In July 2020, a doctor from the Indian Army was commemorated as the Korean War “Hero of the Month” by the South Korean Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs. This hero, Lieutenant Colonel Dr Arcot G (AG) Rangaraj, had led a medical mission to the Korean peninsula in November 1950 that is remembered to this day for its bravery and professionalism under trying circumstances. For a month, photos of Rangaraj were prominently displayed across South Korea as schoolchildren were told about the contribution of his Indian medical unit.

Born in 1917 in Tamil Nadu, Rangaraj studied medicine at the Madras Medical College and joined the Indian Medical Service (part of the Indian Army) in 1941. The first Indian paratrooper (along with Havildar Major Mathura Singh), Rangaraj served as a medical officer in the Indian para battalion. He was at the Manipur front when the Japanese invaded Burma and north-eastern India during the Second World War, leaving him with a steady dribble of wounded combatants to mend. He was eventually promoted to head the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit of the Indian Army.

Barely a few years later, another conflict erupted. The Korean Peninsula, which was divided after the Second World War, became a major flashpoint in the emerging Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. With the leadership of both North and South Korea claiming sovereignty over the entire country, war broke out in June 1950, when North Korea invaded its southern neighbour. In no time, the major powers got involved: South Korea was assisted by a Western alliance led by the United States under a resolution of the United Nations, while the North had the help of the Chinese People’s Volunteers, supported by the Soviet Union.

India, which at the time punched above its weight globally, was at the forefront of attempts to resolve the conflict, with Jawaharlal Nehru deeply vested in the effort. “From the outbreak of hostilities to the cease-fire three years later, Jawaharlal Nehru, the near-exclusive voice in Indian foreign policy as both prime minister and minister for external affairs, was determined to prevent the UN from adopting a policy that might lead to the war’s prolongation or escalation,” scholar and author Robert Barnes wrote in a 2013 article for The Journal of Korean Studies, published the Duke University Press. “Nehru therefore sought to use India’s considerable influence to reconcile the two Cold War blocs’ widely divergent positions on Korea and restore world peace.”

After the war began, India supported two UN Security Council resolutions that named North Korea as the aggressor. The Soviet Union, which stood behind North Korea, could have used its veto against the resolutions, but instead it chose to walk out. The other defender of the North, the Chinese government in Beijing, could not act either way since it was not recognised as legitimate by the global body at that time.

When the UN requested members to provide military assistance to fight against North Korea, India agreed to send a medical unit. The 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit was dispatched to Korea, making it independent India’s first overseas mission.

Thick of action

The medical unit, which was led by Rangaraj, consisted of 346 men, including four surgeons, two anaesthesiologists and a dentist. It set sail from Bombay at the end of October 1950 and arrived in Busan, South Korea, two weeks later. By this time the fighting was already intense, with the North Koreans and the Chinese leading a counterattack against the Western alliance. “Within hours of their arrival, the Indian Medical Mission provided medical cover to the 27th Commonwealth British Brigade with whom they remained attached throughout the campaign,” Colonel (Dr) DPK Pillay wrote in a paper for the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.

With her brother on her back, a war-weary Korean girl trudges by a stalled M-26 tank, at Haengju, Korea. on June 9, 1951. Manhhai/Flickr [Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)]

In the early stages of the mission, the Indian medical unit was in serious danger of losing its equipment. As part of the counteroffensive, Chinese troops managed to breach the UN lines, forcing a retreat. “The 60th had no transport allocated for their hasty withdrawal and were reluctant to abandon their first-class medical equipment and supplies,” Pillay wrote. The unit, however, managed to get an old train with a functioning steam engine, and managed to escape to Seoul with their equipment before a bridge on the Han River was blown up by the Chinese and North Koreans.

The unit set up temporary treatment facilities at sites of pitched battles in the winter of 1950-’51 and often in the most difficult situations. “The Indian medics stuck with the troops they were treating during the horrific rear-guard fighting that winter,” wrote Dan Bjarnson, author of the book Triumph at Kapyong, Canada’s Pivotal Battle in Korea. “Three times in three days they set up and then closed down their dressing stations as they tried to find safety, refusing to abandon the wounded.”

Angels in maroon berets

In March 1951, the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit took part in Operation Tomahawk, an air campaign conducted by the Americans to trap enemy combatants between the Han and Imjin rivers, north of Seoul. The operation was the second largest airborne effort of the war. Rangaraj was among the 12 Indian officers who volunteered to jump into the contact zone with more than 3,400 American infantrymen.

“The aim of this specific military operation was to disrupt the enemy’s lines of communication, throw them into disarray and subsequently neutralise and decimate them with the ground link-up which was expected on March 25, 1951,” Pillay wrote in his paper, adding that the link-up never came to be and that the resistance from the Chinese and Koreans only increased. “There was no alternative but to dig trenches and hold casualties in them along with stretcher cases; the chilly winds and snow of Purunli were warded off with little more than the fine fabric of retrieved parachutes,” Pillay wrote. The Indian medical officers had to survive the extreme conditions with just biscuits and tea but discharged their duties with utmost dedication.

A grief-stricken American infantryman whose compatriot was killed in action is comforted by another soldier. In the background a corpsman fills out casualty tags in Haktong-ni area, Korea. Credit: Sfc. Al Chang, U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Bjarnson quoted a US Commander as saying the following of the Indian unit: “I was immediately struck by the [Indians’] efficiency. That small unit, adapted for an airborne role, has carried out 103 operations. Which is quite outstanding for that type of unit… probably 50 of those operated [on] owed their lives to those men.”

The Indian medical unit also ran four hospitals in Korea, including the first Republic of Korea Army Hospital, where they trained Korean doctors and nurses. Its iconic berets earned it the affectionate moniker “Angels in Maroon Berets”.

‘Selfless sacrifice’

The 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit returned to India in February 1954 after serving in Korea for 39 months. Rangaraj was one of two officers in the unit to be awarded a Maha Vir Chakra. In total, its members received six Vir Chakras. Special military awards honours were conferred on it by South Korea, the United States and the United Nations.

“India sent the largest number of medical personnel, 627 people among the surrounding states that contributed medical assistance during the Korean War,” South Korean Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Hwang Ki-chul said in March 2022. “The history of selfless sacrifice made by Indian medical forces is the evidence of unity, solidarity and humanitarianism, born in battlefields.”

The war came to an end on July 27, 1953, with the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement. A solution proposed by India was accepted with near unaninimity by the UN, allowing for the agreement.

Towards the end of the war, India sent a reinforced brigade comprising of civilian and military personnel called the Custodian Force of India. The brigade was tasked with ensuring the welfare of all prisoners of war. India was also the chairman of the Neutral Nations Reparations Commission.

The governments of India and South Korea continue to celebrate the role played by the former in the Korean War. In March 2022, the War Memorial of Korea and the Indian Embassy in Seoul jointly inaugurated an exhibition dedicated to the memory of the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit. The exhibition, containing 50 pictures of the Indian heroes of the Korean War, will be held at the War Memorial of Korea in Seoul until June 2022.

While medical officers in the Indian armed forces take inspiration from Lt Col Rangaraj and the 60th Parachute Field Ambulance unit, the general Indian public is still not largely aware of this chapter in Indian history. Perhaps a television serial on the lines of M*A*S*H, which revolved around a US mobile army surgical hospital during the Korean War, would bring greater appreciation for the Indian heroes of the war in Korea.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.