Jim de Bree: My family’s flight to freedom

By James de Bree

Last update: Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

Like many other World War II-era refugees, my family fled the war front with little but the clothes on their backs. They later became American citizens. Today marks the 75th anniversary of their flight to freedom.

Natives of the Netherlands, my parents, brother and sister lived on the island of Java when it was part of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Empire of Japan, coveting the oil reserves on Java, declared war on the Dutch East Indies on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.

My father was an executive with KNILM airlines, an affiliate of KLM. He was responsible for aircraft maintenance. He also had an extremely influential voice in which aircraft KNILM and KLM purchased.

My father’s group pioneered maintenance procedures for the many commercial aircraft of the 1930s including the DC-2, DC-3 and DC-5. Because KNILM flew the longest route in the world at that time (Amsterdam to Jakarta), his group was on the cutting edge of airplane maintenance when World War II broke out.

My family lived in Bandung about a mile and half from the airport that was operated by KNILM. In late January 1942, KNILM began diverting all of its flights to the evacuation of key personnel.

Fourteen of the 21 seats were taken out of each DC-2/DC-3 to make room for extra fuel tanks. Imagine flying with gas tanks in the rear two-thirds of the passenger cabin!

In late February, the Bandung airport became the target of Japanese air raids. My brother (who was 6 years old at the time) vividly remembers the daily air raid sirens. The sirens would roar, a few explosions could be heard, and then the all-clear would sound.

On March 2 the air raid sirens started blaring in Bandung at dawn. My brother recalls that the all-clear signal never sounded that day.

KNILM had three DC-3 aircraft scheduled to leave once it was dark and safe from Japanese fighters, which did not fly at night. At the lunch hour my father drove home in his 1937 Chevrolet. The drive was a mile and a half, but in the confusion of continual air raids, it took nearly three hours.

He picked up my mother, sister and brother with one large suitcase and they headed to the airport. It took them another three hours to get there.

Once they arrived, my father left the keys in the car, picked up the suitcase and led the family to the terminal. At about 10 p.m. the plane my family boarded took off for Broome, Australia. There were two other DC-3s scheduled to leave later during the night.

Broome was a small outpost with a big airport. The plane my family flew on landed in Broome at dawn on March 3. They cleared Australian passport control and had breakfast while the plane was serviced and refueled. Around 8 a.m. the plane took off on the next leg of its journey to Sydney.

The second DC-3 that had left Bandung landed in Broome about 8:45 a.m., and the third was on approach at 9 a.m.

That was when the Japanese – aware that the Allies had been massing a task force of British and American bombers at Broome for the defense of the Dutch East Indies and northern Australia – began bombing the airport in a Pearl Harbor-style attack.

At the time of the attack, the passengers were disembarking from the second DC-3 that just landed. While all got off safely, the plane was destroyed moments later as were all of the Allied bombers that were sitting on the airfield, just as at Hickam Field in Hawaii less than three months earlier.

The third DC-3 was shot down by the Japanese and crash landed on the beach near Broome. Three passengers were killed. That plane also carried a cargo of $300,000 of diamonds that mysteriously disappeared.

About eight hours later, my family’s plane landed at a remote airstrip in central Australia and were shocked to hear what happened in Broome after they left. My family flew on to Sidney, where they lived for several months.

My father’s skills were deemed essential to the Allied war effort, and after a 10-month vetting period my family was accepted to the U.S. as war refugees. In April 1943 they sailed from Sydney to San Francisco to begin a new life in America.

Nine years later my family became U.S. citizens.

The following year I was born, becoming the first de Bree in my family to be born an American.

Jim de Bree resides in Valencia.

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Jim de Bree: My family’s flight to freedom

Like many other World War II-era refugees, my family fled the war front with little but the clothes on their backs. They later became American citizens. Today marks the 75th anniversary of their flight to freedom.

Natives of the Netherlands, my parents, brother and sister lived on the island of Java when it was part of the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Empire of Japan, coveting the oil reserves on Java, declared war on the Dutch East Indies on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack.

My father was an executive with KNILM airlines, an affiliate of KLM. He was responsible for aircraft maintenance. He also had an extremely influential voice in which aircraft KNILM and KLM purchased.

My father’s group pioneered maintenance procedures for the many commercial aircraft of the 1930s including the DC-2, DC-3 and DC-5. Because KNILM flew the longest route in the world at that time (Amsterdam to Jakarta), his group was on the cutting edge of airplane maintenance when World War II broke out.

My family lived in Bandung about a mile and half from the airport that was operated by KNILM. In late January 1942, KNILM began diverting all of its flights to the evacuation of key personnel.

Fourteen of the 21 seats were taken out of each DC-2/DC-3 to make room for extra fuel tanks. Imagine flying with gas tanks in the rear two-thirds of the passenger cabin!

In late February, the Bandung airport became the target of Japanese air raids. My brother (who was 6 years old at the time) vividly remembers the daily air raid sirens. The sirens would roar, a few explosions could be heard, and then the all-clear would sound.

On March 2 the air raid sirens started blaring in Bandung at dawn. My brother recalls that the all-clear signal never sounded that day.

KNILM had three DC-3 aircraft scheduled to leave once it was dark and safe from Japanese fighters, which did not fly at night. At the lunch hour my father drove home in his 1937 Chevrolet. The drive was a mile and a half, but in the confusion of continual air raids, it took nearly three hours.

He picked up my mother, sister and brother with one large suitcase and they headed to the airport. It took them another three hours to get there.

