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Encounters: The Christmas Lamp, Thailand 1945

December 3, 2018 by

I first met Terry a few years ago in Armidale, a university town in the New England region of New South Wales. He was in his late eighties at the time, small of stature and unassuming. Something about him spoke of a story yet to be told and it came out in little bits as we began meeting weekly. But it was only when Terry completed his voluminous autobiographical manuscript that I fully understood what it was that I had sensed from the start.

Bill Wiser with Terry, a good friendTerry and Bill Wiser. Terry is holding his father's ceramic lamp.

Terry describes his childhood as “exceptionally happy, even idyllic.” How could it be otherwise? Born in 1928 to Dutch parents, Ferdinand and Anna, his early life was one of carefree adventure, exploring the jungles surrounding the tea plantation in central Java that was his home, some three thousand meters above the sea.

It was not to last beyond Terry’s thirteenth birthday. A war that at first seemed so distant rapidly engulfed the Indonesian Archipelago. Ferdinand left home in 1942 to join the Royal Dutch reserves in a vain attempt to fend off the Japanese invasion of Java. For a year Anna valiantly carried on with the plantation work, taking a few minutes each day to cut a fresh bouquet of roses to place in front of her husband’s portrait. She had no idea if he was dead or alive; in fact, Ferdinand had been captured and sent to the infamous Japanese POW camps to build the Thai-Burmese railway.

Then the Japanese called for all Dutch nationals to be placed in concentration camps. Terry recalls:

Our servants had assembled on the lawn, and while neither Dutch nor Indonesians like to show their emotions in public, they and we tearfully embraced as we said good-byes. My mother did not look back. When I did, it was with pain in my heart to see my dog held by its collar so that he would not follow me. But [one of the servants] had promised me he would look after Mickey until I returned.

He never saw his dog, or his home, again.

Terry was separated from his mother and sister when he turned fourteen, spending the first months of separation in a transit camp of five hundred men and boys. Then he was transferred to a camp of ten thousand civilians and a handful of wounded POWs. This was to be his “home” for the duration of the war until the Dutch flag was raised over the camp on 28 August 1945.

There were low moments during these long years. Terry writes:

One day when I felt very downhearted, I confessed to Mr. Miles [an older man of Indian and British descent who had befriended the young lad] that the war may perhaps never end and that we should die here. He wagged a wrinkled brown finger at me, “No, but indeed you must never give up hope and courage. It is your duty to your family, and also to mankind.”

To emphasize his point, Mr. Miles found Kipling’s poem “If” in a collection Terry had scrounged from the pile of discarded belongings left behind by the POWs, who by then had been force-marched to certain death. With little to sustain body and soul, Mr. Miles knew that something as simple as a poem could save a man. Terry read the classic from start to finish and through this kind man he regained the will to live.

He would need a strong dose of that, when, following the war’s end, a growing Indonesian liberation movement took the lives of many innocent Dutch nationals. These were dangerous times, but Terry managed to locate his mother and sister and the three survived on Terry’s earnings as a translator for the occupying British army.

During the following months Anna poured every ounce of energy into the search for her husband. Her dogged persistence was rewarded shortly before Christmas 1945 when the Red Cross informed her that Ferdinand was alive in Thailand. Through Terry’s connections, the family found passage on a British military ship in the company of several hundred women and children in the same plight.

They arrived in Bangkok on Christmas Eve, with a couple days’ journey still separating them from the ex-POW camp near Kanchanaburi on the Thai/Burma border. The railway line had been severely damaged during the war and several times they had to abandon one train at a bombed-out bridge or destroyed section of railway, to board another waiting on the other side.

