REMEMBERING A GREAT NAVAL DISASTER © Duncan Graham
Tjip Boenandir is very happy he was born with long ear lobes.
That sounds more like a fairy tale opening than a story of war and survival. But Boenandir, who turns 87 this June, has mustered enough years to credit whatever he likes for his longevity and good fortune – including his aural genetic inheritance and traditional beliefs.
For he’s the only known living survivor in Indonesia of a catastrophic naval disaster in 1942 that was pivotal to the war in South-East Asia.
The Battle of the Java Sea cost the lives of more than 900 Dutch and Indonesian sailors and hundreds of British, Australian and American servicemen. It will be recalled at a special ceremony in Surabaya this month. (See sidebar) It lasted seven hours and was the world’s largest naval engagement since the Battle of Jutland in 1916.
On 27 February 64 years ago an armada of 14 allied warships set out from the East Java port. Their mission: To confront and halt the mighty Japanese fleet sailing south and intent on capturing the Dutch colonial prize of the Indonesian archipelago.
The Japanese had already proved their mastery over the British by swamping the Malay Peninsula and seizing the allegedly impregnable fortress of Singapore.
The next domino was to be Java. Yet the Dutch – already crippled by the war in Europe – were determined to fight.
Their gesture was gallant or foolhardy, depending on how you view history and the actions of military leaders. It was certainly doomed.
They were led by the cruiser De Ruyter under the command of Rear Admiral Karel Doorman with 485 men.
In his wake were three other Dutch warships and ships from Australia, the US and Britain.
By daybreak 917 men would have been blown up, shot or drowned in the Dutch ships alone. Among them were 220 Indonesians in service with the Dutch. Four ships were sunk (one by a Dutch mine) and three others damaged.
The Japanese fleet of 18 warships was better armed and armoured and had spotter planes and big torpedoes. These could travel twice the distance of the Allies’ weapons and carry half a tonne of explosives. Only four Japanese ships were hit and mainly suffered light damage.
Boenandir was a young stoker who had volunteered to join the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1937. He was deep in the engine room around 7 pm and felt the ship shudder when the De Ruyter was hit by the first shell on the forward deck.
Four men were killed but the shell didn’t explode. Many seamen must have considered this a good omen. They were wrong.
The Allies’ fleet was under equipped to fight. It had no air cover and was handicapped by language and communication code problems. Within 50 nautical miles of Surabaya they were soon straddled by Japanese shells from the enemy’s long-range guns
“They seemed to be firing at random and just spraying us,” said Boenandir. (In fact the Japanese fired more than 1,600 shells with only five hits. Four were duds.)
“The damage really came around 12.30 at night when a torpedo hit the stern area and broke the propellers.
“The engines stopped. There was no lighting. I tried to climb a ladder to the top decks. In the darkness I fell twice and injured my right leg.”
In the light of exploding ordinance he made it to the only lifeboat successfully launched. It was designed to carry 20 men but had 60. They watched in horror as the De Ruyter sank stern first about two hours after the torpedo hit. Those who couldn’t swim crowded the forward deck waiting their fate.
“We could hear the cries of the men and shooting,” he said, assuming that some were committing suicide rather than drown. “Many were trapped in the separate compartments of the ship.
“There was a senior Dutch officer on the lifeboat and he ordered us to paddle using our hands. There was no panic – we were disciplined.”
For two days the little lifeboat drifted under a scorching sun. Light rain eased their thirst. Then a Japanese warship spotted them.
Rescue or reprisal? The Japanese had a reputation for machine-gunning survivors of its attacks.
“We were lucky to meet some kind Japanese who obeyed the rule of the sea and rescued us,” Boenandir said. “We were pulled out of the sea like fish and sent to a camp near Semarang in Central Java.”
Indonesians in the Dutch armed forces were normally released by the Japanese, while Europeans were executed or sent to prisoner-of-war camps. But Boenandir had light skin and was thought to be Eurasian.
In fact he’s linked to the royal families of Yogya and clever enough to add Japanese to his languages. This got him concessions and eventually he was let free.
In 1945 he joined the revolutionaries. After fighting for the Dutch he turned to fighting against them. The technical skills he’d learned in the navy were put to good use in munitions and weaponry.
When pensioned by the TNI in 1972 as a lieutenant colonel he set about seeking compensation from his former employers. He’d been captured and imprisoned as a seaman in the Dutch military and wanted his back pay.
His claim wasn’t recognised till 2002, and only then through the help of Dutch and American POWs who verified that Boenandir had survived. The first payment was Rp 70,000 (US$ 7). Protests from fellow veterans boosted this tiny sum.
“I’m satisfied now,” he said at his home in Malang, East Java. “I have no hate for the Dutch. I’m proud to have served my country. I have 27 grand children. I’m still fit. God has given me a long life and I’m more than thankful.”
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
What lessons have been learned from the Battle of the Java Sea?
Former Dutch naval officer Peter Steenmeijer, now the director in Indonesia of the Netherlands War Graves Foundation, said the defeat stressed the need for a balanced navy, - surface ships, submarines, aircraft and marines.
“Navies need to train as they plan to fight,” he said. “They must coordinate and exercise regularly. This has to be well in advance, especially when operating as a multinational or joint force. And never underestimate your adversary.
“All crewmembers knew the battle was an impossible mission with great risks, but hardly any stayed behind.
“Before the battle the Dutch ships were damaged and already had casualties from enemy encounters. The crews were extremely tired. Nevertheless they gave everything. In my eyes that made them all heroes.”
In Surabaya’s Kembang Kuning (Yellow Flower) cemetery 5,000 victims of the war are buried. Relatives of the dead – Indonesian and Dutch - and the military representatives of the two once-warring nations will gather to remember the tragedy on 27 February.
A bell salvaged from the light cruiser Java will be presented. The memorial has now been inscribed with the names of all the sailors who perished and Doorman’s battle cry. Although he signalled in English: ‘All ships follow me’ this was later translated into Dutch as: Ik val aan, volgt mij!
Literally this means: ‘I attack, follow me!’ and has become a famous phrase in the naval history of the Netherlands.
(First published in The Jakarta Post 21 February 06)