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    Forgotten tales of courage and valour: The Bucket Brigade

    Synopsis

    India supported the UN Security Council Resolutions of June 25th and 27th, 1950, in naming North Korea as the aggressor. Mr Trygve Lie, the Secretary General of the United Nations—acting under provisions of the Security Council Resolution of July 7th, 1950 which requested UN Member States to furnish military assistance to repel the aggressor—asked India to send troops for peacekeeping operations.

    ET CONTRIBUTORS
    By Col ( Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay

    There is a part of history that many in India may not be familiar with today: the unique role that the Indian military played in ending the Korean conflict against the Communist forces of China and North Korea backed by Soviet Union. At least 2.5 million people lost their lives due to this war.

    The Korean War was fought between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea); North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25th 1950.

    North Korea had the support of China and the Soviet Union while South Korea mainly had the support of the United Nations, and the United States. India was part of 21 countries which participated in the Korean War from 1950-53, under the aegis of the UN.

    India supported the UN Security Council Resolutions of June 25th and 27th, 1950, in naming North Korea as the aggressor. Mr Trygve Lie, the Secretary General of the United Nations—acting under provisions of the Security Council Resolution of July 7th, 1950 which requested UN Member States to furnish military assistance to repel the aggressor—asked India to send troops for peacekeeping operations.

    Under this agreement, it was decided to provide a medical contingent. In a special session of the Indian Parliament on July 31st, the Indian President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad expressed his approval of the UN action in Korea. He re-affirmed that Mr. Nehru’s initiative was intended only to strengthen the moral force of the UN, and in no way to condone aggression. India also played a mediatory role, so as to localize the conflict and bring about peace in the war torn peninsula. India’s approach to the Korean issue was to recognize that the aggression that had taken place by North Korea was a wrong act; that in so far as possible, the war should not spread beyond the Korean peninsula ; and that no other questions should be linked with the Korean struggle. India also felt the future of Korea must be decided entirely by the Koreans themselves.

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    This was also India’s first overseas mission after its Independence. India contributed three different elements to Korea: 60th Para Field Ambulance; the Chairman of the NNRC; and the Custodian Force India which had a brigade size force.

    All three officers chosen to head the three elements were the best the Army had at that time and veterans of the Second World War; Gen. Thimayya was the first Indian to command an Infantry brigade: the 268th Indian Infantry Brigade—part of the post-World War II British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. During World War II, Gen. Thorat commanded the 2nd battalion, 2nd Punjab Regiment under the 51st Indian Infantry Brigade with great distinction; he would also be the Eastern Army Commander under Gen Thimayya when the Ex Lal Quila in 1959 detailing Chinese designs on Indian territories would be enacted . Subsequently, despite Gen Thimayya’s recommendation as the outgoing Chief, he would be overlooked in favour of Gen Thapar as the next Army Chief, even as we faced the Chinese in the war of 1962. Lt Col Rangaraj headed the 60 Para Field Ambulance – many today fail to link the similarity of the Para Regt lanyard to the one worn by the Medical Corps; they honor India’s first paratrooper—Lt Col Rangaraj.

    Today the Korean war, and the Indian Army’s part in it, is sadly, a faint memory for many even within the Armed Forces. This is despite the many awards and international recognitions received by the Indian Army detachment. Archival records in India are scanty and restricted to personal papers hled by the Units or families and a history of the Custodian Force of India written by Historical Division of Ministry of Defence despite this being the first overseas contribution of India—in a post-war conflict that saw more casualties and firepower than the Pacific theatre during WWII.

    The 60 Parachute Field Ambulance was commanded by Lt Col Rangaraj who earned his MVC while in command of the Field Hospital in Korea to provide medical cover to UN forces against the China led communist forces.

    60th Parachute Field Ambulance
    When the Korean War started in June 1950, India was not prepared to get involved; we were recovering from a long drawn-out war with Pakistan, between Oct 1947 and 01 Jan 1949. The beginnings of border disputes with China were also taking shape. India however wanted to show support for the United Nations and agreed to send a medical mission to support the UN in Korea; other efforts were primarily led by the US.

    The Indians deployed the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance; many may remember the popular 90s TV Series on a field hospital in Korea, called MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital). The 60th were India’s MASH, and were led by Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj. They arrived in Korea in November, 1950, with about 300 men and were to evacuate Korea only after the Custodian Force of India completed its mission making it India’s longest overseas mission.

    As soon as the 60th landed, they were blooded—taking part in US 8th Army’s withdrawal out of North Korea. The Inchon landings in September 1950 led by the US was a major counter offensive in support of South Korea. Then the Communist forces counterattacked in Nov 1950. Within hours of arrival in November 1950, the Indian Medical Mission provided medical cover to the 27th British Commonwealth Brigade with whom they remained attached throughout the campaign. An interesting anecdote revolves around the evacuation ordered as Chinese forces swarmed through UN held lines in November, 1950. The 60th had no transport allocated for their hasty withdrawal and were reluctant to abandon their first-class medical equipment and supplies. Colonel Rangaraj would later say, “We would have been of little use without [our equipment] and could not afford to lose it as soon as we arrived.” They found a unused train with its engine and formed a human bucket brigade from the river—getting the steam engine running in time to cross the Han River bridge to Seoul, before it was blown up by Communist forces.

