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Chance reunion in San Luis Obispo after decades

jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Rudy Benink doesn’t usually speak in Dutch, though sometimes, he acknowledges, he’ll unintentionally slip back into his native tongue.

He did just that a couple of years ago while inside the San Luis Obispo Costco store. And as he spoke to his wife in Dutch about solar panels, a man standing nearby couldn’t help but eavesdrop.

“It’s not often when you hear your old language spoken,” Pieter Menting said.

Menting, 80, approached Benink, 82, who quickly noticed Menting’s Dutch accent. After a few words, the two men discovered that they had crossed paths before. In fact, they learned, they had once been classmates, 60 years ago in Indonesia.

“Can you imagine — 60 years after we last saw each other?” Menting says, sitting in his kitchen, with a view of Laguna Lake in San Luis Obispo. Then he turns to Benink, sitting nearby, and adds: “But I recognized you right away — I mean, after you spoke to me.”

Doubtful, Benink leans back in a chair and jokingly says, “Oh yeah. Mmmm-hmmm.”

While the two men hadn’t seen each other since the Dutch were chased out of Indonesia, it turns out they had unknowingly crossed paths more than once and lived somewhat parallel lives. Now, they’re still learning about their shared past — including stories of survival in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps — and the route that led them both to San Luis Obispo County, more than 8,500 miles from their homeland.

Uprooted by war

With families rooted in Holland, Menting and Benink were born on Java, one of about 13,000 islands in Indonesia. At the time, Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies, had been a Dutch colony for 300 years.

Known for its active volcanoes, pristine beaches and tropical climate, the islands are a popular tourist destination.“If you think Hawaii is beautiful, once you go to Indonesia, you’re gonna go, ‘Whoa!’ ” Benink said. “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Yet that natural beauty was overshadowed during World War II, when the Japanese rounded up many people and sent them to POW camps.

Benink was 14 and Menting 12 when they were sent away from their homes.

“We were put in a big truck and loaded up and driven a few hours to the camp,” Benink recalled. “Mothers crying, boys crying.”

Both Benink and Menting spent 3½ years in separate camps. While Menting said his camp shared one cow a month, offering morsels of meat for the 4,000 prisoners there, Benink said his meals were limited to a handful of rice a day.

“From the moment you woke up in the morning, the first thing you did was have water to get rid of that terrible hunger you had,” Benink said.

Medication was limited to salt, water and tea, recalled Benink, who was tasked to carry off the dead in a cart. As the weeks wore on, he remembered, the morning tallies for the passed increased, as death seemed to inch closer toward him.

“I woke up one morning, and my two buddies to the left and right were ice cold,” he said. “They died during the night.”

While Menting had a better camp, the lack of food caused his body to dangerously retain fluids. And, somewhere in another camp, his father died in 1943.

“We don’t know what he died of,” Menting said. “Most likely it was dysentery or something like that.”Benink, who lost a sister and grandmother to the camps, said it was only a matter of time before he and the remaining prisoners would have died.

“I want the Americans to always know that they were the ones who saved our lives,” he said. “Because if they had not dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, we would have been gone. We had a maximum of three months to six months to live. We were skin and bones.”

After the war, Benink and Menting attended the same nautical engineering school for a year. While they weren’t friends, they did know each other, Menting said.

They wouldn’t be classmates long, however, as political turmoil forced the school to close and both men to flee their country.

When the Dutch tried to reclaim Indonesia after the war, the Indonesians, encouraged by the Japanese during the occupation, fought for independence. No longer welcome there, Dutch residents sometimes became victims of violence.

“I remember two occasions where they almost killed us,” Benink said.

Both men wound up in Holland in 1954 and married. Menting took work as an apprentice engineer on tankers for Shell Oil, and Benink found a job in the import/export business.

New lives

As Holland faced postwar economic turmoil, Benink — after a brief return to Indonesia — sought a new life in Los Angeles in 1958.

“I did everything under the sun — salesman, ditch digger — as long as I got a paycheck.”

A year later, as he was preparing to return to Holland, Benink found a job at a bank as a teller trainee.

Meanwhile, Menting, whose job required he spend months at sea, lamented not seeing his wife and young daughters. Also discouraged by Holland’s economy, he and his family moved to the Bay Area, where he found work as a jack of all trades with a transformer company.

“I had to sweep floors,” he said.

The two men rose in their careers — Benink becoming the vice president of his branch and Menting became chief engineer for his company — allowing both to retire in their mid-50s. After retirement, both men moved to Washington state for a time — not knowing of the other’s presence — until both finally settled in San Luis Obispo County.

Benink, who had enjoyed visiting San Luis Obispo to see his sister-in-law, moved to Pismo Beach with his wife in 1988. Meanwhile, Menting moved to San Luis Obispo in 2003 to be near one of his daughters as his wife, Hetty, battled Alzheimer’s.

In 2009 — after 60 years and 8,500 miles — Menting and Benink were serendipitously reunited at Costco.After their initial conversation, they both visited each other’s houses and talked over cookies and coffee. Since then, Benink has continued to invite Menting over, he says, teasing Menting. “But he don’t want to come. He’s a loner.”

“I know, I know,” Menting responds, sheepishly. He has had difficulty being social, he acknowledges, since the death of his wife last year.

They still do keep in touch by email, though. And while they don’t really like to talk about their prisoner- of-war days, Menting says he does appreciate finding his former classmate.

“It’s good to see an old buddy,” he said.

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