The expression “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” is rarely used in actually judging a book. It’s generally used to express that people, on the surface, are often not as they seem. In my writing, I’m frequently intrigued at how seemingly ordinary folks have led extraordinary lives.

Enter my friend and neighbor of 36 years, Frits de Haan. Mild-mannered, Frits is 82, always friendly and with a kind spirit. Never would I have guessed the compelling and tragic story of his childhood. It took place during WW2 when the Japanese invaded and occupied the Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia) where Frits was born and raised.

Emotionally scarred by his incarceration as a child, it’s taken Frits decades to overcome PTSD. Writing “A Boy’s Journey,” has been instrumental in his triumph over demons, which unavoidably took root when he was merely five-years-old.

Interestingly, Frits’ story is reminiscent to the critically acclaimed Steven Spielberg movie “Empire of the Sun” released in 1987. It was based on the non-fiction novel of the same name, which also depicts a young boy trapped and terrified by Japanese occupation.

The release of Frits’ book couldn’t be more topical. Wednesday, August 15, marks the 73rd anniversary of Japan’s surrender, which ended WW2 that had unavoidably shaped young Frits’ life.

Over three-hundred years ago, the Dutch colonized the East Indies, including the island of Java. It’s there that, on May 23, 1936, Frits was born and raised. Frits’ parents considered themselves Dutch and lived an upper-class life, very different from the indigenous people.

Frits’ father was an executive with a large bank, which afforded the family the finer things. Meanwhile, for young Frits, life on the island was a playground paradise. In addition to his siblings, his favorite playmates were his two Keeshond dogs with their plush two-layer coats of silver and black fur. They were originally the family dogs but soon became young Frits’ best friends.

The dogs went everywhere with Frits, including school. They would lay patiently for him to come out of class at the end of the day. Life was idyllic for Frits until February 9, 1942, when the Japanese raided airfields near Batavia. Only a month later, March 9, the Dutch surrendered and the colony became officially ruled by the Emperor of Japan. For Frits, at age 5, life as he knew it would never be the same.

To begin with, his father had left to fight with the Dutch. Meanwhile, he was justifiably terrified of the Japanese. If a civilian didn’t bow properly, serious bodily harm could be inflicted as punishment. And yet the indigenous population welcomed the occupiers.

Having been ruled for so long, a majority of the population saw the Japanese as liberators. However, the Dutch, like Frits’ family, and Indo Dutch, native people sympathetic to the Dutch, were put into brutal Japanese internment camps. (The Japanese treated POWs and interred populations far worse than even the Germans.)

Fortunately for Frits’ family, they had some Chinese ancestry, which made them appear not to be Dutch. Thus, for the time being, they avoided incarceration. Frits’ mother’s plan was, under the cover of darkness, to sneak to her father’s house and have her family live with them.

His mother promised Frits that he could take the dogs but, at the last moment, changed her mind. It was emotionally devastating to young Frits. He was only slightly consoled when his mom explained the gardener would take care of the dogs until the war. Painful as it was, Frits was an obedient child and knew his obligation was to the rest of his family.

When the war finally ended, Frits’ family’s troubles didn’t. There was another bloody war, this between the indigenous people and the Europeans. Frits was incarcerated by the Japanese under orders of the British to prevent Dutch families from being murdered. By the time he was thirteen, suffice it to say Frits had witnessed enough death and torture to last a lifetime.

Sadly, Frits never saw his beloved dogs again. It would take him over seventy years to help that frightened 5-year-old boy overcome what he had endured. His healing, fittingly enough, came about when he re-connected with his love of dogs.

To learn how this boy’s journey eventually brought him to America, and to discover the rest of Frits’ ultimately uplifting story, you’ll have to read his book. Feel free to judge it by the cover because it’s a photo of Frits’ 82nd gala birthday party where he was surrounded by friends, a million miles from the dark days of his youth.

“A Boy’s Journey” is published by Santa Monica based seasidepress.org. It’s available at Amazon and BN.com. (Barnes & Noble) An open to the public book signing is planned for Saturday, August 18, from 7 – 8:30 p.m. at the Shores Conference Room at 2700 Neilson Way. Jack can be reached at Jackdailypress@aol.com.