Calcutta had emerged as one of the most important fulcrums for coordinating the movement of men, material, and money during the Second World War. The advent of U.S. troops in the city from 1942 onwards led to an unprecedented cultural encounter. This paper argues that the actual lived experiences of the American soldiers in Calcutta provided a stark contrast to their prescribed norms of conduct. This paper further contends that with their arrival, civilian-military relations were substantially reconfigured and the image of the British Empire was considerably damaged. An attempt has been made to set in relief the divergent experiences of the White American and African American troops besides mapping their experiences of and responses to the Bengal Famine. Lastly, this paper seeks to interrogate the globalizing nature of the Second World War by looking at Calcutta as a site of spontaneous and uneven cultural exchange where the U.S. soldiers functioned as national emissaries and wartime cultural conduits.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Suchintan Das is pursuing an undergraduate degree in History from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi. He is a Rhodes Scholar-Elect from India for 2021 to the University of Oxford where he intends to study German civilian internment in India during the Second World War.
“The last time when war had broken out…prices had gone up; food grains had become costlier. But it was nothing like the ominous possibility that looms large this time. Calcutta is being bombed, aircrafts keep flying over our heads, everything seems to be so different now.” — Narayan Gangopadhyay, Upanibesh1
“If you come here with an open mind you will find Calcutta is “Teek-Hai” (Okay). Of course, it’s just like visiting any big city back home: you can have a good time, or a bad time, depending on how well you take care of yourself.” — Brig. Gen. R.R. Neyland, The Calcutta Key2
INTRODUCTION: G.I. JOE IN THE CITY OF JOY
Death had been made “a part and parcel of everyday life”, reflected the author Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay, when describing the grim realities of the Second World War in Calcutta.3 It was during this time, the author Manindra Gupta recounted in his memoirs, that “American soldiers of both races—white and black—with their plentiful equipment, appeared like aliens from another planet in the city.”4 Calcutta was a major city of the British Indian Empire—the erstwhile capital—which had become uniquely vulnerable to Japanese aggression after the fall of Singapore in February 1942. Defence of India in general, and Calcutta in particular, was of paramount strategic importance for ensuring an Allied victory. Apart from being the nerve centre of logistics and communications in eastern India, Calcutta was the major British port overlooking the Bay of Bengal, and was also the closest Indian city to Burma and China.5 Moreover, as Yasmin Khan notes, even though it was neither a home front nor a war zone, “India was nevertheless critical to the war effort as a source of military manpower and industrial production.”6 It was in this context that Calcutta emerged as one of the most important fulcrums for coordinating the movement of men, material, and money in the China-Burma-India theater (hereinafter CBI). The city doubled as a necessary transit point for Allied troops pouring into Assam and Burma from across the subcontinent, and more importantly as a centre of rest and recreation for troops returning from assignments at the front. The arrival of American troops (popularly known as G.I.s) from February 15, 1942 onwards set in motion a series of administrative, economic, and demographic changes in Calcutta.7 With this influx, the cosmopolitan character of the city was heightened and the stage was set for an unprecedented cultural encounter that took many forms and had many faces. Calcutta, its urbanscapes, amenities, people, and the alien U.S. troops were the primary protagonists in this encounter.
The normative experience of an average American G.I. in Calcutta was sought to be shaped by the guidelines issued and restrictions enforced by the U.S. Military Command, the British Colonial Government, and the American Red Cross (hereinafter ARC). Needless to say, their actual lived experiences in wartime Calcutta differed substantially. The first section of this paper aims to contextualize and juxtapose these varied experiences, as recorded (penned and photographed) and remembered by the American troops. In the second section, their perceptions of Calcutta and interactions with its people will be examined to understand to what extent and how civilian-military relations were sought to be reconfigured. The policy of racial segregation in the U.S. military will be treated as an important fault-line to find out if there was a discernible divergence in the experiences of White and African American troops stationed in the city in the third section. An endeavour will be made to gauge how far the American soldiers were aware of the Bengal Famine and how they responded to it in the fourth section. Lastly, by way of a conclusion, this paper will try to interrogate the ‘globalizing’ nature of the Second World War, by looking at Calcutta as a site of spontaneous cultural exchange where U.S. soldiers functioned as national emissaries and wartime cultural conduits.
