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In defense of their new home: Indian Americans who fought for the United States in WWI

By Tanveer Kalo
Former World War One Centennial Commission intern, via American Bazaar Magazine

Bhagat Singh Thind in US ArmyBhagat Singh Thind in US ArmyVery few know that Indian Americans — or Asian Indians, as they have been officially called for decades — served in the United States military during World War I. Perhaps some Indian American history buffs might have read the story of the legendary Bhagat Singh Thind, whose legal battle to obtain citizenship for Indians is well documented.

Thind, who came to the United States for higher education in 1913 from the then-undivided Indian province of Punjab, was recruited by the US Army five years later. He obtained the US citizenship twice, but each time it was rescinded by the Immigration and Naturalization Service because he was not a “free white man.” Thind did eventually become a US citizen after an 18-year legal battle.

During a recent internship at the US World War One Centennial Commission in Washington, DC, I unearthed the stories of eight other Indian Americans who fought for the United States in World War 1, a truly a global war that had a diverse group of participants. Those eight soldiers are:

  • Private Raghunath N. Banawalkar, who was born in Bombay, and arrived in the United States when he was 20;
  • Ladli Prasada (L.P.) Varman, who was born in Saharanpur, which is now in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and came to the Washington state in 1913, at age of 23;
  • Kekee H. Patell, who was born in Bombay, and immigrated to the United States before 1918;
  • Ramchandra Dhondurao (R. D.) Shelke, who was born in Kolhapur (now in Maharashtra) and came to New York in 1914 to pursue higher education;
  • Amulla M. Mukerji, who immigrated to the United States in 1915;
  • Karm Chandra (K. C.) Kerwell, who was born in Lahore and came to the United States to study medicine.
  • Devi Singh, who was born in Kharodi, near Bombay and immigrated to the United States before 1917; and
  • Manganlall K. Pandit, who was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and came to the United States prior to 1917.

All the nine men came to the United States prior to the American entry to the war. They came from all walks of life and for different reasons. Some came for education, while others came for work. When the United States entered the war, some enlisted and others were drafted.

My interest in the Indian American soldiers was piqued during the internship at the Centennial Commission. Until then I knew only one Indian American who enlisted to serve in the US military: Thind.

At the Centennial Commission, I had a conversation with my supervisor Chris Christopher. When I told him that I knew of an Indian that served in the U.S. Army during World War I, Mr. Christopher encouraged me to find out more about him.

As I examined primary resources on Thind, I discovered that other Indians had also served in the war. In my research, I came across the digitized copies of the newspaper and journal Young India from the South Asian American Digital Archives (SAADA).

The August and October 1918 issues of Young India had a list of names and photographs of Indians that were deployed to Europe, or to basic training camps. I used the information from Young India to find any primary documents on these soldiers on ancestry.com. For, example, I found information in their military service abstracts, the U.S. Army passenger lists, federal censuses, and more. After four months, I compiled a significant database of pertinent information.

MK PanditManganlall K. PanditKerwellI started this research because I felt it was my duty to bring to light the stories of these men, who valiantly served their adopted home in one of most destructive conflicts the world has ever seen.

I am still in the process of collecting and compiling information concerning soldiers that served the US military. So far, I have detailed the service of 9 soldiers and I know there are more to be documented. The information of their service and lives is somewhat scarce with a few exceptions.

The focus on my research was to identify the dates they arrived in the United States through to their last known event. The primary focus was detailing and collecting information on their service during World War I. I used the website ancestry.com to find primary documents relative to the soldiers.

The support and encouragement I received from the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission (www.ww1cc.org) was invaluable. My supervisor Mr. Christopher assisted me throughout my stint there. He and others taught me the skills necessary to search using available tools and resources, as well as how to analyze the documents.

Knowing that there were people supporting me that wanted to me succeed — and who believed that this project was worth pursing due to its historical significance — made this work rewarding.

My personal favorite story is that of Manganlall K. Pandit, who served the US military in both World Wars. In First World I, he was with Company E of the 314th Engineers in the 89th Division, with whom he went to England, Belgium, France and Germany. In World War II, he was with the 23rd Transportation Squadron in the Army Air Forces.

Men like Thind and Pandit are brave Indian Americans that were pioneers in serving our country. There exact number of how many Indians served in the US military in World War I is not known. It is possible that many more served. I would invite the members of the Indian American community to reach out to me (tanveer.kalo@worldwar1centennial.org) if they have any family members, or know of any members of their family or others who are of Indian descent and served in the First World War. I would to love hear about any information and receive photographs depicting the soldiers. I would welcome an opportunity to speak to any family members of the soldiers.

The service of the Indian American community during World War I is an important aspect of our history because it reinforces that we served with other Americans for the defense of our home.

Tanveer Kalo is a senior at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, majoring in government. Article reprinted with permission from American Bazaar Magazine.

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