American G.I. life in India during World War II

American G.I. life in India during World War II

An American GI sharing a smoke with a Bengali friend at the American Red Cross Burra Club, Calcutta, (1944); Picture courtesy: Jano, the online history magazine for Asian Indian families.

“Dear Mom, I got a valet”

wrote one American in his letter home (from Calcutta) in November, 1942. He had just discovered the bearers – Indian valets – who usually served British officers in India. Apparently, the bearers preferred American bosses because they were richer and friendlier.

“The bearer of an important English official recently deserted without so much as collecting back salary. He was finally discovered happily valeting nine American enlisted men – colored quartermaster troops. Earning twice his old salary, he was also becoming proficient at American slang and winning heavily at craps. After a life spent quietly pussy-footing through plush apartments, salaaming and calling all Europeans “master” and “sahib”, he was drunk with a life in which he indulged in horseplay with his bosses and called them by their first names. An old saying of the bearers in India goes as follows: Work for the English and sweat; work for the French and be well-dressed, work for the Dutch and travel; but work for Americans and be rich.”

– “Dear Mom, I got a valet”, Life’s Reports, CBI Roundup; written by an unidentified reporter of the CBI Roundup & adapted from the November 30, 1942 of LIFE magazine.

When the China-Burma-India (CBI) operations started in 1942, thousands of American military personnel (G.I’s) came to India and lived on American or Allied bases in Calcutta, other parts of Bengal, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland. (CBI operations in eastern India). By the end of 1942 alone, 17,000 American troops had arrived in India. Thousands more followed over the next 3 years until the CBI theater wound up in 1945.

Americans found the living conditions in India tough. While they made the most of their stay with the help of valets and bearers, the logistical goals of the Allies – building the Ledo road, flying supplies to China and laying down a pipeline from India to China meant going through and dealing with very rough terrain and jungle. A pilot – Charles “Bob” Pitzer – who flew the 530 mile aerial supply route over the Himalayas (the “Hump”) from Assam to China, described life thus: “Living conditions in the Assam Valley were primitive. Personnel generally lived in tents or bamboo bashas. A few lived in tea plantation bungalows or in bungalow outbuildings. During the monsoon season bases were seas of mud. Sidewalks and tent foundations had to be elevated to stay above standing water. Temperatures during the monsoon season were extremely hot with very high humidity. Clothes and shoes mildewed within days. Food was government issued C-ration. Personnel did not eat off base for sanitary reasons. Malaria and dysentery were prevalent diseases. Water could be consumed only after purification by iodine”.

To help them acclimate to a new country and city (Calcutta), American personnel were give brochures and pamphlets with important information on how to get around as well as advice on how to behave. Indian women for example were off-limits!  “It is part of your job”, wrote Brigadier General Leyland in the Calcutta Key, one such pamphlet, “to cultivate a lasting relationship with India” (…) “In any permanent plan for peace that includes (and must include) Southeast Asia, India must and will assume a prominent role. You are a practical person from a practical nation. You can see that it makes common sense for anyone to cultivate a lasting friendship with India. Go to it then. YOU – you’re the one who is going to do it.

Incidentally, the people here like us. They think we’re all right. Thanks to the good behavior of the American soldiers who preceded you, a friendly welcome from these folks awaits you. If you behave equally as well, a similar welcome will await your buddies who follow you in here. Teek-hai?

Americans were aware of the psychic distance between the British and Indians in colonial India. Americans, however, could become friends to Indians, the G.I’s were told. Without the “normal affectations of the non-Indian dealing with the Indian” (…) “the Hindu comes to the realization that the American is endowed with feelings that are very much human. You are a possible friend to him – a hope for the future.”

Finally, G.I’s were told: “Yes, the Indian is different. But instead of merely noticing that difference and judging it hastily, suppose we take a good long second look and attempt to understand the fellow’s customs and ways of living. Remember, it is an age old failure to laugh at things that you do not understand.”

American G.I. life in India was popularized by the annotated photographs of American military photographer Clyde Waddell. He was assigned to the CBI theater as the personal press photographer for Lord Mountbatten. In 1945, he took a series of photographs of Americans in and around Calcutta. These were later compiled into an album – A Yank’s Memories of Calcutta. The notes for each photograph reveal the point of view of the Americans and are in part orientalist but are also funny. The reactions to Indian scenes and life are not terribly different from those of European and British travellers in India at the time. There is one difference. The Americans are markedly more self-deprecatory and light hearted than British visitors were. Laugh the G.I’s did. They were tourists (when off-duty) in a foreign land not imperialists. Away from the US, like all American soldiers then and now, it was clear that they just wanted to go home! Here are are a few of those photos with the notes by Clyde Waddell:

Crowd gathers round a sidewalk performer at bus stop while GI’s take temporary advantage of an overhead view from steps of a camp bus. This is a good spot for hawkers, beggars, shoe shine boys, showmen to work on the bankroll of the ‘rich American soldier’.

Nightfall in Calcutta stirs the imagination and curiosity as to what goes on down dimly-lit alleys often leads an occasional soldier into the out-of-bounds areas. If you don’t know the way, five rupees will buy a trip to the few still existent brothels in one of the garies shown here. (Warning: MP’s take a poor view).

Karnani Estates, mammoth apartment hotel for U.S. Army officers. Known to the many thousands of transient and locally based officers as a social center, it has been provided with one of the most elaborately decorated bars of any officers club in the CBI theater.

This weird-looking snake charmer is doing his best to coax a balcony audience to toss down enough baksheesh to get his cobra and mongoose in the mood to stage a fight to the finish. Actually the combatants always seem a bit bored with the act and after a few fierce snorts and lunges, decide it is better to live.

Shefali Chandan
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