Home Is The Sailor
One of the decisive sea battles of history was fought last week in the placid
waters between Java and Borneo. It was the naval battle for Java. It was a
battle for the last bulwark against Japanese conquest of the Indies, a battle
for the Southwest Pacific, a battle for a great chunk of the world's seas and
sea power. It was a battle fought too late and in the wrong place, lost before
The commander of the allied Dutch and U.S. Fleets* knew that the battle was
lost. Vice Admiral C. E. L. Helfrich's orders to the Dutchmen and the gentle,
excited Indonesians on his own ships, to the hard young men on the U.S. ships,
said as much. His orders were to attack the oncoming, superior enemy at all
costs, to kill Japs and sink Jap ships regardless of the risk to Allied lives
and outnumbered Allied ships. If the Jap could not now be stopped at sea, almost
within gunshot of the Java coast, at least he could be made to pay.
The Jap Paid. Dutch and U.S. cruisers and destroyers sighted a great
Japanese convoy of 40 transports, 20 warships. The transports stayed well away
from the naval combatants-a precautionary measure which they seemed to follow
throughout the Java invasion. At twelve-mile range the Allied cruisers loosed
their main batteries on the Japanese. Destroyers closed with shell and torpedo
fire. A Japanese heavy cruiser sank. Another Jap cruiser-the Mogami,
whose main batteries had apparently been converted from 6.1-to 8-in.
guns—retired in flames. Hits crippled a third 8-in. gun cruiser. Three Jap
destroyers blazed up, appeared to be sinking when the attackers last saw them.
Allied bombers reported hits on two more Jap cruisers; at least 17 Jap
transports were bombed, shelled or torpedoed.
But in the Batavia accounts, there was a strangely light accent on air
attack. Perhaps the always insufficient Allied bomber force was reserved for the
land battle. Perhaps it had been depleted in earlier battles.
The Allies Paid. A lone Dutch destroyer attacked two Japanese
cruisers, kept her guns going until she ran aground. In the night, when the
Japanese were converging on central Java from east and west, two Dutch cruisers
ran straight into an enemy fleet. Both cruisers sank, apparently torpedoed. Two
Allied destroyers went down; since Batavia did not say they were Dutch, they
were probably U.S. ships. Tokyo boasted that the Japanese had sunk eleven Allied
warships, but clouded its claims by ignoring known Japanese losses.
Outnumbered, outgunned, sorely in need of heavy cruisers to bolster their
light naval units, the Allies took a beating off Java. The Dutch had started the
war with five cruisers: the loss was a severe blow to total cruiser strength in
the Indies. For his losses, the Jap got his landings on Java (see p. 16). For
the Allies, graver than their total loss in ships was the immediate threat to
their last naval base in the Indies.
These things the stolid, seawise commander of the Allied fleets in the Indies
weighed at his headquarters in Java. When events go badly for Vice Admiral
Helfrich, he does not rant or snarl or gloom. He goes grim. This week he was
Son of Java. Only to a Dutchman in the Dutch East Indies could the
certainty that the Japs were coming mean what it meant to Conrad Helfrich. For,
if the Japs were coming to the Indies, they were coming to his home. They were
coming to Semarang, the town on the Java coast where his father practiced
medicine and where he was born 55 years ago. They were coming to the cool, ugly
house in Batavia where he lived with his wife, his twin sons, his two daughters.
The Japs were coming to the quiet inland kampongs, where Conrad Helfrich had
many a trusting native friend, where many good brown sailors and soldiers had
grown up for service in his ships.
The Japs were coming to the Harmonic Club in Batavia, to the sumptuous Grand
Hotel Preanger in Bandung, to the Navy Club in Surabaya, where Conrad Helfrich
had passed many solid Dutch afternoons in drink and talk. They were coming to
the tin mines, the oil wells, the rice sawahs, the cinchona groves, the rubber
plantations where for money and empire many a Dutchman had sweated out his life.
To Conrad Helfrich, as to all true colonial Dutchmen, these islands were home in
a sense that Holland never could be. Now Hitler had Holland, and the Indies was
their only home, and Java was all they had left of the Indies. They had no other
place to go.
More than most professional military and naval men, Conrad Helfrich embodied
for his countrymen this Dutch sense of home, of a rooted life in his own land.
