Dr Bhagat Singh Thind was one of the first Indians to enlist with the United States Army in 1917. He settled in California after arriving in America in 1913. Dr Thind is among Indian soldiers remembered in a new research project for the US World War I Centennial Commission (Photo courtesy of David Singh & South Asian American Digital Archives)

Discovering the Unknown - Asian Indian soldiers in the US Military during WWI

Posted on centenarynews.com on 30 August 2017
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The stories of Asian Indians who fought for America in the Great War are being rediscovered by Tanveer Kalo, of St Lawrence University, Canton NY. In this article for Centenary News, he writes about how the project began during his internship at the US World War I Centennial Commission.

The First World War was not only was the United States’ first global conflict, but it was also the first time in which a truly diverse American military was able to showcase its strength and resolve on the battlefields of Europe.  Among this diverse American Expeditionary Force was a group of  Asian Indian soldiers. In the Spring of 2017, I completed an internship at the United States World War I Centennial Commission in Washington D.C. My assigned responsibility as an intern involved creating an original historical database on the service and lives of the Asian Indian soldiers during the war. 

This project originated from a simple conversation I had with my supervisor at the Commission, Mr Chris Christopher. I was sharing information that I had found about Dr Bhagat Singh Thind’s service in the US Army. Dr Thind was one of the first Asian Indians and turbaned Sikhs to serve in the American armed forces. Mr Christopher advised me to investigate more into Dr Thind’s time with the American Military during the war. As I did, I referred to Young India, a journal and newspaper publication from the South Asian American Digital Archives. Using this resource, I uncovered the fact that additional Asian Indians had participated in the conflict on the behalf of the United States. 

The August and October 1918 issues of Young India listed the names and included photographs of Indians who were in training or deployed overseas to Europe. I utilized the information from Young India to identify primary documents catalogued on the website ancestryinstitution.com. Over a period of 4 months, I examined, analyzed and collected hundreds of records, such as naturalization papers, Federal census documents, military registration cards, and more in order to recreate accounts specific to the lives of these soldiers and relative to their military service. My searches used the moment they arrived in the US as a common starting point and traced through time to their last known life event. 

Dr Karm Chandra (K.C.) Kerwell enlisted in the US Military in July 1917 while still a medical student at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Before the United States entered the First World War, he served with the Michigan National Guard (M.N.G) on the Mexican border (Image courtesy of Karm Edward  Kerwell & South Asian American Digital Archives) 

The internship project I completed at the US World War I Centennial Commission continues to be important to me because it highlighted the comparatively unknown history of the contributions made by the Indian American community in the war. This project taught me that the First World War truly showcased America’s diversity and every person in their own way played a role in defending their country.

One story that reflects this sentiment is that of Manganlall K. Pandit because he served in both World Wars on behalf of his adopted country. Mr Pandit was eventually laid to rest in Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery, Kansas. It was fascinating to discover the extent of his service to the US military, and I found I was learning more than information about this heroic soldier. In collecting and examining hundreds of pieces of information, I was able to apply a richer context to the profiles I was developing for each soldier that I identified and, thereby, I was able to strengthen my writing, analysis, research, and historical recording skills. 

An aspect that I found  intriguing while documenting the individual backgrounds of these soldiers was that almost all of their  registration cards listed their race as Caucasian, and not as Indian, colored, black, or some category used today. After the First World War, the Federal census documents listed their race and ethnicity as Indian, Muslim, etc. This could have been the result of the 1923 Supreme Court case, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which ruled that individuals of Indian origin were not considered white and, therefore, could not be granted naturalization and citizenship. Unfortunately, the issue of naturalization and citizenship followed a highly contested pathway and this issue was not resolved until after World War II.  In 1946 saw the signing of the Luce-Celler Act by President Truman, and even then there was a quota set at 100 natives of India per year. It was not until 1965 that the Hart-Celler Immigration Act began the phase-out of US national origin quotas altogether. 

Overall, I learned that the Asian Indian soldiers who contributed to the diversity of the American military through their service did so with commitment to a greater ideal. They could not know that it would take nearly half a century before their sacrifices would be aptly acknowledged through US naturalization and citizenship.

Tanveer Kalo during his internship at the US World War I Centennial Commission 

My current research is an effort to capture the stories of the Indian soldiers and their lives. In continuing my work, I would welcome hearing from anyone who has information regarding individuals of Indian descent who served in the U.S. military in any capacity during the First World War. Please do not hesitate to contact me (details below) as this would assist me to preserve and commemorate the legacy of these brave solders.

Tanveer Kalo's research is being shared by the US WWI Centennial Commission - see Indians who served. Contact: tanveer.kalo@worldwar1centennial.org

© Tanveer Kalo & Centenary News

Images courtesy of David Singh & South Asian American Digital Archives; Karm Edward  Kerwell & South Asian American Digital Archives; United States World War One Centennial Commission

Posted by: CN Editorial Team