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The doctor-heroes of war

Indian Medics attending to US casualties in Korea in 1951   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The popular image of a war hero is that of a rifle or machinegun wielding infantry soldier or a tank man or a fighter pilot. A gentle physician with a stethoscope or a surgeon with a scalpel doesn’t exactly fit in as a war hero in the general perception. No wonder then that many an awe-inspiring feats of courage under fire by a galaxy of officers and men from the Indian Army’s medical corps remain largely unknown.

When the Korean War broke out in 1950, India dispatched a medical unit, the 60 Para Field Ambulance, comprising 346 men, including four combat surgeons, two anesthesiologists and a dentist, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj. The unit and its commander had quite an illustrious combat record by then. Raised in Secundrabad in August 1942, 60 Para had seen action in Burma during the Second World War as part of the 2 Indian Airborne Division. Its Commanding Officer, Rangaraj, as a lieutenant in 1941 had the distinction of being the first Indian to make a parachute jump accompanied by Havildar Major Mathura Singh. He was then the Regimental Medical Officer of 152 Indian Para Battalion which, along with 151 British and 153 Gurkha Para Battalions and other support units, had formed the first-ever Indian airborne formation, the 50 Indian Parachute Brigade. He had his baptism of fire with the brigade during the Frontier Wars of the North-West and later saw extensive action with it in the Imphal Plains against the Japanese in 1944 before being promoted and taking over command of the 60 Para Field Ambulance.

Rangaraj

Rangaraj  

 

‘The 60’ was part of the 50 Independent Para Brigade which joined the United Nations Forces in Korea in 1950. In keeping with India’s policy of not undertaking combat duties, there was no call for the Indian troops to be involved in any fighting. However Rangaraj and his men found themselves in the thick of it soon after they landed in November trying to salvage their expensive equipment while Chinese hordes stormed the UN lines forcing an evacuation of its troops. Lacking transport, in a classic case of innovation they engineered an ancient locomotive to life and chugged across the last bridge south before it was blown up, something no medical school had trained them for.

In March the following year the United States launched Operation Tomahawk, the second largest airborne effort of the war. With no other medical paratroopers available, the 60 volunteered for action and jumped into the combat zone with 4,000 U.S. infantrymen. Behind the enemy lines they worked on casualties with clockwork efficiency, carrying out some 103 operations — an outstanding feat under the circumstances. A U.S. commander was later to comment that at least 50 of those operated upon owed their lives to the Indians.

Later in September that year in the combat zone again with the Commonwealth troops they attended to 448 casualties in six days of fighting and evacuated another 150. Hundreds of lives were saved by the brave Indian medics. By the time the war ended, the Indians had treated some 200,000 wounded, which involved 2,300 field surgeries. They also trained many Korean doctors and nurses. The 60 served in Korea for three and a half years, returning to India only in February 1954; it was the longest single tenure by any unit in the war. The officers and men of the unit were decorated with many awards for their exceptional gallantry, which included two Maha Vir Chakras, of which one went to the Commanding Officer himself; six Vir Chakras and one Bar to Vir Chakra. There were also  25 Mention-in-Dispatches, a record for any unit.

Colonel Rangaraj is believed to have refused to accept his gallantry award till all those in his command he had recommended awards for were honoured with those. He was also the only officer from the Medical Corps to have taught operations of war and tactics at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. A leather-hard paratrooper, he made a jump at the age of 73 in 1992 during the Para Reunion at Agra. Colonel Rangaraj was one of the four officers from the Army Medical Corps to have been decorated with the Maha Vir Chakra, the nation’s second highest gallantry award. The other three were Major A.K. Barat, Major N.B. Banerjea, and Captain Pratap Singh (posthumous).

Two other officers of the 60 who were in action during Operation Tomahawk with Rangaraj were Major (later Major-General) V. Rangaswamy. and Captain N.C. Das. Rangaswamy, already decorated with the Vir Chakra for his legendary performance in Kashmir during 1947-48 when he carried out several limb-saving surgeries under blackout conditions, was awarded a bar to his decoration, and Captain N.C. Das was awarded the Vir Chakra.

The Sino-Indian War of 1962 saw the officers and men of the medical corps facing incredible odds to attend to casualties putting themselves in the line of fire as chaos prevailed. With total breakdown of command and control many doctors and their staff took it upon themselves to stay back and attend to casualties rather than desert them when the units they were with were abandoning their positions. The courage and dedication of two captains, Raja Amrithalingam and E.N. Iyengar, are cases in point.

Amrithalingam, in charge of a forward medical unit, chose to stay back tending the casualties even when the rest of his formation withdrew, and actually put up a fight when the Chinese swarmed his post. Shot down by the enemy and left for dead by our own, the young officer was later found by the Chinese breathing. They took him to their lines where he recovered, and attended to prisoners of war (POWs) while in captivity. He was awarded the Vir Chakra on his release. In an identical instance, E.N. Iyengar, who was the Regimental Medical Officer (RMO) of 1 Madras, the last unit to hold out at Bomdila, the last Indian bastion to fall in North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), was taken prisoner while holding fast with his patients and ended up treating enemy and own casualties. He too was awarded Vir Chakra on release.

Laishram Jyotin Singh

Laishram Jyotin Singh  

 

The personnel of the Army Medical Corps have won more than a dozen Vir Chakras in the wars India has fought since Independence. Two of them were awarded posthumously to Sepoy S. Joseph and Nursing Assistant Dharam Pal Dahiya who laid down their lives. The Corps has also won a number of peace-time gallantry awards during counter-insurgency or anti-terrorist operations. The supreme sacrifice made by Major Laishram Jyotin Singh while fighting Afghan terrorists who stormed the Indian Embassy in Kabul on February 26, 2010 remains a shining example of bravery not just for the medical corps but for the entire Indian armed forces. Heavily armed suicide bombers who had killed three security guards and entered the embassy compound early in the morning were lobbing hand grenades into rooms to kill unarmed officers who had taken shelter inside when the Manipur-born 37-year old officer charged out of the debris and wrestled down the main grenade-throwing terrorist. As the brave officer kept the terrorist pinned down to the ground his comrades panicked and detonated his suicide vest resulting in the instantaneous death of both the officer and the terrorist. With his sacrifice the officer had foiled the attack and saved the embassy from further damage and loss of life. Major Singh was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra, the nation’s highest peace-time gallantry award.

 

 

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 5:14:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-doctor-heroes-of-war/article17529390.ece

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