Willem Boshoff - Experiences in Java, Indonesia during World War II

These are not convention notes. They are the memoirs of a South African worker who was captured by the Japanese during the war, of historical and spiritual value.

We were privileged to know him, and have him stay in our home in Perth, Australia in October 1988. Amazing that I should just receive them, seeing Lois and I have just been in Bali, Indonesia. Java is another Indonesian island near Bali.


As it happened in some of the countries in the Far East, so it also happened in Java. When the Japanese landed they had very little Resistance. On March 1, 1942, they landed and on March 8, the Dutch capitulated.


At that time the four of us, Gertie Maree, Esther Loots, Bernard Frommolt, and Willem Boshoff were staying with Mrs. Stalder who professed and lived in Bandoeng (in West Java). Seeing that we were South Africans and British subjects by birth, we expected to be interned by the Japanese. For that reason, our cases were packed and were ready as we waited to be interned. On April 14, 1942 around 10:15 pm, there was a knock at the door and immediately a Japanese officer in plain clothes stepped in with two guards and a Dutch Policeman who had little to say. The two guards waited at the front door and one at the gate with firearms in their hands. We were told to take little clothing with us because in two or three days, we will be back.


Then the four of us left there on a dirty coal truck with two Japanese soldiers. My companion and I had white clothes on and so you can form a picture of what we looked like, when we got out at the police station. There we had to fill in forms and were taken with our cases and all to a large hall on the second storey. There we sat on the floor on military blankets after they had searched our luggage.


In the hall, there were already 30 Europeans. Gertie and Esther were put in the farthest corner of the room because the Eastern people don’t believe in men and women mixing publicly. Naturally, we all had to remove our shoes before we could step on the blankets. Half an hour later, the two sisters (the only women) names were called out; while they passed by, we could only wink because we were not allowed to speak. You can imagine how we felt when we heard their footsteps get fainter because we had many reports on how the Japanese treated women. On the whole, we found that their behaviour was reasonable. That was the last we saw them for three and a half years.


They took them back to the house of Mrs. Stalder, who with two other Christians were still praying and couldn’t believe their eyes when Gertie and Esther came home.


The longer, the more became the number and by midnight, it was over one hundred. From time to time, the names of some were called out and taken away. Bernard and I hoped that we would not be separated. We had to sit right through the night and were not allowed to talk or sleep. If anyone dared to sleep or talk, the armed Japanese guards yelled at the top of their voices as if someone was trying to revolt. Then they started handing out clouts. They would assault women, old and young and even the sick ones. About 6 am, our names were called out and we had to climb onto a truck, where some other prisoners were. Soon, we were on a road we often rode on in the direction of a coastal town, Cheribon, and we expected to be sent to Japan by boat or to a mountain town, Garoet, where the British soldiers were interned. We often went passed there and wondered what it was like in there and felt sorry for those prisoners behind those thick walls. Never could we dream that we would spend 22 months behind those walls while those bad characters, some were even murders, would guard us.


From the port, we had to walk two and two with our cases to the open cells in the watchful eye of a Japanese guard who yelled as if he was mad. Our luggage was again searched and all knives and razors and sharp instruments were taken away.


Our money and watches and other valuable items were handed in at the office and recorded in a book. Some of the internees lost their valuables but overall, we got back everything when we left prison. We decided at the beginning to stay as near each other as possible so that we could be either together or next to each other. From the office we were led along a long passage with cells on either side. This building was built in the form of a cross and double storey.


Thereafter, we were shown to enter alone into open cells and a murderer locked the door behind us. Later, we found out that those in blue uniforms were the former occupants, some murderers. There were about 400 of them. I landed in cell 312, the last cell in the corner of the southern wing, and my companion next to me in cell 311. The floor of my cell was soaking wet and I couldn’t kneel but thanked the Lord that He counted me worthy to be a witness for Jesus' sake to be in the Prison. My companion was quiet next door and did the same. Thereafter, we started cleaning out cells and quietly whistled hymn 177 (old book) in the English. ("I’m satisfied indeed.") Bernard said to me, "Now we are getting the chance to live what we preached all the years." My reply was, "The Lord wanted us here to preach the gospel." Luckily it was a modern Prison built according to the American design workshops and two churches form the outer walls after they built the building in the form of a cross where the cells were. The cells consisted of an iron bed which could fold against the wall, a table and chair, a cupboard which is mounted above the bed for small items to hang, a tap (faucet) with a metal dish, a W.C. Electric light, and a large barred window.


