Tuesday, January 20, 2009

7. Andre

Photo Source: pictopia.com

The time is early afternoon, April, 1943. They take us to a plot of unkempt grass and dusty bushes before a dilapidated wooden building. Posters of an agricultural character hang from pegs on the front wall. Over the door, engraved in a crest, are a crossed hoe and spade. Probably in happier times an advisory bureau for farming, before the onslaught of the locusts from Nippon. Others like us must have spent the night on the same grounds, judging from the rubbish and fly-covered unprintable things lying about. Small mounds of ashes and blackened sticks where fires had been going. Our section is on the front line facing a rotund Jap army captain. He wears glasses, vaguely reminding me of someone from the dim past. He steps on the balustrade, beaming through his spectacles, whips out a whistle and blows.

"My friends, this place Ban Pong in Thailand. You start here marching to Kinsayok, yes? You plenty hard work, plenty food, plenty happy. Tomorrow start walk. Okay go alone, go two men, go three men, or all together, that is okay. Must arrive next stop before night. If not before night, plenty bash-up. Nippon soldier walk top-side, Nippon soldier walk rear-side. Half-day time stop for food."

Good grief, it's him! The barber in Bandung, with the face of a vicar. The son-of-a-bitch.

The men begin to talk among themselves, but the vicar blows again on his whistle. When it is quiet he continues.

"You walk ten days. If you try to escape...", and then with his moon face breaking into a smile and the eyes mere slits, "Do not forget. Thai man bring you back to me. Thai man knows I pay him much money."

A pause. Then, saying it evenly, without fervour but with an audible smacking of his thick lips, "And then I fix you."

Really a nice chap, this former barber, claiming to be a friend of the Dutch. How good it would be to meet him again after the war, with a well-oiled horse whip near at hand.

Let's try and sleep. I'll need it, need it very much. How could we march ten days in our condition? Here's a clean spot. When I drop my haversack, a voice behind me says:

"Ah don't smell them here. Mus' be a good spot."

The man has a peculiar way of talking. [1] Invited to share the patch, he steps closer and brings his face to nigh on top of my collar badges to read my rank, squinting like an owl in daylight. A gaunt, wiry sort of man, six-footer, big ears, wooden face with skin tanned by a lifetime of tropical sun. Looks pretty tough. Grunting his approval, he extends a gnarled hand to shake. His name: Andre de la Porte, regular sergeant, Dutch East Indies Army. Twenty-two years service, my boy. Hates sergeant majors. That's why he looked first at my rank.

"Mah old man drank all the port, so call me jus' Andre, son."

I shake his hand and give him my name, then rub my hurting fingers.

"You mus' be of of them militia wet-pants sergeants, but don't worry. Jus' stick to me, sonny, and ol' Andre'll teach you how to walk, and also how to pinch food."

With that he lowers himself onto the grass to roll a smoke. Like everybody else, he wears self-made sandals, but goodness, what toes he has - exceptionally large, with leathery skin crisscrossed by a fine network of tiny black nicks and scars. These remarkable toes are attached to the largest feet I've ever seen.

"Take a gander at them beauties, wet-pants. They took me through many miles of bush and mire with no trouble, when you were jus' a little tit-slobberin' brat. Believe you me, jus' stick to me when we git movin' tomorrow." Licking his cigarette and putting it in his mouth, he continues, "Can you see properly, wet-pants? 'Cause that's what Ah want you to do fer me. Ah do the walkin' and you do the seein' fer us, right?" Again he offers his hand to shake, which I prefer to ignore.

"The partnership is O.K., Andre, but not so much of that wet-pants business, thank you." I ask him what he thinks of that rumour of the Americans having fought a big sea battle or something.

"Sea battle at Midway, son, not Java. Somewheres in the Pacific. Japs got a terrible beatin' this time!" He adds that the man who told him was trustworthy. Andre is willing to lay ten to one that it's true.

The following morning he is up at the crack of dawn, busily pottering about. He has made a fire and boiled water. I smell the marvelous fragrance of real coffee. After filling our mugs he walks away and is soon lost behind the bush. Where did he get the coffee from? Ten minutes later he is back with an unopened can of Jap bully beef. We haven't had meat for a long time, so I watch him in respectful silence while he prepares our breakfast, boiled sweet potatoes, bully beef and onions, with another mug of sweet hot coffee. A king's breakfast. I know better than to ask how he got all this. Last night's introductory talk revealed that there is only one thing worse than sergeants-major: blokes who ask too many questions.

