LIVING LEGENDS: WHEN BOYS BECAME MEN © Duncan Graham 2006
This Friday (10 Nov) is National Heroes’ Day – recalling the start of the Battle of Surabaya, a pivotal moment in Indonesia’s fight for independence. Duncan Graham reports from the East Java capital:
Hartoyik remembers the day clearly – Tuesday 30 October 1945. World War II had ended in August. The Japanese had capitulated. The Indonesian Republic had been declared but the Dutch had ignored the proclamation. They wanted their colony back.
In Surabaya a British-led force had landed. The Japanese defeat had precipitated turmoil, but Indonesian authorities had already imposed order. One report said the city was ‘a strong, unified fortress.’
The unwanted invaders’ job was supposed to be arresting and deporting the Japanese, and rescuing their prisoners of war. But there was another agenda – helping the Dutch return to power.
In the late afternoon the British commander of the Allied peace-keeping force, Brigadier General A W Mallaby, 45, drove out of his headquarters at the Internatio building close by Surabaya’s Red Bridge to confront a huge mob.
Hartoyik said the Englishman carried a white flag, used a megaphone and spoke in English. He was accompanied by an Indonesian translator. Mallaby appealed for calm and promised to leave once the Allies had done their job.
But Hartoyik and the thousands of lightly armed young men surrounding the building on two flanks were fired up with freedom. They didn’t believe Mallaby’s assurances. Independence had been proclaimed two months earlier and Soekarno was the young country’s first president.
There had already been many bloody skirmishes between liberated Dutch prisoners and Indonesians jostling for power. Soekarno had flown to Surabaya the previous day and negotiated a cease-fire. He then returned to Jakarta.
For the people of Surabaya there was no way the Dutch would be allowed to become masters again. The colonial days were over.
What happened next is open to interpretation.
Hindsight is easy for those who weren’t there. Yet from the accounts by Indonesian and British onlookers it’s clear the situation could have been better handled and bloodshed avoided.
To be fair the British had been misinformed of the political situation by the Dutch and grossly underestimated the strength of Indonesian feeling.
In the confusion outside the Internatio an unknown teenage gunman shot the Brigadier twice in the chest as he sat in his Lincoln car. He died quickly. The British-led troops opened fire, and then retreated to the building.
Hartoyik and his friends rushed back into the kampung alongside Kali Mas (Gold River) and lived to fight for their ideals – an independent Indonesia.
“We had spirit, we were determined,” he said. “We were not going to return to colonialism. The Dutch could not come back. We were patriots and we were not frightened of dying. Our slogan was Merdeka Atau Mati!” (Freedom or death.)
Indeed. They certainly had the numbers if not the weapons and experience. The Allied forces could muster about 6,000 men, mostly tough Gurkhas. They had aircraft, warships and tanks.
The young men who formed the People’s Security Army had come from all over East Java. There were about 20,000 plus another 10,000 militia. Thousands more were ready. Not all had modern weapons. Many only carried sharpened bamboo spears and machetes. A few had Japanese swords.
The furious British retaliated with threats; unless the Indonesians laid down their weapons and surrendered the Allies would bomb the city. The deadline was 9 November.
The Indonesians refused. “It was the right thing to do,” Hartoyik recalled. “War is bad but the foreigners had threatened us with an unacceptable proposal. We had to fight. We had no choice.”
On 10 November the Battle of Surabaya began.
It was expected to be over in a day or two. It lasted three weeks. It cost more than 6,000 Indonesian lives. The fallen will be remembered this Friday (10 Nov).
There’s no need to imagine what Hartoyik looked like 61 years ago. There’s a clear photo of him on the wall of his office at the Indonesian Legion of Veterans’ headquarters in Surabaya.
It was taken when he was part of a bodyguard for vice president Hatta on a visit to Mojokerto in East Java.
The picture shows a slight 15-year old in baggy pants with a helmet hanging from his waist. On his belt are three long magazines. Cradled in his arm is a sub machine gun, looted from the Japanese. Behind is his mate Asror, then 19 and carrying a Dutch weapon. Their armbands read TRI Tentara Republik Indonesia (the Indonesian Army)
About 200 of Hartoyik’s companions are still alive and will be parading with pride in their ochre caps and multicoloured medallions in the city they fought so bitterly to preserve.
The Battle of Surabaya was a brutal conflict. The bombers met no aerial resistance. There were no anti-aircraft guns. The invaders were battle hardened and well equipped. The revolutionaries had only a few plundered weapons, minimal training and their absolute determination.
This was the factor that made the difference.
The Allies, misled by Dutch propaganda, expected the ‘nationalist rebels’ to run in the face of awesome firepower. They didn’t, and their extraordinary resistance convinced the world that Indonesians were absolutely intent on keeping their independence.
The astonished British-led forces, who had earlier described the revolutionaries as ‘no higher than a third grade partisan army’ reported: ‘There is as yet no sign of any weakening of resistance ... our troops are encountering more organised opposition. General improvement has been noticed in tactical movements and fire discipline.’
Thousands of refugees fled the aerial onslaught and the street-to-street fighting. “We were forced to retreat down the road south,” said Hartoyik. “But we kept making stands at bridges.
“We continued shooting and it took them a long time to make progress. We all wanted to be in the front line. No one wanted to be posted elsewhere.”
The Allies eventually won the battle, but lost the war. The British left having suffered about 2,000 casualties. The Dutch returned but faced guerrilla action for four years and eventually gave in as the world sided with the Indonesians.
Hartoyik stayed with the military and became a professional soldier when the full-time army was created. His sons have also followed Dad and become senior officers.
Hartoyik remains spry and enthusiastic, attributing his excellent health to jamu (traditional remedies), fresh water and no smoking. He’s a chirpy little man with no apparent animosity.
“The spirit of nationalism is no longer alive with the present generation of young people,” he said. “They need direction from the government.
“War is wrong and times have changed. But we still need to be patriotic and to be united.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 November 06)