HistoryStoriesWorld War II

[Featured photo: Doc Hekking Reunion with former POW’s 1957 Texas Courtesy of Lost Battalion Association]

By Bianca Dias-Halpert, USA

Heroes are lost in the annals of history.   Doc Hekking and the incredible bond with his fellow POW’s  is an inspirational story that awaits rediscovery in the Indo community and beyond.

The boys from America

Overshadowed by America’s presence in the Philippines and Japan, the role of Americans in the Dutch East Indies and the greater Pacific is often overlooked. Doc Hekking’s story is testimony to the fact that Americans were Japanese POW’s. How did they get there ?

The Battle of the Java Sea

In the Sunda Strait, which connects the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean, the Japanese torpedoed the USS Houston (CA-30), an American heavy cruiser.  It was 28 February 1942.  She was part of the (ABDA) American-British-Dutch-Australian naval force.  As their ship went down, the surviving men swam ashore only to be captured by the Japanese on the island of Java.  This 7-hour battle became known at the Battle of the Java Sea. The men from Texas later came under Doc Hekking’s care in a Japanese labor camp.  Together they were transferred from the Bicycle Camp (base of 10th Battalion Bicycle Force of the Netherlands East Indies Army) in Batavia, then shipped to Changi (Singapore) and in October of 1942 on to the Burma-Siam Railway.  The USS Houston (CA-30) was later termed as the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast”.

The Jungle Doctor

I was drawn to the American prisoners because they joked a lot in spite of their situation – spoken by Doc Hekking at a reunion with former American POW’s to whom he was assigned.  He was often referred to as the Jungle Doctor because of his knowledge of medicinal plants and their application.  His unit had zero loss of limbs and also had the lowest death rate.

The men suffered from tropical ulcers, malaria, dysentery and beriberi.  Festering tropical ulcers often ended up in amputation of the limb.  To remove dead skin and stimulate new skin growth he lanced ulcers with a sharpened teaspoon or sometimes used maggots.  He created remedies using herbs, fat and sometimes arsenic to treat painful diseases.

Early Life

A product of the former Dutch East Indies, Henri H. Hekking was born on February 13, 1903 in Soerabaja on Java.  At the tender age of 4, young Hekking was sent to his grandmother’s house when he contracted malaria.  This grandmother came to the Indies from Zeeland, a province of the Netherlands, where her interest in healing plants originated.  She lived in Lawang near the edge of the woods and had a large nursery of plants, vegetables and herbs.  She was a master herbalist.  Twice a week she would tend to the sick in the native kampongs.  Under her guidance , the young Hekking learned about medicinal plants and their application for all kinds of diseases.  In this environment, he decided early on that he wanted to be a doctor.

Later in life, he obtained his medical degree from the University of Leiden on a government grant in exchange for 10 years of service in the medical corps with the KNIL – the Royal Dutch Army.  The first 6 months of service on Java was an intensive course of tropical diseases.  With this combined knowledge, he later was able to save  the lives and limbs of his fellow prisoners of war.

Typical POW camp on Thailand-Burma Railway. Courtesy of Lost Battalion Association

A Beacon of Hope

Besides his skills as a physician under the worst conditions, Doc Hekking had a great sense of humility and humanitarianism.  He knew that his patients needed hope, something to live for, otherwise they simply gave up. In the depths of hell, he kept their spirits up and  recognized the significance of psychology in the healing process.  When the men praised and thanked him, he turned it around and praised them. Doc Hekking stated that it was” their”  friendship that kept him going and made him feel worthy.  Anyone who has been in the trenches of war together understands the depth of this kind of brotherhood. This bond lasted a lifetime.

A Hero

In the Congressional Record, November 18, 1983 a tribute was made to Dr. Han Hekking for his heroic efforts in saving the lives of Americans prisoners of the Burma-Thai Railway.  He is hailed by Americans as a hero, yet little is known of him in the Netherlands. His name is in the official U.S. Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 98th Congress, First Session, Vol. 129.  In this record one of his patients, Otto Schwarz is quoted, “…..he is not a mere physician.  His practice of medicine, under the worst conditions was not restricted to the attempt to heal the physical body; it also brought out his ability as a psychologist, to somehow treat the mind, spirit, soul of those prisoners of war who had little or no reason to be confident about the future.”

Since 1956, the “boys” from Texas have held reunions with fellow ex POW’s. Each time, they passed the hat around to make it possible for Doc Hekking to come from Holland with his wife.  Each time, they embraced wholeheartedly at the airport as they saw “Doc”.

On January 28, 1994 Dr. Henri H. Hekking passed away in Holland after a long battle with cancer.  His “boys” were at a loss for words of how much he meant to them.  He was an expert jungle doctor who saved their lives and became an endearing father figure and great friend.

We salute you Doc Hekking and we honor your memory.

Editor’s Note:   Because the original POW survivors are dwindling in numbers, their adult children (the next generation) are carrying on their legacy.  They have formed an association based out of Texas called the Lost Battalion Association and the USS Houston CA-30 Survivors Association & Next Generations.

Special thanks to Fred Hekking, Doc Hekking’s surviving son, for providing photos and insights.


UPDATE: February 10, 2020; Added to this post are family history charts for the Hekking family, which were completed in 2015, answering the questions posted in 2014 by Robert Newland.


  1. Louis Adriaan Hekking as a student in Amsterdam.

    Dear relatives of Louis Adriaan Hekking (1891-1966).

