Friday, July 27, 2018

Destiny Fulfilled

Fourteen-year-old Mirza Munir Baig arrived from India to study at Clifton College in Bristol, England, where the curriculum was designed to prepare him for admission to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst. His father, Osman Ali Baig, a Sandhurst graduate, and later a general in the pre-independence Indian Colonial Army, had been responsible for the defense of the vital Khyber Pass during the Second World War, and was now a high-level Pakistani diplomat. The following year, during Munir’s summer break from Clifton, he sailed aboard the Queen Mary from Southampton to New York City. Days later he joined his parents for dinner at Felix de Weldon’s Washington townhouse. Osman had met Felix, an Austrian-born artist who had served in the U.S. Navy, at a Washington society soiree while he was Pakistan’s Deputy Consul-General to the U.S., and the two quickly became friends.  DeWeldon had recently been commissioned by Congress to create a sculpture based on the famous photograph by Joe Rosenthal depicting six Marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima as the centerpiece for a new Marine Corps War Memorial.

The Marine Corps Memorial sculpture was then still only a small prototype, and Munir, who had dreamt of achieving glory on the battlefield for as long as he could remember, spent much of the evening in the artist’s studio gazing at it. His mother, Juliette Jamil Baig, would later recall: “Munir was enchanted with the model."

(L-R) President Truman, Felix deWeldon and photographer Joe Rosenthal standing with the model that so "enchanted" young Munir. (White House, 1945)

However, when it came time for Munir to enroll at Sandhurst, relations between the governments of Pakistan and Great Britain were strained, and the “legacy” admission he counted on from his father’s alumnus status was now punitively voided by the British government. Munir’s spirit was nearly crushed, but he pushed on with his education, studying law at Cambridge University and then on to McGill in Montreal, where he earned an MBA. After obtaining legal status as a resident alien in the U.S., Munir was hired as a business executive at the Sears headquarters in Chicago, but soon bridled at the boredom, still yearning for excitement and life in the military.

Osman, knowing his son’s aspirations of fame on the battlefield, and how disappointed he had been at his rejection by Sandhurst, wrote to him in a letter of encouragement that, "If you still want to pursue a military career, the only real military organization left in the world is the United States Marine Corps.”  In late 1956, two years after de Weldon’s one hundred-ton bronze statue was unveiled in Arlington, Osman sought him out to assist his son Munir in becoming a Marine officer. De Weldon took Munir directly to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Randolph “Mc.C” Pate, who advised the young man that, despite his exceptional education and prestigious family background, federal law required all military officers be U.S. citizens—though this regulation did not apply to enlisted ranks.

Munir took this new setback in stride and, still focused on a greater destiny for himself, enlisted as a lowly private in “the only real military organization left in the world.” Before boarding a train at Union Station in Washington, D.C. for his trip to Marine Corps boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, Munir kissed his mother goodbye saying, "Don't fret, mama, I shall make you proud of me."

Munir's meteoric rise to the rank of Major, and his shadowy work in counterintelligence, are described in detail in The Gunpowder Prince, so I will fast-forward to early 1968 during the grim and costly ten-week siege of Khe Sanh, There, I found myself working beside then-Captain Baig as a radio operator—perpetually in awe of this enigmatic and eccentric Marine’s intellect and a, seemingly, “6th Sense.”  

As such, the improbable interconnections I have described—an untimely diplomatic breakdown between two nations, a fortuitous friendship struck up at a Washington party, a fifteen-year-boy’s infatuation with a small statue of Marines at war, and an improbable personal interview with the Commandant of the Marine Corps before going off to boot camp as a lowly recruit—hold a much deeper meaning for me than merely as an historical curiosity.  In doggedly pursuing his destiny, Captain Mirza Munir Baig saved me and the other Marines at Khe Sanh and, in doing, so altered the course of American history.

While his enormous contributions were recognized within the military (he had the unusual distinction of being awarded two distinguished Legion of Merit medals within the space of just three years), and more privately within the intelligence community, Baig’s contributions are barely known to the rest of the world. It is my hope that The Gunpowder Prince will help remedy that.

                             A rare photo of the enigmatic Captain Munir Baig, center ( (Khe Sanh, 1968)

Éirinn go Brách,

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