In the year 2023, it is rare that you come across a soldier who not only fought in the Second World War, but later put his life on the line against the Naga insurgents too. In the process he went on to win a gallantry award of a very high order. The soldier I am talking about is Havildar Mering Ao of 3 Assam Rifles, who now lives in Mokokchung district of Nagaland along with his wife, Senliyangla Ao. Personally, I had been wanting to meet him for a long time. That opportunity came my way on 3rd December 2023 when I visited 12 Assam Rifles in Mokokchung. As I entered the room where he and his wife were seated, he got up and wished me “Jai Hind Sahab”! Seeing the twinkle in his eye and the joy that his face radiated, I was moved, rather humbled. I had expected to see a frail and weak person. But there he was, with his soldierly gait, still looking very much the fighter that he would have looked when he retired in 1960, that’s 63 years ago!
A quick brief on Havildar Mering Ao is needed before I describe him further. He was born in Sungratsu village of Mokokchung district (erstwhile Naga Hills) in 1920 into a farmer’s family. As a child, he dreamt of donning the uniform. This dream of his was fulfilled when in a recruitment rally that was organised by 3 Assam Rifles in Mokokchung district in 1940, he was enrolled as a soldier. No sooner did he join the 3rd Assam Rifles, his battalion got embroiled in World War-II and it became a part of the famous ‘V’ Force in Burma, which was tasked to provide early warning, undertake guerrilla activities, harass the Japanese, delay them and also operate behind their lines. For this task, his battalion was deployed at Chindwin River . Owing to his sincerity, dedication, presence of mind and planning skills as a sepoy, he was made part of the intelligence cell of his Battalion, where he excelled in his job. Subsequently, his platoon was handpicked to carry out reconnaissance of Japanese defensive locations astride the Irrawaddy river in Burma. He along with his team carried out the reconnaissance in a small wooden boat against heavy Japanese fire and successfully pin pointed the defensive locations of the Japanese forces, that helped in inflicting casualties upon them.
After the successful operations that were carried out behind the Japanese lines in Burma, he volunteered for the battle at Kohima with his platoon alongside 1st Punjab Regiment where too his platoon inflicted heavy casualties on the marauding Japanese.
In his early years in Assam Rifles, he was an athlete of repute and excelled in cross country, 400 metres and high jump. After winning these events at the Assam Rifles Meet in 1949, he became part of the Assam Rifles Team and went on to participate at the Nationals in athletics. Perhaps it was his excellence in sports that laid the foundation of his becoming a valiant and brave soldier. Today, that sportsman-soldier in him leaves others in sheer disbelief when he walks ramrod straight at age 103!
Consequent to the Second World War, he also took part in operations against Naga militants in the 50s and 60s. During one anti- insurgency operation in Nagaland on 12th August 1956 he was part of a special operation of the Battalion that was tasked to destroy an insurgent camp. When his team was negotiating an obstacle that was placed ahead of the insurgent camp, they were fired upon heavily. Showing their presence of mind and very audaciously, his team immediately retaliated. Havildar Mering Ao killed one and wounded two of the insurgents. For this act of bravery he was conferred with the award of Ashok Chakra (Class III) which is now known as ‘Shaurya Chakra’ on 21 Apr 1960.
The extraordinary life of Havildar Mering Ao continued even after his retirement. He worked tirelessly for the development of his village and remained the Gaon Budha (the village head) of his village for a very long period. His wife, Senliyangla Ao is 98 yrs old now, but is not as sharp and agile as him. When I enquired about her health, Mering, his sense of humour still intact replied, “Who abhi Buddhi(old) hogayi hain, par main jawan hu”!
I had also learnt before meeting him that he was fond of singing Mohammad Rafi songs; I thus requested him to sing a number for us. Without wasting a moment, he began singing a Mohammad Rafi number in a thick Naga accent. He sang with incredible passion and rhythm that truly defied his age. As I sat and chatted up more with him, I realized that he did have many stories to tell of his exploits when he was in uniform. While there are many books on the Burma and Kohima campaigns of the Second World War, what we would miss out on would be many first-hand accounts of his, which would add value and rigour to the war accounts of what is available in the historical archives of his battalion, 3 Assam Rifles. Towards that end, we have now decided that we would publish a story on the Life and Times of Havildar Mering Ao. After all, for the Assam Rifles, he is not just a war hero, but a legend whose accomplishments we cherish. It’s time that the world knew of this living legend too.
(First hand experience of meeting Havildar Mering AO (the oldest Gallantry award winner of Assam Rifles) penned by Lieutenant General Pradeep Chandran Nair, PVSM, AVSM, YSM PhD. He is a serving general officer of the Indian Army. He currently serves as the 21st Director General of Assam Rifles.)