The Story of Kala Sandhu

Viv S
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The Story of Kala Sandhu

Postby Viv S » 04 Aug 2015 19:32

This is an excerpt from D.S. Jafa's book on his time in the IAF and as a POW in Pakistan in 1971-72. I had dinner with him about 15 years ago. Wonderful man. Here's an excerpt from the book that really put a lump in my throat.

Its about Fl Lt. (later Wg Cdr.) AJS 'Ajax' Sandhu of 23 Squadron.


Standing second from left.

(To the Mods: Please leave this thread on for a little bit, before merging it into the relevant thread.)


The Story of Kala Sandhu

One rainy, lazy, humid day in the prison camp time hung heavy. The Indian officers sat around listlessly whiling it away. Manohar sat in one corner, lost in his private thoughts. suddenly he bestirred himself, turned towards Vicky and said, 'Sir, how well did you know Kala Sandhu?'

'Why Manohar?' asked Vikram taken by surprise.

'No just tell me. I know that he was once in your Squadron, but how well did you know him?' persisted Manohar.

'Well I knew him since the days of our flying training in Secunderabad. Then we were together in 14 squadron for many years. Again, we served together in 2 Squadron when the Gnats were introduced. That's knowing someone well enough I suppose,' said Vicky.

'Were you at Pathankot the day during the 1965 war when his father came to meet him?' asked Manohar.

'No. But, I know about that visit of his father. And all that happened before it and afterwards', said Vicky.

'Then you tell us what exactly happened that day', requested Manohar.

'Yes, do tell us about Kala Sandhu,' added Percy. 'We have heard so many versions of that incident. we want to hear the truth.'

Vicky sat pensively for a while, wondering where to begin, how to put across the love, the pride, and the expectations between an old man and his son. Then, in slow measured tones he narrated the story they wanted to hear.

He was unusual in many ways. The tribe of Sandus boasts of tall well built fair skinned Jat Sikhs, aggressive in manner and fierce in battle. Kala Sandhu had inherited most qualities of his clan but had lost out on his complexion which was as dark as an Indian could be. On the ground he was never aggressive or deprecating in manner, but in the air his indomitability was well proven. Hw had come up from the ranks and while acquiring the polish and grace fo the officer class had retained the loveable simplicity, humility and directness of the village lad. His family were farmers, again very simple village folk quite alien to the westernised culture of the Air force in which their brightest son had gained a place. Secretly perhaps, Kala Sandhu felt some embarrasment whenever his village fold visited him in an officers' mess and it was after many years' of persuasion by his friends that he finally called his simple rural wife and children to live with him among the English speaking ballroom dancing families of the Air Force fraternity. But, again with rustic sensibility and simple good heartedness Kala Sandhu's family broke all the artificial barriers of language and anglicised social etiquette, and quickly became a part of the larger family that was the fighter squadron.

Whenever Kala Sandhu was posted in the Punjab a frequent visitor to his house was his old father. Dressed in impeccable white clothes, turban, shirt, and the lungi, a white walking stick in his hand, he proudly walked down to his son's house from the nearest bus station. Not for him a pickup in a military transport or a pillion ride on his son's motorbike, only the sturdy legs and the grace of a tall erect white-bearded man walking down with a good walking stick in his hand. He stayed only for a couple of hours during each visit, observed everything minutely, upbraiding his son for any lapses in the running of the household or the upbringing of the children and left without ever displaying softness or emotion of any kind. The father and son understood each other perfectly. While there was abundant respect, care and concern from the younger Sandhu, there was immense pride and satisfaction in the old man's heart over the achievements of his son , even though he was convinced that it was his own hard mien that had kept his progeny disciplined and on the straight and narrow path of progress with honour. He was not going to let up for there was much to achieve yet.

Kala Sandhu was an outstanding fighter pilot. He had begun his flying career with the renowned Spitfire of World War II fame, then moved into the jet age with the Vampire fighter, and finally graduated to the coveted dreaded Gnat, the dream of a fighter pilot in those days. He was in fine fettle and form when the war with Pakistan broke out. As expected, Pakistan's main thrust came in an area which was vital for the defence of the state of J&K. The Pakistani Air Force launched practically its entire fleet of Sabres against the Indian army and the air force, subjecting the forward airfields to an almost hourly attack. Faced with this situation the Indian Air Force moved half a dozen Gnats to Pathankot to beat back the Pakistani Sabres.

