Closure of just three overseas missions is sheer “Tokenism”

By Admiral Ravindra C Wijegunaratne

(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy) Former Chief of Defence Staff

Forty-one years ago, in 1980, 13 youths selected from thousands of applicants boarded the night mail train bound to Trincomalee to commence their training as Cadets at the Naval and Maritime Academy, Trincomalee, except one of whose travelling was delayed by one week. This batch was the 9th Intake of Cadets to be trained at this prestigious Naval Academy.

The batch consisted of Marine Engineering Cadet Mahesh Goonesekere, outstanding sportsman from S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia (who had won College colours in five sports), Executive Cadet Shirantha Udawatta from Sri Sumangala College, Panadura.

Shirantha was the oldest in our batch. Executive Cadet Damitha Vitharana, outstanding Ananda College athlete, who cleared 6 feet 2 inches in the long jump, although his height was only 5 feet 10 inches and also a great 110-metre hurdler. He was the youngest in the batch.

Executive Cadet Rohan Amarasinghe from De Mazenod College Kandana, a Sri Lanka schools football player, Engineering Cadet Shiran Rathnayake from Isipatana College, handsome, resembling a Hindi film star, Executive Cadet Rohana Prerera, outstanding footballer from Kingswood College, Kandy, Executive Cadet Gamini Fernando, an outstanding Volleyball player from St Anne's College Kurunagala, Engineering Cadet Thilak Senaratne from Sri Sumangala College, Panadura , Executive Cadet Chanaka Rupasinghe from Richmond College Galle, Logistics Cadet Roshan Fernando, Royalist and outstanding Public schools Athlete. Roshan's elder brother, Shermal Fernando was in our senior batch, 8th intake. Logistics Cadet Dushantha Amaranayake, Nalandian cricketer and yours truly.

Cadet Christie Jayawardena from St. Antony's College, Wattala, lost his father (who was an airline pilot) on the day we travelled to Trincomalee, and he joined us later.

I had no intention of joining the Navy. I wanted to join the Army.

But Roshan insisted at College that Navy was better than the Army and I should come along with him. However, my schoolmate Sajith's father was the Chief of Staff of the Navy at that time (late Admiral Asoka De Silva - an outstanding Navy Rugby player in the 50s). What I learnt from my friend Sajith was that Navy officer training was very hard !

We were received at the Trincomalee railway station by a smart Dutch burgher Petty Officer, and introduced himself as "Petty Officer T.I.

Eanus and your Divisional Petty Officer", clad in white uniform with white peak cap and shoes, tall, strong perfect body like a Greek God. His Commanding voice and crisp English surprised us and I started wondering if "Petty Officers" is like this, how would be the high ranking Officers we were to meet in the Navy later!

The vehicle was waiting for us to take us from the Trincomalee Railway station to the Naval and Maritime Acadamy (NMA) was a six-wheeler open truck. Our trip ended up at "Gun Room", but there were no guns.

Petty officer Eanus started teaching us the "Naval terms". Gun Room is junior officers Mess. Dinner in Navy known as supper.

Lunch is known as dinner! Left side is known as the port side. Right side known as the Starboard side.

Toilets ae known as heads! "From tomorrow you are not going to the toilet; you go to heads to shit! Understood!" Petty officer Eanus said.

Closure of just three overseas missions is sheer “Tokenism”

"Yes, Sir!" we shouted in chorus.

Another word of caution. "You do not say, 'Yes Sir!' in the Navy! That is the Army!

We say "Aye aye, Sir!" We shouted, "Aye, aye, Sir!" Another mistake! "You do not call a Petty Officer 'Sir' You call only an officer Sir! So, when I give an order, you say, 'Aye, aye, Petty Officer!" It was confusing.

This is Navy! Petty Officer (Wireless Instructor) Tony I Eanus later in the service earned his Commission in Navy Volunteer Force and rose to rank of Lieutenant Commander before his retirement.

I should say Navy's food was delicious and plenty.

Charlis, a kind man who lived outside Naval Base in Andankulam, was our civilian helper who brought us food from the Kitchen known as the galley in the Navy. Washing, cleaning and laying food we had to do ourselves. "Mess men" were detailed from the batch. Everyone was keen to be the mess man as all untouched leftover food belongs to that person.

That evening our Assistant Divisional Officer came to Gun Room, when we just started to have our supper using fork and spoon.

He was a dashing Sub Lieutenant who had just returned from the UK after completing his International Sub Lieutenant Course at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth and HMNB Portsmouth with flying colours. His dedicated teaching starts with "how to eat with fork and spoon - in Royal Navy way". Bad enough, only a few of my batchmates had proper meal that night.

Sub Lieutenant Dushantha Chelliah was a outstanding cricketer and a hockey player and a Navy coloursman in both the sports.

He was a great teacher and used to follow us in his newly purchased motorcycle when we were doing long runs. Thanks to his guidance, we became good runners soon. Dushantha Chelliah served the Navy for 22 years and migrated to the US on green card with his family.

Closure of just three overseas missions is sheer “Tokenism”

Our tough time was with MCPO (G.

