Tuesday, January 20, 2009

23. Manila

Hospital ship USS Rescue
Source: U.S. Naval Historical Center #NH 98756

On the 2nd of September a U.S. Marine escort arrives early in the morning to take us away. When we are all lined up, numbered off and stood at ease, I discover to my dismay that I have left my notes in the secret hiding place in my bunk. Asking to be excused, I hurry back to the barracks, which look hollowly empty. Strewn over the floor and tables lie dirty rags, discarded sandals and empty cans, a tattered rucksack, odds and ends. The usual sight of a broken-up camp. A crumpled piece of paper, blown up by a gust of wind through the open door, slowly spirals down into a pan partly filled with cooked rice and corned beef. Not so long ago a most unlikely thing in any place where prisoners of war had been. The thought, "It's over, it's all over", quickens my heartbeat again as it did so often these last weeks. Climbing to my old sleeping place, I get my notes, and out of habit throw a quick glance over the board at the head of the bunk, but find nothing else to take along. Going down the ladder, I notice a clod of dried earth lying on the spot where I had slept, dreamed and hoped. After a second of hesitation I go up again, pick up the clod and throw it away. My new boots creak loudly in the stillness as I go to the door - out into a new life ahead.

On the narrow path winding through the waving rice stalks we walk away in single file. On the crest of the hill I look back for the last time. Sayonara, Iwase Camp. What will be waiting for me at the end of this new road? Pretty soon I shall know, and the thought makes me uneasy. One part of me is full of confidence that all will be right, another part of me tries to shake off the unthinkable thought.

Half a mile further and they take us to a small landing craft to board an American hospital ship, the Rescue. Up the gangway we go and step on deck into all that is America. The easy-flowing efficiency of a well organised system of recording personal data, a thorough delousing process, medical check, issue of a brand new outfit and a well-stacked meal. All done without any unnecessary delay and with the typical American open-hearted friendliness. There is a slight stir when we have to wait for the doctor. Out of nowhere appears a golden tan, cherry red lips and a buxom shirt - the wonder of a white woman, kept away from us for more than three years. Broadly smiling, the lovely creature asks us to strip on the spot for the checkup. This we refuse to do until she has left the room. We have got back a sense of personal dignity, too new and treasured to show our naked flesh to this breathtaking person. Still smiling, the nurse walks out of the room, not to appear again when we stand naked for the doctor. Which, after all, is a pity, says Roel.

The war correspondents are a nuisance with their incessant questions for details of atrocities committed by the Japanese. It would be better if they would leave us alone. We do not want to remember, to rekindle the old hatred which has burned itself out. All we want now is to go home.

The sun is setting in a glowing red ball when writing paper and envelopes are distributed. With my heart in my mouth, I write her that I have pulled through and am in good health, and that I shall write again as soon as I know where I am going, and that I love her so much.

It is a beautiful ship, spotlessly clean. In the lounge all is cool and calm, only a feeble vibration indicates that we are sailing. Through hidden loudspeakers comes a softly played tune, a perfect syncopation of brass accompanying a throaty voice:

You belong to my heart, now and forever. And our love had its start not long ago...

All about me is a quiet friendliness, people talking, people smiling. It is like a dream but it is not. The old time has come back. Blue cigarette smoke trailing up from a hand holding a picture, heads bent down for a closer look. Female nurses in officer's uniform drawing the eyes of the men, particularly the ex-POWs, with their prettiness, their shapeliness. Officers, noncoms and privates, all together in easy informality without the stiffness and restraint of rank and standing, the after-duty hours of bonhomie, so characteristic of the U.S. Lighting a fresh cigarette, I step out on deck. The weather is fine, the sea calm, but watching the white-flecked water rushing past the railing reminds me of another time and I quickly return to the lounge. Lights-out finds me between snow white linen on a thick, springy mattress. What a pity that it is all wasted on me. I am not used anymore to a soft bed, and go down on the floor to sleep.


USS Landsdowne (DD-486)
Photo Source: Destroyer History Foundation

The following day a group to which I belong is transferred at sea to a destroyer, the USS Landsdowne. We goggle at the gun turrets, depth charges and torpedoes, an ice cream machine and a piano. The crew doles out ice cream but is reluctant to let one of our men play the piano when that is suggested. Our American friends are slow in assuming that a Dutchman could play jazz well enough to bother about unlocking the keyboard. But a little pressure helps and the expression on their faces is worth all the trouble when our man gives a perfect imitation of Fats Waller.

