THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: The incarceration of Indonesians in the United States: An untold story


bioline_Greg RobinsonEditor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series.

As the Pacific War drew to a close, the War of Independence broke out in Indonesia. Javanese sailors working on British and Dutch ships, who faced deportation once the war ended, became fearful that they would be sent back on the ships to carry arms and troops against their countrymen seeking freedom from the Netherlands. Meanwhile, Indonesian communities began to organize themselves. In August of 1945, the Indonesian League (aka Indonesian Club) of America formed in New York, under the leadership of John R. Andu. Andu was an associate of the celebrated African American activist W.E.B. DuBois, who had invited him in April of 1945 to join an anticolonial conference. The Indonesian League’s secretary-treasurer was Julian Ross, a prominent Congress of Industrial Organizations foreign policy specialist. The group soon established a new magazine, Indonesian Review, with Charles Bidien as editor and offices at 18 Allen St. (then in NYC’s Lower East Side, now part of Chinatown). The new newspaper served as a community organ, featuring articles on community members as well as news of Indonesia. In one interview, for example, Pikat Batak stated that he had come to the U.S. in the 1920s at the age of 20, as he could not make a living at home. Later, through service in the U.S. Army, he had gained American citizenship.

The first action by the Indonesians came on Oct. 19, 1945, when 90 seamen walked off five ships in New York, refusing to load or carry armaments to Indonesia. Seamen from four more ships in Albany and Baltimore soon joined them, bringing the total number of strikers to 177. With the help of a group of American sympathizers, they sought asylum in the United States or at least safe conduct to a port of their choosing in Indonesia. (This was part of a larger international movement. In September 10,000 Australian longshoremen struck in sympathy. In October of 1945 Australian Prime Minister Joseph Chifly ordered the incarceration of striking Indonesian seamen. In Bombay, India, 250 Indonesian sailors struck in November. Two ringleaders were arrested).

The CIO’s National Maritime Union, a seaman’s union closely affiliated with the Communist Party, voted a boycott of arms shipments to the Dutch, and organized to help the sailors. The NMU’s political action director for the port of New York, David Slivka (who would later become a renowned artist and sculptor of the Abstract Expressionist school), was a major figure in the aid campaign. Slivka visited the sailors, and recruited speakers to raise funds. Slivka was assisted by Roger Daniels. Daniels, who later became an esteemed historian of Asian Americans, was then a teenage journalist and union activist. Daniels proposed organizing protest marches at Rockefeller Center, where the Dutch government had its offices, with the sailors in native costume to help gain publicity.

Meanwhile, under the leadership of Ferdinand Smith, a radical African American, the NMU donated $500 to help care for the sailors. Union representatives found them lodging at the Harlem Salvation Army USO Center on 124th Street, a wartime servicemen’s canteen operated for black Americans, and headed by Walter Roark. (Roark made different arrangements for the Catholic, Hindu and Muslim sailors — he accompanied the Catholics to mass, while for the Muslims, who were the majority, Roark transformed the chapel into a mosque, and bought kosher food from a Jewish butcher to give to his guests). Together with Paul Robeson, Ferdinand Smith made a public statement thanking the people of Harlem for helping the sailors with food and shelter and providing them with other essential services.

For his part, Roark stated that the men’s tight unity and discipline, as well as their brightly colored turbans, made a visible impression on Harlem’s black community.

In the first week of November of 1945, the Emergency Committee for Indonesian Seamen was organized at 13 Astor Place in order to raise money for the strikers. Its chair was Dr. Dirk Jan Struik, a professor of mathematics at MIT who was well known for his Marxist politics. The committee’s secretary was Max Yergan, a black activist and former YMCA secretary who was director (along with Paul Robeson) of the Council for African Affairs, a nationalist group similarly affiliated with the Communist Party. The committee undertook a round of petitions and a letter-writing campaign on behalf of the strikers. It noted publicly that several of them had been decorated for their war work and 14 of them had in fact been German prisoners until their liberation.

In cooperation with the American Committee for the Protection of Foreign-Born, the committee organized fundraisers in religious, union, and fraternal organizations. Its largest public event was a protest meeting of some 800 persons at New York’s Webster Hall in November of 1945. Charles Bidien, editor of the Indonesian Review, described the Allied policy on Indonesia as “fascist” and appealed for funds to pay the sailors’ living expenses. The meeting adopted resolutions to send telegrams to President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Attlee for the withdrawal of British troops stationed in Indonesia and the end of American lend-lease aid. Another protest took place Nov. 21, 1945 in San Francisco at the Mills building, where the Netherlands had its consulate. Civilians picketed the consulate to protest Dutch treatment of the people of Indonesia and the East Indies. A group of newly arrived seamen on the Poleau Laut asked Truman to publicly condemn the killing of thousands of civilians. In January of 1946, another demonstration formed in San Francisco. After picketing the Dutch consulate, demonstrators marched down Market Street.

