April 15, 2009

5. The Onslaught (December 1941 - March 1942)

7 December, 1941. Hundreds of Japanese airplanes attack in the early morning hours, without provocation or warning, the assembled fleet of the United States of America in Hawaii. The bulk of the naval power of a country not at war with Japan is sunk or crippled. The infamy of Pearl Harbour. The dreaded words are broadcast by radio to all of the Dutch East Indies. We are now also at war with Japan. [1]

- Frank Samethini, The Sky Looked Down

The storm had broken at last. With the news of war arrived the order for general mobilization. On December 8, 1941 Han Samethini was conscripted into the KNIL 6th Infantry Battalion in Balikpapan. This was the core unit of the town's 1,100 man garrison. BPM management hurriedly arranged evacuation of the employees' families to Java. Embracing Anna and Margie one last time before they departed, Han could only hope they would be safe at his mother's house in Surabaya. Certainly there was no better place to send them. Java was the redoubt, the home territory, to be stoutly defended even if all the other islands fell to the enemy.

From across the Far East came reports of Japanese attacks, Japanese advances, Japanese victories. Before dawn on December 8, they had bombed Singapore and landed troops in Malaya. At midday, Japanese warplanes struck the Philippines, smashing half of the American air force on the ground. Bangkok was taken on the 9th. On December 10, Japanese aircraft sank the HMS Repulse and Prince of Wales, eliminating the only Allied capital ships in the region. The invasion of Luzon commenced the same day. In both Malaya and the Philippines, Japan's tough, superbly trained armies quickly overcame forward defenses and swept south towards Singapore and Manila. Hong Kong surrendered on Christmas Day.

Japanese infantry storms ashore in the Natuna Islands, west of Borneo
Photo Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign

The Japanese offensive in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies
(Click map to enlarge)
Map of Borneo with arrows indicating the locations of Tarakan, Samarinda, and Balikpapan
(Click map to enlarge)

Following these rapid thrusts against the British and the Americans, the Japanese launched their offensive against the Netherlands East Indies. The invasion of Borneo began on the night of December 16 with landings in British territory at Miri and Seria. Tarakan, a Dutch possession, fell on January 12 after a brief but vicious struggle, the Japanese killing most of the Dutch officers at close quarters with knives. Tarakan in hand, the Japanese commander, General Sakaguchi, prepared to move against his next objective, Balikpapan. He sent two captured Dutch officers as envoys to Lt. Colonel C. van den Hoogenband, the Balikpapan garrison commander. They delivered a written ultimatum demanding surrender. The message included a warning:

When the Balikpapan garrison destroys the natural resources and oil installations at Balikpapan and the surrounding country, all commanding officers, their Dutch soldiers and other Dutchmen related to them will be killed without exception. [2]

Undaunted, Hoogenband ordered the oil facilities to be put to the torch. Samethini took part in this operation, the resulting fires and explosions sending thick pillars of black smoke into the sky.

General Sakaguchi's ultimatum
(Click image to enlarge)

Smoke rises from burning oil facilities at Balikpapan (January 1942)Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

On January 22 the Balikpapan invasion force was sighted heading south through the Makassar Strait. The Dutch air force attacked the convoy continuously during daylight, but its antiquated Martin B-10 bombers inflicted little damage. In the predawn hours of the 24th the Japanese landed 5,500 soldiers in two separate groups. The bulk of Sakaguchi's 56th Regimental Group came ashore north of town. A detached battalion, the Surprise Attack Unit commanded by Major Kaneuchi, landed south of Balikpapan. Guided by Indonesian fifth columnists, the latter force proceeded to the village of Banubaru, cutting off the Dutch line of retreat. Having learned from hard experience at Tarakan, where Dutch coastal artillery had sunk two warships, the Japanese were avoiding the big guns defending Balikpapan.

In the event, the Dutch did not attempt to hold their positions. Hoogenband had received orders to withdraw inland after completing sabotage operations. He led an infantry column out of town, along the road to Banubaru. The Dutch ran into the advancing main body of Kaneuchi's Surprise Attack Unit, and the Japanese promptly gave battle. Han fought as part of a machine gun crew, feeding the ammunition belt into the weapon as the gunner mowed down the leading edge of the oncoming enemy. The KNIL troops were defeated and the Dutch force broke up. With no other alternatives but death or capture, Samethini joined a group of survivors heading north into the jungle towards their only hope of escape, the airfield at Samarinda. [3]

Offshore it had been a different story. At approximately 2000 hours (8 pm) on the 24th, American destroyers of DesDiv 59 attacked the invasion convoy, sinking four troop transports and an escort vessel. The next day two more transports were claimed, one by Dutch and American bombers, the other by a Dutch submarine. This was the largest naval action since the start of the Pacific War, but the brief Allied tactical victory could not change the outcome of events on land.

