Fifty years after India and Pakistan fought a six-week war on the Western front, the valour of Indian soldiers may have faded away from the public memory. But, legion of their heroism — eloquently testified in the musty war citations - remains etched on the nation’s annals of war.
Of 213 gallant men decorated (56 posthumously) with the ultimate war medals — Param Vir Chakra (PVC), Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) and Vir Chakra — only a handful are still around as last of the living legends of the 1965 war.
Hindustan Times tracked 14 of them to refresh the forgotten stories of their extraordinary grit and glory.
Brigadier Sant Singh, 95
Two MVCs to his credit
Brigadier Sant Singh has participated in World War-2, Pakistan wars of 1948, 1965 and 1971; besides the 1962 war with China. He won the Maha Vir Chakra in both 1965 and 1971. He was also recommended for another MVC and also Param Vir Chakra. Retired in 1973 he is 95 now. “Very few people reach this age. I am thankful to God for keeping me fit,” he said. He was Lt Col in the 1965 war and won his medal for action in Mendhar, where a cantonment is named after him as honour. He now lives in Chandigarh.
Act of Valour: Quietly after ceasefire, Pakistan had occupied Kaldopi hill artillery post in the Mendhar sector of J&K’s Poonch district. Infantry attacks to recapture it had failed, so divisional commander Lt Gen Amrik Singh detailed then Lt Col Sant Singh to plan a night assault to keep the casualties down. Even with a smaller force, he routed the enemy on the night of November 2, 1965.
Climbing a difficult, strongly defended feature, dodging enemy mines and artillery fire, he charged the enemy; and a hand-to-hand combat later, got the objective. He then moved from bunker to bunker in the face of heavy artillery and automatic fire, and freed another post.
Air Marshal PP Singh, 88
IAF hero led from front
Commissioned in the Indian Air Force on April 15, 1950, he was commanding Number 5 ‘Tuskers’ Squadron of the IAF during the 1965 war. The squadron, equipped with the Canberra bomber, was stationed at Agra. It was given the triple task of tactical bombing, close support and armed patrolling.
He carried out tactical bombing of various targets to attack the Pakistan Air Force on the ground. He was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra, the second highest military decoration in the country. He was also awarded the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal and Param Vishisht Seva Medal in 1972 and 1985, respectively. After retirement, he settled down in SAS Nagar before shifting to Delhi nine years ago to stay with his daughter.
Act of Valour: Wg Cdr Prem Pal Singh was commanding a bomber squadron. Between September 6 and 9, he undertook six offensive and tactical close support operations, including reconnaissance over the Sargodha, Dab, Akwal and Marud airfields, marking of Peshawar airfield and bombing of Pakistani troop and armour concentrations. In the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire, he led the bombing and reconnaissance missions with courage, determination and tenacity.
Major Ravinder Singh Bedi, 72
Soldiering on with tradition
Major Bedi’s great-grandfather Sir Baba Khem Singh Bedi owned 1,200 acres in Montgomery district (now in Pakistan) of undivided Punjab. His father, Kunwar Surinder Singh Bedi, a legendary Punjab-cadre IAS officer, was a recipient of the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan. After Partition, the family settled in Amritsar and he joined the army as 2nd Lieutenant in June 1963. At 21, he took part in the war and came out with flying colours. Later, he joined the civil services and retired as secretary to the Government of India in 2006. Settled in Delhi, he loves travelling and spends time in his farmhouse in Uttar Pradesh. His son is a pilot and his two daughters well-settled, while his wife Dilraj does social work.
Act of Valour: On September 17, 1965, 2nd Lieutenant Ravinder Singh Bedi was ordered to move with his troops through Jhuggian village in Lahore sector in Pakistan and engage enemy bunkers, guns and tanks in Dograi. Though his tank was hit by fire from a recoilless gun, he continued to lead his troop and knocked out the gun. He did not abandon the tank until it was on fire. Though wounded, he led his men to safety.
