History of the men who sailed aboard the first Indian submarine
It was 35 ° C below zero. The sea between an isolated island near Vladivostok (present-day Russia) and the mainland had frozen over. In the bitter cold stood a band of young Indian naval officers and sailors undergoing rigorous military training. But the killer winters were just the tip of the iceberg. The crew faced greater challenges during their 18-month training, but surprisingly none of this deterred their passion for becoming skilled submariners.
A year later, in 1967, these young men made history by being part of the very first Indian submarine crew. INS Kalvari S (23) was not just headed by Commander KS Subramanian from Chennai, but four of the 10 commanders, including Lt PK Ramanathan, Surg (surgeon) Lt Cdr A Abraham and Lt R Ramesh *, were from the city. Today, pride and nostalgia come together when these four officers see the first of the six Kalvari-class navy submarines, INS Kalvari S (50), undergo sea trials.
In 1966, naval officers made a 24-hour journey from Bombay via Delhi and Moscow to Vladivostok, crossing nine time zones, west and east, to begin their training in Vladivostok. Interestingly, the crew received three months of training in Russian before leaving for Vladivostok. “We learned from Russian textbooks and spoke to the officers in Russian because they didn’t speak English,” says Ramanathan.
The hiccups started with low temperatures and unappetizing food. The lack of bathing facilities saw the crew tiptoe on the ice to reach their bathing cabin, 100m from their residence. “Even the submarine had a capacity of only six tons of water for us 78, so we went without a bath for several days,” says Ramanathan, who later resumed his title of captain.
Being a relatively underdeveloped part of the Soviet Union, the crew were greeted with dehydrated potatoes and onions, among other things, says Surg Lt Abraham, who was first sent to Leningrad for his training. in underwater medicine and his escape training as a doctor.
INS Kalvari S (23) was commissioned in Riga on December 8, 1967, since known as Submarine Day. “That day the temperature was -17 ° C. Despite this, I decided that our sailors would show up in their normal winter uniform without an overcoat to look stylish, as the overcoats provided by the Indian Navy were of poor quality, ”Subramanian explains.
INS Kalvari S (23) made its first visit from Riga on April 18, 1968. It visited Le Havre, Casablanca, Las Palmas, Conakry and Port Louis before arriving in Vishakapatnam on July 16, 1968. “The canal de Suez was closed at that time, so we had to stealthily navigate around Africa for about 29 days before visiting Mauritius and heading to Vizag, ”says Ramanathan, who received his initial training in the operation of submarines in the UK in 1961.
“When we rounded the Cape of Good Hope, we were constantly followed by the US 7th Fleet. To indicate that we were not enemies, the submarine never dived,” explains Dr Abraham. He then established the Escape Training School at Vizag in 1969 to train officers to escape sunken submarines. He retired prematurely in 1984 as a commanding surgeon. The trip to Paris during their stopover in Le Havre was the most memorable for all. They walked to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and Montmartre because they relied on meager salaries.
“We had four Russians on board to make sure the submarine was operated according to the manual. Except in Paris, they were never revealed to the public during our stopovers as the Russians were not allowed to leave the country. At the time. As they wanted to do, they also visit tourist sites, they smuggled in through Paris and avoided public transport by visiting monuments, “explains Ramanathan.
But the hardest part was after the crew arrived in Vizag. “We had an important job to do because we had to train the support team here. Every day from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. we serviced the submarine and in the evening we formed the support team,” says Ramesh. , who became a vice admiral.
The decommissioning of INS Kalvari S (23) – the Grand Old Lady – on May 31, 1996 left the crew with tears in their eyes. “In the case of a ship or submarine that you have commissioned, especially if it is the first of its kind in the Navy, its decommissioning is a poignant occasion,” said Subramanian, who was then retired commodore, the main guest for the occasion. .
The life of a submariner is anything but envious and becoming one is not easy. Among other things, a submariner must pass a tough medical test that checks if he can withstand high pressures, temperatures and closed environments. “It is very gratifying to see how, despite prolonged government neglect and the resultant preventable submarine accidents, the submarine arm is growing steadily, albeit slowly and maintaining standards of technical capacity,” said Subramanian said, stressing that people using such technology deserve to be treated. for.
It is with this in mind that these veterans hope to gain recognition for their contribution to the Indian Navy from the state government and look forward to a meeting with the Chief Minister for this purpose.
(Originally posted under Dravidian, Roots & Wings | TOI Blogs)