I was 5 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. At that time Nazi Germany had already occupied whole continental Europe, including Holland, for a year and a half. I didn’t hear about Pearl Harbor until US soldiers liberated us in 1945 and told us about it. I didn’t envisage the horror of Pearl Harbor and the national significance of December 7 until I saw the pictures in musea when I arrived in the US in 1974. The vivid memories of seeing bombs exploding on Schiphol airport in May 1940 when I was 4 1/2 were the ones that had primarily occupied my mind.
At liberation, we also heard the awful stories of the Battle of the Java Sea in 1942, when Allied ships, including several American, British, Australian and Dutch warships (which were berthed at the Marine base at Surabaja in the Dutch Indies) fought a Japanese invasion under the command of Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman. The Dutch Government in exile in London was one of the first to join the US after Pearl Harbor and declare war on Japan. Japan, short of natural resources, immediately set out to expand its realm in Asia by overpowering Singapore and Malaysia, and Borneo and Celebes of the Dutch Indies, to secure itself of abundant oil supplies. Next was the largest island, Java, of the Dutch Indies, which it approached from the island of Bali it had already occupied.
The allied fleet endeavored to stop the Japanese from invading Java, but the Japanese ships were much better armed with heavier cannons and super torpedos that had a reach of 25 miles. Its air force was superior. The more powerful Japanese fleet, which proved much better trained in sea battle at night, destroyed many of the allied ships. Two Dutch light cruisers, De Ruyter, Karel Doorman’s flagship, and the Java, were sunk and Karel Doorman perished with his ship. Several other Dutch warships sank, including the destroyers De Kortenaer and Witte de With. More than a 2300 sailors, including over 900 Dutch sailors, lost their lives.
Dutch Archive pictures
Thousands of Dutch families, who lived in the Dutch Indies, were imprisoned in Japanese concentration camps, where many were tortured and died. The Dutch never regained full control over the Dutch Indies, and the Japanese invasion meant the end of its colonial power. After the war, a bloody and cruel independence war erupted in the Dutch Indies, which ended in 1949 when Indonesia became independent. Thousands of Indonesians fled to Holland when the independence war started and were lodged with Dutch families to recover and find a new life. A father with three sons stayed with us.
Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Java Sea show some serious common lessons: In both cases, the enemy was much better prepared and armed. In Holland, this led to building a much stronger fleet after the war. Then, under cover of a powerful ally, the US, efforts to keep up a fierce military power slowed down, a pattern followed by many European countries. The lessons learned were soon forgotten.
Fast forward to 2016. While it is said that the American military is the best in the world, the political will to keep up its strength has repeatedly been undermined by several American administrations: Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama emphasized social programs over military strength. 9/11 constituted the second attack on American soil. More than 2400 sailors were killed at Pearl Harbor and close to 3000 people lost their lives during 9/11. The latter was a terrorist attack, but many say it could have been prevented had America been better prepared and kept its eyes open.
A new type of war was added to our human inclination to destroy each other. It took a long time to recognize that there is no real difference between “formal war” and “informal war”: both intend to destroy Western Civilization and its religious and philosophical democratic principles. The expansion of radical Islamic fascism signifies the same threat as German Nazism and Japanese Imperialism did, as do the threats of dictatorial regimes like Russia, China, and Iran.
Come 2017; the world is no better place. The Chinese military is spending trillions on military strength and expansion of its territory by building military islands in the China Sea, helped by the greed of the American market buying its goods and borrowing its money to cover its national debt. Russia invades the Crimea and controls eastern Ukraine, without a significant Western response. Iran undermines the Middle East through proxy wars and support of terrorism, causing tremendous civilian suffering in Syria.
The weeks after 9/11 with jets patrolling the skies aided by nearby refueling airplanes gave me that depressing feeling from WW II that we were at war again, and unfortunately we are. Osama’s escape from Afghanistan felt like Hitler’s escape from several coups against him. The indefatigable US Ops finally caught him, but when they did, the harm was already done: Sunni Radicalism had spread throughout the Middle East, Africa, and even the Far East.