I.) Rathnatunga and his assistant (later gained Commission and promoted to Lieutenant Commander) Leading Seaman M B C A Mendis. Mr Rathnatunga ensured we were smart in drill. Being a Lance Sergeant in school Cadeting, I was selected to be the Parade Commander most of the days.

After a few days I realieed that the Parade Commander is never inspected for uniform and polishing brass parts and boots. I conveniently neglected by polishing when others were working hard in polishingduring the night and then volunteered to perform duties of Parade Commander the next morning at the Parade grounds and thereby escape dress inspections, until I was caught red-handed to Mr Rathnatunga (Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO), the senior most rank for sailors also called as Mister). After one hour of extra drill, Mr Rathnatunga's adviced me not to repeat such behaviour and not to follow the easy way to reach the to top!

He must have seen some of this in my eyes (blue eyes ??) and his advice helped me in my service career to reach the pinnacle of the Armed Forces of Sri Lanka.

Roshan did not like the Navy and within two months he left the service and joined Sri Lanka Police.

He did extremely well in the Police and the STF and became a Duputy Inspector Gen-ral of Police prior retirement recently.

We met our Divisional Officer at our class room in the Nautical school.

He was an old Anandian, and the Navy Football Captain, Lieutenant (G) Sarath Weerasekara (today a Cabinet Minister). We loved him. His easy-going approach and excellent orations both in Sinhala and English with glimpses of our history inspired us to work hard and love our country.

His knowledge of Buddhism and history was outstanding.

Lt (N) Daya Dharmapriya was our Navigation Instructor. Our foundation to be safe and good navigators in Sri Lankan and foreign waters was laid at No.

2 class room in the Nautical school by Lt Dharmapriya. He rose to the rank of Rear Admiral and was the first Director General of Sri Lanka Coast Guards.

Our Physical Training team was led by MCPO (PTI) P P R De Silva, outstanding Swimming and High board diving instructor, who ensured we all became good swimmers.

Mahesh and Gamini were good swimmers, Mahesh being a coloursman in swimming at S. Thomas' College, Mountt Lavinia. Later Mr Silva became an excellent Coach at the Sugatadasa Stadium and Otters Swimming club, where he trained my son as well.

He passed away few years back. May his soul rest in peace.

Three months training in the Academy followed with sea training at the old Chinese Shanghai class gunboat SLNS Ranakamee, where we met another outstanding young officer, Sub Lieutenant JSK Colombage, who had just returned from BRNC Dartmouth. He was super fit at that time.

After sports practice in the evenings atthe Naval base grounds, we were challenged by S/Lt Colombage to run unto the two-Fathom jetty, where our ship was berthed (approx 5km run). When Rohan and Gamini taking that challenge, Mahesh and myself stopped halfway, started walking and then enjoy a 'plain tea' at the civilian canteen wayside. How much Rohan and Gamini tried, they could not beat S/Lt Colobage.

He became 18th Commander of the Navy and is SriLanka's Foreign Secretary today.

Mahesh was stood out in studies. He became the Best Cadet of our batch and won all the prizes other than two at our passing out parade. He received the converted "Sword of Honour" for best Cadet of the Intake 9.

Damitha won the Best Sportsman award for his achievements in athletics and Gamini became best marksman. It was ironic that Gamini died in action in Kuchcuweli, Trincomalee the district in 1985, the first Sri Lanka Navy officer to die in action during the Eelam War. Today, the award for the Best Marksman of the Cadets is presented by our batch in memory of Gamini.

Forty one years is a long time.

As Commander Dushantha Chelliah is on vacation from the USA for three weeks with his charming lady, we decided to have a quick batch get together before his departure to the US. Sadly the untimely passing away of Ven. Ananda thero, the beloved elder brother of Minister Sarath Weerasekara, the Minister declined attend the event, but he requested us to go ahead as planned.

It was a great evening with bonhomie and carmaraderie with the batch mates joined by some of our families. Admiral Colobage was there even though he was a very busy person as the Foreign Secretary.

When we look back 41 years out of 12, eleven were fortunate enough to have survived in our 26-year long conflict, which ended in 2009. All got married and have children, and therefore, the claim that those who are exposed to Decca 110 radar waves whilst on punishment at Crow's nest of old gun boat became infertile was false! (However, we took no risks; I remember wearing more than three pieces of underwear before climbing to Crow's nest!

Such is the love men have for some parts of their anatomy!)

Out of the twelve, four Damitha, Chanaka, Christie and Shiran) opted to retire early and to migrate. All four are doing very well. Those who remained in the Navy till retirement age of 55 years, five became (two star) Rear Admirals (Mahesh, Rohan, Rohana, Thilak, and Dushantha).

Three headed their respective branches in the Navy, (Mahesh and Thilak - Marine Engineering branch, Dushantha - Logistics branch). Rohan has an unbroken record of, first to marry and first to have a child and first grandchild of our batch. Yours truly, the second in order of merit as Cadet, from Executive Branch, a week older to Damitha ends up as a four-star Admiral, Commander of the Navy and CDS.

If our batch has done well in the Navy, the credit should go to our instructors at the NMA when we were Cadets, who laid a very strong foundation for our career.

I always remember the wise words of MCPO(G.I.) Rathnatunga at NMA Parade Square in 1980 - Cadet Wijegunaratne!

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