|On June 12th 2002 I received a phone call from Klaas Brouwer in Singapore saying that Submarine HMS O-20 had been found at the location that we had pointed out. We had seen Klaas, the leader of the expedition, and his men, off at Schiphol Airport a few days before. I could not quite understand what he said, but the gist of his words was clear.|
On June 19th I was back at Schiphol Airport, and I was allowed to hold the deck telephone in my hands. For sixty years it had connected the bridge of the submarine with the heart of the ship on the bottom of the sea. Holding it in my hands filled me with a feeling of excitement, gratitude and emotion.
That morning all men on the O-20 became my father, my son, my husband.
A few years ago Hans Besançon, like me a child of a submariner, told me that he had information about the place where my father’s ship had sunk. He asked me if I was interested in an expedition to find the K-XVI which has been missing since December 25th 1941. It took me some time to work out my thoughts and feelings about it.
The Navy Submarine Service has become part of my life since I, as a young girl, attended the memorial services at the monument in Den Helder. Although my mother remarried to a member of the Marine Corps, who was a wonderful second father to me and who raised me in his own, straightforward way, I have always felt at home and at ease with the Navy Submarine Service.
The movie my parents received from friends as a wedding present on October 3d 1941 – almost three months before his death – has survived the war and has given me a picture of my father Willem Blom. The way he moved and laughed, the way he looked at my mother. That is why, somehow, he has never really died for me. For there was a movie in which he lived!
Now I was fully aware that, somewhere, there was a place where he and the other crew members, more than 60 years ago, had experienced their final terrible moments. I also realised that it was about time that we should start looking for them. Shortly after the war there was no time, money or interest to do so. People then had to look forward: that was necessary, and that was OK.
Besançon’s message made it also possible not only to look for the location of the wreck, but perhaps also to get an answer to the numerous questions that my mother and I – and undoubtedly many other relatives – so often had asked themselves.
What happened that night? Why did the submarine sail on the surface on 25th December? Why didn’t the I-66 – the submarine that destroyed the K-XVI – look for survivors? What was the nationality of the airplane that apparently was flying over the ships during the battle? Why was my mother told by the Kempetai that my father had been beheaded? Why is there no ship’s log-book of the I-66? Why wasn’t the K-XVI called back to port immediately when it turned out that its position was extremely dangerous? How is it possible that it was called back only after 24 hours? How is it possible that the commander, Jarman, who had undertaken such a daring action as to venture among a convoy of 13 ships, was blamed for reporting the destruction of the Sagiri, and in doing so was held responsible for the destruction of his own ship? Was the muffler, which they had asked for, handed over by the K-XV and at what moment? How come that nowhere on the maps of international institutes for the localisation of wrecks any clue on that position has been found? Answers to some of these questions are coming in, slowly – but so many uncertainties remain.
And then there are the other ships. It is remarkable how stories are going to lead a life of their own … In the night when I was waiting for the men, who had been diving for the O-20, to return, I was reading about the history of this submarine. I read that the commander gave orders to abandon ship, which was damaged after being attacked with depth charges for hours, and to sink the ship. I read that the Japanese sailed through the drowning crew members under full steam. I read that depth charges were dropped among them. I read that the Japanese waited another night before taking the drowning crew members on board. And I read that the commander had not worn his Draeger vest himself.
The names of seven men, who perished in that night of 19th December, are written on the monument. There is talk about six men who were left behind and who have not been able to abandon ship or have not been warned. How is that possible? If that is true it would mean that no one outside the ship perished, despite the fact that the destroyer sailed through them under full steam and despite the fact that depth charges were dropped. For thirty-two men survived that night.
Besançon could hold the steering wheel in his hand that was taken from his father’s ship, and was handed over to the Submarine Service. Bussemaker’s sons could do the same after the O-20 had been found in 1995. The O-22, Ort’s ship, was found in 1993, but could not be reached because it was lying at a depth of 130 meters.
The K-XVI and the O-13 are the last submarines that are still missing since World War II. From 9th – 20th May 2003 we went on a search expedition for the K-XVI – the ship on which my father served – to North West Borneo. I was part of the team, and so were two of his grandchildren.
We intend to go on a search expedition for the O-13 next year. Preparations are in full progress. We are convinced that the funds and help for the organisation of the next search expeditions will be coming forth. We are also working on the next steps. The Submarine Service celebrates its centennial in 2006. We intend to make a documentary film about the history of the submarines in the former Dutch Indies in World War II. This film will also feature recent search expeditions. We think that it is important to find the ships, to pay a tribute of respect to the crews and to report what happened in those days, not only for the relatives but also with a view on history.
It took years of preparations before an expedition could be launched and financed. The diving team that found the O-20, consists of members of the IAHD, the International Association for Handicapped Divers. Its instructors and members dive at great depth and perform outstanding achievements. Thanks to their commitment and efforts the expeditions have been made financially possible.
The Navy, too, has supported us greatly, not only in words but also in deeds. And various funds and expedition members have supported us in many ways to make these search expeditions possible.
We are very grateful to them.
All those men have not been forgotten. At last we can search for them.