Early the next morning four Gnats were airborne and waiting to be called up to deal with the enemy aeroplanes as soon as they showed up. In a little while the army asked for help, the Sabres were attacking our forward troops on the ground. The Gnats swiftly descended in that direction and the battle was joined in a series of sharp turns, dives, pull-ups, spirals, each pilot attempting to get behind an enemy aeroplane in a shooting position.

These manoeuvers continued in their fullest intensity for a while till one Gnat pilot found himself closing in upon his prey from the right quarter. The enemy was well placed in his gun-sight. He slid his index finger on the trigger but then decided to close in a little more before squeezing it. And just then though a corner of his eye he saw another Gnat, one of his companions, in pursuit of the same Gnat from the left. Being slightly ahead the Gnat on the left did not notice the one on the right, and even as he was opening fire, the other had already started firing. The one on the left fired a long burst, saw the enemy aircraft being hit and beginning to spew smoke. His job done, he pulled away from the quarry. Just at that moment the Gnat on the right, finding himself in the perfect position, also pressed the trigger on his control stick. The 30 mm cannons from his aircraft too poured out innumerable rounds of lethal ammunition in the direction of the Sabre which almost instantly was seen emitting thick smoke that changed into a huge flame. His job done, he too turned away sharply and headed homewards. The cameras fitted in the Gnats had recorded the evidence, the first Gnat's camera showing the Sabre with a thin stream of smoke indicating a definite and, ultimately lethal hit, the second Gnat's camera showing the same Sabre emitting thick smoke changing into a huge ball of fire.

'I have shot one Sabre,' announced the pilot of the second Gnat gleefully to the air traffic controller at the home base.

'I too have shot one,' announced Kala Sandhu, the pilot of the first Gnat that had fired on the Sabre.

Little did anyone on the ground know that they were talking about the one and same Sabre. In a further twist of fate the second Gnat landed back first and was personally received by the station commander who had been sitting in the control tower waiting to hear some such news and who did not wait long enough to hear the radio call made by Kala Sandhu. So, as our hero of the second Gnat landed, taxied back into the dispersal area, switched off the engine and stood up in the cockpit, the flag car came to a screeching halt beside him. The Commander leapt out of the car and looked questioningly at him.

'I got one, Sir. I shot him,' shouted the pilot exultantly. 'It blew up before my eyes.'

'Are you sure?' asked the Commander who wanted to be doubly sure of himself. This was too important a matter.

'Of course,' assured the pilot.

'A Sabre?' asked the Commander hoping that it could be a F-104 Starfighter which would have lent greater glamour to the the achievement.

'Yes, Sir. One F-86.'

The Commander shot back into his car and told the driver to take him to the Operations Room, fast. Once there, he lunged for the hot-line and immediately got on to his superior in far away New Delhi.

'We have shot one Sabre,' he announced proudly. He also gave the name of the pilot, with whom he had just spoken, as the one who had done the deed.

A commander in disgrace for having got a number of his airplanes shot up on the ground by the enemy in the previous days, and extremely anxious to redeem his pride and prestige, did not wait for corroborating evidence such as the films or the testimony of other pilots. Even the radio calls by two pilots, each declaring a 'kill', had not registered upon his mind which was simply looking for one quick success. And in far away Delhi, the higher commanders and planners, starved of any good news from the battle fronts and having to explain away the awesome losses inflicted by the enemy air force the last few days, wasted not a minute in letting the media know of this singular achievement. Within minutes the news was on the air waves, on radios in million of homes, on transistors in the farm fields. The second attacker became and instant hero, his name in every news broadcast, his photograph on every newspaper's front page.

Kala Sandhu withdrew into himself, unable to comprehend how he had been totally sidelined. Yes, the other chap had definitely fired upon that Sabre, but it had already been shot by him. The film taken by the camera in his aeroplane clearly showed the stream of smoke emanating from the Sabre, a sure sign of a lethal hit. Even the other pilot admitted having seen it. The Squadron pilots ran the two films again and again and came to their own conclusions. Whispers began to circulate regarding the authenticity of the real claimant to glory. A sense of unfairness, even injustice, began to pervade the atmosphere, snide remarks and scathing comments flew fast and loose. The reports floated upwards and the commanders began to worry about the effect this might have on aircrew morale. The leader of the Gnat detachment was then asked to sort this out with the pilots. He took Kala Sandhu aside and spoke with him at length.

