One Manís Experiences in Japanese Camps in Java
For more than a dozen years, until he passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2006, I lived with my mate Hendrik Wolff. He lived with memories I thought should be recorded for history. He had seen men beaten and seen them die. When I initially attempted to get him to talk about those times, his gentle brown eyes would fill enough to spill over. But early in our days together, he found himself ready to talk about the past.
He began by saying, “Many survivors were surprised, and even angry, that I harbour no ill will towards the Japanese. They don’t realize that it was the Japanese who, in the end, saved my life.” This surprised me.
I had never seen Hendrik waste as much as a morsel of food. He literally licked the bowl clean. He wore his clothes until they were threadbare, and rarely consigned anything, even a piece of string, to the garbage bin.
Hendrik Johan Wolff was born in Java in 1925. His father, born in Semarang forty years earlier, had been Fire Chief and Sanitation Inspector in that city of what was then the Dutch East Indies. As an adventurous teenager in 1942, Hendrik didn’t mind exchanging the chafing restrictions of home for the relative freedom of the first camp.
“Camp Kesilir was on the very east of Java,” he explained. “We could see Bali on a clear day. Several thousand of us, mostly of Dutch background like me or of mixed Dutch-Indonesian parentage, were held there, but it didn’t seem crowded because the area was roughly five by ten kilometres. At first we were allowed to have visitors once a month, then once every two months, then it stopped. A friend had brought my bicycle in and I was glad to have it because I was courier for the camp commanders and had to take messages to various sections as well as to the Japanese post at the entrance to the camp.”
There were four barracks in the section he was in. Like the others, Pl1 was a bamboo building about 30 meters long. Sixty men slept in a double row on platforms raised above dirt floors. They had been allowed to bring mattresses and sheets from home. At night they would sit on woven bamboo mats on the bottom platform and play Bridge or other card games by the light of lamps made from tin, glass jars, peanut or coconut oil with wicks made from cotton underwear or whatever material was available. When they wanted to sleep they climbed up to their makeshift beds.
Shortly after Hendrik was incarcerated, his dad, then living in Malang, was taken into what the Japanese called ‘protective custody’. However, his father gave the Health Officer an old x-ray showing a dark spot on his lungs. He told them he had TB, so they let him go home. A month later, Hendrik’s mother was put into a section of Malang called a wijk, an area for women and children, fenced off with barbed wire. Although his father remained free, he was the worst off of the Wolff family. Alone, and up in years with no pension, he lived from day to day by selling off the family’s belongings. Hendrik’s only sibling, a sister ten years his senior, was married and living in Holland at that time.
The 13,500 islands that make up Indonesia have a tangled history. After a series of Anglo/Dutch conflicts, the Dutch took domination and it became the Dutch East Indies. Despite a movement for independence in the 20th century, they managed to hold it until the Japanese occupied it in World War II, shortly after they attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941.
Camp Kesilir was bordered on one side by the Kali Baru River. It was used for bathing, washing dishes, sewage, and, after filtering and chlorination, drinking water. In the dry season, April to September, it became little more than a creek. A couple of kilometres of jungle to the east separated the camp from the Indian Ocean. The south end of the camp, formerly occupied by Indonesian farmers, was out of bounds. Referred to as “niemand’s land”, no man’s land, it was patrolled by Japanese guards. Despite the danger, Hendrik sometimes joined other prisoners in raiding what was left of crops of red peppers, bananas, and papayas. One such excursion still made him chuckle.
“My best friend and I were going after some papayas,” he explained. “I was holding the pillow casing. He was climbing the tree. He didn’t want the first fruit he came to. Too soft... rotten. So he reached up higher. Just then we heard a Japanese patrol coming behind one of the hedges. My friend descended that tree so fast he shook the rotten papaya loose, and it fell and disintegrated all over his head. It was really funny but I couldn’t laugh for fear the guards would hear me.”
Being caught might have meant a beating, but at that time the Japanese believed they were winning the war and were in good spirits. Hendrik felt confident he could have talked his way out of punishment.
“Besides,” he went on, “I couldn’t see good food going to waste. We used to fry bananas and trade them for other stuff. A barter system kept goods and money flowing. In those days, we were free to move about within the confines of Kesilir.”
Because he was an upbeat person, humorous memories came first. He laughed outright recalling his fellow inmate who earned the nickname poep duiker, shit diver, in English. Under normal circumstances, the incident would have engendered empathy. But this older man had been continually riding herd on the younger ones, so it seemed like poetic justice. The steep clay banks of the Kali Baru River became treacherous in the rainy season. It wasn’t an ideal lavatory - especially if one was in a hurry. On this morning the grouch was loosening his pants and shouting “gangway” as he ran. He slipped on the handcarved clay steps and everything let go as he hit the water. The unfortunate soul resurfaced in the middle of a pool of his excrement.