It is on board this ship that I read in Stars and Stripes about the atom bomb explosions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the "big flashes" mentioned by the Japs in the factory. At a later time I shall also learn about certain documents uncovered by the American occupation force, establishing the truth of the rumour that all prisoners of war were to be killed as soon as an Allied invasion force should set foot ashore. Those bamboo spears were made with a lugubrious intent. The infernal slaughter by the A-bombs, forcing Japan to its knees before an actual invasion of Allied troops, had in fact saved our lives. [1]

Atsugi Airfield: POWs newly arrived from Toyama camp hand in letters
to be mailed at the American Red Cross table.
September 1945
Source: U.S. Army Center of Military History

We are put ashore and taken to a huge hangar at Atsugi Airfield, where we receive K-rations, hot coffee and a copy of the Stars and Stripes with a detailed report on the signing of the formal instrument of surrender on board the USS Missouri on the 2nd of September. The next day, early in the morning, we walk across the vast airfield to a directed spot where we are to wait for our plane. One of the men in my section asks permission to go to the toilet, saying he has to go this instant. What can I do? He has to walk all the way back, and is gone ten minutes when a large airplane taxies to our group and we are ordered to embark at once. The flight coordinator says I am "not to worry about the guy who went to the john, he'll be picked up by the next crate."

The big C-54 carries a hostess who remains quite unperturbed under the battery of our steady scrutiny. Of course she would be accustomed to this sort of thing with all these servicemen around.

Douglas C-54 Skymaster
Photo Source: old-bold-pilot.com

At Okinawa we witness the incredible speed in building a military transit centre, American style, with bulldozers, earth-removers, prefabricated floors, tents and loudspeakers for the public address system. Engineers hammer, pull ropes, wield spanners and screw drivers, shout and curse. Before we know what is happening neat, long rows of dark green tents and Quonset huts for the kitchen and the mess hall are erected, together with the screen for tonight's movie! Military Police drive busily in jeeps and on motorcycles from one spot to another in what looks like a vast, scrambling ant heap. But pretty soon out of the general confusion grows a large military compound equipped with the best materials dollars can buy. We have finished a warm dinner in the mess hall before dusk is settled, and are now outside waiting for the show to start. In front of the movie grounds a motor van is opening its windows in preparation for the Coca-cola and ice cream sales. What country could ever offer its soldiers this kind of treatment? Consequently, what country could win a war against this kind of money?

Shortly before bed we hear the terrible news that the airplane which took off after ours from Atsugi had caught fire in midair. There were no survivors. Roel exclaims, "He should have done it on the spot instead of asking you to go to the can. He'd have saved his life then!" But too often we have witnessed sudden death, fate striking swiftly without warning, to be bothered much by the incident. All we can think about is home.

Battle-scarred City Hall in postwar Manila
Photo Source: Philippine Travel Blog

POWs recovered from Japan filling out interrogation forms in a Manila transit camp
September 1945

Photo Source: Australian War Memorial

On the 6th of September, at dawn, the wheels of our C-54 touch the strip of Manila airfield with a high pitched note. We drive in an open lorry through the capital of the Philippines, heavily pockmarked by war, to roll five miles further into the Fifth Replacement Centre. This is an enormous camp where everyone is presented with a personal letter of welcome from the American Commanding Officer of the Liberated Personnel Section. We are assured that every measure will be taken to reunite us with our families as soon as this can be arranged, but in the meanwhile we are to consider ourselves as guests of the U.S. Military Forces. No roll-call duties will be imposed on us, yet we are still fully entitled to every facility of the American servicemen. A branch of the Netherlands Trading Company will pay our salaries. Six men to each tent, and per man per day, two packages of cigarettes, two cigars, one large candy bar, three cans of beer and chewing gum. There is no end to the goodies and we really should not be wanting anything more - except that we would gladly give everything back for a chance to go home, not tomorrow but right now, this minute!

Gonna take a sentimental journey, gonna set my heart at ease.
Gonna take a sentimental journey, to renew old memories...


Good grief, he is home again! The American platoon sergeant in the tent at the head of our row starts and ends each day with a new hit song, repeating it several times in between, whenever he has a chance, driving us up the wall.

There is plenty of entertainment available in the Fifth. You can go to a movie or USO show, see Bob Hope, hear Doris Day on the jukebox or read pocket books.

I am still without an answer, a sign of life, from Lisa. I have written her a second letter asking her to reply bu return. Everyday new airplane loads of liberated personnel arrive, reuniting relatives and friends. The warming sight of their gladness is an added not to our own happy expectations. It is unbelievable. A mere month ago we could have been killed by bombs, starvation or just a whimsical mood of the Japanese Supreme Command. Now we are being looked after by Uncle Sam, while waiting for that great moment when we start on the final journey home.

