A PATRIOTIC VOLUNTEER’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE HIMALAYAS
Mr. Chari and Vivek Ahuja Prologue
This is one of those snippets of history that happens to cross one’s path every now and then. Even the genesis of this short article has been curious in its simplicity. It made me wonder about the thousands of other pieces of history that get lost every time we avoid taking the effort to put it down in stone…
I was in Bangalore in January of 2009, visiting my mother. It was this cloudy morning and a dullish atmosphere persisted with chance of rain in the air. I was talking with a couple of old family friends which included a retired civil servant by name of Mr. Chari. He is an extremely dignified person with a somewhat contradictory simplistic mindset. He is not one to openly share his experiences. At least, not until it his heart inspires him to.
It was at this time that I was aggressively pursuing research into the Sino-Indian border dispute and the conflict that arose with China in 1962 in which we were overwhelmingly defeated: about the only time that has happened in independent India’s history. When Mr. Chari looked over my notes and research papers on the war with China, he seemed to be visibly shaken as he remembered his past. He sat down and said to me with a smile: “There is more history here than in those second-hand papers” and pointed to his head. I was genuinely surprised and said to him: “Did you serve during the war?” The answer was spoken in a very steady voice: “Yes. And though I never got the chance to fire the rifle at the Chinese soldiers, I was involved with saving our own. Not in one war but two!”
That was the moment I was intrigued: could it be that having read research articles from across the globe on the 1962 war, I had somehow managed to miss out the most personal aspects of the war right across from where I sat? In the blur of a moment I put down my papers and sat down with a clean sheet of paper and asked him to describe to me his experience in the Himalayas. It took him some time to recollect all of his memories from forty-seven years ago and then he seemed to be lost in his thoughts as he spoke. Much of what follows are paraphrased statements made by Mr. Chari that I took down that afternoon on a scribble pad. If the language sounds conversational, it’s because it was meant to be that way!
To the more casual reader, let me attempt to put the timeline in perspective.
The early days of the nasty war with China in the Himalayan mountains in October-November of 1962 were a momentous time for all Indians. Hearing on the radio of battles lost, the rout of the Indian Army units and the advance of Chinese forces headed for the plains of Assam wore down the morale of a nation. And the growing panic and desperation in the air in a country fearing it had lost its northeastern states to the enemy seemed to have one of two effects on the average citizen in the rest of India. The first was desperation and helplessness. The second, however, was resolve…
And it is here that Chari’s story has a proper beginning. The following is his personal account of his actions in the winter of 1962-1963…The Journey Begins (1962-1963)
It was February of 1963. The nation had just been defeated by China in the Himalayan Mountains. The gunfire had stopped echoing within the snowy mountains of Laddakh but the situation was still tense. With Indian forces defeated, the Chinese held the strategic advantage over a demoralized nation struggling to come to terms with the events of the past few months.
During those months of war, and especially in early November, 1962, there was a call from the government seeking contributions of various kinds like woolen clothes, mufflers, sweaters etc. for the soldiers stationed at high altitude areas. The government was making repeated requests over the radio seeking the support from the public to help the Army fight a war in a region that was not known to the world until very recently.
There were countless speeches from the leaders asking the youth from every family to form voluntary groups and try to collect funds for the defense forces. The country was under threat and the defense budget was not sufficient.
A lot of public support was needed to improve the morale of soldiers. People in every village formed voluntary groups and started collections from individuals and institutions to send to the soldiers. As the war went on, there came more and more demands including calls to join the armed forces as national needs increased for young people to help save the dignity and honor of their country...
It was a small village in Andhra Pradesh, where some young boys recently graduated from high school, heard this call to arms from their beloved motherland. They were young, enthusiastic and supremely patriotic. And they took this call to arms very seriously. They asked amongst themselves as they heard the broadcasts: instead of collecting donations, why could they not offer themselves to the nation and do whatever little they could on the battlefield?