I sat on the fence about the US invasion of Iraq. I could understand it from a defensive point of view: Sadam used similar bluff as Hitler did, he had invaded Kuwait beforehand, he built nuclear facilities and was working on replacements after the Israelis bombed the first one. He continually launched scuds at Israel and did use poisonous gas on the Kurds. Sadam smartly removed everything concerning weapons of mass destruction to where it came from and used the gullible self-destructing US and world media to accuse the US. Although the US invasion was badly implemented, after the surge things began to shape up in Iraq. At the World Bank, we noticed a slow but steady increase in a willingness to restore a badly retarded administration to modern normalcy. Despite internal religious strife, administrators became more responsive to stable government. Northern Iraq regained calm and even became prosperous again. When the reconstruction effort ended, I had good hopes that it might take off (see my blogs “Iraq: A Hands-on Effort to Rational Thought,” (9/13/2014); “Iraq: From Western Dream to Fragile State”; (8/23/2014), and “Don’t Cry For Me, Iraq.” (8/11/2014).
Credit: Fox News
The change in American policy under Obama destroyed all that with one swipe. Al-Zarkawi, the Sunni anti-Shiite leader from Jordan, had begun a fierce fight against the American occupation. Although US Ops were able to exterminate him, his force remained active underground. If invading Iraq may be considered a mistake, leaving it abruptly meant compounding that mistake. When the US military left Iraq, Sunny radicals quickly regrouped and despite their internal differences, created ISIS. The rest is history.
As a WWII kid, I hate war with a vengeance, but also know there will always be enemies as there will always be bullies in school. We have to be prepared to be strong enough to scare them off and defeat them. If we don’t, they’ll take us to the cleaners. Administrations like the Obama-ones open us up to being overpowered like Nazi Germany and Japan’s then Imperialism did to the Western World.
I am sleeping a bit better after the recent national elections. There is much hope things will change.
Credit: Canada Journal – News of the World
In my opinion, the political left of the US has done enormous damage to the fighting spirit and courage of this country. America may be divided (God knows why. Such a great place to live!) but as a foreign guest in the US, I pray they never come back to power. I don’t complain about placing competent generals to head security and military positions. Their decisiveness will keep me from lying awake at night about the future of my American kids and grandkids. We have to stay vigilant to protect our way of life and that of others that share it. Signs in Europe indicate that things are changing there as well.
And if you don’t like my saying these changes are good changes, that’s too bad. Let the other side of the American divide have a chance to show their resolve to make America better and “Great Again.”
What do I remember of D-Day in Holland? I was 8 in 1944. My nanny came into my playroom and said, “Johnny, we’re going to be freed!” My piano teacher embraced me, hugged me and kissed me on my cheeks. Well, actually we were not there yet. The clandestine radio we listened to had been too optimistic. Strong Nazi resistance in France and Belgium (the “Battle of the Bulge” in the Ardennes, General Montgomery’s (“Monty”) failed assault on Arnhem close to where my grandparents – and Audrey Hepburn and her mother, my Aunt Ella – lived) delayed our liberation by one year, and introduced the worst hunger winter in Holland with heaps of snow and bitter cold during which thousands of people perished.
A mother – like mine – struggling to find food at farms.
Many brave young allied soldiers lost their life trying to break through the Nazi defenses and finally did.
For me D-Day came a year later, May 5, 1945. Hundreds and hundreds of horse-driven wagons with German soldiers, faces drawn, moving back to Germany over the roads. Among them poor-looking kids, forced to follow orders, many to their death, like so many of our brave liberators, the essential difference being that the Nazis came to conquer and torture, and the allies came to free us from them, surely a more purposeful mission.
Allied paratroopers coming to liberate Holland
Then hordes of Nazi sympathizers were rounded up and marched through the streets, their hair shaved off, shame and despair on their faces, imprisoned for many years.
Hundreds of low-flying planes dropping bags of food on empty meadows and tulip fields. Cans with sausages we hardly remembered eating before.
Trucks with American black drivers, whose faces we could not see through their windows, and allied forces moving up with German captives arms in the air.
Five years of horrible war gone by that started with bombs on Schiphol airport in May 1940, the explosions we heard and their clouds we saw rising into the sky from our backyard, years that never seemed to end. Having to walk to school, often on wooden shoes because our parents could not get proper shoes, sometimes through sticky snow that clogged underneath your soles so that you could not walk anymore. Soup kitchens in our school, where we hardly learned anything because of the constant fear for the occupier. Bombs falling left and right, chasing us into the cellar or bomb-shelters, huddling together in the cold. Dog fights in the sky with bombers and fighter planes getting shot to pieces and falling to earth, their men sometimes parachuting down to be shot death by cruel Nazi soldiers, laughing at the fun.
But their fun did not last. When the Nazis were gone, we celebrated in the streets. Eating pancakes at long wooden tables stretching out street-long along the sidewalks in bright sunshine. Everything was colored orange. Queen Wilhelmina, Princess Juliana and Prince Bernard and their children returning from their exile in Canada to Soestdijk. The Red Blue and White Dutch flag flying all over. Music, dancing, happy people.
