We that are alive and around will meet to spend a weekend of recollection and reminiscing, giving thanks to those who moulded us on our paths of destiny
Let loose onto a train that was more crowded than spectators in front of a Vesak Pandal. The morning’s crowd of Ammas, Achchis, and village headman too had made another appearance
August 20, 1973 brought 16 young men straight out of a few schools in Colombo, Kandy and Kurunegala Districts, to the Board Room of Navy Headquarters. Most still in their teens with a few barely out of it. It was the first time we all were together.
The Board Room was crammed with parents and relatives. An oath was read, some forms were signed, and off went the parents and relatives after hugs, kisses and tearful embraces.
Off went we, to the Colombo Officers’ Wardroom for lunch. For dessert, the Gunnery Instructor instructed us.
“Go wherever you want, but at 5:30 you shall be here by these gates. When I say 5:30, I mean 5:30. Not 5:29, not 5:31. Do you understand?” If there was one thing we understood that day, that was it! We were herded to the Fort Railway Station.
Let loose onto a train that was more crowded than spectators in front of a Vesak Pandal. The morning’s crowd of Ammas, Achchis, and village headman too had made another appearance.
They all were on platform number four, where the night mail train to Trincomalee was resting before the long haul.
They came. They saw their loved one embark and disappear into the night. Each Cadet relaxed into a cocoon of his own. Until disturbed by another who asked:
“What is your name?”
Since no one asked mine, I approached a ruggedly handsome bloke. Tall, fair-skinned, unruly hair, greenish blue eyes, with an ‘I know’ look about him.
His body was out of the carriage window, from the waist upwards.
I slid my head through the next window and shouted over the noise of the train:
“Hi, I am Tony”.
He displayed two rows of white teeth in a partly open mouth and shouted back:
“I am Shanthi”.
That started a conversation that lasted until Trincomalee; and a lifetime beyond.
We entered Naval Dockyard, Trincomalee, early next morning in the back of a converted, battered half truck. The sixteen were deposited at a box-like single-storey structure that was introduced as the Cadet’s ‘GunRoom’. Our shelter for the first four months in the Navy.
The Gunnery Instructor continued to hover. He was introduced as Petty Officer (GI) C. A. Dharmapala, our Divisional Petty Officer. From nowhere, a very tall, fair, very stern-faced young man appeared.
Wearing a white Navy peaked cap, clad in a spotless white uniform shirt carrying a shoulder board with a single gold stripe.
White shorts, long white stockings impeccably drawn and folded down, and white shoes completing the attire, he was the epitome of a Naval officer, that early morning.
He made us line up in front of him. Introduced himself in an importantly, imposed voice, “I am Sub Lieutenant C. A. M. Jayamaha, your Assistant Divisional Officer.”
For the next fifteen minutes, he imparted a tirade in fluent, unblemished English, describing what we are (lowest animal form), where we originated from (bowels of the earth), our parentage (deliberate crossing of maggots with worms), our knowledge (insufficient to fill a commode), and where we were headed to (Mottachchi’s)! Whatever he said, he said with such conviction, that early Tuesday morning, we believed it was true.
In fact, a good eighty percent of us did not understand a word he said! We were kitted, lockers allocated, and bunked.
We shouted our names to various individuals about a dozen times per hour for the next eight hours. All the while on ‘double mark time or double march’ until we realised, nothing! In between, our Divisional Officer Lieutenant Commander (N) A. I. Jayawardena, was also introduced.
He gave a first impression of a misplaced missionary, amidst a surrounding cabal of cannibals.
Unknown to each, we all had individually tagged him with a nickname – ;d;a;d (Father).
We still consider him as that.
The icing on the cake was applied by Jyothi the barber. With a ‘snip and snap’ he removed our last vestiges of civilisation. Almost all of us remember the facial expression of each Cadet as he walked to the full-length mirror in front of the Gun Room, which said ‘Do I Dress properly? – Do I Salute properly?’ The individual who walked away from that mirror was a stranger.
Fast forward to 1981.
Kamal had a nasty accident. End of 1984, Lalith said adios and went on to hold an appointment at ACL Cables until he retired a few years ago.
In 1985, the Navy acquired the first squadron of Dvoras, where Pubudu Atapattu carved a reputation sailing through swarms of LTTE boat clusters to wipe out the sea superiority held by them.
Kamal didn’t fully recover and was medically discharged. 1986, January 15th, Shanthi Bahar, fell into a trap in the jungles of Kattaiparichchan.
While in a heady position as a promising Naval Officer, he departed leaving a widow, a two-year-old son and a daughter yet unborn.
Upali Ranaweera took over from Pubudu to run daredevil skirmishes on the Indian Ocean driving mortal fear into a shaken enemy.
1987, Athula hung his boots, did a security stint at SriLankan Airlines and migrated to Canada.
GB Jayasundera etched a name as the best of the best ship handlers.
On many occasions he proved seamanship skills, sailing Chinese gunboats into the shallowest of waters.
He sailed close inland along the Northern coastline, where no one had dared to go before or ever since, providing Naval Gun Fire Support at close quarters during the height of battle.
1989, Jayantha Nugawela displaying the virtues of an exceptional Naval Officer, left on premature retirement.
Siri gained a reputation as the only Officer in the Navy, who would feed chicken to his men every day! He eventually gained two stars before retiring.
Tenne, Kolitha and Ananda were much-loved characters in the Navy, who in their individual ways proved to be capable administrators.
Kolitha retired to migrate to Australia. Ananda too retired in 1995. Tenne hung on to gain two stars and become Chief of Staff of the Navy. Parakrama and Mohan were a duo of impressionable characters.
They held themselves tough and strong through thick and thin in the face of depressing and demoralising opposition. Both retired in 1995.
Ivan proved his mettle by leading the Engineering Department to dizzying platforms of competence and initiative.
The boat-building project he pioneered in 2000, manufactured small boats in-house.
It paved the way to create Small Boat Squadrons (SBS). In the final encounter, it was these squadrons that became the nemesis of Sea Tigers and the LTTE.
Five out of sixteen achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Shanthi died in Action. Upali and Mohan after retirement. Alongside them, four of our spouses, Nalini, Uttara, Princess and Sapumalee, an integral part of our family, passed on leaving behind a sense of erosion.
Our Assistant Divisional Officer, Mohan Jayamaha was part of the tragic bomb at Araly Point.
Master Chief Petty Officer (GI) Dharmapala could not overcome a sickness he developed.
We that are alive and around will meet to spend a weekend of recollection and reminiscing, giving thanks to those who moulded us on our paths of destiny.
There will be plenty to talk, many tales retold, old songs re-sung remembering the long, winding, tortuous, path.
Sometimes sorrowful, sometimes filled with mirth, sometimes hazardous, but a remarkable journey of fifty years.
Surely a time to sing ‘taps’, even if we do not sing anything else. I am Rear Admiral Tony Abeyasena (retd.)