Once they arrived, my father left the keys in the car, picked up the suitcase and led the family to the terminal. At about 10 p.m. the plane my family boarded took off for Broome, Australia. There were two other DC-3s scheduled to leave later during the night.

Broome was a small outpost with a big airport. The plane my family flew on landed in Broome at dawn on March 3. They cleared Australian passport control and had breakfast while the plane was serviced and refueled. Around 8 a.m. the plane took off on the next leg of its journey to Sydney.

The second DC-3 that had left Bandung landed in Broome about 8:45 a.m., and the third was on approach at 9 a.m.

That was when the Japanese – aware that the Allies had been massing a task force of British and American bombers at Broome for the defense of the Dutch East Indies and northern Australia – began bombing the airport in a Pearl Harbor-style attack.

At the time of the attack, the passengers were disembarking from the second DC-3 that just landed. While all got off safely, the plane was destroyed moments later as were all of the Allied bombers that were sitting on the airfield, just as at Hickam Field in Hawaii less than three months earlier.

The third DC-3 was shot down by the Japanese and crash landed on the beach near Broome. Three passengers were killed. That plane also carried a cargo of $300,000 of diamonds that mysteriously disappeared.

About eight hours later, my family’s plane landed at a remote airstrip in central Australia and were shocked to hear what happened in Broome after they left. My family flew on to Sidney, where they lived for several months.

My father’s skills were deemed essential to the Allied war effort, and after a 10-month vetting period my family was accepted to the U.S. as war refugees. In April 1943 they sailed from Sydney to San Francisco to begin a new life in America.

Nine years later my family became U.S. citizens.

The following year I was born, becoming the first de Bree in my family to be born an American.

Jim de Bree resides in Valencia.

About the author

James de Bree

James de Bree

  • charles maurice detallyrand

    An amazing history for you and your family Mr. De Bree. I’d love the opportunity to fly on a DC-3 though not under those circumstances.

    • Jim de Bree

      I believe that you can fly on a C47 owned by the Confederate Air force in Camarillo. My brother is involved with that organization. The C47 is the military version of the DC-3. It is my understanding that it is quite expensive to fly in a vintage aircraft.

      A sidebar story is that my father was heavily involved in procuring aircraft for KLM/KNILM. In 1937 he came to the United States to purchase what was thought to be the successor aircraft to the DC-3. He spent several weeks with people at Lockheed (including a young airplane designer named Kelly Johnson), and people at Douglas Aircraft, including Donald Douglas. My father recommended that KLM purchase the DC-5, the next generation of twin engine airliners.

      I believe that KLM was the only airline to actually take delivery of the DC-5, which they did shortly before the outbreak of WWII. With the rapid improvements to aviation in the war, the DC-5 was soon obsolete. When my parents were in Australia, Donald Douglas was one of the people who was interested in seeing that my father made it to America.

      Also for a longer version of the story of the DC-3 that was shot down, see this link: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/guest-bloggers/mystery-diamond-dc-3-shot-crashed-robbed-by-hans-wiesman.html

      The story is too amazing. The plane was flown by a Russian pilot named Captain Smirnoff. It carried $300,000 of diamonds that mysteriously disappeared. There are pictures of the crashed plane.

      • charles maurice detallyrand

        Some great history there, it’s like a great novel with the only element missing being some espionage (and I can’t be certain it is missing given the diamonds went missing too).

        I checked out the website for the Confederate Air Force. Looks like I won’t be flying in any vintage aircraft anytime soon, you’re right about the price.

        I’m sure there are great many other stories related to your father worth repeating and much to be proud of.

        • Jim de Bree

          It is funny that you mention espionage. In 1910 the Dutch, not wanting to appear to be colonials, granted the Dutch East Indies semi-sovereign status. The Dutch colonists still ran the place, but it was semi-autonomous. The Japanese, coveting the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies, saw this as a sign of Dutch weakness and they made it clear that they intended to take the colony away from the Dutch.

          This resulted in intense espionage and counter espionage activity between the Dutch East Indies and Japan. In the 1930’s the Dutch successfully penetrated the highest levels of the Japanese government and military.

          My father always claimed that the Dutch knew months in advance that Japan was going engage in a massive attack in early December 1941. As the time approached the Dutch even knew the exact date would be December 8th. (Remember the Dutch East Indies is on the other side of the international date line and it was December 8th there when Pearl Harbor was attacked.) My father always said, “We told Roosevelt, but he was a dummy who ignored us.” I never believed this until we visited Holland in 1968. My father had lunch with several of his old KNILM buddies who by then were either retired or were senior executives at KLM. Every one of them said exactly the same thing—the Dutch knew Pearl Harbor was going to be bombed, and they warned the Americans who did nothing. When my dad became a US citizen, he also joined the Republican Party because of his contempt for FDR.

          A point of irony about my parents’ house in Bandung. In the 1980’s it was torn down. Today it is the site of a Japanese owned hotel that caters to upscale Japanese tourists.

  • Ron Bischof

    Thanks for sharing your compelling family history of emigration during war time, Jim. As a society, we benefited from the immigration of your family.

    There’s a lesson there too about the dangers of totalitarian ideologies and the threat they represent to open, free and tolerant societies that expect immigrants to share those values.

    • Jim de Bree

      My family benefited from immigrating to America. when I compare the opportunities my brother , sister and I enjoyed with those of cousins living elsewhere, we were truly blessed. That is why people want to come to America.

James de Bree

James de Bree