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Wednesday, 06 February 2008

MEMOIR: My Introduction to India

By Mort Reichek of Octogenarian

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 starkest 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.

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 02:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post



As usual, I really enjoyed reading your story ,It was very interesting and some of it was funny.

The part about the soldiers misunderstanding the word for gift or tip and thinking they were saying boxes,sounds like a scene out of a Mel Brooks movie.

I can see all those poor beggars ducking as the crazy Americans threw boxes at them...

Hey Mort,
I am one of the many who did not know there were American troops in India during the war. My Aunt Patricia, a world traveler, always said I should visit India to first hand witness the scenes you so vividly describe. So far I have not. Thanks for your service and your story.

Mort, you write well, and I enjoyed reading this memoir. I have not ever wanted to visit India, except when I read a book which is set there, but I'll admit that Bombay conjures up all sorts of intriguing images for me.

Mort, you write so well it is a joy to read your trip down memory lane. I knew a young man who was stationed in India during the war and he contacted some dread disease there. Just being out of the line of fire did not mean you were out of danger.

Mort, you really make it come alive.

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