Karachi as the GI’s saw it

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on Karachi’s experience as a major Allied logistics hub during the Second World War

Karachi as the GI’s saw it
The US Military Assistance Program for Pakistan that was signed in 1954 was spearheaded by the Trans East District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. A major general with a staff of 18 was based in Karachi and one of the first projects that they undertook was the expansion of the airbase at Mauripur to receive the F-86 Sabres.

However, this was not the first time that the American military had set foot in Karachi. They were there during the Second World War in far greater numbers and to implement projects and programs at a far greater scale.

American troops playing at the Baseball Field at Malir, circa 1944-45

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Sino-Japanese War which had commenced in 1937 merged with the conflict in Burma and the two developed into a major theatre of operations that the US termed the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre. To deliver large quantities of supplies to the British India Army in Assam and the Chinese Nationalist Forces in Western China, from early 1942 onwards, the US developed India into a huge base for air operations and logistics. The ports available in India were limited. The presence of the Axis enemy within striking distance of Calcutta precluded its use as well as other ports on India’s eastern seaboard. On the west, Bombay was heavily congested with British traffic and only Karachi was available.

And so, Karachi became an important link in a 3,000-km supply chain stretching till Assam and another 1,600 km to Kunming in China. Its surroundings were also developed into a major base for training air crews and a staging post for Allied air force personnel.
Karachi became an important link in a 3,000-km supply chain stretching till Assam and another 1,600 km to Kunming in China

The tremendous task of organizing the long Lines of Communication was given to Brigadier General Wheeler, who was heading the mission in Iran. He was placed in command of the Services of Supply (SOS) of the CBI Theatre which initially established its headquarters in Karachi in March 1942. Using the staff from his mission and some early arrivals of US personnel, he set up a provisional port detachment which got the port and other operations underway. Their first job was to move 20,000 tons of military cargo for China that was diverted from Singapore and Rangoon. In May, the SOS headquarters shifted to New Delhi and its organization was divided geographically with Base Section No 1 in Karachi responsible for Western India and Base Section No 2 in Calcutta looking after the entire eastern operations extending into China. That same month, the port detachment was replaced by two companies of a Port Battalion. The hall of the Karachi Goan Association near Empress Market was requisitioned for the Headquarters of the No 1 Base Section. Within this hall, the American Red Cross established clubs for officers and enlisted men with a menu that offered a decent meal – starting with soup and ending with dessert and coffee for Rs. 25. Hotels and hostels were remodelled to provide billets for the staff of the headquarters, the port battalion and service personnel transiting through the city.

The port at Karachi had 22 ship berths and large ships could be moored in the 20-metre-deep water channel and unloaded with the aid of floating cranes. Since there was no shipside or transit sheds at the early stages, the cargo was directly loaded onto to railway bogies or truck by coolies. However, very rapidly, American engineers developed the jetties, wharves and warehouses to handle large consignments and during 1942, the port discharged and shipped 130,300 tons of cargo; in addition to disembarking 13,800 servicemen.

P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft being towed through Karachi's streets to Drigh Road Air Base, after being unloaded at the harbour

The arrival of the first contingent coincided with the heightening of tensions in Karachi where anti-colonial nationalists were urging the population to rise up against British rule and unfriendly posters displaying slogans like “Americans Quit India” were visible. Therefore the contingent of 2,000 American engineers were issued ammunition, loaded on trucks and sped through Karachi to the Malir Cantonment. However Karachi remained peaceful and in their spare time the Americans took to exploring the city – but everything north of Bundar Road was out of bounds. Joint patrols by British, American and Indian Military Police roamed the bars and nightclubs to ensure that peace prevailed. The Americans also went sightseeing outside the city to the shrine at Mangho Pir to see the alligators and to the historic graveyard at Thatta. It was at Karachi that the Americans arriving from the US, after a sea voyage of 60 days, got their first look at the “enchanting Far East”. A Guide to Karachi informed them: “Karachi has the credit of being considered the Paris of the East as it is the cleanest city in the whole of India”. Apart from providing information on sites to visit, the guide book listed four English cinemas, five hotels, seven cafes and six book stalls. According to the booklet, the exchange rate for a dollar was under Rs.3-and-a-half.

Stone marker erected in Malir on which were inscribed the distances to various cities - New York at 9,782 miles and San Francisco at 11,875 miles

Apart from the port, the Americans also took over the operations of the Karachi Airport. It was already well established as a centre of communication for the Indian Subcontinent. A guide book on India informed US service personnel:

In recent years Karachi has become the main gate of India for the aerial service, and before the war there were regular mail and passenger services between London and the city. It was the converging point of five air-lines serving directly 20 countries of the world. Through the air-base of this city passed all traffic between the two hemispheres. The airport has given a great impetus towards the expansion of the city of Karachi”.
Malir – bare, dusty and often windswept – was not a pleasant base. Summers were hot and water was rationed. The barracks were surrounded by large thorny acacia bushes and it was difficult to determine where the limits of the garrison ended and the desert began

During the war, Karachi Airport became a major transhipment base for units of the United States Army Air Force and equipment being used by Tenth Air Force in eastern India, Burma and the Fourteenth Air Force in China. Several operational bomber and fighter units flew into Karachi for short organisational periods prior to their deployment. Air Technical Service Command had extensive facilities where aircraft were received, assembled and tested prior to being flown to their combat units at forward airfields. It also functioned as a major maintenance and supply depot for both air forces. To handle the expanded operations, the Americans added parking aprons, large hangers and an operations building. Close by was the maintenance base at Drigh Road managed by the Royal Air Force, where a huge number of aircraft for the Royal Indian Air Force and the Air Force of Nationalist China arrived in crates from the US and UK and were inspected, assembled and tested before being ferried to the warfront in Burma and China.

