If we have to believe the art of astrology then we may well be predestined to follow a specific path in life, because allegedly, our “destiny” is written in the stars. One day you’ll get there whether you want to or not. Fate doesn’t seem to care much about the potholes along the road or the bridges that have collapsed along the way; apparently, fate simply goes around it or swims to the other side.
And so December 1970 would be the last time that I climbed out of the turret of a Centurion tank destined for the Iron curtain in West-Germany. It would be another seven years however, after rather a lot of blood, sweat and tears, before I would, at last reach my destiny and climb into the cockpit of an airplane. Yet, before that was allowed to happen, the stars had suddenly realized they had missed out an entire chapter and they quickly arranged for a few serious potholes and collapsed bridges along the road. Jupiter, shining bright, looked down on me saying something like, “What are you complaining about boy? You’re the one who at school was always dreaming, no let me correct that, fantasying about Africa or the Amazon or whatever, deep impenetrable jungles, adventure and all that sort of things; now you’re there, so enjoy it and stop annoying me by pretending you don’t like it, you’ll get used to it, they all do.”
‘Yah well,’ I said, ‘you don’t have to take everything serious you know, we were just teenagers for Pete’s sake, it just looked romantic from a distance.’
‘Oh but it is romantic… and deadly.’
In the back I heard Venus nearly doubled over in laughter; “Yah, just like you are dreaming of Claudia Cardinale or Annita Ekberg right?”
‘Well we can dream, can’t we? Who rattled your cage anyway? Do you too have a plan for me? like a cross-eyed fat blob girlfriend just to piss me off or what?’ I answered full of defiance.
‘Oh no, not at all darling, on the contrary, along your road I have scattered a few very interesting specimens, both blonde and dark-haired, but before you can hold her hand you will first have to survive… because you see, my friend Mars too has a plan for you, but for now, that can wait – meanwhile, have fun, enjoy the ride, it’s going to be interesting.’
‘That’s really comforting, thank you.’ I answered taken aback.
Thus ended my private conversation with the stars and I was now hanging over the railing looking full of wonder at the Atlantic Ocean gliding by under the troop-transport ship taking me to a faraway Dutch colony called, “Suriname”, nestled between French Guiana and ex British Guiana… most of it covered by Amazonian Jungles. How had that happened? Well, it all began sometimes in 1969, just after I had finished a stint of fourteen months in Israel, another adventure I should perhaps write about one day. But all good things come to an end, at some stage life gets in the way; it was time to get a job. Through a Dutch friend of mine, from my school days in Switzerland, Remi Mignot, I somehow landed a job in a thriving import-export company in Amsterdam. Now Amsterdam might be a fun city with great Indonesian food, glamorous restaurants, great bars and fast women and I’m sure the job would have been interesting but deep in there, somewhere hidden in the back of my head, I felt that I belonged in the cockpit of an airplane. Flying a desk was not quite my idea of fun, no matter how promising.
“Oh you want to fly?” the recruiter said. ‘Well, you’re not the only one and I can’t promise you’ll even get close to an airplane but sign here boy and we’ll call you for the selection program… you do realise only the best get in right.”
‘Yeah, yeah of course, now, can I borrow your pen please?’
Hah, when we were young we were so full of shit and of course we knew everything and we knew nothing. Well, after four days of rigorous testing, mainly academic, a Sergeant Major called me in and announced I had not made the grade, I wasn’t going to go on to the next stage - the physical. Another broken dream I guess.
‘Well you can re-apply in two years from now boy, gives you time to grow up. Say, while you’re here, why don’t you join up in the meantime?’
Yes why don’t I? I’ve got nothing better to do anyway, or do I? And so in the late spring 1970 I found myself in Amersfoort in the Prince Willem III barracks and its prestigious cavalry school. At the back of the building, there were still rings on the walls where once upon a time soldiers had attached their horses. Of course, the cavalry soldiers had long since traded in their horses for Centurion and Leopard tanks and armoured personnel carriers.
After six months, during a conversation with a Master Sergeant, talking about the Korean War his memories drifted towards the colonies, faraway places like Indonesia, New Guinea and - Suriname.
I must have sighed, ‘those were the days eh? But those places are all gone now’.
‘No, not all, we still have a few.
‘We still have colonies?’ I asked surprised. ‘You mean like Curaçao or Aruba and those islands?’ ‘No, No sir, those are for the Navy and the Marines, sissy stuff, white beaches and warm water. No, we’re talking about Suriname here, pure jungle and adventure, this is for real soldiers. They are the last of the Colonial Army; no one gets sent out there you know, it’s an all-volunteer regiment, completely different from the regular army. Guys going out there have to be motivated and have a taste for adventure.’
