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The Indian contribution.

During 1951-52, maroon berets and jump wings were common sights throughout the First Commonwealth Division, especially in 25 Canadian Infantry Brigade, which included the First Battalions of the three major infantry regiments. However, comparatively few Korean War veterans remember that the only Commonwealth unit to take part in a combat airborne operation was from India.

The story begins at the United Nations Security Council, where the Indian representative, Sir Bengal Rau, was instructed by his prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to support the motion denouncing North Korean aggression in Korea. On his own initiative, Sir Bengal also approved a second resolution calling for action to counter the aggression (fortunately India's parliament unanimously supported his action).

Because of the delicate balance of Far East politics, India would not offer combat forces. While morally supporting the UN, Nehru was limited by a small army and domestic military commitments. However, despite India's neutral position, he committed a field ambulance and surgical unit as a humanitarian gesture.

The 60th Indian Field Ambulance, a unit of the Indian Airborne Division, was selected. They came from all parts of India, and most were veterans of the Second World War. Under their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj, the 346-man unit arrived in Pusan on 20 November 1950. In view of the scarcity of medical support in several areas, it was decided that a part of the unit would serve 27 British Brigade (which had no medical unit of its own) in the forward areas while the remainder would meet a critical need in Taegu. The unit immediately entrained to join the British in the Pyongyang area, dropping off the Taegu detachment en route.

Unfortunately, when they arrived in Pyongyang on 4 December the tables had turned, and the city was being abandoned. It was here the Indians first showed their mettle. Colonel Rangaraj disobeyed orders to destroy his precious medical equipment and relied on the product of a century of Indian history.

The railways had been a major employer in India, and 60th Field Ambulance had a number of former railway men on strength. A dilapidated railway engine and a few trucks were discovered, a Bengali (who had been a fireman on the Deccan Mail and joined the army when he despaired of promotion to driver) took over the throttle, and the unit formed a chain to load the precious stores together with wood for fuel and water for the boiler.

With a jubilant note from the locomotive whistle, the train with its cargo and the men of the Field Ambulance rolled south, to the astonishment of the U.S. engineers who were about to demolish the last bridge on the Taedong river.

On 14 December the unit rejoined 27 Brigade (now, with the addition of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand troops, retitled 27 Commonwealth Brigade) at Uijongbu. They were soon kept busy dealing with both battle casualties and the effects of the bitter cold. As the Brigade withdrew southwards the Indian Field Dressing Station was one of the last units to cross the Han River; the Commander had refused to move earlier as he was still treating some casualties. Just as on their wild train trip, they crossed into safety before the last bridge was blown behind them.

The cold weather was a challenge. Water would freeze within eight feet of a stove; and medicinal solutions froze as did whole blood and diluted plasma. Eventually, hot water bottles were wrapped around the solution flasks to administer plasma. The dedicated crew worked day and night performing major surgery, and soon British, Australian and even American sick and wounded openly declared that they wanted 60 Field Ambulance to attend them. (They also found the curries served up by the cooks a welcome relief from "C" rations.)

Meanwhile, United Nations Command had planned an airborne operation in the Munsan area to pave the way for an armoured advance. The U.S. 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team was selected for this assignment, and medical support was provided by 60th Indian Field Ambulance. Led by the redoubtable Colonel Rangaraj, a detachment of the unit joined 4033 paratroopers of the 187th and jumped into hostile territory on the morning of 23 March 1951. At the assembly area the Indians found over a hundred patients who had been injured in the jump. Although enemy resistance was light, serious cases were evacuated by helicopter.

(Members of the Airborne fraternity would probably not be surprised to learn that despite the somewhat contentious debates over the wearing of turbans in the Canadian Forces, the men of 60th Field Ambulance had no hesitation in proudly replacing their traditional headwear with maroon berets.)

In June of 1951 the unit became part of what was truly an integrated formation. 28 Commonwealth Brigade now included British, Australian, New Zealand and Indian units, as well as a number of Canadian attachments. During Operation COMMANDO in October of that year, 60 Field Ambulance again acquitted itself well--they followed close behind the advancing troops and at times casualties being evacuated came under fire. Of the total of 262 wounded in that operation, about 150 were treated or evacuated by the Indians--all but three of them survived.

During the "static" period of the war, the unit continued to deal with the steady intake of casualties, with most of the battle wounded being victims of artillery fire. (The Indian Field Ambulance received some enemy fire, resulting in a number of casualties.) One "medical miracle" occurred when a British soldier walked into the Field Ambulance. He had been hit by a mortar fragment that had passed directly through his neck, midway between his esophagus and spinal column. In the words of the Indian surgeon who treated him, "If I had practiced for ten years I could not pierce your neck where that blast did without killing you!"

Colonel Rangaraj returned to India in early 1953, having served for 25 months in Korea. By the war's end the unit had performed 2324 surgical operations and treated over 100,000 patients in the 28 Brigade and the Taegu detachments under Major N.B. Banerje (which dealt with both military and civilian cases).

Colonel Rangaraj and Major Banerjee were awarded the prestigious Mahar Vir Chakra decoration; the unit received four other high awards and 27 Mentions in Despatches, as well as several Korean and U.S. citations.

India had yet another role to play. With the cease-fire came problems associated with the repatriation of prisoners of war. Thousands of North Korean and Chinese prisoners did not wish to be returned, and became the responsibility of a Repatriation Commission. Command of the Neutral Nations Commission was entrusted to Lieutenant General Thimayya of the Indian Army and a 5000-strong Custodian Force set sail from Madras in August of 1953. When the situation was finally resolved in February 1954, the Force returned home following a job well done.

To quote a senior Commonwealth officer, "Australians, British and New Zealanders would have nothing to do with any other field ambulance." While this is perhaps an exaggeration--if a soldier is wounded, beggars can't be choosers--it does perhaps reflect the admiration and respect earned by 60th Indian Field Ambulance. To 28 Brigade, the "cherry beret" of the 60th was a reassuring sight.
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Title Annotation:Korean War
Author:Peate, Les
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Previous Article:Making a difference.
Next Article:1941: a year of infamy ... and of growth.

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