(Images above of Lt. Col Dr. Arcot G Rangaraj on the Left and a soldier of the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance Unit treating a wounded soldier during the Korean War on the Right courtesy the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, South Korea)
In July 2020, Lieutenant Colonel Dr Arcot G Rangaraj, a doctor from the Indian Army and the first Indian paratrooper (alongside Havildar Major Mathura Singh), was posthumously served with a unique distinction by the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs.
Dr Rangaraj was commemorated as “Hero of the Month” for leading a medical mission to the Korean peninsula during the Korean War, which raged from 25 June 1950 to 27 July 1953. He led the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit, which treated about 2,00,000 cases, performed 2,3000 surgeries and saved countless lives under hazardous circumstances. His photos were displayed prominently across schools in South Korea where his heroics were recounted.
Following his tenure in the Indian Army, he went on to work with the World Health Organization (WHO), and played a pivotal role in eradicating smallpox in Afghanistan.
Serving with distinction
Born in 1917, Rangaraj studied medicine at the Madras Medical College before enlisting in the Indian Medical Service (part of erstwhile British Indian Army) in 1941.
It was at the Air Landing School in Willingdon (now Safdarjung) Airport, New Delhi, where he did his para training along with Havildar Major Mathura Singh, and went on to serve as a medical officer in the Indian para battalion.
During World War II, he served on the Manipur front, when the Japanese invaded Burma and Northeast India, healing wounded combatants and saving lives.
Following World War II, Independence, and dismantling of the Indian Medical Service, he was promoted to head the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit of the Indian Army. Later, from 1948-49, the unit would also serve with distinction in Kashmir, where it raised and maintained the famous ‘Cariappa Hospital’, which served the needs of army units in its vicinity despite constantly facing resource shortages and inclement weather conditions.
However, Dr Rangaraj didn’t have much time for resting on his laurels, because another conflict had broken out more than 5,000 km away in the Korean peninsula.
(1 /3)The end of the Korean War came with the Armistice Agreement signed on July 27, 1953. Today, we remember the sacrifice of all those who fought so we can live in peace.
During this 3-year war, India provided humanitarian support to the UN troops. pic.twitter.com/Xw2GdJ48U1— India in ROK (@IndiainROK) July 28, 2021
Divided after World War II, the Korean peninsula had become a flashpoint in the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. Leadership from North and South Korea claimed sovereignty over the entire peninsula.
War soon broke out when North Korea invaded their neighbours in the South. Given the climate of the Cold War, South Korea was given assistance by a Western alliance led by the US under a resolution passed in the United Nations (UN). Meanwhile, North Korea had assistance from the Chinese People’s Volunteers, which in turn received support from the USSR.
Newly-independent India, meanwhile, was standing right in the front of the line to resolve this conflict with then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru actively involved in negotiating peace by engaging all the major stakeholders — US, USSR and China.
“From the outbreak of hostilities to the cease-fire three years later, Jawaharlal Nehru, the near-exclusive voice in Indian foreign policy as both prime minister and minister for external affairs, was determined to prevent the UN from adopting a policy that might lead to the war’s prolongation or escalation,” scholar and author Robert Barnes wrote in a 2013 article for The Journal of Korean Studies, published by the Duke University Press.
“Nehru therefore sought to use India’s considerable influence to reconcile the two Cold War blocs’ widely divergent positions on Korea and restore world peace,” he added.
Despite Nehru’s position on non-alignment, India supported two UN Security Council Resolutions of 25 and 27 June 1950 that named North Korea as the aggressor. Trygve Lie, the then secretary general of the UN, requested India to send troops for peacekeeping operations.
The request was made under the UN Security Resolution of 7 July 1950, which asked member nations to provide military assistance to repel the aggressor — North Korea. On 31 July 1950, a special session of the Indian Parliament was called to discuss the Korean conflict.
During this session then president of India Dr Rajendra Prasad told the Parliament of Nehru’s appeal — to both Russian dictator Joseph Stalin as well as the US secretary of state Dean Acheson — that they should use their influence to “localise” the armed conflict in Korea. He also stated that Nehru’s initiative was only to strengthen the ‘moral force of the UN’, and not condone military aggression.
In following up with the UN’s request for military assistance from member states, India agreed to send a medical unit — the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit. Led by Dr Rangaraj, the unit consisted of about 346 men, including four surgeons, two anaesthesiologists, and a dentist.
With her brother on her back, a war-weary Korean girl trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea, in 1951 (Image courtesy Manhhai/Flickr)
Healing through hell
The unit was transported by ship at the end of October 1950 from Bombay (Mumbai) and arrived in Busan, South Korea, about a fortnight later. At this juncture, the armed conflict had become very intense, with the North Koreans and their Chinese support system leading a counterattack against the South and their Western allies.
