Nicolaas Johannes Snijder was born in 1924, and his childhood was divided between his native Holland and the colonial Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. Indonesia and other European colonies had valuable oil and rubber reserves, so inevitably, Indonesia was going to be targeted by the Axis when the Netherlands was invaded and occupied by Germany on May 10, 1940.
In 1941, barely aged 17, Nico enlisted in the Dutch Navy, following his father and grandfather. Shortly afterwards, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbour and within six weeks the Japanese war machine had overthrown the Philippines, Singapore, Borneo and the Dutch East Indies and commenced bombing Australia. The Netherlands under siege by the Germans had no choice but to declare war on Japan basing their forces from Australia.
IN THE DEEP END
After his training ship was bombed, Nico was placed on the HMS De Ruyter. WWII in the Pacific theatre was always tit for tat, and although US and Dutch naval and aircraft destroyers intercepted a convoy headed for Sulawesi, and five inch grenades took out a Japanese plane, the Allies suffered in most battles with the swift, shrewd and fanatical Japanese navy. The De Ruyter’s 40mm guns bested another plane before it kamikaze’d the USS Marblehead, but the USS Houston was taken out, with 63 men killed between the two ships, and a retreat was ordered.
“Initially I had a childlike trust in the navy,” Nico later wrote in his memoir, “although there were adults who showed signs of breakdowns.” Everything was disorganised, despite the USA, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands ostensibly working together. The Japanese had soon taken Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines, their torpedoes took out three Allied ships, and just before midnight on February 27, 1942, the De Ruyter was torpedoed.
“The shock went right through the ship. There were no lights... my mind went blank. I heard voices, but none of them made sense. The ship went silent, its engines throbbed until they stopped and it lost momentum. We were sinking, and the ship keeled over on the starboard side. We were ordered to leave, but most lifeboats were on the wrong side of the ship. The deck was on fire and ammunition was exploding all around me. I was advised to jump over the side. Admiral Doorman and Commandant La Cobé went down with the ship, standing on the portside wing of the command tower.”
Hot pieces of exploding ammunition landed sizzling in the water all around him, but luckily he was picked up on one of the dodgy life rafts the next morning. “There was an English officer from the ship Exeter,” Nico recalls. “He held a small bible, and even though it was soaking wet, he kept reading and praying.”
Altogether, 345 Allied sailors had died in what became known as the Battle of the Java Sea. They drifted until late the next day. A passing Japanese warship ignored the castaways. “We tried to paddle to a nearby island but this was impossible as the rafts were octagon shaped, and when evening fell, it was then that I lost hope and called out for my mother.”
PRISONER OF WAR
Eventually, the survivors clambered aboard a Japanese destroyer, whereupon a Japanese officer punched the 17 year old in the face. “Then they crammed us in the anchor hold – it was agonising, we couldn’t sit, and we were flung around with the movement of the ship. It was a giant steel box with a lid. It was one of the worst times of my life – I could feel the vibrations as depth charges exploded. We were in constant fear of being pulled into the anchor hole and turned into mincemeat.”
After two weeks, Nico was taken to his first prisoner of war camp, back on Sulawesi. “There was nothing in my life to prepare me for what I was experiencing. When the food was distributed, I had been used to letting the elders and higher-ranking eat first but I soon learned that to stay alive, I had to make sure I got my fair share, or it was nothing at all.
At an age when most of us are boy racing or chasing girls, Nico Snijder found himself starving and sleeping on a bare floor with no blanket or mattress. A Japanese sergeant major who knew ju jitsu passed the time by beating up bigger, taller POWs. When two Dutchmen escaped, the Japanese paid natives to capture them, and they were brought back a week later and beaten for two days until their bones were sticking out of their calves. They were then taken to a football field and beheaded. Conditions were even worse for a Jew in the camp who complained that his food had pork in it: a bayonet blade was stuck into the ground and the Jew was ordered to do push-ups over it, with the sharp point touching his belly.
In October 1942, 3200 Allied POWs were shipped to Japan. The bitterly cold winter was a horrible greeting for Nico and the men, still clad in tropical shorts and singlets. They were given second-hand tracksuits contaminated with lice, and put to work building ships based on blueprints stolen by the Japanese from the US. Nico was horrified to find himself pounding giant red-hot rivets into ships’ hulls while dangling metres above the ground. “Once, an American chap slipped and fell down into a heap of steel offcuts. Of course he was dead. For me, it was a horrible sight to see that body with pieces of metal sticking through it.” But it could have been worse, and although they were starving and dizzy, they still managed to sabotage the hulls of the ships. The idea was that a Japanese ship would set sail, but fall apart in battle - it served the Japanese right for relying upon slave labour for 33% of their workforce.
