Tuesday, January 20, 2009

6. Destination Railroad


Shortly afterwards the downtrodden, defeated and humiliated remnants of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army and Allied Forces are bundled off to Batavia, for all we know to work in a large camp. A hastily scribbled note to Lisa, telling her of our moving and not to worry, is taken by a friendly Indonesian, bless him, who promises to deliver it. How am I to know that shortly after our departure, Lisa too will put put into a concentration camp with our little baby Mary-Em!

After arrival at Batavia, our heads are shaved and a number pinned on our uniforms. Sonei, the Jap commander, is confronted with a man who has refused to be shaved. Calmly he takes this man by the hand and leads him to a chair under a glaring electric globe. Guards pin the arms down. Then Sonei himself winds some hair locks round and between the scissor blades, their points resting on the scalp, and forcibly jerks them up. A scream of pain from the wriggling victim, a bloody patch where a bunch of hair is torn out by the roots. The operation is repeated until the head turns into a red pulp and the unconscious man is carried away. Naturally we all have to witness it. A creature like Sonei must have an audience watching, as a final touch to heighten the pleasure of inflicting pain. The most horrifying part of the ghastly performance is that Sonei's face had not for a moment lost its expression of loving care while manipulating the instrument. How sweet it would be to slowly kill this gentleman, with similar meticulous care. But would we? Would we lower ourselves to his level?

Capt. Kenichi Sonei (postwar photo)
Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

After everyone is shaven we fall in for roll-call. It is then that we finally hear what our lot is to be: transport to Singapore, then to Thailand to work on the construction of a railroad from Bangkok right through the jungle of Thailand to Moulmein in Burma. As work-slaves no doubt. The fall down the hill has truly begun.

We may have lost our hair, dignity, self-respect, but there is one thing we stubbornly hang on to - a firm belief in the ultimate superiority of the Allied Forces. They will win in the end, come what may. The Jap knows, feels this, and how he hates it. How he loathes this undefeatable belief which he reads in our eyes looking down on him. Most of us are taller than him, whatever his rank in the Imperial Army. Standing upright, we have to lower our eyes to look at the enemy when addressed by him. It stirs up an inferiority complex than can manifest itself only in a frenzy of kicking and punching. But all the time those eyes keep looking down on him, until they become glazed with pain and the victim of the day is brought down. To break that hated spirit, shatter that incredible, white man's morale, is their daily aim. Very little is left untried by the cowards to achieve that end. Yes, cowards, no matter what has been said about the high fighting morale of the Japanese forces. Anyone among them who is capable of doing this to defenseless people is of the same base quality of which cowards are made. False rumours about landings or victorious operations by the Americans are spread among our men by the Japs themselves, by dropping a hint or casual remark. The object, of course, is to stimulate optimism, only to cut it down again by contrary evidence. A system adopted from the German Gestapo to drive us to frustration.

Image Source: eenlevenverloren.nl

There is the black day when two escapees, mere boys, are captured and brought before the closed ranks to die. Tied up to the barbed wire fence, they are blindfolded and then butchered with bayonets. Their pitiful groans are blotted out by the hoarse shrieks from the thrusting, lunging robots who do their work according to some weird ritual: two thrusts in the throat, two in the belly and finally two in the heart. At another time a captured soldier is tied to a post, condemned to perish at the hand of a one-man firing squad. The bespectacled Nip is unable to do his job properly whilst the doomed man possesses a horrifyingly strong constitution. Time after time the shots ring out, sending wood splinters flying through the air from the post he is strapped to. All the time the victim remains standing on his feet, crying for water, until suddenly his legs fold and he sags forward in the ropes, into merciful death.

Two days later, in the middle of the night, there is the sound of a rifle being fired. A shouting of men, lights are switched on and doors flung open. From the barbed wire fence between two sheds hangs a prisoner, dead, shot between the eyes. Nearby stands a Nip guard, rifle in the crook of his arm. He explains that he found the prisoner trying to escape over the wire, ignoring an order to stand back. We do not believe that. We think that the man, on his way to the latrines, had been forced at gunpoint to step close to the fence on the pretext of something or other, and then shot in cold blood. But who is to know? Even Sonei seems to have doubts, for he orders the guard to disarm himself and step into the office. Sonei closes the door with one hand, unbuckling his belt with the other. The sound of leather on skin and the moans are music to our ears. Sonei seems a man of principles. One may torture or kill a prisoner of war for a little or big thing he is guilty of, but first there must be legal proof of his "crime."

The C.I.C.
Photo of Lt. General Hein ter Poorten in Japanese captivity

Image Source: Tropenmuseum Collection, via Wikipedia

On the day of departure to Singapore our former Governor-General and also our Chief-in-Command of the Dutch Forces, both with heads shaven, are placed on top of our gear piled in the lorry. The message of this reads, that's all they are good for, only to look after the rank-and-files' baggage. But we know that these top-ranking men had been offered a place in the last airplane to Australia, and that both had declined. That is good enough for us to regard them still as G.G. and C.I.C. [1]

Image Source: Geheugen van Nederland / The Museon


Like cattle for the meat market, we are loaded into the ' tween decks and the lower holds of a former Dutch freighter moored alongside the customs wharf of Batavia's harbour. Packed like peas in a pod, with hardly room to turn around. The odour of sweating bodies is sickening. Fortunately when we are out on the open sea a number of our men are sent to the upper deck, bringing some relief to the others down below. The situation worsens when the vessel starts to roll and many become seasick, splattering vomit on their fellow prisoners.

Then, look, a man gets out an old, battered accordion and begins to play. Holy cow, can he play! Many turn to look at him and listen to evergreen tunes and airs known all over the world. First a few start to sing, faltering at the beginning. But then they catch on and others join in. The voices take on the beat of the accordion, feeling one another out. More follow, and more, into a massive choir of prisoners singing with heart and soul. Angry orders are yelled down from the bridge but for once they are ignored. To the men this is the one way to fight the fear of the unknown future, to hit back at the enemy. Hundreds of voices sing in praise of the green hills of England and Ireland, the white beaches of Australia, the fair dunes of Holland and the bonnie lads of Scotland. And this choir, this multiplied scream of hope and longing, this prayer rises from the bottom of the cattle ship, soaring upwards, high above the upper deck where bullet-heads gaze down in amazement. Rising higher yet, above the masts and gliding seagulls and the drifting clouds, into the blue sky. Is there Someone to hear us?

After two days we disembark at Singapore and are taken to the A.I.F. and Changi camps. Our group is assigned to the A.I.F. sector, mainly populated by Australian prisoners of war, in whose hands the entire management rests. The only time a Nip is seen is on a work detail outside the camp's perimeter. Food, of course, is scarce but at least orders in hated Japanese are not being screamed at us. Instead there is the calm, friendly Australian tongue telling us the rules and do-nots of the camp. One may even ask questions. There is also a clean place to eat and sleep. There are benches under palm trees on the lawn where one may watch a game of cricket. A man strolls up to me, offering his hand to shake, a man wiry and deeply tanned, in his middle thirties with firm features and blue eyes. Jack, of the Australian Engineers Corps, welcomes me into the workshop to become a carpenter's hand. No experience in the trade is required. Cutting axe-handles is all there is to be done. On the first day I am observed and assessed. The verdict seems favourable and, in typical Australian manner, I am taken into their midst with good humoured profanity. One of Jack's mates is a short man with big hands, hands enormously strong, they say. In the months that follow Jack becomes a close friend. Evenings after supper we play cards in the workshop compound or listen to stories, tall and short, about the Outback, the fishing, the drinking and of course the horse races. It's good to be with them, hearing them talk of their great love, Australia.

Christmas Eve, 1942. The garrison church, a weather-beaten shed with holes in the roof, is packed. The small, well-kept lawn in front is crowded with listeners. Visible through the open windows is the tree, adorned with tin stars and a few candles. "Silent Night, Holy Night" brings a knife through my heart. I want to run away from it all.

