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Feature

The Bravehearts

Vijayanta Pathak

The Assam Regiment was thrown into World War II just six months after it was born in 1941. Its first battalion with recruits from the then undivided Assam fought gallantly against the marauding Japanese Army. On the occasion of the Regiment's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Vijayanta Sharma Pathak throws light on the exploits of this force and its bravehearts.

Every story ends in the grave. Captain Jack Young did not leave any to honour. During his dying moments the hero of the battle of Kharasom faced the might of a full battalion of Japanese soldiers alone. His orders were to fight to the last man and last round. The advancing Japanese were not aware of the strongly entrenched position of 'A' Company, Assam Regiment at Kharasom, a village on the Naga Hills - Manipur Border. It was a classic ambush. The element of surprise was complete. Fingers curled around the triggers of their weapons, the men waited with bated breath and pounding hearts. Suddenly all hell broke loose. A deadly hail of molten bullets and exploding shells rang down a curtain of death among the Japanese. They could be curiously careless about their movement. Many dead and dying Japanese lay strewn on the ground bloodying the earth. The rest flung themselves in the undergrowth. Subedar Karendra Rajbongshi lay dead killed by a mortar bomb. Stung by the initial surprise the Japanese regrouped and attacked. Havildar Zachhinga Lushai died trying to destroy a Japanese wireless post. The fierce battle lasted three days. Salvos of battery fire boomed across the horizon. High-pitched whine of flying shells punctuated the din. A mere company was facing a blitzkrieg by numerically overwhelming forces. All lines of communication were dead. It was decided 'A' Company should disengage from Kharasom. But Captain Jack Young stuck to his guns. His orders were to never surrender Kharasom. As dawn broke bright orange, geysers of fire from heavy Japanese guns lit up the sky. Braving the volley of mortar and machine-gun fire, Captain Young, changing positions in fleet-seconds, showered death-dealing grenades at the advancing forces. But death was destined. Kharasom became Captain Young's home away from home in far-away England. The Battle of Jessami was taken as the 1st Battalion, Assam Regiment's first battle honour. The Battle of Kharasom was equally historic. But that is history. Captain Young's death was a tragedy because the general order to retreat to a shorter line of defence never reached Kharasom.

Says Col Dhananjay Binda, deputy commandant of the Assam Regimental Centre (ARC), Shillong: "When World War-II began, Assam did not have a regular infantry regiment of her own. Recruitments in Assam Light Infantry Battalion were not Assam- specific. When the 1st Battalion, Assam Regiment was raised, Nagas, Kukis, Lushais, Hmars, Assamese, Kacharis and members from many other tribes and sub-tribes formed the mainstay". The 1st Battalion was thrown into World War-II just six months after its raising. The Battalion held back the advance of the Japanese Army for 10 crucial days. "This," says Col Binda, "formed a firm base for the future security of India. "Kharasom was strategically a very important position," says Major (retd) NM Pradhan, Assam Regiment, and a veteran of the 1971 Indo-Pak war. It was near Mao on the highway to Kohima, the gateway to the plains of Assam." Weary and gaunt British soldiers were retreating to Kohima through the Kharasom area. "Japanese force," says Major Pradhan, "were in hot pursuit. They tried deception repeatedly announcing in Hindi. 'Don't fire, it's Major Thurgood (he was earlier captured). But alert men saw through the stratagem. A grenade blast cost Bren-gunner Sepoy Khauchunga his eyesight. In that instant Japanese soldiers, swords in hand, breached the perimeter. But they were shot to death. Message dropped from an aircraft to disengage fell into enemy hands". When Japanese infantry reached the post, there was nobody except for the unrecognizable physical remains of Captain Young.

"The 1st Battalion," says Col Binda, "was raised by Lt Col Ross Howman on June 14, 1941 at Elephant Falls in Shillong. In a short span of three years (1942-45), the Regiment was awarded six battle honours and the Theatre Honour of Burma. Gallant action and defiance of death by 2nd Lt. Rajeev Sandhu and Major Sonam Wangchuk earned the Regiment two Mahavir Chakras (MVCs), the highest military honour. Captain Sonam Das Gupta got the Vir Chakra (VC) for exemplary courage and valour. Other military honours are galore". The Regiment led by Lt. Gen Krishanpal, a star of the Kargil war, still maintains class composition exclusively recruiting troops from the North-east. Bhutanese and Sikkimese are also being recruited today. The Assam Governor Sir Robert Reid and Chief Minister Md. Saddulla played important roles in the raising, points out Col Binda. But shortly after the 1st Battalion came into being command was taken over by Lt. Col WF Brown. He received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his leadership at Jessami and Kohima.

It was a dark and moonless night. Lt. Col Brown planned to cut off the Japanese at Tangon in Burma. The whole area was awash with anti-personnel mines and booby traps. Their weapons cocked, the two columns patrolled silently. Night turned to morning. Zigon was just 200 yards away. The jungle suddenly came alive with staccato bursts of resounding machine-gun fire. Jemadar Saithang Kuki and three section commanders of the leading platoon died instantly. It was open country. Lt. Col Brown raced to think of saving his men's lives. Hurdled against a bund, Lt. Col Brown peered out under the helmet to survey the lay of the ground. A Japanese sniper found his target. Lt. Col Brown died an instant death. Zigon was a minor engagement compared to Jessami and Kohima where Lt. Col Brown bore the brunt of battle with his men. When they were buried the next day, the officers and other ranks could not check their silent tears.

War clouds had darkened the skies on December 7, 1941. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. The British faced astounding reverses in South East Asia. Says Lt. Col (retd) P Saharia, Assam Regiment: "An expeditionary force of 2,70,000 Japanese was massed against Kohima and Imphal. Chinese units under General J Stilwell fought bravely but had to bear retreat. The Japanese conquered Malaysia. General Sir Harold Alexander's forces had to withdraw from Rangoon. The Allied plan was to withdraw to Imphal. But for the valiant delaying action by the 1st Battalion, Assam Regiment, American and Chinese forces were saved from a gory outcome".

The 1st Battalion fought as a full battalion at Kharasom and Jessami. The unit fought for another 16 bloody and brutal days at Kohima. Says Lt. Col Saharia: "When the Japanese Army laid siege to Kohima, only about two rifle companies gave battle. Extraordinary acts of bravery were performed by Wellington Massar and four men led by Naik Dithu Angami". The target was a Japanese machine-gun post. It had been pouring a great torrent of bullets. Naik Angami and his men dodged and sprinted in a fast zigzag, from cover to cover, pins taken out of their grenades. Sepoy Wellington jumped atop a billiards table on the DC's bungalow club premises and gave covering fire. He slapped magazine after magazine in quick succession. Angry tongues of flame spurted from his Bren-gun in a long, almost unbroken burst of fire. The grenadiers raced across open ground without harm for 30 yards. The Japanese were absolutely stunned as a shower of grenades rose in gentle arcs and dropped accurately. The post was immediately silenced. The grenadiers methodically wrested seven rifles and an officer's sword. In Japanese martial families these swords are kept for generations and have a mystique quality about them. Inscriptions on these swords, if deciphered, could reveal histories of many wars, it is said. But Sepoy Massar sustained severe wounds. His Bren-gun had jammed. Never one to say die he corrected the fault and resumed firing. He stopped only when Naik Angami and his men were safely back. He refused to be hospitalized. Massar finally died of his wounds at Dimapur. Sepoy Wellington was conferred the Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSO) for his great courage and daredevilry. Says the ARC deputy commandant: "Wellington Massar was a holy terror, a bad boy of the battalion. But he proved himself for what he was. He fought till the siege to Kohima ended. Wellington was one of the five Khasis who volunteered for possible infected by Kala Azar. He acquired the disease which had cut a destructive swathe through Assam. The experiment on the method of transmission of the disease was a success."

The entire 31st Japanese Division comprising three regiments was stationed on the Kohima front. The 1st Battalion faced the 138th Regiment at Jessami and Kharasom, a force four times as strong. As the Japanese armed with heavy artillery advanced towards Jessami, Major JE Askew informed battalion headquarters. "Hold your fire," headquarters replied. Silent and prostrate in their positions, the men cocked their weapons and trained them at the Japanese. The forward Bren-guns belched fire as the Japanese marched to within 40 yards.The first withering fusillade of shots from the ambush position cut down the Japanese. The first round at Jessami was clearly won by the 1st Battalion, Assam Regiment.

Naik Jamkisei Kuki died attempting to retrieve items of identification from the dead. 'V' force scout Paokhodang Kuki went out alone. But Japanese reinforcements had arrived. Another attempt by Major Sidhiram Ray and his platoon failed because of heavy fire.

Jessami, an Angami village in Manipur, 60 miles form Kohima, was known for blackmagic. It had an excellent cover over the Burma border and upper reaches of Chindwin region. The 'cannibals' and 'throat-slitters as the Pakistani Army, in the words of Lt Col(retd) Prasanta Buzarbaruah, Assam Regiment were to refer to the Regiment, built outer ring bunkers,boxholes, command post, hospital, mortar positions and supply dumps on arrival at Jessami.

As darkness engulfed Jessami, the siege began. The men with a ' natural flair for music' beat back the attackers repeatedly. The famous Japanese war cry 'Banzai' stirred the quivering air over the battlefield. The groans and screams from the wounded and dying Japanese rose above the hubbub of battle. They lay sprawled across entangled bunker wires. The 1st Battalion had not suffered a single casualty.

The garrison desperately fought destructive gun and mortar fire the next morning. The Japanese made repeated bayonet charges and grenade attacks. Young and fresh sepoys fought like veterans. Their flesh roasted as they tore off red-hot machine-gun barrels. They snatched Japanese grenades and cracker bombs and flung them clear of danger. Jemadar Tongkhen Kuki became permanently deaf from a shell explosion. He was drawn to safety but refused to be evacuated. There was savage hand-to-hand combat on the last day. Orders to withdraw were not known. Ammunition was running out and they disengaged in small groups. When they reached Kohima each of the bed bedraggled men proudly clung to his gun.

The opening phase for the Battle of Kohima began ill for the garrison. Aradura spur was attacked at midnight. The battalion's mortars magnificently checked enemy assault against GPT Ridge. Lt Corlet and Naik Imtisang Ao kept the mortars firing until both were wounded. Weapons out of action there was no alternative but to evacute GTP Ridge. A counter attack from Jail Hill by Lt. Brown and Subedar Kapthuama Lushai failed. Lt. Brown died on way to hospital. Had the Royal West Kents Battalion not arrived, Kohima would have certainly fallen. The Air Force strafed Jail Hill and GPT Ridge. Lt. Elwell was half blinded during mortar bombardment at Kuki Piquet. Major Askew was killed trying to reach DC bungalow area. Havildar Zathanpuia Lushai and two others died trying to occupy vital forward bunker positions. Lt. Styen and Major Colistain remained in position in the DC bungalow area till the siege ended. Several forward positions were re-occupied only after Lt. Col Brown personally led a counter attack. The long-awaited attack by 161st Indian Infantry Bridgade began with deafening rolls of thunder. The arrival of the Royal Yorkshire Regiment signaled the final relief of Kohima.

Says Major (retd) Satyabrata Bhuyan Lahkar of Assam Regiment: "The 1st Battalion, as-sam Regiment was the first unit to pass over the Chindwin line during the re-annexation of Burma. The fourteenth Army Commander Lt. Gen Slim deceived the Japanese leading them to believe the 19th Indian Infantry Division was the basic threat to Mandalay and Central Burma while getting all six diversions of IV and XXXII Corps across the river. I was Company Commander, Indian Pioneer Corps and in charge of operations at Mangdou jetty. Our task was to transport ammunition, foodstuff and combatants." Lt. Gen Slim met Major Lahkar and his troops at Mangdou. He said, "You must be proud of the Assam Regiment which sacrificed lives to halt the Japanese advance". Major Lahkar was at Kyaukmyaung and a witness to air warfare at 551 Contour and Buthidong. This officer was confirmed the Sambad Shironmnai award by the Indian Federation of Small and Medium Newspaper along with former editor The Assam Tribune Satis Chandra Kakati and Shiva Prashad Barua for contribution in the field of journalism in October.

The men of the 1st Battalion had marched 630 miles during the last two months. The Mule Platoon did over 730 miles under Havildar Padmaram Mech. At each step the men proved their aptitude for jungle warfare, which is nearest to night fighting during daylight. They were able to melt into the jungle, eat native foods, recognize instantly the cry or call of disturbed birds and differentiate between natural and man-made sounds. They lived, moved and fought in the jungle competently.

At Kabwet the men of the 1st Battalion mounted the first bayonet charge which lasted five hours. Early on Major Calistan with 'B' Company and 6th Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment arrived with a squadron of light tanks. Sepoy Dunio Angami single-handedly destroyed three bunkers in fortified positions. He got the Military Medal.

The 1st Battalion faced the heaviest artillery fire used by the Japanese in Burma at Kyaukmyaung. The Battalion broke up the attacks by painstaking artillery and mortar bombardment. The machine-gun teams raked the enemy with precision fire. The fighting was surpassed only by Jessami and Kohima. There was not a single casualty. At Toungoo, Lance-Naik Yambhano Lotha's full-throated Naga war cry at the head of his men with automatics and grenades made the Japanese flee. He was awarded the Military Medal. Operation Dracula, the sea-borne assault on Rangoon and the Battle of the Break-out marked the final defeat of the Japanese in Burma.

In its six decades of marital history, the Assam Regiment has served with distinction in all wars since Independence including Siachen, the highest battlefield in the world. It established its professional credentials during the IPKF operations in Sri Lanka and as part of the UN peacekeeping force in Cambodia.

Says Col (retd) Prafulla Chandra Choudhury, Rajput Regiment: "The involvement of the IPKF in Sri Lanka was a classic case of achieving the objective with minimum effort and maximum restraint. Infantry units from far-flung areas of the country including 4 and 7 Assam Regiment operated in northern, eastern and north-central provinces of Sri Lanka. The topography was unknown. Tamil guerrillas would fire rockets, drop the launchers under the sea and pretend to be fishermen. On July 19, 1988 Second Lt. Rajeev Sandhu was leading a convoy from Nadurangkenikusam to Mankerni post for collection of ration. His jeep was fired upon by the militants. A flaming rocket shattered both his legs. The injured Second Lt. tumbled out of the jeep. Drenched in blood he crawled to firing position. A top militant came to the jeep to recover his booty of weapons and ammunition. Second Lt. Rajeev lifted his carbine and sprayed the militant with bursts from his weapon and killed him". Second Lt. Rajeev Sandhu was awarded the Mahavir Chakra (MVC) posthumously. The Rajeev Sandhu Memorial Trust (RSCT) was setup on March 14, 1991 by his father DS Sandhu.

"Major Sonam Wangchuk", says Lt. Col Chandro Shekhar Unni, Commanding Officer, Administrative Battalion, ARC, Shillong, "was manning the highest snow-bound post at Siachen. He was tasked to dislodge enemy gun enplacements on the Siachen glacier ridgeline at 10, 000 feet. The enemy encircled them with heavy fire. A non-commissioned officer was killed. Unmindful of the risks. Major Wangchuk charged the enemy post under cover of own artillery fire. Three enemy soldiers manning heavy machine-gun including a Universal Machine-gun (UMG) were killed in hand-to-hand combat. Major Wangchuk was personally responsible for wiping out several enemy posts right throughout Operation Vijay. He was awarded the Mahavir Chakra (MVC).

"Captain Suman Das," says Lt. Col Subhendu Kumar Jain, Officer Commanding, Depot Company, ARC, Shillong, "was commanding a post at an altitude of 20, 5000 feet. The date was June 6, 1988. He noticed suspicious enemy movements some 1500 metres away. The enemy were moving towards his post. He mounted a Medium Machine-gun killing two enemy soldiers on the spot. The enemy let loose a barrage of heavy artillery fire including 82-mm mortar bombs". With least regard for personal safety, Captain Das Gupta kept firing. He later succumbed to his injuries. Captain Das Gupta was conferred the Vir Chakra (VC) for his gallant leadership posthumously.

Apart from the MVCs and VC, the regiment has earned three Kirti Chakras, one Ashok Chakra, 14 Shaurya Chakra and 51 Sena Medals. Today the regiment is a family of 13 Infantry Battalions, two Rashtriya Rifles Units and an Infantry Battalion of the Territorial Army.

But no account of the Assam Regiment can be complete without Badluram, the theme of the Regiment song. A creation of Major Mervyn Procter, Badluram was the most popular of all Sepoys in the Regiment. "Badluram", says Lt. Col Buzarbarua, "died during the World War. But nobody knew about it. Everybody continued to draw his ration and rum". And so went the words set to the old and sweet tune of John Brown's Body.

Did Badluram in his wildest dreams ever imagine he would become history?


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