It is nearly seventy years since Bobby Freeberg, his crew and the RI-002, the first plane of the Indonesian Air Force disappeared while blockade running for the Indonesian government with a cargo of gold. A new book is coming out based on the manuscript written by Freeberg’s co-pilot, Petit Muharto who was not on the ill-fated last flight of the RI-002, and reworked by Jeremy Allen. The book is called “One Man Air Force”.
IO – Petit Muharto Kartodirdjo was born in 1919 to a close-knit family with strong nationalist sentiments. He saw his first plane at the age of five when a great roar announced a formation of Dutch military planes flying over. The young Petit was entranced at the beauty and power of the machines and became obsessed with planes thereafter. Later after he went to school and the teacher asked the children to write an essay about an imaginary trip from the Netherlands to Indonesia, all his class mates wrote about an ocean voyage. Petit was the only one who wrote of the voyage by air for he had memorized all the airports the plane would have to stop for refueling as he had avidly followed the first plane journeys across the globe.
Unfortunately, Petit’s father died just as he was about to be appointed Regent of Nganjuk (East Java) leaving the family in dire straits and dashing all hopes for Petit to study aeronautical engineering which would have meant going to Holland. Despite this, Petit still managed to enter the Medical School in Batavia in 1938. However, after the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands Indies in 1942 he was beaten, imprisoned for a period and expelled from the medical school after participating in a demonstration against the Japanese when one of the students was slapped in the face by a Japanese drill instructor. At the time he had only one year of study left to obtain his degree.
One morning in February 1946 he was amazed to see a plane flying over Jogjakarta with the Indonesian red and white insignia painted on it. He wept as the depth of his emotions overwhelmed him and immediately enlisted to join the Indonesian Air Force where he was warned not to expect any pilot training. He was given administrative assignments but believed that one day the Air Force would give him the training to become a pilot.
In 1947 all the ports in the territories held by the Indonesians were being blockaded by the Dutch who had their capital in Batavia. No food, medicine, clothing or transportation were allowed into the Republican held ports and the Indonesians who had just been through the deprivations of the Second World War were truly suffering. It was just after the Linggarjati Agreement that Petit tried to find a way to penetrate the Dutch blockade by getting several foreign aviation companies to establish regular flights between Jogjakarta and Singapore. One of the flights was captained by Bobby Freeberg, a former US Navy pilot. Petit Muharto accompanied him on the flight to help orient him to what was on the map with the physical contours below. He noticed that Bobby seemed to like the warmth and friendliness of the Indonesians and appeared impressed with the righteousness of their cause and their resolve to win Indonesia’s struggle for independence.
Bobby Freeberg who was of Swedish ancestry, was born in 1921 in McCune, Kansas on a small farm. His father W.R. Freeberg was a farmer while his mother Anna taught school. Perhaps they lost the farm during the Depression because a few years later the family with three boys left McCune and moved to a larger town called Parsons where W.R. accepted work with the railway and Anna became a cook. Bobby grew up in the farmlands of the Midwest where the wheat fields stretched as far as the eyes could see with occasionally a lone crop plane in the cloudless blue sky dusting the crop. As a boy watching that plane he dreamt of flying and of seeing the vast world outside the fields and farmlands he had grown up in.
The Second World War provided a window of opportunity to Bobby by giving him a free education including training to become a navy pilot. In 1944 he commissioned as an officer and was sent for duty in the Pacific where he served in two patrol bombing squadrons. His mission was to find Japanese ships hiding on Pacific islands and destroy them. After the War he remained as a navy test pilot in the Philippines, flying into typhoons testing new engines on planes. It was during these years that he won a reputation for bravery, kindness, calmness under pressure and incredible skill as a pilot. He was known as “Fearless Freeberg” who could “land a plane on a dime”.
After the War Bobby still wanted to fly and flew as a commercial pilot for a plane charter company called CALI (Commercial Airlines Incorporation).
It was there that he first met Petit Muharto. During the flight Bobby was asked to land at a small air field where a Dakota had never landed before. Then he was asked to drop two parachutists. These were clearly not standard commercial passenger activities and Bobby probably quickly realized that what the Republic really needed was an air force and not a commercial passenger company.
At the time the US military was selling off excess planes left over from the War at a relatively cheap price and Bobby bought his own DC-3 Dakota (in the military referred to as a Douglas C-47). On the 6th of June 1947 Indonesian headquarters in Jogjakarta received a message that a Dakota had landed on a beach south of Tasikmalaya, with an American pilot who was looking for an Indonesian Air Force officer named Petit Muharto. Petit left immediately and found that Bobby had come to fly for the Republic but had lost his way to Jogjakarta and been forced to land his plane on the beach when it ran out of petrol. Meanwhile, the sand on the beach had turned soft and it was no longer possible for the plane to take off. Fifteen villages voluntarily spent the night weaving a runway of bamboo strips 300 meters long and the plane successfully took off and reached Jogjakarta.
In Jogjakarta the plane was chartered by the Indonesians and at Petit’s suggestion was given the registration number: RI-002. It was not given the registration: RI-001 because at the time Petit thought that one day that would be the registration number for the President’s plane. The RI-002 became the first plane of the Indonesian Air Force. Some of the Western press would later refer to Bobby’s plane as Indonesia’s whole air force.
