Survivor

The Willem Punt story

I went to sea with the Dutch merchant navy when I was 15 years old. I was captured by the Japanese on the island of Java, in the former colony the Dutch East Indies (now called Indonesia). I was initially kept as a detained citizen in Struiswijk Prison, before they decided to transport me as a prisoner of war (POW) to a forced labour camp in Sumatra. In this sea crossing from Java to Sumatra, I survived one of the worst naval disasters of the Second World War: the sinking of the Junyo Maru. Finally, I endured slave labour on the Pakan Baroe railway in Sumatra until we were liberated.

If you've not heard of the Junyo Maru or the Pakan Baroe railway, you're certainly not alone. They remain two Second World War disasters that are largely neglected by historians. In contrast, the "Bridge over the River Kwai" made the Burmese railway famous, and the Titanic is the only "sinking boat" most people can name. The Titanic claimed 1,500 lives, the Junyo Maru 5,620 - nearly four times as many.

On 18 September 1944, a British submarine torpedoed the Japanese ship called the Junyo Maru. The Junyo Maru was carrying 6,500 captured prisoners of war (POWs) and Asian slaves to the Japanese forced labour camps on the island of Sumatra. Of the 6,500 passengers on board the ship, around 5,620 people died. This was the fourth largest WWII maritime disaster. Willem Punt (Wim) was one of the few survivors. Now aged 96, we believe he is one of the only living survivors able to clearly tell his story.

As if surviving the sinking of the Junyo Maru wasn't enough horror to endure, Wim was then forced to work on the Pakan Baroe (or Pekanbaru) railway as a slave labourer, surviving again when over 82,500 people died. Of the 680 POW survivors of the Junyo Maru, only 100 more survived the forced labour on the railway.

Wim Punt only started talking about his stories in the latter part of his life. This was partly because it was too painful, but mainly because if he mentioned he was in Asia during the war, Dutch people thought he had an easy time in the sun, while they had suffered the cold winters. He empathised with their struggles and didn't want to "compete" with the misery they had all endured. Wim doesn't want sympathy but recognises empathy.

As a caveat to this story, Wim Punt had very few possessions in the first camps and anything he had managed to keep or was given was washed away with the sinking of the Junyo Maru. He didn't have a watch during the war, and after the Junyo Maru he spent the rest of the war just wearing just a cloth and certainly had no personal possessions such as a pen and paper to record data and facts. He has no naval book from that time showing the ships he'd been on and the crossings he made. He recalled all of this from his phenomenal memory.

I'm infinitely impressed that Wim is able to accurately recall so much information; facts, dates and names. I've used online sources to check the details as much as possible, and I add comments in the footnotes for my reflections or to show research and sources. This story is told in Wim's own words. I'm just his willing scribe and publisher. I'm also his step-granddaughter-in-law, which is how I got involved in writing this story with him.

By Nicola Meinders

The Dutch version of the book was launched on the 8th September 2018 at Bronbeek, Arnhem. The Dutch Commander of the armed forces, Rob Bauer, together with the former Dutch Defense Minister and current Special Assistant to the General Secretary of the United Nations, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, gave Willem Punt the first copy of the book. It was a beautiful launch for all involved. Afterwards Willem was asked to sign around 200 books.

The press showed photos from the event. More can be read on AD.nl , on the Dutch website for Defence: , in the national newspaper De Gelderlander and there are lots of beautiful photos from the day on the Traces of war website.