The starting signal for the first leg is given at about eight. Before setting off, Andre makes me loosen the shoulder straps of my pack and also the belt of my shorts, explaining the need to let the bloodstream go unhindered through "them big veins." Very important if one has to march all day.

"And fer pete's sake, stick to me. Ah need yer peepers."

An hour suffices to show that, in walking, Andre runs rings round the rest of us, moving at a never-slackening pace uphill or downhill. "Stick to me" is what I do, but there are moments when I curse him.

The ranks, closed at the start, have gradually strung out in a long line of walkers in small groups, in pairs like us or even men going solo. Because it is only the first day of the hike most of us tread at a steady pace, except for the weak and the old. Some seem to wish to reach the finish before anyone else, goodness knows why. "Never mind, boy. Jus' follow me, that's the trick. We'll pass them fools yet, you'll see," is Andre's only comment.

Lunch break. A number of Thai street hawkers squat on the road. Fruit, eggs, fish and vegetables are offered for money or barter. They want our shirts, shoes, anything we wear. Andre puts up a crooked finger of warning. "Jap grub will do fer now. Don't git too much in the gizzard when there is much footwork to do. Git money." I've got one pair of uniform trousers, worn on my wedding day, and Andre has a uniform jacket. We sell them for a good price. Moving about the vendors, here and there picking up a fruit or vegetable for closer inspection, Andre does not seem to find anything to his liking. He does some haggling but nothing changes hands - until I notice a bunch of bananas beneath the canvas of his haversack. The art of "pinching food" does not seem to require good eyesight.

Dutch POW column in the jungle
Watercolour by Kees van Willigen

Source: Geheugen van Nederland/Museon

We are on our way again under the burning sun. I've got blisters on my feet, and they hurt. But blisters or not, an instinct tells me to hang on to him. We seem to be going at a faster pace. A lot of others have been overtaken, including the sprinters of the early morning. Shucks, the old boy has steel in his legs.

"Are we stepping out, Andre?"

"No, wet-pants, Ah told you. Them fellers are pooped out. Now quit yappin' and follow me butt. Here, have a banana."

A big pile of slush lies in the middle of the road but the old buzzard does not seem to notice. I wait until he's got one foot in the water then, pulling him aside and guiding him around, I remark that he could have had wet pants himself, were I not at his side.

"Ah better quit callin' you that, boy, or next time you'll shut yer trap!"

The first night stop is reached at dusk, bringing much relief. My foot soles are burning and I've got a painful throbbing in my calves and thighs. We dump our packs on a dry spot and proceed to do some road shopping. Onion omelets with fresh tomatoes and greens are bought and added to the usual camp menu of boiled rice and watery soup.

"Fill her up and then shut-eye. Plenty of sleep is what we want, sonny." Suddenly I feel like I've known him all my life.

A motor lorry in low gear whines into camp, pulling to a halt before the cookhouse: members of our group, collapsed along the road, picked up and brought in for sickbay. Poor wretches. Goodness, they look sick!

After chow, Andre inspects my feet in the glow of our small fire. Squinting at the mass of blisters, he opens them one by one, painlessly, with a safety razor blade. A raw onion, cut in half, is rubbed in. Ouch! An old remedy. Tomorrow the skin will be horny and dry. No more blisters.

The sun is up when I open my eyes. My legs feel like sticks of dead wood. For breakfast we have bananas and smoky porridge. There goes the starting signal. A number of our men cannot walk anymore. Doc says they are finished - and he doesn't mean for walking only.

At half-way break we sell more of our possessions. I throw in my extra pair of boots and get ten tikals for it. None of the natives want Andre's boots; who has feet like his? A couple of men decide to be smart by making out that they have become too weak for further walking. They will sit by the road and wait for the truck. "Lunatics. Them fools will git clobbered by the natives or worse!"

Again the endlessness and the burning sun. On reaching the second night stop we buy pork, fruit and chilies. "Them green peppers is hot as hell, but full of veetamins." It's difficult to find a clean spot. The place reeks to high heaven. With much rumbling the lorry rolls into camp. Among the drop-outs are two bright boys with swollen lips and black eyes. The Japs must have guessed their little game.

Photo Source: www.vagabondish.com

Following day. Legs are playing up badly. I can only walk at a slow pace, with stitches of pain shooting up from calves to groin. The old boy curses and swears like a trooper only knows, but he sticks to me. Weary beyond words, at last are too tired even to gripe. The afternoon wears on under the blowtorch in the sky, the terrain becoming more rugged as we press deeper into the country. I limp from the pain and stiffness in my legs, my head is swimming, while I've lost all sense of movement. Andre's voice reaches me as if from a distance. He is worried about what has been said about Thai wanderers, armed with double-edge knives, attacking stragglers, leaving their victims naked, stripped of everything they possessed.

A small clearing on the roadside catches my misted eyes. A patch of grass in the shrubs, like the one she sat on with the baby on the bloody Emperor's birthday. To this green spot I drag myself as quickly as my wobbly legs can bear. "Only ten, five minutes, Andre. I must!"

My legs buckle, and sinking down to the ground I slowly lie on my back. There is a rushing in my ears - then Dad's voice, clear as a bell, but what he says is lost in that sound. Behind my closed eyelids I see her face, with sadness in it. Another voice, the old sergeant's, warning me to fire low and watch the barrel for overheating. The rushing grows louder, her face looms up through a reddish mist - Lisa, Lisa, don't go away!

"Git up, boy. Git up, son!" Andre jerks my arm forcefully. "They've passed us, the whole bloody lot of them!" His strong arms lift me up and put me back on the road, that blasted, rotten, murderous road. But because her face had appeared so clearly, that face full of sadness, a will has grown inside, forcing me to press on. To march on, with each step burning and stabbing like hell.

The crunching of rubber tyres on hard-caked mud...and there appears a tricycle beside us! A pedal rickshaw pushed by a grinning Thai! He halts. We stand frozen. In front of him that inviting seat for two. Where he came from, who cares? In two seconds flat we are on that seat, at a cut-throat price of course. Again, who cares? We're saved!

A little while later we pass the Jap rear guard who, gaping in astonishment, looks at us with indecision, even alarm. But then, shaking his head, he motions us to carry on. Then the boys, one by one, group by group. They laugh and shout in wonder or openly curse our good fortune. Andre just looks ahead until we pass a sergeant-major. Then Andre turns to look at him, grinning from ear to ear. The Nip at the top, the laconic type who of the two, doesn't even seem surprised when he steps aside to let us through. Our grandiose entry into Tarsao camp is noticed by an Aussie soldier at the gate whose mouth falls open on catching sight of us. Slamming his hat to the ground, he bursts out, "Gawd strike me down, look at them lucky bastards!" At this camp we are to rest for a full two days. A greater number of prisoners than anticipated has collapsed. The Japanese Railroad Command has decided that we should be rested.

Tarsao POW camp

Our fire is going. We have feasted on eggs and pork, and are now "burning the weed." An old mate of Andre's, half Dutch, half Chinese, by the name of Kang, had a minute before stepped into the light to squat down for a neighbourly smoke and chat. He finishes rolling his cigarette and, while reaching for a cinder, asks if we had heard the whisper. What whisper? Taking his time for lighting and exhaling luxuriously, he throws back his head to look at us through lowered eyelids and continues. It is the whisper which, late the night before departure from Singapore, had circulated with lightning speed among the Chinese on the dockyards. Strictly for Chinese ears, that is, only those who can be trusted. Hadn't we heard? No, of course not; we don't speak the lingo like he does, do we? Well then, Kang has got it from a good friend among the Chinese, just before boarding the train. But mind now, this thing is dynamite, might blow up in our face if we're not careful. So shut up, whatever you do. If the Japs were to get even the smallest hint, hell would break loose. Now come closer and listen...

A Jap soldier, on guard at a warehouse down at the docks, had left his post that night to follow a couple of Chinese heading for a rendezvous with POW traders in Changi. Whiskey and wine from the dockyard were to change hands for sterling currency. Somehow the guard must have guessed what was going on, but apparently had kept it all to himself, as no repercussive action by the Nips had been taken. Whatever the guard had in mind, perhaps a lion's share in profits through blackmail, nobody will ever know. Because that night, moonless and black as pitch, he was promptly ambushed inside the camp's perimeter, strangled and buried on the spot, rifle and all, before he could say banzai. As far as anybody knows, no "questioning" of inmates of Changi, nor of Chinese labour on the docks, had been carried out by the Kempeitai. Clearly the Nips had no inkling of what had happened to him. Perhaps they thought he had, in pursuit of a suspect, lost his way in the darkness, fallen into the harbour and been taken by a shark. Whether the story is absolutely true, a hundred percent, Kang can't say, but once more, shut up.

