While Guri Sandhu's rebuilt World War II jeep stole the show July 4 in Stewartville, it's also offered a surprising glimpse into historical connections between Sandhu's family, the legendary Sikh military and Mayo Clinic.
Sandhu, a 56-year-old cardiologist who heads Mayo's catheterization lab in Rochester, has spent most of the last two years scouring the internet for obscure parts to personally rebuild a 1945 Army jeep. The self-taught gearhead, who learned mechanical skills by reading Popular Mechanics magazine, now routinely ferries kids on low-speed joy rides near Century High School.
However, the jeep's first time being introduced to the general public was July 4 at the Stewie Cruisers event. Surrounded by classics, it thrilled people of all ages while earning "Best in Show."
"It was actually humbling," Sandhu said. "People had all their nice cars out and I just had this jeep, but it turned into this big thing.
"There was just this intense interest and that spanned, surprisingly, across generations — young kids and people who were obviously veterans. It's just amazing how much people have enjoyed it."
While movies like "Dunkirk" and "Saving Private Ryan" reveal the public's ongoing fascination with WWII, Sandhu's rebuilt Willys jeep explored a more obscure, personal connection to the war. The India native used white lettering to emblazon the vehicle's front bumper with "11th Sikh," referencing an elite regiment from the legendary Indian army — roughly 2.5 million volunteers — who joined the Allied forces to fight the Axis powers.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, up to 2.6 million Indians are believed to have died during WWII, most of whom were civilians. For comparison, less than one million U.S. and British soldiers and civilians — combined — are believed to have died during the four-year global conflict.
The Sikh regiment was the most decorated battalion of the British military, fighting with distinction in Europe, Africa and Asia, according to Commission records. Sandhu has devoured Sikh military literature since his youth, in part because multiple family members serve in the volunteer army. One actually survived a Japanese POW camp.
A condensed version of that obscure WWII history was posted on the side of Sandhu's jeep during the recent car show in Stewartville. Dozens stopped to crunch the numbers and ask questions. Many have since followed up with emails and notes, Sandhu said.
"It gives us a slightly unique perspective," he said of his Indian heritage. "The more we looked up, the more we realized it was pretty amazing."
Generations at Mayo
While Sandhu's fascination with WWII and jeeps — he's invested thousands of hours to rebuild two jeeps, with a third now underway — has generated local interest, it's also revealed some surprising connections to historical figures.
Just this month, Mayo staff discovered a signature in its historic physicians' register from Randhir Sandhu, Guri's grandfather. The June 3, 1930, signature is believed to represent the first visiting physician from India.
That visit remained a family secret until 1989, even from his grandson. It came to light two years into Guri's time at Mayo when Randhir casually asked about Will and Charlie Mayo, along with Henry Plummer. He'd personally befriended all three during his brief visit to Rochester.
In another quirk, the elder Sandhu always wore a suit while offering free medical services in India — to hide an old gunshot wound. He was shot in the back during the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919, where British troops shot hundreds of Sikhs engaged in a peaceful protest organized by Mahatma Gandhi.
"Out of the blue, he asked me if any of Will and Charlie's kids ever became doctors," Guri recalls of his startling 1989 conversation with his then-elderly grandfather. "That was the extent of the conversation for about 15 seconds. Then he asked me about Henry Plummer and that nice building he had built. That's when I asked him to tell me more.
"It just shows the amazing amount of knowledge and movement (associated with) Mayo Clinic."