THUS SPOKE UNCLE SAM:
|was a great war-base... a vortex of humanity into which men doing war-jobs from all over the world, uniformed or not, were being sucked... American forces started arriving; and with their high living standards and total ignorance of India probably felt most alien of all.12|
Bewilderment inflected the average U.S. soldier’s first impression of India. As Yasmin Khan put it, “The ‘real’ India was a contrast to the jolly, sanitised newsreels which troops had been shown prior to their departure, in which they had been promised tropical fruits, constant sunshine and cheap shopping.”15 This reaction was anticipated well by the U.S. Military Command. Together with the American Red Cross in India and the British Colonial Administration, they sought to mitigate the shock and decisively shape the experience of the American troops in India.16
For this purpose, they came up with pocket guides, written in a manner of providing friendly advice, and containing norms of conduct the G.I.s were supposed to adhere to, during their stay in India. These guides were quite detailed, providing extensive information about almost everything that the American soldiers in India needed to know—ranging from commentaries on the Indian caste system to locations of nearby departmental stores. Needless to say, there were pocket guides for Calcutta as well, one of which, called The Calcutta Key, listed out the following prescriptions which deserve to be quoted in full:
TRY THESE “DO’S” FOR SIZE:
1. Avoid political discussions.
2. Act here with the same common courtesy you use at home.
3. Guide the other fellow’s conduct; ‘breaks’ reflect on all.
4. Replace “Hey you!” with “Bhai!” or “Brother!”
5. Discuss Indian customs out of their sight and hearing.
6. You’re in Rome. Keep your ways; let the Romans have theirs.
7. Keep your temper; the Indian will keep his.
8. An attitude of respect leads to ‘breaks’ being forgiven.
9. Take pictures only of the laboring classes (and then only if they consent); upperclass Indians don’t like to be photographed.
10. Look at passing British and Indian women without tossing remarks at them. Four out of five women over here are offended by “yoo-hoos.”17
Incidences of transgression were not infrequent and can be examined under four diagnostic rubrics—politics, shopping, delinquency, and prostitution.18 A Pocket Guide to India declared, “India is a complex country, difficult for people like ourselves to understand. It is a country whose people are going through a far-reaching political upheaval. They, as we did over 160 years ago, seek to gain political independence.”19 Notwithstanding this obvious parallel, American troops were expected to steer clear of Indian politics. Political discussions on the Indian situation were outright discouraged. According to one guide:
Americans are in India to fight the Axis. You should stick to that and not try to settle the Indian political problem. What we want is to cooperate with both the British and Indians to beat the Japanese. Your place is to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.20
The Indian nationalist leader Jayaprakash Narayan appealed to these “soldiers of freedom” to “understand and appreciate the [Indians’] fight for freedom” and to let “[their] countrymen, [their] leaders and [their] government know the truth about India.”24 The truth, however, was not always conveyed to the G.I.s by the U.S. Military Command. For example, they were told that “Indians want U.S. to win. No group in this country has any love for the axis.”25 At this time, one of the most prominent Indian political figures, Subhas Chandra Bose, was parleying with the German government in Berlin, and his speeches from the Azad Hind Radio Centre were regularly reaching his followers in India, who did not necessarily desire an Allied victory. Moreover, American soldiers did talk politics with the local people, when the need arose. In his memoirs, veteran G.I. Malcolm Harvey Stilson recounted conversing for long periods on war, peace, business, art, politics, and more while purchasing gems from a Calcutta jeweller.26
Calcutta, with its attractive marketplaces, offered ample opportunities for the stationed soldiers to shop for their daily needs and also to indulge themselves with the occasional souvenir. The Calcutta Key (hereinafter the Key) warned the G.I.s about the perils of bargaining. In fact, it was quite categorical in its suggestion:
|In all the other stores and in the markets or bazars a deliberately high price is quoted to you for an article, and it is then up to you to argue the price down to somewhere within reason - without in the process losing your reason. You seldom win. If you leave any shop in India confident that you outsmarted the salesman, then be sure of this: YOU DIDN’T! You can profit by the experience (paid for) of other American soldiers. Buy sound products in reliable stores at fixed prices.27|
