In Commemoration of August 15, 1945


Willem Wanrooy

from: Veterans Outlook, Official Publication of Brotherhood Rally of All Veterans Organization, March/April 1988

I was a 19-year-old P.O.W. when I saw more than 5,000 men perish before my eyes.

In the fall of 1944, when General MacArthur's forces were threatening to retake the Philippines, the Japanese started to increase the transportation of prisoners of war from the Indonesian island of Java to the island of Sumatra. A railroad was being built to transport coal from the west coast of this island to the east coast and then on to Singapore.

My "hell ship" journey began at Jakarta (Java) on September 15, 1944. The day we all had been dreading for months, the day 2,400 of us would be riding on a prison-ship, filled us with apprehension.

Two long lines of men slowly moved up two gangways to an old rusty freighter, the "Junyo Maru". One line going into the fore-part of the ship consisted of about 4,000 haggard-looking Javanese natives. We moved into the stern, 2,200 down in the hold and around 200 of us, including myself, milled on deck, for there was only room for a hundred to really lie down and stretch.

On September 18, we were steaming maybe ten to fifteen miles offshore along the west coast of Sumatra. For more than three days I had suffered from the blazing sun during the day and from bone-chilling rains at night. It was horrid below deck. Without enough drinking water, food or medicine, many broken-down prisoners gradually lost the will to live. A third of them suffered from malaria en dysentery. Many went mad, and some ranted deliriously in the stifling, fetid hold, that smelled of urine, excrement and putrefying flesh. As men died, the living stood on the dead.

As I looked down the hatch, I saw a black stinking oven with more than two thousand souls, melting in their own sweat and body wastes, gasping for every breath.

I stood on deck, near that open hatch, when a sudden jolt shook the ship. As I looked up, I saw human bodies, wood pieces, metal and other debris blown high in the sky somewhere from mid-ships.

"Be calm! Brake down engines," a Japanese voice screeched through a loudspeaker.

Then, a second jolt and a thundering blast deep beneath my feet.

A few moments of silence.

Chaos. Howls and screams.


"Abandon ship!!!"

Panic set in.

Men jumped overboard. Others threw life rafts over the side. I helped some climbing out of the hold. A mob of panic-stricken men crawled, trudged and wormed onto the one single iron ladder. Scratched, beaten and bloodied, some reached the deck. The bowels of the ship were belching up.

I took off my boots and puttees and outer clothing and jumped into the ocean. I was an excellent swimmer and got as far away from the ship as I could in one effort, stopped, and looked back.

What a sight. Oh, my God, what an awful sight. The ship was slowly sinking deeper and deeper. Stern first. Fore-part high up in the air. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies crawled and clung on the decks. Others dropped off like ants from a sugarloaf. Howls, screams and cries filled the air.

The ship disappeared against a sunset sky burning with yellows and oranges. Foam and waterbells churned madly in a maelstrom of death and destruction.

I looked at Death and saw a friend. And I decided to fight him with all the strength left in me.

After two-and-a-half years of prison camps I was skeletal in appearance, and, as a P.O.W., I was despised by the Japanese. As a physical man, I was not worth saving. Would the two small, escorting Japanese corvettes save me and the others? Hunger, thirst and misery in a cold, dark, ocean night would make drowning seem a welcome relief.

Close by, a man started to laugh. And laugh. High-pitched giggles that ended in a gurgling sound as he pushed himself under water. To come up, moments later, as a floating corpse. Mumbling incoherently, a few others followed his example.

I kept on floating, hanging onto a deck hatch. And the night passed by. Slowly. Hour after hour.

The interminable night came to an end as daylight broke through over the eastern horizon, where land was, far, far away. Around us a big, vast, empty body of water.

"Ship!! Ship!!" someone shouted.

"What is it doing?"

"Nothing, damn it. It stays where it is!"

My head buzzed. Tongue and throat raspy dry from thirst. Body aching. The sun rose. It got hotter and hotter.

Fights over a caught fish occurred on a number of rafts. With agony and blood on their faces some men disappeared. Another went mad, bit his companion in the neck and drank his blood. Men without God. Also men sustained by God.

I had reached the edge of madness when I heard a voice deep, deep inside me, "Choose your fate and seek your way, by your own light. God watches all the while, and guides your steps unawares." It was as if a last surge of energy shot through my exhausted body.

"Swim, swim to the ship," my mind commanded. "Pull your hatch with you, for safety when you get tired. Swim and swim, until I cannot command your body any longer."

I swam for five long hours. Stopping and going. Slowly, pathetically slowly, the little ship became larger and larger. Two half-dead men, hanging on my hatch and whom I had pulled along, became more and more a drag. I kicked and kicked my feet. My shoulders and legs ached. Water, sweat and tears streamed down my face. And I swam and swam. When I was twenty yards away from the ship, I saw water churning at the screw.

"Hurry," a voice screamed.

I howled a yell of desperation, kicked myself off against the hatch and swam like a maniac, arms and legs grinding through the water. A race against death. Death: the water. I kicked and kicked. Leaving the two men behind.

