I Am Grateful to Have Survived
IF YOU have seen the motion picture The Bridge on the River Kwai, you may easily relate to my story. I was a prisoner of the Japanese during the second world war and was among those forced to build the railroad track along the river Kwai (now Khwae Noi).
Our Dutch and native forces had surrendered at Bandung, Java, in March 1942, after days of retreating before a superior Japanese army. We spent a few weeks in a local civilian prison; then early one morning we were told to get ready for a long march.
First, however, we were taken by train from Bandung to Batavia (now Djakarta), Java’s capital city. There we were put on a ship for our voyage to Singapore. In Singapore we were herded onto a train and transported nearly a thousand miles [1,600 km] into Siam (now Thailand). Before reaching the capital, Bangkok, our train turned west onto a branch line and arrived at Kanchanaburi, near the Burma (now Myanmar) border.
The proposed railroad track had been mapped out to follow the river Kwai, since the river afforded a source of water for drinking and bathing. We half-starved prisoners were to build the railroad into Burma. Trucks took us to the end of the bitumen road and then along a dirt road to the first prisoner-of-war camp. The next morning we were driven to a second camp.
From this second camp, our long march began. But before describing what happened, let me say something about my background and how I came to be a Japanese prisoner of war.
War Comes to Netherlands Indies
My mother was of German descent, and Father was Dutch. We lived on a beautiful, lush farm on the slope of the volcano Bukit Daun on Java, the fourth largest of the more than 13,600 islands that made up the Netherlands Indies (now Indonesia). Father managed a rubber plantation, and I went to school in the large city of Bandung. When World War II broke out in 1939, we moved about 350 miles [550 km] away to the town of Lahat, on Sumatra.
Mother was Roman Catholic, so my two brothers and I were sent to a Catholic boarding school. One day during class, I asked the priest: “Why is Hitler persecuting the Jews when Jesus was also a Jew?” He replied angrily that Jesus was not a Jew, stating adamantly that he was God, part of the Trinity.
“Well, was Mary, Jesus’ mother, a Jewess?” I asked.
The priest became even angrier, replying: “I will tell you when you grow older. It is too difficult for you to understand now!”
In Europe the German army invaded the Netherlands in May 1940. The Netherlands Indies were then a Dutch colony. Earlier my father had joined the NSU (National Socialistic Union), thinking that this political party would provide the Indies with a better defense in time of war. But after the Netherlands was invaded by Germany, the NSU began to favor Hitler. Father immediately resigned from the party, but it was too late. All members of the NSU were rounded up by the Dutch Army in the Indies and put into a concentration camp. Father too was imprisoned.
When the German battleship Bismarck was sunk in May 1941, many students at our boarding school rejoiced. Knowing that my mother was of German descent, they shouted, “The only good Germans are dead ones!” During class, I asked the priest: “Does that mean that all Catholic bishops and priests in Germany ought to be dead?” He immediately left the room. Returning about an hour later, he forbade us to mention politics and the war again.
With Father a political prisoner, Mother found it difficult to run the farm. So I returned home to help her while my two brothers remained in school. In one of Father’s letters, he mentioned a prison mate, a conscientious objector, who was teaching him interesting things from the Bible.
About this time my older brother was drafted into the army, and three months later I volunteered. I was given a desk job in a civilian office, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, I was immediately drafted into the Netherlands Indies army and given training in jungle warfare. We learned to bury ammunition in the jungle and mark it on army maps. This was to ensure that we, with the help of these maps, would always have access to ammunition for use in jungle fighting.
Japanese armed forces soon landed on the islands of Billiton (now Belitung) and Sumatra. Here our outnumbered forces faced them. The Japanese soon took Palembang, one of Sumatra’s major cities. We were ordered to retreat across the Sunda Strait to Merak on the west coast of Java, and from there we retreated to Batavia. Finally, as mentioned earlier, we surrendered to the Japanese at Bandung and became prisoners of war.
I See My Father
By a strange twist of events, the occupying Japanese forces released my father from prison there in Bandung, along with all other political prisoners. He then went to stay at my aunt’s home in Bandung. There he learned that I was a prisoner nearby, and he visited me. I was able to tell him where our family now lived and that my older brother had been reported missing in action.
Excitedly, Father began to tell me what he had learned about the Bible from his fellow prisoner. He told me that God’s name was not Jesus but a name that sounded strange to me at the time—Jehovah. Unfortunately, the Japanese refused Father any further visits, so I did not talk to him again. Father’s freedom was short-lived. I found out after the war that he had died in a Japanese concentration camp near Bandung in October 1944.
Building the Railroad
As described at the outset, we prisoners of war were transported to the Burmese border. We were divided into groups, and the plan was that each group build about 12 miles [20 km] of track. The first section was to join up with another group’s work that had started 12 miles [20 km] ahead of the first one. Groups of prisoners completing sections of track were eventually to meet up with other prisoner groups laying track from inside Burma.
