By the time Lieutenant General (Retd.) Mathew Thomas, 92, was first deployed to Korea on a peacekeeping mission under the United Nations Command, the Korean War had been halted following the signing of an armistice agreement in July 1953. He was a part of the Custodian Forces of India that had been dispatched to the Korean Peninsula for the protection and repatriation of prisoners of war.
“It was an uneven war,” says Thomas, speaking from his Pune home. The armistice was only the beginning of a complex set of issues that had needed to be resolved in the Korean Peninsula. The war had resulted in large numbers of prisoners of war on either side who needed to be returned to their country of origin. In a final operation called ‘Operation Big Switch’, that occurred between August and September 1953, North Korean, Chinese and UN Command prisoners of war were returned.
This exchange was hardly straightforward. “There were a large number of prisoners who didn’t want to go back to their countries,” recalls Thomas. This unexpected development came as a surprise for North Korea, China and the UN Command and the matter had to be taken up at the United Nations.
India played a unique role throughout the Korean War, having no specific geo-political interests in the Korean Peninsula and maintaining a neutral position before and during the war years, yet believing in the reunification of the peninsula. At the United Nations, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN and a member of the UN’s Special Political Committee, V.K. Krishna Menon took on the responsibility of finding a solution to the pressing issue of the future of the prisoners of war.
When months of deliberations failed, in November 1952, at the UN General Assembly, India proposed the creation of a Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission to facilitate the repatriation of prisoners. India’s stance was clear: under the provisions of the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention, force could not be used against prisoners of war to prevent or impact their return to their homelands. Under the proposal, the status of the prisoners who had not been repatriated following the expiry of 90 days after the armistice, would be determined by a post-war political conference. Despite initially facing resistance from China and Russia, India’s resolution was accepted in December 1952 at the UN General Assembly.
Hence, the Neutral Nations Repatriation Committee (NNRC) was set up, with India at the helm. Prisoners of the Korean War who refused to return to their countries would be placed under the protection of the NNRC. The four other members of this committee were Switzerland and Sweden to represent the Western Bloc, with Poland and Czechoslovakia to represent the Communist Bloc.
India was tasked with sending a Custodian Force comprising military and civilian personnel who would ensure the welfare of all prisoners of war who did not wish to be repatriated. At the helm of the entire operation were India’s Lieutenant General K. S. Thimayya, DSO, chairing the NNRC, and Major General S. P. P. Thorat, DSO, commanding the CFI. India invested much into the endeavour, sending a team of diplomats and Major General Thorat to Korea to assess the situation prior to dispatching the Custodian Forces.
‘For the honour of India’
The Government of India deputed the 190 Infantry Brigade in July 1953, under Brigadier Rajinder Singh Paintal, to create the central forces within the CFI.
By August 1953, the 60 Para Field Ambulance, that had already been present in Korea under the UN Command, was merged into the CFI. According to records of India’s Ministry of Defence, the motto of the CFI for this mission was ‘For the Honour of India’.
The instructions to the Custodian Forces of India were clear: under no circumstances were troops to assume political affiliations and were reminded to ensure neutrality during their mission. They were also not permitted to engage in force, coercion, the threat of force or violence against prisoners. Allowances were only made for minimum use of force but only for self defence. Under the CFI, along with the 190 Infantry Brigade and the 60 Parachute Field Ambulance, also deputed were the 5th Battalion, the Rajputana Rifles, the 3rd Battalion, the Dogra Regiment, the 6th Battalion of the Jat Regiment, 3rd Battalion of the Garhwal Rifles, the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (Maratha) (2 Para), one company of the 3rd Battalion of the Mahar Machine Gun Regiment, one platoon of the 74 Field Company Engineers (Independent), the 26 General Hospital, the 7 Field Hygiene Section, and lastly, the Indian Red Cross Unit, along with a few other support units. Civilian members included personnel from India’s Ministries of Defence and External Affairs, many of whom were given language training in Korean and Russian prior to their departure.
India’s then Prime Minister Nehru addressed the five CFI contingents before their departure to Korea, reminding them of their motto and of India having assumed responsibilities of such great magnitude. Four of the CFI contingents were dispatched by ship from Madras and one by airlift that comprised 2 Para and a company (two machine-gun platoons) of the 3 Mahar. Thomas, who was with the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (Maratha), remembers his journey to Korea: “We were airlifted from Calcutta to Japan and then helicoptered to the DMZ.” The troops were on their way to Incheon, Korea on board the United States Air Force C-124 Globemaster in September 1953, when they were denied permission for landing. “You see, South Korean president Syngman Rhee had refused us permission because Nehru had said that India was a neutral nation during the Korean War.” The Americans simply sidestepped Rhee, using a helicopter to transport this contingent directly to the DMZ where Rhee had no control.
