Recent news has suggested global concern over the possibility of war – even nuclear war – in the Korean peninsula. Now imagine a coalition consisting of American, Australian, British and Indian fighter squadrons, patrolling the seas around Korea, close to a city devastated by a nuclear strike.

What sounds like a fiction or a new techno-thriller is actually historical fact: 71 years ago, between 1946 and 1947, an Indian fighter squadron operated from a Japanese airbase for 15 months, as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan.

This was long before the era of globalisation – much of the Indian military experience in the World Wars did, in fact, give Indians unprecedented global exposure. But this episode remains largely undocumented. Only the squadron’s spare, factual Operations Record Book survives.

Two young members of the squadron, looking at their aircraft on the carrier deck. The nearest aircraft (with folded wings) is an American type, possibly one of a number of Lend-Lease aircraft that were disposed of on this voyage by being pushed overboard in the Cochin Channel. Photo Courtesy: Late Wing Commander CHL Digby's family

Arrival in Japan

Number 4 Squadron, of what was then officially the Royal Indian Air Force, arrived in Japan in April 1946. The squadron had served with distinction in Burma during the war. On its return to India, it was based at Yelahanka in Bangalore for a year. Instead of the slightly obsolete Hawker Hurricane aircraft that it had flown in Burma, the squadron now flew the more modern, more powerful Supermarine Spitfire XIV, and was selected for participation in the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces. Selection for this role was regarded as a mark of distinction,in those days and also presented a desirable opportunity for travel.

The squadron commanding officer, Squadron Leader Jagdev Chandra (centre, in shorts) talks to his officers aboard HMS Vengeance. Note that the aircraft have their engines, wing roots and guns covered and sealed, for protection against the sea air. Photo Courtesy: Late Wing Commander CHL Digby's family

In early April 1946, the squadron embarked for Japan on a Royal Navy aircraft-carrier. They arrived at Iwakuni, on the Japanese island of Kyushu, on April 23, 1946. Iwakuni, their port of landfall, was barely 30 km from Hiroshima, still in ruins from the US nuclear strike eight months earlier. On May 7, 1946, the squadron moved to Miho, on the west coast of the Japanese island of Honshu, their base for the rest of their stay.

The weather deteriorates, as the ship nears Japan. Photo Courtesy: Late Wing Commander CHL Digby's family

From Miho, it was an easy 150 km flight to the Korean airspace. One of the squadron’s primary tasks was the surveillance of the seas between Japan and Korea, to interdict smugglers and illegal migrants originating from Korea. Japan was (and still remains) highly sensitive about Korean migrants. The squadron often did flypasts with its aircraft in a formation shaped like the number 4.

Aircraft of the squadron form the numeral 4, in the air over Miho. Photo Courtesy: Captain M Balan via Jagan Pillarisetti

Easy camaraderie

The Indian squadron was billeted alongside RAF squadrons and frequently played sports against them. Royal Australian Air Force squadrons, equipped with North American P-51 Mustangs, also came to Miho periodically for range exercises. The Australian British Commonwealth Occupation Forces squadrons included one which remained at, and flew out of, Iwakuni right up to 1953, participating in the Korean War.

Indian and (possibly) Australian personnel of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces at a meal. Photo Courtesy: Late Wing Commander CHL Digby's family

Personal anecdotes suggest that the Australians got along well with the Indians. The Royal Indian Air Force had a separate mess from the RAF, although within the same building. Royal Australian Air Force personnel were billeted in the RAF mess. But in a sign, possibly, that their palates were already somewhat ahead of the curve, many chose to eat and spend their spare time in the Indian mess.

The squadron spent the entire winter of 1946 to 1947 in Miho. Japanese winters can be extremely cold and Miho was snow-bound for three months that season. Some far-seeing logistics officer had ensured that the Royal Indian Air Force brought along chains for the wheels of their vehicles, which enabled them to drive in snow. As it turned out, the RAF hadn’t, and asked to borrow chains from the Royal Indian Air Force. Squadron personnel also tried out skiing on nearby slopes.

Pilot Officer Cecil Digby, one of the younger members of the squadron, tries his hand at skiing, on slopes near Miho. Photo Courtesy: Late Wing Commander CHL Digby's family

With spring came Japan’s famous cherry blossoms, occasional visitors and travel. Squadron personnel were able to visit Tokyo (where British Commonwealth Occupation Forces personnel stayed at one of the most luxurious hotels in the city) and even Hiroshima. There was, apparently, no concern about radiation exposure in those days. There were restrictions on fraternising between Occupation Force personnel and Japanese nationals, but anecdotes and photographs suggest that some interactions did take place. These might have been interesting – people from one of the first Allied colonies, on the verge of Independence, encountering people from a country still stunned by its defeat in war, both looking for their places in the new post-war world – but sadly, this time remains undocumented.

The squadron remained in Japan until July, 1947. Shortly before they were due to leave, they were asked by the Americans, at short notice, to participate in a major flypast celebrating the US Independence Day. By the time the Americans’ request was received, the squadron’s aircraft had been “inhibited” – that is, engine oils had been replaced with anti-rust oils, exhausts and valves sealed, and other measures taken in preparation for storage. Squadron personnel had to de-inhibit a dozen-odd aircraft within 24 hours. This was no mean task.

For the flypast, participating aircraft flew to Kisarazu, a US base just outside Tokyo. On the actual day of the flypast, there were large numbers of aircraft taxiing and in the air – Spitfires tend to overheat very quickly when their engines are running on the ground, and need to get airborne as quickly as possible after the engine has been started. Stuck in lines of aircraft awaiting take-off clearance on crowded taxiways, one of the squadron’s aircrafts overheated beyond safety limits. The pilot, sensibly, didn’t attempt take-off at all, but he didn’t announce his intentions on the radio – it is likely that all the radios were busy that day. After returning from the flypast the rest of the squadron realised he was missing, organised a search party, and eventually found him, feet up and none the worse, in the parking bay with his Spitfire.

Trophies and tales of the past

Among the trophies the squadron brought back from Japan, is a sample of the Yokosuka Ohka kamikaze aircraft, designed for suicide attack. It is now on display at the Indian Air Force Museum in Delhi.

Number 4 Squadron of the Indian Air Force still remains active, and has participated in virtually all Indian Air Force operations since Independence, including the famous 1971 strike on Government House in Dhaka, which helped prompt the Pakistani surrender. It currently flies the MiG-21 Bison. After their time in Japan, two of the squadron’s Commanding Officers went on to become Air Marshals in the post-Independence Indian Air Force. One of their Flight Commanders, Nur Khan, went on to become chief of the Pakistan Air Force.

The squadron’s time in Japan was a remarkable experience, and veterans who participated treasure the memories. But little was done to capture or reflect on the historical experience (most other participating countries engaged historians and academicians to create a record), and most of those veterans have now faded away. A few first-person accounts remain on the blogs of Indian Air Force veterans. As a result, an encounter between countries, which could easily have provided material for much learning, PhD theses and books on cultural studies, military history, peace-keeping, social history, sociology, and many other disciplines, is left to a few thousand words of personal reminiscences on the internet. Jorge Santayana said “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it” – surely, no one wants to repeat a World War.