Subhas Bose: the final journey
(1945 was a tumultuous year in world history. Adolf Hitler committed suicide and Germany surrendered on May 8. Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9). USSR entered the Pacific War on August 10. The same day, Japan offered to surrender and finally capitulated on August 14. On August 16, Subhas Chandra Bose, head of the Indian National Army (INA) flew from Rangoon to Bangkok then to Saigon (Vietnam) on August 17. Next day, his life ended.
Amidst all the rumours, conspiracy theories and three Commissions looked to inquire into his death for over half a century, there is little doubt Bose died on August 18, 1945. On his 73rd death anniversary, we take the readers through Subhas Bose’ final hours in the words of Leonard A. Gordon, from his seminal work: “Brothers against the Raj.” The words in italics are compressed account, without taking the essence of narrative of Subhas’ Bose final journey. The sources of reference are at the end of the piece.)
Bose wanted to reach Manchuria and seek help from the advancing Soviet army. He went saying, “they are the only ones who will resist the British. My fate is with them. Japanese, who were now at war with Soviet Union, nevertheless agreed to help Bose meet their enemies. In Saigon, Bose learnt there was no special plane for him or his party. He was offered only two seats in the plane: he selected INA colonel Habibur Rehman to accompany him.
There was a problem about the luggage because the plane, a twin-engine heavy bomber of the 97-2 (Sally) type, was overloaded. They could not take all of Bose’ luggage. He discarded a good deal. Then two heavy suitcases, possibly filled with gold and jewellery, were brought on the plane, and, after Bose’s insistence, they were loaded on.
On board, besides Bose, and Shidei (a Japanese expert on the Soviets), were also several Japanese military and air staff officers, among them Lt. Col. Tadeo Sakai, a staff officer of the Burma Army; Lt. Col. Shito Nonogaki, an air staff officer; and Major Taro Kono, an air staff officer who was sitting behind the pilot and assisting him; and Major Ihaho Takahashi, a staff officer. The crew was in the front of the aircraft and the passengers were wedged in behind, some like Bose, with cushions, because there were no proper seats on this aircraft. The plane finally took off between 5.00 and 5.30 pm on August 17, 1945. Since they were so late in starting, the pilot decided to land for the night at Tourane, Vietnam, then start early the next morning.
Bose and the others spent the night at a hotel serving as an army hostel in tourane. While they were resting, the pilot and Major Kono, who had noticed the difficulty in taking off at Saigon due to overloading, did their best to lighten the cargo. Major Kono later said they took off about 600 kilos of machine guns, ammunition and excess baggage (1).
The take-off from Tourane at about 5 am on August 18, 1945 was normal and they flew at about 12,000 feet. It was quite cold in the plane but the weather was favourable and they flew to Taipei (Taiwan). Major Kono has testified that they received information during the flight that the Russians had occupied Port Arthur, so it was essential for them to hurry on and reach Dairen (modern day Dalian in China) which was still under the Japanese before the Russians reached there too. The flight took six to seven hours and the landing was smooth. They stopped for lunch and Rahman changed into warmer clothes during the break. Bose, he said, laughed off the need for more appropriate clothing, but he handed him a sweater anyway.
At Taipei, Major Kono, the pilot, and ground personnel checked the engines and noticed some problem with the left one. There was some unusual vibration, but they did not know the source of what to do about it. The engine was adjusted and they hoped the problem was solved. Major Kono was also unhappy because even 600 kilos lighter than in Saigon, he still thought they were overloaded. Col. Nonogaki noticed the engine check and observed that Major Kono had discovered some problems. The former also heard Bose ask if they would again be flying as high as earlier. When the answer was positive, he put on the woolen sweather than Rahman had handed him. There was a tent set up near the air strip and they ate lunch there. They had been told they would leave by 2 p.m.
The crew and passengers took their places as before and they were ready to go at about 2.30 p.m. As on previous take-offs, the heavy aircraft needed the full 1500 metres of the airstrip to negotiate the climb. Just as they left the ground—barely thirty meters up and near the edge of the airfield—there was a loud noise. Part of all of the left engine including the propeller had fallen off. The pilot could not control the aircraft. As the ground peered up at him faster and faster, he tried to switch off the engine. Major Kono seated behind him also tried; but failed. With an enormous crash, they hit the ground and thei airplane broke into two large parts. Within seconds there was a fire raging. Major Kono released a lock on the canopy, opened it, and slid out. As he was getting out, some gasoline splashed on him and he caught fire. Once on the ground, he rolled around and Col. Nonagaki helped him.
When the crash took place, Rahman, seated near Bose was momentarily knocked unconscious. This is what he told S.A. Ayer, a few weeks later, about what happened next:
“When I recovered consciousness..I realized that all the luggage had crashed on top of me and a fire had started in front of me. So exit by the rear was blocked by the packages and exit by the front was possible only through the fire. Netaji was injured in the head but he had struggled on his feet and was about to move in my direction to get away from the fire and to get out of the plane through the rear. But this was out of question…Then he tried to make his way through the nose of the plane which was already smashed and burning. With both his hands he fought his way through the fire…When the plane crashed, Netaji got a splash of petrol all over his cotton khaki and it caught fire when he struggled through the nose of the plane. So he stood with his clothes burning and himself making desperate efforts to unbuckle the belts of his bushcoat and round his waist. I dashed up to him and tried to help him remove the belts. My hands were burnt in the process. As I was fumbling with his belts I looked up and my heart nearly stopped when I saw his face, battered by iron and burnt by fire. A few minutes later he collapsed and lay on the ground of the Taihoku aerodrome (2).”
