Indian Army’s 60 Field Ambulance: Saviours in service of humanity
“The popular image of a war hero is that of a rifle or machine gun wielding infantry soldier or a tank man or a fighter pilot. A gentle physician with a stethoscope or a surgeon with a scalpel doesn’t exactly fit in as a war hero in the general perception,” observes Capt DP Ramachandran, war veteran, tank commander, author and military history buff, who runs ‘Colours of Glory,’ an NGO. “No wonder then, he pertinently adds “that many awe-inspiring feats of courage under fire by a galaxy of officers and men from the Army Medical Corps (AMC) remain largely unknown.”
This truism found its finest expression in the performance of 60 Para Field Ambulance both in war and peacetime. In the news for being the very first to reach out to victims of horrific earthquake in Turkey, under ‘Operation Dost,’ the unit worked round the clock to save life and limbs, against heavy odds, winning immense goodwill and global accolades .Raised as 60 Field Ambulance on August 10, 1942 in Secunderabad, the unit became part of 1 Para Brigade in 1950 following action in various theatres like Burma and Kashmir, conducting flood relief in Hatya, West Bengal.
Dubbed the ‘Maroon Angels,’ the unit won its spurs in November 1950, participating in ‘Tomahawk,’ the second biggest airborne operation of the Korean war, led by the US 187th Airborne Infantry Regiment — to provide medical relief to the British Commonwealth Division, under the overall command of United Nations Forces. The 60 Field Ambulance, a 300 strong detachment, landed in Korea on November 20, 1950, to treat South Korean and US Army personnel, Chinese soldiers, North Korean PoWs, local civilians, until February 1954, in India’s first and longest overseas mission, post-independence. The medical unit treated a staggering200,000 cases and conducted 2,300 field surgeries.
Lt Col AG Rangaraj, who commanded the 60 Field Ambulance, has several firsts to his credit. He possesses the rare distinction of not only being India’s first paratrooper, but also taught operational and tactical matters at the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, according to Capt Ramachandran. He is also among the first to win the Mahavir Chakra as a Regimental Medical Officer, for courage under fire in Korean Operations.
“Throughout their campaign the Indian medics marched in step along with the troops they were supporting, refusing to abandon the wounded and (patiently) setting up and dismantling as many times as was required—earning the respect of the UN troops. . . . There were many American casualties during that bloody landing and the small medical unit impressed by their commitment and professionalism—carrying out 103 operations and saving 50 lives,” writes Col (Dr) DPK Pillay, Shaurya Chakra.
Given the vagaries of Korean War, the ‘Maroon Angels’ dug trenches to hold and protect casualties on stretchers. They worked round the clock, sometimes surviving only on biscuits and tea, besides relying on retrieved parachute fabric to ward off the chilly winds and snow. During Operation Commando in September 1951, the unit treated some 348 casualties during a week of fighting, but took six casualties in June 1952, because of inhospitable weather and unrelenting enemy bombardment and indiscriminate firing.
“An interesting anecdote revolves around the evacuation ordered as Chinese forces swarmed through UN held lines in November, 1950. The 60 had no transport allocated for their hasty withdrawal and were reluctant to abandon their first-class medical equipment and supplies,” writes Col Pillay, about the ingenuity and problem solving capacity of the unit. He adds: “Colonel Rangaraj would later say: ‘We would have been of little use without [our equipment] and could not afford to lose it as soon as we arrived.’ They found an unused train with its engine and formed a human bucket brigade from the river—getting the steam engine running in time to cross the Han River Bridge to Seoul, before it was blown up by Communist forces!”(Emphasis mine)
The Korean operations resounded with deeds of their valour. For instance, the likes of Naik Umrao Singh risked his very life to evacuate a number of the wounded, amid a heavy volume of fire, during the first half of war. He won a Vir Chakra. Besides, the Detachment notched up two Mahavir Chakras (MVCs), including one won by Col Rangaraj and another by Maj NB Banerjee, six Vir Chakras (VCs) and a Bar to VC, besides 25-Mention-in-Dispatches, in one of the highest ever tallies of gallantry awards won by any unit. Overall, medical officers and men have accounted for three MVCs and 13 Vir Chakras, including one at Galwan recently.
The ‘Maroon Angels,’ served for much longer terms in Korea than any other unit on comparable stints abroad. Many even sacrificed leave. They never carried arms yet they were more military than any other unit. They served and endured in far-off lands to bring cheer and hope to the victims of violence, adds Col Pillai. What is the stuff that these officers and men are made of? Like any other Army men, they are also habituated to and toughened by long route marches, firing practice, battle inoculation exercises, mountain climbing and as qualified paratroopers, while facing the rigours of military life like everybody else.
Several distinguished personalities including Gen Eisenhower, Chou En Lai and Edwina Mountbatten, accompanied by divisional commander Maj Gen Castle, honoured the unit with a visit, during its South Korean tenure. US Commanders wondered how the small unit, adapted for an airborne role, could carry out hundreds of operations, so efficiently.
Upon return to India, Dr Rajendra Prasad awarded the President’s Trophy to the 60 Para Field Ambulance on March 10, 1955, the only one of its kind.