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A Shoutout To A WWII Hero





On August 22, 2015, we celebrated my father-in-law’s 95th birthday.

Capt. Inder Singh Grewal, or Papa ji as he is known, is a decorated WWII veteran. On his birthday, he was joined by four generations of his family and a platoon of friends.  

The oldest member of our family now, Papa ji is 95.  The youngest, little Armaan Singh, a great grandson, had just turned one. A 94-year difference! 

A series of significant mementos were on show to celebrate and acknowledge Papa ji’s accomplishments. The display contained Papa ji’s war medals, a note from King George VI, a copy of the London Gazette dated August 20, 1946, a copy of the book, “A Legendary Force, 1st Patiala – 300 years of 15 Punjab (Patiala)”, a certificate and a medal of excellence recently awarded to him “for his spirit and resolve as a soldier”, and congratulatory letters from many dignitaries (including Ontario Premier Wynne, Canada’s Governor-General David Johnston, American President Barack Obama, and former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper).  

The celebration was topped off with an army inspired camouflage-design cake topped with the crest of 15 Punjab, Papa ji’s battalion is the Punjab Regiment.

At 95, Papa ji is the oldest surviving veteran of 15 Punjab, a 300-year-old battalion. That milestone alone is worthy of a shoutout.  But we are now a few days away from Remembrance Day, and this is the perfect time to celebrate Papa ji, and his record of service as a soldier and a WWII veteran.

Papa ji  was born in Village Jhande, Ludhiana, Punjab, on August 15, 1920. He was the eldest of five children, all boys, born to Sardar Joginder Singh and Sardarni Dhan Kaur. He completed Grade 10 in the local village school and married Sardarn Agya Kaur, coincidentally on the day that the Grade 10 results were announced. (Fortunately, he passed!) 

Soon thereafter, in 1938, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the army as a sipahi (sepoy). Upon enlistment, he was inducted into First Patiala, a regiment that was initially part of the state forces of the Sikh Maharaja of Patiala. The battalion, later part of the Punjab Regiment, was raised in 1705 by Baba Alla Singh, the founder of the Sikh Kingdom of Patiala.

In 1900, First Patiala was consolidated with the British Imperial Forces. After independence in 1945, First Patiala was integrated into the army of a newly created India and re-designated 15 Punjab.

Apart from being the oldest infantry battalion on the continent, 15 Punjab has two other distinctions: it is the second highest decorated battalion of the Army, and it is a purely Sikh battalion (it consists of only Sikh soldiers).

The battalion’s salutation and battle-cry, appropriately enough, is “Khalsa ji ki Fateh” - “Victory to The Khalsa!

In the words of Dr. Zakir Hussain, then President of India: “... the history of the Punjab Regiment is the history of the Indian Army”. 

Papa ji enlisted in 1938 as a non-commissioned officer. He rose through the ranks, was hand-picked to become a Junior Commissioned Officer, and then promoted, after retirement in 1967, first to Honorary Lieutenant in August 1967 and then to Honorary Captain in January 1968.

Papa ji saw action during 1939-1945 in South East Asia, in Burma and in Indonesia. He fought the Japanese in the Battle of Burma and was at the scene when Japan surrendered to the Allies, 70 years ago, on August 15, 1945, the day now known as ‘Victory Over Japan Day‘.

After Independence and the creation of India and Pakistan in 1947, he fought with distinction in Jammu and Kashmir.  His battalion’s finest hour was at the high-altitude battle of Zojila. 

Zojila, a mountainous pass in the Himalayas, 3500 m above sea level, was seized by Pakistani raiders in their campaign to capture Ladakh, a town in the part of Jammu and Kashmir occupied by India. 

Papa ji and his battalion, in a daring assault and through the use of tanks, beat back the Pakistanis and reclaimed the pass. At that time, in 1947, this was the highest altitude in the world at which tanks had operated in combat. 

In 1962, during the Indo-Chinese War, the unit was airlifted to Sikkim in eastern India where Papa ji and his colleagues established defensive positions in the mountainous regions, 4,600 metres above sea level. 