'You and I both know the truth,' he began. 'The kill was rightfully yours even though it cannot be denied that the Sabre was also fired upon by the other pilot as well and quite accurately too. But, do you realise what has happened?'

Sandhu maintained a stoic silence. The detachment leader continued, 'He landed back before you did. He announced the outcome of the battle as he perceived it. Possibly, in his excitement, he recalled nothing other than his own firing and the blowing up of the Sabre. You understand what I'm trying to tell you?'

'Yes Sir,' said Sandhu dejectedly. 'Still...'

'But, now I come to the other factors which perhaps contributing more the compounding of an error.' He paused to collect his thoughts and continued, 'Here was the Air Force, and the whole nation, waiting to hear of one success, one achievement in the air battle after the debacles of the previous days. And the shooting down of the first Sabre was that success, that achievement. Who shot it - that was incidental really, as it always is. The individual glory, the lionizing of a soldier, the awards, the publicity, these are all incidental to the basic achievement which the nation wants first and foremost and without any frills in the first instance. And therefore this information, this news, had to be conveyed to the nation urgently without a moment's delay. The incidental part, the man who did it, was not important at that stage, and that's how, that's where the error got made.'

'Where does that leave me, Sir?' Sandhu said with a wistful smile.

'Exactly where you are now, where you were yesterday or the day before! Rightly or wrongly, one name has been given out for this deed. The whole country, the whole world, now associates this happening with that one name, and that one only. The Air Force or the nation cannot retract what has been put out with such fanfare.'

'So someone else walks away with the credit that should have been mine?'

'Yes. In the interest of the Air Force and the country, it has to be left at that. All I ask of you is, Be A Sport! The war has just begun. You are in the forefront of fighting. Each day, several times a day, you will have a chance to do it again. A person of your grits, guts, and mastery over battle manoeuvres will do it again. You cannot be stopped.'

And so on and so forth! Kala Sandhu accepted the need to make a sacrifice and not rake up the issue. After that he never spoke of this matter though the others who were part of that action and knew the truth intimately and explicitly never tired of talking about it. Kala Sandhu gained in respect and stature what he'd lost in glory. The young pilots and the airmen on the station pointed him out to each other with reverence. But, for this, there were other reasons too.

The elder Sandhu had heard of the outbreak of the war during the evening gathering at the village chaupal. His first instinct was to proceed immediately to Ambala where his son was posted and personally, and quietly, invoke the Wahe Guru's blessings upon his son. But that could also be seen as emotional weakness at a crucial time. So he sent a distant nephew to get news of his son. He learned that the son had been sent to a forward airfield where fierce battles were raging between the opposing forces. After that he tied himself down to the transistor radio and was constantly changing channels to hear news broadcasts from anywhere and everywhere. He heard claims of great successes by both sides. He heard names of individuals who had shown great bravery and courage in battles. He heard with great attention the names of gallantry award winners, the ones who were awarded one of the three Chakras for bravery above and beyond the call of duty. He also heard the names of those gallant warriors who had sacrificed their lives in the defence of the motherland. Each day new names were coming up on the radio. The old man was becoming edgy in expectation of hearing his son's name too, in one or other context, during such announcements.

'Where is your son, Bhai?' asked Banta Singh one evening at the chaupal where the villagers gathered to exchange the news of the day.

'He's at the front, fighting. Where else?' said the old man. 'Why do you ask?'

'Nothing really. Just wondering if he was sitting out in the rear area,' commented Banta Singh.

They expected the old man to make a retort, but he said nothing. None of the people gathered there said anything either. The Sandhus were proud people. They had a son who was a senior officer in the air force whereas the others in the village could only show other rankers in their families. This was their chance to pull the haughty old man down a peg or two. They kept making such seemingly innocent inquiries everytime they ran into him. The old man heard the aspersions they were casting on the honour of his son and himself, and daily grew more tense as he heard to names of heroes and martyrs on the radio.

The next evening again the village folk gathered together and listened to the news broadcasts. At the end of it Banta addressed the old man saying, 'We haven't heard your son's name on the radio as yet'.

'The radio only gives out the names of brave people, those who fight courageously whether they live or die,' commented Natha Singh in a scathing sarcastic tone.

The old man heard and understood. He did not speak. He picked up his stick, stood up and walked away. He went to his house, spoke to his wife briefly, took out some cash from a tin box and walked out again. He went to the bus station and took the first bus departing in the general direction of the air base where his son was posted. He changed buses twice and at dawn he stood before the Guard Room of the air base.

