Wednesday, December 12, 2007

MEMOIR: Reflections on Panagarh

Ever since the U.S. Army deposited me in Bombay as a teenage soldier during World War II, I've been enthralled by India. During two years service there, my senses were overwhelmed, excited and confused.

As the famed British journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse once wrote, a visitor to India "may have inklings of what to expect, but he can never have more than that, for everything that is about to happen to him is on such a scale and of such magnitude as to defy and almost dissolve all his careful anticipation."

During the spring of 1944, after a couple of months shuttling between two other bases as the Army tried to figure out what to do with me, I was assigned to the 903rd Signal Co. Depot (Avn.). The outfit was stationed outside a village named Panagarh in the province of Bihar, an impoverished region about 100 miles northwest of Calcutta. (I understand that the village is now a city and is part of West Bengal province.)

I remember that a leper colony run by Catholic missionaries was located a couple of miles down the road from our base, which was still under construction when my outfit arrived there.

The Air Corps base commander was short of construction personnel. He therefore assigned about half the men in my signal company--radio operators, code clerks, electronics specialists, etc.--for about a month to what we called "the steel gang" to help build aircraft hangars. (I was exempted when the company commander discovered that I knew how to type.)

The heat was so intense that outdoor work began at sunrise and halted shortly after noon. Despite the heat, a handful of New Yorkers, some of whom had been been bricklayers and carpenters in civilian life, decided to build a handball court. (Because it requires little space, one-wall handball is an exceptionally popular sport in New York City and its environs.)

I don't recall how they acquired the building supplies. However, I can now safely confess six decades later that it was probably through some means that violated regulations. During the torrid afternoon, while most of the men in the company napped or played cards, the New Yorkers--myself included--whacked away at the small black handballs. I do not remember how we acquired the special gloves required to play the game. The other men regarded our playing as evidence that New Yorkers were indeed a peculiar breed.

The primary outfit then assigned to Panagarh was the 1st Air Commandos. Its main mission was to fly gliders carrying Special Force units who were dropped behind Japanese lines in neighboring Burma. One of the glider pilots was Jackie Coogan, the onetime Hollywood child actor. I can still recall seeing a drunken Coogan running around the base one day, boasting of having had sex with movie star Betty Grable, World War II's most popular pin-up girl, who was then his wife.

A more important figure at Panagarh was Britain's famed Brigadier Orde Wingate, commander of the Chindits, a mixed Indian and British force that specialized in guerrilla warfare. During the late 1930s, Wingate had been stationed in Palestine, where he trained Jewish farmers (a youthful Moshe Dayan was one) to be "Special Night Guards" to defend themselves against Arab attacks.

Before coming to Panagarh, Wingate had been transferred from Palestine to Ethiopia because of his pro-Zionist sympathies. In Ethiopia he organized native guerrilla units to fight the Italians. He was killed in late 1944, when his glider crashed in the Burmese jungles on a mission that, I believe, took off from Panagarh.

One of my most fascinating experiences in Panagarh was to attend the wedding of a 16-year old boy named Durga Pasa in the spring of 1944. I was one of a group of GIs who were invited as "honored guests." Durga was a "bearer" ( a euphemism for servant) who cleaned our barracks, shined our shoes, made our beds, and cut the weeds growing outside.

I wrote an account of our experience that was published in the CBI Roundup, a weekly Army newspaper that was the China-Burma-India Theater's counterpart to the more well known Stars & Stripes. At that time I was a 19-year old aspiring journalist. The article was the first journalistic endeavor of mine ever to be published.

I lost a copy of the piece shortly after I was discharged from the Army. For many years I was frustrated that I didn't have a copy of my first published work. Several years ago, however, a man who had served with me in the 903rd Signal Co., Wally Swanson of Iron Mountain, Mich., who also attended Durga's wedding, sent me a copy of the newspaper clipping with the note that said: "Remember this?"

Wally and I had exchanged letters after he saw my name in print some where. During the war he had mailed a copy of my account of Durga's wedding to his local newspaper. The paper published the article, pointing out that Wally was one of the GIs who attended the wedding.

This is the article:

Digging down deep into their barracks bags, 14 "sahibs," serving with the American Air Forces in India, donned their crispest suits and attended, as guests of honor, an Indian wedding ceremony held in a neighboring town. The 16-year old Hindu bridegroom works as a barracks bearer for the American troops.