Finally, in 1965, he took part in the war between India and Pakistan.
For his service as a soldier, Papa ji was awarded, among other honors, the British War Medal, the Burma Star, the 1939-45 Star, the Indian Independence Medal, the Indian Service medal, and the General Service Medal for South East Asia.

In addition, for "gallant and distinguished services in the Far East", Jemadar Inder Singh as he was then in 1945, received a “Mention in Despatches" from King George VI. This mention, for an act of a high degree of heroism, is acknowledged by an Oak Leaf on the British War Medal of 1939-45. 

In the 300-year history of 15 Punjab, covering WWI, WWII, and many other wars, only 153 people, have received a Mention in Despatches. 

The King’s appreciation was also expressed in The London Gazette dated August 22, 1946, exactly 70 years to the day before we celebrated his 95th. He received this mention for volunteering to clear a path through enemy-held grounds. He had embarked on a solo mission and eliminated enemy-held positions through the use of grenades and machine gun fire. 

In 1967, he was awarded the Raksha Medal for his service in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan. 

While researching Papa ji’s wartime efforts, we had realized that though he
had earned the Raksha Medal, and had the ribbon, he had never actually received the medal itself. So, while preparing for Papa ji’s birthday party, we mused that the missing medal would make an appropriate present for a 95th birthday celebration. 

Thus, we set out to solve the riddle of the missing-in-action medal. The quest for that medal took us far and wide.

Kirpa Kaur, Papa ji’s youngest granddaughter, contacted the Defence Attache in the Indian Consulate in Toronto. The Consul General, Mr. Akhilesh Mishra, was delighted to hear that there was a WWII veteran in the midst. He came to pay his respects and then launched a search for the missing medal. 

Contact was also established with Papa ji’s old battalion, 15 Punjab, in Ferozepur, Punjab. The current Commanding Officer, Col. B.P.S. Thakur, after checking Papa ji’s credentials, was honored to welcome Papa ji “home”.  Col Thakur was the one who told us that Papa ji is the oldest surviving veteran of the 300-year old 15 Punjab battalion. He was also happy to file the paperwork for the missing medal. That process, he told us, will take a while. 

So, for the birthday celebration, Col Thakur sent video greetings from Ferozepur.  And in the absence of the Raksha Medal, the 15 Punjab battalion awarded Papa ji the Commanding Officer’s Medal of Excellence for being “an eternal source of motivation for the Battalion”.

Papa ji’s love of his family and his record of service as a soldier are his badges of pride.

When he first enlisted, his mother wrote out the Second Ashtpadi of Sukhmani Sahib -- the verses from Sikh Scripture known as “The Psalm of Peace”: “jah maat pitaa sut meet na bhaa-ee …” and told him to always keep a copy of the verse in his pocket and find solace and strength from its message.

To that he credits the fact that he returned from the war intact.

Bfore he went off to war, Papa ji had the letters “I.A.” tattooed on his forearm.  “When anyone asked me about the tattoo”, he said, “I told them the initials stood for ‘Indian Army’. In fact, though, ‘I’ stood for ‘Inder Singh’, and ‘A’ stood for ‘Agya Kaur’.”

Agya Kaur was his wife, my mother-in-law.

Papa ji’s medals and ribbons are framed and have long held a place of pride in our house. 

As we approach Remembrance Day, we salute the strength and character of this extraordinary and frail man. He has lived his life based on the universal principles and the Sikh pillars of Prayer, Labour and Charity.

He still rises at 3:30 am every day. His eyesight and hearing are failing, but all day he does nothing but recite gurbani, tune in to kirtan, and read his Punjabi newspapers.

He never forgets a birthday, and he keeps track of who has an exam, and when, so that he can offer a special ardaas on the appropriate day. He uses his fauji (military) pension to support a number of women and children in his ancestral village.

For many years, he lived with and helped raise his younger daughter’s children.  Those children, Paul Singh and Preet Kaur, speak so eloquently, through tears, of the impact of his presence. 