    I am a Dutch historian (Amsterdam) and I am performing a research on the class 5D of 1909-1910 of the 1st Openbare Handelsschool (Public Trade School) in Amsterdam. Louis Adriaan Hekking was one of the students. I wonder if anything can be known about his years at this school, e.g. if there are any photographs of him around 1910, or even of his class.
    Your help will be highly appreciated.
    Thanks for any reply.

    Best regards,

    • Thanks to a grandson of another student at the Openbare Handelsschool I have now a schoolphoto and a personal individual photo of L.A. Hekking. I don’t know how to show these here. But if anyone is interested I can always send copies by e-mail.



  2. I’m so sorry to hear of the death of your father. My uncle Harm Meijer was in KNIL and taken prisoner by the Japanese. He died of malaria in Kanchanaburi Camp in 1943. I wish he had been treated by your grandfather. Our generation need to keep these stories alive. Take care.

  3. It has been a long time since my grandfather (Dr. Henri Hekking) has passed. In reading about his connections with so many varied groups of people, I can see how much of a humanitarian he was. My dad (Fred J Hekking) was responsible for keeping his memory alive through donations to the museums and speaking to several groups about the experiences during the Japanese control. I saddens me to let you know that my dad passed on June 13, 2018. I know that he had a passion for the people who were affected by the Japanese prison camps and was determined to keep the story alive so people could learn what happened during those terrible times. I know that he wanted to donate some of his memorabilia to the museum, but I don’t know what the museum would be interested in having. If anyone who reads this would know, please send me a note so I can make it happen.
    My dad will be missed as his dad is missed too. I wish to keep the memory going.

  4. I have just finished Last Man Out by H.Robert Charles. Wonderful book!! Many wonderful people in the book, but Doc was the hero to all of them. I’m happy to see the families are keeping in touch with each other. I’m blessed to have a daughter-in-law from Thailand. While I was there we took the train ride from Kanchanaburi, but I don’t know how far up we went. I would like to do it again, now that I have all this information! It is absolutely umbelievable that anyone survived the ordeal. God bless all of you and your families! Hugs

  5. My mother in law is a Hekking. Doc Hekking was her uncle. My husband and I are interested in the hstory of the Indos and the family. I would like to contaact people who know.

    • Hi Fred,
      I met your grandfather when we lived in Djakarta in 1971 and he was visiting there. Your grandmother is my dad’s first cousin….Marietje was my grandfather’s brother. I have often told his story and I am in awe of his efforts for the prisoners.

    • I wonder if we are related. My grandfather was Louis Adriaan Hekking, b 6.6.1891 Surabaya, died 1966. He married Johanna Maria Hildebrand , b 3.4.1902 Alabama, d 6.9.1947 – my grandmother. His second marriage, in 1951, was to Marion Elnora Hekking, b 13.4.1913 Netherlands.

      I am wondering if Louis Adriaan and Dr Henri were cousins: I don’t think they were brothers. There is probably another cousin named Louis Johan Frederick Hekking, b 26.9.1899 Surabaya, d 10.7.1943 Toachan of malaria.

      I do have a photo of Louis Adriaan’s father in Freemasonry regalia but do not know his Christian name or any other details.

      I would be delighted to hear from you.

      • Hey Robert, i am researching the Hekking Family tree, did you ever get an answer? I have some old family trees from 1949 made by Marion Elnora, was Hekking both her maiden name and married name?
        Longshot after 5 years i know.

        Best regards

        • Hello D Hekking,

          If you are happy to post your email address I can forward to you some family history charts for the Hekking family, which we completed in 2015, answering the questions I posted in 2014.

          best wishes,
          Robert Newland

        • To: D. Hekking,

          Robert has supplied The Indo Project with some family charts which we are in the process of figuring out how to present it with this article. Stay tuned while we find a way…please!

    • I really thank God for your dad’s service to mankind and being there like an angel for the POWs. May he now rest in peace and rise to glory…God bless you all…Amen

    • I shortly after the war I met a Dr.Hekking with my family in Archipel, in The Hague. My father has always said that Hekking was a kind of half-brother because he often visited my grandmother Lioni in his younger years. We met with him often at my father’s brother’s (Uncle Willy Lioni) house. He also lived in The Hague. This might be your father. I ‘m curious. I have three photographs of him and his wife .


      Ik heb kort na de oorlog een Dr.Hekking met familie ontmoet in de Archipelbuurt te Den Haag.Mijn vader heeft altijd gezegd dat Hekking een soort halfbroer was omdat hij in zijn jonge jaren veel bij mijn grootmoeder Lioni kwam. Wij hebben hem ook vaak ontmoet bij een broer van mijn vader, Oom Willy Lioni die ook in Den Haag woonde.Is dit misschien jouw vader. Ik ben benieuwd.Asd dat zo is dan heb ik nog 3 fotos van hem en zijn vrouw.

    • Fred:

      My father was one of the American POW’s (Lost Battalion) on Thai-Burma Railway and he always credited Doc Hekking with saving his life and that of many of his friends. In a few months, my sisters and I will travel to Singapore and Thailand to visit some of the sights. I will take more than a few moments while there to acknowledge his contributions.

    • Hello Robert,
      Please do let us know. It would be hard to believe if Doc Hekking was not acknowledged at this Medical Museum. His son Fred lives in Waxahachie, Tx.

      Thanks for your comments.

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