Chapter 11. In a Village Hospital on Nias Island – Are you an Englishman?

A couple of hours later he returned with three policemen who arranged for the men around to improvise three stretchers with strips of bamboo and leaves. Feast, Hodges and I were then put on these stretchers which were carried on the shoulders of those very kind people. It was about midnight and pitch dark when we set off. There was no electricity on the Island, not even flash lights.

Lighted burnt leaves were used to provide light. My stretcher was the last followed, on foot, by Captain Bird and others. The journey through the jungle was not at all comfortable, I kept going off to sleep and waking up. I have no idea the distance they covered carrying the three of us in stretchers. It was morning when we found ourselves in the compound of a school, I think, lying on the ground on the stretcher surrounded by a crowd of Islanders. The three of us were covered by mosquitoes due to the smell of blood on us.

Tea, without milk and sugar, was brought for us, and, at lunch time we were given water to drink and some very welcome rice and chicken. I must have gone off to sleep, to be awakened by the sweet voice of a lady. It belonged to Miss. Hank Visker, the doctor in charge of a hospital in the village of Hillisimithano, 23 miles away.  How delighted we were to hear someone speak English. She injected us with morphia, and the last thing I remembered before the morphia took effect was being carried along a narrow path through the jungle.

When I awoke, I was in a bus in which the three stretchers had been loaded. The road was rough and uneven causing the bus to jolt us badly. The wound near my spine was intensely painful and, being awake, I felt the pain all the more. One thing which cannot be explained, I remember most vividly. At one point in the journey I felt I had seen and been to the place we were passing. How was that possible since I was lying on the stretcher? Somehow, I have a vague recollection of what I appeared to have seen

It was, indeed, a great relief when we reached the hospital and we found ourselves on comfortable beds. Feast and Hodges were put in the only room in the hospital which had two beds. I was on a bed in the ward immediately outside their room, and a screen was installed to partition my bed from the rest of the patients in the ward. How heavenly it felt to be lying on a thick mattress with clean bedsheets.

I do not think we could have had better medical attention of such a high standard, considering we were in a small mission hospital in the village of Hillisimithano, in the interior of Nias Island. On receiving news Dr. Van der Plast, a Dutch doctor in charge of the hospital in Goonoongsitoli, the capital of Nias Island, arrived at the hospital as soon as he could, and, assisted by Sister Hank Visker, proceeded to examine. They attended to our wounds and performed intricate surgery to remove shrapnels from our bodies. In my case, they had to deal with dressing the burns and attend to wounds on my right arm, near the elbow, my right foot and my back. It was indeed a miracle, by God’s grace and mercy, that a piece of shrapnel which had gone in to my back, skirted around my spinal cord and had come out without causing any damage to my spine. Thereafter, every day, the Sister, assisted by the nurses used to dress my wounds and burns.

The same night, or the next, I am not sure, some of the officers from two of the other boats arrived at the hospital, and I was so glad to see my friend, Reddy, among them. I shall never cease to feel grateful to him for the kindness, affection and care he showed for my comfort and welfare. The whole of that night he sat on a chair next to my bed, helping to turn me from one side to the other whenever I woke up in pain He did not move from that position except to answer the call of nature or have food. Reddy wanted to stay on in the hospital to be by my side, but, he was not permitted to stay on as he had to accompany the other officers to Goonoongsitoli, the capital of Nias Island.

Saying farewell, Reddy told me that if he returned home to India before me, he would convey news about me to my parents in Calcutta. It is a long story of how he found his way back to India. On arrival in Madras he reported to the authorities concerned and was imprisoned on the suspicion that he had been sent to India by the Japanese.. However, Reddy did not foret the promise he made to me. As soon as his sister came to visit him in a Madras jail, he told her to write to my parents and let them know of my welfare. After the war I met him in Bombay and then we lost touch for many years.

