Thursday, July 16, 2009

An American and A Pakistani

An American and A Pakistani


By Adnan Gill


Way back when; circumstances crossed paths of an American and a Pakistani. While the American didn’t think much of it; the Pakistani couldn’t forget the chance encounter. The Pakistani would spend next four decades looking for the American. Finally, his perseverance paid off. With the help of an American General, the Pakistani tracked down the American in California; the very same American who saved his life 38 years ago.


Believe it or not, there was a time when Americans and Pakistanis were actually allies in letter and spirit. It was the time when Gitmo and suicide-bombers were not part of lexicon. It was the time when Cold War was at its height. The stage was Calcutta and the year was 1971. That’s when a young US Marine Sergeant saved the life of a young Pakistan Army Captain on the run for his life. He just escaped from an undeclared Indian Prisoner of War (PW)/concentration camp. It turns out, the Capt. was the first ever Prisoner of War (POW) to have escaped from the Indian PW camp at Panagarh, about 100 km west of Calcutta. It turns out that he was the first ever PoW to have escaped from Indian PW camp. If it wasn’t because of the Marine, the hunted Pakistani would have been shot at sight.


Back in 1969, an acquaintance invited the Captain to stop by when he would be in Calcutta. Somehow, the young man never forgot the address. Upon escape, he knew he would be saved only if he could reach her home; only to discover the address to be of a tailor shop.


There was no time to dwell over the artifice. Deeply disappointed but not incorrigible, the young man immediately sprung to his backup plan. In a sea of Indians, he navigates his way to the American Consulate General. The consulate was only stone throw away. But it’s as if the lady luck was bent on making an ugly example out of the escapee. Anything that could have gone wrong, did. The hunted man had to quietly pass by the Consulate, because all the access points to it were blocked by the police.


The young Captain hadn’t escaped the concentration camp to give-up. In a secluded corner of a park he contemplates his next move. Dusk was approaching fast; which meant, curfew time. Something had to be done fast. Somehow, the Pakistani manages to call the American consulate. A young American Marine Sgt. answers the phone. Tells the Pakistani to stay put, as he makes his way to rescue him.


With no time to spare, the duo decided to run the gauntlet armed with confidence only. By now, the lady luck had enough too. Alas, she breaks a smile. Both men walk through the police checkpoints as if another ordinary local. The gamble paid off; both entered the Consulate safely. Even though, it looked like the worst was over, the Pakistani isn’t out of woods yet. He still had some way to go before he reached safety in Pakistan. To cut a long story short, loaded with courage and ingenuity, and with the help of Americans, the Pakistani beats all odds stacked against him.


The escapee couldn’t wait to debrief the mountain of information he brought with him. He thought the information on enemy’s strength and tactics would be a gold mine for the Pakistani intelligence. Regrettably, that’s all it was, a thought.


Since his father was a Punjabi and mother Bengali, the young Captain received a welcome party, Pakistani style. There were no parades and no pictures in the newspapers of the first ever escapee from Indian concentration camp. Instead, he was greeted with deep suspicion and charge-sheeted for ‘overstaying leave’! A far cry from the risks Americans in general and Marine Sergeant in specific took to save the life of an ally. Though later on in December 1971, his commanding officer field-promoted the Pakistani Captain for his valor to the rank of Major and re-named Delta Company 44 Punjab (now 4 Sindh) to “Sehgal Company”.


No, it's not fiction. As thrilling it may sound, the story is true. The name of the young Pakistan Army Captain is Ikram Sehgal, and the name of the American Marine Sergeant is Frank Adair.


An accomplished helicopter pilot and a war veteran, Maj. Sehgal went on to become a Publisher of the Defence Journal, and a successful businessman whose business empire would employ 17,500 Pakistanis in 132 cities/towns.


For his part, after serving his country with honors, Sgt. Frank Adair joined the Los Angeles Police Department. Later he retired from the LAPD as a detective.


Ikram would spend next 38 years looking for Frank. Yet one more time, the Marines would help out the Pakistani. Courtesy of good offices of Lt Gen John Allen (Deputy Commander US Central Command), Ikram would get the contact information of Frank.


This is where I come in the story. Mr. Sehgal, barely able to contain his excitement, asked me (a Los Angelonion) if I could talk to Mr. Adair for him? How could have I passed an opportunity to meet a person whom my mentor owes a lot of gratitude?


After few phone calls and emails later Frank and I met at a restaurant for lunch. When I asked if he got in trouble for helping Ikram; Frank responded, how could I have not helped a fellow soldier? Time flew as Frank shared his experiences. There was too much to share in a single meeting. We parted with a promise to meet again soon.


I believe, out of Ikram, Frank and I, I am the lucky one who enjoys the trust of heroes in their own right. And best of all, I walked away with a true story of luck, valor, courage and Marine memorabilia. Special thanks to the American and the Pakistani; Sgt. Adair and Capt. Sehgal.


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