DAY 6 + 1215 HRS
He had been lucky. It took quite a while before the ringing stopped in his ears. Blood had poured out one ear due to shrapnel wounds. Scratches and burns were everywhere. Vomiting had occurred after the blast waves from numerous explosions had ripped through the body, shaking it to the very core. He was still somewhat nauseous. And yet, he was luckier than the ones in front of him...
Squadron-Leader Gupta sat on an abandoned ammo crate near the main terminal entrance building while a Para-Corpsman tended to his slight ear wound. They were now laying the bodies of the dead on the side of the road, waiting for the trucks to come by and take them south. As he sat there, Gupta watched the seventeenth body of an Indian soldier or airman being brought out by the other Paras and laid in a line. Some more were even worse off, their bodies not being recoverable from the debris just yet.
Gupta sighed and looked back up at the wreckage that was Paru airport at the moment. Enough dust had been raised that even in this pristine mountainous valley of Bhutan, the sun’s rays poured through the golden brown dust haze all over the valley. It was beginning to settle back down, though. Now that the explosions had stopped, only the smoke from the craters remained to be extinguished in their entirety. Not that there were any fire-fighting equipment around to speak of. The fires were simply dying away because of the cold and the lack of flammable materials that were yet to be consumed...
“That should do it for now.” The medic said, leaving Gupta sitting on the crate as he walked away towards a bunch of stretchers where another wounded Para had been laid down, one of his legs blown away, and the cover of the stretcher red with blood. He, like all other wounded Indian soldiers around, was under painkillers and couldn’t feel the blinding pain. Gupta looked at him, squinted and then looked back again at the smouldering remains of the terminal building. Time to get back to work...
Gupta stood up, walking past the road now filled with Indian Army soldiers from Haa Dzong, General Potgam’s HQ ‘Warlord-Central’. There were no soldiers inside the airport though, as they were waiting to be told where to start and what to start. Looking at the vast mess that was left of the airport by the Chinese attack, it was a good question.
“Heck of a mess, old boy!” a voice behind Gupta said. He turned to his left to see a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Indian Army accompanied by a Major and two fully armed soldiers walking up beside him after dismounting their AXE mutli-terrain utility vehicle. The latter was wearing his standard Army woodland camouflage field uniform. His name tag said: ‘Fernandes’. Gupta snapped off a salute, jerking some of the concrete dust off his uniform during the sudden motion.
“Easy there, son!” Fernandes said to Gupta, then turned to see the collapsed terminal building, the blazing control tower and the half dozen other black smoke pillars around the airport. His initial response was a whistle. He then looked back at Gupta: “Hell of a bombardment you guys went through. Casualties?”
“Considerable, sir. We, uh, lost a lot of the air force guys trying to evacuate as much of the supplies and logistical equipment on the tarmac just before the attack. Some guys are still unaccounted for within the airport. The Paras were okay for the most part, given their deployment around the base rather than in it. My FAC team suffered near total fatalities...” Gupta choked as he completed that last sentence. It caused Fernandes to look back away from the terminal building towards the young officer in front of him.
“Tough business, isn’t it? They did their job as they were trained to do. You did the same. There will be time to reflect on that later. Believe me. For now, let’s get this business straight. You haven’t met me before: I am the commander of Hotel-Six MLRS battery that moved northeast of this airfield earlier this morning. It’s our supplies that you guys were bringing in. We saw the attack on the airport from our locations. I suggested to Warlord that I head over there to assess the damage since I was the closest commander at the time. When someone higher up the command list comes along, I will be on my merry way. For now, however: I am taking command.
“Now. This airfield...” Fernandes gestured his hands around... “...is my logistical node. I need rockets and I need them today. The ground convoys are taking their time getting here from the Indian border with my rockets because every Indian field commander in Bhutan and his grandmother wants his supplies to have priority. So I am betting my money on this airport becoming operational again. In effect, it means that I am putting my money on you. I love to win, Gupta. I really do. So are you the guy who’s going to deliver or not?”
Fernandes stared at the young Air Force officer in front of him. Gupta managed to pull his thoughts together along with his mental faculty quick enough to meet that stare and not wilt. Fernandes saw that and realized that the youngster had pulled out of it. Time to get into it then...
“Okay, son. You know this airbase better than I do. What say we go and have a look see in there?”
