Originally Published: September 1, 2010 10:12 p.m.
Not until Ronny Herman de Jong looked down at the seal signifying Japan's surrender in World War II did the magnitude of her early childhood experience dawn on her.
She was standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, anchored in Bremerton, Wash., among the guests observing the 50th anniversary of V-J Day, the historic event that officially ended the war. The seal reads: "Over this spot on 2 September 1945 the Instrument of Formal Surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers was signed thus bringing to a close the Second World War."
"Surrounded by other survivors, emotion overwhelmed me," she said of the 50th commemoration. "This was the place where our lives had been given back to us 50 years before. I cradled a total stranger in my arms who was weeping uncontrollably because of the sudden memory of his mother being killed before his very eyes. I comforted him, saying, 'The war is over. We are alive.'"
This is the day de Jong, now nearly 72, prefers to remember rather than the years she, her mother and sister spent in a Japanese concentration camp during the war when that country occupied Surabaia on the island of Java, now a part of Indonesia. Her mother, Jeannette Herman-Louwerse , 100, who lives today in the Netherlands, carefully chronicled their ordeal in a journal that de Jong translated from Dutch to English years later and compiled into a book, "In the Shadow of the Sun."
Her family's saga begins with the Japanese invasion of Surabaia, where her father, Fokko, a Dutch Naval Air Force pilot, was stationed. He and his squadron had already been ordered to leave and escaped to Sri Lanka. It would be four years before they heard from him again.
With Japan's occupation of Surabaia, de Jong, then 3, her mother and little sister, Paula, were put behind a bamboo fence with barbed wire where they would remain until the war was over.
Of her captors, she says, "They wanted to kill us all - the whole western race. If they were in control, they would have the monopoly for oil and spices."
De Jong remembers being fed one scoop of rice, one scoop of water and one scoop of soup a day, along with a ladle of starch. "It was tasteless and not enough to keep you well," she said. Cholera, malaria and typhoid were rampant. She, her mother and sister developed edema.
The women prisoners worked hard labor in the fields if they able. Punishment was harsh if they didn't obey commands of the Japanese.
Jeannette wrote each day in her diary as if she were writing letters to her parents. She kept her memoir hidden in a dark spot in the small room where they lived, hoping the Japanese would never find it.
When the war ended, it was a week before people in the camp knew, de Jong said.
"A plane came over and threw pamphlets down, and then the camp director assembled us and told us the war was over. We all sang the Dutch National Anthem.
"That for my mom was the most moving moment of the war. She told us, 'Your papa will come home soon.' She'd been saying that for four years. And now it was really going to happen."
By November 1945, the family was back together in Surabaia.
"It was a miracle that our family got reunited and lived happily ever after," de Jong said, and that reunion helped overcome the fact that the Japanese had stripped their home of everything, she said. "We had nothing."
Life went on. De Jong left Surabaia for the Netherlands when she was 17 to continue her education, majoring in English at Leyden University. She met the love of her life, Mike de Jong, in The Hague, and they married in 1961, raised three children and settled in Prescott nine years ago.
De Jong's feelings about her family's internment are tinged with bitterness. "The Japanese have never acknowledged" their concentration camps "and have never allowed it in their history books," she said.
It was her mother's strength and devotion to her daughters that got them through the years in that camp, she said, because "Mom was always there.
"I was 3 when the war broke out and 6 when it was over. Time has softened a lot of the pain and bad memories. Mom got it out of her system through her letters."
"In the Shadow of the Sun" is available at the Yavapai College and Prescott College libraries or through the network at Prescott Public Library. To find out more about de Jong, visit her website at www.ronnyhermandejong.com.
More like this story
- Survivor tells Prescott students about internment camp life during WWII
- Author introduces book on World War II in the Pacific
- Tales of concentration camp a lesson in history, heroes and hope
- Column: Sun rises on books by Ronny Herman de Jong
- Author and prison camp survivor to lead service at First Congregational Church