Dutch Merchantmen in the early Pacific War
By March 1942, the Japanese had landed on New-Guinea. The conquest of this island would allow them to dominate Australia’s northern approach routes. And a push towards New Zealand would cut off the eastern routes and isolate Australia completely. Denying the Japanese control of New Guinea thus became a key allied strategy.
Perhaps the most valuable Dutch contribution during this phase of the war consisted of 28 merchantmen, most of them owned by KPM (Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij or Royal Packet Line), the Netherlands Indies inter-island shipping service.Their contribution to the Allied war effort cannot be overstated.
Australia, at that time, had virtually no merchant navy and the number of British and other merchant ships was negligible. Those 28 KPM ships therefore became the major Allied supply line during the most critical, early stages of the New Guinea campaign. The KPM ships were pressed into service the moment they arrived in Australia. And 19 of the 21 merchant ships, allocated to General MacArthur’s command, were Dutch. Unarmed and undermanned and suffering heavy losses, the KPM ships delivered 100,000 troops and over a million tons of supplies to the Australian and US forces in New Guinea.
Some scholars maintain the view that, without the KPM merchant fleet, the Allies could not have beaten the Japanese in New Guinea in 1942-43.
Many of those ships, such as the “ Balikpapan”, “Bloemfontijn”, “Abbekerk” and “Janssens” became well known to the Allied fighting men. And of course the liner “Oranje”, then in use as a hospital ship.
The KPM ship “Janssens” is perhaps the best example.
Launched in 1935 as a 2.000 ton inter-island liner, the “Janssens” was later used by the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNN) as a submarine accommodation ship.
Everyone who sailed in her remembered the tall and gaunt (and unflappable) captain G.N. (“Gerrit”) Prass. Two days after the outbreak of the Pacific war, he took the “Janssens” into Singapore, delivering a lethal cargo of torpedoes (for Dutch submarines) and bombs (for Dutch Glenn Martin bombers) while his ship’s only defensive weapons were two .303 machineguns, salvaged from a wrecked Catalina.
On March 1, 1942, the “Janssens” was ordered to sail from Surabaya to Tjilatjap to evacuate military and naval personnel to Australia. Soon, the small ship was crowded by 450 refugees.
A gentleman named Dr. Croydon M. Wassell then tried to embark twelve wounded sailors left behind by the light cruiser USS “Marblehead” Prass refused on the grounds that his ship was overcrowded, that he had no sick-bay or medicines. In the end Dr. Wassell convinced him and the American sailors were taken aboard.
The “Janssens” sailed on the evening tide of March 3, 1942, under cover of thick clouds and torrential rains. Next day, three Japanese floatplanes attacked the ship, causing great damage and wounding a number of passengers. Prass managed to avoid worse but was hindered by the ship’s speed of just 7 knots – the engine had not been overhauled since the beginning of the war.
Fearing another attack, many passengers demanded to be put ashore again and Prass turned into the small port of Patjitan. There, 250 passengers went ashore and most of his Javanese crew promptly jumped ship as well. Left with a single engineer to coax his ailing engine along and severely shorthanded in all other areas, Prass sailed at 19.00 that evening. By pressing passengers into service and hugging the coast to avoid Japanese ships, he safely arrived at Fremantle on March 13, 1942.
The ship was almost immediately ordered on to Sydney where it joined the other KPM ships. It survived the war and was finally sold out of KPM in 1958.