'What do you want Baba? Why are you standing here?' asked the airforce policeman on duty there.

'I have come to see my son. He came here from Ambala a few days ago.' said the old man.

'Who is your son, Baba? Please give me his particulars,' demanded the police corporal.

The old man gave his son's name and added that his son was a very senior officer and a Gnat pilot who's been called upon to deal with the Pakistani Sabres.

The police corporal turned back to his collegues. They decided that the matter involved an officer and his father and so at the very least the unit adjutant should be informed. That they did forthwith.

'What the hell!' exclaimed Kala Sandhu when he received the information.

As the other pilots looked at him in askance, he said, 'My old man! Why can't he leave me alone!'

'Why what's happened?' asked a colleague.

'He's in the Guard Room waiting to see me.'

'Well if he's come all this way it must be something important. You better see him' another officer opined.

Sandhu stood there and debated in his mind whether he should go and meet the old man at all, a father who understood nothing of military protocol and cared even less, a father who was obviously worried about his son's well being but would take great pains to hide it. But, the dread that his father might create a great deal of fuss persuaded him to make the trip. The old man was seated in a chair when he arrived in the Guard Room. The two exchanged greetings. The old man at once opened the dialogue.

'I've been hearing news of the war, just like others have been doing in the village. I have come to see if you're also taking part.'

'What else would I be doing at this forward airbase?' asked the son incredulously. 'Is that all you have come here for?'

The son had raised his voice while speaking and that had attracted the attention of a dozen airman and civilians who heard the ensuing dialogue between the father and the son with astonishment.

'Yes,' said the old man. 'I came for that, and a little more. You see, in the village everyone also listens to the names of those who get the Chakras.'

'So...?' asked Sandhu.

'They listen very attentively to all the news about the war, as do I, waiting and wanting to hear some familiar name.'

'How many people in the forces do you know? And whose name are you wanting to hear?' said Sandhu in gentle exasperation. But, some doubt about his father's intention was beginning to sprout in the back of his mind.

'The villagers only know you,' said the elder, simply.

'I see,' said the son sombrely. That simple statement, that yearning of the father to see his son among the brave, the gallantry award winners, went through him like a knife. He felt a physical pain at the thought that he had already achieved it but was unable to show it, that it had to remain unrecognised, unacknowledged, that some other parent had usurped the pride that should have been his father's. He fought back the urge to tell his father how he'd been deprived of his credit, in the larger vaguer interest of the service and country, he could not openly claim it.

Sandhu put on a stern face and said, 'Its not something that I can go and get at will. It will come only when I'm able to accomplish something great in battle. Its not in my hands; I am doing my best.'

'But, then you will have to do something more than that,' said the old man. 'You see, people like Natha Singh go around voicing doubts whether you are taking part in the fighting or hiding somewhere.'

'I can't be bothered about fellows like that coward Natha,' said Sandhu angrily. 'You know what I am doing and that should be enough for you. Go back to the village now and stay there. I shall come and see you after the war.'

'That's the problem, son. I cannot go back to the village like this. You see they taunt me about you. They say, "Your son's name should be either among the Vir Chakra winners, or, among the martyrs, if he is fighting on the front. I ought to be in one or other list if he's active in the war"'

'You listen to such nonsense?' asked Sandhu with some heat. 'And you've come to bother me with this crap without realising that I'm busy, so occupied, so laden with responsibilities?'

'The village people keep saying such things, son,' said the old man pensively. 'And I too have been thinking. After all, there are only two things that bring honour to a soldier in the service of his country - either a great triumph in attack, or great martyrdom in defence. So the village folk are not entirely wrong, my son.'

Sandhu understood for the first time in this encounter what his father had been leading to. The realisation stunned him, left him speechless and stirred to the core of his being. The picture of the great Guru Gobind flashed across his mind and the exhortation he had made to his sons during a crucial battle.

'What ... What do you want of me?' he blurted out.

'Son,' said the old man, with feeling, with affection, with eternal love. 'Get a Vir Chakra. I want to walk in the village with my head up. And, my son, even if you attain martyrdom, I shall still be able to walk in the village with pride. God bless you, my son.'

Eyes moist with unshed tears, hand shaking in mild tremors over the cane, the legs a bit wobbly, the old man placed a hand on his son's head, turned and walked away, out of the Guard Room, out on to the road, without once turning back.

