On Wednesday, August 14th 2013 the Indian Navy’s Submarine Arm suffered a tragic loss. Losing one person is bad enough, losing an entire boat and a crew of 18 is a tragedy no one could have predicted.
It is yet to be known why S63 INS Sindhurakshak exploded twice that night. A full investigation will tell us ‘how’ it happened. For now there is speculation that something went awry during battery charging that could have led to the torpedoes igniting. Gunther Prien, the legendary U-boat commander, a man known to every submariner said, “Every torpedo has its gremlin, which every now and again, for all man’s intelligence plays its wilful pranks.” (The biography of Gunther Prien by Wolfgang Frank, 1932). Soon enough we will be told what lit up the South Mumbai skyline that night and extinguished the light of 18 souls.
But what no one can answer, with even a shred of certainty, is ‘why’ it happened to those 18 men on that particular night. Trying to understand this will lead one nowhere, will tie you up in knots, so it is best to not even try. I’m sure that every submariner who heard the news whether Indian or foreign, felt hollow and winded, a punch in the gut, a feeling of disbelief, shock and fear – this does not ever happen. The only silver lining is that this did not happen a few hours later, out at sea with a full crew of 80 or 90 men on board.
So far the Indian TV news media has been surprisingly restrained while reporting this incident. Not having access to the high security Naval Dockyard has added to the lack of gory images, shaky cameras and breathless reporters. One can only hope that in the coming weeks, as the blame game plays out between news anchors, they will employ the same amount of respect.
Winston Churchill said, “Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners.”
At times like this you pray that there is some force in the universe that will give the families of these men some courage to eventually heal from this horrific end. Their grief is unfathomable. The stories are incredibly tragic and unfair. One officer was married just 2 months ago, another with a young child and another on the way. Many of the sailors were the sole breadwinners of their families, putting younger siblings through school. All of them were loved sons and colleagues.
But my thoughts are also with the teams of divers and the men who are running the rescue operation, dealing with a whole raft of responsibilities that they never thought they would have to, working at a punishing pace, but also dealing with the emotional carnage of losing so many of their colleagues and friends to such a fiery end. Anyone who ever served on INS Sindhurakshak, any one who ever met one of those 18 men will be dazed for a while to come. These submariners are so tough. Dealing with life and responsibilities on board a sub has made their fortitude so ingrained that they shrug it off when talking about their day and conversely so palpable when they speak about the Submarine Arm with pride. My thoughts are with those who are working tirelessly to pick up the pieces, to honour the mortal remains of their fallen comrades, while desperately fighting off the emotions bubbling up.
I first heard of the phrase, ‘on eternal patrol’ when I was involved in conceptualising a submarine museum. The brains behind the concept, day to day design and heavy lifting and ultimate completion of the museum (you know who you are) said that we should have an area dedicated to men who lost their lives while serving on board a submarine. We envisioned a quiet ante-room off the main museum, dimly lit, with their names tastefully etched on a stone slab under the phrase, ‘on eternal patrol’. Even then thinking of those the Arm had lost, we didn’t expect to be adding so many more names all at once, as well as the name of a boat. Here is a list of the names of those who died that day. The best we can do, is to never forget them.
Culled from better wordsmiths than me I leave you with this:
Let it never be said that we don’t remember,
what happened that fated day.
Her end was violent and quick we are told,
T’was thought with this, our hearts be consoled.
Now Davy Jones looks after those men so brave,
The silent ocean, their watery grave.