The RI-002 flew many missions. In “Operation Kalimantan” Bobby and his Indonesian crew dropped special trained Javanese troops by parachute in Kalimantan at the behest of the Governor of Kalimantan to assist Kalimantan freedom fighters. They transported Indonesian government officials to destinations inside and outside of Indonesia. One of these was the Indonesian delegation to the ECAFE conference to Manila which included Sjafruddin Prawiranegara who later briefly served as head of the Indonesian government when Sukarno and Hatta were captured by Dutch forces. They also transported the first Indonesians to Rangoon on their way to India where they were to train as pilots. Bobby also flew Sukarno around Sumatra to raise funds for the purchase of the next Indonesian air force plane, the Seulawah. Mostly however, they carried out blockade running, smuggling out Indonesian produce and smuggling back in arms and medicine. They also dropped arms in Indonesian territory to assist in the struggle for independence. All these were highly dangerous missions as the Dutch fighter planes was constantly looking for the RI-002 and had they found her they would have attacked the plane. It was also dangerous however, because of the lack of facilities, spare parts, trained Indonesian personnel and the often primitive conditions, of communications equipment as well as runways and air fields. Despite all of this Freeberg remained the plane’s able captain and pilot, always kind, patient and extremely courageous. It was for this reason that the Indonesians he worked with called him, “Bobby the Best”.
Bobby’s own view on the Indonesian struggle for independence can perhaps be best understood in the words he wrote home, “.. the Indonesian people are poor and haven’t proper clothing, transportation nor weapons to wage war but they will stand to the last man against the Dutch. It is pretty wonderful to see a people believe in the freedom we Americans enjoy ready to fight for the achievement of this view. I for one believe that the Dutch should be stopped because they are still using the policies of oppression towards the people of Indonesia. Apparently, they have forgotten how bitterly they hated being subjects of the Nazis…”
Sadly, this story does not have a happy ending. On the 29th of September 1948 the RI 002 left for Bukittinggi (West Sumatra) with a cargo of gold from the Cikoto Mines in Java. The money was to be used to purchase another plane for the Republic.
The flight plan was to fly from Jogjakarta to Gorda and then from there to Tanjung Karang and then Bukittinggi. On board beside Freeberg were co-pilot Bambang Saptodji, engineer Sumadi, wireless operator Suryatman, reserve co-pilot Santoso and the Assistant Resident of Banten, Samaun Bakri. After leaving Tanjungkarang the RI- 002 disappeared.
There were many reports in both the Dutch and Indonesian newspapers and also later rumoured sightings of Bob Freeberg but these reports led nowhere. It was only 30 years later on the 7th of April 1978 that the wreckage of the plane was discovered in the jungle in Lampung by two poor farmers. In his manuscript Petit tried to piece together what may have happened to the RI-002 and this emerges in “One Man Air Force” but at the end of the day there has remained insufficient evidence to be able to prove conclusively what happened to the RI-002 and her crew.
What emerges from this story is two highly intelligent, courageous and stubborn men who were moved by injustice and willing to fight against it. For Freeberg this manifested itself in becoming involved in the struggle for Indonesian independence. In Petit Muharto this was already evident when he rebelled against the Japanese as a student during medical school, later in his struggle for Indonesian independence and finally in his involvement in the PRRI/Permesta movement – all of which were inspired by a will to fight injustice. It also manifested itself in his loyalty to Bobby Freeberg and their friendship. He was the only person who collected all the material that he could related to the case, searched for the people involved and anyone who might have any information on what had happened to the RI-002 and interviewed them, read through reems of archival documents as soon as they became free for the public both in Indonesia and the Netherlands and doggedly wrote his manuscript and tried to get it published unsuccessfully for years. Their friendship had lit a light in him that did not flicker until his death.
Petit Muharto wrote his manuscript after Jeremy Allan’s 1986 Jakarta Post article about Freeberg made him realize that the story of Bobby Freeberg was not widely recognized in Indonesia. The manuscript was written as an investigative report but none of the publishers Petit consulted were willing to consider it in that form. Consequently, many editors tried to change his manuscript into a novel with little success both during his lifetime as well as after his death. In this the families of both pilots as well as the general public owe a debt to Jeremy Allen for taking a difficult manuscript and reworking it into this far more readable form. “The most difficult part of writing the book was to resist the temptation to include information from documents declassified since Petit Muharto’s death. One Man Air Force is, above all, the personal story of Petit Muharto’s loyalty, idealism, and patriotism, and would be undercut by by including information that he could not have known.”
Petit’s son Eko Muharto who tirelessly continued to try to get the manuscript published says, “I made a promise to my Dad to get the book published and circulated. Now I feel that I fulfilled my father’s last request and I am glad that I was able to still do something for hm after he died. But beside that I also feel that the book has a very significant historical relevance in our struggle for independence.”
When Sukarno travelled around Sumatra campaigning to raise funds to buy another plane for the Indonesian Air Force, the UN offered him a plane to use but after some deliberation he decided to use the RI-002 instead for he felt that it would boost Indonesian morale to see the president in a plane with the Indonesian insignia. Often while delivering a speech on an air strip Sukarno would point to Bobby and tell the crowd that Bobby’s willingness to support the struggle for Indonesian independence showed that not all foreigners were colonial oppressors and the Republic of Indonesia had friends in the world. In later years he was to refer to him as, “That dear boy, our friend Bob Freeberg”.
It seems there is still one thing left to do. It is seventy years since Bobby Freeberg and his crew died. He left behind a fiancé and parents who loved him dearly and never found out what happened to him. He died very young. He could have had a family, a happy life – but he sacrificed this for our Republic. The remains of the rest of the crew are buried in the Tanjung Karang Heroes’ Cemetery. It is not clear what happened to Bobby’s remains. Is it not time for the government to offer some sort of acknowledgement for that his sacrifice? Could the government not give a medal or at least place a plaque in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Kalibata, for that dear boy, our friend Bob Freeberg? (Tamalia Alisjahbana)
The book was planned on being published by Afterhours in April 2018