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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

All Ships Follow Me

A Family Memoir of War Across Three Continents

Mieke Eerkens





Java Sea, Indonesia, December 2014

Humming above the warm equatorial waters of the Java Sea, a small commuter plane approaches the island of Java, Indonesia. Inside the plane, my eighty-three-year-old father hunches over the O of his window as the misted island comes into view after thirty hours of travel. He has grown quiet, his aging eyes focused on the world below as the plane drops altitude and the palm trees rise through the steam to meet us. I crane my neck to look over his shoulder while the Central Java city of Semarang fills the window. We have come here together, a journey of return for him, a journey of discovery for me.

Nearly seven decades earlier, my father stood on that soil below us, a skeletal fourteen-year-old kid in a loincloth who hadn’t seen his parents in years, watching an Allied military plane appear in a halo of sun to announce that the war was over and he would live. He had spent two years in a men’s forced-labor camp by that time, separated from his parents and siblings. In the country of his birth below, my father helped carry his friends out of that internment camp in bamboo coffins. He hallucinated during malarial fevers, and chewed banana leaves to settle the effects of dysentery. He tried to sleep on his stomach as the blood from a whip’s lashes formed into itchy scabs on his back. Sixty-nine years earlier, in that place below, my father was a kid who had nothing left, watching the news fall from that plane in a shower of tiny papers, like so many butterflies descending from the sky: To All Allied Prisoners of War: The Japanese Forces Have Surrendered Unconditionally and the War Is Over. Stay in your camp until you get further orders from us. Deus ex machina. He was saved. Over a third of his camp’s approximately fifteen hundred inhabitants had died of starvation and disease by that point. Standing in the center yard of his camp, my father raised his arms to his rescuers and lived to bring me into the world three decades later. And now he and I will stand together on that same ground.

The country we are approaching is my father’s memory, but it has been my mythology. On the other side of the planet, in a suburb of Los Angeles, my siblings and I grew up with muddled identities as the children of Dutch immigrants. We returned to Holland every summer to stay connected to our roots, and lived in hyphenation as Dutch-Americans. Yet there was always a third cultural layer complicating our heritage, one that we had less access to. Like a relative who had mysteriously died prior to my birth and was never spoken of, the ghost of Indonesia silently filled our home with inherited relics: carved furniture and batik pillows, Bahasa words mixed into our English and Dutch, nasi and bami goreng fragrant with Indonesian spices on the dinner table.

Despite its significant presence in my life, I have never set foot in Indonesia until now. I’ve spent months planning this visit with my parents, mapping out a trajectory that will take us to the sites of my father’s childhood.

We approach our starting point. We secure our tray tables. Flight attendants strap themselves in. Wheels touch asphalt. I look at my father, his hair an unkempt cloud of white, his hands spotted with age. He’s stronger and more persistent in life than men with half his years, a scientist who still works diligently toward a breakthrough in his laser isotope separation process for hours every day in the hopes of revolutionizing the world with safer and more efficient carbon-free energy. But there’s no denying that he’s moving into the twilight of his life. This may be his first and last visit to his home country. It’s a moment that takes hold of me in its poignancy. My heart rises into my throat. As the flight attendants take their places at the exit, we gather our belongings and prepare to disembark for a two-week journey through my father’s past. I hope to find answers. I hope to connect to my father’s war, and to better understand his wounds. I hope to find images to fill the empty spaces in my history.

Selamat datang di Semarang. Thank you for flying with us. Welcome to Java. Enjoy your stay.

In the arrivals terminal, my father’s duct-taped suitcase appears between the sleek spinner bags on the conveyer belt, and we pull its frayed heft from the belt in a team effort. It’s an unwieldy 1980s suitcase without wheels that he insists is still “perfectly good,” crammed full of sweaters and jeans that he won’t be able to use in this heat but brings along “just in case.” He also has two pairs of busted shoes he has brought along because he heard that they can be resoled inexpensively here. My mind momentarily flashes on a vision of the 1940s suitcase that my father took when leaving this country after the war, packed with the relative lightness of all of his worldly possessions at that time. I eye my dad’s double plastic bag, aka his carry-on luggage. “Maybe we can get you a duffel bag for that stuff while we’re here, Pop.” He grumbles, but the plastic handles have already ripped from the weight of everything he’s crammed into the bag, so even he concedes to this necessity. I place my hand on his back. “Don’t worry. It’s a good thing. It will be much easier to carry.”

