Jacobus Vermulen By: Sophie Taylor

My great grandfather, Jacobus Vermulen, was a soldier who fought for the Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL) in Southeast Asia during the second world war. Like countless other young men, he enlisted for the army thinking that the war would be the adventure of a lifetime, however he soon discovered that the reality was far from his expectations.

Jacobus Vermulen came into the world on 29 December 1920 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. The youngest of eight children, with a single mother during the depression era, resulted in him dropping out of school at the age of 15 to become an apprentice butcher to help provide for his family. With the economy tight and jobs disappearing, he decided to join the KNIL and enlisted on 17 January 1939 at the age of 19.

During the second half of 1939, Vermulen was sent to Java and employed as a motor transport driver for Captains and Officials of the KNIL. For three years, he worked in Java before being captured in Bandung on 8 May 1942 during the Battle of Java. For eight months, he was held in a prisoner of war camp in Java before being transported to Changi Prison on board the Wien as part of Java Party 8, arriving on 17 January 1943.

Only a week after arriving in Changi, he was given the opportunity to be transferred to Thailand to work on the Thai Burma Railway. His past experience as a butcher made him useful to the Japanese as he could be used to kill and prepare animals for the Japanese to eat. On 23 January he was transported by train to Thailand with hundreds of other prisoners.

Top Right: record of his induction into Java Party 8. Bottom Right: record of his arrival in Thailand. Left: POW work card from his time on the Thai Burma Railway.

For the remainder of 1943, Vermulen worked as a prisoner of war on the Thai Burma Railway. The conditions for the prisoners were notoriously horrific; the construction camps where they were stationed consisted of open-sided barracks built of bamboo poles with thatched roofs. The barracks were approximately sixty metres long with sleeping platforms raised above the ground on each side of an earthen floor. Two hundred men were kept in each barrack, which meant that each prisoner had less than a metre-wide space to sleep and live. Disease plagued the camps due to a severe shortage of food and hygiene was non-existent. The soldiers were forced to work day after day whether they were able to or not; the Japanese guards forced them to work until they dropped dead from exhaustion.

Out of the estimated 61 000 allied prisoners who worked on the railway, 12 000 of them lost their lives while the remainder were left malnourished, injured and permanently traumatised

Following the completion of the railway, Vermulen was sent to prisoner of war camps at Hintok, Kinsai Yok and Tha Kha until the wars end in September 1945. The situation at the prisoner of war camps was no better than that on the Burma railway. He remained in Thailand after the war and acted as a private driver for senior British military officers in Ubon Ratchathani until August of 1946, when he was sent back to Java to continue his duties with the KNIL.

By this stage, it had been seven years since Vermulen had first left the Netherlands for Java and he longed to go back and return to the house he grew up in. In December 1947 he was finally given that opportunity and was sent back to the Netherlands on rest and recuperation. Once he arrived in the Netherlands, he attempted to return to his home town of Rotterdam, only to be told that the entire area had been destroyed by bombing, and was now nothing but rubble-filled war fields. Traumatised by the loss of the town he had been dreaming of returning to, he requested to be sent back to Java to resume his duties with the KNIL, as that was the only thing he had left.

While waiting for his reinstatement and return to Java, Vermulen met his future wife, Aledia Van Butselaar, and they were married only three months later. He finally returned to Java with his new wife in May 1948, where he resumed his KNIL duties for a few months before the Dutch left the East Indies following the declaration of independence and formation of the Nation of Indonesia. Following this, Vermulen was given the choice to return to the Netherlands or to emigrate to either Canada or Australia. Australia was the obvious choice for Vermulen who greatly valued the mateship of the Australian soldiers with whom he had worked and lived with on the Burma Railway. Later, he shared with his family that the mateship and camaraderie of the Aussies was one of the key elements that helped him get through the war. In 1950, he emigrated to Tuart Hill in Western Australia where he began the process of settling down with his wife and growing their family.

Studying my great grandfather through this investigation has allowed me to discover more about his life and his story, as well as giving me a greater understanding of the experiences common among prisoners of war. Unfortunately, I never got to meet my great grandfather. Before I started this investigation, my family were only able to offer a hint of his life during the war and the bigger picture that he was a part of. A line into the past which connected us with him seemed much more real once I began to explore his story further.

As a young Australian living in the twenty-first century, I have seen in history classes how many people my age come to see the death of soldiers during conflict as a kind of noble sacrifice. While many adults also view the final tallies of those killed and injured as a sacrifice made to protect their nation and future generations, I believe that a great deal more is at stake. The sad reality I have come to accept is that those soldiers who return home from war - seemingly safe and whole - can never resume their lives as formerly lived. For them, like my great grandfather, life itself is disrupted and can never go back to how it was before. For this reason, I feel that a great debt of gratitude is owed to them.


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