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DateLine Sunday, 6 April 2008

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Previously on Heroes Forever....

Out of the gloom and drizzle appeared Pride of South, the passenger ship carrying 1310 troops that were reporting back to duty from leave. The ship was approaching its destination - the Kankasanthurai harbour.

The two Fast Attack Crafts (FACs) P 462 and P 442, on their way from Kankasanthurai harbour to Nagarakovil, patrolling the Chalai area was informed of her movements around 0800 hours.

Exhibiting real meaning of heroism

Date: September 16, 2001

Time: 0430 hrs

Location: Off Kankesanthurai Harbour

Accompanied by two gunboats from Trincomalee and another one with a small boat and another small boat from the North, Pride of South made its way northward.

At 0430 hours: CEO of one of the gunboats detected few unidentified vessels heading towards the ship. By then Pride of South was 30 miles northeast of Point Pedro. The two FACs were informed of LTTE movements and made for the ship at full speed.

I had always wanted to join the Forces since childhood, said Lt. Commander Nilantha Hewavitharane, OIC (Officer-in-Command) of P 462. Officer with six years experience in the FAC squadron, during which he had commanded three FACs.

He received four years training at the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA) from 1990 to 1994, one year training at the Naval and Maritime Academy, received his Sub-Lieutenant training in Bangladesh, specialised in Anti-submarine warfare in India.

Near Nagarkovil, few LTTE boats attempted to direct them. But the two FACs were able to avoid engaging in combat, not losing sight of what was most vital. The FACs reached the scene within an hour, at full speed.

0600 hrs: They discovered that they were outnumbered. It was two FACs against nearly 20 LTTE boats. There were only five gunboats to protect the ship. But the Pride of South would have been left at the mercy of the LTTE boats had the FACs backed out. The FACs avoided the fleet of LTTE boats and made straight for the ship.


Lt. Commandar Nilantha Hewavitharana receives The Weera Wickrama Vibushana from President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

We saw that the ship was moving towards the sea and the LTTE boats were following her. The LTTE boats had formed a crescent around the ship and were shooting at her hull. The Pride of South was a passenger transport vessel and did not haveheavy weaponry.

Army personnel on board were shooting at the LTTE boats, with short-range light weapons. The two FACs were high on their heels. When they reached the scene they strategically placed themselves between the ship and the LTTE boats.

Lt. Hewavitharane told his crew of 14, that they had to somehow save the 1310 passengers on board. LTTE boats were too close to the FACs that it was difficult for them to manoeuvre. The gap between the ship and the LTTE fleet was approximately 100 metres. Lt. Hewavitharane manoeuvred P 462 around the ship and fired at the LTTE boats.

I could hear the Army personnel on board the ship cheering. I attacked from one side of the ship while Lt. Kiriella, OIC of the other FAC, fired from the other side. Most of the LTTE boats were hit. At 0650 a sailor of P 462 got hit in the head. I couldnt transfer him, because that would mean jeopardizing the mission. He was conscious for over half an hour. There were two other casualties as well.

0700 hrs: Just two FACs had fought against nearly 20 LTTE boats for a full hour, beating the odds, when reinforcements from KKS (Kankesanthurai) finally arrived. By which time Pride of South was quite safe, the two FACs managed to maintain a considerable distance between her and the LTTE boats.

0930 hrs: The situation was almost under control. The sailor who got shot was transferred to KKS via the other FAC - P 442. But P 462 held on. The whole battle lasted for over five hours. It went on until 1130. Pride of South was finally saved.

Sequel

1130 hrs: P 465 got hit during the battle. I had run out of ammo and fuel and my guns got jammed . P 442 had run out of fuel as well by then, since they came for the rescue straight from a patrol the day before. P 442 was sent to KKS to bring back a fresh supply of ammunition, but was held off. We could see that P 442, making her way towards us.

As soon as P 442 arrived with the ammunition the FACs reloaded and braced themselves for a fresh attack. All the FACs lined up in an attempt to rescue P 465. They were successful in their endeavour, the LTTE boats retreated. Another FAC started to tow P 465 to safety.

Their objective of saving Pride of South and the 1310 on board was achieved against all odds. Lt. Hewavitharane, who had been presented with a Rana Soora Medal for acts of bravery he had accomplished earlier, was presented with a Weera Vickrema Vibhushana, for the contribution he made to saving Pride of South and was promoted to the rank of Lt. Commander.

As the saying goes If heroes are made and not born, who or what makes them? But if they are born and not made, how shall we know them?

Lt. Commander Hewavitharane confirmed the real meaning of heroism by displaying courage and the will for self-sacrifice and as a result this week the memento is dedicated to him.

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