Born in Wonosobo, Indonesia (then: Dutch Indies) in 1917, Henk Paulus was the son of a Javanese concubine and a man of unclear but probably Indo-European origins. He was officially recognised by his father and raised by him and his Dutch wife alongside their 7 children, many of whom were already adults when my grandfather was born. It is unknown if his biological mother played any part in raising him, although it is unlikely (more about her when I make her costume).
My grandfather joined the marines just before the war and shortly after was taken Prisoner of War by the Japanese. The following is a translation of one of many interviews he conducted for Dutch national newspapers towards the end of his life. He died Oct. 2006 in Arnhem, the Netherlands.
In his own words:
(From: Reformatorisch Dagblad, Friday 25 August 2006)
Ex-Prisoner of War Paulus: About the Burma railway line you could say: for each railway sleeper a death.
TWO EGGS IN A DEATH HUT
“It was the blackest period in my life”. Mariner H.E. Paulus survived the horrors of working on the Burma-Siam railway line. “I went into a coma and was put in the death hut. And still I managed to survive”.
The 89-year old veteran lives in Bronbeek, the Royal Home for Former-Military staff in Arnhem. Tomorrow, there will be a remembrance ceremony for the victims of the creation of the “death railways”. “So many of my comrades died there”.
Paulus is Javanese by birth. He grew up in Surabaya. At the time when the Germans invaded the Netherlands, the (former) Dutch-Indies suddenly became an enemy of Germany and Japan too. The army was mobilised and Paulus ended up in the marines.
A year and a half later, the Japanese invaded the Indonesian archipelago. “We tried to stop them outside Surabya, but we were no match for them. We were in the minority and we had no war experience whatsoever”.
For 3 and a half years, Paulus was a prisoner of war. “We were transported by ship to Singapore, and from there taken by train to Siam (modern-day Thailand). And then we had to walk, until we finally came to the camp where we had to work on the railway line”.
Nine months of rain
One of the rights of the Prisoner Of War is that they can’t be used as forced labour. The Japanese flouted that law and put the allied forces to work for the construction of railway lines straight through the jungle, first in Burma and later also in Sumatra.
The work and living conditions were truly inhumane. Many died there or carried the reminders of their hardships with them for the rest of their lives. Among the victims were more than 3,000 of Dutch nationality.
“200 of us inhabited a bamboo hut measuring 100 meters, which we had to build ourselves”, says Paulus. His skinny hands indicate the width of his sleeping place: barely half a meter (50cm). “The roof was made of palm fronts, but that didn’t stop the rain. And it rained for nine months of the year. During the day it was 40C in the shade, and it has the highest humidity levels in the world”.
Under those harsh conditions, the prisoners had to level out the jungle terrain, smash rocks with big hammers, construct and install sleepers and rails, and build bridges across rivers and ravines. On the menu, morning, noon and nights, was rice porridge. And sometimes rice without the porridge.
“The hunger was terrible”, says the elderly veteran. His eyes stare into the distance. “We were walking skeletons. You had no blankets, no clothes. For three and a half years we only wore a loincloth. It was because of the ‘decency’ of the Jap(anese) that we were even given that ... it was our only personal possession. Footwear we didn’t have either. We walked around on bare feet through the mud and the dung from the elephants we used as our draft animals. In this way we worked with a few thousand men, rushed along by the Japanese. At the slightest provocation you would receive a beating. I can’t recall a single Japanese guard who wasn’t cruel. They just hated us”.
Malaria and dysentery
Paulus became ill, like many others. “About the Burma railway line you could say: for each railway sleeper a death. Six deaths in one day. On one occasion, forty men died, when the allied forced bombed the railway line. We had to work day and night to repair the damage.
I contracted malaria and dysentery. If there was any medicine in camp, the Japanese would keep this for themselves. I owe my life to a Dutch camp doctor, Doctor Kuipers, who was a prisoner himself. I went into a coma. Nobody knew if I would come out of that again, and when. That doctor managed to get his hands on two eggs and put them aside for me. When I finally opened my eyes again, the first thing I saw was those eggs”.
Paulus made a miraculous discovery. After the construction of the railway line was eventually completed, he had to work on its maintenance. It took almost another two years before Japan capitulated. “The Japanese were given the orders to kill us all if the allied forces came to close. But it didn’t get to that point. On August 15th 1945, our camp elder called us together. He only said three words: “We are free”. Some time later, American planes dropped food parcels. But it still took some time before I could return to the Dutch-Indies”.
There, he met his wife-to-be. Her father had been beheaded during the occupation. Paulus’ sister had perished in an internment camp.
The Javanese marine became a professional soldier. He chose the marines, because of their weaponry and the independence of its marine corps. In 1950, Paulus left for the Netherlands with his wife and young son. Three times he was sent to New Guinea. Only one time it became very tense, when he had to chase some parachutists from Indonesia through an inpenetrable rain forest.
At the age of 50, the sergeant–major took his pension. After the death of his wife in 2003, he moved from Breukelen to Bronbeek. The things he experienced as a prisoner of war are etched in his memory. “A more terrible time you can’t imagine”.
Suffering along the death railway
The notorious Burma-Siam railway line (“the death railway”) eventually became 414 kilometers long. More than 3,000 Dutch, as well as 180,000 Asian prisoners (which made up 90% of forced labour), 7,000 British, 2,600 Australian and 130 Americans died during its construction. The total number of lives lost is estimated at more than 275,000 men. They succumbed to exhaustion, food shortages and illness. Monsoon rains turned the work terrain into a muddy quagmire. Doctors did what they could, but the Japanese refused to distribute the necessary medicines.
Many Japanese and Korean guards acted sadistically. They had been taught it was a dishonour to be a prisoner of war, and didn’t understand why the prisoners didn’t commit suicide to escape their dishonour.
After the completion of the railway line, a proportion of the emaciated work force was retained for maintenance and repair of the railway line. The fittest men were sent to Japan, though not all arrived as a number of transport ships were bombed by allied forces.
Since 1989 Burma calls itself Myanmar, but the name “Burma railway line” continues to be used nowadays. Today, trains still use the track over a distance of about 125 kilometres. Along other parts, the rails have been cleared, the wooden sleepers have partially rotted away, and the jungle has taken over the stone foundations.
But the memories have not disappeared. The lack of acknowledgement of their crimes by the Japanese, cause the survivors and their offspring a lot of grief, even today.