Review - Veterans: Faces of World War II by Sasha Maslov | books$reviews | Hindustan Times
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Review - Veterans: Faces of World War II by Sasha Maslov

Contrary to what films like Dunkirk lead viewers to believe, soldiers from the Indian subcontinent played a significant part in helping the Allies win WW II. A new book on veterans includes stunning portraits of some of these forgotten heroes

books Updated: Jul 29, 2017 09:04 IST
J Ford Huffman
Surjan Singh was deployed in Burma.
Surjan Singh was deployed in Burma.(Sasha Maslov)

Fifty-three full-page colour portraits of 54 survivors (including three from India, one from Sri Lanka, eight from the United States, five from Japan, two from Germany – and including seven women) prove the Ukrainian-American photographer Maslov’s points:

His collection’s diversity of subjects and interiors can stimulate and enlighten, and a photograph can encourage “intense visual engagement and reflection.” His digital Canon images make you want to read and learn about the veterans and their surroundings, and the after you read their oral histories you will want to look at the portraits again.

Lakshman Singh was a grenade specialist and served in Burma. (Sasha Maslov)

Lakshman Singh lives in Pooth Khurd, where he was born in 1914. He joined the military because “it was offering good salaries,” and he became a grenade specialist who served three tours in Burma. “After each tour, we were allowed to have a rest for one to two months. We deserved it after the carnage we had gone through.” Besides the anxiety of combat, “there was painful famine among British Indian troops. They had deployed us but made no arrangements to feed us!”

After “we won the war” he was promised compensation by the British government. “We didn’t get anything from them, though. The only pension came late from the Indian government.”

Surjan Singh of New Delhi was born in the Capital in 1921 and by age 18 “I felt that my best option was to volunteer for the army. It paid 15 rupees a month, which was vital income for my family.” His command was British, and “we Indians were the lowest rank in the entire Allied Forces.”

Deployed to “Burma” he survived attacks by the Japanese and after 1945 returned to India, where “I couldn’t get a decent job. I went back to the family farm and lived off my pension from the family farm.”

Now “I mostly spend time relaxing with family. This life is much better now.”

Shiv Dagar was stationed around the Indian-Afghan border. (Sasha Maslov)

Shiv Dagar was born in Samaspur in Kahlsa in 1923 and lives in Delhi. He was “stationed around the Indian-Afghani border” and frequently attacked by Pathan insurgents. “Over half of our platoon was dead at the hands of the Pathan soldiers. Fourteen other people from my home village enlisted with me, and I was the only one who survived.”

He says “war was a frightening experience. I can remember so many moments of hoping to be home, and luckily I got that wish and have lived a full life.”

Sri Lankan JP Jayasekara served with the Signal Corps. (Sasha Maslov)

JP Jayasekara was born in 1921 in Sri Lanka, “back then” called Ceylon. “Ceylon was a poor country with no money to give (the British), we were able to provide the manpower. Forty thousand youths were recruited,” most “still schoolboys at the time.” He served with the Signal Corps, “where we had a phone, radio, wireless, and pigeons.” After war’s end, “we had a lot of rolling stones.”

He says active and wrote “a book about he graves of the perished servicemen in Ceylon” – for the tourists who “come here to search for graves.”

The book’s opening portrait is an Army Air Corps veteran who became a Broadway dancer, “a foolish thing to do.” In another, an Italian soldier tells of finding his father in a German prison camp and discovering the two were “enemies by politics.” Another photograph shows a Japanese kamikaze pilot who admits “everyone was brainwashed.”

Read more: The forgotten  frontier

The wartime experiences resonate. There’s the issue of immigration: A Polish concentration-camp survivor waited “five years to get a visa to go to America.”

And being a stranger at home: An Austrian who left home at 15 and returned at 28 felt like “a foreigner in my own land,” a claim today’s combat veterans sometimes echo.

But life goes on: A US sailor at Pearl Harbor has “no animosity whatsoever. I drive a Japanese car.”

Expanded by Huffman from his original review in Military Times publications