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Interview with Franciscus Johannes Zantvoort

the Netherlands
The Netherlands

Name & Surname: Franciscus Johannes Zantvoort
City of Birth & Country: Born on 11 December 1922 in Utrecht, the Netherlands
Rank in the Royal Dutch Navy in 1942: Served in the Royal Dutch Navy from 15 August 1941 till 1 April 1947. My rank in the above period was "militie matroos monteur" (transl.: conscript-sailor-mechanic), this was renamed per 1 September 1945 into "Monteur III z.m." I.e. (Electrical) Mechanic 3d cl. sea-conscript.

[This interview with Mr. Frans Zantvoort was done in July 2000 via e-mail and is posted here by his kind permission.]

Mr. Zantvoort, please tell us a little about your background.

In the thirties-depression years my father lost his job in Holland and decided to try his luck in the Netherlands East Indies, he was a bookkeeper. In 1934 he was able to send for his family, my mother my sister and I arrived in Batavia (now Jakarta) in December 1934, there I attended High School; in 1937 we moved to Bandoeng, where I finished High School and went to a technical college, where I studied electrical engineering, after completion I was called up for the Navy.

After finishing training school for electrician, you were at first assigned to serve aboard a submarine. What has happened after that ?

Which tasks were you given after that ? (after submarine)

You also took part in the Badung Strait battle as a crewmember aboard a Dutch motor torpedo boat which attacked Japanese troopships. Which MTB did you serve on? Could you briefly described your engagment during this battle.

After the battle you were assigned to the unit which carried out demolition at the navybase in Udjung. What kind of property did you destroy ? Did Japanese planes often attacked you while carrying the demolition works in the harbour ?

First basic military training and electricianīs training till January 1942. To better understand the whole situation from here on, one should understand that the situation was kind of hectic and chaotic, that is with the seabattles and airattacks going on. So the group coming from the training school in Soerabaya were placed in barracks near the Navy Yard with orders to keep ourselves available for whatever assignments came along. So in my case this was an order to stand by to join the crew of a submarine which was expected to return to base soon, which it didn't. About at this time the first American ships came into Soerabaya, they were destroyers out of the Philippines, the crewmembers I spoke to were very upset, at night they had sailed unnoticed through Japanese transport convoys, but they could not do a thing because all they had on board were practice-torpedos! Which showed again that the Americans were absolutely not prepared for war, while our submarines were already patrolling the South Chinese sea fully armed before `Pearl Harbour`. So we then had to share our scarce torpedos with them. This was the only encounter with Allies before POW captivity; also about what happened on the rest of Java, we had no idea, except for what we could hear over the radio. To continue the above story, I got miscellaneous tasks, as they came along, which could be anything, from messenger to participating in the air defence of the Navy airfield Morokrembangan. Then I was told to man the machine-gun in the front-pit of an MTB, I have no idea which MTB this was, I hardly could see it, as it was dark when we were taken there. I remember they were called Higgins-boats, because they had Higgins (airplane) engines which could give them a speed, if I remember correctly, of 40 km/h. As to the actual action, I cannot add much to what I described in my 13/3 e-mail; We left Soerabaja at night full speed to the battle area [Badung Strait Battle], released the torpedos, without results and returned to Soerabaja full speed. And that was the end of my MTB assignment. The demolition at the Navy Base Udjung consisted of destroying everything that could be valuable or useable to the approaching Japanese, so harbour facilities, buildings, workshops, oiltanks, munitiondepots and other stocks and ships, several blocking the harbour entrances.

Can you describe some of the events in Tjilatjap after your unit arrived there ?
What was the first encounter with the Allies like? In fact, how did the Dutch military personnel get along with British, American and Australian soldiers, stationed in Java Island ? Any problems ?

What was situation look like at that time on Java Island? Were people afraid of Japanese troops ? How did the local Javanese population behaved at that time towards European (Dutch) population ? Did they conduct any sabotages or any other hostility acts towards Allied troops during the campaign ?

From Tjilatap you went to Bandoeng, where was temporarly located the Navy department, you were subordinated to. Wasn't in Bandoeng located also the ABDA Main Headquarter under command of General Hein ter Poorten ? Do you still remember how did situation look like when you arrived in Bandoeng ? Were officers at the headquarter still optimistic that they could hold the Japanese advance and to defend Java ?

You have left virtually with the last ship which has sailed from Java Island. Could you tell us a little bit more about this event (when and were did you embrak, how many passnegers were abord, were this only Dutch personnel or also other etc..).

How would you describe the atmosphere aboard the Poelau Bras ?

Do you remember the date when the Poelau Bras was sunk ?

