Question: As we remember the contributions of India during the inter-Korean war in 1950-53, what are your impressions?
Answer: We recall with gratitude the valour and bravery of the many war heroes from across the world who laid down their lives to bring peace and stability to the Korean peninsula. We also recall with pride the contribution made by the Indian men who came to Korea on a humanitarian mission to support UN Command.
Over the past few months, the Indian Embassy has actively reached out to members of the many Indian armed forces units that rendered humanitarian assistance to get their personal recollections of that difficult time.
The 60th Para Field Ambulance Unit provided medical support to the UN Command. The Custodian Forces India, which played a stellar role in managing the POWs issue, was manned by troops from 190 Brigade comprising of 3 Dogra, 3 Garhwal-Rifles, 6 Jat, Company of 3 Mahar and a Team of 3 Parachute Battalion.
Unfortunately, very few of those who served in the Korean War are still alive. In fact, we managed to speak to Lt. Col. Anand Swaroop Parashar, a member of 60 Para, and hear his personal anecdotes about his Unit’s experiences during the War just weeks before he passed away on December 10, 2020.
In fact, Col Parashar chose to travel to Korea to fulfill his duties with his unit inspite of a death in his family just hours before the unit left for Busan.
Q: India was against the War, but it did provide medical support to UN Command during the War. Can you tell us about how the decision was made to provide medical support and the size of support?
A: Like Korea, India too had endured debilitating colonial rule and had fought and won independence after decades of struggle. The Indian leadership made it clear that they supported UN intervention to end the war but were firmly opposed to escalation and widening of the conflict.
At that time, India was herself dealing with the aftermath of Pakistani armed invasion on the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and its illegal occupation of a portion of Indian territory.
As a result, the people of India were vehemently opposed to war. Despite these preoccupations at home, India’s affection for the Korean people and desire to support restoration of peace on the Korean peninsula led to the deputation of the 60 PARA Field Ambulance, to assist UN Command fighting in defence of the ROK.
The 60 PARA Field Ambulance arrived in Busan on November 20, 1950. The Unit was capable of providing two surgical teams and one dental team. It was divided into two teams: one was attached with the 27 British Commonwealth Brigade and moved to Pyongyang while the second moved to Daegu, where it established a field hospital for training Korean combat medics.
The Unit treated almost 225,000 patients, soldiers and civilians alike, both on and off the battle field, and earned the well-deserved title of “the Maroon Angels”. In the process of providing medical aid, 3 members of the Unit gave their lives while 23 more were wounded in action.
Q: There is quite an interesting story about the Bucket Brigade; can we have a brief narration of the incident?
A: The 60th Para Unit echelon that joined the 27th Commonwealth Brigade at Pyongyang on December 4, 1950 had just begun to set up its equipment when it received orders to withdraw! The UN Command had decided to retreat from Pyongyang.
The haste of the withdrawal would normally have led to destruction of valuable stores and equipment brought to support the Unit. Commanding Officer Lt Col Rangaraj was determined to prevent this at any cost.
CO Rangaraj exercised his initiative to use an abandoned railway engine and wagon near the Unit’s location to safely transfer the patients under the Unit’s care, as well as equipment and supplies, back to Seoul. Providentially, one of the members of the Unit had earlier worked as an engine driver in Indian Railways. He examined the engine and reported to the Commanding Officer that “given fuel and considerable assistance from God, it could be coaxed into motion.”
The Unit then commandeered the train! The men melted snow to arrange water for the steam engine and formed a “bucket-carrying human chain” to carry it to the boiler and get the engine running.
So was born the nickname ‘Bucket Brigade’. They loaded their patients and medical stores onto the wagon and then drove the train south across the railroad bridge over the Taedong River, just before it was blown up by the US Army. We have seen reports that US engineers detailed to demolish the bridge stared incredulously and cheered as it chugged across the bridge.
Q: We also heard about the romantic story of Col Unni Nayar whose wife wished to join him in the afterlife. Please tell us about him.
A: Colonel MK Unni Nayar was a war correspondent and an alternate delegate to the UN Commission on Korea. He had volunteered to serve in Korea and had passed up on his leave in India in order to join the UN contingent as a war correspondent.
He, along with his other colleagues, was covering the war while UN troops were fiercely resisting attempts of the North Korean Army to break through the Busan perimeter. He wanted to cover the frontline battle that was raging in the town of Wagwan.
Though he came under fire, he drove on till his vehicle hit a landmine that had been laid by the North Korean Army. He died on the battlefield and was buried in Daegu. The Korean Government honoured him by building a memorial at the burial site which was declared a national monument in 2003.
He was survived by his wife Dr Vimala Nair and a 2 year old daughter. Dr Vimala Nair first visited the memorial in 1967 and again several times thereafter. After she passed away in 2011, in keeping with her wishes, her remains were brought to Korea and buried alongside Col. Nayyar in Daegu.
Q: The armistice talks were able to proceed after India provided a solution to one of the biggest sticking points in the discussions- the exchange of POWs. Can you tell us about the solution India suggested?
A: Indian leaders were deeply concerned at the sudden breakdown of the negotiations at Panmunjom over the postwar fate of prisoners of war. The UN Command survey among POWs revealed that only 73,000 of approximately 170,000 POWs wished to return to their homes.
Indian leaders were determined to try and find a compromise formula at the UNGA. They had to reconcile two divergent points of view: the US and its allies wanted the UN to demand that the Communists accept “non-forcible repatriation” while the Communist camp wanted ‘all-for-all’ repatriation.
Ambassador V. K. Krishna Menon, India's representative to the United Nations at that time, suggested that a Commission be established to take custody of all non-repatriate prisoners after the Armistice and to decide upon their final disposition within 60 days.
Willing prisoners would be repatriated immediately. Over the following 90 days, country representatives would be permitted to try to persuade non-repatriate prisoners to return home. The fate of any remaining unwilling prisoners would be discussed for a further 30 days at the postwar political conference on Korea that had already been agreed to in principle.
Should no decision be reached even after that, the final disposition of the prisoners would be decided by the UN itself. Amb. Menon further suggested that the Commission to take custody of prisoners consist of representatives from Sweden, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia and Poland, four “neutral” nations already accepted by both sides to supervise the Armistice, together with an umpire. This face-saving compromise was eventually accepted by all parties and proved to be a turning point in the Korean War.
On 27 July 1953, the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission (NNRC) was established for overseeing the repatriation of POWs and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission for supervising the Armistice. The UN nominated Sweden & Switzerland as members of the NNRC while China nominated Poland and Czechoslovakia.
India was asked to chair the Commission and it appointed Lt Gen KS Thimmayya, a seasoned soldier known for his courage, compassion and impartiality, for this important role.
Q: In order to fulfil its role as the chair country of the NNRC, India dispatched five commission members and 5000 troops to Panmunjom. How challenging was the task?
A: The NNRC chairmanship was indeed both a challenging and a sensitive task. As such, the Indian leadership selected some of its best units and military leaders for the task. Apart from appointing Lt Gen KS Thimmayya as Chair, India deputed the Custodian Forces India (CFI) numbering 5230 men, including 5 infantry battalions, a brigade headquarters and a general hospital.
The 60 Para Field Hospital unit was also amalgamated within the CFI at this time. The troops were tasked with taking about 23,000 non-repatriated POWs into custody. Each POW had to be read his rights without coercion by the respective country and given the freedom to freely exercise his choice.
All this had to be done within a very short time frame of just 6 months. The most challenging task was to give the POWs confidence in the process, keep them motivated and calm, while maintaining discipline and order.
This contribution of the CFI was acknowledged by President Eisenhower who remarked in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Pandit Nehru on February 19, 1954 that “No military unit in recent years has undertaken a more delicate and demanding peace time mission than that faced by the Indian Forces in Korea”
Q: The two Koreas are still technically at war because the Korean War, which led to the deaths of countless youths from all over the world, ended with an armistice and not a peace treaty. This is why armed conflict could occur again at any time. If you believe a peace agreement is necessary to prevent war from happening again and have peace take root on the Korean Peninsula, please tell us about it.
A: India has strongly and consistently espoused the principles of peace and non-violence. India’s engagement with the world has long been based on the principles of pluralism, co-existence, openness, dialogue and democracy, rooted in the ancient Indian philosophy of the essential oneness of all and the value of unity in diversity.
India is the land of the revered Lord Buddha, who taught us to value compassion and non-violence. It is also the land of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived and breathed the ideals of truth, non-violence, peace, amity, brotherhood and cooperation.
In keeping with these hallowed traditions and philosophy, India keeps the faith in amicable resolution of issues through dialogue. On the Korean peninsula too, India has supported all efforts to bring about peace and stability and denuclearization through dialogue and diplomacy.
We hope that initiatives taken by the ROK agencies will pave the way for denuclearization and lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and also address proliferation linkages relating to nuclear weapons and delivery systems.