Every now and then you hear about a story that totally captivates you… that takes you away and leaves a lump in your throat. This is a story of enduring love, tragedy, broken families, separation, war…. It sounds as if it Shakespearean, but I can tell you no it’s not. This is a true story and it’s about a couple who I admire greatly, my Mother and Father. They have now both passed away but their story lives on.
The story starts in 1938 in pre WWII Indonesia known as Java or East Indies which was colonized by the Dutch as far back as the early 15th Century. An absolute tropical paradise laden with such colourful characters as Baabu the Malay housekeeper, the well to do grandparents, classical music and political associations, Catholic schools and the influential strict Dutch reformed clergy. The cars were few let alone electric power, refrigeration or a telephone. Shops were the local markets where locals carried everything on either their head or by baskets lashed across their back with a piece of bamboo where it was hard to be heard over the cacophony of locals bargaining in their native Malay. Every now and then you would hear a smattering of colonial Dutch…. A cold beer was indeed a tantalizing thought quencher especially in the heat of a summer’s day in the wet season.
This is where their story begins.
A hot balmy summers day in Malang on the island of Sumatra Gus (26) was doing his swimming training where he cast his eye over to a newcomer to the pool Yvonne (16). Yvonne recalls “A romance blossomed and grew that required strict chaperones to attend!” During this period Gus was a student pilot with the then newly formed Netherlands East Indies Forces (NEI). December 7th 1941 saw an event that would reshape history and affect millions upon millions of lives. Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.
Within 10 weeks of that attack the well-prepared Imperial Japanese Army overwhelmed much of South East Asia and the islands to Australia’s north. The Philippines fell quickly, along with the Malay Peninsula and the vital British base of Singapore.
Darwin Australia was also attacked. Eager to secure vital war-fighting resources, particularly oil and rubber, they rapidly moved towards the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia).
“I remember like it was yesterday” says Yvonne, “Thousands upon thousands of Japanese troops on wooden bikes. Everyone was so scared; we just hid in our homes. This did us all no good as we, my two sisters and mother were caught and transported to a women’s prisoner of war camp. My father was transported to a Men’s camp”. Gus was ordered to evacuate military officers to Broome (Australia). Gus comments, “I could have made millions of dollars that night, people offering me diamonds, gold.. It was such a sad event having to leave them behind, I remember the fires and destruction behind me as I took off”.
Yvonne and her family were exposed to some of the harshest conditions experienced of any POW camps with very little of anything except malnutrition, cruelty and death, they were available in abundance. Gus was assigned military duty under the Australian North West Sector (part of General MacArthur’s command) and was instrumental in the fight to push the Japanese back out of their homelands.
Yvonne comments “On two occasions during my POW internment I was able to request through the Red Cross to the whereabouts of Gus, on both instances the reply came back as expired in action”. Gus also made enquiries through the Red Cross; same response “Expired”. In all Gus made some 240 front line sorties with two front line tours. “the attrition rate was terrible; you never knew when it was your turn or who of your mates wouldn’t come back” says Gus.
The 15th of August 1945 was the surrender of the Japanese and saw the release of hundreds of thousands of interned POW’s. “On hearing this news” says Gus, “I went around all of the American bases and collected surplus preserved foods, medical supplies and chocolate. I loaded the goods onto pallets and parachuted them in to all the POW camps I knew of”. Yvonne recalls “I remember August 15th vividly, the camp commander assembled us all and told us we were free to go! The joy that we felt was momentous.
“I cannot express enough of how we all felt…. We were free… Shortly after I recall an aircraft flying over very low backwards and forwards, waving it’s wings at us and dropping some boxes with parachutes attached. Chocolate! Yes, there is a God! I still get shivers now realizing that was Gus”. Miraculously, Yvonne’s family had survived, although it took some time before her father was reunited. They were in bad shape but alive. They found their way back to their pre-war home, which was still standing but not liveable.
Prior to their capture in 1942 Yvonne’s mother had buried a jar full of family jewels and money next to the water well and to their amazement it was still there. They bartered with some of the locals for a chicken, “By today’s standards that chicken cost probably $25,000, because you could not get any change from a diamond bracelet” say Yvonne. They hid in the water well for 3 weeks as the Indonesian revolution was now in full swing and they were now caught up in that. “It was so dangerous, and you could not blend because we were white. We were emancipated by the Americans and taken to their base where we were made human again” recalls Yvonne.
Upon the Japanese pulling out of the NEI Gus was made Squadron Leader of 18th Squadron which was eventually based in Chililitan on the island of Java. “We were assigned clean up duties, to help control the evacuation of the Japanese and the uprising of the Indonesians” Said Gus. Yvonne recalls, “I was evacuated to Holland, I’d never even seen snow before!, to military school. Yes I was marching, firing a gun, taught to type and to drive. I enquired once again with the Red Cross about Gus and I got the same reply, expired in action, I carried a sadness with me for a long while after that. I was moved around for a year and a half and then I was assigned a post to the army barracks in Chililitan in later part of 1947”.
Meanwhile at the army barracks, only 5km away, Gus comments.
“I had heard from the commanding officer of the neighbouring Army camp who was a good friend of mine that there was a new intake of Woman’s army recruits arriving in the next couple of weeks” Say Gus with a gleam in his eye, “So, I said to my operations officer, I think we should show them a party 18th Squadron style!”. So, the preparations commenced, music, food, alcohol (which was not available except from the Americans) and a clean out of one of the bigger aircraft hangers.
Yvonne arrived after an exhausting trip from Holland along with a group of other female Army personnel. “I was so glad to be back in my home country, the warmth, the sun”. She settled into her new comfortably familiar surroundings where she learnt to drive a Willies jeep amongst many other tasks. She had heard that there was a party at the air force barracks, so she and a few of her girlfriends set about getting prepared for what was to be an earth-shattering event.
Gus was in his dress uniform and getting prepared to officially open the party. Yvonne was getting the final touches ready on her evening dress. They both arrived to the 18th Squadron aircraft hangar – for some reason Yvonne missed the opening, however the party was well on its way when it came time for Gus to retire, he left the building. As he walked down the stairs Yvonne was walking up the other side. They stopped and looked at each other. “Hey, I thought to myself” Gus said, “that looks like Yvonne…… but it can’t be she’s dead…. No… it can’t be, anyway she had blonde hair”. Yvonne thought the same thing “That looks like Gus, can’t be… he’s dead… he had hair! No.. it can’t be”. They both kept walking… That night Yvonne could not sleep, she tossed and turned and with the new dawn she asked to see the commanding officer. She sat with him and asked if he knew a Gus Winckel. He replied, why Gus yes of course he is a good friend he is the Squadron Leader for the 18th – Yvonne broke down and told him the story, about the red cross and with that he got on the phone and spoke with Gus “Gus I have got someone with me that wants to meet you… Stay where you are and I’ll see you in 15 min”. He personally drove Yvonne. Yvonne walked into Gus’s office and said “Hey, remember me? You said I was the prettiest girl in Malang!”. They were married the next day 20th Dec 1947 – her dress was made from a parachute.
A lot has happened since then. But you are both still with me every day. You both served in WWII but you will always serve to be my heroes.
Gus Winckel passed away in Pukekohe, New Zealand on August 13th 2013, at almost 101 years of age. Yvonne Winckel passed away in Pukekohe, New Zealand on August 3rd 2019. just over 97 years of age.