Quest Magazine – Braintainment, April 2020
In April 2020, the Dutch magazine Quest (900,000+ readership), printed a 4-page review of my story. They based it on interviews with me, the book and also supplemented it with interviews from Bronbeek. Quest beautifully illustrated it with some unique drawings and photos which also appear in the book.
This is the story of Willem Punt, who in 1936, at the age of 15, left home and joined the Dutch merchant navy, thus enabling him to send money back to his impoverished family – this was the time of the Great Depression in the Netherlands. Close collaboration between Willem (now aged 97) and his granddaughter-in- law Nicola Meinders over a period of 4 years has produced a fascinating and very readable book, written in his own words. The book is divided into 27 chapters, mostly quite short, nearly every one covering some momentous and often horrifying event or events. By the time war came Willem had already travelled the world, and had risen from stoker’s boy to navigator’s assistant (later he qualified cum laude as navigator). He survived one of the Atlantic convoy crossings through the circling German U-boats, and when the Japanese entered the war he was stationed in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese armed forces were of far superior strength to the Dutch, and in May 1942 Willem became prisoner of war. We follow the gradual deterioration of conditions and the increasing brutality, and he relates in almost casual fashion the various experiences and privations, giving the reader a clear picture of what life was like. His experience of transportation on the Japanese “Hellship” the Junyo Maru, which was torpedoed and sunk, is portrayed in more graphic detail. He was subsequently put to work as slave labourer on the Pekanbaru railway. He was one of a handful who endured both of these experiences and survived. This story covers an area of the war details of which are not widely recognised, and for me it paints a picture of an unassuming yet highly intelligent man who despite his limited physical stature survived against all the odds. An element of luck played its part, it always must in such a tale, but it was his resilience, resourcefulness, innate raw courage and the will to live that got him through. Did his close family background and the admittedly over-zealous religious grounding from his father play a part? Certainly his love and compassion for his fellow man shone through. A totally absorbing book, I found it so readable that I rationed myself to a few chapters per day, but you could easily immerse yourself into a single session.
The subtitle on the cover of this book reads Junyo Maru & Pekanbaru. When I picked up the book those words meant absolutely nothing to me, and I suspect this would be true for most people…the synopsis on the back cover explains the significance of the words and sets the scene for Willem Punt’s autobiographical story, as do the Preface and the Prologue. But it is not necessary to know the background to read the book and to be inspired by it. Willem’s story begins in 1921 in the small Dutch town of IJmuiden, but his vivid account of his childhood ends when he leaves school early to help support his family and joins the Dutch Merchant Navy. His matter-of-fact style with slight touches of humour is retained throughout the book, and while compiling the English version of Willem’s experiences, Nicola Meinders, his step-granddaughter-in-law, has let the story be told in Willem’s own words while making it clear where she has further researched the events he describes. She has included both archive and family photographs and some useful maps. The overall design and layout of the book make it easy to read. Personally, I would have found an Index helpful – for instance, there are recurring significant (and to us unfamiliar) names and it would be good to be able to refer back to the context in which they first appear. As I write this review, we have marked the 75 th Anniversary of the Allied victory in Europe in World War II. But for Willem and those with him 75 years ago in Asia there was no knowledge of this, and their War against the Japanese did not end then. Willem did not serve in the Forces. His Merchant Navy career took him to Java, in the Dutch East Indies, where he was eventually captured and interned by the Japanese along with other Merchant Navy personnel and Dutch civilians. To begin with they were treated well and he was able to continue his maritime studies to become a navigator. However, Willem’s matter-of-fact account then relates how he was inexorably drawn in to one of the most tragic naval incidents of World War II, and having survived that he then had to use his strength of character to endure horrific conditions in Sumatra, including a near-fatal bout of malaria. The unfamiliar words in the book’s subtitle refer to the locations of his near-death experiences. Robert Burns had it right in a poem written in 1784 – the lines are often quoted: Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn. Fortunately there are people like Willem who by their attitude when experiencing man-made horrors and tragedy are somehow able to overcome them, but only many years later, if ever, are able to tell the truth about what they witnessed.
Willem Punt and Nicola Meinders
Hi Nicky, I finished the book on Monday and did find it a fascinating insight into a world and life that it is hard to comprehend. He really has had an amazing, horrific life in many ways and how he has managed to function and succeed in his life with what he endured and witnessed is incredible. You should be really proud of your achievement of bringing this to life and sharing this with the world. much love, stay safe
The Junyo Maru was a Japanese war ship that was torpedoed by the British in WW2 while transporting 6500 POWs and Asian slave labourers to Japanese forced labour camps in Sumatra. 5620 souls were lost – almost 4 times as many people as died on the Titanic, and the fourth largest wartime disaster – yet it is not something I had ever heard about until I met my cousin’s grandfather-in-law in 2006. I am so proud of my cousin for writing this book of her grandfather-in-law’s first hand account of being in the Dutch Merchant Navy, of arriving in Indonesia (then called the Dutch East Indies) and experiencing the Japanese invasion, living as a POW and being one of 100 survivors out of 82 500 slave labourers of the Pakan Baroe (or Pekanbaru) railway, and surviving the Junyo Maru disaster. The book was released in Dutch in 2018, and now the English version is available for purchase. I was lucky enough to be one of her first readers for the English version, and I was blown away by the detail and poignant memories shared in this book. It illuminates a very different experience of war than the dominant narrative. Definitely recommended, and not just because she’s my cousin. It’s a beautifully written memoir about an important piece of WW2 history that we generally don’t learn about here in NA, and possibly not in England either.