Slowly, 1943 passed into 1944. Life wasso monotonous that they spent the day telling riddles, and many sketched pictures of their dream women, or food parcels. Now working as a blacksmith, Nico contracted pneumonia twice and had constant eye problems because of the blinding welding work on the ships. The only remedy he was given was a blanket. “One night in the sickbay, I had to share a blanket with an Englishman. We went to sleep sharing warmth. When I woke up, the Englishman was stiff as anything because he’d died during the night and I hadn’t realised.” The resilient Nico pulled through and continued learning English from his fellow captives.
Then, a medical doctor decided he was fit enough to work in a lignite coal mine 90 minutes outside Nagasaki. The mine was 2000 feet down, the layer of coal was on a 45 degree angle, dynamite killed workers regularly, and there was only five feet to stand up in. He wondered when it would all end.
“Foodwise, mostly we were fed sweepings off the shed floors where the soya and rice barley were stored. One Japanese thought it was a good idea to soak the beans in caustic soda, so you can imagine what happened when we ate them - the food went straight through us – people had to go to the toilet where they stood, on the spot. Always there was the threat of that soy bean incident every time we had something to eat afterwards. There were people who lost hope and you could see them slowly dying in front of your eyes.”
However, as Shane recalls, “Dad didn’t have any animosity against the Japanese after the war, simply for the fact that a couple of the guards used to give them opium, which took their mind off the [lack of] eating.” When the occasional Red Cross relief parcel did make it through, a committee divvied everything up. It’s hard to imagine how incredible this would have tasted to men who had been starved and fed poison for four years. The Red Cross provided chocolate, corned beef, Christmas pudding, butter and maple syrup, but most sought-after was the milk powder, which each prisoner had to eat from a single moistened finger, as there were no plates or cutlery.
DEUS EX MACHINA
On August 9, 1945, something incredible happened. “We were on the night shift. Suddenly all the lights went out in our coal mining tunnel. The air stopped flowing in and all the Japanese were gone. It took two hours to climb out via ladders. From a hilltop, we saw one giant smoke cloud hanging over Nagasaki. Gleefully, we thought the Americans had hit an ammunition dump. We went to a hot pool, then back to the camp, where we were greeted by a stony silence: the guards were intimidated by what had happened. They didn’t prod or hit us. An interpreter told us that there was a ceasefire.”
The war was over: no more poison, or torture, or 14 hour shifts in the bowels of hell. “Just before we went down to do our day’s work in the mine, there had been a couple of guys painting a wall. When everyone surfaced, the shadows of those guys had been burned into the wall.”
Nico must have pinched himself constantly to see if he was dreaming. His weight had plummeted from 100kg to a horrifying 29kg. But American B29 bombers were dropping inspirational leaflets (pictured) followed by food parcels – this was really happening.
In the month before he shipped out, Nico toured Japan, including the ruins of Nagasaki. “When I looked around, nothing could prepare me for what I saw. I saw houses flattened. I saw Japanese fossicking among the ruins of their homes, picking up what they could. The city was flattened. The melted ground was like glass in places.”
Shane doesn’t remember his dad having been ruined by the camp - Nico came out with a passion for food and cooking. Although he had become so skinny that he could do chinups with one hand, four years of the worst deprivation possible had given him a hunger for success. He re-enlisted in the navy, and then the merchant navy, and by 1950 he had been from Okinawa to the Philippines to Holland, Sydney, England, Panama and Tahiti. Having had the best years of his youth stolen from him, he now got a chance to drink and dance with his first girl.
Eventually, he was inspired by a picture book of New Zealand, and upon arriving in Wellington he was given work on the railway in Otago. Arriving with only £10, he gave almost half of everything he had to an appeal to help flood relief in Holland. Soon enough, the unbreakable boy bought a book on French cooking, landed increasingly prestigious cooking jobs in Wanaka, Te Anau, Queensland and eventually Cape Reinga, where he ran the famous Waitiki Landing tea rooms, and the rest is history.
If you have been moved by Nico’s story and would like to donate to the Red Cross, please visit www.redcross.org.nz