Over the next several days, Han and his companions hacked their way through a tangled wilderness teeming with malarial mosquitoes. Pursued and repeatedly attacked, they reached Samarinda and boarded a plane for Java. As the transport winged over Borneo's deep green forests and muddy brown rivers, Han might have gazed out the window and reflected on this land of opportunity that had so suddenly become a place of death and defeat. But he was not a man to dwell on regrets. Surely Anna and Margie were alive and waiting for him in Surabaya. That mattered more than anything. [4]

Back in Balikpapan, the Japanese rounded up civilians and the newly captured prisoners of war. They delayed their promised vengeance until February 20. On that day, they took their captives to the nearby sea shore:

Even eight patients from the local hospital were among the group of 78 victims marched to a beach near the old Klandasan Fortress. Two of the victims were then beheaded on the beach, the other 76 forced into the sea...all were shot one by one, their bodies left to drift with the tide. [5]

The only way out: Samarinda II airfield, Borneo
(Allied air recce photo taken in 1944)

Han arrived in Java at the end of January. Making his way to Surabaya, he searched at once for Anna and Margie. To his great worry, they were not at his mother's house and he was unable to find them. He then fell ill with malaria contracted during the forced march in Borneo. The disease evolved the dangerous complication called blackwater fever, and he was sent to a hospital. [6]

The report of Balikpapan's loss added to the litany of woes announced by the radio broadcasts on Java. Frank Samethini heard the news at Fort Menari, near Surabaya, where he'd been posted since the outbreak of the war:

Weeks pass without a shot being fired by us at the fort. But the radio tells of defeat, of bitter defeat by the ridiculed little men, the former smiling, bowing and hissing barbers, merchants of inferior goods made in Japan. There are also numerous reports of bravery from other sectors of our forces, but the closing message of the bulletin is always the same: battle lost, we retreat before the swarming ants....[7]

The day before Balikpapan's fall the Japanese overran Kendari on the island of Celebes, capturing the finest air base in the East Indies. This put Surabaya within range of enemy bombers. From Kendari, on February 3, the Japanese launched their first major air attacks on the city. Frank was on anti-aircraft observation duty that day:

I am reading a letter from Lisa while on duty in the listening post ("Darling, do you want it to be a boy or a girl?"), when suddenly a sound from a great distance enters the earphones. Growing louder and louder, it seems to come from every direction. No, wait, from high in the invisible vault above the cloud banks it comes! In a flash I recognise it with a sudden, racing heart: approaching aircraft. Can't be ours, we haven't got that many! My thumb sinks the alarm button while I reach for her letter fluttering to the floor. My field glasses show the Jap airplanes up as silver-winged, transparent dragonflies, three flights of five bombers in each squadron, moving slowly across the sky, too high for the black and white popping blossoms of our ack-ack. What little is left of our fighter planes whiningly soar upwards to meet their fate. The dragonflies move on southwards - southwards! But that is Surabaya! Fear clutches my throat. My God! Almost immediately I hear the dull boom of exploding bombs in a muffled staccato that pierces through my heart. Where, oh God, have they fallen? [8]

In Surabaya, Elisabeth was visiting a friend of her mother's. She recalls:

The sirens started with a horrible noise and we thought they were just practicing, but then the bombs started to fall and the aeroplanes were fighting in the air. We were so afraid and we all dived under the bed. After what seemed like hours, the all clear came. We were all dazed and didn't know what to think about it all. There was chaos everywhere.... [9]

A formation of Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" Japanese medium bombers.
This type flew missions against Surabaya from Kendari, Celebes.

"There was chaos everywhere...."
Japanese bombs fall on Surabaya (February 1942)
Photo Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign

Sydney Morning Herald (February 6, 1942)
National Library of Australia

Japan's fearsome Zero fighter planes inflicted heavy casualties on the Dutch and Allied interceptors, and the city was soon without effective air defense:

The following week a few more air raids are directed on fortifications outside Surabaya, but the scattered pillboxes and gun emplacements are perfectly camouflaged and no direct hit is suffered. The enemy aircraft, unchallenged since the last Dutch plane was downed, fly low over the dense swamp vegetation in an effort to draw fire and so pinpoint our gun positions. But the order by the fort commander is clear: repulse enemy landings on the beaches and nothing else. Do not shoot at aircraft, do not even shake a fist at them lest they spot you. Keep your head low and swear if you must, but all all events stay out of sight. What kind of war is this? [10]

By the middle of February, Singapore had surrendered, the bulk of the American army in the Philippines was bottled up on the Bataan Peninsula, and the Japanese had taken Palembang in southern Sumatra. The enemy was now on Java's doorstep. Getting 24 hours' leave, Frank entered Surabaya to find the town "swarming with British and Australian soldiers." There were also American air and artillery units on Java. These hastily collected reinforcements, belatedly shipped to the East Indies without adequate arms or supplies, were too little, too late.