This is a very dangerous rumour. I smoke in silence, gazing at the glowing embers, my mind racing back the the night of the frogs.

The following morning, after rubbing my back and legs with palm oil, Andre now does what he calls "teasin' them muscles, gittin' them loose an' ready." He knows his job but it hurts awfully. Done with kneading and tearing, he orders me move as little as possible for the rest of the day. As if I were able to do anything but lie still on the grass where he had done his work. The old warhorse does all the chores, now and then stooping over me to beat the flies from my oil-soaked back and legs. As he's so darned nearsighted, more often than not I am hit by his calloused hands instead of the flies. I take it in silence, for where can I find a better friend than he?

A good job he did yesterday. Back on the road, I have no difficulty in keeping up with him. Almost all we had is sold for fresh greens, meat and fruit. The good food does wonders. In spite of the gruelling hike day after day, we remain fit as a fiddle.

There is a man among us who carries in his rucksack four large books tooled in rich leather, the remnants of what was once an expensive set of encyclopaedia. Before the war a man of letters, recognized and respected, he is now nothing but another railroad-slave-to-be. To please him the boys call him "the professor." He is an elderly man who should not carry those books with him. Anyone can see that they are heavy. He should sell them for food, but no, never would he part with his dear books, his most treasured possessions. Everybody knows he cannot read anymore since his eyes have deserted him through malnutrition, but he won't admit it. Now and then he'll put on spectacles to leaf through the pages in an ostentatious manner, or rest his hand lovingly on the chipped golden lettering of the cover. At times his shriveled face bears the expression of pained surprise, as if he has just become fully aware of the shocking turn in his life. The boys say he is slightly off his rocker. Maybe so, but perhaps those books remind him, reassure him, of a dignified past. Probably they are to him four dignitaries, pillars on which the preservation of his sanity rests. The professor is walking in our group now and I carry his books for a while, taking turns with Andre. To show his gratitude the old man starts to introduce us to the world of relativity, and rambles on and on until Andre butts in, "This here reeleety thing, can you eat it?" Whereupon the old prof drops off in hurt silence. Andre hands him a juicy mango.

After midday break the professor decides to wait for the lorry. We leave him on the roadside, sitting on his books. When I turn to look at him, he has dropped out of sight over a dip in the road.

No liberation rumours are ventured tonight. The only news was brought in with the lorry, carrying the old professor, his throat slit from ear to ear. Dead and naked, stripped of everything, including his dear books.

After nine days of marching, an ever-growing number of sick men are left behind in the road camps with little chance of survival. Though we are guarded by only two Japs, it is clear that chances for escape are slim in the extreme. Either the robbers will get us or the natives will report to the enemy. Hence, we walk until we drop. And yet more often than one would think, a group of walkers sooner or later starts to sing the marching songs of old. Or they swap yarns, shockingly rude sometimes, but nevertheless a proof of an unbeatable spirit. It is good to walk with such people.

It is the ninth day after we left Ban Pong. We have crossed a shallow river and are climbing up the bank, when my eyes fall on a scene so much in contrast with the dull greyness of the surrounding wilderness that I cannot but stop to look at it. Just then the order is given for the midday halt. Andre, muttering an obscenity, walks off. It is a small enclosure, a paddock, in the center of which is a broken down structure covered with moss. A short flight of steps leads to a base fenced in by railing and wooden posts supporting a skeleton roof. It looks like, no, it is a bandstand! What in tarnation would a bandstand be doing here? Most of the shingles on the roof frame are missing. The grass has grown very tall. The whole thing appears to have been deserted a long time ago. A jacaranda tree in full bloom stands guard on the edge of the paddock, its dazzling purple bursting through the holes in the roof. The tall treetops of the jungle move softly in the wind, but down below on the paddock nothing stirs. In spite of its forlornness a breath of peace and quietness seems to hang fluttering in the air. Suddenly something flies upward from the grass to dissolve in the shimmering haze. A bird? Or a locust? The tranquility of it all remains undisturbed. Was it a bandstand? Who knows - and who knows now whether I have reached a degree of fatigue where I begin to see things which are not there? For in a fleeting moment, the tall grass and the holes in the roof disappear, the bandmaster raises his baton, and...it is Jules Fohrman conducting his orchestra on the open ground floor of the Hellendoorn in Surabaya. The pavement crowded with onlookers, every table occupied, golden beer in frosted tall glasses. Under the dazzling chandelier the hands on the violin bows rise and fall simultaneously, fingers fly over the keys of the concert piano in a soundless liquid cascade...

