Tuesday, January 20, 2009

24. Peace?

Reverend J.C. Hamel
Portrait by Frans Hamers, 1947
Image Source: Soldatendominee (Soldier's Minister), by J.C. Hamel

Beginning of October. Letters have come from my parents, and from my brother, who has remained all the time in Thailand. All are in good health, thank heaven - but nothing from her!

My mother writes that Lisa and the baby were taken into a concentration camp a year after the child was born. Since that time nothing has been heard from her at all. With a cold, sinking feeling in my stomach I dash outside to the biggest crowd of people that I can find, the more the better, for I don't want to be alone with my thoughts.

At the recreation centre I meet the Reverend J. Hamel, a man of God as true as one can find, known as the "Soldier's Minister", highly respected and loved by one and all. His bravery in the face of the enemy when pleading for any one of the prisoners had been witnessed by all the men in the jungle camps of Thailand. Grabbing my hand, he says, "Hello, confrere, how are you?", sending, in spite of my solicitude, a pang of surprise through me. That he should have heard and approved well enough of my amateurish ministership to call me his colleague! Apparently he had not heard of the nickname I earned myself in Yokkaichi. After listening to my fears about what may have happened he says, "Don't panic now, my lad. You know some of them were in isolated camps. Longer time is needed to get word across. Also the Red Cross is busy compiling a list of all internees and their camp addresses. You should soon know where to write to. Cheer up! Don't lose your trust in Him now!" [1]

Sgt. Han Samethini after liberation
Photo Source: Han Samethini Collection

My brother writes:

Do you remember that old fisherman who lived near the river, just outside Tamarkan camp? That chap turned out to be a thoroughly trained agent for the Allies' target plotting squad. He radioed the exact position of the bridge. Later, after you had left for Japan, we saw many planes flying their bomb loads to a spot dead-right over the bridge, which was promptly blown up. The old chap also linked up with that native couple, called Phong, the fruit sellers. They always reserved their biggest pawpaws for the "padre", as our camp priest was called. You recall that large mass grave in the camp's cemetery, with a timber base on top and a tall wooden cross? Well, that thing was a fake, you see, nothing but a big hole in the ground under a covering with the cross.

Now then, the pawpaws sold by the Phongs to the padre just had to be big, for they held radio parts in them! It was generally known that the padre would often go to the graveyard after dusk to pray for the souls of the dead, taking a couple of Mass-servers with him. These two just happened to be former radio technicians. And what do you think was done in that cemetery? They would enter the mass grave and assemble the radio components into a transmitter used to send valuable information to Moulmein in Burma, where the Allies had an air force operating. No Korean or Jap in his right mind would even think of exploring the graveyard after dusk. A deep-rooted fear of the powers of darkness - and perhaps their own conscience, if they had one at all - was a safe thing to bet on.

After the capitulation of Japan, the Jap camp guards had to be maintained for our protection until a liberation detachment could take over. One day our padre called upon the Jap officer in charge to ask for a new battery for the radio, and got one. But, the padre said, the expression on the man's face when learning about the secret of the mass grave made the lack of photographic equipment deeply felt.

Two Dutchmen, inseparable friends throughout the war, have been rammed by an oncoming car and killed on the spot. We buried them this afternoon. Now someone else will have to answer the question why they had to meet their death in an ordinary accident after having survived all we went through. Though I doubt if anybody now would be interested to know with all that is happening at home.

"Seven, that's the time we leave, at seven..." goes the platoon sergeant's phonograph. Oh dear, he's got himself another record after his first one mysteriously disappeared one night. The only way now would be cutting off the main power cable. There is Roel's voice calling out something to someone outside - and here he is now, chuckling to himself.

"Remember that chap we'd run through the mill for thieving at Iwase camp? An hour ago he got himself held up by an armed G.I. in one of them native food stalls across the road. He was picked clean, and it serves him right too. The MPs had an eye on him as one suspected of selling clothes and PX stuff to Filipino black marketeers. Justice is done at last. Let's celebrate - and don't look so sad, man. I bet our wives are right this minute making eyes at them limeys who came to liberate them."

"Shut up, Roel!"