Unfortunately, today I can’t remember his name but if there is one thing I do remember about the old sergeant, is that he certainly was a “motivator”. Throughout the time I spent in the Cavalry, he was always looking to get the best out of us, sniffing out leadership qualities, never shy to bestow praise and reward on us. It was no accident that thanks to Sergeant “Motivator”, within a month, I had signed on for a minimum of twelve months service in the Colonial Army.
After spending Christmas with my mother, in my home town Lausanne, I took the train back to Holland and reported for duty at the Isabella Military Barrack in Den Bosch. Ten days later, on the fifth of January 1971, our transport ship, the Oranje Nassau left the port of Amsterdam, to the tune of a military band. Parents and probably a few tearful girlfriends, were frantically waving their soldier boyfriends’ goodbye for at least a year. I suspect some will have received a “dear John” letter at some stage along their long separations, but that’s the risk of joining Her Majesty’s Colonial Regiment for a lengthy service in her overseas dominions; most, like myself, were unattached.
Soon we crossed the North Sea for a short stop at South Hampton and then for fifteen days nothing but the Atlantic Ocean.
The two platoons and a number of individual soldiers, chauffeurs, cooks, mechanics and such were somewhere down there on lower decks of the ship, of what ones upon a time was called - steerage. Officers, none commissioned-officers and a few others were billeted in cabins on the upper decks.
Four of us were in the last cabin at the stern of the ship adjacent to the nursery. If I recall well there were two ladies taking care of half a dozen children and by the time we reached the Gulf of Biscay – in the middle of the winter – the ladies were going to have their hands full, soon all hell broke loose. All-round windows allowed an almost hundred-and-eighty degree view from the nursery to what lay beyond and the view it offered was both beautiful and scary; while the bow of the ship plunged head-on into the waves, the stern heaved out of the water and all we could see for a short moment was the grey clouds hanging low over the ocean; simultaneously we heard the propellers turning into thin air before crashing back down into the water - then all we saw were the waves, a raging ocean in full turmoil. One of my room-mates, Ed Stok, was seated in the lotus position in front of the door in the corridor in a state of catatonic meditation pretending it wasn’t happening. Another guy whose name I can’t remember (perhaps Rikmanspoel) managed to fall asleep on his knees with his arse in the air waking up the next morning in exactly the same position.
I went on deck to get some air and was rewarded with generous amounts of seawater in my face. One of the soldiers, who had somehow managed to climb the stair from the inner bowels of the ship, was ostensibly experiencing the ultimate show of his life as he repeated over and over howls like, ‘Wonderful, wow, look at that one, beautiful’, and contrarily to various others, there was nothing wrong with his bowels. I think he could have spent the entire day up there on the deck admiring the fury of nature if it wasn’t for members of the crew ordering us inside for safety reasons. The show lasted about four days and then one morning we woke up to a far calmer sea with sunny skies and we began sailing from winter into summer and eventually into more tropical latitudes; the remainder of the voyage was a lot more like a pleasure cruise.
But, good things seem to have the annoying habit of coming to an abrupt end, and so after fifteen, perhaps sixteen days at sea the Oranje Nassau at last, slowly sailed up the twenty-kilometre long estuary of the Suriname River. As we passed Nieuw Amsterdam, the south bank of the river appeared green and dark, our first glimpse at "jungle". The gentle tropical sea breeze had now been replaced by an all-encompassing humid heat that clung to us like a hot wet cloth.
After an hour on the river, the ship moored on the Waterkant near Ford Zeelandia. I don’t remember much about the arrival but I’m fairly sure there was no military band welcoming us, there was, however a line of three-ton trucks awaiting us and our belongings for transport to the military camp (PBK – Prins Bernard Camp) in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname.
At PBK we were welcomed by the commander of the Colonial Troops in Suriname, a Colonel, who without any doubt told us that contrarily to appearances, we were not an occupation force, on the contrary, we were here to protect the population and the realm, consequently we were expected to act accordingly. Under this thin veneer of respectability it was clear that above all we were here to keep order, discourage revolt and dissuade hostile neighbours from invading the country to get their hands on the lucrative bauxite business that anything from beer cans to airplanes are made out of – aluminium.
To achieve all that with a minuscule armed force of less than a thousand men in a country of 163,821 km², we occupied an equally small number of Forward Operating Bases, some of them resembling similar bases in Vietnam during that period complete with sandbags and watch towers. The welcome speeches were followed by some colourful advice from the medical officer who instructed us on personal hygiene and to change underwear and jungle fatigues every day, ‘Don’t worry about using up jungle boots and uniforms, we’ve got plenty of them. Oh, and for those of you who are destined for the infantry you won’t spend much time in the city but if you feel the urge to visit the “ladies of the night”, you may find them not particularly enticing. Should you nevertheless feel that you have to put this to the test then don’t be surprised if, during the act of copulation, you feel something dripping on your back then it is more than likely that the lady is peeling an orange simultaneously between two pretended ooh’s and ah’s.’