Then, we met accidentally in Dubai in the eighties and resumed correspondence.. In a letter dated 9th February 1993, from Bangalore, he wrote: “Our relationship over the years has been full of coincidences. That all the lifeboats from the Chilka should reach the same Island was a coincidence; and our meeting in the village hospital was another coincidence. For more than three years we lost touch How did we come to have lunch at the same Hotel – the Intercontinental in Dubai – and we were seated so close that we could not but recognize one another. The greatest coincidence is that my grand niece Amala – yes she is grand – should marry one of your nephews, Riaz, son of Sarwar Khan. She is the daughter of my nephew, a well known scientist.”

We exchanged a couple of letters, and in January 1995 learnt with deep regret that Reddy had passed away on 24th December 1994. Mrs. Reddy was most kind and gracious to telephone me from Bangalore to acknowledge my message of condolence. May the soul of the late C.G.K. Reddy rest in eternal heavenly peace.

To return to Nias Island, Sister Hank Visker worked untiringly for our welfare, doing everything she could to ensure that we got the best treatment. The nurses and male helpers also took great care of us. It was a great pity that none of them could speak a word of English. A Dutch couple, Dr. and Mrs. Swan, who lived close to the hospital, visited us regularly. They were missionaries and the Doctor knew enough English to communicate with us.

Almost a week after our arrival on the Island, Captain Bird started making plans to leave the Island before the arrival of the Japanese forces. He took one of the life boats which was in good condition, filled it up with provisions and set sail with five other officers who volunteered to go with him. I have no idea why Chief Officer Andrew did not go with him. As a matter of fact I did not know that, and the thought never crossed my mind until very recently – a couple of years ago – that completely from out of the blue I received an e-mail from one Oliver Andrew, nephew of the Chief Officer. It is an interesting story of how he located me, which I shared with the extended members of our family in the October 2009 issue of “The Dhaka Nawab Family Newsletter” which I have been editing for the past twenty years. Under the caption: “The most amazing e-mail from a complete stranger linking me to my past as a Teenager in 1942”, I wrote:

“It is quite normal for me, as a routine, to delete e-mails automatically, from unknown persons, as well as various “Forward” messages, therefore, I very nearly deleted a message from “andrewhuguette [at] hotmail [dot] com” as I was not familiar with this name. Fortunately for me, I hesitated for a second or so and clicked on it to find that it began addressing me: “Dear Mr. Shahabuddin” .I read on to find that it was from one Mr. Oliver Andrew whose uncle, Mr. Arthur Andrew, was the Chief Officer of S.S. CHILKA under whom I was serving as a Cadet when the ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine in March 1942. I felt it might be of some interest to the readers of the Newsletter to reproduce the first three e-mails exchanged between us as follows:
From Mr. Oliver Andrew

Dear Mr Shahabuddin,

I hope you receive this in good health. I have been reading Valiant Voyages, about the adventures of the British India steam ships during the war, and came across the account of the sinking of the Chilka; congratulations, if rather belated!, on your decorations. My uncle, Arthur Andrew, was Chief Officer on the Chilka at the time, and was left by Captain Bird in charge of the crew who had landed in the Mentawi islands. He survived three years in Japanese camps, and returned to the UK in 1945, finishing his career as Captain with the BI. But he could never bring himself to tell his family about his time in captivity, Several times he started to write, but after a few lines broke off. All we know is that the ship taking him and other survivors (you, perhaps?) to the mainland was torpedoed by a British submarine. Do you remember him at all? I would be most grateful if you could jot down any memories.
With my best regards Oliver Andrew

My reply:

Dear Mr. Andrew,

Thank you very much. It was such a pleasant surprise to receive your e-mail – less than an hour ago – and I am replying almost immediately, as you have brought back nostalgic memory of an event almost 67 years ago.

However, I am most intrigued about how you located me and got my address? For your record, I have another address which I use more frequently: sayeed425@gmail.com

Yes, I remember Mr. Andrew very well. As a cadet, when I joined the Chilka in January 1942, I was directly responsible to him for all my duties. (As a matter of fact, I informed him later, that in my excitement I forgot that Mr. Green was the Chief Officer when I joined and Mr. Andrew took over from him sometime in February, just before the ill-fated voyage.)

On 11th March 1942 our ship was attacked by a Japanese submarine by shelling and sinking the ship. We spent six days in a lifeboat – Capt. Bird and Mr. Andrew were in the same boat. We landed on Nias Island, off the west coast of Sumatra. Three of us wounded were taken to a hospital by a Dutch sister. The rest of the crew were taken to the capital of the Island Goonoogsitoli. Capt. Bird and a few officers left by a life boat and was picked up by a Greek ship 32 days later. I had no idea that Mr. Andrew did not go with Captain Bird, and this is the first news I have about him from you. This will be brief to respond to your kind message. Do please let me know where you are and about yourself.”.

With warm regards and best wishes,
Sayeed Shahabuddin

Mr. Oliver Andrew replies:

Dear Mr Shahabuddin,

It was a great pleasure to get your email, and to know that the s.s. Chilka is still remembered. I have three grandchildren, and have been trying to put our family history in some sort of shape for them.

How did I locate you? It’s a long story: the British India Steam Navigation Co has a very fine site on the internet. When I found it, two years ago, I put a request on the “Log book” for anyone who remembered my uncle. There was no answer, but looking at other people’s notices, I saw that there was a book: “Valiant Voyages” by Hilary St.George Saunders, recounting the BIS adventures during World War II.

When I was able to read it, I found of course an account of the sinking of the Chilka, together with the fact that my uncle had been taken prisoner, though I already knew that, and an account of Captain Bird’s voyage across the Bay of Bengal to Madras (Chennai). It also contained your citation for bravery for the medals. Next I ‘googled’ Chilka, and quickly found a photo of the ship. But I also found a review of your book, with two references in Dhaka to obtain it. Then I looked up “Shahabuddin” and found a ‘blog’ that was clearly yours, and told me you were still alive. Much astonished by all this, I found the addresses of St. Scholastica’s School and Printview in Dhaka, and wrote letters.

Your cousin Mr Azra Azad, replied promptly and gave me your email address. Yes, I would indeed be grateful for a copy of your book – you certainly did well to survive! My address is: 52 Valley Drive, Brighton, BN1 5FA, United Kingdom. Have you seen the book “Valiant Voyages”? I can send copies of the pages about the CHILKA if you like.

I can recommend the BIS site – full of helpful things, and you may find other people you knew… My uncle did marry, but too late to have children, and the present Andrew family are all descended from his brother Herbert (Sir Herbert Andrew KCMG, as he later became). My branch all live in Brighton, within walking distance, unlike your far-flung family. But we are nevertheless multinational – my wife Huguette, and daughter-in-law Nadege are both French, and our son-in-law Hilton is from Tobago. So the grandchildren Samuel, Alyssa and Tansy have two or even three nationalities each. All join in sending their respects and best wishes to you and your family. Oliver Andrew

Meanwhile, before leaving Nias Island, Captain Bird came up to the hospitsl to see us and bid goodbye. He regretted that I was in no condition to move or else he would have taken me along with him. His attempt to cross the Indian ocean in a life boat was successful. After 32 days at sea, they were picked up by a Greek freighter and taken to Cochin.Captain Bird was later awarded the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.).

As I learned later, one of the first things Captain Bird did on his arrival in Calcutta was to visit my father, and was disappointed to find that he was not at home. He left a message: that he could be contacted at the British India Officers Club. It is impossible to imagine the suspense and excitement that gripped my father and Uncle Nooruddin when they went over to the Club as soon as they could to find that Captain Bird was out. They waited for him to return and I can imagine both of then smoking one cigarette after another, and the sense of relief meeting him when he returned to the Club.

After introducing themselves and exchanging preliminaries, Captain Bird gave them a detailed account of his experience and quite unconsciously talking about me in the past tense. As my father told me later, the suspense became unbearable and father plucked up courage and with great difficulty asked: “In what state did you leave him?” To his great relief Captain Bird said that I had been progressing well in a hospital on Nias Island, 75 miles west of Sumatra. That was the last news my family had about me until the end of the war more than three years later.

It was in 1961 that I met Captain Bird in London, for the first time since we parted on the Nias Island. Ayesha also had the pleasure of meeting him when he very kindly came over to our apartment, along with his sister, and had lunch with us. Ever since then and until he passed away some years ago we exchanged greetings for Chriatmas and the New Year. After his death his sister kept up regular correspondence with me until she too passed away. May their souls rest in eternal heavenly peace.

Once again, returning to the hospital in Hillisimitano, as soon as I was up on my feet – my wounds started healing – I used to spend some time chatting with Feast and Hodges in their room and had the luxury of lying on an easy chair in the little garden attached to the hospital. On a table on my left there were a couple of books and magazines, and a pretty and pleasant looking nurse would come and place a glass of lime juice and fruits on the table on my right. I would say “Terima Kasih”, the only Indonesian word I then knew which meant “Thank you.” How I wished I could have a chat with this fine young lady. However, that was not to be..

Sister Hank Visker had a good idea of what was in store for us with Japanese forces having already occupied Sumatra. Every evening she would take me for a long walk to strengthen my limbs, and talk to me about the possibilities ahead of us. She would tell me that I should be mentally prepared to face whatever the future may hold for me. She warned me that there was a hard time ahead and that I should not start looking forward to happy days in the near future. It was only a matter of time, she would say, that the Japanese would find us in the hospital so it was necessary for me to build my strength so that I would be able to stand the coming strain.

A few days later news came that German prisoners in Goonoongsitoli – who were from a German Merchant Ship which had been sunk by the allies – were freed by the Indonesian police, and had promptly taken over the administration of the Island with Dr. Hyke, who was the ship’s doctor, in charge.. The few Dutch officials who were there and the officers of our ship, including Reddy, were interned and sent to Sumatra. The Indian crew of our ship, about hundred of them, who were camped in these empty Army barracks, and had been moving freely, were now interned. Abdul Rashid, the cargo gunner, the Chief Steward Bazlur Rahman and Abdul Karim, the store keeper were with them. Abdul Karim took the initiative and had taken charge of the men in the camp. He was sharp and intelligent and had already picked up words of the Indonesian language which enabled him to deal with the police and other officials.

It was not long before we got news that the Japanese were in Goonoongsitoli and we knew it won’t be long before they came to the hospital. And, sure enough, Sister Hank Visker was informed one evening that Dr. Hyke, the German doctor, was coming to the hospital the following morning, and that, a party of Japanese officers and men would visit the hospital in the afternoon.

The night before they came, Sister Hank Visker offered to give me an injection which would bring on a fever so that the Japanese would not take me away from the hospital. I felt it would not be advisable to take the injection as it might make things worse for me if, in spite of the pretended fever, the Japanese insisted on taking me with them.

The next day, 22nd April 1942, I had joined Feast and Hodges in their room and we waited expectantly for the German doctor to arrive. We wondered whether we should shake hands with him and say “hello”? As it turned out, there stood at the door a fair looking person, tall and thin, with curly hair and deep blue eyes. He wished us a very pleasant “Good morning” and shook hands with each one of us. He said, that he was a doctor and it made no difference to him whether his patients were Dutch, German, Japanese or British. He introduced himself as Dr. Hyke, and proceeded to examine the three of us individually.

I had gone back to my bed where he gave me a thorough look over and decided that I was fit for transportation and would, therefore, be removed from the hospital. He said, however, that the final decision for my discharge from the hospital would depend on the Japanese doctor who was due to arrive later that morning. I lay on my bed wondering what the Japanese would be like. The Indonesian hospital staff, the boys and girls, seemed most concerned that I would be taken away. One by one they would come up to me and say: “Apa boleh buat. Tuhaan punya Kuasaan?” (What can be done, it is God’s will).

There was something very unusual about the atmosphere of the hospital that morning. In the first place the hands of the clock seemed to move faster than it normally did, and in the second place, the whole staff – usually so calm and patient – were in turmoil, seething with restless nervous energy. The compounders and the nurses were running to and fro, while worried looks and forced smiles had taken over their serene Indonesian faces. I had not seen them in such a state before. The Indonesians, as a nation, had got tired of the Dutch and were looking forward to a change with the expected arrival of the Japanese. But, to the staff of the hospital Sister Hank Visker was an angel in disguise, who was loved and adored by the whole village for her affection, care and kindness. The hospital staff feared that she might also be taken away. The girls, almost all of them under 18, and many orphans among them, looked up to her as their mother. The excitement reached its climax when the Japanese doctor, accompanied by four armed soldiers, arrived.

Their first job was to inspect the Sister’s bungalow which was situated half the way up from the road, coming up the steps, by a narrow path of red brick. They knocked down all the posters and destroyed the pamphlets prepared by the Dutch. One of the soldiers took possession of the Sister’s battery radio.

They then moved over to the hospital and to the room,immediately near the entrance, to examine Feast and Hodges. Dr. Hyke was also present. Before the doctor started his examination, the four soldiers did a thorough job of looking over everything in the room. Then they came over to my bed which was in the ward just outside the room. I was made to sit up while the soldiers looked under my pillow, bed and mattress. After that, it did not take the Japanese doctor long to announce his decision for me to accompany them. I waited while they did a thorough search of the rest of the hospital and the doctor examined some of the local patients in my ward.

I changed into the clean shirt and a pair of trousers which Sister Hank Visker had given me, and then went over to say goodbye to Feast and Hodges, and thanked the former for his help and instructions during the time I kept watch along with him aboard the Chilka. Both of them were still bed-ridden and the Japanese doctor decided to leave them in the hospital, and the Sister was also allowed to stay on in the hospital. I feel certain Dr. Hyke had much to do with that decision.

It was after midday that the Sister told me it was time for me to go. I accompanied her, down the steps, to her bungalow where she gave me a packet containing a tooth brush, tooth paste, a cake of soap, a small towel and the boric powder which I needed to apply to my burns. In addition, she gave me a ‘five guilder’ note. I bade her goodbye and thanked her for all her help and kindness.

The Japanese doctor then led me down the brick laid steps with two soldiers in front of us and two at the back. When we were half way down he stopped suddenly, and turning to me asked: “Are you an Englishman?” The doctor spoke a little English. I said: “No, I am Indian.” He passed the information to the soldiers and they chuckled in amusement. It was apparent that, the doctor as well as the soldiers accompanying us, had never seen an Indian with fair complexion and light greenish eyes, because his next question was: “Is your father European and your mother, Indian?” When I said: “No”, not being satisfied he asked if my mother was European and my father Indian? To this I answered in no uncertain manner: “No, not at all. I am telling you that I am a pure Indian and not from mixed parentage. He then pointed at my fair complexion, eyes and hair, which was brownish, and said nothing more, and quietly led me to a car waiting for them.

It was 22nd April 1942, I was still a teenager, exactly eighteen years and six months of age, that I was captured by the Japanese and became a Prisoner of War.

We drove for what seemed an hour or so along an uneven road heading down hill and arrived at Taluk Dalam, a small port, which had a festive atmosphere. It was gaily decorated with Japanese flags and there were school children on either side of the road to greet the doctor on his return from the interior. They were a mixture of Malayans and Chinese who were shouting and cheering as we drove past them to a Chinese school which had been turned over to the Japanese Army.

I was surprised to see the Chinese taking a leading part in entertaining the Japanese soldiers of whom, besides the doctor and his escorts, there were about one hundred and fifty of them. They had been brought from Goonoongsitoli in four large motor launches. Some were eating food while others were playing with the children or strolling around the market. I was made to sit at a table in the corner of one of the large rooms. One by one the Japanese soldiers would come and ask me – in a few words of Indonesian language they must have picked up – “Ingris Ka? (Are you an Englishman?) When I answered: “No, I am Indian.” They would have a good laugh pointing at my eyes. None of them could speak English. There were some Malayans around who tried talking to me but I could not understand them. It was an English speaking Chinese school boy who came to my rescue. While talking to me he discovered that I had nothing to eat all day and promptly brought me some rice and vegetables for which I thanked him gratefully.

It was about 3 p.m. that Dr. Hyke arrived and brought along with him Dr. & Mrs. Swan, the missionaries, and their children. The moment Dr. Hyke saw me he asked if I have had anything to eat, and then tried to get me a bottle of Lemonade, but, unfortunately for me, the stock had run out. Shortly thereafter we got orders to move. The Dutch family and I accompanied Dr. Hyke to board one of the four launches. I do not remember anything about the type of craft they were, but there was plenty of deck space and I found myself a place at the corner of one of the ‘hatches’. The Dutch family parked themselves at the other end of the hatch.We sailed shortly before sunset and the sea breeze made the atmosphere cool and pleasant.

It was a dark night, the sea was calm and there was some activity on the deck as the Japanese soldiers moved about all over the place and one could hear them chatting among themselves and enjoying the pleasant atmosphere. I do not remember what my thoughts were at the time. Sitting quietly with strangers all around me, I must have been wondering what the future held for me. Suddenly I felt the presence of someone offering me a drink. It was Dr. Hyke. How very thoughtful of him to bring me a glass of Horlicks, a most welcome drink, which I accepted gratefully as there was nothing else for a meal that night.

The doctor sat down next to me and started a conversation. He spoke very good English. Being a doctor he was well educated and serving aboard Merchant ships he had visited many countries around the world and met people of different nationalities. From our very brief meeting at the hospital he was convinced that I was Indian and an educated person. Since the Dutch family did not speak English and possibly did not know German, I was the only person with whom the doctor could have had a chat. Moreover, he must have felt that it was a good opportunity to get to know more about me.

We talked for almost an hour with the doctor having the major share of the conversation. He asked me in detail about my family background, schooling, about my time aboard the Training Ship Dufferin and the Chilka. He had read about Mr. Jinnah and the Pakistan movement and asked me where the matter stood. I do not remember what he told me about himself and his family in Germany, except that he had a daughter of the same age as myself. He was soft spoken and had such pleasant manners that he made me feel at home and not for a moment did I feel that he was a German, an enemy of the allies whose side I was on. After he left I lay down on the hatch and went off to sleep.

The next morning, the skipper of the launch, an Indonesian, quite obviously on instructions from Dr. Hyke, took me to the Crews quarters in the stern, and gave me a cup of coffee and biscuits. I also had my lunch and dinner with the crew of the launch, the meals consisting of rice and fish curry which I liked very much and thanked the skipper for his kind hospitality. I do not remember seeing Dr. Hyke during the rest of our journey which lasted a whole day, and it was around 8 p.m. on 23rd April 1942 that the four launches arrived at Goonoongsitoli harbour and started disembarking the soldiers. Our launch was the last to come alongside the jetty and as we went up the steps we were met by a German and a Japanese Officer.

Once again, I went through the same exercise of explaining my identity. The Japanese Officer appeared quite hostile asking me if I was an Englishman. He spoke English and I kept repeating that I am Indian, but, he did not seem to believe me. I do not know what this angry looking and hostile Japanese Officer would have done if, as if from out of the blue, an Angel of Mercy had not stepped in. It was Dr. Hyke once again. He now used his authority as the person who was in charge of the Island which the Germans had taken over. He expressed his annoyance at the Japanese officer and told him in no uncertain manner: “I am telling you that he is an Indian”, then grasping my hand tightly, pulled me away from the Japanese officer saying: “I am taking him to the Police Station.”

While walking towards the vacated Dutch Army camp where the crew of the Chilka were kept, he told me that times were bad and, that Japanese officer could have done anything in his anger to prove his authority. He said, it is advisable for me to stay in the camp with the crew of the ship. When we reached the barracks he told me to wait and went inside on his own. I do not know what transpired but he must have told the elders – Bazlur Rahman, Abdul Rashid and Abdul Karim – that he had brought me over as he felt it was best for my safety to stay in the camp with them. I was welcomed with open arms and given a place to sleep. Before leaving Dr. Hyke told me that I should visit the hospital to have some of my wounds dressed and bring along with me, those who needed medical attention.

I could hardly find words, as young as I was then, to express my deep sense of gratitude to Dr. Hyke who, I then realized, the Lord Almighty had made a means to ensure that I was not sent to Sumatra at the time when the Japanese would never have accepted my word that I was an Indian and could have taken action against me for trying to hide my identity.

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