I awaken to the first sun rays streaming into the tent, and find myself lying on the floor with all my uniform clothes on, boots and all, with an awful taste in my mouth. After a cold shower and breakfast I hasten to the Personnel Training Centre. In the box for incoming letters I notice an envelope bearing, in my own handwriting, her old address in Surabaya. In shock I recognize the note I had mailed from the hospital ship Rescue. On the face of the envelope are thick-lettered words: RETURNED TO SENDER. SERVICE SUSPENDED.

The bottom of my world falls from under me, my throat goes dry, and then there is the voice of Reverend Hamel: "Frank, come here, quick!" He beckons me to the publication board.

There, on the list of internees awaiting evacuation from Banjubiru camp is...HER NAME.

The minister is talking to me but I can't hear what he is saying. I can only drink in that curt line of neatly typed names of Lisa and our daughter.

His voice is coming through now: "...see, she's all right! Quick, write to her now at this address and you'll get her answer sooner than you think. And go get yourself a drink. You need one. And stop worrying."

Back in the tent I pour all my love and longer for her on two pages of closely written lines. It is the 24th of October. Perhaps I see her in November?

After posting the letter I get a book from the library and a couple of beers from the canteen. I settle down to some reading. Must keep the mind busy or I will get plastered for sheer relief.

"Morning. Nice day, isn't it?"

Looking up from Clarence Day's delightful Life With Father, I see him standing in the entrance of the tent. A private of the American army, soiled shirt, needing a shave, but a pleasant enough face. Before I can answer he steps up to me and says, "May I come in? What are you reading?"

A few minutes later I am all ears, listening to someone who's got the gift of gab, as they say. He strikes me as a nice bloke, urging me to tell him all about "the folks back home", for he is very interested in what "makes Dutchies tick." When I show him Lisa's picture he whistles through his teeth and says, "Shucks, that's the prettiest gal I've seen for a long time, long time. Can I borrow a smoke from you, pal? Left mine in my other jacket." At the same time he hands me a photograph he's taken out of his wallet, of a beautiful brunette, his Irene. And would I like to know how he met her? Brother, this man can talk! He draws a lively picture of how he saw her for the first time in the roller skating rink. His one and only hobby that was, roller skating, and when he saw her, it was just like what you would read about in a novel. Love at first sight, as the saying goes. A tender romance blossoming into a deep love and then wedlock in a rustic, little chapel in a rustic, little town in New England. His was one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, but very well paid, though no life insurance firm would take him on. He had been taught to drive a specially built lorry with something like eight forward gears. His cargo, the most lethal and unpredictable one that you could think of: nitroglycerine, or "soup" as they call it. One little obstacle on the road surface in the wrong place, one little jolt at the wrong moment and "Poof! Nothin' left, no nothin'! " But he needed the money bad for Irene whom he had met on the rink.

Yes, can he talk, and can he smoke! Goes right through my packet by the time we break up for chow. Naturally I had invited him to have lunch with me. On our way to the mess hall, abruptly drawing to a halt, he suggests that I should get the food while he goes a gets money from the platoon sergeant, who keeps it in his safe for him, for it's not good to carry a lot of do-re-me with you, with all these con men about, see? We'll have our meal in my tent. Much better than in that noisy barn, right?

Returning from the mess hall with a double issue of food, I find him sitting on my bed with a crestfallen face. The platoon sarge had gone to town, won't be back until late, so from now until tomorrow he's as poor as a church mouse, as the saying goes. I tell him not to worry.

When we have finished our meal he shows me a picture of that little chapel in New England. He carries it on him for luck wherever he goes. Look, isn't it a pretty thing - and speaking of chapels, do I know that there is a very interesting one in Manila? With the one and only bamboo organ ever built in the Far East, and a hundred years old at that?

