by Fred Eygenstein
By the end of 1945, the English started to evacuate everyone by train to Djakarta. My father and I were together, while my mother, sisters, grandparents and aunt were in another part of the train. When my father and I got off the train in Djakarta, he was allowed to pass but I was stopped by a man in uniform. He told me that I was being drafted into the Dutch forces. I would have three months to recuperate and then had to report for duty. That I had just spent years in Japanese camps did not matter!
And so, much to my surprise, I was in the army and would soon trade my life as a draftee for a very different one as a soldier, commando, paratrooper and medic.
Commandos were the elite of the army. They were especially selected and trained for the toughest missions. Paratroopers were the elite of the elite, capable of dropping into enemy territory and fighting missions behind enemy lines. As a commando, I would fight many ground missions — too many to remember — mostly to clean up pockets of resistance. Later, in 1948 and 1949, there would also be four airborne missions — I would jump and fight in three of them.
My four months of special training — three as a commando and one as a paratrooper — were spent in Tjimahi. Paratrooper training was reserved for the more promising of the trainees. On average, only 20% of candidates passed the jump school training. It was an extreme test of strength, stamina and, as much as anything, of friendship. It was impossible to complete all this without good friends to pull you through your inevitable low points. I was one of the few who made it. In fact, as one of the better jumpers, I was kept at the school to become an instructor. Also, each airborne unit needed one member to be cross-trained as a medic and, because of my hospital experience, I was given that added responsibility.
Our airborne unit consisted of three companies: the 1st, the 2nd and the School or Training Company, consisting of the instructors and trainees. The three medics had the added job of looking after injured paratroopers. Instructors went along to wherever the action was — our manpower was needed and it kept our training current. This also gave me a chance to use and develop my medical skills in caring for actual combat casualties.
After two years of training and ground fighting, our unit was finally given its first airborne mission in 1948. The war was not going well for our side, and a bold strike was planned... on Djokjakarta, on the seat of Sukarno's Republican government. The attack would begin with an airborne assault on Maguwo Airport: it would begin with us.
A Navy plane had to be borrowed for this mission because not enough Dakotas were available, but the mission proceeded on schedule. Two companies of para-commandos were dropped at the Airport and I was on the Navy plane. It was risky — we could have been wiped out — but it paid off. We caught the enemy by surprise, and the Airport was in our hands in no time. Once the airport had been secured, we handed it over to the Tiger Brigade.
War has a way of surprising both sides. I don't know who was more surprised when, minutes after we had taken the airport, a plane landed and out came Sukarno himself and much of his cabinet. One of our soldiers, recognizing the rebel leader, immediately raised his rifle to shoot him. The shot was fired, but an officer pushed the rifle aside in time to deflect it: he didn't want Sukarno made a martyr. We locked up our "celebrity" prisoners, ironically, in Sukarno's own "palace," formerly the residence of the Dutch Governor of Djokjakarta.
Over time, my comrades and I have gone our separate ways. Two things remain from those extraordinary days, however... memories and comradeship. Since the formation of the Bond Oud-Parachutisten (the Dutch association of ex-paratroopers), they have held annual reunions. Alie and I were lucky enough to attend the special 50-year reunion in Bronbeek, along with not only the paratroopers, but also the aircrews who flew us to our drop zones, the fighter pilots who escorted us, and those — mostly women in uniform — who packed our parachutes.
At this reunion, I was seated at dinner beside a Navy pilot I did not know. He confessed that he was feeling rather out of place as a Naval officer among all those Army people. In fact, he said, he didn't know anyone. He was there only because he had once flown a Navy plane loaned to the Army to deliver para-commandos to a drop at Maguwo Airport. I broke into a big smile, knowing that I had been on that flight. I don't know who was more excited at this surprise reunion... I, to meet the pilot who had flown me to that key mission, or he, to meet some of the guys he had flown.
Story copyright © Fred Eygenstein, 2005
All text on this site copyright © 2005, 2010 by Ria Koster, except as otherwise noted.