Just one nasty psychopath, Adolph Hitler, who was able to inflict this unmeasurable misery on all of us and his own people as well. Cowardly dead by suicide.
It’s good to commemorate D-Day. The best speech to do so was by Ronald Reagan in Normandy on June 6, 1984, when referring to those brave men and women he said,” …let us continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.” Seventy years later, the younger generations do well to dig into this history. But history has a way to repeat itself: many wars followed, perhaps not on a worldly scale, but large enough to worry us all. People are still suffering from dictators and psychopaths and the new normal of intolerant Islam. Jews are still being persecuted. Our United Nations Assembly, established with so much hope and pomp in 1944 to prevent all this from reoccurring, has turned into a useless debating club.
Yes, D-Day is a day to remember, and to make good speeches for TV. But when will we stop fighting each other? It’s inherent to human kind. So don’t hold your breath.
PS: All pictures have been drawn from Dutch websites, archives and Wikipedia. Specific accreditation proved impossible.
The ten Short Stories entitled Some Women I Have Known start with a personal story about Audrey Hepburn. She died way too young in 1993, but her life was such an amazing whirlwind of brilliance that she will remain an icon for many into the far distant future. She was 7 in 1936 when I was born, from a Dutch mother, Ella Baroness van Heemstra and a British father, Joseph Ruston. Audrey spoke English, Dutch and French (from their stay in Brussels, where her father worked for a while.)
Audrey 7 years old with her mother from Wikipedia.nl – Family photo.
Why write about it now, as it is twenty years ago that Audrey left us for another world? Because her disappearance keeps coming back to me. A cousin, Anne van der Laan (http://www.genealogieonline.nl/en/stamboom-smits-van-oyen/I1066.php), and I talked about the women we had met in our lives at a family reunion at the Maarten Maarten’s house in Doorn in The Netherlands in 2002, where Maarten Maarten’s Some Women I have Known stood prominently in the Library. Shaking hands, we agreed we would write our own Some Women together.
John and cousin Anne van der Laan – 2007
He asked me which woman I would write about first. I mentioned Audrey at once. Not because I had been part of her living circle, but because I had met her at a very young age as a normal girl who came to visit us, played with me, and then ten years later suddenly stood shining at the firmament, leaving me bedazzled of her beauty and charm. Was that the same girl? My whole life I remained bewildered by her inspiring personality. Anne and I started writing our stories but then Anne passed away shortly after we took the above picture. Project down. I took it back up only a few years ago.
The Audrey story starts how I met her when I was 7, in 1943, during World War II. She and her mother, then divorced, fled to Holland from England in 1939 when the war broke out, thinking Holland would remain neutral as it did during World War I (1914-18). It turned out different, when Nazi Germany invaded Holland in May in 1940, bombing Rotterdam to smithereens. I was just four and a half, but still remember seeing from our backyard the bomb explosions clouding over Schiphol airport. Her mother, two step brothers, Alexander and Ian Quarles van Ufford from an earlier marriage, and Audrey, stayed with her grandfather, Arnoud Baron van Heemstra, in Velp, a residential suburb of Arnhem in the center of Holland. Arnoud was previously mayor of Arnhem (1910-1920) and thereafter Governor of Suriname (1920-1928), then still a Dutch colony (“Dutch Guyana”, in the Caribbean).
Arnoud knew my grandparents van Coehoorn van Sminia through family (linked with the van Limburg Stirums), and of course, through local life. He took Audrey and her mother one day to see them in the small village where they lived, about ten miles from Velp, when I was there on vacation. The Germans must have given them passage or visiting was still allowed during the day, I don’t know. It was 1943 and Audrey must have looked like this, as I remember:
Young Audrey at thirteen – Wikipedia.nl, probably a family photo
The family suffered enormously from the harsh living circumstances enforced on them by the Nazis, but Audrey’s mother Ella saw to it that Audrey could take ballet dancing lessons, Audrey’s dream of becoming a ballerina, at the Arnhem Conservatory. My personal story starts there.
Photo from Wikipedia.nl, in 1944, a family photo.
Would Audrey have become as famous had she pursued her dream to be a ballerina? I am sure she saw the ballet movie The Red Shoes that reached the theaters in 1948 and was widely acclaimed. Perhaps she would have liked to act the ballerina role of Vicky Page and if a bit older she might have done that very well, but would she have reached her pinnacle and touched us the way she did in the much broader medium of the movies? I doubt it.
With the next blog, we will publish the short story.