The name "Lisa" tattooed on my right arm brings me fully awake early on Christmas morning. What happened? I remember that we had a little celebration with my Aussie mates in the workshop after church, that each of us got a pint of fair dinkum Amontilado sherry, well matured all these months hidden in the soil under the flooring. I must have got drunk. Jack confirms it, adding that they felt that each of the guests should have a little memento of the gathering. Anyway I didn't seem to have objections; I had already passed out when they started on me.

My brother Han is reported seen in the hospital area of Changi. On my way there, good care is taken to salute the Sikh guards in the correct manner. Calling themselves "Free Indians," they have gone over to the enemy. A mean lot they are, worse than the Japs when it comes to finding an excuse for bashing us up. A chapel stands further down the road, its door open. Inside, an Aussie on a step ladder repairing the stained-glass window says "Howdy" without looking up from his work. On an impulse, I take a seat before the small altar and bow my head. But words will not come. Do I still believe? Then it all wells up, gushing forth into violent prayer. A moment later I am outside again, feeling much relieved. Han is not in the hospital and, thanks to the Lord, not in the ever growing plot of mounds of freshly dug soil. Back in my camp Han runs to meet me at the gate, and all is well.

"The wizard on the accordion"
Han Samethini (circa 1941)

Photo Source: Han Samethini Collection

Han, the wizard on the accordion as he is known, is craving to try his hand again on the keyboard of a piano. He hasn't touched one in donkey years. We find the officer in charge of entertainment, sporting a fierce martial moustache, supervising a Shakespeare play performed in the open air theatre. First he attempts to ignore us, but we plant ourselves right in front of him.

"Yes?" with contempt in his eyes for the two foreigners who dare to interrupt his listening. We tell him.

"Yes, of course that's a piano there on the stage - but not for amateurs, thank you. However, there's another one in the church which could be made available at some time or other. But mind, none of this swing music. We do not permit jazz in church."

The chappie is pathetic. Not wishing to waste another word on the empire builder, we return to our section, which happens to border on the entertainment grounds. Han takes the old "squeeze box" from the hook, accepting a tailor-made cigarette from one of the boys who anticipates what is coming. Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond is followed by When Irish Eyes Are Smiling and Beautiful Dreamer. When he gets to Tipperary, everyone in the open air theatre has walked out on the Bard to join us in the great sing-song, led by the amateur.

A few days later Han is gone again, up north. Then, at bed time, the news is circulated about an American landing on Java, with not only the exact date also the details of the number of warships and aircraft. Could this be the real thing? The boys of the work shop have access to certain channels. A clandestine radio has been mentioned in a very roundabout way by Jack himself. Let's check with him. It is pitch dark now, but I know the way blindfolded.

First, down the steps leading to the rear of the barracks. Here is the foot path to the latrines - yes, here they are, no need to see, they smell fitfully. And here now are the clotheslines. Careful, don't bump your head on the posts (ouch! - here's one). A few more strides, now turn sharply to the right to get by the garbage incinerators (a feeble glow of burning cinders, that's it). Circle and up the hill path screened by a bamboo hedge. Yes, that's the foliage, more darkly outlined in the night. From the summit of the hillock the silhouette of the workshop is easily made out in the distance against the brighter night sky. Going down, one is quickly absorbed in the blanket of darkness. Here is the foot of the hill. Now across the "little meadow", as it's called by the boys, where bullfrogs have their domain. Quickly sliding down, I step carefully through wet grass - goodness, what a racket the frogs are making tonight. Another hundred yards or so and the plank over the ditch should be reached, right in front of the workshop. Good grief, the grass in the darkness is so slippery....Blast it! A soft, clammy thing moves under my foot sole - damn frogs. My breathing goes too fast. Calm down. Wait, that plank must be here, or here. Let me feel with my foot. The ditch is pretty deep, Jack had said. Nothing. Must have gone in the wrong direction. Damn it, how to get back in such darkness?

A hand is pressed with great force on my mouth, the other pinning my arms down. My heart skips a beat or two before enough senses are recovered to throw my body weight over on one leg, kicking high with the other, backwards and upwards. A whispered four-letter word, and the hand is taken away from my hurting lips. Quickly I call his name, recognizing the big, strong hands. There is a pause. Then, bringing his mouth to my ear, he whispers, "Get the hell out of here. Go back to the Dutch sector as fast and as quiet as possible. Forget what happened tonight. Piss off, but for cripesake, don't let anyone see you!" Without a sound he is swallowed up in the night. The frogs are clanging like gongs.

