‘Lest we forget...’ | Daily News

‘Lest we forget...’

Continuing our tribute to the gallant men at the frontline who laid down their lives so we could have ours

Part II

Corporal D.M.S. Chandrasiri Bandara PWV, RWP

Special Forces Regiment

Died: February 3, 2009 Nandikadal Forward Defence Line

By early February 2009, the Security Forces had confined the LTTE to a small area around Puthukudiyirippu. On February 3, the LTTE in a bid to recapture the area, launched a heavy attack on the Security Forces.

The Army knew that the soldiers blocking the Puthukudiyirippu – Mulliyavalai road would be the target of suicide bombers and so deployed more troops – the Second Special Forces, of which Sergeant Chandrasiri Bandara was a member.

At around 3.00 pm, as the Army expected, in the midst of terrorists’ attacks, soldiers noticed a vehicle carrying over 250kg of explosives moving towards the protective barrier which blocked the Puthukudiyirippu – Mulliyavalai road.

Chandrasiri Bandara’s Assistant, Lance Corporal Thushara was the one assigned to attack the explosive-laden vehicle. The Army had RPG guns ready for such an attack. Chandrasiri Bandara knew that if this attempt failed, it would be a huge setback for the Security Forces.

When he saw the vehicle approaching, without thinking twice, he took the RPG gun from his Assistant, approached the road and shot at the vehicle. Unfortunately, it failed to detonate. Although now out of range of the protective cover, he did not fall victim to the terrorists. He quickly attached another RPG bomb to his gun. The vehicle was moving closer and Chandrasiri Bandara well knew he would die in the second attempt. But he opened fire, blasting the explosive-laden vehicle, the blast killing him too.

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Wing Commander Tyron Silvapulle, PWV, RWP, RSP

No. 9 Attack Helicopter Squadron

Died: December 17, 1999 Thamilamadam, near Elephant Pass

Tyron Silvapulle is the only recipient of the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya from the Sri Lanka Air Force.

On December 17 1999, a Mi-24 helicopter and a Bell 212 helicopter were detailed to engage Sea Tiger boats which were attacking the Forward Defence Line of the Army in the general area of Thamilamadam, southeast of Elephant Pass. Squadron Leader Silvapulle who was flying a Mi-24 helicopter led the formation. The weather was bad. Suspecting that the enemy may be armed with surface-to-air missiles, Silvapulle instructed his wingman to stay away from danger and proceeded to attack the enemy. The daring attack against the terrorists was successful and eyewitness reports confirmed that the enemy boats were fleeing from the area. Despite the adverse weather, Silvapulle pursued the fleeing boats.

However, the helicopter was hit with a projectile fired from one of the enemy boats, which may have been a surface-to-air missile, causing it to crash into the Kilali Lagoon, killing Silvapulle, his co-pilot and two gunners. Their bodies were later retrieved in a joint operation by the Air Force and Army.

Silvapulle’s wife was pregnant at the time of his death.

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Chief Petty Officer K.G. Shantha, PWV

Died: November 1, 2008 Seas off Point Pedro

On November 1, 2008, a flotilla of LTTE Sea Tiger attack and suicide craft launched an attack on a fleet of Naval craft in the seas off Point Pedro.

Shantha was a Petty Officer in the Navy’s elite Special Boat Squadron (SBS). He was in command of the patrol boat Z-142 and was part of the Navy group engaged in the battle.

Shantha and his crew engaged the Sea Tiger vessels, using the superiority of the Z-142 to their advantage. However, all three gunners were eventually incapacitated, and Shantha was left unable to attack the enemy boats now approaching the Navy’s larger vessels. A Sea Tiger suicide boat was heading towards the P-164, a fast attack craft of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla carrying 10 sailors. Seeing this, Shantha manoeuvred the Z-142 into the path of the suicide boat and rammed it.

He was killed in the resulting explosion which obliterated the suicide boat and the Z-142 with it, but the P-164 and its crew were spared. The Sri Lanka Navy website says Shantha sacrificed his life to protect that of a senior SBS officer. Shantha is the second of two Naval officers to posthumously receive the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya.

