Saturday, March 25, 2006

MEMOIR: My introduction to India

When I was growing up in the late 1930s, I was enthralled by movies like "Gunga Din" and "Lives of a Bengal Lancer." They depicted India as a land of exotic mystery and excitement. It was a land far removed from my mundane life in a Bronx tenement and a vivid source for boyhood dreams of adventure. Little did I know then that only a few years later that I would be living in India, courtesy of the U.S. Army, to experience what I had been fantasizing about.

I arrived in Bombay, India on Feb. 8, 1944 aboard the HMS Empress of Scotland, a 27,000-ton luxury liner originally known as the Empress of Japan. It had been renamed and converted into a troopship two years earlier. (The city has also been renamed; to shed traces of its Portugese roots, it is now known as Mumbai.)

The vessel, carrying about 5,000 troops, departed from Hampton Roads, Va. on Jan. 10 without a warship escort. Officers were assigned to staterooms on the upper decks; enlisted men were crammed below deck in bunks stacked four high. The upper bunks were the most desirable. Probably because I moved too slowly when we boarded the ship, I wound up in the lowest bunk. My shipmates had to step on it to go up and down to their own sleeping quarters. The accommodations were not what one might normally expect on a so-called luxury liner.

Snow fell heavily as the Empress of Scotland departed, and we were bundled up in winter clothing. In a typical act of military absurdity, all troops were ordered below deck as we sailed out of the harbor. The purpose was to prevent us from seeing "strategic port facilities." Few if any of us could have recognized a "strategic" facility if we saw one. Moreover, how could any vital information have been transmitted to the enemy? And, after all, we were leaving the U.S. to fight the enemy.

The fierce battle at Anzio in Italy was raging as we sailed. In previous weeks, all troops leaving the Virginia port of embarkation had been sent there as reinforcements. The assumption was that Anzio was our final destination. Two days before we sailed, my outfit was equipped with trench knives for the first time, underscoring the notion that we were headed for combat on the Italian battlefield. The next day the knives were taken away. Too many men had hurt themselves opening beer cans or playing a game tossing and flipping the knives into the ground. Our commanding officer decided that the knives were too dangerous for soldiers presumably headed for combat.

After a few days at sea the weather began to turn warm. We had to shed our winter uniforms and change to summer or tropical clothing. We had no idea where we were headed. But a huge map was soon installed on the mess hall wall tracing the ship's route. It showed us heading south in the Atlantic Ocean. After about a week at sea, we crossed the Equator, prompting the vessel's British merchant marine crew to stage the traditional merry ceremony honoring first-time Equator crossers.

The merriment vanished early the next morning off the coast of Brazil when a German submarine was sighted. It fired a torpedo at us and missed. I was awakened by the sound of depth charges aimed at the sub and a loudspeaker alarm to don lifejackets. The ship quickly stopped zig-zagging and began going full-speed ahead. At a speed of at least 30 knots an hour, we were able to easily outrun the submarine.

After nearly two weeks at sea, we arrived in Capetown, South Africa and stayed for four days to refuel and take on food supplies. We sailed out of the city in darkness, wary of German or Japanese submarines known to be prowling outside the harbor. The ship headed east around the Cape of Good Hope then turned north in the Indian Ocean. We did not learn our final destination until we landed in Bombay nearly a month after our departure from Virginia.

As the ship moved into the Bombay harbor, we were greeted by a U.S. Army tugboat blaring Artie Shaw's popular recording of "Begin the Beguine." Also among the greeters were scores of tiny, flimsy boats manned by men shouting "baksheesh" at us as we lined the ship's railings.

"Baksheesh," a Persian word, is the universal plea of beggars in the Middle East and Near East calling for a tip or gift. We thought we were being asked for "boxes." Several men quickly rushed to the ship's galley to retrieve dozens of empty fruit crates and threw them overboard. Within minutes, Bombay's harbor was littered with gifts that were undoubtedly not what the locals had expected.

As we struggled off the Empress of Scotland's gangplank, loaded down with duffle bags over our shoulders, a pack of peddlers was waiting for us. They were selling photographs of naked oriental young women with their legs spread apart. The photos were airbrushed to show that the women's vaginas were horizontally shaped. The picture depicted a myth, with which I was unfamiliar, that the genitalia of oriental females differed markedly from Western women. Some my shipmates obviously were familiar with the myth. They eagerly bought copies of the altered photo to satisfy their naive belief about oriental ladies.

I am astonished at how few Americans know or remember that U.S. troops served in India during World War II. About 300,000 of us were based there and in China and Burma. Our mission was to support the Chinese battling Japan's invading army and to aid the British recapture Burma from the Japanese. We were "the forgotten theater of war." I arrived in Bombay shortly after Japan's army had captured much of Manipur, a state in northeastern India. The Japanese were pushed back into Burma only about a week after our arrival. I cannot claim that my shipmates and I had an impact on the Japanese withdrawal

I spent nearly a month in Bombay, stationed at a Royal Air Force base in Worli, a suburb, awaiting assignment. Nearby was a race track where, to my surprise, the horses ran clockwise. Also in the area was the famed Towers of Silence, where the Parsis, one of India's many ethnic/religious minorities, deposit their dead to be devoured by vultures.