It is late when finally, after sneaking back to my sector, I slip under the blanket. For Pete's sake, what has happened?

The following morning the Dutch section is put into trucks and we are on our way to Singapore. Passing Changi gaol, we notice numerous handkerchiefs waving through the barred window slots. They are white women and children. Women whose lot will be more hazardous because of their sex, but who still can find the time to bid us farewell and good luck.

After several hours waiting at the railway station in Singapore we are loaded, no, pressed, with force and rifle butt into a steel cargo van. So many that I feel every bone and knuckle of bodies pressed hard on my chest, face and back. Unbelief and then fear is taking possession of my mind. In a matter of seconds I am boxed in a great mass of damp, hot flesh. Perspiration bursting from all my pores trickles down my back and stomach in long rivulets. Beneath my feet the wheels start to roll: ding-dong, ding-dong, then faster, ding-dang, ding-dang, ding-dang. It is pitch dark save for a pinpoint of light through a nail hole in the roof. A am completely drenched in my own sweat and theirs. Pressed like sardines a can, it is utterly impossible to move an inch away from wide open mouths blowing stale air into my face. Oh my God, we'll suffocate. My throat is parched and burning. All about me the stertorous breathing of men fighting for air. And the wheels clang and hammer their ding-dang, ding-dang. Somebody yells, "Open the door, you bloody bastards, murderers!", his scream vibrating against the hot tin roof. It sets off a general pushing, twisting and kicking. My shoulder is bitten. Howling, loud cursing, blasphemous and foul. Beasts, beset with all the possessive drive to get out at any cost. But nobody can move an inch. The compressed mass of our bodies is our own straight-jacket, keeping us pinned down on the spot where we are. Ding-dang, ding-dang. At last the uncontrolled screaming wears itself out into a hoarse groaning and gasping. The sharp odour of urine and dung of stark fear fills the air. Instinct for self-preservation has silenced us while we try to breathe slowly and sparingly in an attempt to stay alive as long as possible.

Oh God, Lisa, is this the end? With my heart pumping like mad, a cold anger is rising inside me against the rancid smelling, tacky skin of others glued on my face and back. Ding-dang, ding-dang. A little later the pounding of the wheels seems to become slower, and then the train pulls to a halt. An eternity later the bolts rattle and the doors of our oven are pushed aside.

Out we tumble and fall, throwing ourselves into a wonderful wide world filled with sweet, delicious air, as much as we want, in long drawn, panting gulps. A Jap officer has us fall in for numbering. Afterwards he expresses his regrets for the hardship suffered by our group as a result of a misinterpretation of his instructions to use three vans for our group, not just one. He is oh so sorry, but from now on there will be enough room for us and, in the same breath - will four men step forward for a burial? One of our men has been found dead, probably through suffocation or heart failure, take your pick. He must have died standing, shored up by the men jammed in the van. His could have been the body pressed against mine. After the burial our group is divided into three wagon loads with buckets of food and water. First class treatment we call that, putting us in better spirits in spite of what has passed. We have grown hard. Death has become an everyday occurrence, and has lost its awe. The cynical thought crosses my mind that the dead man has followed up on that slogan of the courageous days before the invasion, that one about "better to die standing on our feet than to live further on our knees."

For days more, all that we hear is the pounding of the wheels, blotting out conversation and even the mind. Only at night the wheels grow silent for an hour or so, while we step down for exercise and victualling. Most of the time is passed in sleeping, which is just as well, with a view of what is in store for us.

We awake to a loud silence. The train is stationary. A moment later the order to alight is given, then we are counted over and over again without giving us any reason for it. The word circulates among us that one of our men has jumped the train. Good luck to him, whoever he may be. He'll need every bit of that.


Footnotes

[1] Governor General Tjarda van Starkenborch-Stachower and Lt. General Hein ter Poorten.


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