In late November of 1945, the strikers’ transit visas expired. After staging a protest at the Dutch government offices in Rockefeller Center, 171 seamen marched to Battery Park, where they voluntarily reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and were incarcerated at the old immigration station at Ellis Island. There they were joined by 18 seamen who had jumped ship at Norfolk Va., after they had been ordered to load tanks and munitions to be taken to Surabaya. Local INS director Frank Watkins warned the men that if they did not agree to take ship, he would undertake deportation proceedings. Isidore Englander, a New York-based civil liberties lawyer, represented the sailors. Since Indonesians remained barred from immigration, his only recourse was to win the sailors the freedom to take work on any ship of their choice. The Dutch consul attempted to meet with the inmates to persuade them to rejoin the ships, but they refused to even speak with him. In early 1946, the New York Times reported that Attorney General Thomas Clark had made an inspection tour of Ellis Island. During his tour, he had met with a group of 175 Indonesian sailors still confined there. While going through their quarters, Clark had been able to see the sailors perform a Javanese dance, accompanied by Indonesian instruments that they had brought with them.

Even as all this was occurring in NYC, there were similar campaigns on the West Coast. In San Francisco, with the help of the San Francisco Indonesian Association, the Indonesian Committee for a Free Indonesia and the Committee for Indonesian Independence organized in support of the Indonesian revolt. Two local activists, S. Barani and S. Ngembara, put out a pamphlet, “Why Indonesians Revolt.” Meanwhile, in December of 1945, 44 sailors from the Manoeran, the Weltevreden, the Kota Baru and the Tjisadane in Los Angeles harbor walked off their ships. They were incarcerated at Terminal Island naval station. Lari Bogk, a representative of the Free Indonesia Committee, urged that the arrested seamen either be released or deported to a port controlled by the Indonesian Republic.

In January of 1946, the Indonesia Review reported that the New York seamen had received permission to leave Ellis Island. The Dutch government, retreating in the face of adverse publicity, released them from the Shipping Pool, so that they were now free to sail on any ship. In response, Max Yergan stated, “This signal victory in securing the Indonesian men’s release demonstrates the great interest the democratic-minded American people display in any cause that furthers the fight for freedom in any part of the world…The seamen’s victory will undoubtedly be followed by an even greater interest in their cause — Indonesian independence.” However, the report of their release turned out to be mistaken. Instead, the Justice Department pursued its threat to deport the seamen, and they were ordered to be transferred to San Francisco for deportation on June 11. In response, in late May of 1946, the Indonesia League of America held a new set of Emergency meetings to raise funds and attention for their cause. The meeting adopted resolutions asking that the Indonesians be deported on American ships to Indonesian-held territory, and that those with American wives be permitted to stay. Meeting organizers sent telegrams to President Harry Truman and Attorney General Tom Clark. The American Civil Liberties Union sponsored a bill in Congress to have cases examined under hardship provisions to avoid undue suffering.

Harold Sawyer, an attorney for the CIO, took up the seamen’s legal case. With him stepped up Leo Gallagher, a lawyer with the Communist Civil Rights Congress. (Gallagher was likewise active in advising Awan Soenario, vice chair of the San Francisco Indonesian Association, in regard to government deportation proceedings against him). Just before the boat was to sail, Sawyer and Gallagher brought a habeas corpus petition with an order to show cause to stop the INS from proceeding with deportation, declaring that the seamen were in fact political refugees. Blocked from immediate action, the Justice Department sent the 246 sailors from the West Coast for incarceration at Crystal City, Texas while their petitions were considered by the American courts.

(Other than Edison Uno’s testimony, I have not as yet been able to learn anything about the experience of the Indonesians at Crystal City).

In June of 1946, the case of “Soewapadji and 218 alien Indonesian seamen similarly situated, vs I.F. Wixon as custodian of ports” was tried before Federal Judge Michael Roche. 

(Roche, ironically, had been the judge in Mitsuye Endo’s habeas corpus suit against her confinement in 1942, and had sat on her case for a year before dismissing it).

