Post 40 – Salua Part III; The Darkroom!

Walk-to-laundry1Now free to explore, with the Gurkhas granted permission to escort us, we entered into the camp itself. Pranay led us deep into a forested part of the old camp where, our photos in hand, he and the others had been searching and had found an abandoned laundry. It didn’t seem to be the one featured in our photo, but it was tantalizingly similar.

Laundry1_webHe said “We’ve been wandering in the jungle for you. We want this place to be known in history.” Pranay then told us how they had taken our photographs into the village and were showing them to chai wallahs and merchants and anyone who would look, hoping someone would recognize something. When I was an anthropology student many years ago, I always thought that the most effective research would be a collaborative effort. This is exactly what we are now doing.

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They took us to see the remains of old airplane hangers, now standing like ancient ruins. I was deep into the underbrush, photographing when Dawa suggested that perhaps I should not be photographing there. Snakes. Right.

 

 

GPS-Temple_webOne of the abandoned hangers had been turned into a shrine, a seemingly perfect end to a monument to destruction. It also now served as a GPS coordinate, India again mixing old and new in its own, unique way.

Trophy_webWe drove back to headquarters, invited for lunch. Then, we were escorted to the office. Now officially authorized to do so, the wonderful Gurkhas had wanted to thank us, to do something to show their appreciation for our search into their history. Sub-commander Dhurba Lohar presented us with a magnificent trophy. This being a last minute thing, they chose what they had on hand. We now have a beautiful memento, an award normally given to soldiers on their retirement. It will be a prized possession. But we’ll never retire.

from-photo-Holster_webThe soldiers had been particularly interested in a detail from one of our photos that showed a Gurkha knife holster. On our way out, heading back for more exploring, they showed us how today’s soldier uses exactly the same weapon, confirming that our photo was indeed of a Gurkha. Jerri asked if she could see the knife. Bishal hesitated and said that wasn’t possible. Once a Gurkha’s knife has been unsheathed, he said, it cannot be returned to its holster unless there is blood on it. OK. Holster_web

Laundry-2_webBack in the field, they showed us another laundry ruin; again, similar structure, but not a definitive match. They had one more site to show us, but it was right by an active firing range. They had cut through brush to find it, but were fairly sure that this was indeed the laundry shown in our 1945 photograph, the key image to identifying Salua as our GI’s base. That one will have to wait until we return, or at least they stop shooting.

Just before we left, Pranay said: “ We are turning over every stone. You’ve changed us.” What an astonishing thing to say. He, and this entire experience, has clearly changed us as well.

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We then headed to IIT to finally get inside the darkroom that had excited us a month ago. It was a dramatic moment. The sign on the door was encouraging. When it was opened, we saw a darkroom in utter ruin, but one that contained elements that could have been from the 1940s.

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We saw an old multi-switch contact printer, possibly the kind used by the 10th P.T.U. The enlargers were newer, perhaps from the 1960s. The safelights and other apparatus were consistent. We saw a sign that at first convinced me: “Photography and Blueprint Section.” It was in English, it used the word ‘section’ that sounded military to me. But then we learned that IIT called all its departments ‘sections’ and all classes are in English. So we still don’t know! This could have been the darkroom…or not. We’ll have to do more research to be certain, research that will no doubt open more doors, closed for so many years.

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The next day we met with Professor Chakrabarti, the Director of IIT. He too was captivated by Following the Box. He would like to go to area villages, set up a projector and show the photos, hoping someone, somewhere will provide insight. This project just keeps growing.

 

Post 39 – Salua Part II

Shortly after we left Kharagpur a month ago, we contacted Helen LaFave, the American Consul General in Kolkata to secure permission to explore the restricted airbase. Helen came to our talk at the Victoria Memorial Hall (the subject of a forthcoming blog post) and took me aside. “This may be more difficult than it would seem,” she said. Apparently, she had to go through the West Bengal Home Minister. When we hadn’t heard back only days before we were to leave for our 2nd trip to the area, Jerri contacted her again. It didn’t look good. But then, already in Kharagpur, we got the good news that our proposal had been approved and we could gain access to the base. We emailed our Gurkhas who were thrilled.

