names. Hers is Lisa, and that there is her little sister Christine. Instinct warns me that, to gain a favourable impression, none of the usual tricks will do with her. The smart innuendo, the slight nudge would have been incomprehensible to her young frankness, an insult to her genuine innocence.

Lisa is not quite seventeen, she will be that next month. With the same frankness in approach, typical of her, she asks how old I might be. Good heavens, twenty-four! That makes me seven years older, and a critical moment has arrived. She might withdraw now, for I am branded an "oldie." Indeed she calls me that, but with a twinkle in her eyes, for she does not care, really. Time has flown, she has to go, and then the offer is made to escort her home. Again a few critical seconds. The way is now clear for her to end it all with a friendly but positive "Rather not, Mum and Dad don't want me to go out with boys." Or worse still, "My boyfriend will be waiting for me to take me home." I hold my breath. Then, pushing herself from railing, she swims with easy strokes to the first rung of the ladder. Pulling herself halfway up and turning her head to look over one creamy white shoulder, she answers, with noticeable surprise in her tone, that this was a rather silly question. Of course she would want me to escort her home.

On the nape of her girlish neck tiny droplets cling to the golden locks curling from beneath the rim of her white bathing cap. There is a dimple on her back behind each shoulder tip. A little fullness in the flesh under her arms above the strap of her brassiere makes her soft and womanly. I feel like rushing the ladder to crush her in my arms.

The swimming pool has become the central point of thoughts around which the whole day revolves. She never arrives at the pool before half past seven, which gives me enough time to spare whenever I am invited to have a drink with the master or the mate of one of the ships we are agents for. "Oh, there you are. What'll you have?" And more often than not, the talk turns to that swastika banner-wielding Hitler again. Also Japan, of all countries, is brought into the conversation as another threat to world peace. Can't they talk about anything else? Germany is so far away, and who cares about Japan? Made-in-Japan is cheap, inferior stuff, and that'll be the same with her military power, no doubt.

The evenings consist mostly of the swimming pool and escorting her home on the bicycle. Not much variety, but very important. In parting, all I dare is to touch her hand on the steering handle and say, "See you tomorrow." That is how much I respect her, which is so different from the other girls I have met before. The thought how-far-can-I-go-now simply does not occur. Her charm and appeal to me is in a different note, which is a new experience, and a good one. For it makes the grass lusher, the trees greener and the sky more blue.

Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

I have been called up for military training at the First Infantry Battalion, in Bandung, right across to the other side of Java, for a month. The drill and coaching in handling firearms is more intensified than ever before. The sergeant says that we must prepare for war; who knows, perhaps we shall have to go to Holland to help fight that Hitler bastard, he says. Granted our machine guns, Vickers and Schwarzlose, date back to the Great War, but they are still effective. The evenings without Lisa are dreadfully lonesome.

The scissors click, deftly snipping off strands of hair, which he lifts with the comb. He is Japanese, like so many barbers in the Dutch East Indies, in his forties with a rotund face. Beaming at me through his glasses in the mirror, he looks very much like that vicar in Holland some years ago. They always smile, Japanese barbers, talking with a soft hissing and that cast-iron grin creasing the skin at the corners of their eyes. Very polite and friendly people. Finished with the job, he proceeds to massage my neck and shoulders, which is included in the price. Through the open window we hear the drone of the much advertised, newly acquired squadron of Curtis Hawk interceptor fighter planes. I cannot resist asking him whether Japan would ever attack us, to which he replies without hesitation that Nippon is a friend of the Dutch, with his whole face smiling, except for the eyes.

We will meet again under somewhat different circumstances.

Back in Surabaya, she says, "Have you been faithful to me?" So good to hear from her, because that could mean that she believes that we belong to each other. When I reply, "Of course, and you?" she just looks at me, but it's enough to make me warm all over, for I suddenly know that I love this girl. That I love her deeply.

Taking her home one evening, her little sister happens not to be with us, and by silent mutual consent a different road is used, leading to a grassy hillock with a broad, old tree on top. It stands at a little distance from the main traffic of Darmo Boulevard where she lives at number 159.

