First English translation of Dutch guerilla’s extraordinary memoir of World War II in West Papua

Henri Licht, a Dutch-Australian writer, was the key speaker at the Federal Republic of West Papua (FRWP) Open Day in Docklands on 4 August 2019. Henri had just finished translating Vij Vochten in het bos a WWII memoir by Sergeant Maurits Christiaan Kokkelink (We fought in the jungle) published in Amsterdam in 1956 but never reprinted, and found in a second-hand bookstore in Ljouwert, capital of the northern province of Friesland.

We fought in the jungle: my guerrilla struggle in New Guinea in the Second World War is an extraordinary story of courage, ferocity, and the determination of men, a woman and teenage girl as they fight and evade Japanese military in West Papua from April 1942 until the dramatic and devastating arrival of MacArthur’s US-Australian taskforces in April 1944.   In the beginning there were 62 men, a teenage-girl and her aunt; thirty months later when they made contact with a Dutch-military search party there were just fourteen men, the girl (Coosje Ayal) and her uncle.

FRWP Womens Office (Docklands) organised and published an English translation of the WWII memoir because it is a West Papuan story as much as a Dutch story; about a time when ‘self-determination’ over-rode the benevolent paternalism that had characterized Dutch governance before the war, and colonizer and colonised decided to work together for a more equitable future.  Kokkelink, Isaac Kijn, Freerk Kamma, Vic de Bruijn, Jan van Eechoud, Joseph Luns, are just some of the Dutch men and women who influenced the West Papuans’ shift from a nation of tribes to the nation-state they are today, and worked with them against Indonesia’s colonization of the indigenous Melanesian people.

Maurits Kokkelink was scratching a living farming when Hitler occupied his father’s homeland in 1940 and when Japan bombed his little hut in Manokwari on the north coast of West Papua in April 1942. Rather than surrender, he rejoined the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, and learned the guerilla art of freedom-fighting on-the-job: from surviving on roots and leaves, to shooting and seizing weapons, hiding in mud in mosquito-infested mangrove swamps with no potable water, organising a marriage-based military alliance with a Papuan chief; once jumping with two of his men, during the night, from a cliff into a river thirty metres below to elude the posse of eleven-hundred Japanese soldiers armed with a ten-thousand guilder bounty to capture him.  It was not until 4 October 1944—after Macarthur’s taskforce had thoroughly bombed West Papua’s north coast—that he permitted a Papuan runner to contact a Dutch-military search party. Tired and malnourished he nevertheless went onto to find and liberate 170 Dutch women and children from an internment camp in the jungle; led a taskforce cleaning up Japanese troops on Noemfoor Island, entered occupied Manokwari dressed like a Papuan and found the enemy’s radar station that was still intercepting Allied air traffic between Brisbane and New Guinea.  On 6 August 1945, at a military camp in Brisbane (Australia) he was awarded the Militaire Willems-Orde, the Dutch Kingdom’s oldest and highest military honour. Then he returned to Manokwari to rebuild his home in the land he’d learned to love and had done so much to defend. But West Papua was no place for this Indo-Dutchman after the United Nations gifted West Papua to Indonesia in 1962, and Kokkelink and his family sought refuge in Holland, then Suriname (a constituent country of the Netherlands) and ultimately in French Guiana where he died in 1995.

Lieutenant General Van Oyen pins Militaire Willems Orde on Sergeant Maurits Christiaan Kokkelink. Camp Columbia, Queensland, 6 August 1945.

Henri Licht, who translated the work, is a Tolstoy scholar, regards himself an anarcho-socialist, and was once the Vice-Principal of Lilydale High School and lecturer at Victoria University.  He lives with his Sikh wife Ubdesh, his water tanks and large garden in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne, and is writing a novel about English convict boys sent to Point Puer in the Tasman peninsula between 1834 and 1849.  His 2015 memoir By the scruff of the neck; a suitcase of memories captures his family’s migration to Australia in 1952 and life in the Bonegilla migrant camp. He has always been a strong advocate of Australia recognizing West Papuans’ sovereignty over the magnificent land they have called home for centuries.

Media Statement: We fought in the jungle, Launch, FRWP Office (Docklands), Open Day, 8 August 2019 [click to read] Media, We fought in the jungle, FRWP Open Day, 8 Aug 2019

Audio-recording: Henri Licht, We fought in the jungle; Launch, FRWP Office (Docklands), Open Day, 8 August 2019 [click for listen]

Audio-recording: Henri Licht, 3CR Radio Radical Australia with Dr Joe Toscano, 31 July 2019

Canberra launch, Netherlands Australia War Memorial. Australia West Papua Assoc (Melb) featured We fought in the jungle during a special ceremony on 9 September 2019 to honour the friendship and work of Dutch, Australians and West Papuans during World War Two.  Speakers included Babuan Mirino (President, Australia West Papua Assoc-Melb) and Henri Licht. Harold Wilkinson (United Nations Association of Australia) read a review of the memoir written by Professor John Langmore who was instrumental in the founding and funding of the memorial.

PDF: Professor John Langmore’s comment for launch of We fought in the jungle at Netherlands Australia War Memorial [click to read] John Langmore, Review, We fought in the jungle, 09:09:19 

PDF photo-essay: Ceremony, Netherlands Australia War Memorial [click to view] Powerpoint, 21 Sept 2019, Netherlands Australia War Memorial

PDF-scan: King Willem-Alexander’s endorsement [click to view] King Willem-Alexander’s endorsement, letter.jpg

Reference details for photographs of Sergeant Maurits Kokkelink:
i) Award Ceremony, 6 August 1945: Lt-General Van Oyen pins Militaire Willems Orde on Sergeant Kokkelink. Camp Columbia, Queensland, 6 August 1945 (Dutch Ministry of Defense, Institute of Military History, Collection: Photographs, Royal Dutch Army, Item No 2155_022832) 

ii) In the mess after the award ceremony: Lt-Gen. Van Oyen, Sgt. Maurits Kokkelink RMWO, Lt-Governor General Dr. Van Mook (Ministry of Defense, Institute of Military History, Collection: Photographs, Royal Dutch Army, Item No 2155_022826) 

After the award ceremony: (Ministry of Defense, Institute of Military History, Collection: Photographs, Royal Dutch Army, Item No 2155_022827)

The Courier Mail, 9 August 1945

Painting from New Guinea by Maurits son Coen Robert Kokkelink