“He will always be the one I measure every one against,” says Preet.

Kind, dignified and fearless, a sant-sipahi (saint-soldier) in every sense of the word, he’s full of sunny ways. (I finally have a way of translating “chardi kalaa”: sunny ways!)

Today we live a tranquil life in a peaceful country, one in which the diversity of our cultures, backgrounds and experiences is embraced and valued. So much so that our nation’s defence is now entrusted to a soldier who happens to be a  Sikh.

This tranquility is a harvest of the valour and the sacrifices from the past of countless men and women -- such as Papa ji and our Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan, who fought on battlefields all over the world to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

Such gallantry must always command respect and recognition.   

To Papa ji and all veterans, the world owes a perpetual debt of gratitude. On November 11, let’s commemorate Remembrance Day and pay tribute to the generations of men and women who gave their all for our future.

*   *   *   *   *

[Capt. Inder Singh lives in Brampton, Ontario, Canada with his son, Dr. Mahesh Inder Singh, daughter-in-law Ishnan Kaur, and three granddaughters, Deep Kaur, Mehtab Kaur and Kirpa Kaur.]

November 7, 2015

Conversation about this article

1: Pardeep Singh Nagra (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 07, 2015, 3:11 PM.

Great story of sacrifice to Faith, Family and Country. Thank you Capt. Inder Singh ji. Equally important is the family's journey to learn and share the story. Thank you, Ishnan, as well.

2: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia ), November 07, 2015, 7:07 PM.

This was the miracle of Guru Gobind Singh that each dusty closet holds a legion. In reverence, “Bisam bha-ee mai bahu bidh suntay kahhu suhaagan sahio” [GGS:700.9] - “I am wonder-struck hearing the many reports of Him. Tell me, O happy sister – O soul bride”. What a happy intense account of your respected Papa ki. Each day we find a ‘sava lakh’ legionnaire who makes us so proud. This is well timed; it coincides with the four Sikhs in the Canadian Cabinet - another proud record for the Sikhs that includes the saga of this distinguished soldier.

3: Sandeep Singh Brar (Canada), November 08, 2015, 12:18 AM.

The Sikh Remembrance Day Ceremony which takes place every year at the military grave of Canadian WWI hero Pvt. Buckam Singh honours the service of our veterans like Captain Inder Singh. It's wonderful to see Sikh veterans and their families at the ceremony every year as we celebrate our military tradition. Our oldest veteran at the ceremony so far has been 102 year old Captain Daulat Singh Deol.

4: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), November 08, 2015, 8:08 PM.

My sincere salutations to Sikh-Canadians. May Sikhs from other parts of the world learn from the Miri-Piri successes of Sikh-Canadians, especially the rogue Sikh politicians and SGPC 'leaders' and corrupt jathedars of India.

5: Kanwarjeet Singh (USA), November 10, 2015, 11:08 PM.

Whooooahhh ... for a second I thought you posted my father's picture. He was in the Navy. What a striking resemblance! So proud to read about Capt. Inder Singh ji.

6: Sukhwinder Kaur (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), November 11, 2015, 6:46 AM.

Salute to captain Inder Singh ji. Papa ji, I'm blessed to know you and have you in our lives. Thank you for all you've given to the world and for our freedom. The kids send their love to you, Papa ji.

7: Banno Kaur Bajaj (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), November 19, 2015, 9:58 PM.

What a great article, Ishnan Kaur. How many different hats you wear! Your role in this celebration not only as a daughter-in-law who made several trips and innumerable phone calls to see that her father-in-law gets his due, but also as a witness and chronicler who wanted his story to remain alive forever, is not lost on us. Congratulations to Kirpa Kaur who advocated for her grandfather with the same energy and enthusiasm as her mother. As wonderful and astute as he is, Papa ji is blessed to be surrounded by family who care so much. With such strong women behind him (Agya, Ishnan And Kirpa) how can a man be forgotten!

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