Havildar Budh Singh, 71
Son of the soil still toils
Havildar Budh Singh, who belongs to Haryana’s Mahendergarh district, had one dream since childhood: To join the army and fight for India.He did not have any schooling but joined the army like several others in his family as soon as he turned18. The soldier from 4 RajputRegiment did not have to wait long to fulfil his dream. He was posted in Kargil when Pakistani intruders attacked one of the posts. He fought bravely to frustrate their attempt. He also participated in the 1971 war. But he has fallen on hard times now. He lives in his native Aghiar village with wife Prem Devi, a widowed daughter-in-law and grandson. The war hero has to work in the field to make bothends meet.
Act of Valour: On May 16, 1965, Pakistani intruders attacked one of the posts in Kargil. The attack was repulsed and sepoy Budh’s battalion was ordered to push back the intruders and capture a point, a dominating feature. As part of the leading section of his company, he charged with grenades and continued firing till he captured the target.
Naib Subedar Dharam Singh, 70
Proud to have served nation
“I am Vir Chakra Naib Subedar Dharam Singh” is how the war hero introduces himself. His eyes light up when he talks about his exploits on the battlefront. “Log kehte hai itna garv kyun hai? (People ask me why are you so proud?) I tell them I have done something for the country,” he says.
He was only 18 when he was recruited and received the gallantry award from President Zakir Hussain at 24 in 1968. “After serving the army for 24 years, I got a job in a bank. Even today when I go out, people salute me,” says the veteran, who has settled down in Amritsar.
Act of Valour: On October 4, 1965, a company in which sepoy Dharam Singh was serving was ordered to clear an encroachment on a feature near Kalidhar in Jammu and Kashmir, which had been made by Pakistani forces notwithstanding the ceasefire. When its advance was held up due to a minefield, he volunteered to lead the way. During the counter-attack, he killed two enemy soldiers.
Colonel Ranbir Singh Kang, 75
Upholding family legacy
Colonel Kang is a third-generation officer. His grandfather was Risaldar Narain Singh and father Brig Sukhdev Singh, who was also awarded the Vir Chakra for the 1947-48 action and Military Cross in World War 2. His brothers also joined the army and the son of the eldest brother got killed in action in Sri Lanka. Col Kang retired in 1990 and now lives in SAS Nagar.
Act of Valour: In early 1965, Pakistan had occupied territory in Kutch and an attack in Kargil was planned to counter that. On May 14, 1965, the attack was ordered. Company commander Baljit Singh Randhawa and Kang launched the attack on May 17 and reached up to 150 metres from the perimeter wall of the enemy, who fired. But they kept moving.
A hand-to-hand battle ensued. A bullet grazed Kang’s head and he fell unconscious. When he came to, Major Randhawa asked him to return but he refused. Soon, Major Randhawa got hit, so Kang took command. He led the company in hurling grenades on enemy bunkers and made them retreat. They hoisted the Tricolour there. Major Randhawa got the MVC and three Vir Chakras were awarded.
Major Rajinder Kumar Bali, 80
On Gujarat patrol duty
Major Bali remembers every detail as though the war was fought only yesterday. His eyes light up but there are long pauses too. “It was April 1965 when I was asked to rush to the Gujarat border in the guise of a Punjab Armed Police personnel. All I had was a lathi in hand and a hat on the head to patrol the border. The rest is history,” he says at his house in Ambala City, where he lives with his wife Kameshwari, while their son is settled abroad and daughter in Delhi.
Act of Valour: Major Bali was rushed to the Kutch area when Pakistani intruders launched an attack on Sardar Post on April 9, 1965. He helped reorganise defences in the Vigakot area and motivated state reserve police force personnel there. After two police patrols failed to reach the post due to shelling by intruders, he volunteered to take out a patrol. With three riflemen, he ventured through a minefield to capture four Pakistani intruders and a loaded light machine gun.
