Book Review: Burma to Japan with Azad Hind – A War Memoir (1941-1945) by Air Commodore Ramesh S. Benegal, MVC, AVSM

Most of the books we read on World War 2 are from the Western perspective, usually British, American, or Australian. I’ve always been fascinated by this dark period in human history. I haven’t read many books (fiction or memoir) from the Indian perspective, what it was like to fight in this foreign war. Of course, it is a well-documented fact that Indian forces helped liberate Italy from Nazi control and that countless Indian troops fought with great courage in this war.

Before I go any further, here’s a small history lesson for those of you who are not conversant with India’s part in the war. 

For a start, India was dragged into this ‘European’ war as it was then part of the British Raj. Despite the ongoing freedom struggle, Mahatma Gandhi called upon Indians to support Britain in their war effort. But another national leader, Subhash Chandra Bose, or Netaji as he is more popularly known, decided that a quicker way to get freedom from the British was to join the Axis powers. So charismatic was he that many of the Indians living in South-East Asia, as well as some captured Indian POWs, decided to join the Azad Hind Fauj or the Indian National Army (INA) and joined hands with the Japanese to fight the British. 

Enough of the history lesson. ‘From Burma to Japan: with Azad Hind– A War Memoir (1941-1945)’ by Air Commodore Ramesh S. Benegal—gives a fascinating account of what it was like being a part of the Imperial Japanese Air Force as a trainee pilot from the Indian perspective. 

Ramesh Benegal was just a 16-year-old boy living in Burma when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. His memoir details all the events, from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor until their Emperor signed the Treaty of Surrender. Written in an engaging and conversational style, he begins with this dramatic event:

It all started on 7 December 1941, when Japan unleashed its surprise attack on a place called Pearl Harbor. It was a lovely name, but I’d not heard it before.

The memoir goes on to detail the many (mis)adventures of Ramesh and his brothers and their uncle (their mother, fortunately, caught the last flight home) in their doomed attempt to reach India. The Japanese very quickly overtook Burma.  There are harrowing descriptions of the devastated towns and villages where not a soul was seen. 

However, Benegal goes on to say that the Japanese were not ill-disposed to Indians, but only to the British and other westerners. The boys (and men) hid in an abandoned house, but realized the Imperial Japanese army had overtaken the village. Cdre Benegal’s first description of a Japanese soldier is memorable:

A khaki coat, khaki trousers with legs bound in puttees, black rubber shoes with an odd toe-split, a jockey cap with a star sewn in front, rifle held at the ready. Short and stocky, Mongolian [Sic] features with narrow-set eyes. I did not know at that time that in the next four years, I would not only meet thousands of Japanese soldiers like these, but actually live with them, dress like them, and be trained by them!

Well, this is what happens in the remarkable life he describes. He, along with some other Indian boys, (by special permission of Netaji) was sent for training to a Japanese military school, and then they had a choice: either join the Imperial Japanese Army Academy or the Imperial Japanese Air Force Officers Academy. Benegal voted for the latter, as his heart was set on becoming a pilot. After passing a rigorous test, of the 22 cadets, only ten were selected, the author being one of them.

Now, most of the WW2 books I’ve read or the movies I’ve seen have presented the Japanese as being cruel and barbaric, but Benegal says they were ( with some exceptions) refined, cultured, and gentle. Of course, the disciplining method was different – if a junior ‘forgot’ to salute a senior, the punishment was immediate, usually hard slaps across the face! 

The memoir goes on to describe the defeat of Japan by the better-armed Americans, and what happened to this group of Indian airmen who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side. But by the end of the war, although the British branded them as ‘traitors’, they received a hero’s welcome back home and were called freedom fighters. India was still under the British when Benegal and his friends reached home, but they could not be touched as the current of public opinion favored them.  The author (who was barely 20) and his friends were put into solitary confinement but were fortunately let out by an understanding police commander.

Here are some of the interesting bits that I picked up from the book:

  1. The Kempai Tai – the Japanese secret police-cum-intelligence organization – put a stop to all the looting in the towns and villages they captured. The author has only good things to say about them, as they not only kept the law and order in the occupied territories but also discipline in their own army.
  2. There is a funny incident of two Japanese soldiers who entered an Udipi (South Indian vegetarian) restaurant and began feasting on the idli-dosa-sambhar. The proprietor spoke about them in Tamil in derogatary terms, and to his surprise, the officer got up and castigated him in fluent Tamil! 
  3. The Japanese food they ate – especially the ‘stinky’ radish pickles – they ultimately grew to love. 
  4. Most exciting (for the reader and the author) were the visits of Subhash Chandra Bose, who he met personally on more than one occasion. The charisma of this leader was astonishing. Here’s a description in the author’s words:

He carried himself with head held high and reflecting a glowing intensity, and the one – possibly the only –goal in life, freedom for India from alien rule. When he spoke, we could not help but listen to him attentively and each sentence that he spoke was forceful, and one instinctively knew that it came from the heart.

  • There is a touching description of the British soldiers working on the ‘Death Railway’ when Benegal and the cadets were on their way to Japan (by rail). ‘During this time, we saw the plight of the British POWS. I could not recognize them as Englishmen. Their bodies and faces were dark tan. They were stripped to the waist, wore torn and dirty khaki shorts, and a few of them were merely skin and bone….When the train halted,a few of them would come up to us and begged for food. We had nothing to give them…Once, one of them asked for a cigarette…Anyone who managed to grab a packet of cigarettes was like a child getting a valuable present from Santa Claus…
  • The author describes how he and his friends captured a pig but had no idea how to slaughter it. They finally handed it over to the Japanese. The Japanese officer slaughtered it with a samurai sword. For some time, they feasted on roast pork and wild rice. (OK, this is not for the squeamish, but heck, this is war, and these guys were starving. BTW, the author until the age of 16 had grown up vegetarian, but the war taught him to eat what he was given or what was available).
  • Cdre Benegal describes in detail the landing of the Americans after Japan signed the treaty of surrender. They expected the Japanese public to take revenge on them (for the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) but instead, they ‘could not believe that the polite, disciplined and friendly people were the same stock as the brutal, hard-fighting frontline soldiers…’
  • After the Americans landed, a representative from Benegal’s side met the American authorities, who did not know what to do with them. It seems one of the American officers joked that they had nothing against them and they too had fought the British for their independence. They supplied the author and his friends with rations.
  • After four years of deprivation and starvation, Benegal describes the abundance of food they received from the Americans. The packs they received ‘were a regular Christmas hamper as far as we were concerned. It contained cocoa, tea, coffee, biscuits, cakes, meat-loaves, corned beef, soup, chocolates and many other things.‘ 
  • Of course, all this came to a stop when a British officer took charge and termed them traitors. The group politely but firmly told the officer that they were not traitors and never owed allegiance to the British, and were very proud to have served in the INA. This infuriated him, and then began their nightmare journey back home in conditions that were subhuman even for animals. 
  • This was the first time that Ramesh Benegal had actually set foot in India, having grown up in Burma. In 1950, he joined the Indian Air Force and had a distinguished career, receiving the highest gallantry awards from the Indian government. 

Well, this is admittedly a bit of a long review of a truly memorable book. I’m not sure why it has not received more publicity. I recommend this book very highly to all those interested in a new perspective on the Second World War. It is immensely readable.