There she was, a 21-year-old nurse in her neat uniform, on board that huge ship. Together with the other Red Cross volunteers, Constance Iemhoff had to salute the young officers standing opposite her. “We had been given special lessons on how to do that, which had made us girls laugh.” After the salute, the men opposite the nurses stepped forward and stated their names. One of them was Second Lieutenant Arend Groen, a member of the Navy’s military police force responsible for good behaviour on board... 

By Ewout van der Horst

More than 70 years later, Mrs Groen-Iemhoff giggles to herself when she phones in answer to a call for eyewitnesses to the decolonisation struggles in Indonesia. No painful memories or stories full of bravado, but disclosures about a romance on board the Kota Inten, the ship that took the now elderly lady to Indonesia in 1947.

As a student nurse at the Julianaziekenhuis hospital in Apeldoorn, she joined the Red Cross to volunteer for work on board a hospital ship. Along with 1,600 conscripts, she undertook the long sea voyage to Indonesia in order to collect sick and injured soldiers. On the outward journey, the nurses had little to do. The newly instated sergeants were not allowed on the decks fore and aft where the soldiers were. They were only allowed contact with the officers.

“Yes, we were kept apart a bit, for the officers,” Constance acknowledges during a follow-up interview. “We would sit together or play table tennis. It so happened that I ran into my husband a bit more often. Eventually he said to me: “I’ve discovered a cosy spot for us to sit this evening, behind a lifeboat. I’ll get something to drink. The others won’t notice.” Well, of course I was game for that, I liked him very much. It was a beautiful spot to sit. My father had told me: ‘Remember: if you kiss a boy, that’s a promise for the future.’ I never kissed my husband while we were aboard.”

After four weeks, they arrived in Indonesia. “When I was allowed off the ship in Sabang, my husband also disembarked and we went for a walk together. Well, we liked that. It was very enjoyable." In Surabaya, the young couple had to say goodbye. Then Constance had to help clean up the ship in Batavia and convert it into a hospital ship. The return journey was far less pleasant: “Sick and wounded boys were brought on board. One of them was a boy who suffered from tropical madness. That’s such a terrible thing. A young man would be sent away in good health and would return to the ship completely crazy."

Her sweetheart stayed behind in Indonesia. “My husband was away for three years,” says Constance. “That’s a long time you know! But at home I had always learned: ‘A promise made is a debt unpaid.’ If you make a promise, you have to keep it.” Of course she worried about him, but she tried to live by the day. “He never wrote about dangerous things, so I thought: ‘He’s in a quiet area.’ Later I did see pictures of a boy who’d been killed, so terrible things did happen there too.”

He finally came back in 1951. Six months later, Arend and Constance became engaged. In 1953, they got the house they had longed for in Capelle aan de IJssel, and they got married. Many of their fellow passengers from the voyage to Indonesia attended the wedding. Their newly built home bore an appropriate name: Kota Inten.

Ewout van der Horst works at the IJsselacademie foundation as a historian.