On February 27, Frank looked out from Fort Menari to see a small fleet of Allied cruisers and destroyers - American, British, Dutch, and Australian - steaming through the Western Fairway:

...the binoculars pick up the sleek outlines in camouflage grey, stealing through the mist of dawn out into the open sea. Our gallant Navy sailing to their last engagement with the enemy, to bear the brunt of the great onslaught. [11]

In the Java Sea the ABDA fleet boldly attacked the more powerful Japanese warships escorting the East Java invasion force, hoping to break through and sink the troop transports. The Japanese, with their heavier guns and advanced "Long Lance" torpedoes, drove them off after inflicting severe losses. Among the vessels sunk was the Dutch flagship, the light cruiser De Ruyter. She went down with 345 of her crew, including Warrant Officer Frans Anton Boerman, Frank's father-in-law.

The invasion of Java
(Click map to enlarge)

On March 1 the Japanese landed at four points on the north coast of Java: Merak, Bantam Bay, Eretenwetan, and Kragan. The invaders encountered occasionally heavy resistance as they advanced across the island, but wherever the Allies stood, the enemy smashed them, drove them back, or simply outflanked them. The colonial government fled the capital, Batavia, for the relative safety of Bandung. On March 8 the Dutch leadership, demoralized and fearful of possible Japanese reprisals against civilians, ordered the military forces to surrender. [12]

Soldiers of the Japanese 2nd Division celebrate their landing at MerakPhoto Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign

48th Division landing trucks at Kragan
Photo Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign

The Japanese Army enters Surabaya
Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

Dutch soldiers surrender on Java
Photo Source: The Dutch East Indies Campaign

At Fort Menari, Frank Samethini and his comrades obeyed the command with heavy hearts:

In bitter silence they come, from the firing positions, from the big guns so perfectly camouflaged against air attack. They come to pile arms and ammunition in one big heap before the commander's bunker. This has been ordered by the Imperial Japanese Army, which will arrive to take over tomorrow. We all go to the canteen to drink, and drink. "Here's to victory, blast the Japs!" sounding hollow and desperate. [13]

Han heard the report of capitulation at a hospital in Malang. By this time he'd recovered sufficiently from the malaria to get back on his feet. He surrendered to the local Japanese occupation troops on March 9. In his own words, "I marched straight from the hospital to the POW camp." Reflecting on the lopsided struggle that was the NEI Campaign over 40 years later, he commented sadly, "We had rifles, some machine guns, some artillery, and a few tanks. They gave us a little bit of training. But we were not really an army. We were just a police force." [14]

After more than three centuries of proud mastery in the East Indies, the Dutch had been overthrown in just three months.



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

[2] Quoted in "The Balikpapan Massacre", on the web site The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942.

Most of the information on events at Balikpapan is drawn drawn from "The Capture of Balikpapan", Ibid. In 1985 Samethini told me about his part in the infantry battle. He could not remember any details concerning the position of his unit, but I surmise that he was with Hoogenband's column because this was the only Dutch land force at Balikpapan that offered any organized resistance.

Samethini recounted the desperate journey to Samarinda in a 1989 interview with Rosemarie Neithercutt in East London, South Africa. The resulting article, a short biographical piece, appeared in the Bee Gee Bulletin, the newsletter of the Berea Gardens retirement community: "[Han] and the others escaped through the jungle. They were under constant attack and had to cut their way through deep forests, but finally, arrived at a pre-prepared airport and were flown back to Java." The closeness of the pursuit suggests that Dayak tribesmen had joined in the hunt. Shortsightedly, the Dutch authorities had neglected to cultivate good relations with these fierce aboriginal hunters. The Japanese Army paid them to track and kill Dutch soldiers, a task the Dayaks performed with great skill and relish. (Click on the thumbnail image to read the article)

[5] George Duncan's Massacres and Atrocities of World War II.

[6] From a communique
dated February 1, 1942 ( SD 5145), sent by ABDACOM Batavia to Army HQ Melbourne: "All Dutch aircraft removed from Samarinda but believe aerodrome not yet demolished." Time of receipt 1300 hours. Samethini's group might have reached the airfield as late as the morning of February 1, catching one of the last planes out (This and other ABDACOM communiques can be viewed at the Dutch National Archives web site Afscheid van Indie: Digitale documenten over de jaren 1940-1950). The absence of Anna and Margie is a mystery. After evacuation from Balikpapan they'd returned to Emma's house in Surabaya. Possibly they were caught away from home by a sudden Japanese air raid, and forced to take shelter in another part of the city. Unable to return to Brantasstraat until the all-clear was sounded, they might have missed meeting Han by hours, perhaps minutes.

[7] The Sky Looked Down, Ibid.


[9] The Sky Looked Down, Appendix A: Lisa's Story.

The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 4: The Darkening Sky.

[11] Ibid.

[12] To get some idea of the unpreparedness of the Dutch on Java, see: Interview with Felix Bakker, Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942. Bakker fought the Japanese in East Java as a soldier in the Marine Battalion.
[13] The Sky Looked Down, Chapter 4: The Darkening Sky.

[14] Recalled from a conversation with Han Samethini, May 1985. Bakker mentions the retreat of Dutch units from Surabaya to Malang on March 7. This is probably how Samethini arrived there. Like Bakker, he recalled some vague talk of guerilla warfare among his comrades, but said that nothing ever came of it.

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