My Father's Story
by Sonja Harms Kroese
It was January 28th, 1942, when Don left Tjimahi again, this time "destination unknown."
He left with his unit in the direction of the nearest railroad station. Immediately upon arrival, ammunition was loaded on board and the large number of men boarded the train. Shortly after, the train left in the direction of Batavia. They passed Padalarang (recognizable by its paper mill) and then reached Purwakarta.
Here, more troops with lots of ammunition were taken on board. ln the meantime, Don had learned their final destination. They were going to the island of Bangka, situated in the Karimata Strait, between southeast Sumatra and west Borneo. It had been obvious that Bangka and the neighbouring island of Biliton would need protection. So for the time being, they went in the direction of Tandjong Priok and they reached this port within the hour. Aboard the Koen Hoa they reached their destination, Bangka, around noon.
The purpose of transferring part of the KNIL to these islands was to prevent the enemy from occupying them. Therefore, it was important that the defence arrive first to take up the most favourable positions before the anticipated landings would take place.
Finally, late in the afternoon, they reached their final destination: Pangkalpinang. This turned out to be a small town with a remarkably large number of Chinese inhabitants. Many lined the road, staring with inscrutable faces at the arriving forces.
The men stopped somewhere at the outer edge of the town, in front of a native school, which had been vacated for their use as encampment. Reveille was very early the next morning, but nothing else happened until late afternoon. Then, finally, this area experienced its first bombardment. The troops were not much affected by this, as not only was the school outside of the town proper, but it was moreover reasonably well hidden.
Apart from this event, everything remained very calm for a few days, and the soldiers used that time to scout the surrounding area. At 4 o'clock every morning there was a so-called "silent reveille" for the men, as some of them had to wake up for early morning patrols, held to reconnoiter the extensive area around the capital city.
They reported that enemy seaplanes had been seen, anchored close to the shore. Because they were only lightly armed (without automatic weapons), they asked for reinforcements. At once, fully armed troops were dispatched to the area where the planes had been reported. Their mission: "To destroy the planes or at least prevent them from taking off." No matter how fast they had left, they still arrived too late at the indicated area, because when they arrived at the beach, the last plane was just taking off from the water.
It may have been February 12th, 1942, that the enemy finally dared make their first anticipated landing on Bangka. As they learned later, in several places at the same time and mostly on the north and northwest coast. Nothing was noticed in the area of the capital itself, situated on the east coast.
At first, Don's unit had been made up of only one hundred men. But when the Koen Hoa had entered the strait in northwestern direction, there were several hundred more men on board.
It was around 4:00 p.m. when Don's unit, totally unexpectedly, got the order to get ready to leave. It seemed that the enemy had landed up north in large numbers. Again with trucks, but now in great haste, they left Pangkalpinang. Those who could drive had to take a truck full of men to Tempilang, somewhere on the west coast, where they had to wait for further orders. From this they understood that Pangkalpinang was to be given up by them and that they had to withdraw on the west coast.
Shortly after came the news that it had been decided to even leave the island of Bangka. They had to cross over to the city of Palembang, on the large island of Sumatra. How, would become clear on their arrival on the west coast. And the men would be very surprised. Nothing had been done yet to prevent the enemy from landing and occupying the island; and now measures had to be taken to leave it altogether. But their biggest problem turned out to be finding the right way to the indicated place on the west coast.
It was long after midnight when they spotted the lighthouse beacons of Tempilang, showing them the direction to follow. Very slowly, with dimmed lights, they continued on their way. They stopped near the pier and the men quickly got off the trucks. It was pitch dark. Even along the pier there were no lights. Only the sky was red in the distance. With the truck engine turned off, the continuing roar of the canons became clearer. When daylight came, they could see only two tonkans, small wooden boats, normally only used for freight. They could only be towed; since they had neither engines nor sails.
Fortunately, their obvious question was soon answered with the arrival of a motor boat, which moored at the pier. It turned out to be a small motorboat — 10 or 12 metres long — belonging to the Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij. She had been camouflaged somewhat with branches and leaves, but these could hardly hide her obvious contours.
According to the captain he had, indeed, received orders to tow both small wooden boats with the troops on board and to try to cross to Sumatra, then up the wide Mousi river to the city of Palembang. And then, both boats still being towed by the motor boat, cross the Java Sea to reach the port of Tandjong Priok or some other place on Java.
So that the trucks which had to stay behind would not fall into enemy hands, they were driven to the pier and then pushed into the water. With a loud splash both four-year old Chevrolets disappeared in the sea. Because the mortar grenades were no longer deemed useful but could become a danger in the small boats, they disappeared into the water as well. But the men did take their carbines and machine guns.
Now they entered their fifth night, which would turn out to be quiet again.
In the meantime the water supply had diminished to the point where there was only enough left for less than 24 hours. On top of this, the captain made the statement that something must have gone wrong. According to his calculations, they should have reached Tandjong Priok the day before. But right then they could not see any land anywhere. Obviously, he was off course and everyone in the tonkans started to worry. It was now the 21st of February 1942 and they had been on their way 6 times 24 hours.
The next morning, around 10 o'clock, the look-out reported that he saw a ship, but most of the men — being cold — did not stir as they could not believe it. They would have been an easy prey, but suddenly the look-out happily shouted: "Boys, we're saved. I see the Dutch flag on the stern." It turned out to be the Dutch minesweeper Soebang. Soon the men transferred. After all weapons had been transferred as well, shots were fired at both boats, so that they took on water and soon disappeared. Even the motor boat soon was sunk as well.
As it turned out they had all the luck in the world, especially considering the fact that — as they found out later — they had been picked up five days before the Java Sea battle (February 27, 1942). Thus, four days before all Dutch war ships (including HMS Soebang) had been called back to gather near the east Java port of Surabaya. Otherwise, the motorboat and the two small vessels would never have been found. And they would have been stranded somewhere here, on the northern coast of Bantam, if they had not perished from thirst before.
Finally, they saw the large port. Soon, the Soebang could moor at the familiar pier and shortly after the men put foot on solid ground.
It was the 24th of February 1942. They had left the Tjimahi base more than three weeks before.
With the last and decisive battle in the Java Sea on the 27th of February, which turned out to be a complete victory for the Japanese Rear Admiral Takagi, the Dutch East Indies had also been lost for the allied forces. Immediately after the surrender was announced, both Tjimahi battalions had to take all their ammunition and weapons off the trucks and return them to the armories. Then everyone could find his bunk, feeling understandably rather depressed. Sleeping was impossible, and their new and rather unusual position as prisoners of war was heavily debated.
During August of 1942, the first 300 men were selected and told to get ready to leave. This time not to return to this camp, they were told. The camp was buzzing with rumours as to their destination, but the Japanese kept this a strict secret. Very early in the morning they left — as always, heavily guarded. After that, several transports left, sometimes 500 men at a time. Always with unknown destination, but always in the direction of the railroad station.
Only years later did it become known that all along there had been three destinations: Burma, Thailand (to build the infamous railroad) and Japan itself. In the latter they had to replace labourers who had been drafted into the military and sent to the occupied territories elsewhere in East Asia.
Don was taken to Moji (between Nagasaki and Hiroshima) in Japan to work as a POW in the harbour. After the war he was transferred to the Philippines and he remained in the KNIL to fight against Sukarno and his independence warriors. He married and settled in Indonesia until 1965 when he left (spijtoptant) with his wife and his 9-year old daughter (Sonja) for the Netherlands, which he calls "het vaderland." Hence the title of his biography: "from motherland to fatherland."
Story copyright © Sonja Harms Kroese, 2005, 2010
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.