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Honouring the Men of the Punjab !

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Let us also honour the Men of the Punjab

A proud body of fighting men earned the respect and esteem of their wartime Allied comrades

Janet Robertson

Special to the Sun

Friday, November 11, 2005

They walk along the road slowly, some of them with joints ravaged by age. They have difficulty walking, often due to strokes. Their hands are stiff from arthritis.

Many of them also bear the scars and still painful injuries inflicted on them in various wars; wounds caused by exploding mortar and grenades, by bullets and by bayonets from hand-to-hand fighting. Many of them still carry the shrapnel that pierced their bodies.

They sit in parks and community centres around Surrey laughing and telling jokes, playing cards and enjoying a sunny day and each other's company. They talk about such mundane things as rising prices and their pensions.

And as with any gathering of ex-servicemen, they swap stories about their time in uniform. They have white hair and beards, and they wear turbans.

These are the Men of the Punjab, and the heroes within our midst.

Come with me on a cultural journey where the clock hands go in reverse to stop at 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years ago.

I could go back much further in the history of the Men of the Punjab, but will stop at 60 to honour them in this The Year of the Veteran, and because this year services have been held to celebrate VJ-Day -- 60th Anniversary. Had it not been for the Men of the Punjab, the war against the maniacal military forces of Japan would have gone on for much longer, and at the cost of many more Allied lives.

The young man of the Punjab stands at attention: He is wearing the colours of the service he represents.

His appearance is immaculate. He stands, head erect, shoulders back, chest thrust out in pride, creases down his trousers that are so sharp they could cut through butter; boots so "bulled" that you can see your face reflected in their gleaming shine.

On his head is not a beret, nor even a forage cap, but a tightly wound turban, worn in the colour of his Service or Regiment, and front and centre on that turban and worn with equal pride, is his regimental badge. The belief in his faith, his country and his regiment is written across his face, dark eyes sparkling with pride

How do I know this? How did I discover the Men of the Punjab?

Because during the research I was conducting into a completely different wartime story, the Men of the Punjab where everywhere.

I could not turn a page in a book, nor a war diary without finding them ever-present. The Men of the Punjab have generously shared their family photo albums with me. I have seen their service photographs and I have heard their stories.

Even from day one of my research they were there, the Men of the Punjab, fighting with valour and ferocity in Hong Kong in 1941. The 5th Battalion/7th Regiment Rajputs and the 2nd Battalion/14th Regiment Punjabis were also to be found in large numbers in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps and in the Hong Kong Police Force during some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War.

At the time I was not unduly surprised to find their presence in the Far East, due to the close proximity, to what was then, the Indian Empire. Nor was I greatly surprised to learn that the Punjabi regiments based in the Far East fought with great valour alongside their Allied comrades from Canada, Britain and Australia.

What I didn't realize was the extent of that respect and esteem.

I have often heard British veterans say that a cheer would go through the ranks when they heard the "Punjabi pipes" and saw a regiment of turbaned men marching towards them, and it was commonly voiced, "Thank God, the Indians have arrived" or "Thank God the Punjabis are covering our flank"

They were even to be found in the trenches of the First World War, fighting in the mud and through the choking yellow clouds of deadly mustard gas in Flanders.

Their stories are of epic proportions; their battle honours are legendary.

Another fact that absolutely staggered me was that although the people of the Punjab account for only five per cent of India's mainly Hindu population, they comprise 90 per cent of the total personnel in India's armed forces -- navy, army and air force.

By their sacrifices, they have given me the freedoms that I enjoy today, and for that, I honour and respect the Men of the Punjab in this, The Year of the Veteran.

Along with all the Allied servicemen from many countries, who fought tyranny and fascism, I owe the Men of the Punjab a debt of honour I doubt I can ever repay.

Janet Robertson is a retired nurse from Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps and a member of the Ex-Servicemen Society of British Columbia.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

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