The Diary of Prisoner 17326: A Boy's Life in a Japanese Labor Camp

The Diary of Prisoner 17326: A Boy's Life in a Japanese Labor Camp

by John K. Stutterheim

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A moving memoir of childhood in Dutch colonial Java, coming of age in wartime, and the trauma of life in WWII Labor Camps run by the Japanese.
As a boy growing up the Dutch island colony of Java, John K. Stutterheim spent hours exploring his exotic surroundings, taking walks with his younger brother and dachshund along winding jungle roads. It was a fairly typical life for a colonial family in the Dutch East Indies, but their colonial idyll ended when the Japanese invaded in 1942, when John was fourteen.
With the surrender of Java, John’s father was taken prisoner. Soon thereafter, John, his younger brother, and his mother were imprisoned. A year later he and his brother were moved to a forced labor camp for boys, where disease, starvation, and the constant threat of imminent death took their toll.
Throughout all of these travails, John kept a secret diary hidden in his mattress. His memories now offer a unique perspective on an often-overlooked episode of World War II. What emerges is a compelling story of a young man caught up in the machinations of a global war—struggling to survive while caring for his gravely ill brother.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823250134
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 09/03/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 284
Sales rank: 81,899
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

JOHN K. STUTTERHEIM, M.D., born in the Dutch East Indies, survived Japanese prison camps as a boy, moved to the Netherlands, and became a family physician in the United States. He is now retired.
MARK PARILLO teaches history at Kansas State University, where he specializes in Japanese and military history.

Read an Excerpt



Near noon on the last day of February 1942, a crowd of people waited on the platform of the railroad station at Gubeng in southern Surabaja, Java, for a train going to Malang, a mountain town to the south. With no wind blowing and the sun standing at its zenith, the heat and humidity were stifling. Off to the north, where the Japanese had bombed the rubber warehouses of the harbor, the crowd could see billows of dense black smoke rising, covering the azure sky.

My mother, my younger brother Anton, and I had been waiting on that platform for hours in the hundred-plus-degree heat. Though the Gubeng station had not been bombed, the chaos in Surabaja had delayed all trains along the line.

I was thirteen years old at the time. We were without my father, who worked as an accountant for the colonial government. Owing to his poor eyesight, he had not been drafted in the Landstorm, or National Guard, at the outset of the war, but he had been ordered to stay in Surabaja to supervise the finances of the provincial department. It had been very emotional for mother to leave her husband behind. He was not able to be there to say good-bye. Dad — my mother called him Johan — was short and very strong for his forty-seven years, and he loved to get his boys involved in sports, especially swimming.

A few days earlier, we had been shocked to learn about the defeat of the combined naval forces of Australia, England, the Netherlands, and the United States, which had been battered in the Java Sea. Some vessels that had not been sunk outright, such as the American cruiser Houston and the Australian warship Perth, tried to escape, but Japanese airplanes torpedoed the Houston in the Strait of Sunda, west of Java, later followed by the Perth and a Dutch destroyer that landed in the middle of the Japanese invasion fleet off the coast of Bantam and were also lost. Survivors of the battle of the Java Sea were being sent to Tjilatjap, the only small harbor on the southern coast that was still open, to be evacuated to Ceylon and Australia before advancing Japanese columns could arrive.

A jumbo engine hauling a long freight train from Tandjung Perak, the naval harbor, steamed slowly toward us. The brakes squealed, and a hiss of steam escaped from its sides as the train ground to a halt. The short boxcars were painted white and covered by red crosses on all sides and on top. The train was packed with wounded and survivors from the Battle of the Java Sea. I will never forget the horror and agony of that train, the sight of stretchers bearing moaning, burned and wounded men with blood-soaked bandages; the sickly sweet smell of old fashioned iodoform, a disinfectant; nurses in dirty khaki uniforms running around, their backs and armpits stained with sweat; the push of the waiting crowd trying to bring water and food to the cars. More soldiers and airmen, some of them American survivors of a B17 squadron from Singosari, entered the platform and boarded the pitiful train wherever there was room.