A downpour begins as we emerge from the airport to meet our driver, Joko, with whom we have exchanged emails in the past months at the suggestion of my father’s younger brother, who has also made this journey of nostalgia through Java. Joko is a fixer who has driven hundreds of former Dutch colonial residents and their children around the country. He speaks a bit of Dutch and English, and knows all the Dutch colonial sites of interest. Joko-from-the-internet is finally revealed to us outside the Semarang airport as a middle-aged, mustached man wearing a striped polo shirt, a pair of khaki pants, and sandals. Joko stands at the exit smoking a cigarette with another man. He holds a sign that displays our last name, ready to drive us through this most populated island of Indonesia for two weeks, all the way from the north of Central Java, through the interior of the island, to Western Java. It’s a reverse journey of my father’s youth here, starting with the last city where he lived as a prisoner of war, passing through the places he lived and spent time in as a child, and ending in the city of his birth, Jakarta.

We run through the hammering rain and ankle-high water to Joko’s white van, and help him load the suitcases before ducking into the dry cab. After fifteen minutes, while we’re still sitting in the heavy traffic leaving the airport, the shower clears to blue sky. This pattern repeats itself several times during the day as we nudge up against the beginning of the rainy season in Indonesia. Between these short explosions of heavy rain, the tropical sun beats down to steam us into sticky, flushed messes in the ninety-degree heat. Or at least, it does so to my mother and me. My father, having been raised here, is entirely unbothered by the heat. In fact, he seems to enjoy it as he downs bottles of cold mango nectar, a favorite childhood treat. While my mother and I mutter Jesus, so hot and fan our flushed faces uselessly, my dad, like Joko, literally doesn’t break a sweat.

The locals seem to handle the erratic nature of the weather here with calm indifference. They haul their birdcages, bananas, puppets, or whatever wares they are selling to and from the side of the road multiple times a day, crank parasols up and down, and never complain. In a downpour, the throng of scooters in the road arches around deep puddles en masse, never ceasing its momentum. I watch from inside our van, relieved to surrender control to Joko, who navigates the swarming traffic with nonchalance. It’s a beautiful dance for which everyone but I seems to know the choreography. Amazed, I witness a man beside us calmly maneuver his tiny scooter through heavy rain and flooded potholes. A clear plastic tarp contraption covers him, a baby sitting on his handlebars, the bag-laden wife sitting behind him, and a standing toddler sandwiched between them. They are like a monsoon circus act, performing death-defying feats as they fly through this chaos of an Indonesian city. My father is fixated on the scooters. “Wow! My God! Mieke, take a photo of all those scooters waiting at the traffic light!” he exclaims. “We never had this when I lived here! All of our roads weren’t even paved yet back then.”

* * *

By the time my father was born, the Dutch had already been in Indonesia for centuries, and an enormous amount of infrastructure had been built. The Dutch had maintained a foothold in the country since the late sixteenth century with the spice trade. They dominated the trade route via the United East India Company, known in the Netherlands by its Dutch initials, VOC. The company—which imported nutmeg, pepper, cloves, and cinnamon, as well as coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, and tobacco, from all over Asia, but particularly from Indonesia—was hugely profitable for the Netherlands. For that reason, the Dutch government granted the United East India Company the rights to protect their commercial interests by waging war, taking over territory, and creating massive stone fortresses in the areas of production to protect the stolen land. For two hundred years, Dutch people working for the VOC infiltrated the Indonesian archipelago, expanding operations onto more islands, establishing plantations. However, on December 31, 1799, the VOC dissolved, and the Dutch government, reluctant to cede the territory back to Indonesia, took control over these areas in Java, Sumatra, and a number of Indonesia’s seventeen thousand smaller islands. More Dutch moved to Indonesia to start plantations and farms. The British seized control for five years, until the Dutch took the regions back in 1816. For decades, there was fighting with the British as the Netherlands conquered territory, including northern Bali and Lombok. Finally, around 1900, the entirety of Indonesia officially fell under Dutch colonial rule.