At the foot of the hill a pretext is found to alight and then...the first kiss. Her lips taste fresh and sweet, they tremble softly. I kiss her again, tenderly, and her hand moves up to rest on my shoulder, her breath sweet on my face. Withdrawing, she lightly brushes her lips on my cheek and whispers, "What took you so long?"

Photo Source:

Overhead, searchlights probe the night sky with pencil-slim beams, and a single plane drones steadily behind the clouds. Reassuring evidence of the always ready and efficient preparedness of our forces. "Look how high they can reach with those beams!" I say with a song inside of me, a tingling emotion. But what a stupid thing to say at a moment like this. I kiss her again, and feel that nothing can ever come between us.

(Many years later, this precious moment will be remembered and marveled at. In the world of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo, long before all that which was going to happen to us took place, there was that first kiss at the foot of the hill, with the milky white beams slicing the darkness aloft. Thousands of other couples might well have been doing the same thing at that precise moment, but to me it is so important. For I realize now that right from the beginning, when she stood there in the wading pool, it must have been in my heart: that girl is the only one I want to marry, to have children by and to grow old together. But would she feel the same thing? And there is her answer, before that old tree, when she whispered, "What took you so long?")

Her Majesty's Cruiser De Ruyter
Photo Source:

The only diversion allowed to her without the company of her parents is the swimming pool and pictures on Sunday afternoon. She is rather fond of films, and usually goes to the matinees with a girlfriend. Naturally she would rather go with me, but it is better not to let her mother know. She might be considered too young to go with a man seven years older. Her father, a warrant officer on Her Majesty's cruiser De Ruyter, is often away at sea. So a meeting point is arranged, somewhere on Darmo Boulevard on her way to the cinema on the bicycle. It is on a Sunday afternoon that we have our first rendezvous. Cycling along the boulevard, I see people tending their front gardens. The weather is fine, a man is washing his car, another pushes a very noisy grass mower. It is about three o'clock. Any moment now she could appear on the opposite side of the two-way road across the double tram line. Beneath the let-down awning on a porch teenagers dance to the tune of a record player turned on full: the Andrew Sisters' Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Next door a grey haired dog pokes its nose through a fence grating to bark at my bicycle. The tram clanks by. When it is gone I catch sight of her fine legs pushing the pedals and the red flare of lipstick. Daylight has enhanced the lovely colouring of her skin. What a lucky man I am.

Soon our surreptitious meetings at the pool and at the Maxim become unbearable, and an introduction to her parents is pressed through. Grudgingly at first, they finally consent to the fact that their daughter is growing up and should be allowed to have a boyfriend. Lisa and I feel that life now is really beginning.

The news from Germany is not so good. There is an angry, bellicose voice and unbelievably ugly reports about persecution and execution of Jews, and anyone who is found an enemy of the Nazi pestilence, the new Kraut philosophy.

"If I've said it once, I've said it a dozen times," goes the captain after a long swig from his beer mug. "They're all alike. Put them in uniform and they become bloody Huns, all of them Germans. We've seen it in the Great War and we'll see it again." Framed in the porthole is a disk of sky, pink in the setting sun. Lisa and I are going out tonight for our first dance. Let's finish our drink and go home. So he is mad, that Hitler. Who cares? Thanking them for the drinks, I bid them good night. But they don't hear me, deeply absorbed as they are in a discussion about Germany. Their voices are clearly audible at the foot of the gangway. "It will be England again to come to the rescue, you'll see!"

After the sultry day, the cool wind in the open car is medicine. Tonight she has her hair styled in a roll over her shoulders. She is simply smashing. I look at her face now and then, set in a gentle glow by the overhead passing street lights, while the car radio announces the arrival of a squadron of Glenn Martin bombers from America. A spokesman of the General Headquarters follows to say that this has brought our air force up to date, and henceforth we will be able to cope with any aggressor. A beautiful evening with a beautiful girl. What more can you wish? What aggressor?

Glenn Martin B-10 bombers

4. The Darkening Sky

September 1939. The sands of time are running out. Then the first thunderbolt: Britain and France at war with Germany. Holland mobilises, prepared for the worst. In the Dutch East Indies there is no mobilisation, but the call to report for military drill comes time after time. I am hardly back in civvies before I have to put on my uniform again for duty at another depot. They say we have to be ready. For what? For the Japanese, they say. For the little fellows with spectacles, barbers, watchmakers, you know, them!

