At the tail-end of World War II, JAG court reporter Tom Hickey took a ship to India, a country at the threshold of independence, where he had been stationed. The ship had experienced high winds and choppy waters - the result of nearby hurricanes, and Hickey felt the effects.
Hickey was sick and hadn’t eaten for three days when a familiar face appeared to help nurse him back to health. An old LaSalle College buddy was on the same ship, and when he saw the shape Hickey was in, he offered him several rolls of Lifesavers candies, which Hickey subsisted on for several days, until he was able to put his sour stomach behind him.
And so began Hickey’s experience in India.
Despite his gut reaction, Hickey relished the opportunity to go abroad after a few years stuck stateside in the service.
“I was very happy to get out of the states and to get overseas,” he said. “I’d been three years in the states so I was anxious to get out.”
While there, he was able to see one of the seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra. The famous white marble building, its turrets and gemstones, its “brilliant” dome - it simply made Hickey speechless.
“It was indescribable how beautiful that place was ... Poets and others have written on it better than I can describe it - all I can say is it was fantastic.”
This ancient bit of architecture wasn’t the only history Hickey would witness.
One of his first assignments was with the chief of ordinance in New Delhi, where he’d been for a few months before something remarkable happened.
“I happened to have an afternoon off, and I took a quiet walk through one of the beautiful streets on the outskirts of New Delhi. I’m walking along on the pavement of a big wide street, along the treeline, and on the pavement were these very high stone walls crowding some estates that were in the back. I came to the driveway of one of these estates and a limousine was coming out.
“The limousine stopped to check out the traffic; and stopped right by where I was at the curb, and so I looked in. There was a man in there, alone in the enclosed part, and honestly, very close - he was right there. I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me and the limousine passed and went into the street. I realized as I was walking across the driveway who it was. It was Mahatma Gandhi.”
Hickey still hasn’t shaken that brief moment and its significance in his life.
“Here I was, just a little soldier in the U.S. Army, and man-to-man, here we were just looking at each other.”
Maybe it’s unshakeable because of the movement for independence Hickey was witnessing as it spread across the nation. While much of the rest of the world was reeling, worn out from the consequences of global war and global destruction, India was energized.
“The war in Europe was over by the time I got into Calcutta, and just about at that time the atom bombs had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“At that point obviously, all the demonstrations and parades for independence of India were really getting started and all the political movements to get rid of British rule,” he said. “It was at that stage it really started in earnest.”
He said there was “parade after parade after parade for independence.”
“There was a victory parade in Calcutta - all these soldiers coming back - they were cheering all the heroes of the Indian army. Then on one end of the parade I could hear a chant that was really very loud, and it kept growing, growing, growing; and then the sound was so loud that it was thunderous: Mahatma Gandhi - victory to Mahatma Gandhi ... He was going to be the leader who would lead the country to independence.”
But this time Hickey couldn’t see Gandhi. His vision was obscured by the thousands of people crowded in the streets.
Though there wasn’t much military action in India, the China-Burma-India Theater’s history is important to preserve, Hickey said. When asked why, he shared this anecdote:
A soldier brought a monkey, Cheeko, into the base. Then Cheeko got loose in the barracks. He was tearing down the cots and tearing up the space.
“We told the sergeant, 'Hey, Sergeant, that monkey’s gotta go.' And a buddy of mine, Jim, was able to get a Jeep, so Jim and I took Cheeko out to the monkey jungle, and that’s where we left him.
“I look back, and there was Cheeko the monkey on a limb overlooking the road, watching us go.”
Hickey claims that up to the very end that version of the story is true. But years later, he got ahead of himself sharing the story with his children.
“When I was telling that story to my little kids years and years later, I added one more line. I said, “Here was Cheeko, watching us leave with a tear in his eye.”
Now he’s heard the tall tale from his children, his 23 grandchildren, 21 great-grandchildren and someday perhaps even his one great-great-grandchild.
“What do they do they know about India? They know there was little Cheeko watching us leave with a tear in his eye. So of all the monumental things that I saw in India, that’s what they remember the most. It’s amazing.”
Hickey returned to the States (this time on a plane) in 1946, before he would see India gain its independence in 1947. He finished up college at LaSalle then married and started a family.