In the night after 10 pm, the lights are dimmed and remain like that the whole night so that the Japanese guards can look through a small window to see what we are doing. Through our windows, we could see a sports ground ahead of us. Bernard and I were able to put our hands through the bars and to touch each other so we could pass the Bible back and forth. Esther gave us her English Bible on the way to the police station because we hadn’t taken any books with us that night because the Japanese told us that it wouldn’t be necessary because we would soon return.


Next time, I knew not to ask any questions. We could dare to speak with each other through the bars with the expectation of a beating if we were caught. About 2 hours after we were locked up, a plate with rice porridge, a dirty plate, was put outside each cell and immediately each door was opened. We had to take our porridge and the door was locked immediately again. We had to eat it without a spoon and sloppy boiled rice at that. The majority ate their rice with their fingers. The purpose was to lower us up to the standard of the lowest being. Luckily, I had a tin lid with which I could eat my porridge but my companion had nothing. He had to eat with his fingers.

We later heard that the foreman over us was there because he had a life sentence because he murdered his wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law. Such people exercised authority and power over us and even made the rules and so it was an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. Our mid-day meal was rice full of small grit and the local vegetables were boiled and not even washed with a soyabean cake. The evening meal was more or less the same with a small piece of meat or half a duck egg with it and also two bananas and a potato with it. The meals never improved and so the longer people stayed the more weight they lost. On average we lost about 25 pounds (10kgs) in six weeks.

Thereafter, there were outbreaks of stomach troubles like dysentery and people got weaker. Bernard had diarrhea twice in the prison. I had strange pains in my feet followed by night blindness until I had to start wearing spectacles.

Sometimes, we were not let out of our cells for days that depended on the corporal who was over the 12 Japanese guards. They changed over every four days. One small corporal felt very important and enjoyed dishing out slaps (clouts). Numerous times when he let us out onto the sports ground, for 15 to 30 minutes we had to walk around in pairs and were not allowed to talk or smoke. If anyone was seen talking, he was slapped in the face or beaten with a piece of bamboo. Sometimes, we had to run and being undernourished, we had little strength. If someone became faint, he was forced to run round again and was beaten. One day, I was given a beating because I took a wash in my cell, because we were not let to have a shower for days. Unfortunately, I was the sacrifice (made an example of) but saved others from being beaten because they were already finished washing themselves.

I must say we had one good Corporal. He was a lawyer in Japan and we were always glad to see him. He allowed us to take part in sport and gave prizes to the winners. Mainly fruit and tobacco and sometimes, he played, too, and had a few mugs of black unsweetened tea put out for us. Although it was black and bitter, it was enjoyable because we hadn’t had any for weeks. This good man was soon transferred and before he left, he told the interpreter to explain to us that he did his best to make us happy, and that was certainly so.

One night, I heard footsteps outside and it was a guard who asked me if I wanted tea. He quickly filled my bowl with sweet warm tea and asked to keep quiet about it. My companion and I slept well that night after we had tasted sugar again.


On a weekly basis with inspections, our cells were passed by because it was our habit to keep them. Those who were sloppy and careless were eaten up with lice, some of them educated people. I must explain that our numbers increased to 700 apart from the 400 sentenced prisoners. 300 were British subjects and 400 Dutch who were in the majority. Amongst them were Dutch offficials of the Council of the Indies, and Dutch Parlimentary officials. Professors, Doctors, Judges, Lawyers, and Bank Managers and even the Governor-General were here for two weeks before he was sent to the Island of Formosa. Everyone’s treatment was the same.


Before I go further, I must first say that we all received small parcels after two weeks from Esther Loots and Gertie Maree. We were so glad to see their handwriting on the parcels which was proof that they were still free. Various times, people received parcels with clothes, soap, and edibles and so on. We received five during the 22 months.

