Editor’s note: This story initially appeared on www.koi-hai.com. It has been edited for this website.
I was garden assistant at Dikom Tea Estate in Dibrugarh district when Indian Air Force (IAF) Squadron Leader John O’quino arrived in the 1960s to reopen the Chabua airfield. This airstrip had been unused since it had been abandoned by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) at the end of WWII. During the War, USAAF had used it to undertake what was called ‘flying the hump’– a high altitude military aerial supply route from Assam, across northern Burma, to Yunnan province in southwestern China. The airfield had no buildings, and the jungle had grown prolifically through cracks in the concrete runway. Readers who have spent time in Assam will recall that the Americans not only built a concrete runway but also concreted the main Dibrugarh-Tinsukia highway 37. It was the only place for miles around where you could ‘put your foot down'.
The officers and airmen of the IAF vanguard who moved into Chabua had to initially endure a Spartan lifestyle, living under canvas tents in rudimentary conditions. When I invited John round to my bungalow for a drink, he was keen to accept but made it plain that what he would really most appreciate would be a hot bath. One of the few commodities which found its way through the tragically mismanaged supply system of the Indian military was rum. My bungalow quickly became an annex to the non-existent Chabua Officer's Mess, which produced a massive cache of rum in exchange for hot baths!
Once the Chabua base had been made operational, the IAF's fixed wing aircraft began to arrive. Fighters included Gloster Meteors, De' Havilland Vampires, and Hawker Hunters. Most of the transports were DC-3 (passenger version) or C-47 (freight version) Dakotas.
Building the base of the runway extension
The Dakotas had no problem landing on the existing, overgrown strip but several of the fighters finished up damaged on the side of the runway. One unfortunate Hunter pilot went straight off the end of the runway, the plane finishing up on its nose in the middle of the Dikom rice fields.
The monsoon would soon be approaching, and the rice paddies surrounding the airfield soon began filling up with water. There was no heavy machinery such as earth scrapers or bulldozers available.
It was decided in consultation with the Indian Tea Association that, in view of the seriousness of the emergency, local tea garden labour would be employed to extend the runway. Since Dikom was the nearest estate, I was ‘volunteered' to supervise the necessary work.
The Garrison Engineer took me out to the Wilton end of the runway, which ended abruptly before dropping about 15 feet down into the water filled rice fields. We marked out a 150-yard extension to the runway with bamboo posts. These posts marked both the edge of the proposed runway as well as the required height of the embankment. The Engineer suggested that I use my labour force to take the soil out of the waterlogged paddy land to make the new embankment. I pointed out to him the impracticality of his proposal, not to mention the aggravation that would be caused by digging up the rice crop of Dikom labourers. In the end, we decided to use the soil from on an area of higher ground just to the side of the end of the existing runway.
I arranged to temporally employ just over 600 workers from the labour lines at Dikom, Chabua and Nahortoli estates. To supervise my labour force, I re-employed a retired Jemadar (junior military officer) supervisor from Nahortoli Tea Estate as my 'right hand man'. He appointed some half dozen Sirdars (bosses), who spent several days recruiting unemployed men and women in the local labour lines. We formed six gangs of workers; each gang was about 100 labourers. They were told they would have to work (and be paid) in pairs.
The Jemadar and I arranged a starting date with the Engineer, and the word was sent to the lines.
It was one of those tasks that seemed in theory to be simple; but putting the theory into practice required much effort.
The area from which the soil to make the runway extension was to be taken was slightly larger than a football pitch. The whole area was marked with chalk dust into 12 feet x 12 feet squares, which, using the draughtboard system, were denoted as ‘black' or ‘white'. On day 1, the labour force would dig out the black squares, day 2 the white squares, day 3 the black squares, and so on.
For a day's pay, two labourers would dig a square 2 feet deep, and carry the soil to a point indicated on the runway extension. Those labourers digging squares furthest from the new bank would took considerably longer to complete their task than those whose square was near to the new bank. To compensate for this difference, the whole labour force was rotated round the site on a day-by-day basis.
Somehow, it all miraculously worked!