As the ship gained speed, I grabbed a dangling rope. They pulled me on board. I was the last one picked up that day. There were no other ships to be seen.

Someone poured cool water down my throat and whispered, "Act alive or the Japs will throw you overboard. They dislike dead bodies." I had survived a watery hell.

The two men on the hatch did too; they were saved the next day.

But I had only won the initial fight against my friend, Death.

Two weeks later, I began working on a railroad through the inhospitable Sumatran jungle. For eleven long months; twelve hours a day; oftentimes seven days a week. Digging earth, pushing trucks, carrying rails, hammering nails. Naked, except for a loincloth. Barefoot. The heat was one hundred and twenty degrees. Gnats and insects stung my body. Sharp stones cut and bruised my feet. A machine performing allotted tasks -- steady, disinterested, automatic. A suffocating, sagging, limp being. Beaten and kicked by the guards if I didn't work hard enough. Always present, the smell of decay, of rotting vegetation and sweat and mud and dead bed bugs. And always, the hunger -- perpetual, agonizing hunger..

My physical being suffered on and off from malaria, dysentery, beri-beri, pellagra, scurvy, tropical sores, sometimes several diseases at the time, and not necessarily in that order.

For eleven months, my environment consisted of lice, dying bedmates, dirty and untended men -- a humanity gone sour. I also survived this jungle hell. I had won the second fight against Death.

After the war, I learned the total tally of the sinking of the "Junyo Maru": 2,220 P.O.W.s on board, 680 taken ashore; 4,300 natives on board, 200 taken ashore. Of the 6,520 men, only 880 survived.

Only 96 of the P.O.W.s came out of the jungle alive; of the 200 native laborers, none. Today, only around a dozen of us are still alive.

To many who have not shared this endurance, but who have suffered a traumatic experience such as a violent death, rape, accident, et cetera, the experience may last a lifetime. But imagine being in an accident daily, or raped daily. This was my P.O.W. experience.

There are, actually, no words in the English language to describe being incarcerated as a P.O.W., but you can be assured that everything you've read is true.

"Could I have done it? Could I have survived?" you may ask.

Yes, you could! As I have! As others have!

There wasn't a great deal of difference in physical stamina between myself and those who died. But in many cases, the difference was in the "intangibles" -- all the unmeasurables, the things not visible around P.O.W.s, that contributed to my staying alive [to conquering the negative odds] -- such as faith and spirit and persistence. The supreme intangible among all the human factors was the "individual fighting morale."

Trust in God? Everybody prayed. Many died who I felt had a stronger faith than mine. David had faith, but also courage as he slew Goliath.

I believed strongly that God had given me courage to use, and a mental capacity to withstand physical endurance.

Oftentimes, I had feelings of hopelessness. But then I realized that the hope God had given me was not just wishful thinking or blind optimism, but a real belief that the situation could only get better and eventually would pass into history -- and that He had given me the power to improve a bad situation by using the faculties given to me. A good sense of humor, combined with savoring minor victories during periods of humiliation, often brought me back from my ordeals. The stealing of food and the manner in which I did it -- thus outwitting a guard -- created inner laughter and a sense of fulfillment. Simultaneously bowing and calling a guard an uncomplimentary name -- Hammer Head, or Busted Coco -- were small, critical exercises of mastery representing great personal triumph.

To increase my self-respect, I took better care of my personal hygiene and appearance. And when my strength allowed it, I used any imaginable ingenuity to collect, gather and trade for extra food and medicine.

All my constructive efforts to survive -- the will to live -- replaced the destructive thoughts of death. I realized that "the will to live" differs greatly from "the will not to die." The first is a positive, constructive continuation of an existing condition -- life. The second is an effort to change a negative into a positive, and is, therefore, not as strong as the first. A boy among men, I fought my battles alone. In solitude, my mind learned to lean upon itself. Exempted from the tormented men around me -- who showed what we were: men with varying degrees of a will not to die -- solitude showed me what I should be, a boy with a will to live.

Some say that God intended me to live for a specific purpose. Perhaps He did -- so I can tell my story.

It is this story: that I, and others, while experiencing the heights of pain and the depths of hell, won the battle to live, to survive.

It is also a story of anger. Yes, I rage and burn. I am angry because of the most brutal, barbaric, wicked, inhuman and cruel treatment I received from other humans -- my Japanese captors. I am angry because of the life-and-death decision I had to make as a boy involving two men who were not my enemies. I am a human being and not a forgiving angel. The only ones who can forgive are my dead comrades. The living have no right to forget.

I will carry this message with me: "As long as I can be horrified, I am not conquered. As long as memory moves me, my future holds hope. And I will go into that future and put my hand into the hand of God."

Read the Junyo Maru Story to get this story in context.

Willem Wanrooy further tells of his experiences of WWII in "The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies, 1942-1949: Survivors' Accounts of Japanese Invasion and Enslavement of Europeans and the Revolution that Created Free Indonesia". Jan A Krancher - Editor. Published by McFarland & Company. April 1996. ISBN 0786400706.