By any measure, 95-year-old Mark Rodrigues, a World War II veteran from Mangalore has lived a remarkable life.
Narrowly escaping death on three occasions, living as a Prisoner of War across various encampments in Africa and Europe, and finally making a career for himself at the Defence Research Development Organisation as an engineer, Rodrigues has an amazing story to tell.
With the United Kingdom suffering mass casualties in the early stages of the second world war, it looked to the colonies for recruits. An 18-year-old Rodrigues enlisted in the British Indian Army, forgoing his education. He was among the 2.5 million Indian soldiers who fought in the war.
After three months of intensive training in Pune, Mark was sent to Cairo, Egypt, for another three months of additional training before he was posted to the Egypt-Libya border working as a store sepoy for the 19th Indian Field Ambulances. He was entrusted with the collection of rations, clothing and medical equipment, among other essentials from various supply units located across the battle zone, says this Deccan Chronicle profile of the man.
British General Claude Auchinleck, who was in-charge of proceedings in the Middle Eastern sector, had launched an operation to save the besieged Allied forces at Tobruk in Libya. However, waiting for the Allied convoys were German forces led by legendary Field Marshall Erwin Rommel – the Desert Fox. The convoys were peppered with bullets from aerial machine guns positioned on low-flying aircrafts.
“I had to jump off from the running vehicle when my unit convoy was bombed and strafed. I injured my left-hand palm, dislocating some of my finger joints. I even saw one truck ahead of the convoy, with the driver at the wheels without his head,” Mark tells the Deccan Chronicle.
Unable to handle the onslaught and surrounded by German forces, Mark’s unit of the 11th Brigade were trapped at Tobruk. They had little option but to surrender.
Mark was now a prisoner of war (PoW) along with some of his fellow unit comrades. The British Army command wrote a letter to his family that Mark was a PoW and reportedly ‘missing’ in action. His family feared the worst, presuming that he had died on the battlefield.
After a month at a prisoner camp in Tobruk, he was transferred out with other PoWs to mainland Europe on a ship crossing the Mediterranean Sea. During the voyage, however, the ship was torpedoed. As it sank, Mark and other PoWs were holding onto dear life using a wooden plank to stay afloat. After being stranded at sea for two hours, an Italian ship rescued the PoWs.
After docking in Greece, where the PoWs were paraded on the streets and taken to Italy. On the way, Mark wrote back to his family telling them he was alive. After spending time at prison camps in Venice and Annaberg, he was shifted to Epinal in France, where Mark had this third brush with near death.
The camp was had come under friendly fire by the Allied Forces, but Mark managed to climb an eight-feet high barbed-wire fencing and escape the bomb. Many others, however, weren’t so lucky. The explosion, though, cost Mark a partial loss of hearing.
After debriefing his Allied commanders at a camp in Munich at the fag end of the war, he was sent back to India in 1945. Life back home was a lot less dramatic, although it had its share of challenges.
He married his wife Emiliana in 1955, and over the course of their marriage had six daughters. For his services in the war, Mark was promoted to the position of store havildar. However, his partial loss of hearing resulted in a failed medical test, leaving him without a position in the forces.
Not disheartened, Mark picked up on his education and soon completed his diploma in Draughtsmanship and Licentiate in Mechanical Engineering in Madras. Following his diploma and stint at the Institution of Automobile Engineers, Mark became a researcher at DRDO, where he served for over 30 years.
A truly remarkable life!
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)