Inside the walls were various churches, for Protestants, Catholics and Moslems. After five months, little food and privileges brought us to meet together one day in the Church. Present was a high Japanese officer of Justice. We were allowed to put forward proposals for improvements. Many things were requested, few were given. Still, the meeting brought about big improvements. It was wonderful that the people gained weight when they were granted more freedom for nine hours a day. At night, we were locked up and we were also allowed to hold meetings in the church on Sundays. All our sermons had to be written out and handed in to the Japanese Censors on Friday before the Sunday that the sermon given back to be read. One Saturday, my companion was sick and on Sunday, I had to read out his sermon.


Under these circumstances, people like governors, Parliamentarians, Professors, Doctors, Judges, and so on who would under normal circumstances not listen to the simple Gospel message but now, they have a chance. Often, we get opportunities to have good talks with them in connection with the eternal things. After 16 months, others were brought in, amongst them a Judge, Mr. Wygers, who had already been in a few meetings before the Japanese landed. The simplicity of our message made an impression on him. Not long after that, he asked us if we couldn’t hold some secret gatherings because that was prohibited by the Japanese. In the prison, there were people sentenced to life sentences who had double cells and we held a meeting in there every morning and sometimes there were up to 15 listening including 8 Judges, friends of Mr, Wygers.


Although we couldn’t speak their Dutch language well, still they listened with all attention. The prayer of Mr. Wygers, the day he entered the prison was, “Lord, don’t open this iron gate until I have become a born again soul.” The day dawned when he and also others made their choice. Time will tell now that they are free, if they will keep true and follow the humble Man of sorrows. Still, we were glad for the privilege to make known the gospel of Jesus to them, the One whom we love and serve. Even if it didn’t help anybody else, it helped us. Most of these men went back to Holland and often we heard from them, especially Mr. Wygers couldn’t get away from what he heard. Later, we started Bible reading and fellowship meetings with those who had professed.

Another man who felt drawn to us was Mr. Bool, an officer of Justice. Before and after he professed, he visited one of us everyday. Before he would leave our cell, asked us to pray together. Sometimes when we were kneeling, the cell door was opened. What went on was soon spread about but still it made no difference to him.

I would like to mention about Mr. Hoogland, a bank manager who we met before the war. Through him, we met Mr. Wygers and the others. Although he was sometimes sick and weak, still he always brought people to the meetings.

Often there were young ones in the prison punishment cells who organised anti-Japanese resistance. The torture which the Japanese used to make the young ones suffer was terrible and included Electric Shocks, cigarette burns, and being hung by their hands. All and were beaten until they became unconscious. Other had hose pipes put in their mouths and the water turned on until they were full of water. As a nurse in the camp, I saw many patients like this and their bowels were ruined for the rest of their lives


In the torture cells, Mr. Lee, a Chinese man, was executed. He had always tried to make contact with us. One day, I went to work in my garden in front of his window to encourage him. Then he said he would rather be dead then than to wait for the suffering.


In February 1944, we were transferred to an internment camp 10 miles from there. Instead of getting better, the treatment was worse and many died of hunger. When we got of the bus, we found ourselves in an old Dutch military prison without bedding and we had to sleep on the cement slabs. There was no crockery and cutlery, no internees' clothing. We had to go to the rubbish dump to get a rusty tin and after it was cleaned without soap, we could receive our food in it. Food which was starch only, got less and less as time passed. Dysentery broke out and hundreds died. In the camp, Bernard got amoebic dysentery and diarrhea 4 times. On the whole, I had better health so that I learnt book binding, hair cutting, and through that, was able to earn something. The last year, I took up nursing through which I earned a little extra food. Almost everyday, I had to help laying out corpses. Often I was able to speak with patients over the most important things. A couple of men professed and died so different to so many others who cursed their enemy until on the last night.


