Atom bomb saved his life, Covid killed him

Bal Bahadur Basnet, died of Covid-19 at the age of 99. Photos: MANISH PAUDEL

A Nepali soldier in the British Army who was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore, and survived four years in a prisoner of war camp in New Guinea, has died of Covid-19 at the age of 99.

Bal Bahadur Basnet was one of only four Gurkha soldiers from a unit of 1,300 to survive the war and cruel conditions at the camp, and was only saved after Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs ended the war in August 1945.

He died Saturday morning at the Nepal Army Hospital in Kathmandu. Basnet was in good health before being infected with Covid-19, and when his pneumonia worsened two weeks ago, he was transferred to the ICU at the military hospital. In the last few days he needed to be put on ventilator support.

“He was perfectly fit before the coronavirus infection, he never took any medication. He got up every morning at four, took a cold shower and a walk, he did not even need prescription glasses for reading and writing,” said Man Khatri, the publisher of his biography दोस्रो विश्वयुद्धका जिउँदो युद्धबन्दीः बलबहादुर बस्नेत (Living Prisoner of the Second World War).

Basnet joined the British Army on 7 October 1939, just after World War II started and was taken to the Burma Front, where the Allied forces were trying to stop the Japanese advance into India. His recruitment number was 8629.

When the Japanese started making advances into Malaya, the British took the Gurkha battalions there to try to protect Singapore. But the peninsula fell, and Basnet along with other British prisoners of war were taken to Changi Prison in Singapore, later to Java and finally to New Guinea.

Basnet told Nepali Times last year how he and other prisoners ate rats and rotten rice, and were often beaten by their Japanese captors. Of the 1,300 Nepalis in Basnet’s unit, only 300 were alive when Singapore fell, and the 200 who were wounded were left behind to die. Of the 100 who were taken to New Guinea, only four survived. If they were not killed in action or of their wounds, most died of malaria and other diseases at camp.

“We were made to work on empty stomachs, and had to bury the bodies of our friends,” Basnet recalled. Many prisoners were executed, some with nails hammered into their heads in front of the others.

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Basnet worked as the prisoner barber, and remembers the Japanese treating the Gurkhas slightly better than the others. They were confident about winning the war and making Nepal a part of Japan.

One day, there was noise and shouting at the camp as word spread of the Japanese surrender. Later, he found out that it was the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought the war to an end. He told us last year: “The atom bombs saved my life.”

Australian troops liberated the camp, and took Basnet and others to Darwin from where they were brought to Bombay. Basnet took a train to Gorakhpur, and then on to his village in Galkot of Baglung.

 A bahun Gurkha, Nepali Times

His family had given him up for dead, and it was a joyous reunion. The Gurkhas were given the option of joining either the British or Indian Army, Basnet decided to be near home in India. But he was soon fighting again as the Indian Army waged war with Pakistan over Kashmir.

In 1954, he had enough of fighting other people’s battles, and decided to retire with his pension, and come home to Nepal. He stayed in Galkot, established a school and helped the community with development projects.

A few years ago, he moved to Lokanthali of Bhaktapur to be with his son. Remembering his POW years, Basnet told us: “We suffered such hardship, we thought those who died in the camps were the lucky ones.”

Read also:

“War is the worst of all things”, Nepali Times