Sandhu stood rooted to the spot. He made no attempt to turn the towards the old man or walk after him.

Kala Sandhu walked out of the Guard Room immersed in deep thought. He returned to the crew room and sat by himself for a long while, evading polite enquiries about his father's visit. Whenever he was called up for an operational sortie he went out with a different kind of determination. He took chances threw caution to the winds. One the third day after the old man's visit a fierce battle raged on the ground for the control of a vital area. The air forces of the two sides were launched against the ground troops as well as against each other. Sandhu flew sortie after sortie and during one encounter chased enemy airplanes deep into enemy territory and, there, surrounded by four foes he shot two of them , one destroyed totally and the second damaged badly and unlikely to fly during the war again.

The announcement of the award of the Vir Chakra was heard on the radio by his father. It was heard by all village folk. When the old man next walked up to the village chaupal, Natha Singh was the first to greet him with respect.

Not much later Kala Sandhu died a martyr's death.

Dressed in a spotless white turban, white shirt and white lungi, the old man walked through the village once again, eyes a bit moist, legs a bit wobbly, hand shaking a bit over his cane, but head held high, the gaze fixed in the distance, the countenance bewildered at the ways of the Wahe Guru. He was going to catch the bus to attend the last rites to his son.

The entire village walked besides him.

Ajax Sandhu. Front row. Fifth from right. The legendary Marshal Arjan Singh in the centre.

Last edited by Viv S on 05 Aug 2015 00:09, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: The Story of Kala Sandhu

Postby ramana » 04 Aug 2015 20:54

What a soldier!!!!

BTW in school we heard about this incident of someone who is very famous shooting down a plane which was already hit by another pilot.

The senior flight leader was wrong.

Satyameva jayate.

Truth alone triumphs.

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Re: The Story of Kala Sandhu

Postby shiv » 05 Aug 2015 06:48

Interesting story. Jagan has this entry on the IAF trivia page:
Two famous "Sabre Slayers", having endured the dangers of war and aircombat however fell victim to the rigours and pressures of peace.

Wg Cdr A J S Sandhu VrC, who Credited with a Sabre in the 65 War, died when his Gnat dived into Ground just after Take off prior to the commencement of the 71 War.

Here is a

It says that Sandhu had a gun jam.

On ramana's recommendation I bought a book by James Salter about the air war in Korea called "The Hunters". For the aviation enthusiast it is an insightful book although the storyline is depressing - even morbid. The man writes about the Air war in Korea where 15 or 20 F-86s Sabres would get airborne and hunt over Korean skies for MiGs and every pilot was desperate to get a kill and many cheated - claiming kills that were fake - because of the adulation received by those who got five kills.

The story reveals rivalry and jealousy, cheating and subterfuge fear and risktaking simply to be hero worshipped. The relevance to the Sandhu story is that the central figure of teh story eventually shoots down the most formidable NoKo MiG pilot reputed to be a Russian, but his gun camera does not work and a jealous colleague reports that the Russian was shot down by another pilot who did not return from the mission - and that pilot is credited with the kill

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Re: The Story of Kala Sandhu

Postby Abhibhushan » 05 Aug 2015 08:46

I have the most fond and tender memories of Kala Sandhu. A lovable boy who was almost invincible in the air. I have jostled with him in the air, mounted on the Hunter or the Gnat, on a number of occassions. In service seniority Ajax was the junior bod, but I must admit that I was unable to get the better of him even once.

His fatal accident remains unresolved. I cannot imagine him failing in a Gnat. Perhap it was a catastrophic technical failure of some sort?

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Re: The Story of Kala Sandhu

Postby ramana » 05 Aug 2015 22:19

shiv, I heard a BBC obituary to Jim Salter where they read excerpts of his book. Very poignant tale and the damage false claims do to the psyche.

BTW the account above says Ajax Sandhu's gun camera films showed the plane being hit.
The book quoted has gun jam.

The film taken by the camera in his aeroplane clearly showed the stream of smoke emanating from the Sabre, a sure sign of a lethal hit. Even the other pilot admitted having seen it.

Total Rashomon moment.

Makes Ajax Sandhu even more great.

Shiv, That book is a scathing review and eye opener. Will read it slowly.

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Re: The Story of Kala Sandhu

Postby Khalsa » 06 Aug 2015 01:25

Thank you for posting this again.
Very Very Moving. The Steely Character of Ajax and his Dad moved me to tears.

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