As the longest-held regions, Java and Sumatra had existed under colonial rule for 130 years by the time my father was born. Generations of Dutch families occupied sprawling plantation homes across the landscape, and Dutch society was firmly established within the colonial territory, with Dutch architecture, Dutch imports, and the Dutch language appearing alongside the Indonesian language on signs. Streets often had Dutch names, and the people even walked around in wooden shoes. This was mixed with Indonesian culture, with horse-drawn dokars and cycled becaks in the streets and Indonesian foods on every Dutch household’s table. Into this culture, my father was born.

* * *

We waste no time immersing ourselves in my father’s history. Jet-lagged and overwhelmed, we visit the Kalibanteng cemetery, maintained by the Dutch government for its war dead, on our very first day. This memorial cemetery is one of the last strips of land in postcolonial Indonesia that the Netherlands government still manages. Logically and emotionally, it may not be a great plan to visit it as a first destination. The visit constitutes a plunge into the smoldering remains of the war before we’ve even traced the buildup, similar to entering a theater during the final scene of Hamlet. This cemetery was created solely for civilian victims in the Semarang region during the war, and it is only one of many war cemeteries throughout the country, but even so, I am astonished by its size: thirty-one hundred people are buried here out of approximately thirty thousand Dutch civilian casualties, many of them women and children who died in the Japanese internment camps established for the Dutch in the area.

These dead were people who lived in this former colony of the Netherlands, some descended from hundreds of years of family history. These were not soldiers, who lay in other cemeteries. Nor were they all wealthy plantation owners, as one may imagine colonial inhabitants. These colonists were teachers and bus drivers and chefs. They were musicians and clockmakers and housepainters. They were twelve and they were seventy and they were twenty-five. They danced the Charleston and took their kids fishing on the weekend. They rode the train and did math homework and read bedtime stories. What they all had in common, from teacher to bank owner, was being herded into internment camps in the spring of 1942 by the Japanese forces that occupied the country during World War II.

Joko rings the buzzer at the huge wrought-iron gate spanned across the entrance, then drives down a short driveway. Joko is familiar with this place. He drives many Dutch people to these same monuments each year, former inhabitants or, more often lately, their surviving kin, on a similar mission of finding the past. Inside the cemetery gates, we are met by kind Indonesian employees with bottles of cold water. They invite us to sit down on the shaded patio, where we sign the guest log under the syrupy diplomatic smiles of the Dutch royal family, who look out at the cemetery from inside a frame hanging on the wall.

The clipped grass, a brilliant, unmarred green, stretches as far as I can see, dotted with white crosses. The cemetery employees give us parasols to protect us from the dogged sun. One of them is assigned to escort us through the cemetery. He looks up the number of my father’s “aunt” in a massive book, and walks us down a long path to her grave marker. “Aunt Lien,” one of my grandmother’s best friends, died in the camps two months before the end of the war, and in her final days, she asked my grandmother to take care of her two children. I have read the account my grandmother wrote about this death in her secret camp journal, comprised of letters to her husband that were saved until their reunion at the end of the war:

It is Sunday today. I just visited Lien. She is very ill. It looks like she is ready to give up the fight. My sister Ko is looking after her children, as I was recently quite ill myself and not so strong anymore … If only some food and medicine would come!

April 13, 1945. Lien passed away in the night, at 11:30. I visited and sat by her bed in the afternoon. She was short of breath but eating and drinking a little better than the day before. At 11 p.m. in the night I was called. Lien was already unconscious and died quietly a little later. Her troubles are all over now. But she was so young. I cannot write much more about it.

