I have no idea how and when it happened, as I was in the Mission Hospital in the village of Hillisimitano, that a Chinese Businessman named Ang Boon Hak, approached the Japanese to allow him to employ some of the Indian Seamen prisoners to man the steam Tug, “Tapanuli Maru” and the Barge, (a large dum boat known as ‘Tongkan’in which goods were carried) as the Indonesian crew had left him on arrival in Goonoogsitoli. They must have been from Nias Island, and probably were not sure of their future under Japanese occupation.
Thus, four Seacunnies (Helmsmen), a number of sailors, Engine room crew, the seniormost among them became the Chief Engineer, a couple of saloon stewards and two cooks were granted permission to join the two craft. Ang Boon Hak could not be happier as he was thus, able to carry on his business of transporting goods between Goonoongsitoli, the Island of Pulu Telo, Padang, the main sea port on the west coast of Sumatra, and Sibolga, another sea port in the Province of Tapanuli, where Ang Boon Hak also had his home. From what I understood, the four Seacunnies ran the Tug jointly without one of them taking charge as the ‘Master’.
November 25, 1942, remains vivid and clear in my memory. That morning, while awaiting our morning tea, some men sighted the smoke of a steam tug on the horizon. Incidentally, our camp was by the shore and this was the first time the tug had visited the town since our return from the jungle..By midday, the tug and the barge which she towed, anchored in the open harbour. A couple of hours later the crew of the two vessels were in the camp visiting us.
One of the Seacunnies told me that he had heard a rumour that I would have to go with them on the next trip. I could tell by the way he said it that he was not at all pleased with the idea of having me on board with them. I could not imagine how and under what circumstances I would be needed to go on the next trip. In any case I had no desire whatever to go on the tug. However, it got me thinking, suppose the rumour were true, what decision ought I to make? If I went on the tug, I would perhaps not only earn some money but be able to get some help for the men in Goonoongsitoli from the authorities in Sumatra. I talked it over with Rahman, who agreed with me.
A little later, a young Chinese gentleman came to the camp and asked for me. He was the nephew of Ang Boon Hak, the owner. His name was Chia Sin Lok and appeared to be about the same age as myself. He was educated and spoke good English. After introducing himself he said that they had heard about me and wanted me to take charge of the steam Tug, the “Tapanuli Maru” for which they had managed to get permission from the Japanese. I expressed surprise and pointed out to him that having passed out of the training ship, Dufferin, in December 1941, I had knowledge of seamanship and navigation but I was, in no way, qualified to take command of a steam Tug as Master.
I explained, that I had served aboard a Merchant Ship as Cadet for only two months. It takes at least eight years to obtain a Master’s Certificate which is the minimum qualification, in addition to many years of sea experience to be appointed Master of a ship. One has to have some experience and training to be a Tug Master. Lok pointed out that presently the two vessels were being run by illiterate seamen, and they felt it would be advisable to have a trained and educated person to take charge, and they had heard that such a person was available. “We approached the Japanese authority concerned” said Lok “and obtained permission to employ you as the Tug Master.” It became quite evident that Lok would not take “no” as an answer from me. I knew I was taking a big risk but I felt I had to accept the challenge as this was the only way to get to Padang and find ways and means of getting all our colleagues to Sumatra.
The question of talking about terms and conditions of service did not arise. It took the form of an order to do as I was told. I accompanied Lok to see the Demang, who gave formal permission for Lok to employ me on the tug, and to leave the camp. He then took me to meet his father, Ang Boon Hak, who welcomed me as a member of the crew of his Tug the “Tapanuli Maru”, and gave me a brief lecture. The only thing that I remember him saying, which he repeated time and time again during the time I served on the Tug, was that: “Time is money.” He must have been a typical businessman, the first time I had met one, speaking broken English, well built with darkish complexion, unlike most Chinese who are fair.
Finally, I said goodbye to the men in the camp, particularly, Rahman, Rashid and Karim, and accompanied Lok to board the “Tapanuli Maru” which was at anchor about a kilometer from the shore. The Secunnies, there were three, not four, and rest of the crew greeted me, and expressed how happy they were to have me on board. After saying a few words to the crew, who had assembled on the upper deck, Lok left, telling me that we should sail by midnight.
I felt quite nervous, but. as young and inexperienced as I was, it was a great feeling to be in command of a sea going craft at this young age – I had turned Twenty only a month ago. It did not strike me then, nor did I think about it for the past sixty nine years that, I could have claimed for a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
However, I knew that I could depend upon the Seacunnies,who were much older than me and had been running the Tug for the past many months, between the main land of Sumatra and the adjoining Islands; Nias Island was the biggest and most important. While all of them had spent many, many years at sea, they had now become well acquainted with these waters. While all of them were dressed in Blue shirts and trousers provided to them, here I was, the Master of the Tug, in a sarong and shirt, and I had brought along with me, a pillow, which I now placed on the bunk in the Captain’s cabin which was my privilege to use. None of the Succanies had used the cabin and lived in quarters meant for the crew.