“It was an arduous and frustrating experience, but one we endured knowing that we were getting ever nearer to our loved ones,” writes Terry. The group finally reached Kanchanaburi, from which a convoy of trucks was to take them the final five kilometres to the reunification camp. Terry continues:

The trip to our camp is something that I shall never forget. Darkness was gathering when our convoy left the railway siding and an amazing sight unfolded before our eyes. Along both sides of the road stretching a full five kilometres, stood rank upon rank of men. Each one held up a small oil lamp that lit up the face of the one who held it. Hundreds of Dutch ex-POWs had come from their camp in the hope of finding relatives among the newly arrived women and children. Holding the lamp high so that we could see his face, man after man called out his name, “I am….” “Is so-and-so (wife, mother, sister, brother, or sweetheart) on board?”
Luck rewarded some, and here or there a waiting man was pulled onto a truck, jubilantly received by a loved one on board. For us there was no call from my father, but the memory of that ride, on a road faintly lit by small oil lamps held aloft with such hope, remains cemented in my mind. I shall forever remember the ardent, upturned faces of these survivors of the Japanese slave camps, seeking family reunification.

After spending the night, the group of family members was told there was no transport available to reach the men’s camp ten kilometres farther up the track. But nothing could stop Anna and the children now; they had come so far and were so close to the goal. They had just begun walking when they saw someone approaching:

Staggering toward us, hardly able to walk at all, was a gaunt figure clad in a far too loose Dutch army uniform draped over a thin-as-a-rake frame.
During the long years that we had been separated, I had remembered my father as he had been before the war, a powerfully built person with a vibrant zest for life. But this image was nothing like the poor wretch I saw before me. Here was a man so foreign in appearance that I truthfully did not recognise him as my father.
His dull eyes, under knitted eyebrows, evidenced an extreme pain and suffering beyond all words. To my horror, I was reminded of those in the concentration camp that stood on the very brink of death. That day I despaired for my father’s life.

Defying the odds, Ferdinand gradually gained strength through the loving care of his family. Though he drifted in and out of consciousness as he battled malarial fever, the events leading up to their surprise encounter gradually emerged. Lying in the camp hospital, Ferdinand had seen their names in a bulletin that listed evacuees coming to Thailand from Java. And when he heard of the convoy’s arrival, his desire to see them again drove him on. Flouting medical orders, he left his hospital bed, caught a ride on the local bus from his camp to the village, and started walking.

It was during this period of recovery that Terry learned his father would never have survived the camps were it not for an act of kindness and the chain reaction it set into motion. At one stage, the Dutch POWS were laying a section of track close to a camp of Australians. There, Ferdinand discovered an Australian POW suffering terribly from malaria; he was shivering, with nothing other than a pair of tattered trousers to cover his emaciated body. Cutting his own precious blanket in two, Ferdinand gave one half to the other man.

His father would never have survived the POW camps were it not for an act of kindness and the chain reaction it set into motion.

Later it was Ferdinand’s turn to be struck down by the dreaded disease. Lying on his mat, barely conscious, he heard someone calling out, “Where’s the bloody Dutchman who gave me half his blanket?” When the Australian discovered his mate in such dire straits, he vowed to return shortly. Return he did, bearing a life-saving bottle of quinine tablets.

Ferdinand insisted that the Australian keep the medicine for himself, but in colourful terms for which Australians are famous the world over, Ferdinand was roundly told to mind his own affairs. After all, the tablets were “Courtesy of the Japs, no worries mate.” Ferdinand knew the man had risked his own life to procure the pills. They never saw one another again, and Ferdinand never found out if the other man survived the war.

* * * * * 

Not long ago I was sitting in Terry’s house, marveling at his family’s survival amid the death and cruelty of the camps. An act of kindness, the smallest glimmer of hope, was all that had kept them alive. I found I could not shake the image of lighted lamps, held aloft in the darkness, illuminating the gaunt faces of men filled with hope and expectation. It was only days after Christmas, 1945.

clay lamp

As we conversed together, the seventy three years slipped away. They were replaced by hundreds of oil lamps, aglow against the darkness. Without a word, Terry rose and went next door. He returned with a small, beautifully shaped ceramic lamp with a central column that clearly had once held a wick. It was his father’s lamp.

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photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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  • Thank you, Bill, for your beautiful and sensitive story of this part of my life, in which, but for the Grace of God I could not have witnessed His Amazing Grace and Love for Mankind.

    Terry