Jajo-w-Ghurkhas_webOn Sunday morning, we went to Salua with Asid. Pranay Rai, Bishal Tamang, and Dawa Syangbow, the three soldiers who had been most enthusiastic were distraught. They had never received any confirmation. They were rightly concerned about allowing us into the interior of the base and spending unapproved time with us. For the next half hour, we tried to contact Helen but it was Sunday, the Consulate closed, the chances of reaching her slim. After repeated calls, a security person at the Consulate answered and I explained the situation. He asked if the CG would know me by name. I told him she would, and, to my astonishment, he finally put me through. The Commander wasn’t even at the base that day—he was in Kolkata. I put Helen on with Pranay. She explained that she had gotten a text message from the Home Secretary granting permission. But protocol insisted that the soldiers needed something more substantive. Helen said that she had done as much as was possible.

We had come so close, but it looked as though we were not able to go much further. India has changed us, made us more accepting of the world around us and our place within it, more aware of the simultaneous random yet inevitable nature of existence. But that still doesn’t rule out disappointment or longing.

Canteen_webDejectedly, we all piled into our cars and Pranay and the others took us to see some sites we had missed earlier. We went first to the remains of a U.S. Army canteen, now on private property, outside the base. The owner didn’t mind us wandering about photographing. When he started making not-so-oblique references to payment, and his alcohol level became apparent, we decided to leave. But just then Pranay ran over to us, literally jumping up and down. “Sir! M’am! Something miraculous has happened!” Helen must have called in some markers behind the scenes. We had our permission.

It would take an hour or so for the paper work to go through, so we decided to check out a possible match to one of our two remaining unidentified temples. Someone on the base assured us that it was the same; this of course has happened before. We drove far out into the country, on vanishing roads, stopping several times to adjust our direction. Finally, our small caravan stopped, seemingly in the middle of the fields. It was noon, 100 degree heat, a blazing sun. Our temple was far off in the distance, barely visible. We walked on the small ridges between now dry rice paddies, sharp remnant stalks mixing with the brown dirt at our feet. It was absolutely quiet, except for the distant sound of barking dogs and the barely perceptible sound of heat.

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There, on a small hill, next to a pond, was a little temple and what seemed to be its abandoned sister. It was similar, but not the one we were looking for. We’ve gotten used to that. It was beautiful nonetheless.

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Then an old woman, shaded by an umbrella, came up to me and began speaking rapidly in Bangla. I motioned Asid, standing nearby, to help translate. Her dog was lost, somewhere out in the fields. It somehow did not occur to her than a white guy with a camera might not understand. I have arrived.

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Post 34 – From an R to an A, Every Letter Counts

1081SJ and Asid, our IIT students, when looking at our album, noticed the photo of a laundry, labeled, we thought ‘Salur.’ But Salur is nowhere near here, which always puzzled us. Had our GI left the area? They promptly pointed out that it wasn’t ‘Salur,’ but rather ‘Salua,’ a nearby airbase. Everything began to fit together. If we were correct that Kharagpur was the hub from which our man operated, he could easily have been based at Salua. We had to find that laundry.

We were told that no one gets on an Indian air base, not even Indians. This base is the home of the Eastern Frontier Rifles and most of the soldiers were Gurkhas, originally from Nepal. The story is that if a soldier tells you he is not afraid to die, he is either lying or a Gurkha. But we know the power of these photos and rarely take “no” for an answer. Duncan had a Nepali friend, who, on his bicycle, delivered “mo-mos” (the Indian version of Chinese dim sum) to the base. We rendezvoused outside the walls of the base and strategized, picking the entrance least likely to stop us.

Jajo-and-soldiers_webEventually the guard at the gate waved us in, directing us to an office where we began to tell our story. Soon, a group of interested people gathered, fascinated and eager to help.

They took us to their small “museum” that contained a smattering of artifacts and photographs. We were told that the Commander was away, and that we should come back tomorrow, where they were pretty sure they could tour us around and try to find our laundry.

