Crossing India - by Robert L. LaConto
Sgt. Robert L. LaConto, ASN 15354638
Radio Operator / Gunner (Crew Non-Specific)
10th Air Force / 7th Bombardment Group / 436th Bombardment Squadron
Enlisted: 11 Dec 1942
Air Medal w/ Oak Leaf Cluster
Sgt. Norman Handelman, Sgt. LaConto, Cpl. George M. "Juney" Johnson, Jr. (KIA 22-Oct-44)
(Image courtesy of Norman Handelman)
(Courtesy of Robert L. LaConto)
It was bright and invigorating that early-morning July day. It took two trips to carry my two barracks bags, a duffle bag, and a B-4 flight bag, filled with my newly issued flying clothing, across a nearly-deserted train platform to a waiting toy-like passenger coach. The latter, a faded barn-red leftover from the more affluent days of the British Empire, sat waiting for me, and for my four US Army Air Corps companions, to finish loading our baggage aboard one of the coaches.
Once all our bags were loaded, my four traveling companions: Armand Hummel, Virgil Lorenz, George Johnson, and Norman Handelman, all corporals just like me, chose adjacent seats on the well-worn, woven bamboo coach benches. We lowered the windows to catch the breeze, and waited, and waited, and waited. Finally, with a comical tweet-tweet of a locomotive’s whistle cutting across the station, we began to move. And so, we were off—to some unknown destination spelled out on our tickets. Where that was and how long it might take to get there, we had no idea. As we left the station, we were the only occupants aboard our coach.
The Monsoon rains over Bombay had paused momentarily that day, and as we rode out of the city, it turned overcast again and began to cool, a welcome change from the drenching heat we had experienced over the past week at our transient base at Camp Worli, where we’d been waiting for our shipping orders to arrive. As the train wove its way through the squalor of Bombay’s outskirts, we were spared the usual downpour and could keep our windows open on the coach’s upwind side. On the downwind side, though, we kept the windows closed against the engine’s smoke and soot.
The filth and stench of the city eventually gave way to an expanse of lush, green fields as our narrow-gauge train made its way eastwards that first day. Occasionally, we pulled into small rural stations, paused for passengers to board or depart and for beggars on the platform to walk up to our coach’s open windows, look up with stricken faces, and beg for alms. “Baksheesh, sahib,” they pleaded again and again and again. There were blind beggars in rags, malnourished children, and crippled old men. Some entrepreneurs offered hot tea, calling out to us, “Char wallah, char wallah, char wallah.”
We had been warned before we left not to eat or drink anything sold by the local merchants, including fruit, unless it was something that could be peeled first, such as bananas, so when we became hungry, we tore into the C-ration cartons that had been packed for the trip and drank the water from our canteens. We smiled at the sadness displayed outside our windows and sat smugly aloof and self-sufficient inside.
Going to the toilet aboard our coach was a new experience for me, truly a culture shock. The restroom I entered was located at the end of our coach and was a first-come-first-serve, genderless, ochre-colored cubicle with two raised footprints on the floor, each about two inches high and a little larger than the bottom of a man’s foot. A little behind the two foot platforms was a hole in the floor through which I could see rail ties flashing by on the ground between the tracks as the train sped along. The drill was to place my feet onto the foot supports just so, squat, and then let go, hoping that my aim had been good. If it were done right, my urine washed the deposit down the hole. I had to supply my own toilet paper, though.
I awoke with a start. I had fallen asleep in my seat, head leaning awkwardly against the window. The other soldiers also appeared to be asleep as our train lurched and swayed around foggy curves and through dense forests. Out the window I caught fleeting flashes of what looked to be grey monkeys in the trees.
I spent all day trying to fall asleep again in my seat, and by the time the train stopped to let us off two days later at a sprawling field on the outskirts of Calcutta at a camp called Kamshripera, it came as a huge relief to walk on solid ground again. Here I could shave and clean up, I hoped, eat a good meal, and get a good night’s rest on a real army cot.
Camp Kamshripera mostly turned out to be a large field covered with tall grass and lined with tall trees. Row upon row of empty tents stood on one side of the clearing. In the center sat a super-large tent that we learned later that first day was our mess hall. We five were led to one of the tents and assigned to bunk together inside. Our five bunks were arranged with three along the inside walls and two in the center, but there were no chairs, desks, or storage facilities inside. That meant that we had to set our luggage on the grass next to our bunks. It didn’t matter which bunk I chose, of course, because all were the same. The latrine, another tent, was some distance away, which required a hike over a grassy field, but there seemed to be no path to follow to get there. Finding my way at night would be a problem, I could see. It was a very primitive transient camp, indeed.
