The atom bomb saved my life
They ate rats with rotten rice, were ravaged by malaria and beaten by their Japanese captors. Only four of the 300 Nepali prisoners of war captured in Singapore and transported to camps in Indonesia survived. Bal Bahadur Basnet, now 98, was one of them.
The British Gurkha defending Burma from Japanese invasion during the Second World War had to flee to Malaya, and were captured as Singapore fell. Those who refused to surrender were executed.
First they were taken to Java, where the white soldiers were put in one camp, while the Indians and Nepalis were kept in dirty, insect-infested cells with little food.
“On empty stomachs we were made to work carrying heavy loads, and had to bury the bodies of our friends,” Basnet recalls, adding that punishment for disobedience was to have nails hammered into their foreheads in front of fellow prisoners.
Soon, the Japanese crammed the soldiers into vehicles and ships and took them to Java, then five months later to camps in New Guinea, where hundreds of prisoners survived eating coconuts and even grass. Many contracted malaria, while others died with painful boils all over their body.
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Only four Gurkhas who were brought to New Guinea survived. “The dead were the lucky ones, those who were alive worried that there would be no one to bury them after they died,” remembers Basnet.
Basnet (pictured, left, and with a knife that survived the war, above) was good with scissors, so the Japanese made him the camp barber. He talked to his captors in broken English while he cut their hair, and remembers the Japanese were confident they would win the war.
“They told me they would conquer the world, and Nepal would soon be a part of Japan. But one day there was panic in the camp, the Japanese started melting away,” Basnet remembers. He found out only later that the Americans had bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“The atom bomb saved my life,” Basnet says.
Basnet’s platoon had 1,300 members at the start of the war, but only 300 remained when they were captured. Among them, 200 were wounded and could not walk, so they were left behind to die. Only 100 remained in New Guinea at the end of the war, and of them only four were Nepalis.
A month after the Japanese left in 1945, Australian soldiers arrived and took the POWs to Darwin, where they were given Australian Army uniforms and $20 each for their trip to Bombay. After that it was a long train journey to Gorakhpur, where they were reunited with other Gurkhas who had survived the war.
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Basnet hiked over the mountains to his home in Galkot of Baglung. After four years, his family and friends had given him up for dead. It was a surprise homecoming, and everyone was ecstatic.
But peace did not last. The Gurkhas were given a choice to join the British or Indian Armies. Basnet opted for the Indian Army, to be closer to home. And soon, India was at war with Pakistan and Basnet’s platoon had to go to Ambala from Dehradun. Again, Bal Bahadur Basnet lost many friends from the Gurkha brigade in the battles in Kashmir.
After that war, the Gurkhas who had served more than 15 years were given a choice to stay or retire with pension. Basnet says he raised his hand and quit the army.
“By then I was pretty tired of fighting other people’s wars.”