Wesley Woods resident held in Japanese prison camp during WWII
By ALEX MCRAE
Wies Baar’s high school education was put on hold by World War II, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t keep learning.
She worked in a hospital and by age 16 had developed a very useful skill.
Most of the time she was right.
“Then, it seemed to me to be normal,” Baar says. “I can’t believe I could say that now. I was trying to get away from it.”
At the time, Baar wasn’t working in a traditional medical facility. She was living in the Dutch East Indies — now Indonesia — and working at a “hospital” that had been set up in an abandoned school to care for Dutch citizens, including Baar, who had been confined to internment camps by Japanese troops.
“We never knew what would happen from one day to the next,” Baar says. “But I’d have to say we were lucky. Although we were always very hungry.”
Baar has called Coweta’s Wesley Woods retirement community home for several months, but was born 84 years ago in the capital of the Dutch East Indies — Batavia — now Jakarta. Her father had moved there in 1926 from his native Holland to teach.
She says, before the war, life was wonderful for her family, which grew to include a younger brother and sister.
“My father was a teacher and that was a very respected occupation,” she says. “All the Dutch lived well there and we were very happy.”
Baar’s father taught at a Dutch-speaking school and all her friends were Dutch. She had a normal childhood until World War II broke out. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan bombed the American base at Pearl Harbor, Holland declared war on Japan and Baar’s father was activated with the Dutch Army reserves.
By the spring of 1942, Japan had taken control of the Dutch East Indies, which provided great quantities of oil and rubber vital to the Japanese war effort.
One of their first actions was to round up all the Dutch civilians and place them in tightly-controlled internment camps in major cities. Dutch military personnel were captured and kept in confinement until they could be shipped to prisoner-of-war camps in Japan.
Baar said there was confusion, but she, her mother and siblings were not mistreated. At first, extra food was even available from the outside for those who could afford it. Baar’s mother could not and she began cooking for other families to help provide for her children.
“My mother took care of everything,” Baar says. “She endured so well. We always thanked our mother for trying to keep things normal.
Baar said soon after she was confined, the biggest concern was finding out what had happened to her father, who had been taken prisoner by the Japanese military.
“We were told they were being held at a certain place in the city, and we hoped that one day they would come back,” Baar says.
Baar says that soon after her father was taken prisoner, his former driver said her father had been accused of being a traitor, a crime punishable by death.
Baar recalls her mother saying, “He may be dead, but he’s not a traitor.”
One day Baar caught a glimpse of her father as he was being escorted back from a Japanese work detail in Batavia. They were not allowed to speak, but just knowing he was alive was a great comfort.
Baar said life in the internment camp was miserable, but the young people managed to find ways to have a good time.
“All my friends were in the same prison,” she says, “So at first we enjoyed all being together.”
They were soon split up into different camps, the conditions getting worse at each.
At the first camp Baar was confined to, the family was given a single small room. Before the war ended, Baar, her mother, younger sister and brother were living in a room with 21 people. Each occupant was given one square meter of living space. Baar’s group of four made beds by placing planks over trunks and managed to sew together their own mosquito nets.
“We were lucky to have so much room,” Baar says. “We actually had a tiny little sitting area.”
Baar says she and her fellow prisoners were never physically mistreated by their Japanese captors, although they were disciplined with a slap or blow if they failed to follow proper procedures, which included bowing to Japanese officials who visited the camp daily.
Late in the war, food was scarce and bad, mostly consisting of thin soup made with leftover vegetables. There was an occasional scrap of meat and Baar says the bread was “so hard I could use it as a weapon if I had to.”
“We were always hungry,” Baar says. “But I was skinny at least. I liked that.”
Toilet facilities were crude or nonexistent and water was so scarce prisoners snuck out at night to fill pots, pans and anything else they had from a water source not normally available to prisoners.
“We learned how to do what was necessary to survive,” Baar says.
Medical care was also poor. A few Dutch doctors were available to treat their fellow countrymen, but with limited access to medical supplies, equipment or drugs, there was little they could do to treat patients who came to the makeshift hospital housed in an abandoned school.
“It was very sad in there,” Baar says. “I was a young girl when I worked there and everyone tried to do their best, but we could not help everyone.”
After the Japanese surrendered to end the war, conditions changed for the prisoners in the Dutch East Indies. But they were still not freed. Even before the war, an Indonesian independence movement had begun, led by Sukarno, who later became Indonesia’s leader.
After the war Sukarno convinced his Japanese allies to keep the Dutch in wartime internment camps. He also convinced Japanese troops to guard the camps until Allied forces arrived to officially liberate the POWs.
Baar says their former guards — Japanese troops — actually became their protectors as crowds of Indonesians demanding their independence threatened Dutch citizens. Baar remembers seeing a bus with “Kill The Dutch” painted on the side.
“It was dangerous to travel outside the camp,” Baar says. “I know two boys who went across the street to get something and never came back. They were killed. I knew how dangerous it was finally.”
Eventually, Allied troops arrived. Baar says her Japanese captors “just disappeared.”
To help pass the time during the post-war lull, Allied troops, both British and American, took dance classes. Baar served as a dance partner for two American soldiers.
In early 1946, Baar was sent back to Holland to live with relatives, even though her father had not yet returned home. She remembers her mother telling the story of her father’s return to Batavia.
“My brother was outside and saw him and came running back in and said, ‘That is daddy, I think,’” Baar says. “He could only remember from pictures so he wasn’t sure.”
The family was eventually reunited in Holland, then returned to the Dutch East Indies for two years before moving back to Holland permanently.
While in school in Holland, Baar met her future husband, Edward, who was the brother of a school friend. During the war, Edward lived in Arnhem, site of terrible fighting during World War II during Operation Market Garden, the Allies’ failed attempt to end the war by crossing the Rhine River into Germany from the north.
Although Market Garden failed, the liberation of Holland succeeded and Sept. 17, also known as Orange Day, marks the occasion when U.S. troops began the liberation effort.
Newnan’s Gene Cook, also a Wesley Woods resident, fought in Operation Market garden as a member of the 101st Airborne and remembers passing through the town of Son, where Wies Baar lived briefly.
“It was on what we called Hell’s Highway,” Cook says. “We had some tough fighting all the way through there.”
After Edward finished his education in 1955, he and Wies were married. In 1962, the Phillips Corporation transferred Edward to New York for what they promised was a three-year assignment. The Baars never made it back to Holland. They raised three children in America and remained in Connecticut after Edward retired.
The couple moved to Wesley Woods just months ago to be closer to children in Fayetteville and Marietta.
Baar says she never had any hard feelings toward the Japanese for her wartime treatment.
“We all came back and none of us were killed and that’s why it’s different,” she says. “That explains no hard feelings.”