The tug did not have a bridge or a wheel house. The steering wheel, the compass, a covered table for the charts and the telegraph were placed in the rear of a fairly spacious upper deck. There was neither a sextant nor nautical tables or almanac, all necessary equipment for determining the position of a vessel at sea. There were a few charts of the west coast of Sumatra and the islands to the west of it, a set of parallel rulers, a pair of dividers and a pair of binoculars. It was quite an experience to navigate by compass courses and use dead reckoning, which determines position on the basis of speed, distance run and course set. All of this was quite rough, but I had the advantage of the experience of the Succanies, who had been doing blind navigation to reach their destination.
There was an Indonesian pilot on board, Ayat, who was familiar with the waters, routes, approaches to ports etc. In addition, as I came to learn later, he was there to keep an eye on the prisoners whose services were being utilised by Ang Boon Hak for his own purpose as well as to serve the needs of the Japanese occupation forces.
I do not remember the actual specifications of the steam tug, the “Tapanuli Maru,” nor that of the Tungkan (Indonesian word for a barge for carrying cargo) which was a fairly large barge with sufficient cargo capacity. It carried a mixed cargo of coconut oil, rice and pigs from the smaller islands to the mainland of Sumatra. Cement and other general goods were taken to the smaller islands. It had accommodation for the owner Ang Boon Hak and others who accompanied him, and for the crew. His son, Lok always accompanied him along with three clerks to handle the cargo and accounts.
One of the clerks was a Malaysian Christian, the other a Chinese and the third, Suak, from Minado. He came from the Celebes Island and had been a pilot with the Dutch Air Force until his plane was shot down over Sumatra. He had been interned for a time but managed to escape, and found employment with Ang Boon Hak. He could speak good English like Lok, and so could the other two clerks. They were of the same age as myself and I became very friendly with all of them.
We sailed from Goonoongsitoli after midnight. Our first port of call, early the next morning was Teluk Dalam, the place where I was brought by the Japanese doctor soon after I was captured by him. We then sailed across to the island of PuluTelo, and on to Padang, the most important port on the west coast of Sumatra. Before entering the harbour of Emma Haven, as it was then known, we waited for the pilot. To my surprise it was a Dutchman Captain Roll. He had been interned by the Japanese for 23 days and then released to continue his work as port pilot. He must have been quite surprised to find me in command of the Tapanuli Maru, someone so young, fair in complexion and speaking fluent English.
I welcomed him aboard announcing “Engines stopped, wheels amidships’. He piloted us in to the harbour. He was very reserved and did not seem to know how to deal with me. There was very little conversation between us at our first meeting. He was very businesslike, giving orders to the Succani to turn the wheel to port or starboard as was necessary. As we entered the harbour, I carried out his orders and worked the telegraph which conveys orders to the engine room below to go slow ahead, stop, slow stern, etc. Finally, we berthed. I rang down “finished with engines” and saw Roll off my tug.
We were at last in Padang. It was here that the Chilka was heading for on that fateful March 11, when the Japanese submarine interrupted its voyage and sent it down to the bottom of the sea.
The first day in Padang, Lok took me ashore to buy me some clothes. Han Brothers and Company, the shop we went to, was owned by a Punjabi businessman. The proprietor was not there, but his assistant Narayan Singh, gave me a warm welcome. He refused to let Lok pay for the two pairs of shorts and the shirts which he wanted to buy for me. That night I stayed in Lok’s house in Chinatown.
A couple of days later, missing home and India, I went back to see Narayan Singh. While I was talking to him, a well-dressed man came in to the shop and spoke to him in English. On being introduced, I found that he was Jailani, one of the leading Indians living in the town. Jailani was an optician and owned a large shop at the corner of the big bazaar. He lived with his family in three rooms adjoining the shops and he took me home with him for a meal.
When we arrived at his shop he ordered ice cream. I could hardly believe what I heard, as I never dreamt that I would be having ice cream, something I liked very much. Jailani made me feel at home and gave me a patient hearing as I narrated my experience and how I happen to come to Padang. I told him about my colleagues who were facing hardship on the Nias Island and asked him if anything could be done to get them across to Sumatra. He thought for some time and suggested that a letter be written to the Head of the Indian community in Medan, the capital of Sumatra, and ask him for help. Together we sent off a telegram to him. 1 do not know whether he ever received the telegram, as we never got any reply from Medan.
Padang was a beautiful town, built ten miles inland from Emma Haven, which was the dock area. It had a rich and cosmopolitan population and the tarred roads and concrete houses were, I noticed, kept very clean. I met Indians mainly from the south of India, many of them descended from early traders who had been among the first people to sail to the east. Most of them were like their forefathers, cloth merchants and traders. To the locals they were known as “Orang kling” and they lived in a colony of their own known as Kampoong Kling. Perhaps the kindest of them all — and they were all exceptionally kind — was Abdullah Abdul Rehman, the owner of a very big store.
In Padang, I discovered that there were a greater number of women than men. They were predominantly Muslims and the women, unlike their sisters in India, did not observe purdah. They went about the bazaar quite freely. A majority of the shops in the bazaar had saleswomen and almost all the offices had women clerks. Education was compulsory for boys and girls alike. The young girls rode bicycles and took an active part in games.
The Chinese formed a majority of the foreign population. They were Christians who owned big firms. Among the Indians, besides the klings or South Indians were Sindhis and Punjabis who were very rich merchants. At that time there were many Germans in Padang, easily identifiable by the arm band with the swastika which they were obliged to wear. I saw, too, a number of Swiss.
For the couple of days that I had spent in Padang I had been so free and comfortable the I was beginning to forget that there was a war on. I began to feel that I was just an ordinary civilian again. (I discovered later that I was being watched continuously by the Indonesian spies.) Like all other foreign nationals, allies of the Japanese or from neutral countries like Switzerland, I had to wear an arm band all the time. The band indicated, in Japanese, who I was and my job as the captain of Tapanuli Maru. It enabled me to move about freely and I was never harassed by any Japanese soldier.
Abdullah Abdul Rahman went to Singapore on business but his assistant manager, Esmail, took a liking to me and told me to visit his shop whenever I came to town. I ate delicious meals with him. I spent quite a lot of my time too, with Jailani, the optician. He was a very sensible man with a wide knowledge of the world. I learned that although he had been born in Sumatra and had spent all his boyhood there, he had lived in India and Africa, and in America. His advice to me was to stay away from the Japanese and to settle down in Padang. If only my complexion had not been so fair he would have risked sending me to another friend of his in the interior. There, he said, the Japanese would never be able to trace me. Perhaps, the most practical way would be for me to marry an Indonesian girl. However, under these circumstances, the question of getting married did not arise.
Over a week passed and still there was no news from Medan about our men in Goonoongsitoli. At times, I felt guilty enjoying myself although I knew that I was doing everything I could to help them.
In the last week of December, 1943 we left Padang with a full load of cement, calling in again, on our way back, at Pulu Telo and Goonoogsitoli. I met my comrades and told them everything I was doing and assuring them that I would not rest until I had secured better conditions for them. I distributed some money among the saloon crew who were never given any thing by the khalasis (seamen) and the firemen who only took care of their own community.. From Goonoongsitoli we went to Sibolga, a small port on the north west coast of Sumatra. Ang Boon Hak had his home at Sibolga and the tug, so the clerks told me, stayed there for a long time.
At the first opportunity Suak, one of the clerks of Ang Boon Hak, and a former Dutch Air Force pilot, took me ashore and we went to the house of an Indian baker. In a foreign land one usually longs to meet one’s countrymen, and I was delighted to find an old man sitting on a bench in front of the bakery, puffing away at a hookah. Suak and I greeted him and sat down on a chair in front of him. He said he had heard of me from the khalasis and was pleased to see me; but then, he hardly spoke a word. At first, I thought he was one of those quiet, reserved men who found it difficult to talk to strangers. Later on I discovered that, far from being reserved, this old gentleman, whose name was Jalil, was very talkative and a lively person.. The day I first met him — Jalil, or Khan Sahib as his friends called him — had a bad toothache and so, instead of joking with me, he was content to sit quietly.
It was here in the pleasant shade of the trees and with the aroma of freshly baked bread reaching me in whiffs each time the oven doors were opened, that I met the man who was to do more for me than any one else—Khaleel, the owner of the bakery. Khaleel came into his garden, saw me and immediately asked if I had eaten anything. When he discovered that I had not, he told his wife to prepare food for me. A clean shirt and a pair of trousers were brought for me to put on, while my own were sent to the dhobi (washerman). The next day he refused to take back the clothes he had given me to wear. In fact, he gave me some more. While the tug was in Sibolga, I visited him, at home, almost every evening. I found there real peace — away from the noisy atmosphere in the tug.
A few days later, the Japanese military police summoned me to their office. Khaleel took me there himself and introduced me to the officer as his friend. The Japanese officer did not know any English. He had an interpreter to translate all that I said. He asked me a number of questions and seemed satisfied that I was not a spy. I behaved very politely and when he had finished questioning me, I felt confident as the interview had gone so well, to tell him about the remainder of our crew who were still on Nias Island and how the Demang intended stopping their food from January, 1943.
The head of the Japanese military police, the kempetai, had listened very carefully to everything I said about my colleagues on Nias Island. An Indonesian interpreter was present. He sympathised with me and advised me to see the Japanese officer in charge of the affairs of Nias Island. I have no doubt that he had himself contacted him before Khaleel and I arrived at his office. Instructions were issued to the authorities on Nias Island to arrange the transfer of all Indian prisoners to Sibolga. The good news was conveyed to me on January 1, 1943 and I thanked God for His Grace and Mercy.
I could not help feeling a great sense of achievement as this was one of the main objectives when I agreed to accept the command of the Tapanuli Maru. The news was greeted with great excitement by my colleagues on Nias Island when I visited them in Goonoongsitoli en route to Pulu Telo and Padang. They were advised to be ready to board the Tungkan when we stopped on our return voyage from Padang. Except for a Chinese carpenter from the Chilka who wanted to remain with members of his community, all our colleagues arrived in Sibolga on February 17, 1943.