WOMEN IN WAR: Sytske Drijber abandoned teaching job for WWII ‘adventure’
ROCKWOOD – Sytske Drijber looked at the opportunity to serve in the Second World War as an adventure, a chance to travel and see the world.
In her early 20s, the schoolteacher bid farewell to her adopted land of Canada and headed out to support her native Dutch forces, to embark on the journey of a lifetime.
“You’re young and you want adventure and the opportunity to travel,” Drijber said, looking back on her decision.
“Fear never entered into it. It just never occurred to me.”
Drijber came to Canada from Holland at the age of six with her parents and an uncle. The family dreamt of eventually owning a dairy farm, but the reality of life in a foreign land and the pending Depression ended that hope.
Her father would find work in the limestone quarry around Hespeler. He died young. Drijber said her mother’s strength played a key role in helping her raise two girls with strong values and Christian faith in the community around Guelph.
“I decided to become a teacher,” Drijber said, noting in those days girls were limited to becoming either nurses or teachers.
It was a career she enjoyed for several years until she taught at a larger school in Hamilton, in the early years of WWII.
The environment of the school and the changes in her profession made her anxious for a change in life direction. She recalls the students were challenging, with good reason.
“The fathers had gone to war. The mothers were having to go out to work,” Drijber said.
Things on the home front were changing.
“Male teachers had gone off to war and women teachers were frozen in their jobs,” she said, which altered the appeal of her chosen profession. She wanted more.
Drijber admits her decision to go to war was not motivated by patriotism, but more out of a desire to do something different.
“We joined up for other reasons; most of it was for adventure,” she said. “Not many girls joined up.”
Drijber wanted to join the Women’s Royal Naval Service (officially known as Wrens). During the registration interview, it was recommended she use her Dutch heritage to apply with the Dutch Consulate, which was looking for recruits. That way her desire to go overseas would be met.
“Because the Dutch were allies with Canada, that was okay,” she said of her decision.
Drijber boarded a train for Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Dutch women were sent to a form of basic training with their American allies, before boarding a train for San Francisco. That was the beginning of the adventure.
“We were being sent to free the Dutch colonies above Australia, at the island of Java,” she said.
The Royal Dutch East Indies Army had surrendered to the Japanese in Java on March 8, 1942, as part of the Pacific War.
“We were stationed out of Australia until the Dutch colonies could be freed,” she said.
Brisbane became her new home, but her position in the military was uncertain.
“They didn’t know what to do with us,” she said of her fellow female comrades. “They just figured we’d get to Australia and figure it out … They let me wander around and do what I wanted.”
Drijber befriended a fellow Canadian girl who had connections in Brisbane and helped Drijber land a job with the Dutch Intelligence, working in the mapping department.
“There were no copiers. We did it all by hand,” she said of the tedious process. “My job was to put the names on rivers, bodies of water, places … the special pens had to be a certain size. It was very difficult. We didn’t learn this geography as students in Canada.”
Still, Drijber had proven her skills and was later sent to the photographic area.
“They took photos from the bellies of planes, photos of Japanese installations or hits. I had to figure out where these places were, and me, coming from Canada, I had no idea,” Drijber said, noting the islands of the East Indies were all jungle and different coastal landscapes. Her only reference was a giant map.
“Somehow or other, I learned to do it,” Drijber said. “I never knew at the time my future husband-to-be relied on the information I uncovered.”
Drijber focused on her work, far removed from Europe, and with news slow to travel, she admits, “You didn’t really know what was going on elsewhere.”
Unaware of how bad things were abroad, her innocence ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945.
“I just felt hot and cold. I just didn’t realize what kind of a thing this was – a scientific wonder,” she said. “I didn’t realize how horrific it was. I had no idea. I just thought it was another kind of bomb.”
The bombs signalled the end of WWII, so the Dutch army was sent by boat to the island of Java to help people there who had been interned in Japanese prisoner of war (PoW) camps.
What these soldiers didn’t know was they were about to walk into a civil war, a claim for Indonesian independence, aided by the newly surrendered Japanese, who had formerly captured the colony.
“We went on this boat expecting that, as Dutch people, we would be welcomed by the natives,” she said. “But they had been changed by the war and wanted to be independent.