They must be joking! The Japanese of all people, they must be aware of the terrific naval power Britain packs in Singapore. It would be madness!

That seems to be true for the rest of the year, and the first four months of the next pass without any real threat to our country. Then 9 May, 1940, which is Lisa's birthday. Everybody brings presents. Her parents with their guests drink and talk merrily on the porch outside. We are on the couch in the dimly lit lounge room, in her hand the silver powder box I have given her. Turning it over and over, she gazes at it, as if it is something of great value.

It is very late, well past midnight, but no one thinks of leaving. They are all in a happy mood, particularly Lisa's mother because her husband is home.

Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

Suddenly army trucks coming rolling by, full of soldiers, and more come, the heavies with powerful, growling motors. Where are they going to at this time of the night? Everybody gets on their feet. A glass smashes on the floor, followed by a nervous, giggled apology. Her mother says that it is nothing, it will bring luck. Then no more trucks come and the agitation dies. Returning to the lounge room, I notice that the radio has ceased playing music. Instead I hear a single voice saying over and over again through the crackle of static, "The code word is Berlin!"

We two on the couch are mercifully unaware that the beginning of the end has been announced with that single word, "Berlin", which will shatter the best years of our life together.

At breakfast, the news is broken that the pack has been released, hurled into the Low Countries and France. That means Holland is invaded, Holland is at war! Incredible and astonishing! The trucks on the road last night, they were taking troops to strategic positions to block off any possible escape route for "them": people with German names or from German stock, no matter how long ago. They are arrested, interrogated and smack-bang into concentration camps with them. Only those who can adequately present proof of Dutch citizenship are set free and sent home with a red face and ruffled feathers. We, the Dutch in the colonies, are very angry indeed at the murderous Huns, and we'll show them. Newspaper editorials and spokesmen for the government, churchmen and anybody else feeling that he has something to say, all agree that it'll be total war, that we'll fight them and show them that the Dutch had not for nothing fought a war against the Spanish, for eighty years, mind you.

Suspected German sympathisers interned at a camp near Batavia, Java.
Photo Source: Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde

It is all over in four days. Holland is made German property, and her masters, contemptuously knocking aside the British and French forces, then proceed to take over most of Western Europe.

The outlook in Western Europe is dark indeed, but the sun is still very much shining in the colonies, the only remaining strongholds. The tricolour proudly flying from the mast gives strength to the cry that "Holland shall rise again!" Yes, the four words grow into a dictum, an epigram stamped across postage stamps, flashed across the screen in the cinemas, engraved on buttons. In the meanwhile, the radio and tabloids warn, we must realise that the defence of our so profitable colonies rests now entirely in our own hands. Remember, they say, that we must be prepared to stand up and fight with everything we have. True, this "everything" is not much; alarmingly small indeed are our military forces. But isn't it the spirit that counts, the old Dutch fighting spirit when the call comes to go to war for Queen and Country?

She calls it affectionately "our own little table in our own little cafe." A charming, small establishment facing the main road, from which we two are looking at the rain pouring down in sheets. Anything but war-minded we are, stubbornly hanging on to a dream world that cannot become bad because it is going to be ours - when we will be married next year. So here in this cozy little place, holding hands, we gaze happily at the tram filled with wet and annoyed passengers, at the motor cars with their busily fanning screenwipers and tyres whizzing on wet bitumen. A hat is swirled by the wind into the gutter, its owner running madly to retrieve it. A man enters the room in dripping coat and hat, angrily shaking the water from his umbrella. It is all so normal and ordinary; nothing is changed at all. It rains, which is a nuisance and people get annoyed, which is to be expected. Everything is going on as before - as if Holland is not lost to the Huns, as if the tragedy of Europe is not real, not a fact.

"Let us stand with honor in the front line!"
Image Source: The Museon / Legermuseum

Photo Source: Time magazine, 1942

Months go by. Months of speeches about our war effort, delivered by experts, well-spoken gentlemen in dinner suits, one hand loosely tugging at the knot of their tie, emitting one gem of informative advice after another. Desk marshals, chuckling complacently, offer free detailed forecasts of what is going to happen to Japan should that country be so impertinent as to start anything. But they won't of course. The U.S.A. is seeing to that, no risk. Parties for the benefit of the British war machine are the order of the day. Parties where lots of fun is to be had. The army works at top speed to break the called-up men into the art of killing. The Battle of Britain, comfortably distant, is applauded and toasted upon. The regular non-coms and privates of the forces, beforehand barred and shunned by almost all public establishments of drinking, eating and dancing, are suddenly made much of and cordially invited to come and be entertained. Everyone in Her Majesty's uniform is beckoned to a lift in the cars, which all carry a sticker to that effect on the windscreen. Even so, at this stage, to most people the grimness of the situation has not quite sunk in. To many of the conscripts, tossing about on their bug-ridden army cots, the separation from sweetheart or family is more worrying than the news that Japan seems to become militarily stronger day by day.

Christmas morning, 1940. A small tree is put up in her home. The step ladder is a bit wobbly; great care is needed to avoid accidents while putting up trinkets on its branches. The awnings have been lowered to shut out the midday glare. The room is pleasantly cool. I hear her talking to somebody outside on the porch. On the road a shoemaker is chanting his typical call: "Bikin sepatu-uuh!" From the radio soft piano music fills the room, Chopin's prelude written for George Sand. Lisa enters to give a hand, and it is as if the music was composed for her. Coloured light from the stained-glass front door ripples over her blond hair. Picking up a little silver ball, she reaches upward to me on the ladder, in her eyes a glint sparkling, a reflection, that will always stay on in my memory. One more tinsel bell is hung and I step down. She leaves the room to help her mother prepare the dinner. Look at all that silver and gold glitter on the tree. The little red candles and the star high on top. Has that tree still a place in this world, with all this is happening?

May 1941. First Battalion Infantry at Bandung, snap-up call for two months cadre training programme consisting of hard drill, record time in stripping and assembling a machine gun, how to manipulate a bayonet that got stuck between ribs and how to salute an officer correctly. Within a month I am made corporal.

Wedding Day
Photo Source: Frank Samethini Collection

4 June, 1941. Our wedding at last, come what may. Lisa arrives by train, alone, to marry me in my corporal's uniform. None of our parents can make it. At the registrar's office the two witnesses are waiting for a very brief ceremony. We walk up to the desk, the gavel is brought down and we walk back as man and wife. No point in having a church wedding with our parents absent and our friends all away.

So different from what we both anticipated and planned together. In her sweet face I read the hurt at the businesslike proceeding, but it cannot be helped. We wanted to get married and if it has to be like this, then be it so. Who knows what the future will hold? There may be so little time left. Pluck the day, today is ours. Whose will it be tomorrow?

In July we return to Surabaya, a couple joined in wedlock. Our happiness is boundless. Refusing to be worried by the ever worsening news, we welcome every excuse for going out to movies, parties or just some dancing. To the stirring beat of drums, percussion and bass we dance, lost to the world. Suddenly the sirens howl, the waiters run to draw the curtains for another snap black-out practice in war-prepared Surabaya. Tactfully, the band leader switches to national songs and everybody is singing away about Holland's Flag, about Piet Hein who took the Spanish Silver Fleet and about the Girl by the Mill. People singing perhaps louder, smiling perhaps more than ever before.

Image Source:

Afterwards we go for a drive in the cool night air along the river, winding silvery through the park, dark and empty. There is the Maxim's frontage, blazing the title of a new film with Abbott and Costello, Buck Privates. The terrace of the Simpang Club is deserted but further on, on the Hellendoorn's ground floor, dancing is in full sway. Proceeding along the mainway, we see that there is the usual after-congress ball in Town Hall Gardens. After all, it was only an air raid practice. There seems to be something timeless in Surabaya. Uptown the glitter of night life, downtown the quietness of the quay with the sleeping sailing craft huddled along the old mooring site, and far out on the Roads, the winking beacon light. It is all so peaceful and friendly, so unchangeable in iron-clad security.

Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

The year is almost over. On the darkened porch she tells of the coming bliss. A baby! Speechless, I kiss her with a new feeling of respect under the dark sky - a sky torn to pieces by darting, probing white shafts of the practising searchlight crews, prepared and ready as ever to stand firm.

7 December, 1941. Hundreds of Japanese airplanes attack in the early morning hours, without provocation or warning, the assembled fleet of the United States of America in Hawaii. The bulk of the naval power of a country not at war with Japan is sunk or crippled. The infamy of Pearl Harbour. The dreaded words are broadcast by radio to all of the Dutch East Indies. We are now also at war with Japan.

"Our Country is at War with Japan"
Image Source: Deijmann/Van der Steur Familie Fotos

Schwarzlose machine gun
Photo Source:

Stinging sweat runs from my forehead into my eyes and down into the corners of my mouth, to drip on my hand holding the breech of the machine gun. My hand has been there for the last half hour, the other one at the trigger guard. Both exactly where they should be, to move at a moment's notice, swiftly and precisely, to set the elevation, fire and reload this Schwarzlose machine gun. The army training took care of that. These hands, in fact the whole body, are now legally owned as a tool - and if necessary, a disposable one - of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army. My private life is written off. I am wholly expendable, nothing but an instrument to execute the order given through that little speaker in the concrete bunker wall, whenever that order will be given. Talking back is not allowed, not possible. Just wait, and remember to aim for the belly, better chance to hit where it matters. Forget about her, forget about anything else but your duty to Queen and Country, to kill as many as you can before you yourself are killed. And if you are, don't worry. The government will look after her and the baby, provided there is a government when it's all over, naturally. The relief arrives at dusk. Nothing has happened at our fort. Nothing could have. They are too far off yet. [1]

One evening towards Christmas, a group of female cabaret entertainers arrive at our fort to cheer up the gun crews and the infantry detachment. The girls are quickly ushered behind the curtain of the makeshift stage floor in the canteen, brim-full with suddenly catcalling and whistling soldiers. The men lick their lips. Many have been without women for almost a year. The curtain is raised when the fort commander arrives with his staff, and we see girls dressed in Hawaiian grass skirts and strings of paper flowers on their necks on low-cut blouses. A deep silence falls on the audience. The guitars begin to twang, and a pretty dish, all curves, steps forward. Slowly gyrating her hips, she sings, "Si - si -si." A soldier, unable to hold himself any longer and top heavy with booze, roars, "Let me lay you, dearie-ie!" Tumult. An angry order from the fort commander to bring the curtain down at once. Loud snickers from the men. The troupe is sent back to town, the serenading soldier arrested and locked up in the cooler. The gentlemen-officers' unanimous verdict is that the men have become unfit for mixed company.

Weeks pass without a shot being fired by us at the fort. But the radio tells of defeat, of bitter defeat by the ridiculed little men, the former smiling, bowing and hissing barbers, merchants of inferior goods made in Japan. There are also numerous reports of bravery from other sectors of our forces, but the closing message of the bulletin is always the same: battle lost, we retreat before the swarming ants. Only a miracle can stem the Yellow Flood, but miracles are not easily gotten. Only the slogans, of course, are still on the market, to keep up the fighting spirit for when they land on Java's shores. The radio has a classic one this morning: "Is it not better to die standing on our feet than to live further on our knees?" These rich colonies, which made Holland so immensely rich, have they not deserved something better than slogans? A military force big enough to withstand an aggressor, perhaps? Or are we leaning too heavily on Allied assistance? Alone with my thoughts in the pillbox, it all seems like a bad dream, happening so fast. Yesterday these hands held her. Today they are on cold gun-steel.