How were you accepted by the local population when you managed to reach Sumatra ? Were they friendly or did they ‘’sell’’ you to the Japanese? When did Japanese soldiers came to pick you up ?

About Tjilatjap I cannot say much more than I did in my previous e-mail, it was a madhouse, since nobody told us what we were supposed to do, I went to a Dutch Navy officer and asked him whether we were supposed to board a ship somewhere (we were still in the town). He told me literally: "I’m not going to put you on a ship, I don’t want to be a murderer. Let that be enough for you"! So than I decided to try to get back to my home-town Bandoeng. At the station there were still trains coming in with all kinds of people hoping to get away from Java. I got on a train going back inland and at the station Kroya, which is a junction of tracks in several directions, I noticed a long freight train ready to leave, loaded with sea mines and cases with airplane-parts. The stationmaster told me that this train was going to Bandoeng, where I wanted to go to. When I asked him why sea mines were being sent to Bandoeng, which is in the middle of West-Java between the mountains, he told me that he had heard that the Navy Department had been evacuated from Batavia to Bandoeng, so that’s where he was going to send them!! Well I offered to go along as military escort, I still had my rifle with me, which was OK with him, he could not care less. I must say that I did not feel quite comfortable on the trip, with that kind of cargo and Japanese planes flying overhead, but they left us alone, probably figuring that they could make good use of that stuff later on.
Arriving in Bandoeng things seemed rather normal, my main purpose was finding my mother. She still was in our house and in good condition and what I remember, the people were still somewhat optimistic that the Japs would be driven back. In the evening I went out with my mother and I remember having dinner and dancing with her in a popular dancing, called "Shanghai Dream"!
Although nobody else had any idea of my presence in Bandoeng, I felt obliged to find out where the Navy Department was located, which I did and reported there. I was told that I would be placed on a transport out of Bandoeng, I just got time to greet my mother, not realizing that that would be the last time I would see her. I had no notion at the time of what else went on in Bandoeng; I was placed with a lot of others in a truckconvoy out of Bandoeng and soon realized from the direction we were travelling and the places we past, that we were on our way to the South-West coast of Java.
In the bay of Pelabuhan Ratu the freighter Poelau Bras lay at anchor, it had a crew of 91 on board which included people that came from sunken ships and some stranded on Java, in the course of that day (6 March 1942) about 150 people came on board, consisting of high-ranking navy and army officers, top Shell employees, some with their wives and children and about 80 miscellaneous navy personnel, all Dutch except one American war correspondent.
Since the Poelau Bras was a freighter with limited passenger-accomodation (12 persons), it was a very crowded situation on board with people everywhere where there was a bit of space, inside and on the decks, so not very comfortable.
The ship left when it was dark, with the intention of reaching Colombo at top speed (about 15 mph) without lights, hoping that the darkness would provide cover, when it was light the next morning a zig-zag course was taken against submarines; it was calculated that at noon we would be out of reach of Japanese planes but alas at 9.00 am we were spotted by a Japanese reconnaisance plane and at 11.00 we were dive-bombed by 10 Japanese Zeros and machine-gunned while lying in the water. The ship was sunk on March 7th 1942.
After 4 days in a lifeboat, we came ashore near KroŽ (now Crui) the people were reservedly friendly, we heard that the village head had informed the Japanese about our presence. After about a week the Japanese arrived with trucks, they made quite a show of it, surrounding us with machine-guns and a lot of shouting, which made it all frightening; a funny part was that the village head who wanted to show off as the man who had informed them, got quite a beating because they found him to be in their way.

How was the treatment of the Japanese in the POW camp ?

The treatment by the Japanese in the POW camps was atrocious, we had to work hard under abominable conditions with a minimum of food, beatings were common other punishments for the slightest trespasses were e.g. standing at attention for hours in the merciless sun or the prisoners standing in line opposite each other and than beat each other, and you better beat hard the first time, otherwise the Japs would give you a lesson how it was supposed to be done. At another time when we had to unload canned food stuffs from a ship in the harbour, being starved people, we tried to steal a tin or so and hide it to smuggle back to the camp; the only clothing we had was a loincloth fastened with a piece of string around the middle, my friend hid a can of sardines in his loincloth between his legs. It was discovered on re-entering the camp and the Japs got raving mad that we had stolen from their property; to set an example the whole group was taken to the "Kempei-tai" the Japanese military police similar to the Gestapo. There my friend was tied with his hands behind his back and hung on a piece of rope from the ceiling with his front just above the floor; then they placed a tray with small sharp gravel underneath him, a Jap squatted beside him with a rubber shoe in his hand and then slowly pushed him like a swing and every time his head was above the gravel he hit it with his shoe, causing his face to scrape through the sharp gravel. We had to stand and watch to learn a lesson, guarded by soldiers we were absolutely powerless, a horrible feeling, This went on for an hour or so until my friend bled to death.