Every few days we were allowed to go into the city. Bombay offers extraordinary contrasts--more extreme than any city I have ever known. Tall skyscrapers, speedy commuter railroad trains, theaters, night clubs, upscale hotels, palatial suburban homes, and other features of a prosperous metropolis were matched by the starkist signs of poverty I have ever seen.

A teeming sea of humanity filled the streets. Diseased, malnourished beggars clad in rags were everywhere. Hordes of people made their homes on the sidewalks with no access to fresh water and toilets. Cows, sacred to the Hindus, wandered undisturbed through the streets. Corpses were a frequent sight along the street curbs, vultures hovering above the dead.

Sixty-two years have passed since I was in Bombay. From what I've read, the contrasts have been magnified as India has become a more modernized, industrial and commercial power and Bombay has become the site of a hugely successful movie industry.

I was based in India for two years, much of it shuttling among U.S. military installations across the country. Most of my service was in the eastern provinces of Bengal and Assam. From there vital supplies were flown to China or trucked over the Burma-Ledo Road, which we built and on which an oil pipeline was installed and a telephone line strung from Calcutta over the Himalayas to China.

I departed from Calcutta on Feb. 8, 1946 aboard a U.S. Navy troopship, the General Ballou (known fondly as the "Babalu"). Nearly a month later, after brief stops in the war-battered ports of Singapore and Manila, we happily debarked in San Francisco.

By that time, all the images of Gunga Din and the Bengal Lancers had been fully erased from my mind.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating account! I am from Bombay myself and have lived in Worli for a few years. At the moment I am in the U.S. studying to be an engineer. Bombay is still a study in contrasts, but it has improved a lot from 50 years ago. No bodies on the street now ;)

If you would like to read a fascinating account of modern Bombay, I recommend the book Maximum City by Suketu Mehta. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is another well written autobiographical story where Bombay is one of the main characters - though it from the 80s. You can find both of these at or Borders/Barnes and Noble.

Here is an excellent discussion with Suketu Mehta on Bombay today.

I love Bombay!


Tuesday, March 28, 2006 2:29:00 AM  
Anonymous joared said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your humorous descriptions of your departure from our shores; your less than luxurious accommodations on a luxury liner.

As for raising the issue of having to turn in your knife, we all know that allowing combat soldiers to have weapons is questionable judgement. :-)

Your descriptions enabled me to visualize your experience, especially when you were in India. Life does have a way of displacing our romanticized mental pictures with reality as time goes by.

BTW, in keeping with a promise I made to myself some years ago, that I would personally thank every military person I encountered who served in WWII, whatever their military status, I thank you.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006 3:04:00 AM  
Blogger goldenlucyd said...

I look forward to your posts so much. This war memoir was a jewel as far as I'm concerned. I felt like I was right there. Of course, thakfully, I wasn't. Thanks for going for me---and our country.
You're just a wonderful writer, Mort.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006 9:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mort,
Our mom (lucyd) enjoys your writing and now I understand why.

I read this post with great interest because one of my clearest memories of childhood involves a WWII vet who spent most of his hitch in India.
Ole (yes, that's his real name)had a daughter my age. I remember the huge glass display case that stood at the top of their staircase. It was filled with the most delicate and extraordinary carved figures and scenes from pastoral India. I've never seen anything like that since.

The carvings were so different than the collectibles my Dad brought back from Europe (though the lava he picked up warm from Mt. Vesuvius was interesting).

In any case, I've never forgotten the fascination the Indian carvings held for me and the wonderment I felt at what must be so exotic a culture.

Thanks, Mort. I don't have a blog---Mom handles that department for us, but I'll most certainly be back.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006 6:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Claude said...

I too loved Gunga Din and the Bengal Lancers and the mysterious Orient when I was a kid. I so enjoy your memoir posts. Love your sense of humour. Thanks for another great post!

Thursday, March 30, 2006 5:18:00 PM  
Blogger Folk-news said...

Thank you for this article. Our son and his wife and son (6 months old)now live in Sri Lanks so I now look for anything related to India or Sri Lanka.

Sunday, April 30, 2006 4:00:00 PM  
Blogger Mahree said...

I recently found a pin in my parents' effects labeled "Empress of Scotland" with a picture of the ship under the glass. This ultimately led me to your blog as I researched the pin.

My father, as well as all my male relatives served in the Navy during WWII. I lived in India for 3 months in 1960. I stayed with an Indian family in Bombay for part of that time.

I was delighted to hear your account of the War & of India. I loved Bombay and and southern India , (Mysore) was so beautiful. The people were so hospitable and welcoming.

Thanks for the memories!

Sunday, February 17, 2008 7:25:00 PM  

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