Fifteen years ago by this hour, over 100,000 people across littorals of South-South East Asia lay dead. Over 228,000 would eventually perish in the Asian Tsunami of Dec 26, 2004. I was a young Executive Officer (EXO) onboard a missile corvette of Indian Navy. What was meant to be a short sortie to Chennai for Officers Training Academy’ (OTA) ‘Day at Sea’ turned into one of our longest, saddest deployments.
We pulled alongside Chennai harbour on the evening of Dec 25, 2004. Life is tough on a 100m-long missile corvette bristling with surface-to-surface missiles (SSM), guns & radars, ships company of 100+, all jostling for space. We were looking forward to ‘home revolutions’ after the short, independent sea sortie. Nothing prepared us for what lay ahead.
The ship piped ‘hands-call’ to a calm, cool Sunday on East Quay, Chennai Port. ‘Sea & Action’, an hour-long drill to check readiness of all systems for sea, was soon completed. Closing-up of ‘Special Sea Duty Men & Cable Party’ followed – the prelude to a warship putting out to sea. The main engines were started up and checked out – something that possibly saved the ship that day as we were to soon find out.
The first signs of trouble came from a mammoth merchant ship on adjacent berth. Thick, multi-braided berthing hawsers that secure the ship alongside jetty started to smoke, sputter and snap like rubber bands. Within minutes, the ship had broken moorings and rendered ‘vessel not under command’. The surge of water brought in by the first waves of tsunami overwhelmed the moorings of most ships. Soon, tidal basin of Chennai harbour was awash with multiple merchant ships drifting and colliding with each other.
Tsunami then was not a common word in our lexicon. For many minutes, nobody had any idea what was going on. The only indication inside the sheltered harbour was rising and falling floodwaters. This absorbed all the slack in berthing hawsers, put enormous strain on moorings, finally parting them and leaving 5-6 ships underway without power. To make matters worse, it was a Sunday. Most merchant vessels had only skeletal crew onboard; port authorities, tugs, tug masters, all were ill-prepared for a disaster of this magnitude.
As wave after wave of tsunami slammed into the tidal basin, pandemonium broke loose. Multiple collisions between free-drifting merchant vessels posed serious dangers of fire and flooding. Our relatively small warship was caught between the proverbial devil and deep sea. Our SSM containers on engaged side snagged under the jetty, threatening to tip us over. Since all action posts were fully manned and engines fired-up, we managed to control the situation with great alacrity, employing main engines, brute human power and many unconventional, innovative measures that were soon to become the mainstay of the rescue effort that ensued.
A ship is safe in harbour, but not during a tsunami. We were ordered to ‘sail with dispatch’ (put out to sea immediately) before the harbour turned into a shipwreck. It took several attempts with ‘full ahead’ on both engines before we could break through the surging floodwaters, escape drifting tankers and container-carriers 10-times our size, and finally reach safe waters out at sea.
Next four days were consumed in delivering relief and succour to the affected villages along east coast of India with whatever we had onboard – manpower, rations, medical supplies and most important of all, empathy. Every night, we dropped anchor outside a different location, set up camps ashore, did what we could, then sailed again. There was some hope that maybe we could still retrieve something out of New Year’s Eve, when we received orders to return to Chennai afternoon of 31st Dec 2004.
Unbeknownst to us, the biggest rescue and relief operation in recent history – HADR in naval terms – was launched by Indian Navy following the Asian Tsunami. There was a consignment running into several trucks waiting for us when we returned from sea on new year’s eve. An operational turnaround of scale we had never seen before awaited us. Then Naval Officer-in-Charge, Tamil Nadu (NOIC TN), Cmde Thayi Hari was personally pacing up and down the naval jetty, barking orders, supervising loading/unloading of relief material along with many defence /civil authorities.
Some unique challenges faced us. We were a small warship with barely enough space to accommodate men, fuel, ammunition and water. We were to embark about 20 tons of relief material, including medical supplies, blankets, tinned food, clothes etc. A helicopter was to operate from our deck, which meant the helideck couldn’t be touched for storage. Every conceivable space in the ship therefore was loaded to hilt, including SSM containers, main alleyway, mess decks and offices. Stability calculations were reviewed to ensure topweight would not imperil the ship.
A ship’s company planning to ring-in the new year at Chennai undertook loading till wee hours of 1st Jan, 2005, then put out to sea when rest of Chennai was sleeping. The Indian Navy had by then spread its HADR effort all across S & SE Asia. Our ship’s area of responsibility was Meulaboh in Indonesia, south-west of the worst affected Banda Aceh province.
We sailed through new year, cutting across the Bay of Bengal to reach Meulaboh. For 2-3 miles inland, there was nothing but death and devastation. It was as if a giant earthmover had pummelled everything to dust. The smell of rotting flesh pervaded the air. Multiple ships from a multinational rescue force were on location. There was no jetty; nothing had survived along the coast. Some concrete houses stood with their roofs blown off where the deadly flood waters burst out. I have never seen so much death and destruction in my life.
With our modest resources comprising a Rubberised Inflated Boat (RIB) and 120 willing hands, we went to work, slowly moving the relief material ashore, setting up medical camps, strengthening the hands of Indonesian forces stunned by the disaster, coordinating with multiple agencies from the ad-hoc international task force. What we lacked in resources, we compensated with jugaad, untiring efforts, and an almost maniacal belief that we were making a difference.
It’s easy to lose hope in such situations. Huge LHDs from US Navy with modern LCACs, heavy lift helicopters, top-grade equipment, foreign ships with Dynamic Position (DP) systems, hovercraft, etc exuded a picture of quiet efficiency while we thrashed about with archaic equipment. So, when somebody still tells me in 2019 “we fight with what we have”, I completely understand what that means. It pains me now as it did then why we continue to make this our abiding mantra.
After rendering yeoman service for over a month, our ship sailed back to Indian waters. We were down to emergency rations and last few cartons of biscuits saved in our missile containers.
Much has changed today. Maybe we are better off now than ever before. Yet, what strikes me as odd is the misplaced jingoism from high echelons claiming “we are fully ready for all eventualities”, including a two-front war. Top military leaders are wading into waters they don’t belong with only a lifejacket of hope; lecturing university-going students on protest and taking political positions while the force grapples with lack of basic equipment like sniper rifles, howitzers or helicopters. At this rate, we’ll soon be competing with lathi-wielding policemen.
A Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is likely to be appointed soon. Host of military reforms are expected. Our charter has grown manifold, fuelled by global aspirations while force levels play catch-up. We shouldn’t let few ‘yes men’ with a convenient memory or agenda wreck those dreams. If political grandstanding in uniform is the new normal, we certainly don’t need it. The army must always remain above & beyond, insulated from those realms.
Don’t forget Tsunami 2004. The armed forces are called-in when all else fails. A sincere plea therefore:
Military leaders, don’t fall for low-hanging fruits. Keep your eye on the ball, not rank or epaulettes. The force was around before NaMo & RaGa. The force will exist long after you are gone. Leave behind a legacy, not bluster or hot gas.
May the force be with all of us. In these trying times, we need a tsunami of changes, not rhetoric.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo scanned from my copy of Adventures of Tintin by Herge.