Each morning, my newly recruited labour force could be seen heading from all directions for the Chabua strip, carrying their baskets and digging tools. Some of the digging pairs were man and wife, some were two women, and some two men; they all had the same task and pay. They were paid cash each day.
As the days of March passed, the new bank slowly extended across the paddy fields, and the hole from where the soil was being dug grew deeper and deeper. By then end of March, the hole had to be accessed via several earth ramps and steps cut up the sides of the excavation.
When I approached the site, I could not help sometimes mentally comparing the project to some Hollywood biblical film set.
Eventually, the Garrison Engineer announced that we had shifted enough soil, and that the new runway extension would be sufficient for the IAF's needs.
My ‘private army' was stood down and paid a cash bonus.
In the middle of the subsequent rains, I learned from John that the Dikom Pukri (pond), as the hole had become known, filled up to the brim with water. A luckless trainee pilot had finished up veering off the runway into it with disastrous results. His plane had completely disappeared under nearly 30 feet of water, and the pilot had been very lucky to escape with his life.
Cheating in laying stones on the runway extension
After the new piece of runway had been laid, it was necessary to top the surface with broken stone to form a firm foundation for the tarmac surface. This stone was brought as large boulders from the banks of the Brahmaputra, some 15 miles distant from the airbase. The stone had been brought by country boat down from the higher boulder reaches of the Siang River, and was unloaded onto ageing ex-American Army 6 x 6 GMC lorries, which brought the stone to the site.
The whole complex operation involved a chain of contractors. The first contractor collected the boulders from the banks of the upper Siang, when the river dropped after the monsoon. Next, there were contractors who ran flotillas of country boats that brought the stone about 30 miles down the river to the point of the Brahmaputra closest to Chabua. The next link was a contractor who ran a fleet of lorries to bring the stone to the new runway. Finally, there was a contractor who employed hundreds of casual labourers to break the stone.
Many of the labourers used to break the stones were the same ones who had originally built the new bank. They would sit by a pile of boulders, breaking them with a homemade hammer. Big boulders about the size of rugby balls were first broken by men, who passed the smaller pieces to women, who hammered them down into aggregate of about 2 inches.
One early morning I noticed a smartly dressed Bihari in European clothes, who presented himself to my Manager, David Gibb. The visitor spent half an hour in David's office before departing in a chauffeur driven brand new Ambassador saloon.
David came into my office. "We've just had an unexpected windfall," he said. "The contractor delivering the stone to the new Chabua airfield extension is having trouble with the railway authorities to get permission to take the stone-hauling trucks over the railway level crossing." David continued, "He wants to use the track across the rice fields from Wilton. Not only is he able to make this road up so that it would take the trucks but he has agreed to donate a thousand Rupees to the Dikom labour social club."
"In addition, he gave me a bottle of Scotch," said David with a rare smile.
It sounded an excellent arrangement, and I gave the matter little further thought, other than to have some suspicion of contractors voluntarily making donations.
About a week later, one of the Sirdars whom I had employed to run a gang during the building of the runway came into my office. He had been hardworking and reliable, and was someone in whom I had total trust.
He explained that he was now in charge of a gang of labourers breaking stone, but they had had to be laid off because there was no stone to break. I was surprised because I had seen numerous lorries loaded with stone passing through the tea garden on a daily basis. The Sirdar asked me to look into the matter and make my own enquiries. Despite my further questions, he was no more forthcoming, and left my office.
Next time I visited the sections of tea nearest the airfield, I carried my bicycle over the intervening rice fields to the new runway to see what was going on. On the new extension, there were a few women breaking stone. As I walked up, they greeted me, and complained that they did not have enough work. Since they were paid on a piecework basis, they were not earning enough.
As I stood there chatting with them, a GMC lorry loaded with boulders approached from the far end of the runway.
One of the women said urgently, "Sahib, boyt ow! Dekayee!" (Come and sit down near me and watch.)
I sat among them on a pile of stones.
The lorry, heavily loaded with boulders, was approaching amid a huge cloud of dust from the far end of the airfield nearest Highway 37, and headed towards the new extension. But, it did not stop. Instead, it continued past and down the newly made road to Wilton, the road that David had given permission to be used.
I cycled on to the Garrison Engineer's office, which was situated by the main gate. When I arrived, the Garrison Engineer was engaged, and so I sat in the shade of a golden mohur tree outside his tented office. After a short while, a loaded GMC arrived at the main gate. The driver collected a brass talla (counting disc) from the gatekeeper, and drove off down towards the runway extension. Only after it had passed did it strike me it was the same lorry that had driven by when I had been sitting with the women at the stone breaking site.
Eventually I got in to see the Garrison Engineer. He was very pleased with the progress being made with the runway, and most grateful for the work I had supervised. Everything, he said, was going according to schedule.
When I suggested to him that his stone delivery service included a lorry which was simply driving round in circles whilst logging up deliveries, he did not believe me. I was in the middle of explaining how the contractor had arranged a temporary right of way through Wilton when, through the tent window, I saw the same lorry re-appear once more at the main gate.
The Engineer and I jumped into his jeep and followed the lorry down the runway. It did not stop and disappeared into the rice fields near the Sessa River.
The lorry driver had an unexpected reception committee waiting when he next arrived at the main gate!
The last I saw of him was a dejected figure with a black eye being led away in handcuffs.
Fishing with John Q'quino
It turned out that John was a keen angler. One day, I offered to take him to the Dirok River. Here we had a wonderful day catching several chocolate mahseer, which John had never seen before as they are peculiar to Assam. He noted the height of the pristine jungle in the Dirok Reserve Forest, and said to me with some feeling that he hoped he would never be forced down in such countryside.
Driving back to Dikom, John thanked me for a great day and asked whether he could return the favour by taking me to a venue of my choice up the Lohit. He would arrange an Inner Line Pass for me. We fixed a Sunday when I would report to the airfield guardhouse at half past eight, where he would meet me.
On that Sunday, as I drove up to the tented guardhouse, John was talking to what appeared to be the pilot or crew of a Sikorsky 36 helicopter parked some 100 yards from the guardhouse. The plan was that we would be flown up to wherever we wished, so long as it was en route for Walong, where the helicopter was on duty shifting stores and supplies. Having completed its duty, online casino the helicopter would pick us up and fly back to the Chabua base.
I had never flown in a helicopter. This Sikorsky, which looked a reasonable size while flying, looked massive close-up on the ground. We scrambled up steps into the cavern-like hold, where an airman gave us each ear protectors and a sick bag, indicating that hand signals were the order of the day. The helicopter had only two windows into the hold and it was almost dark.
We noisily took off.
We had arranged to go to the upper mukh (mouth) on the Sibia. We landed amid a cloud of sand. Once we had unloaded the fishing kit and lunch, the helicopter made off to Walong. It was only just after 9 o'clock, and had taken us but 20 minutes to fly from Chabua. Normally to be up the river by 9 o'clock, I would have left my bungalow before 6 o'clock.
We walked carefully up to the junction, where the water coming down the Sibia was gin clear. Conditions were ideal, and it was not long before we had both caught a fish. As I helped John unhook a fish of about 7 lbs., the distant drone of a speedboat came from the main Lohit, and it soon became clear that it was headed to where we were.
Eventually a boat hove into view, and seeing us at the junction, moored up about 200 yards downstream from us. In the stillness of the morning, we could catch snatches of conversation, and it soon became clear that it was Vic Swales and Peter James. From snatches of conversation it became clear that they thought we were camping further up the river.
About mid-day, we took a break for lunch. Peter and Vic came over to where John and I were sitting on the warm sand. I introduced Peter and Vic to John, and we talked mainly about the morning's fishing. Peter and Vic had caught several barsa.
Vic asked whether we were staying overnight, to which John replied that much as he would like to have camped, duty at Chabua called. Peter and Vic were puzzled - how could he return to Chabua in time?
However, precisely at 1500 hours, as arranged, the unmistakable sound of a helicopter approached from the upper Lohit and put down 50 yards from us.
Peter and Vic waved, no doubt wishing they could have been transported over the sandbars of the Sibia Mukh.
© Roy Church 2012
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