Jim de Bree: My family’s flight to freedom

Jim de Bree
Jim de Bree

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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