Memoirs of the World War II at Shamshernagar Airport: an US Veteran.
J. Irving Grove
I was drafted into the US Army Air Corps in January 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. After completing my basic training, I went to radio school in the state of Wisconsin; and in early 1943 I was sent to Lakeland pilot training base in Florida. My job there was to operate the flight training simulators, which allow junior pilots safe flying practice without the risk of killing themselves. I stayed in Lakeland until October 1944 when I got orders to go to British India. My journey took me by rail to California on the west coast and across the Pacific Ocean by ship. I finally disembarked at Calcutta in November 1944. During the understandable confusion of war I was sent over to Bombay for a while before I was eventually assigned to the U.S. Air Base at Shamshernagar.
I arrived at Shamshernagar in early December to find a very busy depot, which serviced a continuous stream of aircraft, which were flying from India ‘Over The Hump’ to supply the Chinese Nationalist forces fighting in central China. The base was well equipped from the point of view of the aircraft with hangers and repair workshops, but accommodations for the troops were pretty basic in comparison to what most of us had been used to. We slept and ate in big bamboo huts, which were called ‘bashas’, and I well remember that the water supply was a large canvas bag hung from a tripod of poles. Although electricity was available for the airfield ‘landing lights’ and the repair shops, the living quarters had no means of lighting – which meant that we were usually in bed pretty early. Originally the aircraft were guided in to land by means of flares and torches, and then the army ‘pulled a fast one’ by claiming that we had volunteered to have the landing area supplied with electricity instead of getting lights in the bashas. Typical army volunteering!
I went to work repairing radio equipment on the huge C109 tankers that were used to fly gasoline over the Himalayas to China. I didn’t envy the guys who had to fly those planes ‘Over The Hump’. A lot of them never came back. One who did was Flight Engineer Ed Lundie whom I’d like to thank for refreshing my memories and telling me of the earlier days at Shamshernagar.
The hot weather in Shamshernagar took some getting used to. Back home in Michigan December was a time of snow, with temperatures well below freezing. At Shamshernagar I think it was about 80 – 90 degrees Fahrenheit during the day although somewhat cooler at night – until the summer came, and then we really found out what it means to be hot! We were confined to the base until Christmas day when they let us walk down the railway line to Shamshernagar town. It was a couple of miles into the town and I remember noticing that everything was so green. I was a country boy and was used to the ‘great outdoors’, but I had never seen anything like it before. When we got to town the first person to greet us was a local resident who surprised us by recounting the years before the war when he had worked at the Ford Motor factory in Detroit, only about 100 miles from where I grew up. He told us that he had a shop in Shamshernagar that he had called the ‘Detroit Store’ as a memory of that time. I wonder if anyone in Shamshernagar still remembers that store?
Shamshernagar was a fascinating place with various shops and traders. Every time I went into the town there was something new and exotic to marvel at. Snake Charmers, Acrobats, Magicians, Holy Men; and once I even saw a Hindu Wedding procession; and I took pictures of everything. There were always hordes of curious children running and playing around the town. I still have some pictures of a couple of them; two young boys who may have been brothers and a sweet little girl who was having fun climbing on the fender of a big military truck. They must all be in their 60s or 70s by now and have grandchildren of their own. Everyone was friendly and seemed to understand that we were there to help protect the area from the Japanese. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go into town very often, as there was so much work to do at the base. For much of the spring and summer of 1945 I worked long hours installing radio equipment in a radio training school. I don’t think it was ever used though because the war ended fairly soon afterwards.
Although I had to spend most of my time at the base I was not without some company however. I was ‘adopted’ by a dog and a monkey, who gave me hours of amusement. It was really funny to see how the monkey would ride around on the dog’s back, but the dog took it very calmly indeed! I was homesick sometimes, but letters from my family and friends back in Michigan helped; particularly those from a young lady that I met while on the train to Florida. More about her later…..
Towards the end of my time in Shamshernagar I was assigned an assistant in the radio workshop. He was a very nice Muslim man who had been in the Indian Army, although I don’t know if he came from the Moulvibazar area. He was a great help to me and spoke English better than most Americans!
The war ended in September 1945 and after spending some time in Burma and Thailand I was shipped home via the Suez Canal and the Atlantic Ocean. I got back to the States on New Years Day 1946 and was discharged from the Army Air Corps a week later. My travels had taken me completely around the globe.
I eventually married the lady I met on the train, and we had six children – three boys and three girls. I continued working as a radio engineer at various commercial radio stations until I retired in 1978. I told my children about my time in Shamshernagar. They loved to look at the pictures I brought home and were fascinated by the unusual coins I had gotten there. It was the biggest adventure of my life and I would liked to have had opportunity to return for a visit. It was so green and lovely and the people were so kind but I was never able to find the time and money to go back during peacetime. I heard about all the trouble there was when India and Pakistan got their independence and wondered how the people in Shamshernagar were affected. I now feel most reassured after reading the history on your site that the Moulvibazar area fared better than most due to the cooperation and mutual respect among the various religious groups in the area. Everyone seemed to get along well with each other when I was there and I’m so pleased that hasn’t changed. I’ve also read about the bravery of the people during the war for the Independence of Bangladesh. I’m proud to have known all of you and I would love to hear from anyone who may recognize themselves from my recollections, or indeed anyone from the Moulvibazar area. I often wonder what happened to my assistant in the radio repair shop, and children that I photographed.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell my story.
J. Irving Grove
102 S. Main St.
Hicksville, OH 43526, USA, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org