Captain Reet Mohinder Paul Singh, 72
Tough survivor, he inspires
Captain Reet Mohinder Paul Singh proudly narrates how as a 22-year-old, he showed exemplary courage in the battle in which he lost an eye. After being discharged from the army in 1969, he started farming in Patiala and was later allotted a gas agency at Nabha. He inspired his children to join the army. While his son, Lt Colonel Verendra Paul Singh, is serving in his unit, his daughter, Captain Jaspreet, was a short service commission officer. He named his house after Machike, a border village in Pakistan, where he fought. He visited Machike with the family in 2012 to show them the place that changed his life.
Act of Valour: On September 22, 1965, Second Lieutenant Reet Mohinder Paul Singh was leader of a tank troop which was ordered to capture an enemy position in the Lahore sector. Having reached within 400 yards of the enemy position, he came upon a minefield. Despite shelling, he dismounted to find a suitable crossing place for his troop. Though wounded in the chest and right arm, he completed the reconnaissance. He was again hit by a shell-burst that left him wounded in the face.
Brig Jasbir Singh, 74
Support fails, grit prevails
Brig Jasbir Singh was acting captain in 1965 and commanding a company. After retiring in 1995, he now lives in Chandigarh. He also was in the attack on Gajra on September 8, 1965. He was awarded a gallantry medal for post-ceasefire action on November 17, 1965. In this operation, two Vir Chakras and 4 Mention-in-Dispatches were awarded. His battalion got 3 VCs and 7 M-i-Ds for action in Barmer and Rajasthan.
Act of Valour: Even after ceasefire, Pakistani troops had entered Mijalar in Rajasthan’s Barmer-Jaisalmer area and Captain Jasbir’s fighters were ordered to evict them. The attack had to be secret. He did a recce and first reached the nearby village of Satto to coordinate with tank formations.
They marched 16 kilometres through 20-odd sand dunes. At 4am, the enemy was attacked from the rear flank, with Captain Jasbir’s company leading from the front. Taken by surprise, the enemy was confused. Only two tanks, however, moved in as support. He radioed the commanding officer for backup and got a platoon. The enemy soon gave up after many of its soldiers were either killed or captured. Captain Jabir’s men were given a peace station as prize posting.
Air Marshal DN Rathore, 77
The Sabre killer
Air Marshal DN Rathore (retd) was flight lieutenant in the 1965 war. He joined the air force in 1959 and retired in 1996 as commander-in-chief of Central Air Command. He now lives in Chandigarh. His Vir-Chakra feat came on September 6, 1965, when he shot down a Sabre aircraft whose pilot was a decorated officer of Pakistan Air Force.
Act of Valour: In 1965, Pakistan had Sabre jet fighters and India had Hunters. On September 6 that year, then Flight Lieutenant DN Rathore I was leading a section of two aircrafts to carry out a dusk combat air patrol over the Halwara airfield. They were flying at 10,000 feet when four Pakistani Sabres pounded the base and engaged two Indian aircraft circling over.
Flt Lt Rathore went into a full-throttle, spiralling descent behind a Sabre, which was oblivious to the threat on its tail as it continued to fly in a straight course towards Pakistan. The Hunter closed in 500 yards from it and opened fire. A hit was confirmed when the Sabre decelerated and a trail of flame appeared behind its exhaust. The second hunter flown by Flt Lt VK Neb shot down another Sabre. He also won Vir Chakra.
Lt Col Ram Swarup Sharma, 84
Tiger who foxed enemy
Lt Col Ram Swarup Sharma (retd) is a veteran of the 1962, 1965 and 1971 wars, who earned Vir Chakra for his act of bravery on September 21, 1965, as company commander holding the rank of major. His company got three more Vir Chakras in the campaign. Retired since 1983, he now lives in Chandigarh. He has no complaint with life or with the treatment of gallantry awardees.