That afternoon it began to rain again—and hard. The Monsoon downpours had returned. It didn’t take long before the grass floor inside the tent became soggy and mushy from all our footsteps, so to keep my luggage dry, I placed my bags onto my bunk while it was still daylight. That night, though, I put most of everything onto the ground to make room to sleep. I placed my shoes on a high mound next to my bed which, unfortunately, turned out to be the home of a colony of angry ants. The next morning the entire tent floor was covered with ankle-deep water, and my luggage was soaked, except what I had placed on top of the mound, which turned out to be a thriving anthill. Both shoes were crawling with ants, but both were dry.
Finally, after a couple of drenching days, the rain stopped and it became time to move along again, to continue the journey, to board another train and head towards a new experience. Along with the other soldiers, I loaded my luggage, as we had done so often before, and found a seat among the ordinary civilian travelers, all every-day Indians. It was impossible to understand what was being said, however, for I didn’t know Hindustani. Consequently, there was a lot of good-natured nodding and smiling.
After a few hours the train stopped—the end of the line. Everyone began unloading belongings, so my companions and I also hauled our luggage out onto the ground beside our coach, along with the bags, boxes, and suitcases of the other passengers. In front of us lay a wide river, but there was no bridge to cross. We watched a railroad lineman uncouple the train’s locomotive from the coaches, and, with a lot of steaming and hissing, it backed up on a parallel siding. Then it chugged back onto the main set of tracks again where a crewman attached it to the coaches, and it chugged away with them, disappearing into the distance. There we stood with all our gear, out in the open by the empty tracks. Except for the voices of the passengers around us, it was eerily quiet. Where to next?
In front of us, down at the river’s edge, sprawled a large, commercial-looking, wooden boat dock towards which a number of the train’s passengers were carrying their belongings, so I and the other four grabbed our luggage and joined them. Carrying everything to the dock, as it usually did, took a couple of trips. Then, with nothing more to do but wait, we sat down and ate from our dwindling supply of C-rations.
Late in the afternoon we watched a river steamer approach and then tie up at the dock in front of us. Was our Indian odyssey to continue, but this time on a river steamer? There being no other option open to us, we carried our luggage aboard and showed our papers to an official-looking crewman, and he pointed to a spot on the boat’s deck where we should pile our bags. We did so, made ourselves as comfortable as possible, and then settled down for the journey ahead.
The sun roused us the next morning—that, plus the creaking, chugging, people sounds on deck. The sky was clear, so at least we wouldn’t have to endure another soaking rain.
The countryside was lush and peaceful, and except for an occasional farmer tending his fields or his animals, the steamboat became the center of my universe. It seemed impossible that somewhere out there a savage war was being waged, that thousands of soldiers and civilians were being killed every day, that people were being exterminated in gas chambers—all taking place while I sat watching a bucolic fairyland slowly drift by.
As the morning progressed, the steamer kept making occasional stops at some of the small docks along the way, leaving bags and boxes, picking up and dropping off passengers—engaging in the commerce of the river. It was slow going. Then, about midday we swung up to another wooden boat dock to drop off more passengers and luggage. However, this dock was completely empty, and no one came aboard or seemed ready to leave. The captain got our attention by pointing at us and then to the dock. The message was clear. The time had come for us to disembark. My leisurely steamboat ride had come to an end.
As the steamboat churned off into the distance and its sounds faded, the full impact of our isolation and the quiet of the surroundings settled over us. We had no idea where we were, we didn’t know if anyone even knew that we were there, and we had no more food or water. There was only one thing for us to do: sit on our barracks bags and wait. Beyond the wide, barren part of the river bank leading up from the water’s edge, a sandy red dirt road led up and away from the dock area. I couldn’t see over its gentle rise, so I hiked to where I could check for what lay beyond. Nothing but fields. One of my companions asked me what I had seen, and I shrugged and shook my head. There wasn’t much talking after that.
After what seemed like two or three hours of waiting, we began hearing in the distance what sounded like an approaching truck. Then, before too long, a single US army truck pulled into view, ground to a halt at the edge of the dock, and the first American soldier we had seen since leaving Kamshripera climbed out. “Load up!” he commanded, and everyone did so, and enthusiastically. I climbed up with the others into the back under the truck’s green canvas canopy. One of us rode up front with the driver.
We had a lot of questions for him. Where are we? Where are we going? How far away is it? How long will it take us to get there? Are we headed for another transient camp, or are we going to a real airfield? The driver wasn’t very friendly or talkative, so we learned very little.
He drove at break-neck speeds, leaving a plume of dirt and dust behind us. After a seemingly interminable ride over potholed dirt backroads, while we passengers bounced around in the back of the truck like popping popcorn, the driver eventually pulled into what at first appeared to be a thatched roof village. It wasn’t. We had arrived.
Our journey had ended at the home of the 436th Bombardment Squadron, 7th Bomb Group, 10th Air Corps, located at Madhaiganj Army Air Base, India. The date was Monday, August 7, 1944. - To Be Continued
Crossing India - by Robert L. LaConto