Tuesday, January 20, 2009

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: www.autographsmovieposters.com

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: www.grebbeberg.nl

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: commons.wikimedia.org

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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