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Commander Lalith Prasanna Edirisinghe

Died: May 11, 2006 Seas off Vettilakerny

Another gallant Naval officer who displayed exceptional bravery saving the lives of no less than 710 of his fellow officers of the Tri-forces and Police, was Lieutenant Commander Lalith Edirisinghe, also commanding a Dvora fast attack craft of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla.

On May 11, 2006, the Navy transport vessel Pearl Cruise II was carrying 710 military and police personnel returning to their postings after leave, from Trincomalee to Kankasanthurai. Edirisinghe’s Dvora P-148 was one of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla escorting the Pearl Cruise II. Close to Mullaitivu, Sea Tiger suicide boats attacked the Navy transport vessel. Although the terrorists’ boats outnumbered the Navy boats, the Dvoras were far superior to the LTTE boats. However, for this particular suicide mission, among the LTTE suicide boats was a powerful boat with four outboard motors of some 200-250 horsepower speeding towards the Pearl Cruise. Although Edirisinghe attacked the boat, the bullets ricocheted off the suicide boat’s armour plating. Realizing there was no other way to stop the fast-approaching suicide boat, Edirisinghe rammed his Dvora into the LTTE boat, the explosion destroying both boats.

Edirisinghe and his men lost their lives, but their sacrifice saved those of 710 of their fellow officers.

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Sergeant H.G.S. Bandara PWV, RSP

Vijayabahu Infantry Regiment

Died: May 18, 2009 Nandikadal Lagoon

At the final stage of the war, operations were in full swing to capture the Nandikadal Lagoon area, the last stronghold of the LTTE. The Army expected the LTTE to attempt to break through their lines, and had stationed several small groups around the lagoon. One of these, an eight-man team stationed on a small islet in the lagoon, was led by Sergeant Bandara.

The expected attack by the LTTE came on May 17 when Bandara’s team spotted a group of about 150 terrorists attempting to cross the lagoon. Although heavily outnumbered, Bandara took the grave risk of ambushing the advancing group with a fierce attack.

The rebels returned fire, critically wounding all soldiers. While leading the battle, Bandara oversaw the evacuation of the injured soldiers and went on fighting with little regard for his own life, although he had the opportunity to withdraw to the rear for medical treatment.

Sergeant Bandara succeeded in repulsing the terrorist attack. However, at the end of the battle, his condition was critical due to excessive bleeding and he died a short while later, a day before victory against the LTTE was declared.

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Lieutenant Commander Jude Wijethunge, PWV

Died: March 30, 1996 Seas off Northern Sri Lanka

Lieutenant Jude Wijethunge was commander of a Dvora fast attack craft of the 4th Fast Attack Flotilla. On March 30, 1996, Sea Tigers attacked a south-bound Navy transport vessel. As part of an escort to the transport vessel, Wijethunge fought off repeated attacks until his craft suffered severe damage including to its engines, with all his crew incapacitated. Noticing a Sea Tiger suicide boat, Wijethunge manoeuvred his Dvora to intercept it, causing the suicide boat to ram into his vessel. The resulting explosion destroyed both vessels, thereby saving the transport vessel which was the target of the suicide boat. Two members of his crew were later rescued from the waters. Wijethunge was the first of two Naval officers posthumously decorated with the Parama Weera Vibhushanaya.

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Epilogue: One family’s sacrifice

Perhaps setting a world record, father and son, Harry and Roshan Goonetilleke were both Commanders of the Air Force. It also proves the dedication and commitment of some families to give of their own for the nation. Air Chief Marshal Harry Goonetilleke was the distinguished fifth (and third local) SLAF Commander (1976–1981), while his son, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilleke (2006–2011) was its twelfth.



Wing Commander 
Shirantha Goonetilleke

Harry Goonetilleke was SLAF Commander during the first insurgency, of which he told our newspaper in a 2006 interview, “Under my instructions, the pilots carried out several helicopter attacks, while the Army and Navy took positions. The JVP had only shotguns those days. Within five weeks everything was brought under control.”

The SLAF website describes ACM Roshan Goonetilleke’s 28-year career as ‘illustrious’, in recognition of which he has been awarded the Uttama Seva Padakkama. He was also decorated twice with the Rana Weera Padakkama for bravery displayed in the face of the enemy.

Most poignantly, it was second son, Group Captain Shirantha Goonetilleke’s death over Palaly in April 1995 that took its toll on the family.

