I recently did a talk on an internet TV platform, where I spoke about my service career in the Indian Air Force, amongst other things. I had sent the video to my cousin-sister at Calcutta. Her dad, my father’s elder brother - Shejo Jethu to us, was in the Army and she and her elder sister had grown up in various Army camps and cantonments where he was posted in the 60s and 70s. Incredibly, Jethu went to 5 wars in his service career between 1942 and 1974, starting with World War II and World War I had spoken about him in my talk.
She called me later and spoke for a long time, reminiscing about her growing up years, in a fascinating conversation that kept jumping back and forth from posting to posting, war to war, as she recalled events and incidents and people that I was not familiar with, even though I had spent nearly 25 years in the Air Force myself, later.
Their schooling was affected and interrupted, time and again, because of my uncle’s postings to remote places like Udhampur near Jammu, and Gurgaon (which was back of beyond then!), where there were no schools and they were home tutored till almost 10 years of age.
She remembers Bengali families with sprawling ancestral homes at Ambala in those days, who had moved there from Lahore originally. Lahore had a lot of Bengalis before the Partition, doctors and such - who would have believed that!
A distantly related cousin brother of ours, Flight Lieutenant Tapan Kumar Chowdhury, Tapan dada to her, was posted with them at Ambala in the No.7 Squadron of the IAF- the Battle Axes- and used to visit them often. A fighter pilot who flew Hunters (the British-made Hawker Hunter single-engine jet fighter), he was killed in action in the 1965 war against Pakistan, on 15th Sep 1965 at a mere 29 years of age. Nine days earlier, on 6th Sep, he had flown in the first wave of a daring 5- aircraft pre-dawn attack on the heavily defended Sargodha airfield, the Pakistan Air Force’s premier airbase at the time, inflicting heavy damage.
He made it back safely that day, through heavy anti-aircraft gunfire and pursuing PAF fighters, but wasn’t so lucky, 9 days later.
The war ended a week after that.
She sent me an old B/W photograph of him, taken just before his Squadron moved on detachment to Air Force Station Halwara near Ludhiana, for the war. He looks so young and handsome in his flying overall with the 7 Squadron crest, maps spilling out from knee pockets, flying helmet casually tucked under the crook of an arm, a devil-may-care smile on his face, ready to leave on another operational sortie. Reminded me so much of a BBC documentary called “They Shall Not Grow Old,” on the young soldiers of the Second World War, many of whom did not make it back.
Didi remembers that he would often come home to their place for meals saying he couldn’t bear to eat the fondly called “runway grass cutting produce” anymore - the semi-liquid palak- ki- sabji that was so common in Air Force Messes at the time and later too. When the war broke out, he was on his way with a few other fighter pilots to a MiG-21 flying training conversion course in Russia. He was waiting to catch a flight to Moscow at Delhi Airport when he was paged on the PA system and asked to report back to Halwara instead.
Called back by Destiny as it were...
She was convinced that he’d been shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire, having read a report in the Statesman to that effect at the time. But there were conflicting versions on the net, that of a bird- hit on takeoff when he was scrambled from Halwara on 15th Sep, to intercept intruding PAF F-86 Sabre jets. His parachute got blown back into the burning wreckage after a successful ejection at a low level. And there was another which said that he was shot down by anti-aircraft gunfire on that day. I desperately wanted to find out what exactly had happened.
When I contacted the IAF, they did not seem very sure, the incident having taken place 56 years ago. Although they did tend to favour the Bird Hit report.
I then set about locating someone who would have known him personally and my quest led me through a currently serving senior officer of the IAF, to Air Marshal Prakash Pingale, now in his 80s, who had flown with him in that war as a young Flying Officer belonging to the same Squadron.
Not wishing to intrude, I asked the Air Marshal in a Whatsapp message, if he would have any recollection of the incident that had happened one day before his (he was then Flying Officer Pingale with just 2 yrs of service), shooting down a PAF F-86 Sabre in a combat sortie in which his No 2, Flying Officer Feroze Dara Bunsha, was shot down. He won a Vir Chakra for that.
F/O Pingale, had in fact, nine days earlier on 6th Sep, been shot down himself, by a PAF F-86 Sabre. Luckily, he ejected, landed safely, and unbelievably, was back to combat flying again a week later!
The sheer, incredible courage of it!
I hoped the octogenarian Air Marshal would see my message and hopefully, respond to it. Sure enough, the reply came within a couple of hours, a wonderfully detailed, warm, personalised message that clarified most of my doubts.
He said that Flight Lieutenant Chowdhury, or ‘Chau’ as he affectionately called him, was already in 7 Squadron - the ‘Battle Axes’- when he joined it in 1963. ‘Seven’ was an elite Squadron those days and was assigned the role of defending the Forward Areas. And Chau was an outstanding pilot who was a member of the 9- aircraft Forward Area Team of 7 Sqn, with the Late Air Chief Marshal LM ‘Baba’ Katre (then Wing Commander Katre), as the CO.
He was very fond of him he said, even when they were based at Ambala, before the war. During the ‘65 war the IAF flew many mixed formations and so, although Chau was in 7 Sqn, he flew some missions with 27 Sqn pilots, another Hunter Squadron based at Halwara, including that fabled pre-dawn raid on the Sargodha Airfield.
He still has a vivid recollection of Chau’s tragic accident, having witnessed it from the ground that fateful day. He had a bird hit on Taking Off and to save the aircraft, decided to try and land back. On the Downwind leg of the Airfield Circuit Pattern, the aircraft caught fire and Chau was told to eject. He, however, persisted with his approach to land, but the fire spread and he finally jettisoned his cockpit canopy and ejected on Base Leg, close to the airfield. Flying Officer Pingale and their squadron doctor, Flight Lieutenant Agarwal, were the first ones to reach him. He had fallen well clear of the crashed aircraft and his face appeared normal. But the Doc felt his pulse and shook his head. His parachute had probably caught fire in the air and he succumbed to his injuries.
He concluded his message reiterating once again that he was very fond of Chau and had spent a lot of time in his room in the Officers Mess. He was a bit of a loner according to him, but a gem of a person who was also a good footballer and guitarist, having joined the IAF through the NDA, the National Defence Academy.
So there I had it, right from the horses’ mouth, so to say, a vivid first-hand account of an incident from 56 years ago, lost in the mists of time and I am so glad that I now know exactly what had happened that day.
Today, there is a road named after him called ‘Flight Lieutenant Tapan Chowdhury Avenue' at Kolkata and an auditorium called Tapan Theatre. Although I doubt anyone in those places now, knows or remembers who he was - a Google search only threw up names of restaurants and hairdressers located there.
Such is life…
Fascinating stories were long forgotten by all but the ones who lived them. Of these heroes, who were the Salt of the Earth and deserve better in terms of Remembrance, from the countrymen they fought to protect! Of those who willingly “Gave up their Todays, for our Tomorrows.”
Stories that need to be told- over and over again.
Lest we forget…