So we are on the road trying to catch a lift to Manila, to that little old chapel with the bamboo organ. A jeep pulls up with an American lieutenant and the wheel. He salutes me when I get on the front seat, and I return the salute. My companion is already on the rear seat. My, that man is quick, all right! He grins and winks at me. At the MP checkpoint, a little farther down the road, I am smartly saluted again by the sergeant on duty. I am beginning to like that. In the Dutch army the insignia of a sergeant consists of two horizontal bars of brass, which in the American army stands for the rank of captain. It is apparent that this is not generally known among the G.I.s and, just for kicks, I won't tell them. My American friend won't either, for he is smoking my cigarettes again. I have given him a fresh packet. He has no money until tomorrow, remember? Ten minutes later I find myself gazing at a collection of dusty bamboo pipes covered with cobwebs, and I go, "Tsk, tsk. How interesting!" The dusty road has made me thirsty and I suggest refreshments, to which, after a moment of hesitation, he agrees. But he'll square up with me in the morning, right?

The bamboo organ in St. Joseph Church, Manila
Photo Source: philippines-archipelago.com

Quite a crowd, a mixture of G.I.s, Filipino girls and liberated personnel, all talking away in English, Spanish and the local tongue, Tagalog. The wine is not bad.

"What brand is this wine?"

But I am talking to an empty chair. He is gone. Probably to the toilet. Should be back in a minute or so.

The four-piece band strikes up with Rum and Coca-cola. A couple of dancing pairs move on the tiny floor, the men stiffly bent over their small, coloured partners.

"Mother and daughter, working for the Yankee dolla-a-ar," croons the band singer appropriately, through a microphone.

(A sudden flash of memory pops up in my mind: A burst of red neon on the left side of Palm Lane, "Tabarin" in old Surabaya. It doesn't open until ten o'clock at night. Then, candles in bowls on the small tables. The interior kept in soft, diffused light to create an atmosphere of intimacy. The patrons come in droves towards midnight and the pocket-size dance floor is packed. Each woman, full of dinner and cocktails, flattered and made much of, contentedly leans with a sleek, bare arm on her man's coated shoulder. There is the lavish line from the lifted elbow down to the hollow of armpit in the cut-out dress flowing out into a soft bulge of bosom. Each man rests his hand possessively on the small of his woman's back bared low down to the waist.)

"A sudden flash of memory..."
Couples dancing at a nightclub in prewar Surabaya

Photo Source: Krokodillenstad

To the beat of the quarter combo the women sway their hips and posteriors. Some wiggle with an added sensual twitch as a promise of the forthcoming reward for the night's entertainment. The tiny floor does not allow for proper dancing. The couples just wobble and rock in rhythm with the boom of the bass, the dry swish of brushes on taut cowhide, the throaty brass of a muted cornet. From the tables around the dance floor others watch, with eyes puckered with cigarette smoke and lust.

Suddenly I notice two Military Police going along the tables, looking at everyone seated and the dancers as well. Who are they after?

"Gonna take a sentimental journey, gonna set my heart at ease..." Goodness, is that thing going to haunt me everywhere I go? Let's have another one, but where is he? The MPs are leaving empty handed. Apparently didn't get their man.

"Waiter! Gimme another of the same."

"Make it two." He is back.

Five o'clock. I'm getting hungry. He knows a good place. Outside the air is as hot as ever. My shirt sticks to my back. Wouldn't mind a beer now to get rid of that awful wine taste, but let's eat first. We don't want to get drunk, do we?

He says, "Here it is. Five peso entrance fee. What about it, pal?"

"S'all right."

We find a table, led by an eager waiter. As soon as I land on a chair I feel something soft and hot sitting on my lap."

"I'm Mildred. What's your name, darling?" Lipstick is stuck on her teeth.

"Get lost, pronto!" I don't go for them, drunk or sober.

The fried chicken and beer brings me back to my senses, and I get sick of myself and of the place. The band is blaring "Amour, amour, amour..." He and two girls are wolfing down the chicken and rice while I, muttering to myself, slip out and back on the road.

I shall never see him again. A couple of MP boys look me up on the following day. Somebody had reported me in company with a man closely matching the description given by the police. They can't get much help from me. I don't even remember the clip joint where I left him. He is a deserter, on the loose for more than three months now, hopping from one camp to another. A very agile character, gifted with an exceptionally convincing manner, fond of using the phrase "as the saying goes."

Well, I've been played for a sucker, as the saying goes, a ninety-four dollar sucker. That's what the cigarettes, chicken and booze cost, including a donation to the little old chapel with that ugly looking bamboo organ.