In partial contradiction of foregoing advice, and advocated as a part of your adventures in India, don’t neglect to try bargaining (in a small way) as the accepted minor sport east of Suez. But in doing so, avoid street peddlers and side-street stalls and instead, visit the New Market where you will find a real interest in the bazar itself as well as get a kick out of horse trading with the salesman over their great variety of wares.28
In spite of repeated reminders to the American troops in Calcutta to put their best foot forward, occasional delinquent behaviour on their part had the possibility of heralding ominous repercussions. For instance, Benod Behari Basu (younger brother of the Bengali revolutionary Benoy Krishna Basu and later known as the Father of Boxing in Bihar), remembered having knocked out an American G.I. with a sharp blow to the chin, for passing objectionable comments about a few Indian women at Esplanade. A crowd gathered quickly, and the fellow American soldiers left the site with their injured mate, without confronting Mr. Basu.29 Such incidences were hardly rare. As Yasmin Khan notes, “[p]etty conflict between soldiers, local townsmen, and villagers featured routinely in newspapers by 1944, and was particularly noted as a problem in Bengal and Assam.”30 Incidences of serious crimes were not absent either. When an Anglo-Indian boy, Eglind Roze, attempted to steal an American military-vehicle parked near the ARC Burra Club at Dalhousie Square, he was shot to death by a few American soldiers. His family had to be immediately compensated to avoid a public embarrassment of the U.S. Military Forces.31
One of the leading faces of Hindu belligerents in the Calcutta Riots of 1946, Gopal Mukhopadhyay, later claimed to have procured two American pistols and a few grenades from American G.I.s, back in 1945: “If you paid two hundred and fifty rupees or bought them a bottle of whiskey, the soldiers would give you a .45 and a hundred cartridges.”32 Illegal sale of arms and ammunition was certainly not approved of by the U.S. military command. At least a few American soldiers were involved in this practice nevertheless. In Calcutta, the docklands, which were considered absolutely essential in the war effort, emerged as the prime centre of contraband and conflicts. As a policeman stationed in that area later recounted:
|the docks boiled with activity (and crime) as vast amounts of military ordinance poured in, and the Burma front and Nationalist China (via the Ledo Road) were kept supplied by troop and ‘military special’ trains through the Herculean efforts of the East Bengal and Assam-Bengal Railways. Soldiers, sailors and airmen from all the Allied nations wandered the streets in search of “rest & recreation” which usually consisted of a feed, a fight and sex (in any order) inevitably necessitating much police intervention.33|
|As in any port city in the Orient, Calcutta is riddled with venereal diseases. Studies show that professional prostitutes are 150% infected (half have one and the other half have two). Even in the native population the rate is well over 50%. That good-looking amateur whom you think you convinced by your personal charm may be just the baby to hand you a gift package—unwrapped.36|
|[T]he Military Police was ‘completely inadequate to deal with the situation’ and the local police shied away from disciplining foreign soldiers. ‘Pimps and touts abounded wherever the troops were stationed or on leave’, and taxi and rickshaw drivers and men employed in the cantonments acted as local middlemen.39|
Calcutta was not just a centre for coordinating war efforts in eastern India, as it also offered many wartime distractions for G.I.s who were stationed in the city. The sights, smells, and sounds that the American soldiers came across here shaped their perceptions of the city to a great extent. They came in frequent contact with civilians and often developed friendly relations with them.41 While the British troops were more reserved in their dealings with Indians, American G.I.s were much more easy-going and tended to blend in better with the local populace. The Key offered some sound advice in this regard:
|You do see that the Indian is different from yourself. Granted. But - do you see that that difference between the two of you does not give you a reason to criticize the Indian?...To repeat, 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.42|