We stand quietly, staring down at the white cross that now represents Aunt Lien, just one in a row among hundreds of rows, neatly hammered into the shorn green grass. What is there to say now? We gather awkwardly around her grave, perhaps the only people who have ever done so. I’m not even sure if her bones are under there. I presume they were exhumed along with all the other bones in the camp graves when the war ended and moved here in a massive unidentified jumble. But were they? I realize that I don’t know where Aunt Lien’s body actually lies. There may be only dirt in this grave.

Our cemetery escort waits for us at a distance, and I walk past the rows, reading the names of the deceased. The separate area of smaller crosses for the children who died in the camps moves me the most, followed by the sole Jewish star, which catches my eye amid the acres of crosses. The irony of a Dutch Jew escaping the Holocaust by living in Indonesia, only to be interned in a camp and killed by the Japanese, sends chills up the back of my neck. There is also a section of Islamic tablets marking the graves of Indonesian-Dutch Muslims, those whose families merged with the Dutch families over centuries of colonialist communities, those who allied themselves with the Dutch. I had not expected to see these tablets, carved to resemble the tops of mosques. It complicates the narrative of colonialism and history. I appreciate that it muddles conceptions.

My mother has brought the ashes of a friend’s recently deceased husband, Jongk, whose mother’s grave happens to be in this cemetery. Jongk’s mother died one day before the liberation of the camps. He was a young boy at the time, and had been in Holland on vacation when the Japanese invaded Indonesia; he never saw his mother again. Escorted by the man with the big book, we find his mother’s grave. My mother produces a ziplock bag, carried from California inside a sock in her luggage, and sprinkles Jongk’s ashes over his mother’s grave while I videotape so Jongk’s wife can see that he finally made it back to his mother. This too feels anticlimactic. It’s breathlessly still in the moments that follow, and we wander quietly back to the path under the cover of our parasols.

I recognize in that moment what is so disquieting about this place, besides the obvious presence of the war and the specter of death. Ironically, it’s that there’s no sign of life in this cemetery. In cemeteries in Holland or the United States, people stroll the pathways, lay flowers, visit the graves of those they love. Car tires roll slowly over gravel. Lawn mowers buzz. There is movement, the signs of involvement, people engaged in the pursuit of remembering. Here, the stagnation is palpable. In the yawning green vastness of this meticulously groomed memorial cemetery, under the spotlight of the sun, we are the only visitors.

We walk to the end of the cemetery to see the monuments. There, I am surprised to find the original bronze statue of a miniature replica that sits on the mantel in my parents’ house in California. It is called The Patjoler, named after the boys who went into the fields to do farmwork for the Japanese officers every day. The life-size statue depicts an emaciated boy in a loincloth with a hoe (patjol) over his shoulder. The plaque dedicates the statue to the boys imprisoned in my father’s camp, all of them patjolers. My mother and I swallow our tears, but my father is stoic. “Pop, did you know this was here?” I ask him. “Oh sure,” he says. This fits with the father I have always known, the father who responded to family deaths with quiet contemplation and pragmatism, who responded to every sobbing tragedy I had growing up with “It will get better, sweetheart; you just have to keep trying” and a pat on the back, regardless of the circumstances. Still, I don’t believe he isn’t moved. I know emotion is threatening just below the surface. I suspect he learned during the war to shut down his feelings. This man was once a boy who watched a friend die from grief in the internment camp, who learned that the boys who cried were punished by the Japanese officers, who had strict beliefs about men and emotion. I make my father stand next to the statue and take his photograph as he smiles uncomfortably.

My emotion is enough for us both. Walking back to the car past row after row of white crosses in this deserted place, I am moved in a way I haven’t been before when hearing stories about the war or reading statistics back in the United States. Seeing markers for the dead here is overwhelming and makes the war real to me. Mothers, fathers, children, aunts, uncles. Their graves are still here in Indonesia, reduced to rows of white sticks in the middle of an oblivious city that has moved on, out of context in a place that doesn’t exist anymore, thousands of miles from their families.

Copyright © 2019 by Mieke Eerkens