Acoustic anti-aircraft locator
Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

I am reading a letter from Lisa while on duty in the listening post ("Darling, do you want it to be a boy or a girl?"), when suddenly a sound from a great distance enters the earphones. Growing louder and louder, it seems to come from every direction. No, wait, from high in the invisible vault above the cloud banks it comes! In a flash I recognise it with sudden, racing heart: approaching aircraft. Can't be ours, we haven't got that many! My thumb sinks the alarm button while I reach for her letter fluttering to the floor. My field glasses show the Jap airplanes up as silver-winged, transparent dragonflies, three flights of five bombers in each squadron, moving slowly across the sky, too high for the black and white popping blossoms of our ack-ack. What little is left of our fighter planes whiningly soar upwards to meet their fate. The dragonflies move on southwards - southwards! But that is Surabaya! Fear clutches my throat. My God! Almost immediately I hear the dull boom of exploding bombs in a muffled staccato that pierces through my heart. Where, oh God, have they fallen?

"Three flights of five bombers in each squadron"
Mitsubishi G4M medium bombers

Photo Source:

Japanese bombs fall on Surabaya
Photo Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942

Cold sweat runs down my back while the machines fly on with maddening confidence and determination. Where are our fighter planes? What happened to them? Her letter is still in my hand, and her words dance across the paper: "Darling, do you want it to be a boy or a girl?" Another muffled roar. Shuddering incessantly, as if attacked by malaria, I catch sight of a bluebottle settling down quietly and gracefully on a softly swaying buttercup in the grass, without a care in the world. I hurl a rock at it. There is a sudden commotion behind the bunker when a soldier leaps out of his shelter, swearing and shouting, to empty his rifle at the sky. In panic dozens of herons fly up from the swamp with loud shrieking and flapping of wings. The soldier is brought down with a tackle by a mate, who leads the now hysterically sobbing man back into the bunker. A long, low rumble rises from the harbour area, followed by one, two explosions. Putting my rifle down, I fold my hands in a silent prayer for help. Others take off their helmets and bow their heads. What else can we do? An hour or so later, the all-clear is sounded while a black smoke column rises up into the empty sky. Our last fighter plane limps down to the burning airfield. [2]

I am greatly relieved to receive a note from Lisa telling me that they are all safe and well. She was visiting a friend when it happened, and had hidden under the bed. The night before has been the longest of my life.

The following week a few more air raids are directed on fortifications outside Surabaya, but the scattered pillboxes and gun emplacements are perfectly camouflaged and no direct hit is suffered. The enemy aircraft, unchallenged since the last Dutch plane was downed, fly low over the dense swamp vegetation in an effort to draw fire and so pinpoint our gun positions. But the order by the fort commander is clear: repulse enemy landings on the beaches and nothing else. Do not shoot at aircraft, do not even shake a fist at them lest they spot you. Keep your head low and swear if you must, but at all events stay out of sight. What kind of war is this?

The news couldn't be worse. Tarakan, an important fuel point in the archipelago, has fallen. The battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, Britain's pride and boast, are embarrassingly made short work of by Japanese planes which sink them one after the other. To top it off, Singapore capitulates, and an ominous silence descends over all that part of Southeast Asia. The net is closing around us. [3]

Mum and Lisa
Photo Source: Han Samethini Collection

I get twenty-four hours leave and find Surabaya swarming with British and Australian soldiers. The hinges of our front gate creak noisily, as they did in those distant days when I came home from work. Our old dog rises on stiff legs and lifts his head, yelping with pleasure. Lisa walks out on the porch and I rush to her. Her eyes grow misty and her fingers dig deep into my back while she kisses me with trembling, salty lips. Then, collecting herself, she withdraws, wiping her eyes dry on her sleeve. She leads me into the bedroom, to the cupboards and self-knitted baby things. Mum, who had discreetly waited in the lounge, enters with open arms. Her eyes too are misty. The war is pushed into the background now that I am with them again. A growing awareness of security returns now that I am safely back home and see how they fuss over me. The intimacy of our house, with its little old painting in the wide frame, the low wicker table on the porch with its circular imprints of many a glass and a chipped ashtray. The hollow thumping of our footfalls on the wooden floor of the rear veranda sound as they always did. In the kitchen our cook is preparing favourite dishes, welcoming me with a broad grin and uplifted ladle. All this seems to say to me not to worry, it's not all that bad.

Our baby, growing under Lisa's heart, has moved quite a few times as a healthy baby should, says Mum. April, said the doctor, maybe the beginning of April. We sit around the wicker table on the porch, our favourite spot, and talk about anything but the war. On the wall that infernal clock is ticking the minutes away.