In the tropical heat and humidity, building a railroad by hand, virtually without any mechanized equipment, was exhausting enough, even for men in good physical condition. But in our semistarved state, it was almost beyond human endurance. Adding to our misery, we soon had to work barefoot and almost naked because within just a few weeks, continuous monsoon rains rotted our clothes and boots.
To make matters worse, we had practically no medicine or bandages. In desperation we used our mosquito nets for bandages. But then, without nets, we were attacked by swarms of flies during the day and by hosts of mosquitoes at night. Disease soon became rampant. Malaria, dysentery, and hepatitis laid low many of the wretched prisoners.
Then, dreadful tropical ulcers broke out, even among those who seemed stronger. Lack of medicine forced what few doctors there were among us to treat the ulcers with tea leaves, coffee dregs, and mud. The only medicine the Japanese supplied was quinine tablets to help ward off malaria. Under these circumstances it was not surprising that casualties mounted rapidly, until as many as six dead per day—mainly from malaria and tropical ulcers—became commonplace. The amazing thing was that despite all this deprivation and human suffering, the railroad track into Burma was eventually completed!
But then bombing raids of the track were begun by Allied forces. These raids were mostly at night. Often, time bombs were used, but by early the following morning, all of them had usually exploded. We prisoners then had the work of repairing whatever damage had been caused the previous night. After the railroad was finished, we also built machine-gun tunnels into the foot of Three Pagodas Pass on the border between Burma and Siam. Two bridges crossed the river Kwai at this point. This is where I was when the war ended.
By the spring of 1945, after I had slaved more than three years as a prisoner of war, the Japanese in that area surrendered. I was very ill, suffering from malaria, amoebic dysentery, and hepatitis. I had been reduced to less than 90 pounds [40 kg]. Yet I was grateful to have survived those terrible years.
After the War
In the summer of 1945, I was taken back to Siam, where I received food and medicine; however, it took about three months to recover a measure of health. Afterward I continued to serve in the army, first in Bangkok, then on the Netherlands Indies islands of Sumbawa, Bali, and Celebes (now Sulawesi).
I tried to make contact with my mother and my younger brother. When I succeeded, I applied for a special leave, since Mother was about to be sent to the Netherlands because of a severe illness. I was granted three weeks and was overjoyed to see her again in Batavia. In February 1947, Mother left the Indies for the Netherlands, where she remained until her death in 1966. I too decided to immigrate to the Netherlands, and it was there that I was discharged from the army in December 1947, after serving as a soldier for six years.
Obtaining good employment was not easy. Eventually, however, after three years of night school, I passed my final exam and qualified as a marine engineer. The family I was living with asked me what I would like as a gift on that occasion. I asked for a Bible, and they gave me a “New Testament,” which I frequently read at night while away at sea, wherever my job took me.
In 1958, I moved to Amsterdam, planning to study for a higher degree. But I found the concentrated study too demanding on my health, which was already beginning to show the effects of my wartime suffering. Remembering the Australian prisoners of war that I had befriended while building the railroad, I decided to apply to immigrate to Australia.
I Begin to Find Answers
Before I left Amsterdam for Australia, I visited a number of churches, seeking answers to questions. After one service, I asked the vicar if he knew God’s personal name. He replied that it was Jesus. I knew that was not right, but I couldn’t remember what my father many years before had told me was the name of God.
Soon after this a couple called at my home, explaining that they would like to share good news from the Bible with me. During the conversation, they asked whether I knew God’s name. I answered, “Jesus.” They explained that that was the name of God’s Son and then showed me in the Bible that God’s name is Jehovah. (Psalm 83:18) Immediately I recalled that this was what my father had said. When I asked what religion they belonged to, they answered: “Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
The Witnesses called again, but I was not easily convinced. A few days later, I met a vicar of the Dutch Reformed Church and asked him his view of Jehovah’s Witnesses. He replied that he was not pleased with them, but he did commend them on one point—they did not participate in war. After the horrors that I had witnessed during World War II, that impressed me.
A few days later, in 1959, I immigrated to Australia, and there Jehovah’s Witnesses again contacted me. I cut my ties with the Catholic Church, having come to appreciate, among other things, that the hellfire and Trinity doctrines taught by the church were incorrect. Bible knowledge helped me to overcome the nightmares and guilt feelings that I had for years as a result of my wartime experiences. The truth found in the Bible set me free.—John 8:32.
I made my dedication to Jehovah God and was baptized in 1963. Soon thereafter I moved to Townsville, on the coast of north Queensland, where I shared in full-time preaching activity. There I met Muriel, a faithful fellow Witness, and we were married in 1966. Since then we have served Jehovah together, often in the full-time ministry.
When we heard of a greater need for evangelizers in the Australian outback, we volunteered to serve in Alice Springs, right in the heart of this vast land. We have happily served here together for many years. During these years, my wife and I have had the privilege of helping a number of others onto the road of spiritual freedom and everlasting life.—As told by Tankred E. van Heutsz.
[Picture on page 21]
Tankred E. van Heutsz and his wife