Another unfortunate man, he said, called Opa or Grandpa Lapree, was squatting by the river to do his business when the water was higher than normal. He felt himself being pulled backwards, probably by a tree branch, and was carried several yards downstream. He had to walk back minus his pants. He blamed the mishap on mischievous spirits. The spirits did seem to be against him. The ducks he invested in produced no more than two eggs for Opa all the time he was in camp.
Hendrik had vivid memories of his first Christmas in Kesilir. The courage of the clergy, the taste of the chocolate. Half a dozen Roman Catholic Brothers and a Protestant minister put on a show for the other detainees. They’d gotten permission from the Japanese and invited them as well. The festivities took place around a large, open bamboo storage building with a stage built for the occasion and a Christmas tree decorated with bits of paper. They all enjoyed a special treat of Indonesian made chocolate. They had good entertainment but were a bit apprehensive when those in charge of the show started poking fun at the Japanese.
“Doing a parody of Jingle Bells,” he said, “they sang of how a strong generation of agricultural experts would come out of our old colonial camp and be recognized everywhere. We all joined in the refrain, Yes, sir, Kesilir, again and again, getting louder and louder.Finally, the guards had had enough. They broke up the party, ordered us back to our quarters. But it was a Christmas to remember - especially that Brother in one of the skits who played a woman, complete with two coconut shells for breasts.”
During the battle of the Solomon Islands, Hendrik and the other detainees used to watch the Japanese bombers flying in formation over the camp. “When they came back late in the afternoon, we’d count them to see how many were missing,” he said. “By then, in 1943, America’s war machinery was in full swing, and the Japanese fortunes were starting to turn. We’d failed in our efforts to grow our own food. They decided we were lazy - that they’d have to teach us how to farm properly. Using overgrown hoes called patjols teams of three were assigned plots of land. We had to dig like hell for five minutes. Then the whistle would blow and the next guy would take over. It was hot, in the mid eighties, so we were glad to rest ten minutes out of fifteen. Because many of the guards had been born in the area, they spoke to us mostly in Malay, sometimes in Dutch. We did learn a few Japanese phrases, such as hari gato for thank you. But when half a dozen guys in our barracks were supplied with an ox to help us in our gardening efforts, we found that the animal, for city slickers like us, was not something to be thankful for. We had to cut an awful lot of grass to feed it. Then one morning we couldn’t find it. Somehow it had broken its tether and escaped. On the way to the plot assigned to us, we met a Japanese lieutenant, a former shopkeeper from Lawang who had been notified of our loss. ‘All military supplies belong to the Emperor,’ he said. ‘If a Japanese soldier loses his gun, he loses the property of his Emperor. This is a shameful thing. If he does not commit hari-kiri, he must be executed.’
“The lieutenant went on to tell us we were the same as soldiers and assured us that, he’d seen some of us grow up, it would give him a sleepless night to see us hanged, so he was giving us twenty-four hours to find our ox.
“The threat was serious enough to make us start looking in earnest. The water was low at the time, and we learned that our animal had crossed the river and was in a kampong, a village on the other side. Out of bounds to us. So one of the boys got a friendly guard to go over there and get our ox back. We were off the hook with the lieutenant, but we were back to the endless job of cutting enough grass to keep our beast’s belly full.”
After the Japanese lost the Battle of the Solomon Islands, they decided to close Camp Kesilir and move detainees to other camps further west. Some of the men were sent to Bandung, and others, including Hendrik, went to Tangerang, on the coast of Java, just to the west of Jakarta. The journey on the boardedup train took 72 hours. They travelled only at night and were left to bake in the sun during the day so as not to interfere with regular train traffic. The end of August of 1943 meant the end of freedom for Hendrik.
“Tangerang was a real prison,” he explained. “There were stone walls around the compound, the cells had steel bars over the ventilation holes, and we had only two feet of space per man. There were double platforms along the sides of each large cell, and the doors were locked at night. Awooden box with a pail in it served as toilet for all three dozen of us. We took turns dumping the pail in the morning. Each person was assigned certain chores each day - sweeping and mopping the floor or working in the kitchen. There was a wall dividing the two halves of the camp. One half was for Indonesianborn like me, and the other for those born outside of the country, mostly Dutch with the odd German or Frenchman.
“The doors were opened in the morning, and we had to file out to the exercise field for a head count. All orders were shouted in Japanese, so we had to learn the language to do tai sho, aerobic exercises. One prisoner played the harmonica to help us keep the four-beat format.