Act of Valour: Two days before the ceasefire in 1965, the team of then major Ram Swarup Sharma in the Khemkaran sector spotted some movement on the enemy side. A patrol came under heavy fire but the force decided to go for the kill. To fool the enemy, they advanced raising the slogan ‘Raja Ram Chander Ki Jai’ one after the other to reflect big numbers. Four MMGs were firing at them. Just 200 meters from the enemy, their cover was given away and bullets rained on the bajra field where they lay hidden. But as they kept advancing while raising the slogan, the fire started reducing. The plan had worked; the enemy fled and its guns, ammunition, and wireless sets were seized. The captured post was a battalion headquarters. Two tanks were also destroyed.
Sq Leader Hamir Singh Mangat, 80
High-flyer in action
Sqn Ldr Mangat was a flight navigator in a Canberra bomber of 5 Squadron along with pilot Wing Commander PP Singh. He flew from Agra towards Pakistan. He was awarded the gallantry medal for action that took place on September 6, 1965.
Act of Valour: The Pakistani aircraft were ready to take off but the Indian pilots had to see how they could manage to destroy the airfield. Their tactic was not to fly too high so as to avoid detection by the Pakistani radar. On the night of September 6, before leaving, Squadron Leader Mangat gave a blank cheque to his wife as he did not know whether he would return.
They had to take shelter in hill areas to avoid detection. They kept dodging the Pakistanis. The moonlight made their task a little easier. When they reached a Pakistani airfield, they had just a few minutes to act. Six to seven bombs were dropped before they returned. The job was done.
Colonel Sansar Singh, 79
12 hours made difference
Colonel Sansar Singh has not been keeping well of late but it does not show when he talks about the bravehearts of 7 Sikh Regiment. They fought Pakistani soldiers in the Poonch sector of Jammu and Kashmir and he was a part of the Battle of OP Hill. The regiment attacked in three phases with five companies to dislodge the intruders. Captain Sansar Singh headed the company that recaptured the hill. Eighty soldiers, including 18 from his company, were killed in the fight, described by Lt Gen Harbakhsh Singh (retd) as “one of the most spectacular battles of the 1965 and one of the toughest fought since Independence”. After retirement, he lives in Gurgaon and has started a self-employment scheme for ex-servicemen that is now run by his son.
Act of Valour: At 8pm, we finished ardas (prayer) and suddenly came under heavy artillery shelling and machine gun fire from the enemy that was firing from adjoining features. They had over six automatic machine guns. The only thing we told ourselves was: It’s now or never. We stood our ground though we knew that companies before ours had not met with much success. By 8am, OP Hill was ours.
Col Prabhu Singh, 75
Freedom preserver now
Commissioned in 1962, Col Prabhu Singh joined the 18th battalion of the Rajputana Rifles and was posted to Kohima in Nagaland. His unit was moved to the forward post at Khemkaran on the Punjab border on September 6, 1965, to thwart enemy aggression. He is the first officer who rose to the position of commanding officer of his own unit in 1978. “I believe in Lt General Harbaksh Singh’s words that those in war are freedom fighters and those off the field are freedom preservers. I am a freedom preserver of the nation now.”
Act of Valour: On September 6, 1965, Captain Prabhu Singh was commanding a company of a battalion ordered to seize an enemy post at Fattiwala in Khemkaran. Leading a platoon, he seized the post, despite scanty information and strong enemy position. On September 9, 1965, the enemy charged the location of Captain Prabhu Singh’s company with tanks.
Captain Prabhu Singh went to each platoon, encouraging them to hold position. Ultimately, he succeeded in repulsing the enemy attack.
(Contributed by Neeraj Mohan, Bhartesh Thakur, Rajesh Moudgil, Vishal Rambani, Shailee Dogra, Usmeet Kaur, Isha Sahni and Vikram Sharma; Photos: Keshav Singh, Gurminder Singh, Nitin Kanotra, Bharat Bhushan, Sant Arora, Sameer Sehgal, Manoj Dhaka, Rajni Khanna and Abhinav Saha)