Were you forced to work on the railway on Sumatra?

No, we did not work on a railway, that was to the North in the middle of Sumatra near Pakan Baru, our work was not so spectacular, we had to make airfields by egalizing a hilly terrain in the jungle with shovels and carrying off the soil in baskets, which was pretty hard work for whole days in the tropical sun, on one cup of rice with some watery vegetable soup. Many people collapsed, illnesses like malaria, dyssentery and malnutrition-diseases were rampant; the camp hospital was full of patients, for whom the Jap did not issue food rations, since those people were of no use to them.
As the food situation was desperate, and as anything that was edible in the camp and around the work in the jungle, such as cats, dogs, snakes, rats, etc. and different kinds of insects were finished, our camp doctor came with the brilliant idea, that we had a considerable food supply available in the latrines (deep trenches dug in the ground with bamboos on top of them on which people could squat). There in the faeces and the blood and mucus of the dyssentery-patients flourished myriads of fly-maggots, which after cleaning and frying in their own fat, formed a source of much needed proteins for the hospital patients. Soon people had to be assigned to stand guard around the latrines because when this became known a lot of very hungry people tried to get a share of this bounty too!
During about the last year we were moved to a camp built in the jungle, there most of the people were in a very bad physical condition, I myself have been in the hospital (like the rest of the buildings bamboo barracks with palmleaf roofthatching and each had a space side by side of 2 m. by 60 cm., the same as in the previous camps). From this camp, people that were still able, were sent on working parties, a.o. to work in the harbour unloading ships (see above Kempeitai incident). Here we also noticed that the end of the war was nearing because bombing-raids on the harbour started by American fighter bombers coming from an aircraft carrier; before this occurred we somehow got word that this was going to happen, as we later found out this came from members of Allied landing parties, who were put ashore in Sumatra for spying purposes. We were asked to make our camp recognizable from the air in some way for the pilots. We had army-issue aluminum pans which we used as eating-utensils, we scrubbed them with sand making them shine as mirrors and laid them outside in rows in the sun, supposedly for drying, to fool the Japs. When the air raids started with the planes flying low on their way to the harbour, it was moving to see how they greeted us when flying over the camp by wiggling their wings! A remarkable coincidence occurred: In our camp we had run out of water, we were completely dependent on wells, which were not deep enough to get to the water during the dry season, and we did not have the strength any more to dig deeper. During one of the bombing raids, one of the pilots made a mistake and came right at our camp in his dive, at the last moment he noticed his fault and made a sharp turn to the right but he had already released his bomb which swung away to the left of him and then exploded just in the corner of our camp away from our barracks. It thus created a beautiful new well for us! Two American pilots who had been shot down were interned in our camp and thus we found out how far the war had progressed. But it still lasted months before it was over, and the situation became very desperate, towards the end there were about 300 prisoners left and people were dying at a rate of sometimes eight a day, we did not have the strength anymore to give them a proper burial, they were rolled in a mat and dragged to the edge of the camp and shoved out under the barbed wire and left lying in the jungle. And then our rescue came because of the A-bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which also cost the lifes of thousands of Japanese, but the alternative would have been an extensive bombing and invasion of Japan to end the war, which was averted and thus saved the lives of millions of others, both Americans and Japanese and prisoners such as me. As a matter of fact, right after the war, documents were found which showed that the Japanese were about to kill all remaining prisoners anyhow.

When did you finally return home ?

Your question was, when I returned home. Well the answer is simple: Never!
All the Dutch civilians were forced out of their houses and except for one suitcase with some clothing and such, they had to leave all their belongings behind and were placed in camps. Of the 96,300 civilians, 13,120 died there and approx. 3,000 were killed afterwards in the so-called "bersiap" period by the Indonesians. So we had no home to go to and I had no idea what happened to my mother, father and sister, who had each been interned in different camps. I found out after some time, that my mother had been murdered in the Tjideng camp. After the Japanese capitulation we first had to stay in the same camp, because, except for a little advance party of British and Dutch officers, there was nobody available to take care of us, of course we got sufficient food and medicines now and the Japanese were officially made responsible for our safety. Some time later we were moved to a housing compound in Palembang City, again behind barbed wire and under guard of Japs, because the Indonesian "bersiap" riots had started. Soon the Dutch Navy was the first to get out its personnel and we were transported in Catalina amphibious planes to Batavia (now Jakarta) to join the regular Navy again.

Veterans of the Dutch East Indies Index . Bibliography . Article List . Geographic Names
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942
Copyright © Franciscus Johannes Zantvoort. 1999-2000