“In our half of the camp, a large group of Dutch/Indonesians decided we should all co-operate fully with the Japanese. Then maybe they’d let us go free. So they passed a rule that we couldn’t speak Dutch. Only Japanese or Malay. They organized themselves in military fashion, making Japanese insignias for various ranks to wear over their left breast pockets. Those of us who did not go along with them were considered pariahs. Fortunately, we were in the majority in our cell, but outside of it we had to be careful to avoid trouble. We understood that they didn’t identify with Dutch people and wanted to get out. So did we. But we didn’t agree with their methods. We referred to them as Bolletjus - small balls men.”
Hendrik paused, grinned, and suddenly broke into song - a stirring Japanese one. He was surprised to find that he still knew all the words.
“Kimigajo,” he explained. “The Japanese national anthem. The guards taught it to us. I’ll never forget the time they make us sing it in honour of Hirohito’s birthday. The flag of the rising sun was supposed to reach the top of the pole just as we finished the last notes. One of the Bolletjus men was pulling the rope. He was nervous, and he pulled it too fast. We had to start all over again. The second time, he was trying too hard to get it right. When we neared the end of the anthem, he gave a tremendous pull on the rope and it broke. The red and white flag seemed to waft to earth in time with our singing. It was an absolute debacle. We couldn’t help laughing because it had started out as such a solemn occasion to honour the Imperial Divinity. It was a real morale booster. We considered it a good omen.”
During the four months he was in Tangerang, the inmates played three soccer games against the guards. “They’d be limping around the next day,” he said, “because our motto was first the man, then the ball. They soon caught on to our rough tactics though, and began to play the same way. Those games were pretty wild.”
Early in 1944, detainees were moved to Cimahi, more than 100 kilometres northeast of Tangerang. They were quartered in the barracks of the 4th and 9th battalions, vacated when the Dutch military prisoners of war were sent to work on the infamous Burma railroad or in Japanese mines.
He told me food rations were cut considerably at that time. Morning tins of porridge were followed by small cupfuls of rice at noon and watery vegetable soup for supper. “The porridge looked and tasted like wallpaper paste,” said Hendrik. “We considered ourselves lucky if we got one cube of meat in the soup. One of the guys counted the vegetables in it - fifteen kernels of corn. We were given two slices of bread a day. We all began to lose weight because we were getting only eight to twelve hundred calories daily.”
There were different kinds of work gangs. On some, it was possible to get a little extra nourishment. Hendrik worked whenever he could on the old farm at Cimindi cutting grass for the dairy cattle or harvesting fish when the ponds were drained from the newly built ponds. Whenever he found snails or snakes he would keep them to cook later over a tiny campfire on the field between the barracks. “If you wanted to stay alive,” he said, “you couldn’t be squeamish.”
One of the military jobs detainees were given was the task of building berms, protective earth walls, for Japanese bombers and fighter planes. Because of the possibilities for sabotage, however, this was a short-lived project.
At one point, the camp stewards protested that the Japanese were going against the Geneva Convention by using detainees for military projects. The Japanese disagreed. “When the camp leaders then refused to let us go to work,” he said, “we were given no food at all for two days. So it was back to the work gangs or starve. We could make fifteen cents a day or be paid in kind. We usually chose the latter.”
A second work farm had been started on a former gun range, and the work there was considered juicy because, for twenty-five cents, bowls of thick meat and kidney bean stew were available. The Dutch work gang commander was a pimp from Jakarta who still had girls outside the camp. He provided them for the Japanese whenever requested, so he was able to get extra food to sell. After an altercation with him, Hendrik refused to work as a regular on the pimp’s gang. When camp leaders tried to force him to do so, he went on a hunger strike that lasted four days.
“Weren’t you afraid you’d die?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “There was a principle involved. I was willing to die for it.”
I used to accuse him of being stubborn. He was born in the Year of the Ox. But perhaps this very trait helped ensure his survival. From three to fifteen inmates were dying daily in his area of Cimahi, so one of the work details consisted in going out of the camp to pick up coffins from a Chinese carpenter. Hendrik was not prepared for his first experience with this group. When they were in the shop and the Japanese guard was elsewhere, the gang leader turned to him. “How many loaves do you want?”
Hendrik didn’t know what he was talking about. “I don’t have any money,” he replied.
“That’s okay. I’ll lend you some. You can pay me later.”
So Hendrik took a loaf of bread. Back in the camp, he learned that food was always smuggled inside in one of the coffins. In camp, the provisions sold for five times their original price. “If you were caught smuggling,” said Hendrik, “they shaved your head and beat you with green bamboo, or maybe an iron pipe. He’d made me take the same chance as the others, but that rat still charged me the full price for my loaf of bread.”
