First published in the May 28 print issue of the Glendale News Press.
In 1938, when Eric Clignett was drafted into the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, he began a journey that saw him mobilized in the Allied effort against Japan in World War II, imprisoned in a variety of POW camps in Southeast Asia and freed in time to witness the beginnings of Indonesia’s independence.
Though Clignett — who had since immigrated first to the Netherlands and then to Los Angeles, where he raised his family in Glendale — died in 1991, his journey received something of a coda this spring. The Indo-Dutch veteran, born in 1919 in the Javanese city of Surabaya, was posthumously awarded two service medals by the Netherlands government in April.
Members of his family, including his grown children who still live in Glendale, accepted the medals during a ceremony at the Dutch Club Avio in Anaheim.
“It was emotional,” said Eveline Clignett-Siracuse, one of Eric Clignett’s daughters, “and it was sad that my parents weren’t there.”
In attendance, rather, were nearly 100 members of the Clignett family, as if in testament to the Indonesian couple who boarded an ocean liner with multiple children to start a new life. Most of those children — Johanna, Robert, Jeanette and Frederick — joined their sister at the ceremony, with their own families.
“This was good for them, to hear his story about what he went through,” Clignett-Siracuse said of the ceremony. “We were all excited and honored that my father received these medals.”
Eric Clignett was honored with the Mobilization War Cross, given to those who mobilized for the Dutch government between April 6, 1939, and Sept. 3, 1945, as well as the Medal for Honor and Peace and Demobilization Insignia, which goes to those soldiers who served for at least three months in service of the Netherlands from the end of World War II through June 1951, when Indonesia’s independence was secured.
Col. Paul Elvering, a military attaché at the Dutch embassy, and Sgt. Maj. Erwin Pater, an administrator at the embassy, presented the medals at the April ceremony. The medals were awarded as part of a program run by the Dutch military to honor soldiers, particularly from onetime colonies, for their service to the Netherlands.
“But it is also to honor their families,” Elvering said at the ceremony. “They also had to endure more hardship during the war, not only because of the horrific circumstances but also because they had to miss their fathers, sons and brothers. Even after the war, families had to live with the loss, or in cases like Eric — although he made it back, I am sure that the family got a changed person back.”
After hearing about the initiative from some of her friends in Europe, Clignett-Siracuse contacted the Dutch embassy about securing the medals for her father. After completing the research, Elvering contacted her and another family in Glendora about delivering those medals in what would be the fifth such ceremony in Anaheim.
Elvering detailed Eric Clignett’s history of service at the event, a feat achievable, in part, because the father had discussed his service just a few times with his children.
“If they don’t talk about it, the family may not know or might not be around to ask for these medals,” Elvering said in an interview. “I hope from that day, the grandchildren that were there want to learn a little bit more. I hope I have achieved that.”
According to that history, Eric Clignett was drafted as a gunner with the 6th Armored Air Defense unit in a central Java city, Magelang.
His military file, at the time, indicated that he’d studied handcrafting at a vocational school, worked as a mechanic and enjoyed swimming. His unit, like the rest of the Dutch East Indies military, was mobilized after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which dragged Japan’s multi-year conquest through Asia and the Pacific Islands into the European war.
Clignett-Siracuse, speaking from her home in the Oakmont neighborhood, recalled that on one of the few occasions her father discussed his wartime experience, he mentioned being ambushed by a Japanese soldier who had aimed his gun at her father’s head — only to discover that the soldier was seemingly out of bullets.
Eric Clignett was not.
Japan’s military overran Eric Clignett’s unit on March 8, 1942, and he was incarcerated in the main prisoner of war camp in then-Batavia, present day Jakarta. From then until he was freed in 1945, he and his fellow prisoners would be transferred to other camps in present-day Singapore and Thailand. The report indicated that when Eric Clignett was not, along with his fellow prisoners, cleaning the camp, constructing a small airport or working on a rail line, he found “ample opportunities to read.”
“One thing he did say,” Clignett-Siracuse recalled, “was that there were good people and bad people. Of course, the bad people did the worst of things, but there were some guards who would help out, or not beat them.”
As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, Clignett-Siracuse said her father had explained that the prison guards one day tasked them with each digging holes — ostensibly their own graves.
“They were going to kill all these prisoners,” she said, “but for some reason, the guards just left.
“I think God must have been there.”
Eric Clignett returned to his homeland in 1946, first arriving in Bali and eventually spending two years as a chauffeur in Batavia. In 1948, he demobilized from the Netherlands armed forces, in the midst of the Indonesian National Revolution that would successfully extract the Netherlands from colonial rule.
Clignett-Siracuse said her parents moved her and her siblings to the Netherlands, where they retained citizenship, in 1953. The move, by ocean liner, took a month. In 1960, the family — including a 1-month-old brother — boarded a plane to New York, after which they journeyed by train to Chicago and then to Los Angeles. They first lived in a rental in South Central, and then Pacoima, before they would settle in Glendale, even though once in the Jewel City, they moved around often.
“Once we got to Glendale, we moved a lot because no one wanted to rent to a large family,” Clignett-Siracuse said.
Eric Clignett, who had obtained an engineering license, held multiple jobs — usually at the same time — while raising his family. He would eventually rise to be the chief engineer at the Biltmore Los Angeles, Clignett-Siracuse said. He would seldom speak about his experiences during the war, she said, speculating that he was like other immigrants who were simply busy working to give their families a better life here.
“My dad was a very proud, honest and humble person, and hard-working,” she said. “He was very devoted to his family and to his wife.”
However, the couple, evidently, did talk about their happier and youthful days back in their homeland.
“The way they talked about their childhood lives, before the war, it was paradise,” Clignett-Siracuse recalled.