After a long delay, the whistle shrieked and the engine moved forward, the big wheels straining, slipping, and grabbing at first, spraying sand on the hot steel tracks, shuddering at the immense weight it had to pull. At every rotation of its wheels it pumped out steam on both sides, hauling off this endless row of boxcars, each crammed with human misery.

I took it all in, each car slowly passing by, revealing a different picture of wounded soldiers, sailors, and airmen through the open doors. Several sat in the doorway, legs dangling, their backs resting against the doorpost. Many smoked cigarettes. Some were wrapped in bandages, and some just stared with hollow eyes. I thought that their eyes went straight through me, as if there was no soul alive behind them, just like statues that could breathe. Slowly, the last goods car with its two red taillights rounded the corner, and the steady chugging sound faded away.

Through it all, my mother said nothing. She just held and squeezed the hands of both her boys. She didn't let go, but she never said a word.

The people who were left behind were quiet, many women with tears in their eyes. Nobody waved. Everyone realized the disaster that had struck.

Finally, people started to move about on the platform. The listlessness and disheartened feeling of the crowd became almost palpable. Anton squirmed free of our mother's hand and spoke up. "Mother, when will our train come?" She had no answer. With no certainty that a train for Malang in the mountains, where our home was located, would come at all, we simply had to wait.

Mother's dress stuck to her shoulder blades. She was covered in sweat. Observing her face, I started to realize how tormented she was, torn between fear for her husband, pain at the sight of those injured men, and hope that our quiet neighborhood in Malang would remain safe.

Finally, late in the afternoon, we boarded a passenger train along with many others who were escaping the chaos of Surabaja. The ride to Malang, a garrison town in the hills, took much longer than the usual hour, but there was little conversation aboard these packed cars, no chatter of greeting and farewell when the engine pulled into the station at dusk.

The next morning, the sky war came suddenly to Malang. I had gone outside into the front yard, and at that very moment a Japanese Zero fighter plane abruptly appeared over the rooftops, so low that I could see the pilot's head. A burst of machine gun bullets hit across the street. Two native boys tried to run for safety, but they did not make it. I looked at their motionless bodies. It was the first time that I had seen dead people. I picked up one of the five- inch spent casings, only to drop it, still too hot to handle.

The Zero did not return. Mother ran out of the house and shoved my brother and I into our sandbagged shelter on the back porch. At that moment the "all-clear" sirens sounded, and we protested being made to stay there. Mother could not be reasoned with at first, but after she calmed down she relented.

A few days later, Mother called us to the living room, where she sat down and emotionally grabbed our hands. With tears in her eyes, she said with great emotion, "Dad and I so far have succeeded in giving you two a happy and peaceful life, but the situation has turned serious, and we face an unknown future. We have to help each other. I recently saw the movie Gone with the Wind, with Scarlett O'Hara, and I fear that we have landed in a similar predicament."

At these words, Anton, who was eleven, realized that a change was ahead. His frightened face reflected that awareness, but he was not able to comprehend the total picture. It dawned on me that from here on our lives without major worries were no more, and we were indeed bound for a dark, uncertain, threatening era.



Both my parents were born and raised in Amsterdam. Grandpa Stutterheim was a diamond cutter, but lost his job at the end of World War I, when the diamond industry moved to Antwerp, Belgium. As a result, my Dad had to drop out of high school and started to work in a bank. He obtained his accounting training and started to master several languages. Mother was eighteen when she married Dad, who was ten years older. In 1928, they decided to move to what was then called the Dutch East Indies, where two of Dad's sisters and a brother were living.

His older sister, Aunt Greta, was married to a physician in the colonial army, and they were sent to various outposts. One of them was Poso on Celebes, small and primitive. One night my aunt visited the outhouse during the night. When seated, she felt something cold around her ankles. Her flashlight revealed a large python wrapping itself around the seat and her legs. Quickly, she pulled her legs up and jumped off the pot and started to scream. We still enjoy this story.

I was born on June 14, 1928, in Surabaja, the harbor where the U.S. Navy used to come to bunker for coal. Surabaja used to have many sharks and crocodiles, and it earned its name that way, for in Indonesian suara means shark and buaja means crocodile.

