Highs and lows of recovery operation : The Tribune India

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Highs and lows of recovery operation

Highs and lows of  recovery operation

Photo for representation. PTI file photo

Lt Gen Harwant Singh (Retd)

BACK in 1964, a three-tonne Army vehicle with two occupants went missing from among the vehicles deployed for stocking in Ladakh. A search was carried out at various traffic checkposts, but no trace was found of the vehicle and the men.

Before the onset of winter and closing of Zoji La, all companies deployed on this route were required to cross the mountain pass by October 24. The last to pull out was the recovery company at Khalsi in the Indus valley. In the second half of October, as the seasonal melting of snow came to an end, the water level in the Indus river dropped. The company personnel, while they were moving out of Khalsi, spotted a vehicle nearly submerged in the river.

Obviously, this was the missing vehicle. The company commander, a young Captain with just four years of service, decided to recover it from the riverbed, even though he had a deadline to meet for reaching his destination with his colleagues.

A makeshift raft was constructed and lowered into the river with the help of a rope, with two volunteers (a JCO and an NCO) standing on it. The JCO succeeded in attaching the tow chain to the vehicle, but before the raft could move away, the chain was pulled. The raft capsized, throwing both the JCO and the NCO into the water. While the NCO managed to swim to safety, the JCO was swept away (his body was never found and he was presumed dead).

Decidedly, someone was at fault for not conducting the operation with due care and diligence. The unit commander was apparently responsible for the tragedy. Some action against him was warranted.

In his defence, the Captain contended that as his unit was the last to cross Zoji La, it had no time to carry out a proper retrieval of the missing vehicle. He could have left it to be recovered later by the personnel at Leh. He claimed that the operation was expedited so as to retrieve the bodies of the two soldiers who were believed to be inside the vehicle, or to rescue them, in case they were still alive.

In the JCO’s citation, it was highlighted that he volunteered to enter the river with the main aim of searching for the soldiers rather than to fish out the vehicle. He was posthumously awarded the Ashok Chakra.

The Captain, who was initially being held responsible for the JCO’s death, finally received the Army commander’s commendation for his well-intentioned effort. Sometimes, the difference between a kick and a pat on the back can be slender.


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