The quality distinguished him and his colonial fellows from the imperial
transients of other "colonies." It fired them to a fierce preparation, a planned
thoroughness of resistance which the British in Burma and Malaya and dozing
Americans in Honolulu and Manila patently lacked when the Japs first came. This
was the quality, the mighty intangible, which Conrad Helfrich, the Indies'
Lieut. Governor Hubertus van Mook and other Batavia spokesmen meant when they
cried to their allies to stand with the Dutch, to risk everything and put
everything into the defense of Java.
Son of History. Dutchmen without a home founded the Dutch Navy. They
bequeathed to the Dutch sailors of Conrad Helfrich's day a tradition second to
none for daring, seacraft and victory against great odds. They called themselves
Les gueux de mer (Sea Beggars)—the Dutch corsairs who fled conquered Holland in
the late 1500s, then harried Spanish shipping and once sailed a fleet inland
across flooded fields to relieve beleaguered Leiden.
In Admiral Helfrich's veins runs the
same sort of blood as that of the great
Dutch naval heroes: Admiral Martin Harpertzoon Tromp, who fought the Spaniards
and the British with equal ferocity and died with a British musket ball in his
heart; his subordinate and student, Michel de Ruyter, whose conquering fleet
once sailed up the Medway to within 30 miles of London; Vice Admiral Pieter
Pieterzoon Hein, a splendid buccaneer who earned fame, plunder and death at the
hands of Dunkirk pirates. These and other 17th-Century seadogs won for the Dutch
the empire whose rich remnants Conrad Helfrich had to defend.
Son of the Sea. Fighting the Japanese first became Conrad Helfrich's serious
study when he was a chubby cadet at Den Helder, the Royal Naval College in
Holland. The curriculum was pointed at the Japanese, because even then the Dutch
Navy expected that some day it would have to fight Japan in the Indies. Cadet
Helfrich took this and all phases of his studies very seriously. He never
excelled at anything except at working hard. He got good grades, but he never
won prizes. He sailed small boats, but never won races. The other cadets seldom
saw him lounging about the streets, loafing amid the yellow buildings at Den
Helder. He was a solid character, even to look at from behind, with his broad
Dutch bottom, below the high, blue, single-breasted jackets the cadets wore.
They and their instructors considered Conrad Helfrich a sound man; they felt in
him a force that marked him for something more than a naval drudge.
At about the same time (1907), the Navy was licking into shape a professional
copy of Conrad Helfrich. That was Johannes Theodprus Furstner. An instructor at
the academy said of them: "If war comes to Holland next time the world is set
afire, I hope it comes before 1942, because Helfrich and Furstner will be
admirals." Admiral Furstner is now Queen Wilhelmina's Naval Minister-in-Exile.
After Cadet Helfrich became an officer, the spirit of prophecy and offense
both waxed within him. In the early 1920s, when he was teaching other young
sprouts at Den Helder, his favorite lecture was on the coming war between the
U.S. and Japan. "When?" his students would ask him, and he would boom: "In this
generation." Then he would stride to a blackboard map and chalk three Xs— on
Pearl Harbor, the Panama Canal, San Francisco. "There," he would say, "the
attacks will fall."
His prophecies grew keener. In 1925 he saw other officers smile when he led
the small Dutch Indies fleet far from its home waters-toward Malaya and Japan-to
execute problems which involved many times the few ships actually in his
command. "Don't fret," he would say, "the day will come when an English admiral,
because of our superior knowledge of these waters, will ask us to command a
combined fleet." The chief of the United Nations naval staff under Conrad
Helfrich in Java this week is the Royal Navy's Rear Admiral A. S. E. Palliser.
Helfrich's prophecies sometimes caused trouble. Two years ago he visited
Singapore. There were cocktails and good companions, but something in the
leisured air of Singapore got his Dutch up. He barked that the Japs were going
to attack Malaya, Singapore and the Indies, and when they did the defense would
be a joint job for the British, the U.S. and the Dutch. His half-amused,
half-horrified hosts asked each other: "Did you hear what that Dutchman said?"
and word got back to The Hague that an alarmist admiral was disturbing the peace
of the Pacific. Admiral Helfrich got a reprimand, almost had his career ended
then & there.
But Admirals Helfrich and Furstner, by then the dominant figures of The
Netherlands Navy, were already at work on war plans and naval expansion. Their
plan was offensive: continuous reconnaissance, hard and rapid stabs at the Jap,
as far away from the Indies as possible. Their new Navy was geared to this plan.