The GIs attended the wedding as guests after they had collected money to promote the wedding of their bearer. One hundred and fifty rupees were needed to pay off the bride's father and this was quickly subscribed. [A rupee was then worth 30 cents.]

In return, the youthful bridegroom, an Indian named Durga Pasa, extended an invitation to his "sahibs" to be guests of honor at his wedding, and the invitation was warmly received.

Durga, although only 16, had long been eager to marry, and one day confided his troubles to the men in his barracks. Two obstacles blocked his path to happiness: the lack of money and the absence of a bride.

The men in the barracks decided to take steps to remedy the situation, and while the father of Durga bargained for a bride, the airmen [sic] raised the 150-rupee fund for the father of the lucky girl.

The wedding took place one early evening beneath a huge canopy especially constructed for the event in the center of the town's main street. The canopy covered several small tables, each bedecked with bowls of fruit, cakes and hot coffee.

Finally the sun set, and the wedding ceremony began. Accustomed to seeing Durga work each day in their barracks clad in ragged shorts and shirt, the Americans were amazed to see their young bearer wearing a majestic orange turban, strongly matched with a red and yellow dhoti wrapped around him. He walked with difficulty in a hefty pair of brand-new wooden sandals.

The bridegroom's mother paraded the young boy out of their house with the bride on to several rugs in the center of the canopy. Rupee notes were handed to the child bride, who wore a brilliantly colored sari. The couple salaamed all around and then retired to the house.

Durga was given three days off after the wedding for his honeymoon. Then, again clad in his tattered shorts, he went back to work in the barracks.

The article failed to note that we were given permission by our company commander to leave the air base and to attend the wedding only after promising not to eat any food at the ceremony.

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Blogger Peggy said...

I can just imagine the heat and the colours! Yet another fantastic story. Thanks Mort!

Thursday, December 13, 2007 12:46:00 AM  
Blogger joared said...

Delightful story. Your descriptions wee such, I felt I was there.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 3:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Jyotirmoy said...

Panagarh is now a small dusty town... just grown on both sides of the main highway, the Grand Trunk Road. It is still a military base and has a pretty good air strip, not really a base, but equipped to land. A large industrial town has come up 10 minutes drive from Panagarh - Durgapur - the forests were cleared in the 1950s. I went to High School in Durgapur and my Dad was with the Forces. If you write to me at, we could talk more. I am very interested in your career as a journalist in India in the War years.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 11:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Ranjit said...

This is Cmde(R) Ranjit Rai and I run and I am very impressed with your writing and reporting. You have educated me as a mini historian. I thought US Air Force only flew the Hump to China, but I see US troops did much more, and were in remote places. As a young boy I remember some GIs gave us chewing gum in New Delhi.

Friday, December 14, 2007 12:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Warren said...

There must have been a British base (RAF) as well as an American one in or near Panaghar. When I was a student in Calcutta, living in Jhajha, Bihar, the train between the two places went through Burdwan. In the paddy fields not far from the railway tracks was the wreckage of a Liberator that had force landed, possibly because it had run out of fuel on a retuurn from a mission to Burma or China on its way to base in Panaghar or thereabouts and had taken a chance the lights of the railway yard at Burdwan would provide a landing space. Sorry to say, I heard all the crew of the LIberator were killed in the crash. Flying those missions to which Mort refers had its hazards. Mort's account, so well written, gives another more pleasant side of service in places like Panaghar.
Warren o'Rourke

Saturday, December 15, 2007 5:47:00 AM  
Blogger Joe Mama said...

It's great that you were able to reclaim your first published story. It was very well done.

You should have used a Spaldeen to play handball, that way you wouldn't have needed the gloves.

Monday, December 17, 2007 3:22:00 AM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Interesting story.
You know, I had completely forgotten that Betty Grable was once married to Jackie Coogan, the former child star. If I remember correctly Coogan was somewhat of a slob in his adult years and of course Betty Grable was such a doll . How could she have married him?

I remember she was also married later to Harry James, the band leader, who was quite an improvement over Coogan.

And I also remember that Grable had her million dollar legs insured I think by Lloyds of London.

Thanks for jogging my memory.

Cheers to you and Sybil.

Monday, December 17, 2007 10:44:00 PM  
Blogger indigo said...

Just wanted to stop by to wish you happy holidays and a happy joyful new year with you and yours.

(well, maybe a sip or two)

Tuesday, December 25, 2007 12:10:00 PM  

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