Major Kono, who was lying on the ground a short distance from the plane, and saw Bose on fire, described him as a “living Fudomyoo” a Japanese Buddhist temple guardian who is usually represented with “fierce visage…hair aflame, face contorted and weapons in hand (3).” According to the accounts of all the survivors, Bose was very badly burnt. The pilot and Gen. Shidei were killed on impact.
Dr. Yoshimi was told that he was “Chandra Bose” of whom he had heard, and that Rahman was the only other Indian. Upon arrival the doctor noticed that Bose was naked except for the blanket wrapped around him. He had third degree burns all over his body, but they were worst on his chest. His body “…had taken on a grayish colour like ash. Even his heart had burns. His face was swollen…his eyes were also swollen. He could see, but had difficulty in opening them. He was in his senses when was brought in…he was in high fever..the condition of his heart was also weak (4).” Dr. Yoshimi doubted that he would live.
Bose and Rahman were quickly taken to the treatment room and the doctor started to work on Bose was was much more critically injured. Dr. Yoshimi was assisted by Dr. Tsuruta. A disinfectant, Rivamol, was put over his body and then a white ointment was applied and bandages were applied. Dr. Yoshimi gave Bose four injections of Vita-camphor and two of Digitamine for his weakened heart. These were administered approximately every 30 minutes. Since his body had lost fluids quickly upon being burnt, he was also given Ringer solution intravenously. A third doctor, Dr. Ishii, gave him a blood transfusion. An orderly, Kazuto Mitsui, an army private, was in the room and several nurses were also assisting. Bose still had a clear head which Dr. Yoshimi found remarkable for one with such severe injuries. He was thirsty and asked for “meju”, which the Japanese interpreted as their word for water. The orderly brought him water. Might he have been asking for his mej-da (his elder and closest father-like brother, Sarat Bose).
What, if anything, did he say in these last hours? Private Mitsui says that Bose did talk briefly to Nakamura in English, but he himself only heard Bose ask for water. Rahman told Ayer that Bose told him shortly before he sank into unconsciousness: “Habib, my end is coming very soon. I have fought all my life for my country’s freedom, I am dying for my country’s freedom. Go and tell my countrymen to continue the fight for India’s freedom. India will be free, and before long (5). Mitsui also believes that Bose said something about India’s independence before he died.
Bose’ conditions worsened as the evening darkened. His heart grew weaker. Finally, between 9 and 10 pm, August 18,1945, Bose succumbed to his terrible burns.
Dr. Yoshimi filled out a death certificate and put the cause of death of “Chandra Bose” as “burns of third degree.” He says that the certificate was filled out in Japanese, was filed with the Municipal office. This certificate has not been located and most Japanese records for that period of Taiwanese history seem to have been destroyed. No photographs were taken of Bose at the end or just after his death. Some Japanese said this was not their custom. Then too, Bose had been completely bandaged except for eye slits.
Private Mitsui remembers that Dr. Yoshimi told the staff to try to preserve the body and “homoline” was injected. Cotton batting was used to close the body openings and the body was wrapped in a white kimono. The next day an army officer came for the body. Rahman had hoped to have the body removed to Singapore or Tokyo, but practical difficulties intervened. The coffin could not be shipped, even to Japan, at this moment when Japan was still carrying out the surrender terms and the American occupation had not yet officially begun. So the body was taken to the main Taipei crematorium and cremated. Rahman told Ayer that the cremation took place on August 20 and that the ashes were kept in an urn in the shrine attached to the hospital (6).
Subhas Bose was dead: his wife, his daughter, many of his relations, almost all the INA officers, and all the personnel with whom he worked have accepted his death, some later than others. His ashes—Gordon has given a detailed account—are now at a Buddhist temple, the Renkoji temple, in the Suginamiku quartet of Tokyo, in which Ramamurti, president of the Indian Independence League, lived. There a Buddhist priest conducted a ceremony around 18 September. About a hundred persons, mostly Indian but also including Col. Takakura, representing Imperial General Headquarters, attended. The ashes, in a small shrine area of the temple, have remained there till today.)
- The details here are from interviews with Colonel Sakai, Major Kono, Col. Nonagaki by the author; and from Rahman’s account to Ayer in latter’s book : Witness, 111-14. Also Netaji Inquiry, 17, which also interviewed Rahman in addition to the surviving Japanese officers.
- Quoted in Ayer Witness, 112-13.
- Showa, vol.10,30
- The details are from interviews with Dr. Yashimi, Takajo Machi, Kyushu Island, Japan, August 1, 1979. Also see Netaji Inquiry, 27-30; TR Sareen, ed, Select Document on Indian National Army, Page 241-44 which reprinted Dr. Yoshimi interview.
- Ayer, Witness, Page 114.
- Ayer, Witness, 114; Harin Shah, Verdict, 106-113.