When war came they had five light cruisers, eight destroyers, 20 submarines and
about 30 torpedo boats, designed for maneuver in the narrow Indies waters. They
also had a small but growing naval air force.
Alone, these forces would be no match for the Japanese, and Conrad Helfrich
knew it. To cut up Japan's sea lines before they could be knitted right around
the Indies, he counted on: 1) maximum support from the U.S. and British Pacific
fleets; 2) the effectiveness of his own hit-&-run offensive.
Son of War. For Conrad Helfrich, the war with Japan really began last
July. When the Japanese sent warships into the Gulf of Siam and the South China
Sea, he saw that they were after bases in Siam and Indo-China, and he begged his
Government to let him attack forthwith. The Indies Government was more than
half-willing, but after consultations with Washington and London the answer to
Admiral Helfrich was: "No." He took his orders, but grumbled a warning: "If we
give them time to prepare bases in Siam, they will be ready to attack Singapore
in half a year."
When the Japanese attacked in December, prescient Admiral Helfrich flung up
his arms and exclaimed: "There you have it! We could have sunk their
transports." His fleet was already at sea, and 24 hours after the first Jap
attacks, his submarines sank four enemy transports off Malaya. His Navy's bag in
the first 54 days of war: 54 Jap ships.
When the U.S. Navy's Admiral Hart brought his Asiatic Fleet of cruisers,
destroyers and submarines from the Philippines into Conrad Helfrich's home
waters, Admiral Helfrich yielded the Allied naval command to his senior. Under
Admiral Hart, the little Dutch Fleet joined the little U.S. Fleet. Along with
others in the Dutch high command, Conrad Helfrich grimly set himself to a bitter
convince Washington and London that Java could be held, that the chance was
worth the maximum risk of ships and planes.
The Indies got a few, then a few more Flying Fortresses and fighters, in
command of the U.S. Army's Major General Lewis Hyde Brereton; no more of the
heavy cruisers Conrad Helfrich desperately wanted, no more destroyers than Vice
Admiral William A. Glassford Jr., the U.S. Fleet's battle commander, had brought
from the Philippines. They were perhaps all that the U.S. could get there in
time, but they were not enough.
Helfrich's way of holding, until all-out aid arrived, was to attack and
attack and attack, hitting the Japs before they were fairly launched into the
outer Indies. This offensive strategy involved great risks and probably grave
losses. But, like many an admiring U.S. naval officer, Admiral Helfrich believed
that the risks would be justified, that warships were built to be risked and
perhaps lost. But higher orders kept the combined Dutch and U.S. Fleets from the
offensive until the Japs were firmly based in the northern Celebes and upper
Borneo, were on the way down the Strait of Macassar.
Then the Allies hit hard: U.S. sea attack, Dutch and U.S. air attack ravaged
the Japs' warships and transports. But, if it had ever been early enough, it was
now too late. The Japanese secured their bases in lower Borneo, in Sumatra on
Java's western flank, in the Guineas, in Amboina and elsewhere in the east.
Java was already in the vise and the time and chance for an all-out test of
Conrad Helfrich's long-planned offensive defense had gone, when he succeeded
Admiral Hart in the supreme Indies naval command. His main base at Surabaya was
under continuous bomber attack, first from carriers, then from captured land
bases. Very soon, Vice Admiral Helfrich had on his hands a desperate job of
defense, very close to home.
The Last Shore. Java's long, open northern shore along the Java Sea
has no "logical points of attack." It is all vulnerable, replete with accessible
ports and easy landing places. Admiral Helfrich's task was now to defend that
shore by keeping the Japs away from it.
It was an impossible task. Admiral Helfrich had to be prepared for invasion
convoys on his left (Sumatra), at his center (Borneo), from his right (Bali).
Exactly what he had long dreaded, what he had long planned to prevent, had now
come to pass: the Japs were too many and too close.
The Japs landed-at Rembang, only 109 miles in Surabaya's rear and 70 miles
from the town where Conrad Helfrich was born. Admiral Helfrich's naval war was
not over; there would be still more Jap convoys to harry and ravage. But the
land battle for Java had begun. Soldiers and airmen would now do the fighting
for the sailor's home.
* Tokyo broadcasts indicated that some British and Australian warships were
also in the Indies fleet, although Allied communiques never mentioned them.
Helfrich Biography . Article List . Geographic Names
Forgotten Campaign: The Dutch East Indies Campaign 1941-1942