'Together with 3 other Indo POW's Ferrie escaped the Japanese prison camp into the thick Birma bush. After a desperate run of days through a dark jungle they asked for sanctuary with the Karen tribesmen. The Karen chief told them the Japanese put a price on their heads, but vowed not to turn them in. For years they managed to stay alive as freemen, even attacking Japanese outposts.
When they were eventually caught the Japs believed they were infiltrators from British India as they did not think it was possible for camp escapees to survive for so long. The men professed their innocence when they were interrogated by the Kempeitai. The Karen chief Maung Mela collaborated their story. The chief was tortured and butchered but did not budge.
Maung Mela had invoked the power of the ancestors. He did not beg, talk or cry when the Japs poured gasoline over his body. Maung Mela had invoked the power of the ancestors. He did not even make a sound when the Japs lit his body on fire. When the chief burned the Japs could not help themselves and saluted the dying man. They stood there and saluted.'
We were working in Wagale. That’s where I bolted. Whatever gave me the idea to run off? Well, already back in Tavoy I’d been thinking: Hey, Tavoy, that’s close to Colombo, Ceylon – close to, that is, several thousand kilometres by sea – and maybe I can steal a sail boat. But the west monsoon was blowing, so that was bad. So I ended up working on the railroad. Once there, you were nothing but an animal. They kicked you, gave you no food, nothing. You were nothing, you had nothing. And I just couldn’t stand it there, with those Japanese.
That’s when I got my chance. The Japs had cows, for slaughter. They were looking for a cowboy. Now it so happened that my grandfather had been a butcher, so ever since I was small I’ve seen how they do that. I was thinking: hey, that’s something for me, then I’ll be done with that railway and I can look at our surroundings.
One evening in September 1942, our commander arrived. He’d been enjoying a few days of beatings with the Japs to make him sign a document promising that we’d do nothing against the Japs and wouldn’t run away. And he had to see to it that we’d also sign. However, if you signed and still ran away, then you were a goner for sure.
Well, you know, there was nothing to escaping from prison camp, because the Japs didn’t have any guards. Where could you go? Nothing but jungle. Malaria. Two months earlier, seven Australians had escaped. They were brought back that afternoon by the Burmese, who got 50 rupees a head. The Aussies first were beaten horribly. Then they were bayoneted. Right in front of us.
Still, we wanted to risk it. All we had in the way of food was rice. But we also had an axe, and a machete. We walked quite a ways through the riverbed so as not to leave any tracks. And after that, God help us, we went into the bush. And the bush is nothing but one dark cavern.
Only at noon did we see a glimmer of sunshine. We had no way of determining our direction. And we were terribly afraid. By God, you really didn’t know what to do. The first two weeks were absolute misery. It was the rainy season and you couldn’t make a fire, because smoke is something you smell from a great distance. So we kept on walking, hoping for the best. We checked to see which way the rivers ran and such. Because water runs down to the coast, that gave some sense of direction. And after fifteen days, we were back at Wagale. We had made a complete circle!
Then we walked more in a southern direction. At a certain moment, we must have been on the outside for over a month by then, we spotted a hut. There is always rice there. But we could not afford to meet any people. Because you never knew if they would give you away. After all, they got money to turn us in.
Look, Burma, they say, is where the Burmese live. But there are over 14 tribes there, all of them dependent of one another, same as in the Dutch Indies. So this area was inhabited by the Karen. They are a mountain people, fairly stocky and sturdy. I look like a Karen, so it was my turn. I went there and the man didn’t speak one word of English, all he said was ‘Village, English.’ And I said to him: ‘Eat,’ and ‘We are not Japanese. We are Malays, coolies.’ For there were romushas there, too. He gave us some rice. Then we went with him to this ‘village.’
The people there were actually the best guys I’ve ever met anywhere. We came to the hut of Karen who spoke some English. The headman said: ‘The Japanese have promised money if we point you out. But we are not going to. But tomorrow we take you to our centre.’ That was called Kyaing, about 50 miles away, in the Amherst district. But when we got there, they told us: ‘You can not stay here, because nearby are Japanese. We will take you somewhat further away, to a camp of runaway military men.’ There were all sorts of types and all kinds of riffraff there. In fact, it was a pack of robbers.
Then what? Van Heemert said: ‘We’ll go to that village of robbers and we’ll train them to fight for when the English get here, or the Chinese.’ So that’s where we stayed. And we attacked Japanese police stations, five at least, and we turned out to be a pretty good unit.