There was one boy in this group by the name of Chari. He was from a very orthodox Brahmin family who knew nothing about the country or its armed forces. This was of course not coincidental. In those early years after independence, traditional Brahmin families often held the view that their community was not one destined to be martial in any way. That theirs was the way of knowledge and hence if one was to serve the country, it would have to be in that capacity. But desperate times called for desperate measures and Chari could not help but gravitate to the patriotic call to arms as he and his colleagues made up their minds that fateful morning.
When they reported to the nearest army recruiting center, they were immediately put through medical exams to determine their worthiness as soldiers. Chari, his colleague V. S. Joshi and a few others were fortunate enough to be found physically and medically fit and were enrolled into the Army as a combatant. Since he had some background with medical services he volunteered for this branch of the services and accordingly was put into basic training.
While in training, the war went on and the services of the soldiers were needed at the front. The climate in the high altitude mountains where the forces were fighting was treacherous in the winter with temperature often going into negative numbers. These young soldiers had been trained via a crash training course by the Army and were ready for deployment when the echo of the gunfire in the mountains began to die down. As a result, these recruits were given the option of posting areas while the Army determined where they could be used to maximum advantage.
Many among Chari’s group opted for service in the plains of northern India either against the Pakistan border or in staging areas in Assam. It was here that a unique rendezvous with destiny took place for Chari. As a young boy he had often been to Hyderabad to see the Indian Air Force aircraft fly out of its training airbases there. He was enthralled by military aircraft and wanted to fly in them. But lacking the required resources and education, the Air Force was out of the question for this young soldier. However, he heard from one of the recruiting officers that the only way to get to Laddakh at the time was via transport aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to Leh and beyond. He was also enthusiastic about fighting for his country, as most young boys his age were at the time. So he made up his mind and reported to his squad NCO that he would prefer any posting of whatever unit as long as the unit was deployed in Laddakh. He was determined to get to fly and fight!
Of course, his family did not take this very well. They told him in no uncertain terms: “You are taking yourself into death’s mouth!” But Chari and his colleagues were determined to go. He replied back saying: “Death is inevitable to everyone and when and where it comes is not in the hands of anybody!” And yet, in the back of his mind, he also knew that it was the mere thought of flying in an IAF aircraft that he was putting his life at risk. But there it was: a decision reached. A stand made.
And into the hands of fate…Into the Himalayas: Leh (1963)
Of course, destiny had other motives for Chari and his close friend Joshi. Their deployments to Laddakh took much longer than expected and it wasn’t until the end of the year until he was told to report to the 56TH Medical Battalion at Leh. Joshi was posted to Kargil and both friends realized that the time to go their separate ways had arrived. But not just yet! Both men were going to the same theater, but would face different enemies. Joshi would stand opposite the Pakistani soldiers while Chari was destined to reach the Line of Actual Control (LAC) opposite Chinese soldiers in Laddakh. But both had to travel from Hyderabad together, and much of their journey was the same.
They left Hyderabad by train and reached Delhi. From there the trains took them to Chandigarh and were accommodated in a transit camp there before being airlifted to Leh. Joshi was airlifted to Srinagar from Chandigarh and he left his friend behind at the transit camp in Chandigarh. It was at the camp that Chari waited for hours that turned into days, days that turned into weeks as he was told that the weather over Leh did not permit flying. So he and hundreds of other soldiers waited in the cold, damp transit camps with their equipment waiting for the weather over Laddakh to improve. He could see the IAF transport aircraft flying every day from Chandigarh and he longed to be in the air. But he had to wait.
Finally, two weeks after he was told to wait at the transit camps, the weather over Leh cleared enough to allow the IAF to resume airlift operations. Chari was told to report to the airfield and was delighted to learn that he would get his long awaited flight to the frontlines on board an IAF AN-12 transport aircraft from the No. 44 Squadron “The Himalayan Geese”. The journey over the Himalayas and the snow covered peaks jutting above the clouds into the bright sunny skies above is something he has not forgotten. He sat on the floor of the aircraft inside the cargo holding area along with dozens of other soldiers. There were no seats inside the cavernous interior of the aircraft and the IAF loadmasters told the Army soldiers to hold on to each other for support. The soldiers in the middle held on to the soldiers next to them and so on until the soldiers at the side held firmly on to the cold metallic frame of the aircraft. There were no seatbelts at the time.
