(By: C.P. Belliappa)
My maternal uncle, Col Biddanda M Chengappa, was 24-years-old when he joined the Army in 1941. After a brief training, he got his commission as a Second Lieutenant. World War II was raging and it had come to India’s doorsteps at the Burma Front. The Japanese were advancing at an alarming pace. Second Lt Chengappa was amongst an Indian Brigade that was hurriedly deployed to stem the advancing Japanese. He along with a dozen other newly commissioned officers and a ship load of soldiers landed in Rangoon the same year. In his own words, they were hardly trained to face the fierce enemy. To make things worse, the British officers in the Eastern Front were a bunch of inefficient lot who were more preoccupied with their own comforts.
Within days of arriving at Rangoon, Second Lt Chengappa and the men were sent to the enemy line. They were ill equipped to face the Japanese. Before his own eyes he saw two other young officers from Coorg fall to enemy bullets. A number of soldiers were just mowed down by the much superior adversary.
After fighting this losing battle for more than a week, a small group of around 20 survivors started retreating. They were in the thick forests in northern part of Burma. Second Lt Chengappa and the others somehow got on to a truck carrying petrol and kerosene. He was petrified as bullets were flying all around. The truck would have been a fierce bomb if any of the incendiary fell on it.
The group started walking through the forest. They were lucky to have a Burmese army officer with them, who was able to guide them through the forest. They were in deep jungle by nightfall and reasonably away from the enemy. All were so tired that they fell asleep under the trees. This is when Second Lt Chengappa had a double whammy. He felt shearing pain in his leg to discover that a snake had bitten him!
The Burmese officer gave him first-aid, but Second Lt Chengappa lost hopes of seeing the night through. He did make it through the night and the following morning the Burmese officer rushed him to the nearest army hospital where he luckily got medical care. He limped along helped by his mates. They managed to camp near villages thanks to the accompanying Burmese officer. After 25 odd days of walking through the jungle, in some places surviving on what they could find in the forest, the weary men reached Kohima.
Back in Palangala, Coorg, his parents were informed that their son was missing in action. When they had no news for more than a month they feared the worst.
At Kohima, the survivors were told they could go home on a month’s leave. Second Lt Chengappa boarded the train at Guwahati, and a week later reached Bombay. He sent a telegram to his uncle Koothanda Poovaiah in Pollibetta, informing that he is well and on his way home. When the good news finally reached his parents, there was absolute elation in Palangala.
He soon got promoted, and as a Major served in Gaza during late 1950s as part of UN Peacekeeping Force. Married to Sheila from Codanda family, he has three sons. He retired as a Colonel and settled in Coorg.
He kept himself busy after retirement. As an active member of Rotary Club, he was the first Rotary Governor from Coorg. His passion has been golf, and he played the game well into his late 80s. He drove his car till a couple of years ago. He reminisced about his Burma escapade just the other day with me, and his memory is crystal clear. Colonel Chengappa is 99 years old, and will be a centenarian on 25 May 2017!