    Throughout their campaign the Indian medics marched in step along with the troops they were supporting, refusing to abandon the wounded, and setting up and dismantling as many times as was required—earning the respect of the UN troops. During Operation Tomahawk in March 1951—the second biggest airborne operation of the war, led by the 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment —Col Rangaraj landed with his detachment, all of whom adapted for an airborne role. There were many American casualties during that bloody landing landing, and the small medical unit impressed by their commitment and professionalism—carrying out 103 operations and saving 50 lives.

    The aim of this specific military operation was to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication, throw them in disarray and subsequently neutralize and decimate them with the ground link-up, which was expected on 25th March 1951. However, the expected link-up never came on the day of reckoning and on the contrary, resistance increased. There was no alternative but to dig trenches and hold the casualties in them along with stretcher cases. Only the fine fabric of some retrieved parachutes could be used to ward off the chilly winds and snow of Purunli. The 60th worked relentlessly during this operation, some thriving only on biscuits and tea. The desperately awaited link-up finally arrived on the evening of 27th March.

    In this operation, two Officers, Maj V Rangaswamy and Capt NC Das and one Operating Room Assistant, Naik Rattan Singh received Vir Chakra (VrC), the third highest award for gallantry of the Indian Army and one Officer, Maj NB Banerjee, was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC). During Operation Commando in the second week of September 1951 the unit treated a total of 348 casualties during six days of fighting. Capt Ashok Banerjee was awarded the Vir Chakra (VrC) in this operation. The June of 1952, saw six casualties of 60 Para Field Ambulance unit personnel due to adverse weather conditions and continuing enemy attacks and indiscriminate firing. Naik Umrao Singh was awarded the VrC for his untiring devotion to duty—risking his life on several occasions to evacuate casualties during the period of December 1950 to 1952. In the meantime, both sides accepted a UN resolution sponsored by India, and a ceasefire was declared on 27th July, 1953. The war had resulted in the capture of a large number of prisoners—many of whom refused repatriation to their countries of origin. For this purpose the UN set up a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) . The 60th treated not just the UN forces; a detachment at Taegu continued to work untiringly, treating North Korea’s Army and civilian casualties. In addition to the military detachments they manned, they also ran three hospitals: British Hospital, the Presbyterian Mission Hospital, and Taegu civil hospital—popularly known earlier as ‘Death Hospital’. The Indian medical team worked day and night and changed the hospital’s status to ‘Life Hospital’. They also ran the First ROK Army Hospital and trained local Korean doctors and nurses.

    During their long tenure, the 60th was visited by many distinguished personalities from both sides including Gen Eisenhower and Chou En Lai from the Chinese side. Lady Edwina Mountbatten visited them in the field on 17th March, 1952—accompanied by Major General Castle, the Division Commander and wrote to them from Teen Murti Bhavan in Delhi, in Jan 1952. On 23rd August 1953, 60 Para Field Ambulance joined the Custodian Forces at the Demobilization Zone, and opened treatment wings in North and South Camps to assist those Prisoners of War (PW) who suffered psychologically due to indoctrination.

    The Korean People’s Army, Chinese People’s Volunteers, Neutral Nations Supervision Commission (NNRC) and the Korean Military Advisory Commission (KMAC) formed a society called the Hind Nagar Medical Society and the location of the Custodian Forces was called Hind Nagar. By 1st October 1953, the unit had established a hospital, mobile dispensaries and medical inspection rooms (MI Rooms).

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    The longest ever Indian deployment overseas came to an end on 9th February, 1954. Among the 20,000 men from 16 countries that made up the Commonwealth Division in Korea, 60 Para Field Ambulance carved out a unique name for itself. At the end of their tenure 60th Para had treated about 195,000 cases, and had performed nearly 2,300 field surgeries. That was in addition to treating civilian casualties, and Chinese and North Korean PoWs . This would earn them several sobriquets including Maroon Angels, Airborne Angels, Cherry Troopers. These medical men stayed in Korea longer than any other unit, many never even went on leave. They never carried arms yet they were more military than any other unit. They served and endured in far-off lands to bring cheer and hope to the victims of violence, with their unstinted devotion to duty amidst toil, sweat and blood.

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    Tasks performed by 60 Para Field Ambulance in Korea have gone down in the annals of the Indian Army and serve as an inspiration for future generations of soldier medicos. Over their three-plus years in Korea, they earned: Two Maha Vir Chakras including one for Col Rangaraj , six Vir Chakras, One Bar to Vir Chakra, and 25 Mentions-in-Despatches. They also received honors from South Korea, the UN, a Bronze Star from the US, and a unit citation from General Douglas MacArthur. Indian President, Dr. Rajendra Prasad on their return presented the Presidential Trophy to the Unit for their actions; the President traveled to Agra to present the trophy.

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    We continue with our series on military history involving stories of valour next week. Do read!

    Col ( Dr) Divakaran Padma Kumar Pillay, Shaurya Chakra, PhD is a Research Fellow, with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. His twitter id is @dpkpillay12.
    (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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    4 Comments on this Story

    Narasimhan Bangalore22 days ago
    A very good account for Indians to go through. Though I had read about NNRC ,Gen.Timayya and Gen. Thorat in my childhood, had not heard of Col. Rangarajan. Will the present administration look into giving wide publicity!
    Pawan25 days ago
    An engrossing tale of valour and selfless devotion to the profession of soldier and health care worker
    Yash Pal26 days ago
    A refreshing throwback
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