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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Remembering Dad's Childhood: Part 1 WW2 POW

Even to your old age and gray hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.

I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
~Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)~

What does an old man see when he looks into the mirror? What does he remember? Does he see what he once was? Do we? Do we honor what he once was? Are we grateful for what our elders did for us? 

My dad spent a good part of his childhood as a POW in WW2. Then, even as a young adult, his homeland, Indonesia, remained at war—civil war.

From the book Forevermore
When this care-giving life gets a little frustrating, I imagine how hard it must be for Dad. He's told me the war stories, the escape-war drama, and the island romance tale. He's built homes with his bare hands carved out of the jungle in New Guinea. Okay, I might be over-dramatizing that. But he did built his own house, and the house for his parents, in the jungle with his pregnant wife (my mom). 

It's become obvious to me that Dad has a story to tell. I'm trying to dig deep into his mind and scoop out all those good memories. Because he was young once; because he was a real person with awesome experiences; because he can't leave this world until he knows his family, his grandchildren, love God. 

The following is an article I wrote many moons ago for our local newspaper, The Mid Valley News. The article tells a small portion of Dad's WW2 experience. I titled "Paradise Interrupted."  

Paradise Interrupted

There’s a little church in El Monte, California, tucked safely away at the corner of Peck and Hemlock. The pastor, Reverend Willy de Quilettes, is a humble man by nature, the quiet sort, unless he’s preaching. The small, family-oriented congregation simply calls him Oom Willy. Uncle Willy, that is. But I call him Papa.

His passion for God came from hearing the song “Safe in the Arms of Jesus” at his sister’s funeral. He found peace while men with guns walked all around him. He found joy and never lost it. Many times I’ve wondered what made him tick. Why does he enjoy such a simple life? One morning, I got the chance to reach into my father’s heart as we shared a few giggles, some painful tears, and stories from his war-filled childhood.

Born in Makassar, Indonesia, Papa and his family moved to Jokjakarta on the island of Java when he was ten years old. His father, Leo, was a Sergeant Major in the Royal Dutch-Indonesian Army or KNIL in Dutch. At the time, Papa had three younger brothers and a sister. One brother died in his sleep at age two, and his sister died during the war from food contamination.

They were a wealthy family. Pap's opa (grandfather) owned 150 acres of land, where they hunted wild pigs, fruit bats, and pigeons. The wide variety of mango trees provided hours of climbing adventures for the boys.

“It was a tropical paradise,” Papa said with a smile. “We used to spend warm summer afternoons swimming and fishing for catfish.”

Papa especially loved the crystal-clear-fresh-water lakes and rivers that flowed endlessly throughout their island. They would build rafts and float to the middle of the lake.

But paradise was interrupted when sirens blared one afternoon in 1942, and in the distance came the sounds of Japanese fighter planes.

The Japanese invaded Jokjakarta when Papa was twelve. For the next two months, the boys and their mother, Juliana, lived in a bomb shelter in their backyard. As bombs fell dangerously close, it became necessary to use rubber mouthpieces for protection. The explosions threw everyone violently against walls and to the ground.

Surprisingly, the many island people Papa knew as friends were actually Japanese spies. They had disguised themselves as store owners and local merchants all the while drawing maps of the island and stocking weapons in their stores.

At first, Leo, Papa's father had permission to walk about freely. A special armband ensured the Japanese soldiers he was a friend. However, when darkness fell over the island Leo bombed bridges to cut off access for Japanese trucks. He fought the war mostly at night. Sadly,
 Papa, remembers vividly the day his father was taken prisoner. They herded him onto a train at gunpoint with hundreds of other men. Leo disappeared for two years.

At age twelve, the Japanese army captured my papa. They placed him with the women POW's and put him to  work—hard labor.

For next few years he lowered his bucket into a well twenty feet deep as thousands of prisoners stood in line for their daily ration. His work started at sunrise and ended with nightfall. He drew his strength and hope from God.

The first American rescue mission was unsuccessful, but in 1945 US General Douglas MacArthur and his troops freed the Indonesian people. Papa and his family were reunited with Leo, who had been rescued by the British and Indian armies. But as World War II came to an end, Indonesia was headed for civil war.

It was then that Leo decided to send Papa and his younger brother, Fritz to an island named Doom, mostly inhabited by members of their family, to start a new life.

“It’s an extremely small island,” Papa remembers. “I spent two years on Doom. It was a fun place.” 

Papa eventually moved across the bay to New Guinea, where he met and married a beautiful Indonesian girl, Helaene.

But in 1961, they again had to flee the country as rumors of yet another war between Indonesia and Holland surfaced. With their families packed into a Dutch Dakota Airliner, they headed for the Netherlands.

In 1976, Willy came to the USA, where he found that cozy corner in El Monte. It’s far from paradise.

“But paradise on Earth is a temporary thing,” Papa says. “Life and your very soul on the other hand are something to be treasured and saved.”

The corner in El Monte boasts a little church filled with a small family of believers led by my papa, who in the midst of bombs and debris heard a simple song called “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”

Dad moved the congregation to another corner of El Monte and didn't retire until he suffered a stroke in 2017. These stories he told me is my reminder that life is fleeting, this world is broken, we suffer, we overcome but only by the grace of God. 


We hope you come visit us at The Caregiver's Workshop ... we have prayer journals inspired by the soon-to-be released book Forevermore: Poetry, Prayers, and Scriptures for the Caregiver. 


  1. Wow, Deborah! What amazing stories and family history you're blessed to know and write about. I honor your dad for his service. I can't imagine being a POW or involved in any war. My favorite part's about the song, "Safe in the Arms of Jesus." Powerful!

  2. Thanks Karen. I'm with you ... I could never know what it was like to be a POW. It's amazing what God can and will bring us through, right? We all have a story.