The local military hospital was a popular work detail because the wounded Japanese frequently left their food unfinished, and the hungry workers were only too happy to clean it up for them. “The soldiers were impressed with the amount of food we could eat,” said Hendrik. “One day, just for fun, they took only half of their rations and we all got full food drums. We had these five pound butter tins from Australia. Well, I filled mine three times. Afterwards, I felt horrible. Could hardly march back to camp. Thought I was gonna explode!”
Would-be escapees suffered horrible punishment. Hoses were placed in their mouths. They were filled to bursting with water, then kicked in the stomach. Few people tried to escape.
Occasionally, punishment was handed out for no reason at all. Hendrik recalled one little Japanese guard who would often walk past one of the work gangs, pick out the tallest man, preferably one wearing glasses, and order him to step forward. Then the guard would use his bare hands to slap and punch his victim, barking at him in Japanese all the while.
When his Uncle Abe in a nearby camp in Bandung learned that Hendrik was in Cimahi, he applied for and got a transfer there. Together, they heard the first rumours of Germany’s surrender, but they understood the Japanese well enough to know that they would fight on alone rather than be dishonoured. On August 9th, 1945, the second atomic bomb was dropped. Five days later, Hirohito announced his country’s unconditional surrender. Indonesia immediately declared independence, setting off a period of intermittent fighting with the Dutch that was to last four years.
When Allied planes dropped food and medicine for the camps, some inmates of Cimahi were so emotionally overcome they suffered fatal heart attacks.
The Japanese were told by the Allies they would be held responsible for the safety of the detainees. Since few of their charges wished to remain in protective custody, the Japanese were in an extremely awkward position.
“When Uncle Abe first asked me to go with him to Surabaya,” confessed Hendrik, “I refused. The camp was my world. I knew how to behave, what to do, what to expect. I was apprehensive to leave it for the outside.”
But Hendrik’s world was shattered when one of the married men in the barracks was visited by his wife and teenaged daughter. He’d just had a shower and was caught in his birthday suit with only a worn towel for cover. Two days later, he was on a train with his uncle, riding through the night towards Surabaya. He left his uncle there and went on to Malang to see his father. Some weeks later, his dad suggested he visit his mother in Semarang to see if she was well enough to travel. She was, but now the Indonesians had taken control and travel passes were necessary. Impossible to get, though, with Dutch ancestry.
Early one morning, a young, bayonet-wielding Indonesian soldier walked into the house where Hendrik was staying with his mother. Giving him no time to change from his pyjamas, he ordered him to come and be registered. Along with a number of other young males, he was taken to a jail on the airport road where more than a hundred Japanese soldiers were being held as well, the main Japanese army having retreated to Ambarawa, a village in the hills.
In October, Indonesians began killing Japanese soldiers. A time of chaos. Hendrik could hear the beatings, the moaning. In the early hours of October 16th, three Japanese prisoners escaped, took over the police station, and called their mates in Ambarawa who then started to march back to Semarang. “That day,” said Hendrik, “after giving us a meal of brown rice, the Indonesians heard shooting and hustled us back into our crowded cells. Later that afternoon, we could hear the buzz of angry voices outside the jail. ‘What’s happening?’ someone asked a guard.
“Those are people from the village,” came the reply. “They want to have a killing party with you like we had with the Japanese. We told them they’d better wait till tomorrow. The seventeenth is our Indonesian Independence Day.”
All that night, Hendrik and the other prisoners could hear nearby bursts of machine-gun fire as the Tong Tong, village guards, sounded alarms. Rifle fire seemed to be coming from farther up the road.
Hendrik told me a number of Japanese soldiers had played dead by hiding under corpses of their comrades. They had managed to escape by climbing up through the ceiling of the cells. Outside, they’d dug up paving rocks to use as weapons. At five o’clock they rushed through the prison gates and made surprise attacks on the Indonesian machine-gun nests, knocking them out long enough for the Japanese army to march in, take over the jail, and free the inmates.
“I never thought I’d ever be glad to see their red and white flag,” said Hendrik. What irony that it should be the Japanese rather than the Allies to liberate him. At the age of twenty, Hendrik was free at last to get on with his life.
In 1988, Hendrik went back to visit Indonesia. I still have the letter he sent me at that time. “My heart cries,” he wrote. “Don’t know what. Is it sadness, is it happiness? Today the Tjemera trees stroked my arm as I walked down a path. It was as if they were welcoming me. I was strangely moved. It was like meeting an old friend of my youth.”
In his letter, he enclosed a long green needle from the tree. I recall my thoughts as I held it between my thumb and index finger. To survive hardship physically is commendable. But to survive without harbouring bitterness or hate, that is the true triumph.