April 15, 2009

4. Waiting for War (January-December 1941)

Han Samethini Collection

The year 1941 began auspiciously for Han. He was a popular band leader, married to the woman he adored and pursuing the career he loved. The couple lived in the Brantasstraat house with Han's mother. This arrangement, though advantageous in some ways, must have been difficult for Anna. She was was on her mother-in-law's turf both domestically and in the dance school, dwelling in the shadow of Emma's often overbearing personality.

During this time Han assembled another jazz combo: a trio composed of himself, a string bass player, and a drummer. A local press clipping records one of their gigs, at a venue not quite as juvenile as the title suggests:

Han Samethini Collection

Performance for Children at "Culture"

Directed by Professor G. Sebok, students of the music, dance and gymnastics organization "Culture" gave a repeat performance of dances in a show aimed especially at children. Every seat in the cozy Culture hall was filled and the show was not only appreciated by the kids, but also by the adults, judging by the hearty applause following each number.

The young ladies S. van Milt and Th. Prottel performed again with great success and the small children shared in the acclaim, especially 4-year-old Antoinette Kruk, who danced a solo number. A special attraction was the "Protelli Puppet Show", directed by Miss Prottel, which entertained the audience after the dance recital and was received with enormous appreciation. This is a very unusual puppet show, with "live" heads on puppet bodies performing a simple but excellent program of songs in several languages. Afterwards the children joined in a ball organized just for them, followed by the adults making good use of their own dance floor to the music of the Samethini trio.

The Samethini Trio
(Han at the piano)

Han Samethini Collection

Anna Samethini relaxing at home in Surabaya
Han Samethini Collection

Meanwhile preparations for war accelerated. Charged with defending an archipelago spread over 735,000 square miles, the Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL) could muster 85,000 regular and auxiliary troops. This was a total strength equivalent to only four U.S. Army divisions, and the KNIL's weaponry was mostly outdated. The navy and air force, despite a strong esprit de corps, were likewise deficient in material. The loss of Holland precluded any resupply or reinforcement from the mother country. In the virtual absence of a domestic armaments industry, the colonial government turned to foreign sources, purchasing light tanks from Britain and warplanes from America.

Dutch military and civil authorities exuded confidence despite these weaknesses. They had ruled over their Indonesian subjects for close to three hundred and fifty years, triumphing sooner or later over every native insurrection. The apparent security of the other Western empires - the British in India, Burma, and Malaya, the French in Indochina, and the (technically non-imperial) American position in the Philippines - seemed to establish beyond doubt that Asiatics were inferior to whites, especially in the arts of war. Modern, industrialized Japan might prove a tougher opponent, but to strike at the oil-rich Indies the Japanese would have to smash their way through an Anglo-American shield of fortresses, garrisons, and naval bases. To accomplish this, they must defeat the mighty U.S. Pacific Fleet, which would come sailing in wrath out of Pearl Harbor. Conventional wisdom dismissed any possibility of a Japanese victory.

Months go by. Months of speeches about our war effort, delivered by experts, well spoken gentlemen in dinner suits, one hand loosely tugging at the knot of their tie, emitting one gem of informative advice after another. Desk marshals, chuckling complacently, offer free detailed forecasts of what is going to happen to Japan should that country be so impertinent as to start anything. But they won't of course. The U.S.A. is seeing to that, no risk. [1]

"The U.S.A. is seeing to that, no risk."
Battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet

In May, Frank reported for NCO training in Bandung, West Java, the army's headquarters and chief arsenal:

May 1941 - First Battalion Infantry at Bandung, snap call-up for two months cadre training programme, consisting of hard drill, record time in stripping and assembling a machine gun, how to manipulate a bayonet that got stuck between ribs and how to salute an officer correctly. Within a month I am made corporal. [2]

Elisabeth was determined to accompany Frank on this trip. Her parents required marriage as the condition of this, to which the young couple happily agreed. They married in Bandung on June 4, the groom wearing his new corporal's uniform. The wedding was a bittersweet occasion, a purely civil ceremony arranged under hurried circumstances instead of the grand and beautiful celebration they had wished for. Of all their numerous family and friends, only Han and Anna were able to attend, serving as the legally required witnesses. [3]

Bandung, circa 1941
Photo Source: Zoo Leven Wij in Indie

Soldiers of the Royal Netherlands Indies Army (KNIL) on training maneuvers
Photo Source: ww2incolor.com

Cpl. Frank Samethini and his bride, Elisabeth Boerman.
June 4, 1941

Frank Samethini Collection

In July the Samethinis returned to Surabaya, where air raid drills had become a part of daily life. People did their best to ignore the signs of approaching calamity as they worked at their jobs, raised their children, and socialized with friends, savoring the routines of a normal world. Above all, they pursued their amusements with a defiant intensity:

Refusing to be worried by the ever worsening news, we welcome every excuse for going out to movies, parties or just some dancing. To the stirring beat of drums, percussion and bass we dance, lost to the world. Suddenly the sirens howl, waiters run to draw the curtains for another snap black-out practice in war-prepared Surabaya. Tactfully, the band leader switches to national songs and everybody is singing away about Holland's Flag, about Piet Hein who took the Spanish Silver Fleet and about the Girl By the Mill. People singing perhaps louder, smiling perhaps more than ever before....[4]

On August 29, Anna gave birth to a daughter, Margareth Jacqueline Samethini. A photo of newborn Margie taken at Darmo Hospital shows a proud Uncle Frank cradling her in his arms, doubtless looking forward to holding a daughter of his own. To celebrate, Han led his band in a live radio performance of the swing hit "Margie":

My little Margie,
I'm always thinking of you, Margie!
I'll tell the whole wide world I love you;

Don't forget your promise to me,

You know, I bought the home, the ring and everything,

So, my little Margie,

Margie, oh, you've been my inspiration,

Darling, you're the only one!

After all is said and done,

There is really only one,

Margie, Margie, it's you!

Darmo Hospital, Surabaya
Birthplace of Margie Samethini
Birth Announcement
Han Samethini Collection

Frank holds his newborn niece
Han Samethini Collection

Posing with the new mother: Emma and Elisabeth at Anna's bedside
Han Samethini Collection

Home with the baby: Anna and Margie at the Brantasstraat house
Han Samethini Collection

Margie in the cradle
Han Samethini Collection

Fatherhood brought added responsibility and the need for better income that only a steady job could provide. For the sake of his family, Han set aside his musical career and obtained a clerical position at BPM, a leading Dutch petroleum company. The job demanded a relocation to Balikpapan, a major oil port and refining center on the east coast of Borneo. The Samethinis moved there in November. Their new residence was a house on stilts, practically constructed for a city prone to flash floods. In the shady space beneath it they placed rattan chairs and a table, to enjoy cool mornings and evenings outdoors.

Despite its economic and strategic importance, Balikpapan was a cultural backwater compared to cosmopolitan Surabaya. It was also something of a frontier town, the surrounding country being home to Dayak tribesmen, lethal experts with their blowguns and poisoned darts. Han later recalled that he felt a sense of adventure living in Borneo. Yet often his thoughts must have strayed back to Surabaya. In all probability he intended to return there once he'd established himself at BPM, and earned sufficient experience and seniority to be granted a transfer back home.

The house on stilts in Balikpapan, Borneo
Anna sits with 3-month-old Margie on the shaded "patio" beneath
Han Samethini Collection

Another view of the "patio" with its rattan furniture
Margie's baby stroller in the foreground
Han Samethini Collection

Anna and Margie in Balikpapan
Photo taken November 17, 1941

Han Samethini Collection

Petroleum tank farm
Photo Source: Zoo Leven Wij in Indie

Balikpapan oil port by day...

...and by night
Photo Source: Zoo Leven Wij in Indie

Dayak warriors

Perhaps Han dreamed of Surabaya in the earliest hours of Monday, December 8. At 1:49 a.m., local time, the night air of Balikpapan would be filled with the buzzing and chirping of tropical insects. Across the Pacific, the time at Pearl Harbor was 7:49 a.m. on Sunday morning, December 7. Here the air reverberated with different sounds: bombs exploding on Kaneohe Naval Air Station, and a droning roar heralding the first wave of Japanese torpedo planes boring in towards Battleship Row.



[1] The Sky Looked Down. Chapter 4: The Darkening Sky.
[2] Ibid.

[3] Elisabeth writes that Han also was ordered to report for army training in May 1941, but his military record states he was still on extended leave at that time. Perhaps this call-up was accidentally omitted in the summary. It is equally likely that Han and Anna went to Bandung for the express purpose of being at the wedding. Given the brothers' strong mutual devotion, we may reasonably presume that Han would be there for Frank even if no other relatives could attend. The Sky Looked Down, Appendix A.

[4] The worsening news of July 1941 would have included reports of continuing German advances deep into Russia, the freezing of Japanese assets in Britain and the United States (July 25), and Japan's retaliatory freezing of U.S. assets the following day. The most ominous development was Japan's seizure of French Indochina, completed July 29. By this move the Japanese acquired forward air bases ideally situated to support attacks on Malaya and Singapore.

[5] Lyrics from the 1934 version of "Margie", by Cab Calloway.


No comments: