I had just returned home after a particularly busy day on my submarine in harbour. What with getting the crew trained the whole day and having turned around our torpedoes in the blistering hot sunpost our last sea sortie, I was just settling down on my bed after dinner chatting with my better half, when the phone rang and my pager beeped simultaneously. It was those days of pagers and landlines and I was yet to buy my first mobile phone eight years later which then looked like a walkie-talkie with an antenna.Instinctively, I knew that this would be some call from our submarine squadron headquarters.
After listening for a few seconds, I quickly donned my khaki uniform, picked up my ever ready and prepacked duffel bag, bid goodbye to my young bride who was still struggling to come to terms with my long deployments at the drop of a hat and who was dazed at this new development and trying to digest the fact that I was being called out once again on some mission which would make me disappear for a prolonged period of time,maybe a couple of months or so.
Once I was onboard the submarine, I quickly took stock of the situation regarding men, materials, munitions, medicines and rations and got busy preparing the submarine for sea. The next couple of hours were a blur with battery charging, ration loading, getting briefed about some aspects of our next mission, meeting the squadron staff to discuss last minute machinery details and finally reporting to the Captain that all was in order.
As the Second in Command also called the Executive Officer (EXO), it was my duty to my Captain to ensure that the submarine was ready for proceeding to sea in all respects. As we silently cast off in the middle of the night with lights doused, I had to tell the Captain reluctantly that all men were present onboard except our doctor who was on leave and couldn’t be recalled at the short notice of just a few hours. The Captain enquired, “Is our Medical Assistant (male nurse) embarked”, to which I gave a positive reply and he even joked that in the absence of the submarine doctor, it was the EXO who was responsible for the health of the crew at sea.
Standing beside him on the bridge of the submarine while we were navigating through the harbour channel, I had a wrinkled brow as I tried to recollect my own medical training which I had received in submarine school about handling medical emergencies at sea. Soon I was to discover what was in store for me later during this voyage. Very shortly the submarine dived and commenced her dived transit to our patrol area.
Submarines are nocturnal machines who remain alert both during the day and night but prefer the cover of darkness to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance. The normal practice is to advance the watches by 12 hours, hence, day becomes night and night becomes day.
When submarines transit to and from their patrol areas, they continue to remain alert and vigilant as in war like situations against detection from hostile surface craft or aircraft whose main aim would be of tracking and locating submarines. No member of the crew, not even the Captain, knows where the submarine is going on the mission while ashore. Deployment orders are top secret. They come in a sealed envelope which the Captain isn’t allowed to open until he is already out at sea. This is done to maintain secrecy of operations. For the next couple of months, the submarine will be prowling the depths of the sea, its crew entirely cut off from the outside world, other than listening to the occasional news report which the submarine is equipped to receive even while operating underwater. After the ‘operations orders’ were opened and read out to concerned officers, we had time to prepare our tactics for the forthcoming mission.
Submarines are nocturnal machines who remain alert both during the day and night but prefer the cover of darkness to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance. The normal practice is to advance the watches by 12 hours, hence, day becomes night and night becomes day. Within the submarine, daylight is simulated by white light and night by red lighting. Hence this is something like jet lag and takes the human body a few days to transition to and from. Feeling a bit self-conscious about playing God by changing night into day and day into night, I amusingly saw the following day unfold with some disruption in the circadian rhythm of the crew with breakfast being devoured with dinner’s appetite and dinner with breakfast’s.
Meanwhile the sonar which is kept switched on 24×7 was busy reporting all acoustic contacts in the water and the submarine was tracking all surface contacts traversing in our vicinity. The electronic warfare equipment and radar operators remained ready at their seats to operate their equipment whenever the submarine came to periscope depth for a visual search.
As a couple of days passed by, the number of surface contacts reduced as now we were in mid ocean and away from the shipping lanes and fishing areas.I was keeping a close watch on the crew, monitoring their morale, laughing and joking with them, talking to them at their place of rest and in their messes sometimes. One of the virtues of being a submariner is that one develops a tremendous amount of patience as none other than the Officer of the Watch (OOW) or the Captain can see the outside world through the periscope and that too maybe only at night. It really is a marvel to see the trust and affection of the crew in the capabilities of their officers, peers and fellow teammates as collectively our lives depend on each other particularly on these few men who make split second decisions in such dangerous and treacherous surroundings. Yes, patience is a virtue that I have learnt over the years.
Immediately, after informing the Captain, I took out the key from my keyboard of the ‘poison cupboard’, a term used in the submarine where dangerous drugs are kept.
Around mid-day, as I was writing my daily journal or better known as the war diary, there was a knock on my cabin door and there stood the Medical Assistant affectionately called ‘Doctor’ by the crew with a worried look on his face. He reported that there was a sailor who had stomach pain. As the officiating Medical Officer, I asked him if he had given a pain killer to the sailor to which he nodded vigorously. I told him to keep the man under observation and keep reporting to me about his progress. I quickly pulled out the Medical Manual for Executive Officers from my bookshelf and was leafing through it to brush up on my knowledge about stomach pain or as it was known in medical terms as ‘pain abdomen’. To my horror I found that the chapter on ‘pain abdomen’ was the largest with numerous possibilities given about likely diseases which I couldn’t even comprehend during that period of intense activity onboard.
A couple of hours later, the Med again came and reported that the pain was increasing. I decided to go and meet the sailor at his bunk and was quite taken aback to see that he was writhing in pain. Immediately, after informing the Captain, I took out the key from my keyboard of the ‘poison cupboard’, a term used in the submarine where dangerous drugs are kept. Since there was no sick bay in this submarine, this refrigerated cupboard was located in one of the officer’s cabins. I ordered the Med to give an injection of morphine in order to ease the pain. Another couple of hours passed with no respite from the excruciating pain for the sailor. By this time, I was having frequent discussions with the Captain and we were in a dilemma about the further continuation of our mission.
The Captain decided to come up to periscope depth and tried to establish contact with friendly naval surface forces operating in the general area of a few hundred nautical miles in support of our primary mission.
As the condition of the sailor worsened, the Med made an educated diagnosis that it could be a case of appendicitis, I decided to administer another injection dose of morphine. The officers’ dining room can be converted to an emergency operation theatre in a matter of minutes and can be made ready to undertake any minor surgery. I immediately ordered this and even remember joking with the Med that he could pass the word around that I would personally conduct the operation on any more men falling sick during this voyage. I kept remembering my instructor’s voice in submarine school talking about the ancient legend of yore when the one and only appendicitis operation in history was successfully conducted underwater on an Indian submarine.
By this time the sailor was totally unable to bear the pain and moaning loudly. The Captain decided to come up to periscope depth and tried to establish contact with friendly naval surface forces operating in the general area of a few hundred nautical miles in support of our primary mission. To our relief, we were able to make contact with one friendly naval ship carrying a doctor and equipped with alarge sick bay. The ship was also embarked with a long-range helicopter which could be used in a Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) role. I obtained the doctor’s advice on the radio and exchanged notes about the sailor’s medical condition and his medical management. In the meanwhile, both units altered towards each other at maximum speed and a rendezvous point was agreed upon.
The helicopter was overhead within an hour and airlifted the sailor in a Niel Robertson’s stretcher back to its mother ship. Our submarine which had just surfaced for a few minutes to disembark the sick sailor quickly battened her hatches and dived underwater and we continued on our mission. Having handed over the member of my crew into safe hands, I was relieved of my responsibilityand heaved a huge sigh of relief.
It was pure destiny, firstly, that a ship with a full medical team and a big sick bay was present in the general area, secondly, that this ship was carrying a long range helicopter which could also be used in a CASEVAC role and lastly, that we could get in radio contact with them in the first attempt at extreme long ranges of hundreds of nautical miles purely due to special environmental propagating conditions prevailing on that particular day. The guiding hand of a supreme being was certainly resting on our submarine and me that day.
It was only about six weeks later when my submarine entered her base port that we got to know that our sick sailor upon evacuation from the submarine onto the ship was administered first aid in the ship’s Sick Bay as the ship sailed with despatch at maximum speed to come within range of land to launch her helicopter which landed directly at the helipad of the nearest station naval hospital just within the critical time. I was informed that the sailor was operated successfully for an emergency appendicitis removal failing which it would have burst and he could have lost his life. The sailor had already recovered by the time we entered mother base and was nowposted to our submarine mother base for convalescence. The sailor and his family later visited my residence to personally thank me and the Captain for our humane role in his medical emergency.
Thus ended the story of my medical adventure at sea. On one side was our determination to continue with our mission and on the other side there was a life in danger on our hands. A very difficult decision to make with minimal resources and limited choices especially in times of national crises as submarines are first responders during a national emergency being forward deployed in close vicinity of the adversary.
“Of all the branches of men in the forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submariners.”
Sir Winston Churchill
Photos: Featured image – https://kaypius.com/2017/11/27/run-silent-run-deep-lessons-from-ara-san-juan/;
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