How did we get through it all? You know that you’re wanted, you know that there are others hunting you down, you spend your days and nights worrying about the slightest noise. My instincts and my hearing are such that I can hear it if anybody is walking through the forest kilometres away. After we attacked a police post, we would all split up and go into the jungle. Once I spent three months on a little tampat (sleeping mat) up in the mountains. Completely alone. When I had nothing to eat, well, then I didn’t eat. I’ve eaten young grass. And even there it was dangerous, for there were lots of wild animals such as tigers, bears, and particularly snakes. And if you had fallen ill or if you’d accidentally eaten something poisonous, then you’re dead. That almost did me in. I constantly had to be on the lookout to stay alive.
Hoffman left us quite early on. He was a great guy. But a bit too good. He said: ‘If I go it alone, I’ll be safer.’ And left just the three of us. They murdered him later on, killed in action, just like that. But somebody else joined us in his place: Knoestler. He had escaped, too, together with three officers. Those three were apprehended and shot. But not Knoestler. I don’t know how he did it, but I didn’t trust him a bit.
One of the robber chiefs liked me particularly. He told me: ‘They can’t touch me, for I’ve got amulets here.’ Karen are tattooed all over their body, except for their anus. ‘See to it that you get tattooed also. It’s a sure way to stay alive.’ But I didn’t like the idea. So he gave me a shirt covered with all kinds of signs and symbols.
That silly shirt saved my life. On the last day that I was a free man, in September or October of 1944, the Japs and their men were after us with dogs and machetes, and the circle kept getting smaller and smaller. Then I said to Van Heemert: “Piet, you and I are going to make it. But not if those two stay with us!” One of them, Schuurman, was night blind, because of malnutrition. And Knoestler was altogether too stupid to… well, let’s just say that if you took him a 100 yards in a different direction, he’d be unable to find his way home. He kept running this way and that like a stuck tjeleng (a wild pig), not knowing where to go. They were useless. We could have headed south. “Piet, shall I shoot them?” I had the one rifle with four bullets in it. Then Van Heemert said: “No, in for a penny, in for a pound.” Okay. So I threw away the rifle.
Schuurman was a good guy. He was a special person to me, also after the war. I never told him I’d been on the verge of shooting him. I did take a closer look at his daughter later on, though. It would have been terrible having to tell her I knocked off her dad. I still meet his wife regularly. But I managed to forgive myself later on. Had I done it, it would have been in a state of momentary madness, seeing that circle get smaller all the time, and then seeing those two helpless people. It would have been an easy death for them.
But speaking of that silly shirt, there I noticed those guys getting closer and closer. They had dogs, sabres, all kinds of machetes, and so on. And all of a sudden there’s this Burmese guy running into me. He had a rifle. He was very nervous, for I had the reputation of being a holy man of sorts. I’d been out there all this time, and they simply couldn’t believe it. They simply couldn’t believe that you’d been on the run for over two years. Anyway, the guy fired: A dud! Again. Misfired again! The guy gave out a loud yell, threw the thing away, and ran off as if he’d seen a ghost, no less. Then I went to look at the rifle. It turned out to be mine, with those four bullets, two of which proved to be duds!
Well, then the Japs arrived, and that’s when I got the beating of my life. And then they handed us over to their commander of the Kempetei (“the Japanese Gestapo”). That’s where the truth came out. ‘Maybe you are spies sent in from British India. But certainly you are not the guys who escaped from Wagale. It’s simply impossible that you’ve been on the outside for over two and a half years.’ We said: ‘We never lifted a finger against you, no, we would not have dared!’ But they still did not believe us. Then they interrogated the Karen chief, Maung Mela his name was, and he said: ‘These people are harmless, they’ve been working for us.’
They really tortured him, butchered him so to speak. But Maung Mela never changed his story. The next day, they poured kerosene over him and set him on fire. And even the Japs paid him their last respect. As they were burning him, they saluted him. How on earth is that possible? And we were thinking, well, we would have screamed well before being treated like this. But not Maung Mela. He didn’t make a sound. He left a wife and a son. Those Karen are a great people. I told my daughter, whose name is Karen for that very reason: “If ever those people get their freedom, we’ll go there.” I’ve praised the Karen to the sky and it has rubbed off for she’s an anthropologist.
Some vignettes of our stay with the Kempetai: They’d put you into a crate. It was impossible to either stand or sit in it. It was one yard high, one yard wide. Once a day, they let you out for a pee. Well, that’s when I caught malaria. I sat there shaking like a leaf. A low-level Kempetai officer, who could hit like the best, asked me: ‘Are you sick?’ He returned with two blankets and some quinine. Then you ask yourself, is he crazy? Here’s a guy who at one point beats the hell out of you, who cheerfully hits you over your bare skull, and then comes to your aid like this!
I was being interrogated by a different guy. Sits there, laughing. Gives me a smoke. And just as I’m ready to light up, he hits me so hard that I flip around. So there you were. Sometimes he’d laugh, and sometimes he’d yell. Your headache was so severe you couldn’t open your eyes. I may seem even-keeled, but I was seething with fear. Take this, for example: When we were interrogated by the Kempetai, they made me dig a hole there 30 times. They told me: ‘Now you’re going to die.’ But then it doesn’t happen. And they stood there and laughed.