Later that night, sleep is fought back lest some of the valuable time with her will be lost. Wan wisps of light from the bedside lamp quiver in a corner of the ceiling as they always did before, when we were just married and sheer happiness would keep me awake. Now everything is harshly different. She had cried a little and then fallen asleep on my shoulder, softly breathing on my cheek. On the chest of drawers the alarm clock is ticking off precious time. A faint glow from the dimmed street lights is visible through the shutters of the bedroom window. It is very still. Far over the river a siren shrinks away in a dying wail. Silently I vow to come back to this girl, whatever the cost, whatever the price.

Too soon I return to mosquitoes, smells, whispered passwords, dirty yarns. One night after patrol the boys bring out the gin and we drink ourselves into a devil-may-care mood, on top of the pillbox. There is a flash in the clouds to the south over the town where she sleeps. Thunder breaks faintly in the distance, then louder, galloping across the sky, rolling away out to sea. Is it an omen of bad things to come? A sickening feeling of impending disaster, a sense of dead certainty, creeps up. With hot liquor breath in my nostrils, I spit into the night. Damn!

De Ruyter in wartime grey camouflage scheme Photo Source: Australian War Memorial AWM 305837

There is that early hour when the binoculars pick up the sleek outlines in camouflage grey, stealing through the mist of dawn into the open sea. Our gallant Navy sailing to their last engagement with the enemy, to bear the brunt of the great onslaught. To go down in glory against a vastly superior fleet. Lisa's father, there on that cruiser De Ruyter, will perish with the crew and their admiral, whose last signal flying from the mast - "I attack, follow me!" - will become the code of honour earned for the Battle of the Java Sea.

A grey dawn breaks through the mangroves. The swamp stinks as it does every morning. The first sun rays light up the black clouds overhead. Soon it will rain. The day is born that will go down as the blackest day in the history of the Royal Dutch East Indies Forces. The order given by our supreme command is, surrender unconditionally to the enemy. In bitter silence they come, from the firing positions, from the big guns so perfectly camouflaged against air attack. They come to pile arms and ammunition in one big heap before the commander's bunker. This has been ordered by the Imperial Japanese Army, which will arrive to take over tomorrow. We all go to the canteen to drink, and drink. "Here's to victory, blast the Japs!" sounding hollow and desperate.

It is well past midnight. In quietness the last beer is drunk, standing around a dying fire. A fire that was made of documents, anything which could be valuable to the enemy. On top of the glowing cinders lies something which was once a book. Though consumed by the flames, it has not collapsed into an unrecognisable heap of grey dust, but still retains roughly its original shape in a blackened hunk. The letters of the title on the front cover, though whitish, are still legible. A photograph of a head has been turned by the fire into a grimacing skull. It is, or rather was, a copy of a volume published not so long ago, and at that timed dubbed as "pessimistic" and the "product of a defeatist." It was a book outlining and predicting with certainty the coming onslaught from the north. The author, H. Abend, an American correspondent, had named it Japan Unmasked. Finally we turn in, overcome with sleep. Tomorrow is another day.


[1] According to notes jotted in his bible, Frank was posted to Fort Menari in December 1941. It was a gun battery on the small island of Menari (today called Pulau Karang Jamuang), guarding the west entrance to the Madura Strait. The three satellite images below show the appearance of the island in 2002. The first is a view of the island looking south towards Surabaya. The second and third images are closeups of the site from different angles. The central lagoon must be the swamp mentioned by Frank (click on thumbnail images to enlarge):

Fort Menari remnants? This appears to be a rusting artillery piece in the ruins of a Dutch bunker.
 Photo source: Pesona Tersembunyi di Balik Karam Jamuang

[2] The first major Japanese bombing raids against East Java began on 3 February, 1942. Dutch and Allied interceptors, outnumbered and suffering heavy casualties, continued operations through the end of the month. Evidently the air-to-air combat after 3 February took place beyond visual range of Fort Menari.

[3] Tarakan fell on 13 January, 1942. The Prince of Wales and Repulse were sunk the preceding month, on 10 December. Singapore surrendered on 15 February.

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