Chari could feel the relative warmth of Chandigarh give way to the ever increasing cold of the Laddakh region as the aircraft began making its descent into Leh, which is at an altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level. As the aircraft descended below the partial clouds above Leh, the soldiers held on to each other until the aircraft finally touched down on the rough runway at Leh. In those days Leh had a comparatively primitive runway compared to today’s standards. And that runway was being heavily used every day!
As the AN-12 shuddered and its wheels rested firmly on the rocky gravel of Laddakh, Chari felt a sense of foreboding. He had finally entered the battlefield after a year of training and waiting. The year was 1964.
Upon arrival at the airfield, he immediately proceeded via tuck convoy to report to the Headquarters of the 56TH Medical Battalion, close to the Corps HQ. The unit commanding officer was Lt-Col Cheema. He was immediately assigned as a medic and given movement orders. He was to head to Thoise and report to the 56TH Battalion’s Advanced Dressing Unit/Advanced Medical Centre being led at the time by Captain Kalra. He was told to find a place to stay that night and then report to a transit camp while the paperwork caught up with them. The next day he got on board an Army truck heading from the airfield at Leh to the transit camp to the east.
He remembers vividly that it was a Shaktiman Lorry in which he found himself as it made its way from the airfield. From the back of the truck along with the other soldiers, he could see the snow and rocks that epitomize the Laddakh region during winter. I young man from Hyderabad, he had only heard of the Himalayas in his school books. He could not imagine the scale of the mountains he now saw around him.
When he reached the transit camp, he was assigned a squad and told to wait while his orders to move to Thoise came through. It was not unusual in those days to be caught in such transit camps given the mass mobilization in Laddakh that was taking place. The Army was struggling to find a place to base so many new soldiers entering the frontal areas opposite the Chinese border. The choke point was the supplies and logistics: no roads existed and so every item of need had to be airlifted to the frontal areas. At the same time the Army Engineers were working day and night to extend the roads to all those forward locations and even from Leh to the rest of India. Until that happened, soldiers such as Chari could only be sent forward in small groups as the supply situation improved.
As it turned out, Chari was to stay at the transit camp in Leh for about four months before being deployed to Thoise. During this time he saw and heard about the war with China that was very fresh in the minds of the soldiers and commanders who had survived the battles. He heard about the ultimate sacrifices made by so many of his brother in arms during those fateful days a year and a half before. He heard about the legends and the Heros of those battles. He also heard about the cowardice of a few and the incompetence of many. By and large the handling of the 1962 war had been severely bungled by the Indian High Command as well as the politicians. And soldiers like Chari heard from their NCOs and other veterans about the sacrifices made by the common soldiers. This was something entirely different from what he had heard on the radios while in Hyderabad. His view of the Indian Leaders in Delhi changed substantially during this time.
He also endured, like so many others alongside him, the horrible climatic conditions and the poor state of the Army logistics in the Himalayas during winter in those years. Temperatures would go down to -23 Degrees Celsius and winds would often accompany the cold, hammering away at the tents pitched in the transit camps. The harsh conditions suffered by the soldiers during that time is hard to listen to, and much harder to put down on paper. Day to day activities was a challenge. Brushing their teeth or take a bath was considered a luxury. There were very few natural hot springs around where hot water could be obtained. And by the time it reached the soldiers, it would often become cold again. There was not enough kerosene around to burn for heating water. What little amount existed was saved for heating food. The food available was in tinned form and was condensed. There were no fresh food items to be found.