I tried to commit suicide. When they caught me. We were lying on the floor, and I said: ‘They’re going to kill us tomorrow anyway, you know what, we are going to commit suicide.’ I still had a bit of a razor blade hidden in my sarong. ‘Well, Piet, what do you think? You are the oldest. Do you want them to do you in, or do you want to kill yourself?’
‘Do it myself.’
‘Schuurman, what do you think?’
‘Yes, me too.’
Only Knoestler didn’t want to. So I said to him: ‘That’s your business. They’ll probably set fire to you.’
To Van Heemert I said: ‘You know, it’s easy enough, Piet. All you do is cut and it’s over. You cut yourself and stay calm. You’ll just fall asleep.’
That’s pure fantasy. Secretly, I was scared to death. Then Piet said: ‘Do you want to help me do it?’ He lacked the courage, see. Now I can easily enough shoot a man, but that I didn’t want to do. At some stage he said: ‘No. Maybe we’ll get saved. We’re not going to do it.’ But I don’t know even half how hard I had been pleading to be released from it all, pleading just to die.
After about two months, they took us to headquarters in Bangkok. That’s where they sentenced us to death. We were not surprised. But then: ‘Our imperial leader has decided differently. Instead of the death sentence you will all get forced labour for the next twenty years.’ Because, I think, the end of the war was already in sight.
Still, death was preferable to forced labour. Because I’ve done time in the Outram Road Jail in Singapore. Oh my God, oh my God, that was worse than hell itself. You were beaten all the time. My job was cleaning shit barrels or making reels for cables. There were almost 80 of us. Every so often, new idiots would be admitted, guys who had struck a Japanese soldier, for example. On average, about 10 men a day died there. Starvation and such. They just left you to croak there. Van Heemert died of hunger there.
I’d been in Outram Road for about three or four months, and then, all of a sudden, it was over, bang, just like that. The bomb had been dropped, and on 15 August I got out. I weighed 27 kilos at the time.
I’ll tell you, the Japs misbehaved a lot, tried everything to break me. But when it was over, I said: ‘What’s done is done. You guys didn’t do it for fun, either.’ We got a bunch of those Japanese in Surabaya, and there they were kicked by the folks there. I said: ‘Why are you doing that? Why didn’t you do that sooner?’ That I couldn’t stand.
They wanted to give me the MWO*. One colonel told me: ‘Thou art a brave man, indeed!’ And: ‘You have fought for the queen and the flag.’ I said: “Me, fight for the queen? I’ve never seen her here. And for the flag? Do you really want to know what flag I looked at? That flag with that red ball in it! Because that’s how I knew the Japanese were about. I was fighting for my life! That is all.’
Then he said: ‘For bravery and conduct then, and if not for loyalty, then surely for endurance.’ They gave me the bronze cross for the time I fought in Burma: ‘For courage, conduct, and endurance.’ Courage I had for sure, there was conduct, too - for I survived – but loyal I was not! So I got a medal one rank below the other one, ha! The hell I care. As far as I’m concerned, you can toss it away.
After the war, all I did was look for danger, I was that anxious for something to happen. Why? I don’t know. Walking about at night, there would be those idle loafers. I would head for them on purpose. I had this fine dagger. I had a revolver, too. My point of view is: It doesn’t matter if you die. But I need a servant. So I’ve got to take somebody with me! I don’t get it, either, when people fail to act whenever anyone gets beaten or raped out in the street. I am the first on the scene.
My daughters can do anything they please. They’re free where I’m concerned. They go out at night, they have my permission, but I’ll tell them how to defend themselves. One of them has a brown belt in judo.
Unfortunately, a month or so ago, I threw my revolver into the river Rhine. My wife, you see, she didn’t approve. Neither did my children. The police don’t allow it, and my family kept on whining: ‘You’ll get into trouble with the law if you get caught.’ But I’ve still got my klewang, my machete, here, underneath my bed. Often I jump out of bed, my heart thumping inside my head, thinking there is somebody there. I go straight for my weapon.
I can’t sleep without my klewang. Simply because I think I’ll be attacked. I wake up whenever a door opens. I stay very alert. My hearing, everything I think and do: my entire life is still focused on that one thing. It’s still not over where I’m concerned, it still haunts me. And I keep telling everyone: ‘For God’s sake, please don’t just walk into my room at night, because I’m fast, I’m very fast, and that’s when there’s the risk of something happening.’ It’s just not something you can unlearn, the fear that they’ll get there before you can. You’ve got to be fast, otherwise you’re dead.”
* Militaire Willemsorde, the Netherlands’ highest medal, for bravery, conduct and loyalty, and tantamount to a knighthood.