“Within hours of their arrival, the Indian Medical Mission provided medical cover to the 27th Commonwealth British Brigade, with whom they remained attached throughout the campaign,” Colonel DPK Pillay wrote in a paper for the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
Those early days were particularly hairy for the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit.
During one instance, when the Chinese troops had broken past UN lines following a counteroffensive, the medical unit was in serious danger of losing their critical equipment.
“The 60th had no transport allocated for their hasty withdrawal and were reluctant to abandon their first-class medical equipment and supplies,” Pillay wrote.
Even Rangaraj said later on, “We would have been of little use without [our equipment] and could not afford to lose it as soon as we arrived.”
Fortunately, they would find an unused train with its engine, form a ‘Human Bucket Brigade’ from the Han River, and get the steam engine running to cross the Han River bridge before Chinese communist forces blew up the bridge.
The unit would also build temporary facilities near sites where pitched battles were being fought in the brutal winter of 1950-51 to treat the wounded.
“The Indian medics stuck with the troops they were treating during the horrific rear-guard fighting that winter,” wrote Dan Bjarnson, author of the book Triumph at Kapyong, Canada’s Pivotal Battle in Korea.
“Three times in three days, they set up and then closed down their dressing stations as they tried to find safety, refusing to abandon the wounded,” he added.
Rangaraj’s most daring feat, however, would come in March 1951, when his unit participated in Operation Tomahawk. Conceived by the US forces, this was an air campaign staged to trap communist forces north of Seoul between the Han and Imjin rivers.
He was among 12 Indian officers who volunteered to “jump into the contact zone” with over 3,400 American infantry soldiers.
As Pillay wrote, “The aim of this specific military operation was to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication, throw them into disarray, and subsequently neutralise and decimate them with the ground link-up, which was expected on March 25, 1951.”
However, this operation didn’t go as planned.
The link-up never happened and resistance from Chinese and North Koreans only increased. Battling bone-chilling winds, snow, and minimal provisions except tea and biscuits, the Indian medical officers performed their duties efficiently.
Directly quoting a US commander, Bjarnson wrote, “I was immediately struck by the [Indians’] efficiency. That small unit, adapted for an airborne role, has carried out 103 operations. Which is quite outstanding for that type of unit…probably 50 of those operated [on] owed their lives to those men.”
This was a truly remarkable feat, but not the last thing they would do.
The Indian medical unit would also run four hospitals, including the first Republic of Korea Army Hospital, where they trained local nurses and doctors. For their incredible service, they earned the moniker “Angels in Maroon Berets”.
Rangaraj and his unit would go on to serve well past the ceasefire in July 1953. They served for about 39 months in faraway land till February 1954.
An Indian officer of the 60 Para Field Ambulance Unit treats patients during the Korean War. (Image courtesy of the War Memorial of Korea)
Recognition and more
Dr Rangaraj and three of his unit members were awarded the Chungmu Distinguished Military Service (Meritorious) Award, the third highest award of the Korean military for distinguished service.
Back home, he was among two officers awarded with a Maha Vir Chakra. In total, the unit would receive six Vir Chakras, besides special military honours from the United States and the United Nations. Rangaraj would eventually retire from military service in 1966.
Meanwhile, he earned a diploma in Public Health from Osmania University in 1961 and completed a certificate course in epidemiology from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, in 1967.
Following retirement from military service, he got involved in global smallpox eradication programmes. He served in global agencies like UNICEF, WHO and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Health for Migration.
Appointed as the senior WHO adviser on smallpox eradication in Afghanistan in 1969, he would — alongside Dr Abdul Mohammad Darmanger, director of the Afghani smallpox eradication programme — play a pivotal role in eradicating this deadly disease in this war-torn region. They organised “Afghanistan’s first, and highly effective, nation-wide health programme”.
“In 1974, Dr Rangaraj went to Bangladesh to coordinate field operations. He also served with the smallpox eradication programmes in the Arabian peninsula,” notes Target Zero archives.
Even those responsible for the eradication of smallpox in Bangladesh credit him for constantly encouraging and inspiring them when things didn’t look good.
“I never thought you had a chance in hell of winning; I had, however, learned during World War II in Burma that optimism was essential to survival during the worst of times,” he apparently told the authors of this 2011 paper published in Vaccine.
“Thus, it was his military training, rather than objective assessment of the data, that kept us going during the difficult times of 1975. Optimism is essential for eradication programs to succeed,” the authors wrote.
Rangaraj passed away on 23 March 2009 at the ripe old age of 92, but not before leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of service.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)