Dad was an inspector of finance, and his work consisted of auditing county city buildings of various provinces in Eastern Java, visiting each for two weeks. For a few years, from 1930 through 1934, he was stationed in Semarang, central Java, where my brother Anton was born. Semarang was a very hot and mosquito- infested town. East of it were swamps where the mosquitoes thrived. Our home sat against the foothills of Tjandi, the backyard extending into a Chinese cemetery with markers and buildings scattered over the hillside. When the evening descended, the servants did not dare go close to the graveyard. They told me, "There are mommohs, ghosts, roaming on that slope."

Securing a second job, Dad assisted a friend, Mr. van der Knoop, in keeping the books for his import and export business, working evenings and Saturdays. Mother told us that people criticized Dad for having two jobs during the depression, but Dad's belief was that if a person tried hard he could make a living.

Mr. van der Knoop, a stocky man in his thirties, did not have a little finger. Such things intrigue little boys, so I asked him why. He told me that his motorcycle handlebar had hit the brick wall of the gate to his warehouse, shearing off his little finger. Once, even though I was only five, I got to ride on the duo seat of his Harley- Davidson to tour hot downtown Semarang one Saturday afternoon while Dad was working. We drove over Bodjong, the main road, and he pointed out the warongs, which were nothing more than semipermanent shaded bamboo stands, where native women were selling food on the roadside. Mother had drilled into me, "Do not eat from the roadside!" Mr. van der Knoop stopped at one of the stands and asked me, "What do you want to eat?" When he saw my puzzled face, he roared with laughter, for he knew Mother's instructions.

This bachelor's office and warehouse were inside an old fort. That really could tickle the imagination of a five-year-old. Dad brought me up there only on Saturdays and forbade me to go outside the gate, where the traffic was bustling in the heat and dust.

As always, I loved to roam and moved under the cooler platforms behind the parapets, which had been part of the outer defenses. Every time I was there, I spotted new merchandise. Grapes and apples came from Australia. The grapes, packed in shredded cork and crated, were found in a large cooled area. Inside the open area of the fort was an old truck used for hauling merchandise from the harbor. Two Javanese men worked for our friend, usually loading and unloading and checking orders. I learned quite fast that being friends with them rewarded me with bruised fruit — grapes, apples, and pears. I wanted desperately to go with them on the truck rides but Dad said no.

Except me, my entire family over the years had suffered from malaria, especially Dad, who once had blackwater fever, so called because blood showed in the urine. For days he was extremely ill, and Mother hovered over him. Thank God for quinine. This was the reason that my parents decided to go live in Ungaran, about a dozen miles south of Semarang in the foothills of Mount Ungaran, where the nights were cooler. We found an old home with high ceilings and generous windows, shaded in front by high trees to keep it cool and surrounded by several acres of land fronting the highway. On the side were djeroek trees, with orangelike fruit, and djeroek Bali, with fruit the size of a soccer ball and meat like white grapefruit. Mother used to make marmalade with the peels.

When we moved into this home, Mother became annoyed by the sight of thick black rope strung from tree to tree. Nangkrangs, big red ants, used the ropes as highways to travel between their large football-size nests, made by them by pulling the leaves together. Mother ordered the ropes removed, whereupon the ants started to track in long lines over trails through the grass. I soon quit running under the trees, for when disturbed these ants started to swarm, and their bite was mean and they clung to their victim. Recognizing the red ants' habits, Mother allowed the black ropes to be strung up once again. The old system restored, and I could play under the trees once more.

The backyard sloped steeply down to a small river. The sewage ran through a concrete ditch, which was planked over, and ran into an extensive, dense, dark-green canopy of banana tree leaves fed by the liquid. Mother always took one bunch of bananas from the trunk, and the rest were given to the servants, who usually sold them.

As always, I was curious. I roamed the backyard. I lifted the planks covering the sewer ditch and found snakes and scorpions, but only chased them away. Once, a large snake raised itself about two feet and looked me straight in the face. This hypnotized me, and we found ourselves in a standoff until Mother came to the rescue. The native gardener, after killing it, told us that this was a small python. Mother told us boys that snakes hypnotize birds in this way.

Dad loved to walk on Sundays, when the family strolled down to the small village, where at best ten European families lived. It was a quiet place. Once, Mother told us years later, I approached a sleeping native policeman, who was supposedly guarding a warehouse, lying in the shade with his hat pulled over his face. I lifted his large hat and studied his face a while, then dropped the hat back in place and walked away. The officer never woke up.