The largest concentration of American servicemen was at Malir. During the initial stages of the Second World War, Malir was a Transit Camp for troops of the British India Army being shipped to the Middle East and North Africa. However, in 1942 most of it was handed over to the US Army who initiated a massive building program to expand the cantonment to accommodate 20,000 servicemen as well as 38 mess halls, 300 barracks and allied facilities. An airfield along with a Bombing Practice Range was prepared and used by a US Air Force Overseas Training Unit and a Chinese Operational Training Unit. The primary mission of the Overseas Training Unit was the training of all US Air Force units and personnel within the CBI Theatre prior to their operational employment. In September 1942, the 341st Bombardment Group was activated in Malir and was one of the first bomber units in the CBI Theatre to be equipped with B-25 Mitchell medium bombers. These medium bombers had been shipped in crates from the United States and assembled at the Karachi Airbase. The Chinese Operational Training Unit trained pilots of the air force of Nationalist China. In 1943 it was upgraded to Chinese-American Air Training Wing where pilots were trained on B-25 Mitchell Bombers. Ultimately all these training establishments were merged into a China-Burma-India (CBI) Air Forces Training Command at Malir.

Paradise Cinema in Karachi during the 1940s, playing American film 'Ride 'em Cowboy'

Malir – bare, dusty and often windswept – was not a pleasant base. Summers were hot and water was rationed. The barracks were surrounded by large thorny acacia bushes and it was difficult to determine where the limits of the garrison ended and the desert began. The cantonment was divided into four segments and for a newcomer, the layout of the road network was very confusing. To avoid getting disoriented, an American serviceman drew a sketch of the confused layout giving the quadrants and roads American names. In one corner he scribbled “These streets were named and the map delineated in the interest of aching feet, by one who one night walked in many circles. The war is over honey, and my feet are tired”. In an article that was published in The Roundup (the journal of the CBI Theatre), an American servicemen recollects that during his stay in Malir, he was prepared to offer his right arm for a bit of shade during the hot summer months of 1943-45. However when he revisited Karachi in 1960, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the roads were tree-lined and was grateful to a couple of army officers who invited him to a very smart Officers Club that in his days had been the PX Retail Store for the servicemen. Sadly for him, the golf club was no more as the area had been taken up for the aircraft approach to the Karachi runway. Returning to Karachi he dined with great pleasure at his past haunts like the old Café Grand and more recent additions like the ABC Chinese and Mexicano Restaurant.

A welcome distraction for the US servicemen were about 7,000 Polish refugees who were accommodated in Malir in 1943 and later transferred to Valivade near Kolapur in India. They were part of a much larger number approximating 28,000 who were expelled from Eastern Europe, entered Iran and finally reached Karachi where they stayed at two refugee camps between August 1942 and December 1944. Both the camps were supervised and well administered by representatives of the British and Polish governments and the American servicemen helped in organising events like Christmas parties and pantomimes.

By the end of 1943, the Burma campaign started shifting in favour of the Allies. Calcutta was no longer under threat and replaced Karachi as the principal US seaport in India. But this did not mean an end to their interest in the Karachi and the SOS still maintained an area hospital, refrigeration facilities, a rail transportation office and other logistic services. The activities at the port were handled by a small Army staff supervising native labour, but this did not impair operational efficiency. During 1943 on three occasions Karachi stood first among overseas US Army ports in the discharge of monthly cargo. In 1944 the port did an outstanding job by unloading a ship with 5,597 tons of cargo within 48.5 hours. Karachi Airbase also continued to remain the port of entry into India of the US Army Air Transport Command and the training facilities at Malir continued with their assignment.

When the war ended, the port at Karachi was reactivated for embarking personnel of the CBI Theatre under a plan codenamed Operation Magic Carpet. They were initially brought all the way from Burma by train but subsequently through an airlift and billeted at the Replacement Depot in Malir. After processing, they were trucked to ship-side for embarkation and the first transport departed in September 1945 with 3,000 servicemen. Evacuation operations peaked next month when 26,350 troops were loaded on eight transports. Finally, having embarked over 80,000 personnel from Karachi, the Americans closed port operations in January 1946.

A souvenir booklet prepared for the US servicemen departing for home reminded them about the things that they would remember best about India.

“You won’t forget the smells – the animal odour of fresh hides on a bullock-drawn two-wheeled cart, the musky odour of curry wafted into your Jeep as you drive past a food shop on a back street, the cooling salt air blown into the docks as you worked a ship, and the acrid stink of the bad-mannered camel […] And you’ll remember some beautiful Indian women – the tall Sikh girls in their loose white pyjama pants, the doe like Hindus in their warm coloured wrap-around sarees; Moslem beauties decked out in gilt, silver and silk for a religious festival; and perhaps behind the typewriters those slim Anglo-Indian girls, brown-skinned, large-eyed, often fiercely British in speech and custom”.

Aside from the facilities that they constructed, there is little evidence that the Americans were at Karachi for so long in such large number. A stone marker erected in Malir on which were inscribed the distances to cities in India and Europe also showed that New York was 9,782 miles from Malir and San Francisco was 11,875 miles. But it is no longer to be found there.