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Man-in-EFF-museum

The next day, the word from on high was that we could not get into the interior of the base (the likely location of the old laundry) without official permission. We said that we would contact the Consul General in Kolkata who would confer with the Ambassador if need be. We’d return in a month to pick up our Patua scrolls and we’d re-visit the camp, hopefully with permission secured. But for now, we’d be happy with the soldiers’ unofficial offer to tour us around non-restricted parts of the camp that might relate to our photos.

Wall_webThey then proceeded to take us on an amazing journey, through the harsh grounds outside the high walls of the base, into what they called the “Hapshi Camp.” This was the area where the barracks of the African-American soldiers had been located—right next to the ammunition storage area. The US Army wasn’t integrated until after the Second World War (thank you Harry Truman) so it was not surprising that there was segregation. What was surprising was the placement of their camp in a dangerous area and that the Gurkhas told stories of the “Negro” soldiers being slaves (their words.) Apparently, they did the dirty work—maintenance, sweeping, etc. We assured them that they weren’t really slaves, but it wasn’t surprising that they were given mostly menial tasks.

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Jerri and Pranay, one of the soldiers, walked ahead onto the field, a stark landscape, with bits and pieces of history lying underfoot. Suddenly Pranay closed his eyes, put his hand over his heart and said to Jerri: “I can feel their presence here. They were definitely here. I can feel it. There is something about this place.” She replied “I can feel it too.”

We’ve had to force ourselves to keep our eyes on the prize and not be seduced by yet another fascinating side story. This project is a living thing. At almost every turn another really interesting tidbit emerges that demands our attention. Focusing is hard.

Especially when the soldiers relayed a rumor that the plane bound for Hiroshima had left from here. The official report states that the Enola Gay took off from the Mariana Islands. But our admittedly preliminary research always hit a snag when we tried to find photographs from this area for May 1945. A local history booklet stated that that period was “shrouded in secrecy.” It is highly unlikely that the rumor is true, but it could have some basis in fact. Perhaps the plane refueled here or somehow stopped at the base. We later learned that indeed Salua was a top-secret staging area for testing the long-range bombing of Japan, the B-29 Super-fortress planes taking off and landing right in the area where we found ourselves, those powerful rumbles long silent. Now that we know more specifically what we are looking for, we will submit a FOI request when we get back home to see exactly what was going on at Salua so many years ago. I never imagined I’d be engaged in military historical research. I was an anti-war activist!

Railway-remnant_webTracksThe men showed us the remains of an old railway platform; embedded tank tracks and other evidence from long ago. They introduced us to an older man who had been on the base many years ago and told us how the barracks and other features had been dismantled at Partition. We saw the hulking remains of munitions storage bunkers.

 

One of our soldiers said: “This place is a mystery. And no one knows about it. They don’t know the role we played in WWII.” Maybe our work can help.

 

 

Then we went to IIT where we visited their museum and met with its Director, Arnab Hazra. We started looking at materials he had collected and web sites of veterans groups that were likely stationed here. The museum is housed in the old administration building, which had previously served as a detention center for political prisoners while the British still ruled India. In 1931, guards had opened fire indiscriminately, killing two prisoners, now immortalized as martyred freedom fighters. Tagore wrote a poem about it. In 1941, the Americans gave the British 24 hours to clear out, and used the place as a command center. The Hijli Air Base controlled Salua, Kalikunda and several other nearby airstrips, as America sought a possible overland invasion route through Burma and China to Japan. The bases were used for reconnaissance, which is perhaps why photographers were involved. For years we thought that our GI must be part of the “10th PTU” (marked on the negatives.)

Alan pointingWorking with SJ, Asid and Arnab, scouring the internet now in a more focused way, we realized that “10th PTU” only refers to the processing lab, not to the unit actually taking photos. This was a major breakthrough. We are now fairly sure that our photographer was associated with a Combat Camera Crew, flying out of Salua. They had the equipment, but whether or not he was an assigned photographer is still uncertain. We now think he was likely an officer (how else would he be able to leave the base and wander the villages?) But who was he? We’re also reasonably sure that the processing lab was in the IIT building where we were now sitting. Arnab told us that indeed there was a darkroom in the building and that the room hadn’t been opened in years. But it was already nighttime and we were spent. Checking it out would have to wait until we returned. There’s only so much excitement we can take.