Harold Sawyer admitted that by refusing to sail on the Dutch ships, the sailors had technically committed illegal entry to the United States. However, he insisted that it was against American policy to turn political refugees over to their government. Since the sailors had refused to sail on British and Dutch ships carrying arms to suppress the revolt in Indonesia, their attorneys claimed, they faced prosecution, and perhaps the death penalty as rebels if they returned to Java, and so deportation represented an abuse of discretion, and cruel and unusual punishment. Sawyer relied on a single precedent, a case from 1938 in which a Jewish man from Czechoslovakia had been permitted to remain in the U.S. after the Nazi takeover of his home country, on the grounds that he faced persecution if he returned. The government countered that deportation was not a punishment under law, and that under the alien exclusion act there was no right of entry for any Indonesians except as sailors who entered port as part of their trade.

The Justice Department filed a statement with the court representing that the State Department had informed them that the Dutch government had offered the Americans assurances that the men would not be subjected to “repressive action” once repatriated.

After hearing the evidence, Roche swiftly ruled that the inmates should be deported. Sawyer appealed to the U.S. court of appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In September of 1946, the judges likewise contended that the men had no legal right to stay in the U.S. The CIO then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. CIO lawyers reminded the court that the U.S., like Indonesia, was a republic born out of revolution. Nevertheless, on Dec. 16, 1946 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the appeal from deportation. The government began immediately planning the deportation, and considering chartering an aircraft to return the sailors to Djakarta (then called Batavia). Through their lawyers, the sailors made a renewed appeal, insisting that there remained a “well-founded fear” of persecution if they returned. On Jan. 13, 1947, this appeal was similarly denied by the Supreme Court. Thus, in March of 1947 some 300 Indonesian seamen were deported.

The removal of the seamen, though it sharply reduced the size and strength of the Indonesian American community, did not immediately destroy it. In mid-1947, the Indonesia League held a “Freedom Day” on the second anniversary of the Indonesian Republic. Sutan Sjahrir, former premier of the republic, and Haji Agus Salim, the foreign minister, were guest speakers. In August of 1948, the league held a third anniversary party, in which John Andu hailed the drafting of the Indonesian constitution and its dedication to building democracy. Indonesia Review was reborn as Indonesia Barisan, with articles primarily in the Indonesian language, and lasted until around 1950. (The San Francisco community likewise produced a bulletin of Indonesian news). Interestingly, in 1950 there is also a report of an Indonesian Bowling League playing a Japanese American one, under the sponsorship of the New York chapter of the National Committee for Fair Play in Bowling — the sports protest group that soon after broke the whites-only policy of the American Bowling Congress. John Andu remained particularly active with black Americans. In November of 1947, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had presented a petition drawn up by W.E.B. DuBois to the United Nations on behalf of black Americans, organized a mass meeting “The United States and the United Nations.” Andu was the guest speaker. In 1948, he contributed an article on Indonesian independence to the NAACP journal “The Crisis.”

Nor did the deportation still the activism of the allied political groups. The Emergency Committee for Indonesian Sailors was transformed into the American Committee for Indonesian Independence. It was made up of an odd coalition of CP stalwarts and others, including Hugh De Lacy, a former congressman, Dr. Henry Pratt Fairchild (a professor of sociology at New York University notorious for his anti-immigrant writings), and DuBois, who served as secretary-treasurer. Leo Gallagher founded a Los Angeles branch with an Indonesian activist, George K. Anang, as vice chairman. In 1948, the Committee joined with the NAACP, the Americans for Democratic Action, the CIO, and the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America deploring continued warfare in Indonesia and asking Congress to take steps to halt it. The pressure may have pushed the federal government to act. In December of 1948, Rowland Watts of the Workers Defense League requested from the State Department a stay of deportation for seven more seamen held at Ellis Island and elsewhere. This time the argument was accepted, and Immigration Commissioner Watson Miller issued the stay. I have not seen further information on the Committee after this incident — presumably it disbanded after Indonesia was granted independence in 1949.

It is ironic that even before the wartime confinement and incarceration of Japanese Americans was completed, the United States government undertook the mass incarceration and deportation of another group of Asians, who crossed paths with the inmates at Crystal City. Moreover, the legal struggle over the Indonesian sailors during 1945-1946 presented the first occasion after World War II that the question of refuge, asylum, and mass removal by the government, was tried in the American legal system. It thereby foreshadowed many later political and legal movements by refugees from Southeast Asia.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *