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Highlights In The Shadows: 21 - US Bomber Command

…I vividly remembered this time many years later when I was an adult and the stark reality of what that Japanese advance could have meant to my family and me. My father had sworn an oath to my mother that should the Japanese forces reach Kharagpur, he, Dad, was to shoot and kill both my mother and my sister with his revolver. He and I would then fight on until we too were killed. None of us were to be taken alive…

Owen Clement is haunted by memories of his wartime days in India. To read earlier chapters of Owen's story click on Highlights In The Shadows in the menu on this page.

In 1942, before the American Air Force 20th Bomber Command was due to arrive and build two air bases at the nearby villages of Salua and Kalaikunda, my father was put in charge of preparing a temporary runway for the engineers to bring in their transport planes.

The US Air Force engineers were to build runways long and strong enough to take the long-distance bombers which would ‘Fly the Hump’ (The Himalayas) and attack the Japanese mainland. Their headquarters was in the old jail building at the nearby village of Hijli.

The following is from the Pentagon in reply to my request for information from the US war archives:-

"The histories of WWII are limited to organizations and units not geographical locations. By the process of elimination and some knowledge of the CBI we have constructed a list of units that were stationed at the two bases that you indicated.

Stationed at Kalaikunda Airbase were the 0317 Troop Carrier Commando Squadron, the 1084 Quartermaster Service Group, the 0071 Liaison Squadron, the 0795 Bombardment Squadron, the 0014 Bombardment Squadron Maintenance, the 0338 Squadron 0338 Air Service, 0317 Squadron 0317 Troop Carrier, the 0002 Squadron Fighter Commando and the 0125 Army Airways Communications System. These are the main units. The Kalaikunda Air Field strip was all weather, 7,500 feet long and 150 feet wide from our research believe that the 930th engineering regiment constructed the field.”

My sincere thanks to Yvonne Kinkaid at the Pentagon in Washington D.C .for this information.

My family visited the Americans in their camps on a few occasions to see our friends and first-run American movies. I was very impressed with their hospitality. However I was appalled with the way food was wasted. On one of my visits, I saw a young G I take a sip of pineapple juice from a 2 litre-sized can and throw the almost full can away. It was in direct contrast to the rationing we locals were suffering. I was also astounded at some of the American men's immodesty, as they wandered around the camp stark naked in full view of American and local women working on the base.

My parents, like many other families in Kharagpur, offered their own homes as a sanctuary to some of the young men so far away from their own homes and families.

The RAF's own air base, built at another nearby location, used Lancaster bombers to attack and destroy the Japanese ships and planes that were creating havoc in the Bay of Bengal, and to attack the invading Japanese forces in Burma.

This didn’t mean much to me as a fourteen-year-old until I had to take some food to my mother who was helping at the station canteen, serving the troop-train travelling through. When I arrived at the platform I saw a trainload of severely burned and injured soldiers and sailors. I remember seeing one man lying on a bunk quietly swearing obscenely through his gritted teeth, his charred naked body covered only with a few pieces of gauze.

Dennis E, an English RAF dive-bomber pilot was one of these young men. He was grounded for dangerous flying when we first met him. Dennis, like my mother, loved dancing. Dad did not enjoy dancing nor was he a good dancer. As the result my mother was much in demand. Dennis was one of Mum's favourite partners. He spent much of his spare time visiting us at our home. Apparently he had come from an unhappy home in England. Our close-knit family soon became his surrogate family.

After he was transferred to Delhi from Kharagpur he and Mum corresponded regularly. Dennis always referred to my mother as ‘Mum’. His witty letters were eagerly awaited by all of us. He once ended one of his letters with a P.S. saying, "Tut Tut! What's this I hear about you speeding in your wheelchair!" in response to my mother complaining of getting old.

One day a friend of his called on us and said, "Dennis is gone." He had crashed his plane in a dive. There was some suggestion that it may have been suicide. It was devastating news, especially for Mum, who had become very fond of him. The death toll of our American GI friend's was also high. Time after time we would hear of someone that we knew being either killed or severely injured.

On the 6th April 1942 Japanese cruisers and small carriers had begun their assault on shipping in Bay of Bengal causing heavy damage. The 83,000 tons of shipping sunk were largely the vessels dispersed from Colombo two days earlier. The attack was extremely efficiently carried out.

On June 22nd 1943 after 80 days of fighting, Imphal in Burma was relieved. Four day's later the Japanese General Mataguchi suggested to his superior officer, Teranchi that the Japanese Fifteenth Army retreat. Only 20,000 of the 85,000 who had begun the invasion remained standing.

The Japanese forces had come to within a mere one hundred and fifty miles from Kharagpur.

I vividly remembered this time many years later when I was an adult and the stark reality of what that Japanese advance could have meant to my family and me. My father had sworn an oath to my mother that should the Japanese forces reach Kharagpur, he, Dad, was to shoot and kill both my mother and my sister with his revolver. He and I would then fight on until we too were killed. None of us were to be taken alive. I have no doubt that Dad would have carried out his vow. The advancing enemy was literally only hours away from us. The sense of horror at the full realization of just what could have happened stayed with me for days.


© Clement 2006

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