StoriesTraumaWorld War II

By Gerard Willem Charles Lemmens

The Imperial War Museum in London asked me to write the following story.

The Dutch East Indies

Around my birth on April 24th, 1940, in the R.C. hospital of Surabaya, my parents bought this rattle at the silversmithde Wolfin honor of my birth. I (Gerard Willem Charles Lemmens) was the third child in my family, having a 9 ½ year older sister, who first was called Toos but later Karin, and a 7 year older brother, Jan.

Gerard in Malang, 1942

Fairly soon after my birth, my parents decided to move from Surabaya, a large harbor city on the east coast of the island of Java, to Malanga hill station south of Surabaya. At that time, Malang was part of the old Dutch colony from the 15th century. My Dad had decided on this move for security reasons, probably after Hitler declared war in Europe.

My parents had a better life there as life was more interesting, the climate was better and they had several servantscalled babu (female) and jongos (male)which made life easier. My mother never cooked as she had a kokkie (cook). She had to learn how to cook after the war finished in 1945.

At War with Japan

However, this happy lifestyle came to an abrupt end on December 8th, 1941, the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Dutch declared war on Japan that same day. The Dutch had not realized that in the last years before war broke out many Japanese had moved to the Dutch East Indies, as they had done in the USA. However many Dutch eyes were opened during the war when they noticed some of their shop suppliers were now high-ranking Japanese officers.

My dad, a merchant navy chief engineer, and his ship the Janssens was first involved with the war during the battle of the Java Sea. His ship also supplied the British, American, Australian, and Dutch fleets with torpedoes, which were shipped from Surabaya to the waters close to Singapore. After the war, he received for his bravery the War Memorial Cross with two clasps. 

However after the Japanese landed on Java in the early part of 1942, they immediately started to round up the men. They were told to pack a rucksack and assemble in the center of the town of Malang. From there they were taken by trucks to a camp, but at the time nobody knew where the location of the camp was. 

We found out after the war that this first camp (a barbed-wired area) was in Kessiler, on the east coast of Java. From there he was moved to at least four more camps on Java, finally ending up in Changi prison in Singapore.

In November 1942 it was our turn. The women and children were told to make themselves ready with rucksacks for departure. My mum helped me to pack my clothes, along with my koala bear and my rattle, into a rucksack that she had made for each of us.

The Internment of Women and Children

The Japanese had surrounded a small area of our town with barbed wire. This was Malang, which was baptized camp De Wijkor the District. The whole population of Malang had to move. This meant that several families had to move into one house so each family was given one room to live in and sleep in. Even garages were used as living accommodations.

We ended up in one room at Lawoeastraat no. 3 together with Mrs. van Alphen and her children Johan, Fietje, Tom and Marjan, Mrs. Boom and her children Geert and Lies, Mrs. Bos and Mrs. Rieddel (an Austrian lady) and Mrs. Wijnands with her children.

In the camp, there was an outbreak of diphtheria, which I caught too. Thanks to a very kind young Japanese GP (there were those kinds of Japanese too!) my life was saved and I was the first child infected with diphtheria whose life was saved.

We stayed in Camp Malang until February 1943 when we were transported by trains to the town of Ambarawa in mid-Java.

It was a horrendous journey that took two days and two nights in the heat without any food or drink for the duration of the journey. During this time all the children cried for water and food. On that kind of journey, I had to be very careful that the Japanese guards did not hear or see my rattle because they would confiscate any silver, gold, or other valuable things. When we arrived in Ambarawa, all the mothers thought we would end up in a better camp in the country. But after marching for five miles again without drink or food, we arrived at a real prison with high walls and a main gate. It was called Banjoe Biroe (modern spelling is Banyu Biru), where we ended up in Cell no. 11. 

Of the 9,000 prisoners, only 4,400 survived as the rest died of starvation or diseases.

We stayed there until the Japanese capitulated officially on August 15th, 1945. We did not hear about it until August 19th  when a plane flew over the prison dropping pamphlets from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlandssaying that Japan had capitulated and the war was over! 

The Independence War

In the meantime, on August 17th an Indonesian group, with their leader Sukarno, declared the Indonesian War of Independence against the Dutch government. This meant we had a civil war and the Indonesian population wanted us dead. British troops came and a Gurkha regiment moved into our prison with canons to protect us. I thought it was very interesting and I was very impressed by the Gurkhas.

It was very dangerous to leave the camps. Most prisoners stayed inside until the beginning of December when we were taken in convoy on trucks, with British planes flying above us, to the harbor town of Semarang on the north coast of Java. As my mum had lost so much weight (she only weighed 67 pounds) she could not walk on her own anymore.

Reunited

Every day my sister went to visit the office of my Dads merchant navy company, KPM (Koninklijke Paket-vaart Maatschappij), to see if they had any news of his whereabouts. One day at the end of December she was told he could be in Singapore (Changi Prison), so she asked if the KPM could take us on a ship to Singapore. We were offered a passage on the H.M.S. Loch Killisport on which Prince Philip served as a Naval Officer (my sister remembers that clearly!) to Singapore. There on the streets of Singapore when we were looking once again for my Dad. A man randomly stopped to ask my brother the name of the road when he realized that he was talking to one of his own sons.

My Dad survived the war, mainly because he became the Champion Fly Catcher in Changi jail for which he received extra food portions as the Japanese guards were terribly scared that the flies carried disease. 