The commotion and filth of the city hardly went unnoticed. The first thing that the American troops registered upon their arrival in Calcutta was the din of the railway station. In the words of Malcolm H. Stilson, “The station is a cavernous place in which thousands of people literally dwell, and where everything from coition to childbirth takes place.”50 The absence of sanitary conditions in Calcutta annoyed the G.I.s, who found the clean gurudwara to be a welcome respite, and developed much admiration for the Sikhs. This sentiment was so strong that Stilson went to the extent of calling Calcutta “a city of di(stink)tion” in his memoirs. One of his poems captured this emotion quite effectively:
Dawn walks the streets of
Swathed in a grey swirling cloak
Frightening the cockroach into his crack.51
This was corroborated by Waddell in the caption of one of his photographs:
One of the commonest street vendors is the Paan wallah, or betel nut vendor. One tenth of the world chews the mixture of leaf, spices, nut and other variable ingredients. Chief byproduct of the habit is a reddish splatter of stain, indiscriminately spat upon walls and sidewalks in Calcutta by carefree chewers.52
One crucial axis along which American-Indian interactions took place in wartime Calcutta was that of providing and receiving service. According to Yasmin Khan, “American soldiers and airmen in India often had their own ‘native bearers’, locally recruited manservants who swept, dusted, polished shoes and, fetched and carried tea and snacks, thus helping, as one G.I. magazine joked, ‘make a perfectly lazy man out of a soldier’.”54 More often than not, these bearers were christened with ‘comical’ nicknames, and the G.I.s joked about their mannerisms and unsuccessful attempts to pick up a few English expressions in a bid to secure greater wartime opportunities and camaraderie from the relatively friendlier Americans:
|Our bearer’s name is “Smokey.” We’ve forgotten why we call him that, but there are no objections, since his real name is “Pabitra Mondel.” Aside from his regular duties, Smokey spends most of his time learning G.I. ways…“Sahib – Bird, Sahib – Cow, Sahib – House, Sahib – ABCDEFY,” and so it goes all day. Smokey is learning English. Things have changed in our barracks. No longer does Smokey roam around picking up Cigarette butts and trash. No longer does Smokey sweep the porch. Smokey is learning English.55|
The soldier-bearer relationships often grew mutually paternalistic. According to Yasmin Khan:
|Sometimes soldiers were invited back to local homes and introduced to families, or the soldiers helped pay for the cost of weddings or for the education of young children. For most of the people who worked as servants on airfields, at barracks and bases, the job gave them opportunities to learn some English and to earn inflated wages. For the most entrepreneurial, contact with the bases was even more lucrative: an opportunity to act as guide, procurer of alcohol and women, interpreter and general righthand man.57|
|One American officer fired his bearer when that worthy refused to remove a small piece of lint from the floor. “Am I a donkey, horse, nothing?” the bearer heatedly demanded… Righteously angry at what he considered the “snobbishness” of the bearer, the officer refused to give him a letter of reference and thereby incurred the enmity of his and all other bearers in the neighborhood…[who] formed a tight little union and no one would work for the offender until he wrote the chit.58|
Another prominent site for wartime distraction and American—Indian interaction in Calcutta was The Grand Hotel. The destination provided a space where the soldiers could “‘Forget the War!’, with Teddy Weatherford on the piano in the American Cocktail Bar, Chinese jugglers, raffles, quizzes, and ‘handpicked dance hostesses’.”62 As mentioned earlier, the American soldiers provided a stark contrast to their British counterparts, both within and beyond the city. Among other places of elite colonial recreation, “[i]n the clubs of Simla, the rumours of increasing American designs on South Asia, the strength of American imports and the sexual irresistibility of American men all mingled together to create profound wariness about the new allies.”63 Some G.I.s even got married to Jewish women in Calcutta.64 Yasmin Khan has rightly argued that “[t]he purchasing power and superhero stature of the American GIs made much of the Raj look fossilised and diminished.”65 This metaphor can be pushed a bit further to claim that the dynamism and affability of the American soldiers in their interactions with the Indians made much of the Raj appear rather debilitated and overtly paranoid. Through their varied interactions with the local Indian populace in Calcutta, the American soldiers ended up substantially reconfiguring civilian—military relationships—undermining the unmitigable distance and inescapable hierarchy that existed between the colonial officers who commanded the British Indian Army and the ordinary Indian people.