In a sad yet perverse way, Chari and the others found that because of the harsh cold climates, they had no appetite for food whatsoever. They wouldn’t feel hungry and those who could eat something found that they couldn’t digest any of it. The only item that they could consume was tea or other hot drinks to keep themselves warm. They were told that food was not the exceptional requirement but rather to keep their body warm by drinking these hot drinks. But to the credit of all soldiers such as Chari and Joshi, freezing on the frontlines of the Himalayan borders of India and thousands of kilometers away from their families, their morale and enthusiasm barely dropped. In Chari’s own words: “Life was very difficult but thrilling!”Life at Thoise (1964-65)
It was after four months at Leh that Chari was finally told to report to Thoise. His journey was strange considering that Thoise was close to Leh. However, he was put on an AN-12 leaving Leh for Chandigarh. From there he took the train to Pathankot and then flown from there to Thoise on an HS-748 Avro transport aircraft. For a young man wanting to fly more than anything in the world, Chari could not have asked for more! When the HS-748 finally touched down on the gravel of Thoise, Chari found himself surrounded by towering mountains even higher than the ones around Leh. A place where sunlight existed for but a few hours a day and where the aircraft flying out from the valley could only fly along the valley for fear of hitting the jutting peaks on either side. He reported to the First Aid station near Thoise airfield and was to remain posted there for the next three years!
During Chari’s first year at Thoise, he found conditions to be roughly the same as those at Leh. Due to the extremely cold winter conditions during the winter of 1964-1965, Chari and the other soldiers could hardly sleep because of the freezing temperatures. They had no beds and had to place eight to ten blankets on the freezing ground below them by pooling the individual blankets from the soldiers together. There were no rooms either. They slept in makeshift bunkers with sandbags for walls and wooden planks for roofs. Their few personal belongings lined the sides of the bunkers. Stacks of tins and bottles were arranged inside their only shelter from the extreme cold outside. The bunkers were created by the Military Engineers (MES) by digging holes and surrounding them with sandbags. There were no lamps and only kerosene jerkins to heat up the interiors. There were a few bukhari heaters as well.
During the daytime, there was no place to sit and eat. There was no real furniture. What furniture there existed was re-purposed packing material from cargo crates brought in by the IAF aircraft to Thoise. Soldiers were not allowed to bring their steel luggage boxes when they deployed so they only had “pittu” bags. One of the few unique items to reach the soldiers around this time was the aid supplies sent by the United States during the 1962 war. Chari and the other soldiers were assigned US made nylon socks, sweaters, gloves and overcoats. The few treasured “luxury” items to reach the soldiers were the US fur sleeping bags, cream to protect lips from the cold and sunglasses to protect from the bright sunlight that penetrated the valley during summer days.
Despite these new supplies, nothing could protect soldiers such as Chari from the high altitude illnesses, frostbites on toes and fingers and other ailments. Chari found himself a medic healing soldiers struck down not by the enemy, but by Mother Nature. And there was no cure for frostbites.
Being from Hyderabad, Chari also struggled to associate himself with this hostile, desolate terrain. There were no trees at such high altitudes. No greenery and rarified oxygen that caused frequent breathlessness even for minor duties. Their hot water bottles would turn to ice in under ten minutes. Bathing was difficult and restricted to one time in ten days. Sunlight existed for only a few hours a day and only during the afternoon hours. By four or five in the afternoon the temperature would again start to reach freezing levels. There was no civilian life to speak of at Thoise, barring a few local Laddakh villages and Tibetan refugees escaping the Chinese genocidal activities in Tibet. Only soldiers from the Indian army and airmen from the Air Force were present at Thoise. Even the local villagers depended on the Army for food and supplies during the winter months of the year.
During this time, Chari found himself under the command of Major Mehra, who was the Section Infantry Commander (2IC) of the Partapur sector at Thoise. There was detachment of EME and ASC personnel as well.