In the book’s Epilogue, Nicola gives an idea of the ongoing effects that his experiences had on Willem. He himself seldom comments on the motivation of the perpetrators of the atrocities he witnessed – so when he does, his words are all the more powerful. Having purchased the book just before the current lockdown started, I must admit that I read the first couple of chapters and then laid it aside. Having been asked to write this review, I then picked it up again and read it straight through one evening. I would not hesitate to recommend that you do the same.
Reviews Translated from Dutch
One of the greatest pleasure of writing a book is the validation and reviews from readers. Knowing that all the effort was valued and has aroused emotions in your readers, whether it’s a tear, validation or providing missing links in family history.
“Survivor” is not a relaxing book to read, too much human suffering is described for that. That suffering is very graphic and can be confrontational for the reader, because Willem Punt did not censor this thoughts and memories. And that’s very good, because in this way the story not only helps people to understand and offer comfort and support to those involved and families, but it will also help many readers to put things into perspective and make them think”.
Peter Kimenai, Traces of War, Jan. 5, 2020
“I’ve read your book with great interest and I think it’s very good. At home I have all of Hovinga’s books on the construction of the Pakanbaru railway, but this is a personal report and therefore extra valuable. Also the publishing quality, nice paper, nice pictures etc. deserves a compliment”.
J. Mellema, Jan 2019
“It was with great interest that I read the book Survivor Junyo Maru & Pakan Baroe by your grandfather Willem Punt and you. He has a phenomenal memory for details, all of which he can describe as a sailor. The book – supplemented with a lot of information – also sketches a very complete and tactile picture. It has provided me with a lot of data, which I did not yet have. I also used the film by Andere Tijden from 2003. I myself am the son of Adriaan Denis Schotman, sergeant KNIL, no. 1002 on the list, who was killed. In addition, there are more points of contact, such as the fact that my mother and I also travelled back with the Nieuwe Amsterdam. Also the details about that trip (I was only 5) are valuable to me. A further coincidence is that my mother, also ‘married with the glove’, travelled to the Dutch East Indies in September 1939. This ship is currently being commemorated with an exhibition in the Amsterdam Maritime Museum. I have placed my mother’s story on the museum’s Story catcher for the year 1939 , with a poem ‘My mother and the Orange’”
Peter Schotman, Zeist, Feb 16, 2019.
What a beautiful book, I’ve just finished it! What a story! I’ve just wiped away a tear. Beautifully written, it gives such a clear picture of the war as he experienced it. Very special, I’m glad I’ve read it now. I also understand the importance of writing this book. I think a lot of people feel supported by it, but for people who didn’t experience the war it’s also an important book. Great that you took the time and effort to write it. Thank you.
Hi Nicola, I just read your book about Willem Punt. What a beautiful book and an exciting life. The story is so factually described and therefore comes all the more in. Nice also those photos and the descriptive maps. It’s really a story that is worth telling. You can be proud of it! I’m going to let my husband read it too.
“As a former “camp child” with a father I never knew because he died as a prisoner of war below decks on the Junyo Maru, I was interested to find out more. (“Survivor”) is bright, clear and good to read.”
J.W. Mulder, Jan 2019
“So much appreciation and thanks for the documenting the story in this book.”
P. Verhaart, March 2019
I already finished the book. If you see Nicola, please thank her for making sure her grandfather’s life is described so well. It’s amazing what that man has been through. I saw many similarities to what happened to my father at the time.
“I am very happy with the book SURVIVOR Junyo Maru & Pakan Baru. While browsing through it, I came across on page 153 ff. that Willem Punt was also repatriated with the Nieuw Amsterdam to Southampton and from there sailed on with the Almanzora (that’s the name of that ship) to IJmuiden and Amsterdam. It is a coincidence that I was on board of both ships with my mother and brother. My brother and I hung out in the cold in the lock of IJmuiden wearing shorts. We hung out over the railing to look out for our father, to whom we had said goodbye at the beginning of March 1942 when he left Surabaya for Ceylon with the submarine K 11. We immediately recognized him by his posture and his navy uniform and drew his attention by repeatedly shouting: Mr. Poortman. And he responded by waving at us. In Amsterdam he came on board. An emotional moment of reunion followed.”
J.N.Poortman, Sept. 2018
Please feel free to share the reviews or my website www.survivorbook.nl with your network. You may find people who are interested in how Willem survived Japanese POW camps in Java, the largest ever Hellship disaster on the Junyo Maru and also working as a forced POW labourer on the Sumatran railway line, the Pekanbaru.