Out of about 150,000 American troops who were stationed in India during the Second World War, 22,000 were African Americans.66 Given the volatile political situation in India, the British Colonial Government had apprehensions about the reception that these troops were likely to receive in the subcontinent. The problem, however, was entrenched in the structure of the U.S. Military Forces. According to Nico Slate:
|[T]here was not one but two American armies in India—one white and one Black. From the day they registered for duty, African American soldiers faced racial discrimination, both official and unofficial. Jim Crow followed African American soldiers abroad, where they often traveled on segregated ships, ate in segregated mess halls, slept in segregated tents, and labored and fought in segregated platoons.67|
In 1945, a swimming pool for U.S. servicemen was opened on a segregated basis. In reality, it was reserved for White Americans almost all the time. Racial stereotypes such as the supposed greater adaptability of African Americans to the tropical climate were cited to justify this:
|When Black soldiers were excluded from a Fourth of July celebration at the pool sponsored by the Red Cross, nearly the entire staff of the Cosmos Club, the Black Red Cross club, signed a letter of protest sent to Red Cross headquarters. Several of the volunteers, including Geraldine Smith, a teacher from Chicago and the assistant director of the Cosmos Club, resigned in protest. On its part, the army’s report presented the segregation of the pool as equitable, adding, “Complaining of segregation, however, Negroes have completely boycotted the pool.”70|
African American soldiers in Calcutta were perceived as naturally delinquent by the colonial administration. As Janam Mukherjee notes, “[the] disparagement of American black soldiers may have been a recurrent theme in explaining the chaos on the docks.”73 In their report on an incidence of shelling at the Calcutta Dockyards, the Commissioners for the Port of Calcutta noted that the “behavior of the American Negro troop… was disgraceful.”74 The trope of the ‘fiendish black man’—slovenly and cowardly in their demeanour— loomed large in the British colonial imagination. Crimes, real and imagined, were more frequently attributed to the African American soldiers:
|In Calcutta a handful of incidents occurred in which Black soldiers seriously wounded Indian taxi drivers, although there is no evidence that race played a factor in these assaults. Bengali anti-black prejudice was revealed in rumors that black soldiers kidnapped children and, according to at least one confiscated letter, ate them.75|
On the contrary, their relations were largely characterised by mutual respect and amity. According to one officer, “Negroes frequently are invited to attend native civilian parties to which White troops are not invited.”77 Others reported that Black troops were “invited to the best Indian homes.” Nico Slate went so far as to suggest that “African American soldiers and Indians were able to forge solidarities, based in part on colored cosmopolitanism and a shared opposition to racial oppression.”78 According to Gerald Horne, the official history of the CBI also noted that the African American troops ‘mingled more frequently with the Indians than did their white comrades.’79 Yasmin Khan put this very succinctly:
|Black troops and Indians found common cause contrary to imperial expectations. Local people chatted and traded with the troops, striking up friendships even in the marketplace and the streets. Banned from using some of the facilities allocated for white soldiers and housed initially in the densely populated area of Howrah in Calcutta, black GIs spent more time in local markets and backstreets…As a consequence, black soldiers made new friends, received invitations to local parties and dances and were more likely to have an Indian or Anglo-Indian lover.80|
Besides opportunities for such cultural contacts, the war also brought immense hardship in its wake. Apprehensive of an impending Japanese invasion, the colonial administration of Bengal undertook a ‘denial scheme’ and adopted a scorched earth policy at a time of war-induced food shortage. Black marketeering and hoarding added to people’s miseries. Author Manindra Gupta witnessed truckloads of food grains procured from different districts of Bengal by the colonial government and the Ispahani Merchant Company being stored with the cosmetic protection of tarpaulins in the Botanical Garden at Shibpur. Heaps of these undistributed food grains became infested with funG.I. during the early monsoons of 1943 and were consequently rendered inedible—worse than even animal feed.81 Freehand military requisitioning greatly aggravated this scarcity. As Yasmin Khan notes, “Initially, American quartermasters in India dealt directly with food suppliers, negotiating prices and buying directly, with dire consequences for some local markets.”82 Janam Mukherjee provides an example of this:
|The high demand for ice by military personnel [particularly by the Americans] put a further strain on fish markets (which depended on ice for preservation during transport), thus denying a primary source of protein to middle-class residents of Bengal. In some districts, fishermen, already crippled by “boat denial” were forced to throw away as much as a third of their catch due to a lack of ice.83|
The unfolding of this unfathomable human tragedy did not go unnoticed by the American troops in the city. The Key’s description of the omnipresent ‘homeless man’ personified suffering on the streets and alleys of Calcutta:
|At some time or other while you are here you will witness the sight of a crowd of men, women, and children who seem to move together like a herd of sheep. They huddle together, or they rush across the street in a mob, or they gather in a group shouting and jabbering - they are new arrivals in the city. Driven here by the famine, by flood, drought, or other causes, they come from Bengal itself, from Bihar, Orissa, or Assam. Homeless, helpless, hopeless when they reach Calcutta, they fare as men have always fared, in that the able-bodied and the strong among them as usual survive and soon find their way into the immense labor corps around the city - the rest, they soon vanish - some die in the epidemics, others just disappear.87|
|Death - a way of life? The indifference of the passer-by on this downtown Calcutta street to the plight of the dying woman in the foreground is considered commonplace. During the famine of 1943, cases like this were to be seen in almost every block, and though less frequent now, the hardened public reaction seems to have endured.88|
Corpses piled up on the streets of Calcutta and the Municipal Corporation was overburdened, which caused the U.S. Military Forces to step in at this juncture. In the words of Kermit A. Bushur:
|[W]hen I was in Calcutta, not having any company commander or anything like that, I was getting all the dirty details. And the dirtiest they had at that time was going into town and picking up the dead. See, the country was in a famine and they were starving people, they were elderly people, but they came to Calcutta so they could bathe in the River Ganges. To their religion they’d have to bathe in the River Ganges to be saved. Well, then they went going into town. They’d unroll their little bamboo roll that they had. They’d lie down there and go to sleep and sometimes they didn’t wake up. So, every day there had to be a truck go through the entire city and pick up the dead. And then we would take them down to the river, put them on a big pile of wood and burn them. That became very, very disheartening and very sad to see that happening. And I was catching that detail every day, every day.90|
|It also appears that the U.S. Army in India started a voluntary food donation scheme by saving from their weekly rations of canned food. It was some of these cans that kept my family in Metiaburuz fed during the war. Also, quite intriguingly, it appears that the British Government in Calcutta tried its best to conceal the gravity of the famine from the American troops in the city by regularly transporting the starving urban poor into foodcamps in or outside the city.94|
|On February 29, 1946, several thousand G.I.’s and I packed our duffel bags and boarded a truck convoy which drove us down to the King George Docks to board the U.S.S. General Hodges. By that time the Indian people of Calcutta were rioting against the British in their quest for independence. Our convoy had to travel through very hazardous areas and the trucks were pelted with stones and other debris thrown by rioting Indians. The trucks were covered by canvas to help protect us from the objects being thrown. Luckily, I was not hit. To make matters worse in Bengal, Moslems and Hindus were at each other’s throats, fighting to become independent states. Mass killings were becoming a way of life.95|
|As you see more of the Indian people, you will encounter many customs that are strange and new to Americans. A large number of them have grown out of the religions of the country and are therefore most sacred. You should respect them as you would wish your own beliefs and ways of living respected by strangers.100|
However, these interactions were not underwritten by cultural anxiety and suspicion alone. These were opportunities for forging lasting cultural contacts and often provided impetus for coming to terms with otherwise incomprehensible cultural differences. An intriguing parallel drawn by Stilson while recounting his visit to the Kalighat Temple will illustrate this point further:
This is the mother side of the great, many armed Kali, goddess of childbirth. And I think back to the cathedral in San Antonio, Texas, where the Catholic women prayed to the statue of the virgin Mary to grant them children.102
The American soldiers were constantly reminded that they had a purpose beyond fighting in a foreign country. They were also supposed to don the hats of envoys representing the goodwill of the United States.103 No matter how annoyed they were with “Indian children ranging from two to seventy years old” bickering after them for “Baksheesh”, they had
to remember this sermon:104
|What you may not have stopped to realize is that after the war, 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. It is part of YOUR JOB.105|