LACHHIMAN GURUNG

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THE LEGEND OF A GORKHA SOLDIER

There is a story told in the village of Dahakhani in the Himalayan foothills of how a man sent out his son to buy some cigarettes at the village shop one morning in 1941. The son returned five years later, blind in one eye, minus his right hand and wearing the Victoria Cross but without the cigarettes. Young Lachhiman Gurung had met a friend in the village who told him he intended to enlist in the Gorkha Rifles. Recruits were urgently needed; the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and landed on the Malay Peninsula a few days earlier.

During normal times Lachhiman would not have been accepted as a Gorkha rifleman, as he was not quite five feet tall. Like many other soldiers from the hills of Nepal, Lachhiman found himself fighting in Burma. The campaign had swung back and forth but by the spring of 1945, although far from beaten, General Seizo Sakurai was attempting to extricate the remnants of the 28th Japanese Army across the Irrawaddy so as to escape eastwards into Thailand.

At the beginning of May Lieutenant General Montagu Stopford’s 33rdCorps reached Prome in central Burma, on the east bank of the river. He had his role cut out by the commander of 14th Army, General William Slim; to keep Sakurai bottled up west of the river while 4th Corps under Lieutenant General Frank Messervy fought its way south to relieve Rangoon. 4th Battalion of the 8th Gorkha Rifles was serving with the 7th Indian Division of Stopford’s Corps. The battalion faced repeated, fanatical Japanese attempts to break out over the Irrawaddy to disrupt Messervy’s line of communication. One company, commanded by Major Peter Myers, became cut off at Taungdaw, west of the river in the direct path of successive waves of enemy attacks. Rifleman Lachhiman Gurung had joined Myers’s company just two months ago as part of a reinforcement draft.

On the night of May 12-13 Lachhiman Gurung’s section was manning the forward edge of the company position. At 0120 hours a force of 200 Japanese launched an attack. Lachhiman’s section and his post in particular bore the brunt, as it covered a track leading into the centre of his platoon position. The attack began with a hail of grenades, one of which fell onto the lip of Lachhiman’s trench. He seized it and threw it back at the enemy. Almost at once another landed in the trench. Lachhiman snatched that up and threw it back as well. A third grenade fell in front of the trench but exploded as Lachhiman grasped it, blowing off his fingers, shattering his right arm and severely wounding him in the face, body and right leg. His two badly wounded comrades lay helpless at the bottom of the trench.

The enemy, screaming and shouting, formed up shoulder to shoulder and attempted to rush the position by sheer weight of numbers. Regardless of his wounds, Lachhiman loaded and fired his rifle with his left hand, maintaining a continuous and steady rate of fire as he had been trained. For four hours the young soldier remained alone at his post, waiting calmly for each attack which he met with rifle fire at point-blank range, determined not to give an inch of ground. Of the 87 enemy dead counted in front of the company position at dawn, 31 lay in front of Lachhiman’s section. Had the enemy managed to overrun this point they could have swarmed the whole reverse slope. Although cut off for three days and nights, the company, inspired by Lachhiman’s example, held on and smashed attack after attack as they came. The young hero was invested with the Victoria Cross by Field Marshal Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India, at the Red Fort in Delhi on December 19, 1945. His father, aged 74 and very frail, got himself carried for eleven days from his village to see his son decorated.

Lachhiman’s injuries were so severe that he was unable to return to active service during the remainder of the war. Not only had he lost the lower part of his right arm and right eye, he was deafened in one ear. On partition of India in 1947 the 8th Gorkha Rifles joined the new Indian Army. Lachhiman had reached the rank of havildar (sergeant), but because of his disabilities decided to retire to his father’s tiny farm in Dahakhani in the Chitwan district of Nepal. He married and continued to plough his one hectare (2.5 acres) plot until infirmity made it impossible for him to go on. The isolation of his village caused grave hardship making it necessary for him to travel once a month to Bharatpur, 22 miles away, to collect his pension. The place could be reached partly by bus, but only after scrambling up and slithering down the hillside for 12 miles to the road. Eventually one of his sons would carry him piggy-back down to the bus stop on the road and back again up the mountain on the day.

The former CO of 4/8th Gorkhas, Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Walter Walker, and Lachhiman’s company commander, Peter Myers, maintained what contact they could with him over the years. So did Eric Williams who had served as a forward OP signaller with 136 Regiment of the Royal Artillery in support of 4/8th Gorkha Rifles in Burma in 1945. The experience made Williams imbibe a lasting admiration for the Gorkhas and, after discovering the straits in which Lachhiman was living, he paid for the education of his children.

The 50th anniversary of the end of the war in the Far East was celebrated in London in July-August 1995. Lachhiman Gurung was flown from Kathmandu to London to join other surviving VC holders for the celebration. This led to a wider awareness of the conditions in which he was living and a scheme was initiated by various veterans and other welfare organizations in UK to build him a new house at Bharatpur with funds raised through donations. The two-storey house was completed in September 1995 and handed over to Lachhiman Gurung and his family together with a sum of money to ensure that his essential needs were met.

In 2008 Lachhiman Gurung moved to England to live in Hounslow, where he became a freeman of the borough. Later, moving to Cheswick to live in the Memorial Home for Retired Gorkha Soldiers, he became the honorary vice-president of the local branch of the Royal British Legion. In recent years he invariably attended the biennial celebrations of the VC and GC Association in London.

Havildar Lachhiman Gurung, VC, born in Dahakhani in 1917 and twice married according to army records, passed away on December 12, 2010, aged 93; a true hero and a legend. He is survived by his second wife Manmaya, two sons and a daughter of his first marriage and two sons of his second. His eldest son Sibadatt became a major in the Indian Artillery and his youngest son Krishnabahadur is serving in the Royal Nepalese Army. Gurung’s medal, the VC, occupies a place of honour at the Regimental Quarterguard of the 4/8th Gorkha Rifles; an eternal inspiration to future generations of Gorkha riflemen.

Source: Internet; edited from a mail in circulation

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