“It was like going from the frying pan into the fire,” Drijber recalls. “The Japanese, who were surrendered, were instigating a civil war against us.”
Known as the Bersiap period (August to December, 1945), Drijber and her Dutch comrades had landed in violent chaos.
“It was an unusual time,” she confirmed.
“The Japanese were very efficient. They would cordon off a city block as a concentration camp. It was just for women. The whole female population from a city would be plopped into one city block,” Drijber said, noting that as the civil war intensified, the Japanese had gone from enemy to protectors.
“It wasn’t safe to let these women out of the camps. The Japanese had to protect the women [in these camps] from the natives. There were massacres even of the people in the camps … For these women, their former conquerors were now their protectors. It was a dreadful time.”
As most of Drijber’s colleagues were nurses, they had work to do tending to the PoW women. Other female colleagues took on administrative roles supporting the Dutch Intelligence command.
“My work was with the air force,” she said, noting they were still trying to sort out the end of the war and cope with the civil war brewing. She said little was known of the activities going on with her fellow secret agents at the time, adding, “Intelligence people don’t talk.”
The Dutch Intelligence men were stationed in a hotel, while the women of the military were stationed in a Catholic convent in a safe area of the city. The two groups would meet for meals in an outdoor courtyard.
“One day we were sitting down to eat when all of a sudden, there was shooting. The natives were hiding in the trees, firing at us,” Drijber said.
“Most of the people knew enough to lie down flat, under the tables. But I refused. I thought this was so undignified and I refused. I stood there and stared back at them.”
She admits, in hindsight, that was a “foolish move”, except for one important fact: the only other person standing in the crowd was Oscar Drijber, her future husband.
“He was the only other man standing up in the room. He looked at me and I looked at him. That’s how we met.”
Oscar, a lieutenant, had his men secure the site and the shooting ended. The pair never spoke until months later, one night when Drijber had been out past curfew and was being reprimanded by the unit’s major. Oscar, second in command, was stationed outside the door listening to the whole scene.
“He teased me and when he teased me, I blushed and apparently that was what he loved to do, make a girl blush. And that’s where it started,” she said.
Drijber would come to learn that Oscar Drijber was born into a military family in Holland. His war career was legendary, though she admits much of it goes unknown, given his secret agent status behind enemy lines.
“Oscar had been, [at the beginning of the war], a prisoner of war and one of the few who had escaped,” Drijber said of her late husband, who was captured and escaped from three different PoW camps – in Germany and Poland.
He was most renowned for escaping Colditz Castle in Germany, a feat that is still discussed in historical research today.
“Oscar was young and fit. He was an Olympic contender,” she explained. “He stood in a well, with him in the water and a man standing on his shoulders, with a wooden lid on top. It was very difficult to get out.
“The distraction, to keep the German guards busy was that the PoWs held a soccer game between the prisoners. Oscar and his friend got into the well unnoticed.”
She adds, “It was about the buddy system. It was amazing how the artistic people used their skills to make those fake train tickets to help get others out. They gave their friends their freedom.”
From there, Oscar made his final escape. With a fake train ticket in hand he boarded a train to Switzerland, then Spain, and finally England to begin his work with the Dutch Intelligence.
The Drijbers were married in 1946, and Oscar would later immigrate to Canada, where the pair would end their military careers and raise six children. They were married for 50 years.
“He was a military career person, so it was hard for him to leave. He had to become a civilian again,” Drijber said. “He was a highly honourable man.”
Looking back on her wartime experience, Drijber wishes people would pay more attention to the stories of kinship, sacrifice for friends and working together, rather than the horrors of war.
“The media focuses on the sad,” she said. “It would be better to remember the fun with the friendships you made, because there is such a bond with the people and the friendships you made with the people you met.
“You would do anything for one another. As we vets get together, we talk about the fun things.”
Drijber is a member of the Legion in Acton, but participates in the Remembrance Day ceremony in her home community of Rockwood, where she is one of the only veterans to represent WWII.
“I have enjoyed standing on the stand next to the young men from Afghanistan,” she said of past years. “That’s nice because there is a kind of camaraderie, no matter what our age or experience.”
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