Father’s Day Greetings to the Children of our Nation
by: Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne,
WV, RWP and Bar, RSP, VSV, USP, ndc, psn Chief of Defence Staff
Twenty-five years ago, in Fort Hammenhiel, Karainagar, two officers and forty-two sailors, all volunteers from the Navy underwent a special training to start a new unit in our Navy known as the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) or the Naval Commando Unit.
SBS was formed to fight against LTTE Sea Tigers in lagoons and waterways. I was fortunate enough to command this unit and train my men to be the “Bravest of the Brave” in the Navy. I was a young Lieutenant Commander at that time and my Second-in-Command was an officer more than 12 years junior and younger to me. He was Acting Sub Lieutenant Samantha Waruna Gallage, hailed from Dehiwala, was an excellent swimmer and a fearless fighter. Samantha was also an excellent boat handler and a top marksman.
We trained together for three months in the Karainagar lagoon with the intention of taking over boat operations in the Jaffna lagoon from our small detachment at Nagadevannturai.
On November 2, 1993, our naval detachment in Nagadevanthuri and Pooneryn Army Complex came under heavy attack from the enemy. One by one small detachment around the main Pooneryn Army Complex fell into the enemy’s hand like a pack of cards and more than 700 military personnel were trapped in Pooneryn.
As there was no possibility to reinforce the besieged Army Complex from the air, Military Commanders decided to sent reinforcement troops through an amphibious landing. My unit SBS, the brand-new Naval Special Force was tasked to carry out the first wave of landing.
Landing at an enemy beach is a suicidal task. If you want to see how it looks like, please watch first half an hour of Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film “Saving Private Ryan”. It’s bloody and chaotic. There is no cover for you until you get some cover by crossing the beach area. Enemy obstacles and gun positions will be there to slow down your advance and there is a 90 percent probability of getting killed or injured during this crossing.
Orders were issued; Samantha and I were commanding two Inshore Patrol Craft (commonly known as Water Jets) which carried fifteen Commandos each, followed by fiberglass boats carrying six Commandos each. My orders were very clear to Samantha. I told him, that I will land first because I want to assess the situation.
Navy Gunboats started bombarding the beach early morning with their 37mm guns, and we were given clearance to do the landing with the lull of heavy gunfire. Our two Water Jets raced towards Poonaryn beach. Two machine guns of the enemy started firing towards us and suddenly Samantha increased the speed of his Water Jet and landed first and nullified enemy machine gun position with his grenade launchers.
I was very angry with Samantha. My orders were very clear as I told him that I will be landing first. However, I was very happy that he destroyed enemy gun positions in quick sessions with no casualties to us. The landing was successful and we established the beachhead for our landing craft to beach and reinforcements poured in. Rest was history. Pooneryn landing was successful. The SBS was hailed as the “Bravest of the Brave” in the Navy.
After accomplishing our given task successfully, we returned to Karainagar that evening to rest and relax. That night I asked Samantha why he disobeyed my orders and landed first. He said with tears in his eyes, “Sir, I was afraid that you would be hit by enemy machine gun fire! I did not want you to get killed”. I told him that he would have had the same fate. He said, “Sir, I can die. That’s not a concern. My father and mother will cry. But, not YOU! You have a wife and a son (my son was one year old at that time).
You should live Sir! I want to protect you, Sir! (Ironically, I was the only married person in the SBS at that time.)
This was the caliber of officers and men with whom we went to war. We were fortunate Commanders to have officers like Samantha as our subordinates. They were ready to sacrifice their lives to protect us.
One day I saw Samantha going through the Navy List. Navy List is a book which denotes the seniority and qualifications of naval officers. I asked why he is referring the Navy List and he said as per the seniority gap between two of us when I become a Rear Admiral, he will still be a Lieutenant Commander. I promised him if I made to Rear Admiral one day, I will take him as my Flag Lieutenant [Aide-De-Camp (ADC)]. He was very happy and he had mentioned this even to the SBS senior sailors.
In 1995 Samantha got married to Nishika, a young lady officer of the Navy who was a teacher at our Naval Pre-school. Samantha died in an SBS and Army Special Forces joint operation at Nallathannithuduvai in Chalai, Jaffna on October 20, 1996. His only son, Rumal was only eight months old when he sacrificed his life for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our Motherland. He was awarded the Weera Wickrama Vibushanaya for his valour and bravery during this operation. His wife Nishika died of cancer in 2011, leaving young Rumal alone in this World.
Today 25 year old Rumal is following his higher education in Australia. He is missing his father on ‘Father’s Day’. He was always proud of his parents, especially of his father. His family today is the SBS.
Keeping my promise to Samantha, I never took a Flag Lieutenant when I became a Rear Admiral. Even though Samantha is dead, I kept my promise to him. The seat and table of Flag Lieutenant next to my office are kept empty as an honour to my buddy who was ready to sacrifice his life for my protection. As the Navy Commander and now as CDS, a four-star Admiral, I do not have a Flag Lieutenant. I have only Personal Security Officers (PSOs) but not a Flag Lieutenant. Lieutenant Commander (SBS) Samantha Gallage, WWV, RWP and Bar, RSP will remain as my Flag Lieutenant until the day I retire.