Our grandfathers sank each other’s submarines in WWII, our three families became friends for life

The day my 22 year old grandmother told my 25 year old grandfather she was pregnant of his child, he told her: “Now I can never die anymore”. That morning in December 1941, before he sailed off on his submarine KXVI, was the last time she ever saw him. KXVI was torpedoed on Christmas Eve 1941 by another submarine. 7.5 months later in August 1942, my grandmother gave birth to my mother in a Japanese POW camp.

KXVI remained missing for 70 years and was only rediscovered in October 2011 off the coast of Borneo, Malaysia/ Indonesia. In the meantime, the indescribable loss has also lead to remarkable events and new friendships…

Submarine KXVI

May 4th is Remembrance Day in The Netherlands – the day on which we think of those who deceased during WWII and other wars. My grandfather’s death and my mother’s loss – as she has never known her father – have always been part of me. Since I was seven years old, I have been joining the yearly memorial service at the monument for all submariners who were killed and missing since WWII in Den Helder.

My grandfather Wim Blom was serving on one of the submarines of the Dutch Navy defending the Dutch colonies in Indonesia against the Japanese. After the war, my grandmother knew that his submarine was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine – but where exactly and other details remained unclear for many decades.

Left: my grandmother with my mother (aged around 3), right: my grandfather Wim Blom

My grandmother “Grootmama” Elvire Spier has always been my great example and inspiration in life. Even though she didn’t have the opportunity of a proper education, she was the most intelligent, interested, socially and environmentally concerned, sharp, poetic, humble and loving person I have ever met. She was the one wanting to know everything about the most technically detailed background of my engineering work – and she’d stalk me and her friends for days with her questions, only until she really understood how things worked. She had built a totally ‘circular’ and self-sustainable house in Spain including solar panels, re-use of clean and wastewater and an orchard from which she could fully sustain herself – already in 1982. She was Dutch but born in Indonesia having sixteen different cultures in her direct line of ancestors and was raised into four different religions (Roman Catholic, Protestant, Hindu and Moslim) – she embodied “reconciliation” with every nerve in her system. Even though she lived through more traumatic experiences in life than any person could ever cope with, she always remained loving and caring for all life on earth and would always approach any human as a fellow human being… I can go on for ages talking about how special she was. “Grootmama” died in August 1999 – but I still think of her often and she still brings so many smiles to my face.

My mother Katja Boonstra-Blom – and like my grandmother an amazingly strong woman – has continued my grandmother’s search for the six submarines which were still missing, decades after WWII. Over time, most of the submarines had been found, but KXVI was one of the two Dutch boats still missing.

In May 2003, my sister Jessica, my mother and I joined an expedition to search for KXVI, off the coast of Borneo. After we had hit an out-of-season typhoon, the expedition itself became a huge adventure – here you can read more about it, including my diary of the expedition, (in Dutch). For a while there was excitement: we thought that we had found our shipwreck. But when we realized it was ‘false alarm’, the Malaysian crew said that probably “other things still needed to happen before the sea was ready to give away it’s treasures”. They were very right…

My mother, me, and my sister Jessica having a small ceremony on board of the expedition boat

Only a few months later, at the end of 2003, my mother received a phone call from the Navy’s Submarine Commander that Mr Akira Tsurukame, son of  a crew member of the Japanese submarine I66 who torpodoed KXVI, was in Den Helder (The Netherlands) to pay tribute to the families of KXVI. My mother immediately tried in every possible way to contact him. She succeeded, and the next day my parents met Akira and his wife Kay. The emotional and impressive first meeting was the start of a very deep and long friendship.

Akira was in search of his father, whose ship was also torpedoed by yet another – this time English – submarine: the Telemachus, under the command of William (“Bill”) King.

Akira and my mother found out that Commander Bill King was over 90 years old but still alive – and lived in a castle in Ireland. They reached out to him and met him. Bill King torpedoed Akira’s father, who in turn torpedoed my mother’s father – they all became friends for life.

Katja Boonstra-Blom, Commander Bill King, Akira Tsurukame

A few months later, all three families met each other in Ireland: Commander King with his daughter Leonie Finn and granddaughter Heather, Akira Tsurukame with his wife Kay and son Andre and my parents plus my sister Jessica, brother Patrick and me.

It was a truly amazing and quite surreal gathering: in spooky but beautiful Oranmore castle in windy Ireland, the families of three former enemies became friends for life. We planted a tree of peace – in later years, similar trees were planted by the three families in Japan and in The Netherlands. Commander King died in 2012 at the age of 102 years – Akira and my mother have been in close contact with him until his death.

A film crew was present during the gathering in Ireland and made this short documentary (21 minutes). It brings back many great memories – but most of all much gratitude for the brave men who gave their lives for our peace. Being a mother of three young children now myself, I am more than aware that peace, friendship and reconciliation are not to be taken for granted.

[Please click on the image to see the video on Vimeo]

Bill Kings Reconciliation 2004 from theirishtf on Vimeo.

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Claire Boonstra

Claire Boonstra, founder of Operation Education - feeding the movement to revolutionize education. I have lived many different roles in life - as a student, engineer, corporate employee, wintersports-blogger, strategic marketing manager, mobile future event organizer, augmented reality startup co-founder and now an education reformer and public speaker. But I am also a mother of three young children, a daughter, wife, sister, utopist dreamer, asker of difficult questions, visionary, improv dancer, skier, former glider pilot – and most of all a human being in search of how I can best balance my three main priorities in life: my family, my personal wellbeing and my mission to feed the movement to revolutionize education.

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