“The Indian troops who travelled on the aircraft didn’t move an inch for the six to eight hours of the journey. We stopped for a bathroom break and lined up in an orderly way. The US troops were amazed at the discipline because they had just spilled out everywhere.” Although some seven decades have passed since, there are some incidents vivid in Thomas’s memory. “The US troops had lunch ready for us and we asked what was available. A commander told us they had beef. But when we said we couldn’t eat it, in 30 minutes they changed the entire menu. That was the extent of their resources.”
A ‘Hind Nagar’ between the Koreas
The DMZ is a strip of land along the 38th Parallel, approximately four kilometers in width, that divides the Korean Peninsula into two. Following the armistice, in this area where armed forces were not permitted, the southern half of the DMZ fell under the UN Command, while the northern half was controlled by North Korean and Chinese forces. The Custodian Forces of India set up three camps around the southern half, with prisoners of war under the UN Command housed in nearby camps.
“We had named the area ‘Hind Nagar’ because Indian troops were staying there,” recalls Rt. Coln. Angad Singh, 87, who was a part of the CFI and now lives in Chandigarh. “Chandigarh’s winters are nothing. It was freezing cold in Korea. The water used to be frozen in the morning and had to be heated to use for the toilet. By the time we had finished inside, the hot water had frozen again,” laughs Singh.
Within weeks of their arrival at the DMZ, the CFI assigned duties to contingents, with the 60 Para Field Ambulance continuing their medical duties. “It was the first time in history that prisoners of war did not want to go back to their countries,” says Singh. He visited South Korea after his retirement from the Indian Army and met with people from the war years who were alive. “The locals still remembered (Indian soldiers). We had treated injured civilians as well. The US Army would refuse medical treatment to many civilians because they wanted to keep supplies for themselves and their allies,” he says. “But our duty was not related to fighting. It was humanitarian.”
India during the war
A little more than a year after India attained independence, the UN officially recognised the Republic of Korea in December 1948. India’s representative to the UN, K.P.S Menon, although against the division of Korea, found himself in favour of US draft resolutions for general elections in South Korea, in the interest of India’s wider diplomatic relations.
In 1950, following North Korea’s invasion of South Korea, the UN Security Council passed the Resolution 82 (1950) in June that year and called on member countries for assistance. It was the start of the Korean War. 22 countries stepped in to contribute to the UN Command under US forces, including India. Prime Minister Jawarhlal Nehru however, wasn’t enthusiastic about plunging headlong into the war, explains Skand Tayal, who served as India’s Ambassador to South Korea between 2008-2011, and authored ‘India and the Republic of Korea: Engaged Democracies’. It had been only three years since India had become independent. “Nehru believed that Asia should decide its own fate. Syngman Rhee and Nehru detested each other and Rhee thought that Nehru was a closet communist. Rhee’s ideologies had been shaped by his time in the US.”
Nehru’s decision was also influenced by V.K.K Menon who believed in non-alignment in foreign policy. Therefore, instead of armed battalions, India offered its assistance by sending a medical ambulance unit as part of the UN Command during the war. Despite the presence of troops from countries around the world, the UN Command was very much under US control, helmed by General Douglas McArthur, says Tayal.
In July 1952, India sent the 60 Para Field Ambulance, a field ambulance with an attached surgical unit under Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Rangaraj, which was attached to the 27th Commonwealth Brigade in Korea. One part of this field ambulance also operated in South Korean field hospitals in Taegu, with this part of the unit under Major N.B. Banerjea.
Dr. Captain Balraj Sur was a surgeon dentist in the 60 Para Field Ambulance and passed away in 2015. His son Dr. Akshay Sur remembers a story his father once told him about the war. “They went up and down the peninsula three times because the line of control was very fluid.” Once under pressure from surging Communist forces near Pyongyang, the 60 Para Field Ambulance was ordered to destroy all medical equipment and retreat to Seoul.
Lieutenant Colonel Rangaraj, unwilling to waste precious resources, ordered his men to load everything, including patients onto an abandoned train in a nearby station. Two members of this field ambulance with experience operating locomotives, drew the train outside the station to an undisclosed location, having evacuated without compromising on the much-needed medical equipment, explains Sur. “They had a hard time there. They were traumatised when they came back.”
Managing ‘Chicken Runs’
The Americans had labelled the camps for Prisoners of War ‘Chicken Runs’, in part because they resembled chicken coops, structured in a way that would enable patrol of the prisoners without coming into contact with them. Each of these enclosures were under the oversight and protection of an Indian commander.
Indian veterans of the Korean War say that the protection of prisoners of war was no easy task. Days were interspersed with incidents of unrest, disturbances and on occasion, violence, due to the tense circumstances, but the Custodian Forces of India were commended for their management. Thomas remembers an incident where Major HS Grewal was taken hostage by prisoners of war in September 1953. “Maj. Grewal was an interpreter working with the HQ CFI. There was a case of a prisoner of war having been murdered in a particular enclosure. He had been asked to investigate and accompanied the troops sent inside and was detained by the prisoners,” says Thomas. To rescue Major Grewal, General Thorat, along with Sepoy Thakur Singh, ASC, Lieutenant Colonel Budhwar and a section of 6 Jat entered the compound. While Thomas says there were no casualties, the prisoners of war did attack the CFI personnel with sticks and stones who suffered minor injuries. Under the provisions of their deployment, the CFI were not permitted to retaliate and Gen. Thorat had to step in to diffuse the situation.
Research of military records from during the Korean War show that there were several incidents of violence and disagreement between the prisoners and the CFI that led to a breakdown in relations over the months, including attempts by prisoners to escape the camps. In November 1953, with relations at a particular low, CFI soldiers were again taken hostage, this time at the behest of some American prisoners of war. General Thimayya along with other NNRC representatives had to intervene for their release.
One of the responsibilities of the NRRC was to explain the process of repatriation for the prisoners. That the prisoners, including American citizens, did not wish to return home, was a cause of consternation and embarrassment for those nations.
In December 1953, the UN Command made final attempts at convincing prisoners of war, a group that included at least 23 Americans and one British soldier, to return home. Not one agreed. Another month was allotted to deliberate on the future of the prisoners of war since the discussions had ended in a stalemate.
Lieutenant General K.S.Thimayya, chairman of the NNRC stated that the CFI could not continue to keep the prisoners in custody beyond the stipulated date. While the UN Command, helmed by the US, was willing to take back its men, it wasn’t so in the case of North Korea and China. Approximately 22,000 prisoners were handed over to their various representatives while a group of 88 prisoners who had not wanted to return home, were brought to India to further process their requests. This group included 12 Chinese, 74 North Korean and 2 South Korean nationals.
South Korea’s Syngman Rhee had still been smarting over India’s choice to remain neutral during the Korean War and denied permission to CFI troops to transport prisoners to Incheon on a train for their onward journey to India. With the support of UN Command troops guarding this train, the CFI set sail for India, along with the prisoners on five ships to Madras.
The CFI’s contributions did not go unnoticed by the UN or even at home in India. For his services following the Korean War, the Government of India awarded Lieutenant General Thimayya the Padma Bhushan. The 60 Para Field Ambulance was awarded two Maha Vir Chakras, one bar to Vir Chakra and six Vir Chakras. According to researchers and Indian veterans of the Korean War, Lt. Coln. Rangaraj refused to accept the Maha Vir Chakra because he believed that his men had not been equally recognised for their service.
Soon after the prisoners of war arrived in India, two Chinese nationals and four North Korean nationals wanted to return to their countries and India facilitated the process. The Indian government did not wish to indefinitely look after the remaining 82 prisoners of war in the country but did not receive financial assistance from the UN for related expenses. Post 1955, some prisoners of war who had continued living in India and had not relocated to other neutral countries or returned to their countries of origin, assimilated into Indian society but it was not immediately clear if they had acquired Indian citizenship over the years.
“It was very much a US-led war,” says Tayal. During the Korean War, India’s Ambassador to China, K.M. Panikkar served as a mediator between Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and the UN. Explaining Panniker’s role, Tayal says, “many sane voices said that the UN forces were to be against war. The UN’s role was not to reunify Korea, but to stop the war.” However, events unfolded in a way that the very opposite occurred.
“The people of Korea did not want the division. It was really a war between the Soviet Union, China and the US, because the Americans had the army, resources and the will to fight communism,” says Tayal. “It was a war between capitalism and communism.”
Close to the border between North Korea and South Korea at the Joint Security Area in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a small grey statue that features flags of 22 countries that participated in the Korean War under the UN Command, helmed by the United States. The North Korean border just steps away, makes this statue easy to miss if one isn’t paying attention. Among the flags featured, one is that of India, the saffron colour having faded away due to years of exposure to the elements, but the navy blue Ashoka Chakra in the middle and the India green band below are still distinct.
“At 92, you analyse the war and you understand why the war happened,” says Thomas. “Circumstances are such that you decide someone else’s fate.” Seven decades on, there is only a semblance of peace on the Korean Peninsula.
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