Hauling Bombs, Bullets, Beer – and MacArthur

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.

KPM_Ships in Sydney

KPM Ships in Sydney Harbour 1932

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.

kpm_posterAustralia, 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.

KPM G_N__Prass

Captain Gerrit Prass (left) and his chief engineer Jos van Claveron

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.

About Kingsleyr

Thank you for visiting my blog! The posts you find here are a direct result of my research into aviation and military history. I use the information I gather as a foundation and background for my books. You may call the genre historical fiction, a story woven into a background of solid and verifiable historical facts. However, the period and region I have chosen to write about (late 1930's - 1950's in South-East Asia) are jam-packed with interesting information and anecdotes. If I'd used them all I would swamp the stories. So this blog is the next best thing. It is an "overflow area" in which I can publish whatever I think will interest you. And from the reactions I get, I deduce I am on the right track. A lot will be about aviation in the former Dutch East Indies. This, because my series of books ("The Java Gold") follows a young Dutch pilot in his struggle to survive the Pacific War and its aftermath. But there's more in the world and you'll find descriptions of cities, naval operations and what not published on this blog. Something about myself; I am a Dutch-Canadian author, living in, and working out of the magical city of Amsterdam. My lifelong interest in history and aviation, especially WW2, has led me to write articles and books on these subjects. I hope you'll enjoy them!
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3 Responses to Hauling Bombs, Bullets, Beer – and MacArthur

  1. GP Cox says:

    An excellent supply of research into an area of the war that few know about in other parts of the world.


  2. Thanks Kingsleyr, I really appreciate the time you have put into this. I have enjoyed the read and it’s great to see a pic of my brave, late grandfather Captain G.N. Prass. All the best. Kind Regards, Nicolas Prass


    • Kingsleyr says:

      Dear Nicolas,
      An extended stay overseas prevented me from replying sooner to your kind comment on the post about KPM ships. I am sorry for that but very glad that you liked the post. I was impressed by what I found about your grandfather so I decided to highlight him in this little article. Too little attention has been paid to him and other people like him. I try to correct this somewhat with my publications.
      Thanks for reading my blog
      Robert Kingsley


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