In this camp, there were some dogs and cats at first but they were eaten, Thereafter, rats, mice, frogs, snakes, and slugs were eaten. To get some of those, we had to pay dearly and were highly privileged to get any. One day, I bought a few ounces of slugs for us and enjoyed them very much. We would have eaten them everyday if we could get them.

We had a lot of our own doctors, mostly Dutch and we couldn’t praise them enough. They did what they could with herbs and the little medicine that there was. Our doctor was smart enough to know that there was still feeding value in some rubbish like the shells of ground nuts, chaff of rice, and mango skins and so on. It was cooked with a mixture of our own urine. This was the only vitamins that kept weak patients going. My companion had to drink a cup of that everyday for five months. A respected doctor caring for people told me that if I wanted to get out of the camp alive, I had to drink as much of that of that stuff as I can. So I was able to get as much as I wanted and it was the one remedy to keep up my strength. Some people’s feet and faces swelled but they could still work. Others were so swollen that they had to just lie and it was terrible to see how their arms and legs burst open and water poured out and a horrible smell with it. In the nursing, we didn’t have bandages or bedding in the beginning to care for such patients.


Often Bernard had to sleep in the same room with such patients and had to look on as 4 corpses were carried out in three days. In the camp was 10,000 people, 5,100 in two smaller camps in the area, of the total of 15,000. 1,600 died in 18 months. The last 5 months Bernard suffered with water on the knee and lost 85 lbs in weight while I lost 45 lbs in the three and a half years.


The Japanese didn’t recognise the Red Cross with the result that we during this time only twice received small parcels. It was so little that it didn’t do much good. Some were so weakened that rich food like a spoon of butter and a small piece of cheese made them very sick. We received post twice but the letters were 2 years old. None of our friends apart from those in Java knew whether we were still alive or dead but we were aware that thousands of God’s children were praying for us constantly.


Gertie and Esther were free till December 1942. Until March 1943, they could still go in and out of the camp to visit friends. Thereafter they could no longer go out but could still receive visits. In November 1944, they were transferred and had to travel 4th class to another camp (Solo in the centre of Java). There they started their most difficult time. In June 1945, they were transferred to Sembrong. Their treatment was no better than our treatment and sometimes worse. They had to work like the local people. They were slapped and beaten. In that time, we received only 2 post cards of about 20 words from them in the Malay language. After the capitulation of Japan, they were brought to Bandoeng by plane where we were. They were very weak and there the Indonesians became aggressive, nobody’s life was safe. We advised them to get evacuated back to South Africa. On November 23, 1945, they went by plane to Singapore. It was our plan to remain in Java until they were strong enough to return.


Things got worse by the day. People disappeared from their houses and never returned, others were shot dead on the street or taken to the river where they were beheaded and the body thrown in the water.


The British troops sought a protection and rest order but there weren’t enough soldiers. Three days after Gertie and Esther left us, our most difficult experiences started.


Bernard left this camp on September 4, 1945 to another camp where he received treatment for his knee for the last few months. My companion went home to Mrs. Stalder where we were taken away from on April 14, 1942. I was moved from this camp to a state hospital and did 6 hours duty and I could spend my spare time at home. On November 27, 1945, Bernard was at home and also Mrs. Stalder and another three ladies when they heard doors and windows being smashed, people begging for mercy. The upheaval got nearer and nearer until it was their turn. They expected to all be murdered and could only plead with God to intervene. They heard the window being smashed to pieces and shouting that they must come out. Bernard went out, first expecting to be murdered.


While he was encircled (there were all sorts of weapons pointed towards him), they were ordered to all come out and to follow to the internment house which was on the edge of the river. There they knew that many others were beheaded there and that was what they were expecting. Near the river, they had to sit in a bamboo hut with another 40 men women and children. Some that resisted were full of bloody wounds. After I had done my 6 hour duty, I went home but was warned by the British officer in Charge that the surrounding area was dangerous. Even though I had narrow escape on the road home, I still took the chance. When I got near the house, I went through the same process with the same expectation. They were filled with hate towards me because I was wearing a Red Cross on my arm. After they tied my hands behind my back, I heard fighting in the street and had to lie down. Shortly after that, the leader came and said that the cruel British had shot and killed his colleagues. They expected that the English had come to search for us and that was why he spoke so angrily. I couldn’t plead for mercy but said we were doing Missionary work. He went away with all my papers and said that I would soon know what would happen. I was pleased to be next to my companion during this crisis and that I could pray, “Not my will but Thine be done” and stayed calm and looked forward to experience that hymn 101 (old book) says. ("Stronger than the strong is He")

