A tribute to my dad, René Diets, survivor of the atomic bomb

Posted June 14, 2014 —written on Memorial Day, May 26, 2014
A tribute to my dad, René Diets, survivor of the atomic bomb

IMG_0963My father, Rene Diets, is a survivor of the atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki. That experience affected his entire outlook on life–and possibly mine-– probably more than I even realize. He is featured in the book, Veteran’s Stories of Ventura County. If you click on the icon below and search inside the book, you can see photographs of my dad as a happy, innocent teenager, unaware of the horror around the corner. The chapter titled, Rene Diets, Survivor of the Atomic Bomb, starts on page 15.

I brought my dad a copy of the Friday, May 23rd Ojai Valley News, which features a list of Ojai Valley Veterans. I pointed out his name and also showed the list to my mom. My dad looked at the names and, after a long pause, he remarked, “There are so few of us left, Suzan—there are only a handful of World War II survivors left. One by one we are dying off . . ”

My father was born in Indonesia of Dutch and Indonesian parentage in 1924. He was in his late teens when World War II was brewing in Europe and within the Axis Alliance of Germany and Japan. He was forcefully inducted into the Royal Dutch Navy, and served at a Naval station in Surabaya on the Island of Java. He wasn’t ready for war, and neither was the Dutch Army or Navy. In contrast, the Japanese had modernized, and had marshaled all their resources into creating the largest and most efficient military state in Asia.

Over the years there have been many times when I’ve sat in the backyard with my dad and I’ve tried to sort out the world events he and untold other human beings were swept up in. When I use those words, “swept up in,” I see the war machine as a huge wave sweeping up everything in its path. Perhaps this is why I so strongly question the philosophy that we always have a choice and that our thinking creates our reality. From my perspective, few escape getting swept up in the times and circumstances they live in.

The Dutch were unprepared for the strength of the Japanese forces in the Dutch East Indies. The combined Japanese Navy and Air Force quickly destroyed all resistance. After the disastrous Battle of Java Sea, where a combined Allied fleet was destroyed, the remaining Dutch Navy was divided into two groups. My father was in the group that was heading toward Australia when they were intercepted by Japanese Naval Forces and taken captive. As a prisoner of war, he was taken to the port in Makassar on the Island of the Celebees.

After four months incarcerated with other Allied prisoners, many of whom did not survive, they were herded into a Japanese freighter and forced down into the cargo holds. My father’s description of how they were sealed in for a seemingly interminable time, not knowing where they were going or what fate awaited them, fills me with horror. I’m one of those people who crave open doors and windows–I get claustrophobic very easily. I try to imagine what it must have been like being trapped below, and what must have gone through his mind when the cargo hold cover was removed–still not knowing where they were or what their fate would be.

My dad soon discovered he was in Nagasaki, on the Island of Kyushu in the home islands of the Japanese. He recalls that it was very cold compared to the warm climate of Indonesia.

Every day was a struggle for survival. He recalls how the larger-built Americans, not used to a meager rice diet and lack of calories, were among the first to die. The daily routine was 900 calories of rice divided into three servings a day. Those who survived the lack of food were also faced with surviving cruel and unpredictable punishment from the Japanese soldiers. Sometimes my dad launches into a story of how the guards forced him to fist fight–to box, to beat up the other allied prisoners with his fists until their faces were bloody, as “entertainment.” He is still amazed at how he survived without permanent injury from the beatings of large thick ropes soaked in water to intensify the pain, and the baseball bats used to cripple and deform prisoners.

As my dad approaches the end of his life, he still vividly remembers how one day, as he was working high in the mountains at some distance from the camp, he saw a huge mushroom cloud rising over the city in the distance. He knew nothing about the atomic bomb, and at that moment didn’t realize that Nagasaki had ceased to exist. To this day he thanks God that he was sent to work in the coal mines high in the mountains and that he was not down at the docks where other prisoners of war were still working to load matériel onto Japanese ships.

He still remembers seeing that the Japanese tormentors had disappeared, and how as he wandered around the guard-deserted compound he saw American airplanes coming in low. When he saw the American planes, he knew that he and the other survivors were going to be rescued.

Because of his Dutch ancestry, he was able to settle in Holland. In 1948 he married my mother, a Dutch woman named Maria Vermeer, and in 1957 he realized his dream of immigrating to the United States.

Upon arrival in New York, he received a telegram explaining that plans had changed—he was being sent to Ojai, California. He’d never heard of the place, but, while still in Holland, he’d had a prophetic dream about living in a valley filled with orange orchards. He shared this dream with my mother, who dismissed it as just a dream. Arriving in Ojai, where our sponsor provided us with a house on Thacher Road, and seeing the vast orchards of orange trees, he felt the dream had been a message that Ojai was the place where God had destined him to live out his days.

My dad did not fight in the battles of World War II, but he endured the misery, sorrow, and suffering inflicted on untold numbers of Allied soldiers and sailors–and, I might add, on those caught up on the other side of the fence as well.

On a day like this, one wonders how it will all end. My dad often says “That bomb was like a firecracker compared to the arsenal we have now.”

Veteran’s Stories of Ventura County can be viewed on Amazon, click Look Inside the book.
(The chapter titled, Rene Diets, Survivor of the Atomic Bomb, starts on page 15)
http://www.amazon.com/Veterans-Stories-Ventura-Charles-Bennett/dp/0970932421/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1400255552&sr=1-1&keywords=veterans+stories+of+ventura+county

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