Jacaranda tree
Photo Source: www.biodiversityexplorer.org

"Yoroshi kah?" which means "Good, isn't it?" in Japanese. Startled, I look up at the guard in amazement. Only this morning the rat had beaten up one of ours with noticeable gusto. How could he find beauty in anything? Then, in broken English, he continues, "Nippon cherry trees all bloom, our house roof all flowers from cherry trees." His eyes have lost their leering hardness, and the faintest trace of a smile works at the corners of his mouth. Abruptly turning about, he walks off, leaving me perplexed about his words. How right Kipling was: "...and never the twain shall meet." I shall never understand the Asiatic mind. But then, were not the hell-hounds of Nazidom spawned from a great nation of the world's greatest philosophers and composers of music?

The signal to break up, and a last glance at the paddock. But it has lost its charm. It is no more than a vacant lot and a broken down shed. Only the tree is there still, having party of its own.

Where the dickens is Andre? He is right behind me, grinning woodenly, showing a big hunk of native tobacco. He has bought it from a Thai girl and paid more than she asked for. Why? A flicker of animation crosses his usually impassive face. Why? Because he took the lass to the brushwood. Nice, plump girl. Man, that was a lay, a royal lay, and gladly he paid for it. It renders me speechless. Of all times and of all people, Andre! We walk in silence. Then he adds that, naturally, the tobacco will be shared, but he will want my bible. Very thin paper, just right for a good smoke, and we don't want to spoil good tobacco with bad paper, do we? But my refusal is adamant. Andre calls me a fool - how come we suddenly get religious? In reply I remind him of the tricycle which came just in time for me. It shuts him up.

In camp I notice a box of genuine Italian cigarette papers and buy some for him. He calls me "wet-pants" affectionately and offers to go into detail about his experiences in the afternoon. Again, my "no" is the answer to that.

We have reached the last night camp before our final destination. This camp is called Tonchan. Its trees are full of vultures. [3]

Map of Tonchan South POW camp
From the personal diary of J.T. Rea
Image Courtesy of Mary Jane Bennett, daughter of J.T. (Jim) Rea

Andre's face, puckered in concentration, hovers closely over the cooking pot. The skin at the corners of his eyes is pinched in many creases, his lower lip drawn across yellow teeth.

"Andre, what are you cooking?"

"Vulture, natcherly."

"You're joking!"

"See fer yourself. The feathers are in that bush there."

In alarm I run to see, but clearly they're chicken feathers.

This morning, shortly after arrival, we witnessed an incident which did well to illustrate what lengths hunger drives a man to. A tawny Briton had just received his ration and was on his way to the group. Unseen, one of the slow-flying vultures came sailing from behind, grabbed the tin of food from the bony hand and made for the next tree. Before you could say "Magna Carta" the very hungry and very angry Briton had got hold of one wing, picked up a stick and clubbed the bird to death. Thereupon he began, cool as a cucumber, to pluck the feathers. It took a lot of convincing before the message got through that the flesh of this kind of fowl is inedible.

Andre, finished with cooking, calls me to supper. No Jap grub is to go with the chicken stew - "spoils the flavor." But he has fried a few bananas instead, which go well with it. We eat in silence. It's delicious.

"How much did you have to pay for the chicken, Andre. What's my share?"

"Eat an' shuddup."


[1] In the manuscript, Frank attempts to convey the sound of Andre's Dutch dialect to English readers by altering the spellings of many words. Andre's dialogue makes for difficult reading in the original, and so has been modified in this version.

[2] There were three Tonchan camps: South, Central and a bridge camp. It is not known which of these Frank refers to.

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