There was some laughter and then we were off to supplies to be equipped with a rather long list of everything we were going to need for our year-long stay.
At the supply facility, Captain de Bruin, our company commander, later promoted to Major, was seated on a swivel chair perpendicular to a desk, leaning back with his legs straight in front of him and lazily tapping the curser of a typewriter like a machine gun. He had that light around him, that aura, almost like a film star, like John Wayne. He was a big guy, with broad shoulders who looked everything like a leader. He had that slight air of amusement, calmly observing every man standing in line soon to be equipped. He must have been thinking, ‘You poor suckers, you have no idea what’s awaiting you, have you?’
By the time we came out of the supply depot we looked a lot more like World War two soldiers on our way to fight the Japs or Indonesian guerrillas than a modern army, heavily laden with a long list of equipment, from backpacks, mosquito nets, to helmets, machetes, a stack of fatigues and Khakis, and oh, and a lightweight semi-automatic carbine, the legendary 30 calibre M1 Carbine. Mine was made by Winchester; others were manufactured by car companies like General Motors, all of them manufactured during W.W. II. Many of them were later used in Korea and Vietnam – and now by us.
Meanwhile I had now officially become a member of an all-volunteer crack infantry battalion, for the time being attached to the 4th platoon of the Alpha Company, a black beret, a tank boy without a tank on my way to becoming a jungle fighter and a green beret. At that time most of the boys had no idea how special they really were; only a minuscule fraction of the armed forces was selected to go to the colonies and all of them had to volunteer for at least a year, and when their time was done and the last of the last would leave in December 1975, just like the Indonesian Colonial Army (KNIL), they too would become “The Forgotten Army”, relegated to the dustbin of history.
But we weren’t there yet, instead, once again we boarded our designated trucks for the journey to our first destination: Zanderij, BBZ, a jungle training camp situated right at the edge of the Jungle and the adjacent savanna. Apart from a training facility, Zanderij also had another function; it was strategically situated very close to the main airport, its secondary function was to protect the airport in case of trouble. After a trip of about ninety minutes, the trucks suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere and we were politely but urgently asked to get the hell out of the vehicles and leave our belongings behind except of course for our weapon. The road on both sides was surrounded by thick jungle and nowhere to go. In Paramaribo however, a sergeant first-class, one of several Dutch Indonesians had joined us and he was now clearly taking the lead, officers present or not.
He led us along a narrow path till we reached a railroad track laid down on sand surrounded by thick forest on all sides that was reminiscent of the railroad featured in: the “Last train out of the Katanga”.
We began moving in a long single file towards the darkening tunnel of vegetation where the track seemed to disappear swallowed up by the jungle never to be seen again. Just at the moment, however, when everyone began to feel relaxed, a machine gun, hidden a mere hundred meters ahead of us, opened fire on us with a deafening roar. Untrained soldiers stood around doing nothing. Lieutenant Moone of the 3rd platoon and I were the only soldiers that had been under fire in other parts of the world and both of us began yelling to get troops moving up the berm and into the forest. I had nothing to command at all because that should have been the job of another lieutenant in charge, but old habits kick in instantaneously. After a little moment of noise and smoke the gun ceased firing and the Indonesian Drill Sergeant yelled, ‘It’s all right now ladies, you can all come out of hiding, that was just the camp’s welcoming comity. By the way, obviously, those were blanks but many of you are dead anyway because most of you stood around doing nothing… Now line up and continue.
It may have been another kilometre, or it may have been less, but somehow, we reached the famous Zanderij Military Camp where we were welcomed with a lukewarm soft drink, called a “Soffie”. It was the tradition on arrival, to empty our “Soffies”, a sweet drink in one go.
‘Gentlemen,’ Captain de Bruin said in a calm voice, ‘welcome to your new home for the next two and a half months. You are now members of a unique regiment, the only true colonial regiment left; tomorrow you will begin your training, you will learn how to live and survive in the jungle, you will learn how to patrol and fight in a challenging environment. At the end of that period you will come out as true jungle fighters just like the previous colonial troops in Indonesia and New-Guinee and those who fought against the Japs during World War Two – make me proud, and above all, make yourself proud.’
Thus began the first day of our four-hundred and fifty days in various camps and the jungles of Suriname, including the sea voyages – many of us counted the days but for all of us it was still the greatest adventure ever.