He also saved the life of a friend, Ben Groenewegen, who had lost a lot of weight as most of the prisoners were starving.  It was fashionable, in those days before the war, to have a certain amount of gold teeth, which my Dad also had. After the war, he told us that he had taken out all his gold teeth himself and sold them for food for his friend, Ben, which saved his life. As children we found it quite an unbelievable story until Ben came over from New Zealand in 1947, where he had settled in 1945, to tell us about our Dad saving his life. We then thought my Dad was really a hero!

In January 1946, my parents had to apply for a new passport to travel from Singapore to the Netherlands. The passport photograph clearly shows how thin we had become.

Family portrait
Passport photograph, Singapore January 1946 (from L. to R. my brother, Jan, my Mum, my sister Toos / Karin) and me

Because of the dangerous situation with the civil war, we never went back to our house in Malang. All our belongings were lost. We also assumed that during our time as prisoners of war, everything had been looted more or less already. My rattle and my koala bear were virtually the only possessions left from the Dutch East Indies. Unfortunately, around 1960, my mother gave my koala bear to a cousin of mine. My cousin wanted it as a mascot, never knowing how much it hurt me to have lost my koala bear. My mother was sometimes far too good to people, so I forgave her, but I have never forgiven my cousin for asking her. He said after one month that his mascot had been stolen.

The war has left us suffering our whole life from the traumas we experienced during the war.  In 1947, a Dutch medical couple made several predictions about the camp children”, as they called us. One was that a very high percentage would suffer depression at a later age in life (50 to 60).

That actually did happen (it also happened to me in 2000 and 2002) and many of those committed suicide. I do not know what the actual statistics are, but I think they might be shockingly high.

This Lemmens family sailed with the RMS Alcantara in February 1946 to the Netherlands, where they settled for the first three years in Nijmegen during which time our father still worked in Indonesia as a Chief Engineer with the KPM. In 1949, our father retired and was offered a good position (Chief of Technical Services) with Stork Chemicals. This position included a house in a most beautiful spot at a lake on the outskirts of Hengelo (Overijsel), where both parents died in 1990 and 1996 and are buried in a family plot.

Hengelo (Overijsel), Kleigat with on the left our house

Biographical Notes

Karin Lemmens (born December 2nd, 1930) became a Dutch diplomat and married in a Roman Catholic Chapel, the Grundel, Hengelo (O) in 1965 an Englishman, Patrick G. McC. S. Conway and they lived in The Beacon, Benenden, Kent. Patrick died in August 2021, Karin died in Pembury Hospital in February, 2022. They are both buried next to each other in Benenden.

Jan Lemmens (born January 7th, 1933) became a buyer with Hazemeyer in Hengelo (Overijsel) and married there in 1958 at the Town Hall in Hengelo (O) a Dutch girl, Martha W. Leiting. They lived in Hengelo (Overijsel). Jan died there Jan. 1st 2009. Poor Jan was in the boys/old men’s camp. Ambarawa no. 7 and was shot in one eye with a catapult. After the war he was twice operated by Prof. Dr. Weve in Utrecht but twice “the netvlies” (retina) tore after the operation so he was blind with that eye for the rest of his life.

Gerard Lemmens (born April 24, 1940) first did a degree in the Netherlands (Deventer) in tropical agriculture and then studied Biochemistry and Brewing at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh under Prof. Dr. Anna Macleod, his wife’s unmarried aunt. He became first a R & D brewer and Head brewer with Bass Charrington, but changed after seven years to become a Hopmerchant with Morris Hanbury. He married in 1968 in the Magdalen Chapel, The Cowgate, Edinburgh (a non denominational chapel, of Heriot-Watt University) Gillian L. Macleod, the daughter of Dr. John G. Macleod, (sometimes Royal) Physician and Author of medical publications and Nancy Elisabeth Clark. They have lived since 1992 in Wadhurst, East Sussex. He is now the only survivor of that family.

The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your story.

    I read it with my mom, who was a 5th grader in Soerabaja when the Japanese invaded Java in 1942. Although her father was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese Kempeitai, her mother was helped (similarly as you) by a very kind Japanese officer when they lived in Babat (a small village west of Soerabaja). He had confided to my Oma that he didn’t like the war either and that he missed his wife and children in Japan. So, a short time after my mom’s father was imprisoned and the family was forced to leave their home and possessions in Babat, the officer helped by arranging for them to take a mattress for the two youngest children (twin girls, age 7 mos.), and providing safer transport during their train journey to Djokjakarta (near the Indian Ocean).

    To this day, my mom often wonders what became of the Japanese officer and whether or not he made it back to his family after the war.

    Wishing you all the best!

    • Dear Crystal, Sorry for the slow response but I did not know that my story was put on the Indo project web site. When I first came to the U.K. in 1966 nobody seem to know about our war in the Dutch East Indies but in latter years much more has been published. In our villiage – Wadhurst – in Est Sussex lived an old lovely Dutch / Indonesian lady called – Nel van Vreeden-Heiligers – who became 102 when she died several years ago. I often visited her in an old peoples setup here and then took Indonesian food, which I had learned to cook with me as she never cooked anymore due to her age.
      She was soo lovely and well informed, I miss her !!

      Look after yourself and many best wishes, Slamat, Gerard

    • Dear Raymond,
      Thank you for your reaction. You seen very keen to promote your own Camp story! But the connection does not seem to work !!!
      Regards,
      Gerard lemmens

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment