Dutch-Canadian Survivors of Japanese Prison Camps

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by Frans Olberg

At the beginning of 1942, I found myself in the hospital in Tjimahi, and in the bed on either side of me was an injured pilot.

On the one side was a Dutchman, named Wim Blans. He had been part of a patrol of four planes at Laha air base on Ambon. In reality, the patrol at Ambon consisted only of two Brewster Buffaloes, because during the flight from Java to Ambon one plane was lost, while the second was lost in a crash landing. On the 13th of January, both these Buffaloes came into action when they attacked a flight of ten Japanese Navy Zeros. The pilots — Lt. Broers and Sgt. Blans — fought a hopeless battle. They dived shooting through the Japanese formation. Almost immediately the Buffalo with Broers was shot into flames; he continued fighting for a little while but had to parachute into the sea, heavily covered with burns. He was picked up and taken to a hospital.

Sgt. Blans continued the fight on his own until, with a loud bang, his left wing broke away. The sergeant jumped with 17 hits in his body. Injured and dangling from his parachute, he watched the Japanese planes turn around. He was sure they had come back to shoot him down next but — to his relief and surprise — instead they circled him in salute and then left. He landed in the trees and was found after seven hours by a rescue team. Before ending up in the hospital in Tjimahi, he had overseen the destruction of airfields while getting around on crutches. For his heroic service in the war against Japan he later received several distinctions, among which the Vliegerkruis ("Flying Cross"). His injuries were such that he would no longer be able to fly, so he had to face the fact that after the war he would have to find a new career.

In the bed on the other side of me was a Canadian pilot, Art Appleton, who had been injured in Singapore. As for me, I had a full body cast because of a broken back, the result of a Japanese bombing attack at the front in Kalidjati (West Java). During our stay, a deep bond of friendship developed between us.

My father, who was still free at that time, managed to provide extra food to supplement the rations we received. His support was greatly appreciated by the patients, among whom were many injured allied pilots.

When I started to improve, I trained to help take care of the patients, as there was a severe shortage of hospital staff. I remained in that hospital for about a year and a half, after which I was released some time in 1944 only to be sent to labour camps. Via Djakarta, I arrived on Sumatra to work on the infamous Pakan Baru Death Railroad. As a result of this move, I lost track of my two friends.

The work in Pakan Baru was strenuous to say the least, and we had to put in long days, often working as many as 18 hours. Also, I regularly did volunteer work in the hospital, where my training in Tjimahi was put to good use.

The conditions the prisoners had to work under were very poor. Food was scarce, medication almost non-available, and as a result disease was rampant and many died. Still, there was always hope and, until the end, the men remained loyal to their fatherland despite all they endured. Occasionally, someone who was very ill and close to dying, would try to sing the national anthem, the Wilhelmus. The words of the sixth verse, which is always sung together with the first one on special occasions, were especially meaningful for us under these conditions:

Mijn schild ende betrouwen
zijt Gij, o God mijn Heer
[My shield and reliance
art Thou, o God my Lord]

Prisoners had to report for work — sick or not — and the Japanese insisted that only a certain number were allowed to stay behind for health reasons. Because our immune system was practically non-existent, almost everyone had tropical ulcers as even the smallest scratch would become infected. As a result, the selection sometimes became some kind of contest to see who had the most or worst tropical ulcers and, therefore, would be chosen to be excused from the heavy work for that day.

At the end of the day, our bath was the nearby river. According to the Indonesian people, crocodiles had been sighted in the river so some men were appointed as look-outs to warn us. I am sure that at times I have broken all speed records to get out of the water! On the other hand, many dead trees came floating down the river, and often these were mistaken for crocodiles because of their shape and colour, resulting in false alarms.

When walking along the path on the way to work, we noticed that the wild swine ate the fruit of the rubber trees. This made us think that if they could eat that, we probably could as well and that might be a way of supplementing our diet. So, the fruit was gathered, roasted and eaten, but not with great success. It did not agree with our stomachs at all and I do not know whether that was because our systems could not tolerate new things, or because the fruit just was not suitable for people.

When the war finally ended in 1945, the camps were evacuated and I was moved to the Johore hospital on Singapore Island. I was very weak due to constant — over fifty — malaria attacks, and suffered from severe malnutrition which had affected my eyes. I remained there for about six months.

In 1946, I returned to the Netherlands but in 1948 I went back to the Dutch East Indies. As a jeweller, I took over my father's business in Bandung and also was the president of the Verenigde Juweliers Bedrijven, which can be translated as the Associated Jewellers. In 1957, however, the time came to leave the country of my birth because of the political climate and to return to the Netherlands. A year later, I decided to emigrate to Canada and I arrived in Montreal.

It was not easy to find work, as my eyes limited my ability to work in my old profession as a jeweller. The Robert Simpson Co., while recognizing my expertise, told me I would have to start at the bottom, so they offered me a job in the watch repair section to familiarize myself with the routine in Canada. The repair work was contracted out to a watchmaker who, as I was told, expected everything to be done on time. My job was to take in the work at the counter, register it, and return it to the customer after the repairs had been made. The paperwork was expected to be handled meticulously.

I worked diligently, doing my best to not disappoint this person I did not know but who apparently was so strict and fussy. At the counter, I tried to ignore any distractions and interruptions, barely noticing the shadows of persons in my vicinity. And then, one day, one of those shadows did not go away and suddenly I heard a voice say: "For heaven's sake, Olberg! What are you doing here?" I looked up, into the eyes of Wim Blans! He was the man who did all the repairs, watchmaking being his new trade!

After having worked there a few weeks, a Canadian lady came to the counter with a gold bracelet that needed repair. I looked at it and instantly recognized my father's work, checked it and his goldsmith master mark confirmed this. "Did you get this in the Far East?" I asked her. She admired my knowledge and I explained to her that my father had made this bracelet and that he had been in the jewellery business over there. She asked me whether I had been a prisoner of war. "Yes," was my reply. Well, her husband had been a POW too, and he had brought the bracelet back to her as a souvenir. "You might know him," she said. I shrugged my shoulders, there had been so may POWs during that war. She insisted and left to telephone her husband, who was an engineer at nearby Dupont. "Come right over," she asked him, "I'd like you to meet someone." A little later Art Appleton stood before me.

Coincidences? I don't believe so...

About the Author

Frans Olberg was born in Bandung, but was educated in the Netherlands and Switzerland. In 1939, he returned to the Dutch East Indies and enlisted in the KNIL (Royal Dutch East Indies Army). During the war, he was first in Tjimahi (Java) and later worked on the Pakan Baru Death Railroad (Sumatra). After the Japanese surrender he went to Singapore and arrived back in the Netherlands in 1946. He married Tatie Oltmans in 1948 in Bandung. In 1958, he emigrated to Canada and was followed by Tatie and their three children a few months later. They first lived in Montreal but settled eventually in Ottawa. Tatie passed away in 1997.

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