The guard threw my Bible down in front of Bernard and the hymn book fell open on this hymn. While the guard went to sharpen his sword, we had to sit bound until 8 o’clock. Thereafter, we were taken to another house 200 yards higher up for the night. The Indonesians gave us dry rice, fish, and tea; but we didn’t trust them. The stress was noticeable on everyone’s face and everyone young and old prayed and asked us to have a meeting for them. We enjoyed it because everyone was broken. About mid-day, 2 educated Indonesians walked in and asked us to sign a paper to indicate that we would not work against their Republic. After we signed, it we were freed above our expectations.

The same evening around 8 pm, there was knock on the door. Fortunately this time, a Dutch Captain was sent by the British command to take us to a protected camp. He was held in high regard by all because he often risked his life for “whoever.” He gave us a few minutes to pack a few essentials.

Two days later, this Captain and I went with an armed force to rescue a few families in the district. That was the last time I went into the house to collect important documents and to save other small items and also the dogs which were left without food. Mrs. Stalder lost everything in her house worth hundreds of pounds and a couple of her houses were burnt down.


It was wonderful to feel safe again, although some internees lived there from the beginning. For the first few weeks, we couldn’t sleep peacefully or eat. There we had to work again. Bernard cut hair a couple of hours a day. I was asked was asked to be housekeeper over the invalids and to care for food and nursing where it was necessary. All were always ready to go to all our meetings. After we decided to return, I had to give up nursing at the City Hospital.

Some of our friends were with us in the camp. One brother died and we buried him. Others stayed outside but didn’t live peacefully. Everyone was very pleased when we were released and gave above normal love to us. We were very glad to observe that most grew and kept their meetings faithfully on our absence. Many important and rich men had to remain in camp because they had no roof over their heads outside. For us, it was it was sweet to taste the promise of God’s word that He would care for us in all things. Doors were opened to us which were ready to receive us.


On December 31, we left Bandoeng by air. After four and a half hours, we landed in Singapore and were taken to Seaview Hotel where we were to wait for our boat. The day before we departed from Java, we received a telegram from Alec Pearce which said, "All four must come if it is possible." At that time, Gertie Maree and Esther Loots were already 5 weeks on Singapore. Although most food was tinned food, it was nourishing and we got stronger.


In Singapore, there were Chinese Christians and their fellowship was very sweet. There were two brothers there, Archie Wilson and Alec Mitchell as well as Arthur Shearer who later went back to Australia to get nourishment to built him up again.


In February, we four sailed on the Alcombania to Suez where we spent three days and where the Red Cross provided all the 2,500 passengers with clothes. We could not praise the Red Cross enough for what they did in Singapore.


Fred Quick came and fetched us in Suez and took us by train to Cairo. On Sunday, Fred, Bernard, and Gertie Maree went to Alexandria for two meetings. Esther Loots, George Tsarnas, Harry Woodley, and I stayed in Cairo, where there was a Greek community. Also here, we experienced that God’s work is a large family. On February 28, we departed from Cairo on a float plane (Water Aeroplane) and slept the first night in Kartoum. The second night in Kesumi on the edge of Lake Victoria then the third might in Mozambique and we landed on the fourth day in Durban around 3:30 pm.


An unexpected number of Christians were on the quay to meet us. Everywhere there was lots of love and heartiness shown toward us. We have lots to be thankful to the Lord. Already, He has in His way made up for all that we went through, even the measure of faithful prayers that went up before His throne for us.


The conditions there still leave much to be desired, yet we look forward to returning to our labour there. Various friends have asked me to record some of our experiences. Because it is stressful to tell it over and over, I have eventually done so. My purpose is only to bring honour to His name and to tell of His Power of protection over His children.