From Jalandhar, I moved to Arunachal Pradesh as OC of our unit. It was an interesting and valuable experience. I will narrate some of the memories.
Aim: Scare Newcomers
High Altitude Areas (HAA) are physically demanding and there is a general tendency to scare new entrants to the area. The probable reason for this is to raise the image of those serving in the region. Our unit received exactly such a welcome. Our unit was quite susceptible to such information, primarily because the last time 23 PUNJAB had served in HAA was in 1974. Thus very few oldies had the experience of it. Having served in North Sikkim, I was well suited to lead the advance party. I took the following measures to remove this scare.
· Tough Training at the First Stage of Acclimatization. I prepared a tough schedule of physical fitness and included regular runs which are generally avoided by troops in HAA. Every fortnight on a Saturday troops carried their belongings and did a 20 km march. I used to run 12 km (6 km downslope and 6 km upslope) every day, apart from other exercises.
· CO, The Toughie. The CO of the unit being relieved was a fit guy and the sycophantic culture prevalent in the unit had created his image of a superman. Records of his covering distances were written down on posts. We got an opportunity to walk together from the second stage of acclimatization to the Yangtze. It took 7 hr 30 min to cover a distance which I did in 5 hr 30 min. In this way, I set the standard for our unit and busted the superman image.
· Medical Training. We had two doctors, one at the base camp and one at the Yangtze. I planned regular training of battlefield nursing assistants at both the locations under them. I had done a cadre at High Altitude Warfare School in 1984, followed by a patrol across the Pir Panjal Pass in the same year, and then served in North Sikkim in 1998 and had fairly good knowledge of HAAs. I trained the troops through regular lectures.
· Alcohol Consumption. There exists a misconception that brandy and alcohol consumption are good in cold weather. I banned the consumption of alcohol for 3 months and allowed consumption of only one peg per day during the daytime and not night thereafter.
· Result of Fitness and Medical Training. The result of the measures undertaken was that our unit was the only one that did not have a single HAPO/HACO casualty. My tough measures were at times unpopular with some senior officers and JCOs. My answer to them was that I owed it to the Army to train them to be fit for war in HAA and owed it to their families to keep them alive.
Poor State of Administration
· MT. The state of Mechanical Transportof theunit we were relieving was very poor. They were mixing excess kerosene in diesel to improve the starting of engines in the cold. We took measures to start engines at night to keep them warm and maintained the transport much better. My Sub Maj had been a driver and he guided me in improving the state of the MT. His elder brotherly advice was most beneficial.
· Ration Stocking, Parachutes and Jerry Cans. The state of stocking of rations and back-loading of parachutes and jerry cans used in dropping rations was in a very poor state. There was a huge platform of jerry cans piled up at Yangtze. In 6 months our unit back-loaded everything. The Dropping Zone (DZ) at Yangtze was approximately 400 m down-slope from our Fibre Reinforced Plastic huts (FRPs). The dropped rations at the DZ had to be first stocked at a shed next to the DZ and then manually carried to the ration shed 400 m upslope. This was treated as quite a burden. I made it into a competitive game. I participated in not only collecting the ration at the DZ but also carrying it upslope. I overcame the resentment of the JCOs by stating that I needed the challenging exercise to keep up my fitness. Every morning our fitness training involved carrying rations upslope. Naik Praveen held the record of running non-stop upslope while carrying a sack of 90 kg sugar bag. Sepoy Rakesh (popularly known as Akshay Kumar) had become famous for carrying a Honda Generator nonstop. We created our own heroes.
· “Bukhari” Usage. “Bukharis” are often a cause of accidents and casualties. In North Sikkim, my 2 IC barely survived when his FRP was completely burnt down. Our Deputy GOC and his wife had died in a “bukhari” accident. A major cause of accidents is that the kerosene jerry can is kept near the ‘bukhari’ and accidental tripping of the jerry can cause fire accidents. I ensured that not a single jerry can be ever kept inside any hut. It was secured outside the hut and through a long tube, kerosene reached the ‘bukhari’.
· Quality of Food. We managed very good quality of food through judicious use of the generous Condiment and Papad-Pickle allowances. “Half-links” and “Jam paani” are terms well known in HAAs. Let me explain a “Half-link”. Let us assume that some mail is to be carried to me at Yangtze from the base. The distance involved was four hours by road from base to Stage One Camp (Lungro GG). The distance from Lungro GG to Damteng GG was four hours by foot. From Damteng GG to Yangtze was four and half hours by foot. A link patrol would leave from Lungro GG at 4:00 AM and reach the half-link point to Damteng GG. A similar patrol would leave from Damteng GG to the half-link point. They would meet up at around 6:00 AM. Both parties will exchange whatever they had to and reach their respective locations by 8:30 to 9:00 AM. They would observe a tea break at the half-link point. We had shelters created at all these points to provide protection from snow/rain. By my orders “Namak-para” and “Shakkar-para” had to be provided to all these patrols. We planted onions, radish and spinach at Damteng GG. None of our troops had been doing so but the Chinese were doing this in their opposite camps.
