Twist of Fate

A ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion helps bring clo­sure for a Dutch POW’S fam­ily

Our Canada - - Features - by John Broerse,

Who knew that a ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion would help bring much-needed clo­sure to the fam­ily of a Dutch POW?

In September 2002, I had a ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion with a fel­low em­ployee, Kerry Irv­ing, re­gard­ing his up­com­ing va­ca­tion. He told me that he had al­ways been in­ter­ested in the his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy of the wars in South­east Asia, es­pe­cially the Sec­ond World War, and that he was plan­ning on trav­el­ling to the area. I told him that one of my un­cles had died there as a Dutch prisoner of war; Kerry said he had never met any­one with con­nec­tions to a Sec­ond World War POW in the South­east Asian con­flict.

I then told Kerry that I only knew this un­cle from the many sto­ries and mem­o­ries my fa­ther had shared with us about his younger brother, and from the framed pic­ture, hung in the hall­way of my par­ents’ home, of Pi­eter wear­ing his uni­form. Very few de­tails were known about his demise, other than that he had suc­cumbed to the hor­rific con­di­tions while he was a forced labourer on the no­to­ri­ous Burma Rail­way. After the war, Pi­eter’s par­ents and sib­lings had to re­turn to their fam­i­lies and daily lives. They tried sev­eral times to get more in­for­ma­tion about his death through the Red Cross, with min­i­mal re­sults.

Now, many years later, Kerry sug­gested that with the In­ter­net be­ing avail­able, more de­tails could pos­si­bly be found. To my amaze­ment, Kerry came to me two weeks later with per­ti­nent in­for­ma­tion re­gard­ing Pi­eter from the Nether­lands War Graves Foun­da­tion.

In Hol­land, all able- bod­ied young men age 18 had to serve in the army. At that time, they could vol­un­teer for ser­vice in the Dutch East Indies ( now known as In­done­sia). Pi­eter vol­un­teered and had to re­port for duty in April 1940. My new­ly­wed par­ents saw him off to his train and were the last of his fam­ily to see him alive.

The war had bro­ken out in Europe and was now also in the Pa­cific. After years of ad­vances in China, in their quest for ter­ri­tory and raw ma­te­ri­als, the Ja­panese had joined the Axis and were at war with the Al­lies. They quickly over­ran most of the Pa­cific and South­east Asia, in­clud­ing the Dutch East Indies. The fight­ing re­sulted in heavy ca­su­al­ties and nu­mer­ous POWS, mainly Bri­tish, Aus­tralian, Dutch, and— after the Pearl Har­bor at­tack— many Amer­i­cans.

At some point, my fam­ily found out that Pi­eter was one of the POWS forced to build the no­to­ri­ous Burma Rail­way. The Ja­panese had made the strate­gic de­ci­sion to build this rail­road in or­der to sup­ply their troops to the west and north more safely and ef­fi­ciently. The plan was to con­struct more than 400 kilo­me­tres of tracks from Thai­land, across the River Kwai into Burma ( now Myan­mar) and con­nect up to the ex­ist­ing rail­way in north­ern Burma.

Many thou­sands of POWS, as well as lo­cal vil­lagers, were forced to do the labour. The con­di­tions were de­plorable, the work was bru­tal, the ter­rain was moun­tain­ous or dense jun­gle, and food was min­i­mal and of­ten

spoiled. Med­i­cal care and sup­plies were al­most nonex­is­tent. All of this re­sulted in the deaths of ap­prox­i­mately 13,000 POWS and as many as 90,000 civil­ian labour­ers.

It has been es­ti­mated that dur­ing con­struc­tion and con­tin­ual main­te­nance of the track un­til the end of the war in Au­gust 1945, an av­er­age of 75 work­ers died each day from ex­haus­tion, mal­nu­tri­tion and sick­ness. The dead were ini­tially buried along the rail­road. It is said that ev­ery rail­road tie along the more than 400-kilo­me­tre track rep­re­sents one death.

After the war, most of the dead POWS were lo­cated and re-in­terred at “Hon­our Fields” in Chungkai and Kan­chanaburi war ceme­ter­ies in Thai­land, and Than­byuza­yat in Burma.

When Kerry re­turned from his va­ca­tion, he came to see me with photos and spoke of his visit to the gravesite. His wish had been to lay flow­ers on the grave and had asked a young lady at a booth where to pur­chase some. It be­ing Sun­day, how­ever, all of the shops were closed. She asked if the flow­ers were meant for a sol­dier; hear­ing his re­sponse, she pointed to the roses on her own desk and said, “Take those.”

He also gave me a video of his day trip on the train that takes tourists on ex­cur­sions along this in­fa­mous rail­road.

Fi­nally, after al­most 60 years, the Broerse fam­ily has clo­sure, now know­ing that Pi­eter Broerse died with courage at the young age of al­most 23 as a prisoner of war, and is now rest­ing in the Hon­our Field in Chungkai. n

Clock­wise from top left: Pi­eter and his six broth­ers; Pi­eter in uni­form; Pi­eter’s grave­stone in Chungkai.

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