As so many Europeans, we did not own a car. Dad traveled by bus to Semarang, which was not always convenient for him. One morning he was late, and Mother hurried him along. He jumped into his shoes, only to swear loudly, for our puppy had left a messy surprise. After he cleaned that up, he raced along the fifty-yard driveway to the gate to catch the bus, standing under several coconut trees. That morning he must have scared a blekok, a relative of the blue heron, out of the tree. This bird has a nasty habit of emitting a white dropping at takeoff. Right on target: "Splat," on his left shoulder. He returned to change his white coat, saying more nasty words as he threw it in the corner. After changing he ran back out the door, only to see the bus passing by. Seldom had I seen him so angry, for he was usually mild-tempered. When he arrived at the gate again, I noticed how he looked up into the trees. I noticed how the servants snickered. Mother could see the humor in the situation better than he and had a good chuckle, but only after he had gone.

I went to school for the first time in Ungaran. Located at the aloonaloon, the center of the village, were a few buildings: the school, consisting of two classrooms, its walls made of bilik, or woven split bamboo, its roof of clay tile; the white mesigit, or mosque, with its tall sleek minaret; and the post office. An old benteng, or fort, guarded the entrance to the aloonaloon, traditionally a large grassy field at whose center is a huge waringin, or banyan tree, with air- roots descending from the branches and forming a massive trunk over the decades. These trees are considered holy, and folklore has it that old witches live in them and prey on little kids at nightfall.

It didn't take long for Mother to realize how much more I loved to explore than sitting in school. The first and second grades were taught by a female teacher in Dutch, in one of the two large classrooms. The pupils were Dutch, Eurasian, and Chinese. As interesting as my new classmates were, the sights and activities outside were more distracting than ever. The bilik walls allowed light and air to pass through in abundance. A huge wooden drum outside the mesigit, horizontally suspended from a tree branch, called believers to attend prayer services. It was fascinating to watch the Javanese men, dressed in sarongs and their chests covered by a kemedja, black kopiahs covering their short hair, take off their slippers and wash their feet in a shallow basin. Then, barefoot, they would walk on clean flat steppingstones into the mosque, leaving the slippers behind, neatly arranged in rows. I could hear their loud prayers: "Allah il Allah, Allah akbar."

The school door and windows were always wide open. I watched people come and go, such as our neighbor from South Africa, whom we respectfully called Aunt Susie, as she went to and from the post office. I kept track of how many buses stopped at the aloon-aloon. I did anything but pay attention to what was going on inside the classroom.

My teacher became irritated by my inattention and sent me on numerous occasions behind the blackboard, which sat on an old- fashioned easel. Once, after studying the outdoors by looking through the holes in the wall, I turned to fidget with the large hooks holding the easel in place. They were thus loose when the teacher turned and started to write on the blackboard, which caused the entire assembly to crash through the bamboo wall. What a scene that caused. Frantically, I tried to clean what I could. Even so, I took a stern letter home from school that day.


Excerpted from "The Diary of Prisoner 17326"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Fordham University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Fordham University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Mark Parillo,
Chapter 1. A Teenaged Prisoner of Japan, No. 17326,
Chapter 2. Discovering Java,
Chapter 3. Malang,
Chapter 4. Merbaboe Park,
Chapter 5. War,
Chapter 6. Uncertain Times in Malang,
Chapter 7. Kesilir,
Chapter 8. The Final Days of De Wijk,
Chapter 9. The Transport,
Chapter 10. Lampersari,
Chapter 11. The Benteng,
Chapter 12. Camp Bangkong,
Chapter 13. Horseplay,
Chapter 14. The Diary,
Chapter 15. The Disease of Despair,
Chapter 16. Bleak Prospects,
Chapter 17. Death and Unexpected Freedom,
Chapter 18. Hidden Dangers,
Chapter 19. The British,
Chapter 20. Escape from Hell,
Chapter 21. A Family Again,
Chapter 22. Time to Fly,
Chapter 23. Surabaja Restored,
Chapter 24. To Holland on Oranje,

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