Then come the first fragments of news from the Dutch East Indies trickling into our midst - and the tidings are not good. Word comes about the frightening and impossible situation there immediately after the capitulation of Japan. To Admiral Louis Mountbatten was given the responsibility of enforcing terms of unconditional surrender of the Japanese military forces in the Indies, releasing prisoners of war and internees, maintaining peaceful conditions preparatory to handing over the territory to the original government, and to try war criminals. And now the task seems too much for the admiral. To begin with, he has not enough troops at his disposal for the occupation of the vast spread out area of islands. Then there is not enough shipping space to carry troops, and also the innumerable straits, fairways and harbours have first to be swept clear of mines, requiring lots of time. Britain, as before in history, has accepted responsibility for an undertaking which proves too great a challenge, and in time others will have to step in to finish the job. In Java and Sumatra an enormous Japanese army, armed to the teeth, has surrendered to an Allied force thousands of miles away. On the 17th of August a group of Indonesians, headed by Sukarno, saw their chance to proclaim unhindered the Republic of Indonesia, launching at the same time an intense hate campaign against the Dutch.

It is now for the first time that we hear with renewed anger of the full-scale internment of all European women and children in concentration camps all over Java and Sumatra, soon after the great contingents of male prisoners of war had been shipped from those islands to Malacca and elsewhere. Now with the war over and no Dutch troops to stop them, bands of young, hot-headed Indonesians equipped with arms and ammunition from the Japanese Army (which surrendered them at Semarang) have broken out into an orgy of rampaging, plunder and merciless killing.

The irony of fate has left Mountbatten no other choice but to order the defeated Japanese enemy, the Japanese forces in Java and Sumatra, to protect European internees and Indonesians of goodwill against the marauding extremists! Who else, indeed, would be capable of maintaing control and keeping order than these excellently trained soldiers? Already severe fighting has broken out between the Japanese and Indonesians over control of the town and so the situation, if quaint, has become grim. The former liberators and champions of the Indonesian people are being used to defend white women and children against the Indonesians. Unfortunately and disastrously, not all Japanese garrisons followed their Headquarter's order, and by handing over their arms to the Indonesian extremists, they have made the latter a potential danger to the country.

The news is stunning. We all believed that we would be returning to our beloved East Indies, that "girdle of emeralds strung across the equator," that dear country of lush islands - undoubtedly scarred and bruised by war, but unquestionably home, a welcoming home. Now, as a bolt out of the blue, the cold reality hits us that there will be no such thing as a friendly, waiting home, but a land that overnight has become unfit for our women and children to live in, unless they be protected by troops, which are not available.

In a hastily called meeting of Dutch personnel we unanimously agree to start an immediate speed-up training program, to induce the Americans to supply us with arms and to get home as quickly as possible. We shall know how to deal with people attacking defenceless women and children. Less than a week later orders are issued to register, and as one man we all come, for the news has been told that the first British troops will not be available until the end of September!

United Press reports bands of Indonesian extremists, penetrating the defence line of an internees camp in West Java, had massacred almost the entire number of women and children before Japanese reinforcements could drive them away! My heart is in the clutch of a cold, clammy hand. I force myself to read further.

The few survivors had told the sordid details of the years of internment. Though ample food was available, the women and their offspring had, like us male prisoners, been subjected to a policy of consistent underfeeding to break down any spirit of resistance, should this ever arise. In addition they were, from as young as eleven years, used for the daily spectacle of the white man's degradation. Before the eyes of the local natives our women and girls had to clean latrines used by the heiho, the Indonesian guards, and take the manure to the fields, where they were put to work. Bodily punishment to the point of death was their lot for the slightest infringement of camp rules. The flea bitten heiho mongrels were especially a daily menace to our people. Thus the boasters of Bushido and the samurai code of honour proved themselves lacking in genuine, manly chivalry. Not only in regard to male prisoners but also towards the weaker sex they had made themselves the Asiatic counterpart of that scum and flotsam of Western civilisation, the German Nazis.

In spite of it all, our women had given battle in keeping up the education of the children as far as this could be done in a concentration camp, and in never losing faith in the ultimate victory of the Allies. They had conjured up a three month setting for this day of victory: if not round about Christmas, it would be Easter or June, or Michaelmas in September, and so on until Christmas was near again. That, then, would finally be the day when the gates, flung open wide, would let them go out into freedom, into a happy reunion with their men. Thousands of women and children had perished, but thousands had stubbornly endured filth, starvation and humiliation, in the conviction that before long their resistance would be rewarded. When finally the hour came, they found that the gates had to be kept firmly closed against a silent, hostile world and that the food situation had become worse than ever before.

All that time abroad I, and most of us, had thought - nay, forced ourselves to believe - that somehow our kinfolk were being cared for by a kind Providence and friendly Indonesians. That optimistic view of their lot was necessary for us, lest the daily anguish about their fate would have gnawed away what will to resist we had left. Now that the cold truth has come to light, I am not only deeply worried but also ill at ease at the thought of our good fortune to be here in safety and abundance of food, whilst those who were in our hearts through all the dark years are still deep in misery and danger for their lives.

On Sunday the Dutch church service in the Centre's chapel is attended by many people.


Footnote

[1] To view an example of a Japanese order to murder all POWs, with English translation, see: Doc 2701, Exhibit "O".


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