Yes, Harry Goonetilleke gave both his sons to the SLAF; indeed, he gave his blessings when each told him they wished to join the Air Force.

“Growing up in an Air Force environment in China Bay, we were naturally fascinated by it, and there was nothing else Shirantha and I wanted to do than enlist in the SLAF. I piloted helicopters, while he flew fixed wing fighters.”

For sometime in the mid-1990s, the SLAF had suspected that the LTTE possessed surface-to-air missiles. On April 28, 1995, an SLAF Avro 748 which took off from Palaly on a routine flight to Ratmalana, crashed into the sea, killing all crew and passengers (a total of 51), including SLAF Northern Zonal Commander Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe.

The SLAF suspected that it was a missile attack that led to the crash, but they couldn’t be sure. The next morning, another SLAF Avro 748 took off from Ratmalana for Palaly. The flight carried a team which was to investigate the previous day’s Avro crash and was piloted by then Wing Commander Shirantha Goonetilleke. As it began its approach to land in Palaly, it crashed into the sea, killing all 52 onboard.

In his last radio communication, Wing Commander Goonetilleke had reportedly said, “A missile is coming my way,” giving the SLAF its first indication that the LTTE had missile capability.

The two Avros were the first SLAF aircraft to be shot down by missiles. The crashes shook the SLAF with its flights suspended for a week. “The two incidents changed our subsequent flying patterns,” Roshan Goonetilleke said.

“My father was devastated by Shirantha’s death,” Roshan says. Harry Goonetilleke, although a military man, just couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t see his younger son alive again.

Although Harry Goonetilleke was shaken by his son’s death, he channelled his sorrow positively, his daughter-in-law’s bereavement causing him to organise several programmes to support young war widows, such as the Ranaviru Family Counselling Service, self-employment training programmes, and get-togethers in distant areas like Matara, Anuradhapura, Kurunegala and Kandy, according to our 2006 article.

For Roshan himself, Roger and Shirantha’s deaths were a double blow. For Roger was his best friend and immediate senior in the SLAF, and not unnaturally, he was very close to his brother Shirantha, who was also his immediate junior at the Air Force. Roshan was in the US in April 1995, when the crashes occurred. Given the time differences between the US and Sri Lanka, he heard of Roger’s death on the morning of April 29, and of Shirantha’s death in the evening, that same day. He says: “In a span of 12 hours, while in a foreign country, I had to deal with the deaths of two people very dear to me.”

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Postscript

While this article is an effort to remember with gratitude the selflessness and heroism of our young men on the battlefield, it must also be remembered that victory at war is but pyrrhic. For, the toll on both sides of the sand bags was heavy – the terrible loss of life, the mourning of the bereaved, the desolation of the disabled, the fear psychosis among civilians. War is only destructive, scarring the nation’s psyche, setting the country back decades, socially, economically and politically. And our nation has sadly seen it all. Is it worth it? Surely not.

Any right-thinking person would always advocate peace.

However, as the Easter Sunday terror attacks regretfully showed us, to maintain that peace, we have ever to be at the ready to thwart any threat to national security.

As ACM Roshan Goonetilleke said, “To maintain peace and stability in our nation, we can never relax. The experience our Security Forces obtained from fighting one of the world’s most brutal terrorist groups for three decades is one that perhaps no other nation’s Forces have and that is our advantage.”

“Using that experience, we have to always ensure that our Forces are trained and deployed to face any challenge to national security.” That has been proved in the two months since the Easter attacks; Security Forces are once again deployed throughout the country on routine patrol or manning checkpoints or conducting search operations to round up terror suspects or uncover arms and ammunition. To their credit, there has been no terror attack since April 21, although the threat persists. As terrorism has gone beyond national boundaries to now become a globalised phenomenon, more than ever we look to our Forces to continue to protect our nation, as they always have.

For their courage and selfless sacrifice, they will always have our undying gratitude.

As post-April 21 all Sri Lankans see the need to forge a new national identity, one based on a national heritage that embraces and respects diversity, this is our closing message in this tribute to our fallen heroes: one united Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka whom future generations looking back, can be proud of.

(Sources: Uttamacharaya, SL Army website, Wikipedia)


 

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