The resupply operations for Thoise were an interesting example of the way things were done in those days. Chari, ever the aviation enthusiast, would take every opportunity to go observe the aerial resupply operations being conducted by the IAF. A few aircraft types could and would land at Thoise, but there was also a Drop Zone (DZ) for dropping supplies via parachutes from the air. The IAF had apparently delegated operations so that their Fairchild C-119 ‘Packet’ aircraft would land at Thoise and bring in medicines and AN-12s would bring in everything else, including mailbags. This latter item was the one single piece of item dear to all soldiers at Thoise, Chari included. They learnt to identify the noise of the AN-12s and would anxiously wait for the mailbags being dropped either by parachute or in case the aircraft could land at the airstrip, by hand directly to the soldiers. These daily C-119 flights were very often delayed by bad weather and many times Chari and the others would get mail sent to them by their families months ago via the Army Postal Office at Leh.
Kerosene was brought in barrels to Thoise. They would be airdropped with one barrel per parachute. Goats were also dropped by parachute for meat. Sometimes the IAF used American supplied parachutes that were made of silk. The problem was that with that material and the cold temperatures, one small hole in the parachute and the whole load was lost. At one time, an entire load of seventy barrels was lost when a sudden wind caused it to hit the sides of the nearby jagged slopes. Goats dropped in this fashion would often break their legs and would have to be killed to save them the pain in the harsh cold climates.
Other operations had more to do with medical evacuations. The IAF had deployed Mi-4 helicopters to Thoise and Leh during this time and were used extensively in Laddakh for medical evacuations. The procedure was for the Battlaion ambulance assistant to go with any patients evacuated from Thoise on the helicopter and then return during the next possible flight back from Leh after overseeing the evacuation of the wounded soldier to the plains on board an IAF aircraft. War clouds once again (1965)
When the war clouds started gathering during July and August of 1965 and Pakistan started getting aggressive along the border with India, the 56TH Medical Battalion supported the forward deployment of troops to the Line of Control and Chari was posted as well.
Before and during the war, United Nations Observer (UNO) aircraft would fly over the LOC and these aircraft were regularly spotted by the Indian soldiers with whom Chari was deployed. It was also during this time that daily passwords were issued to unit members such as medics and messengers who were expected to move between unit positions frequently. This was akin to the Flash-Thunder system from World War II and was mainly used at night.
Despite this, there was a lot of confusion during hours of total darkness at the LOC. Fortunately there were no friendly fire incidents during the 1965 war in the 56TH Medical Battalion sector of operations. The struggles continue (1966-68)
The day to day harshness of the soldier’s existence can be highlighted by a sordid incident that happened in 1966. Chari and the others were notified at the First Aid station at Thoise one day that an airman assigned to the Air Force Detachment at Thoise had attempted to cross a thick frozen stream in a jeep carrying supplied to the airfield when a weak section of the ice had given way and the jeep overturned into the icy water. The airman screamed and drowned into the icy waters.
During another incident in early 1968, Chari was awaiting a flight from Leh back to Chandigarh for a long overdue vacation from the frontlines near Thoise. He was stationed in a transit camp along with soldiers and officers from other Battalions who were also heading back when he was notified that an aircraft had gone missing in the mountains. This aircraft, an AN-12 from the No. 25 Squadron, had crashed into the Rohtang pass killing 92 passengers and the crew on board. Chari and a colleague at Thoise standing next to a written-off C-119 sometime in 1966-67The Journey Home (1968)
It was only in mid-1968 that the government decided to release volunteers from the 1962 emergency draft if they had justifiable grounds for doing so. Chari was told that he was being discharged from the Army now that the size of the army had grown to meet the nation’s requirements. He was finally released in August of 1968 and left Thoise for the last time. He flew in his final IAF flight on board a C-119 to Pathankot. From there he took the train to Hyderabad via New Delhi.
Finally his journey to the Himalayas had come to an end after six long years and after two full wars. It took him some time to readjust to the more relaxed life of a civilian in Hyderabad after spending so many years in the desolate snow-capped mountains. In 2009 he had retired from the civil services and now resides in Bangalore, fifty years after his decision to fight for his country.
To this day I am unsure of what prompted him to speak about his experiences as a volunteer soldier for his country so many years ago. But one thing is certain: that in doing so, he has helped the rest of us come that one step closer to identifying the suffering that these soldiers braved through for the independence of this country. I hope this country never forgets their sacrifices…