· Drinking Water. The river waters and that obtained from melting snow was quite okay but in general the storage was unclean. I insisted on clean water for consumption and we improvised filters by giving filtration candles at every location to be stuck between two tin cans.
Drastic Change in Culture: Yangtze
When I first reached Yangtze I was told by the Yangtze Sub Sector Commander, a Maj (having approximately 8 years of service; I had 20 years of service) , that the following routine was observed at the location: The six officers stationed there got up around 7:30-8:00 AM; by the time they got ready, it was past 10:30 AM. They had brunch at 11:30 AM and dinner at 5:00 PM. I did not find any policies for the establishment of observation posts and so on. He was suggesting to me that I could work only between 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM. I told him that this routine was not laid down by God and I will start my reconnaissance (recce) of the LAC at 5:30 AM after having tea along with something to eat. There was one Maj who looked quite fit and had played Volleyball for the Services Team. I said that he should be able to accompany me till 8:30 AM when I would have breakfast and thereafter the Sub Sector Commander should accompany me for 3-4 hours of further recce. I told him that I was comfortable walking 6-7 hours in the day and also liked to play some games in the evening for about an hour or so. Within one week I changed their culture!
Second Trip to Fetch K Oil
In our first move up to Yangtze the weather was bad and we could not go by road up to Lungro GG because of heavy accumulation of snow. This walk was tough and at midnight we reached a campsite and were still required to make a second trip of about three hours after 6-7 hours of tough walk in the snow to fetch kerosene oil jerry cans. The guys were tired. I asked for volunteers. In a group of 16 I got four. I became the fifth volunteer and carried jerry cans. The troops had already seen my conduct in the attack exercise training at Jalandhar and now they saw that I was not just a Commander but also an effective team member who could persevere in tough conditions.
Hygiene and Porters
In my first climb to Yangtze I halted for a tea break at one half-link point where three persons of the relieving unit were stationed in a snow tent. Their dresses and appearance were black because of the massive collection of soot due to the use of improvised kerosene lamps made with a bottle and a cord. It was the first time in my Defence career that I refused to have tea offered by the troops and chose to eat snow to keep hydrated. I banned the use of this improvised lamp anywhere. We got all the blackened FRPs freshly painted from the inside. The standard of cook houses, food, the conduct of PT, and a productive routine made the porters remark that since I had come new to the area I was trying to impress the troops and they were convinced that in a matter of one month the lifestyle would come back to as it was with the previous unit. After one month the appearance of the porters changed. Some of the young ones began joining us in our strength exercise competitions.
Sunday: Volleyball Matches
Yangtze Sub Sector comprised Yangtze Post, Mera La and Thang La Posts. Every Sunday morning, we had matches among the 3 teams. It was great fun. At Yangtze post, we played Volleyball for one hour each evening. We never stopped even during snowfall. There were times that the cold prevented us from being able to speak during play but the game continued.
Don’t Need Your Defensive Battle Plan
Our handing/taking over from the unit moving out was far from smooth. The CO wanted to throw a tantrum through his 2IC to me. He told me that their CO did not want to hand over the battalion’s defensive plan to me which was appreciated by the GOC. I had about four times more experience than their CO in operations planning. I had made the defensive plan for Tibet Plateau in North Sikkim at a Brigade level and a war game at the Division level. This was just a battalion-level plan. I told him to keep the plan and wrote my own plan.
Butter as Per Scale
During the advance party days, I had a detachment of troops administratively under an ASSAM Battalion for about 2 months. They were not being given butter as per scale. I requested the Maj responsible for the administration to ensure it and if it was not done I would report the matter to the Brigadier. I was forced to do so and then things improved.
CO: “I am Patient; You Command Unit!”
My CO, as I had stated earlier, was a rather meek person. After great reluctance, he reached Yangtze and straight away reported sick and was evacuated by helicopter the next day. During his tenure of the command of our unit, he never climbed Yangtze but stayed at our base. He told me to give the report to the Commander. I asked him as to whether he or I was commanding the unit. He said, “I am a Patient; You Command the Unit!”. This interesting arrangement continued for about 4 months after he was quite okay from Oct 2000 to Jan 2001, when he was posted out and I was appointed as the CO. Command of a unit is a dream of every officer. I was lucky to command a unit. Assuming command of a unit in which I had already been in control for almost four years was pretty easy. The troops knew me and so did I. The unit and I were both ready to take the unit to good heights. In the next blog I shall talk about the command tenure.