The impossible dream (or was it?) and the end of KNILM
When World War Two ended, large areas in Europe and South East Asia were in political turmoil. As it proved to be impractical to have a commercial airline carry out negotiations to establish routes across continents, it was decided to form a temporary Dutch government organization for international air transport. Early in 1946 the Dutch Government had managed to lease 16 ex-USAAF C-54 “Skymasters”. Twelve of those went to the Netherlands Government Air Transport (NGAT) organization, the other four to the Netherlands Indies Government Air Transport (NIGAT)
But the Dutch return to Indonesia after the Japanese capitulation was fiercely resisted by the nationalist minded population, especially on Java. Therefore, all aviation activities were carried out by military units.
One of those units was no.19 (Dutch) Transport Squadron, commanded by Lt. Col. “Willem” Versteegh, the pre-war manager of KNILM. He had great plans for his “resurrected” Netherlands Indies Airline. Apart from rebuilding the inter-island network he also contemplated a truly intercontinental operation. KLM had already claimed the Amsterdam – Batavia line, so a direct link from Batavia to the United States was of paramount importance. The four C-54’s therefore came as a Godsend.
As the available airfields in the area limited most operations to airplanes not above the size of a C-47, Versteegh “chartered” the C-54’s from NIGAT to prevent them from standing “idle”. Several months of frantic preparations followed, including a thorough crew training by Douglas in Santa Monica. Finally, on November 16, 1946, NIGAT C-54 PK-DSD took off from Kemajoran on a flight to Burbank Ca. Two weeks later, on November 29, the plane returned from what was considered a successful trial flight.
On returning to Batavia, Captain Frans van Breemen informed his management that the next two return flights, from Burbank to Kemajoran, were already booked solid! And though the bookings in the Dutch East Indies were slower (a single fare ticket cost a whopping 2.269 guilders or US $ 865!), the first commercial flight to Los Angeles took off on December 6, 1946. It was PK-DSD again, configured to carry 16 passengers in Spartan discomfort but carrying a stewardess (or “Flight Nurse” as they were called then). Fortunately, the C-54’s leased from the USAAF were of a type equipped with extra, long-range fuel tanks. Even so, it took two days to cross the Pacific. The first leg was from Kemajoran to Biak (New Guinea), 10.22 hrs. From Biak to Kwajalein took 12.46 hours. From Kwajalein to Honolulu another 11.59 hours and the last leg, Honolulu – Burbank, 13.25 hours!
The plane returned to Kemajoran on December 20, 1946. From that moment onwards, C-54’s would leave for Los Angeles at irregular intervals, after all it was still a “charter” service and not a regular airline. At the same time, no. 19 squadron significantly extended its civilian operations with scheduled flights all over Indonesia and destinations like Singapore, Bangkok, Manila and Brisbane (Australia). Versteegh seemed to be right on track for a resurrection of his beloved KNILM.
It was not to be.
The British brokered Linggadjati agreement recognized the Republic of Indonesia’s authority over Java and Sumatra. To counter the Republic’s growing influence the Dutch engineered a federation of independent Indonesian states. They also continued to ship troops from the Netherlands to Java and Sumatra, a direct breach of the agreement and a valid reason for the Republic to complain to the United Nations. On top of this steadily worsening political situation came the plan for a Federated Indonesian Airline Organization (or FILO) that would replace the emerging KNILM. And the end came when politicians in The Hague decided Albert Plesman’s KLM would be the only ‘Flag Carrier’. Overseas subsidiaries would have to limit their operations to their respective area’s.
Versteegh was booted upstairs with a promotion to commanding officer of the Aircraft Transport Group. He left the Netherlands East Indies by the end of 1947, his beloved KNILM having ceased to exist after becoming a part of KLM. The envisaged KLM Pacific Division never materialized and all ex-KNILM assets (except the four C-54’s) were later handed over to the Indonesian government to form Garuda Airlines.
I am indebted to Jan Hagens informative book “Kemajoran” (Bergen, Bonneville, 1993)