The 20th of August, 1973, marked a significant day in the lives of 16 young men who had recently graduated from various schools in the Colombo, Kandy, and Kurunegala Districts. Most of them were still in their teens, with a few just beyond that age. It was the first time they were all together. The Boardroom of Navy Headquarters was filled with parents and relatives. An oath was recited, some forms were signed, and then the parents and relatives departed after exchanging hugs, kisses, and tearful embraces. And so did we, heading to the Colombo Officers’ Wardroom for lunch.
For dessert, the Gunnery Instructor gave us a curt instruction, “Go wherever you want, but you must be back here by these gates at 5:30. 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, it was that!
We were directed to the Fort Railway Station and released onto a train that was as crowded as if people had gathered to watch the Navam Perahera. The morning crowd of mothers, grandmothers, and village headmen suddenly appeared. They all congregated on platform number four, where the night mail train to Trincomalee was waiting for its long journey. They came, saw their loved ones embark, and watched them disappear into the night.
Each cadet settled into a cramped space on the overcrowded train, occasionally interrupted by someone asking, “What’s your name?” No one asked me! So, I approached a ruggedly handsome fellow. He was tall, fair-skinned, had unruly hair, greenish-blue eyes, and an air of confidence about him. His upper body hung out of the window from the waist up. I tapped him through the adjacent window and yelled over the train’s noise, “Hi, I’m Tony.” He flashed a smile, displaying two rows of white teeth through a slightly open mouth, and shouted back, “I’m Shanthi.” That marked the beginning of a conversation that lasted until Trincomalee, and a friendship that extended well beyond that.
We entered the Naval Dockyard in Trincomalee in the back of a converted, battered half-truck. We were dropped off at a box-like single-story building that was introduced as the Cadet’s ‘GunRoom’—our shelter for the first four months in the Navy.
The Gunnery Instructor continued to watch over us. He was introduced as Petty Officer (GI) C. A. Dharmapala, our Divisional Petty Officer. Before we could blink, a very tall, fair, stern-faced young man appeared. He wore a white Navy peaked cap, a spotless white uniform shirt, and carried a black shoulder board with a single gold stripe. With white shorts, neatly folded long white stockings, and white shoes completing the attire, he epitomized a Naval officer on that early morning.
He lined us up in front of him and introduced himself with a commanding voice, “I am Sub-Lieutenant C. A. M. Jayamaha, your Assistant Divisional Officer.” For the next fifteen minutes, he delivered a tirade in fluent, impeccable English, explaining what we were (the lowest form of animals), where we came from (the depths of the earth), our parentage (the result of the deliberate crossing of maggots and worms), our knowledge (insufficient to fill a toilet), and where we were headed (the depths of despair)!
Whatever he said was delivered with such conviction and pinpoint accuracy on that early Tuesday morning that we believed every word to be true. A good eighty percent of us couldn’t understand a word he said!
We were assigned kits, lockers, and bunks. We repeated our names to various individuals about a dozen times an hour for the next eight hours, all while on ‘double mark time’ or ‘double march,’ until we figured out who was who.
During this period, we realized our Divisional Officer was Lieutenant Commander (N) A. I. Jayawardena. He gave the impression of a misplaced missionary among a surrounding cabal of cannibals. Unbeknownst to each other, we all individually tagged him with a nickname – තාත්තා (Father). To us, he remains that to this day.
The icing on the cake was applied by Jyothi the barber. With a ‘snip and snap,’ he severed our last connections to civilization. The most unforgettable sight to date is the facial expression of each cadet as he walked to the full-length mirror in front of the GunRoom, which seemed to ask, ‘Do I dress properly? Do I salute properly?’ The individual who walked away from that mirror was a complete stranger.
Fast forward to 1981, when Kamal met with a life-changing accident. At the end of 1984, Lalith bid adieu and went on to hold a position at ACL Cables until his retirement a few years ago. In 1985, the Navy acquired the first squadron of Dvoras, where Pubudu Atapattu rose to prominence. He almost single-handedly carved a path through swarms of LTTE boat clusters in the darkness of the Indian Ocean. By sailing through them, Pubudu nullified the superiority that the sea tigers held, inspiring others to follow suit.
Kamal Herath never fully recovered from his accident and was medically discharged. In 1986, on January 15th, Shanthi Bahar walked into a trap in the shrub jungles of Kattaiparichchan. While in the midst of a promising future, he departed, leaving behind a widow, a two-year-old son, and a daughter yet to be born.
Upali Ranaweera took over from Pubudu to conduct daring skirmishes on the Indian Ocean, instilling mortal fear into a shaken enemy. In 1987, Athula called it a day and retired to hang up his boots. He did a security stint at Sri Lankan Airlines before migrating to Canada.
GB Jayasundera etched his name as one of the best shiphandlers, if not the best. On many occasions, he demonstrated his seamanship skills, navigating the Chinese gunboats in the shallowest of waters. He sailed close to the Northern Peninsula’s inland areas, where no one had dared to venture before or since. This effort was to provide Naval Gunfire Support at close quarters during the height of battle.
In 1989, Jayantha Nugawela, while displaying the promise of being an exceptional Naval Officer, left on premature retirement. In 1995, after retiring, GB sailed for Merc’s Shipping, ferrying shiploads of troops from South to North and back. GB displayed astute brilliance in instantly converting dire situations into safety. Once, exhibiting seamanship and leadership skills of the highest calibre, GB saved his ship and the lives of thousands of soldiers from explosive-laden LTTE suicide boats.
Siri gained a reputation as an able administrator, welcomed in every establishment he served, regardless of designation, as the only officer who would feed chicken to his men every day! Tenne, Kolitha, and Ananda were much-loved figures in the Navy back then, proving their capabilities as administrators in their own subtle ways. Kolitha and Ananda retired after completing 22 years of service. Tenne served on to become the Chief of Staff of the Navy.
Parakrama and Mohan were a duo of characters in themselves. Books could be written about their achievements and how they stood strong in the face of depressing and demoralizing opposition. Both retired in 1995. Ivan proved his mettle by leading the Engineering Department to dizzying heights of performance and perfection. The boat-building project he initiated at Welisara in 2000 paved the way for the creation of Small Boat Squadrons. In the end, these SBS squadrons, with their superior numbers and outclassing performance, became the sea tigers’ nemesis.
Five members of the intake reached the rank of Rear Admiral. Shanthi died in action. Upali and Mohan after their retirement. In the family structure that developed, alongside the above three, Nalini, Uttara, Princess, and Sapumalee also passed on to their rest much earlier than we expected. Our Assistant Divisional Officer, Mohan Jayamaha, sacrificed his life in an enemy land mine at Araly Point. Master Chief Petty Officer (GI) Dharmapala was called to rest after a short illness from which he could not recover.
Those of us who are still alive and present will gather to spend a weekend of recollection and reminiscence, giving thanks to those who shaped our paths of destiny. We will recount many tales and moments of laughter and happiness that we’ve shared over the past fifty years.