It is near the end of October. Almost a month has passed. I wrote to her address at Banjubiru but there is no sign of life. I refuse to believe that anything could have happened to her. We now know a lot more about the situation. It has become quite clear that for the time being we shall not embark for Java. The strong anti-Dutch feeling touched off by Sukarno's hate campaign among the Indonesian leaders has convinced the Allied Command not to send in Dutch troops for fear of provoking an instant uprising by all Indonesians. This could cause death to thousands of women and children still held in the camps, waiting to be evacuated. Hundreds have already disappeared without leaving a trace! United Press reports that a battalion of Seaforth Highlanders has landed at the harbour of Batavia and, elsewhere in Java, Indian and Gurkha troops have been sent in. UP reports this. UP states that. The news is growing more and more confusing and frightening. While in one part of Java Gurkhas and Indians have rescued internees and regained control, in other parts the situation has become chaotic and altogether out of hand.

I walk out to a movie. Listening the the radio drives me mad.

"Why do they call a Private a Private, when his life is a public event?" blares the loudspeaker in front of the blank screen. Soon I am joined by Roel and Hendrik, who are presently engaged in a heated argument with a couple of Americans about the subject of who started the war. People never change, do they? The film is boring.

"What say we blow the show for a drink in the canteen!"

In the canteen we hear the latest news from Surabaya. A British brigadier, Malaby, has been shot dead while carrying the flag of truce. Many other officers of the Indian battalion have been murdered in a new outburst of violence by the extremists. In Batavia another British general, Christison, has announced his plan to call the Dutch and the Indonesian leaders together, to have it out between them about who is going to rule the country and when.

Hendrik is fuming. "Who the hell does that idiot think he is? Just listen to that conceited windbag! The Dutch can't decide for themselves how to go about it with the Indonesians. No, sir, a Briton will have to fix it for them! Doesn't it make you sick? For the second time in one generation they've been saved by the skin of their teeth through the help of America, and before you know it, back they are again, full of imperial noise and announcements."

"Here we go again," says Roel. "What do you think they should do?"

"Put as many combat-ready Dutchmen on Java as we can lay our hands on, but act fast! Land them by ship and by air. The British seem not to have enough men for the job. Those Indonesian extremists have got plenty of hardware and they're mean and trigger-happy, especially with defenceless women and children before the barrel. They are nothing but plundering murderers bringing harm to the Indonesian cause, and death to our families!"

A Dutch officer, who has in passing overheard Hendrik's tirade, butts in with the news that the Indonesian mayor of Batavia had said to the British general, "I know that you have come here to keep law and order, but you don't seem to be very good at it!"


[1] Johan Carel Hamel, a Protestant chaplain in the Royal Netherlands Indies Army. It seems that he and Frank first met in 1943, at Tamarkan. In Chapter 13 of his POW memoirs, Hamel mentions Samethini taking part in a musical entertainment at his birthday party:

"Even my birthday was commemorated in a sympathetic manner. In the early morning, I received four big baskets full of delicious presents for my patients. A collection had been taken up and everyone who had the ability had given: cigarettes, tobacco, bananas, and some biscuits, all to provide me with the opportunity to share some joy with my patients. They had even succeeded in baking a large cake, something that could be called nothing short of unique. The patients enjoyed that day. In the evening there was an exceptional presentation of the cleverly written piece "Purification", by Dr. A.J. Fryters, with musical arrangement by Mr. L.F. Scholer and performed by Messrs. J.G. den Hoed, S.D. Huizinga, Ir. M.J.F. Koopman, J.M. Hoekstra, J.H. van Busse, F.K. Samethini and A.C.A.M. van der Drift." Hamel, J.C.
, Soldatendominee: Ervaringen van een legerpredikant in Japanse krijgsgevangenschap (Uitgeverij T. Wever B.V. , Franeker, 1975), p. 151. Excerpt translated by Priscilla McMullen.

Of Rev. Hamel's works of mercy, B
ritish author Peter N. Davies writes: "Throughout the period that Tamarkan was used as a base hospital, Hamel was the only padre in the camp and as the Japanese consistently refused to provide other clergymen he was kept constantly busy caring for the sick and seeing to the burial of the dead." The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai (London: The Athlone Press Ltd., 1991), p. 117.

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