As Gupta walked over to the crate he had been sitting on and picked up his new INSAS carbine that he had picked up from one of the dead officers from his FACT team, a few minutes before. In the meantime, Fernandes motioned to the Major and then gave out his first orders:
“Get things organized over here. Get those trucks moving with the casualties to the medical centre at Haa Dzong. They still have helicopters operating out of the golf course over there. They can get these guys out...” He motioned to the numerous wounded soldiers on stretchers nearby on the debris covered road... “...Also, see if you can find the Para detachment commander. Either he’s dead already or he’s probably somewhere in there. If he is dead, then get the Paras organized under your command and get the comms up and running. Last thing we need is a Chinese spec-ops team rushing this location from the northern hills. Warlord has RPVs overhead, but I wouldn’t trust them completely to keep us safe. I would rather want those Paras over there, armed and pointing their weapons at that alpine region over there just as soon as you can arrange it. Go.”
Just as the Major had run over a few feet, Fernandes shouted out to him again: “Oh, and I am taking the comms guy with me while I tour the area. Get the alternate set from the AXE up and running, will you?”
“Yes sir!” the Major said and ran off towards the few Paras standing a couple dozen meters away by the Army trucks, waiting for orders from anyone who was in command. Fernandes looked at Gupta who was waiting with his rifle strap over his shoulders and said:
“Let’s go son. Lead the way. I am right behind you.”
The group of three men walked carefully through the debris covered wreckage that was the terminal building, bypassing the crushed supply equipment and the building materials. The hazy sunlight was now beginning to get brighter, even as the smoke poured into the skies. Fernandes looked up and saw the orange coloured dusty sun where there should have been no sun at all. The roof of the twin storey building had all been reduced to rubble that they were walking on now. Each step was risky, but the three men made it through to the other side with Gupta leading the way and reached the mess that remained of the tarmac area on the other side...
“Good god! What a mess!” Fernandes said.
Yeah. Gupta thought as he walked around a burning piece of wooden crate, originally carrying signal flares by its marking on the side. The shattered Mi-26 lay on the tarmac, bellowing a pillar of black smoke from its engine area. The only identifiable piece of the fuselage was the tail boom section, lying on the green grass a few hundred feet away from where the rest of the helicopter wreckage was. A massive series of craters had been excavated out of the tarmac area. The latter had never been of very solid construction anyway, given the civilian nature of the airport. And now it showed. What would have been lesser damage at a military airbase had terminated the tarmac area for all effective purposes at Paru. Gupta looked to his right and almost felt the heat from the blazing control tower building where he and the rest of his FACT members had been running the aerial logistical operations here. To his left, he saw the burning remains of the only large hangar on the other side of the airport. The runway, however, was remarkably intact, with several bomb craters chipping away the sides, but no central crater on the runway itself. Still, it didn’t matter...
“Damage looks pretty intensive. Thoughts?” Fernandes said as he surveyed the damage as well.
“Bad, sir. Normally this level of damage is repairable at a military airbase with the right supplies of repair equipment. Not over here. We don’t have anything resembling the equipment we need to repair this base until the ground convoys bring up the necessary equipment from the south.” Gupta said, walking towards the nearest deep bomb crater in front of him.
“Which could take days, son. I need a better choice from you.” Fernandes said as he walked over to the crater as well. Gupta was shaking his head after peering over the side of the crater:
“I don’t know what to tell you sir. This damage is total...” he looked over to the north and saw the small tar extension to the concrete runway usable by light aircraft and helicopters and maybe one fixed wing aircraft at a time. Gupta then turned to face the Lt-Colonel: “Sir, you see that tar area over there? We could perhaps use that to at least restart some basic helicopter operations from this airport. Mi-17s, Dhruvs and the like. Area is good enough and the undamaged runway looks long enough to bring in maybe one or two Dorniers at a time. Maybe even one of the An-32s. Not more than that. It’s a trickle of what we were bringing in before, but that’s the best that is physically possible.”
Fernandes was not happy at that. But he realized it was not Gupta’s fault that this was the case. He was looking around when his radioman’s CNR started squawking and he picked it up. A moment later he turned to face the Lt-Colonel:
“Sir. Warlord-Central is informing us that Warlord is coming in for an inspection via helicopter right away.” That comment caused Fernandes to raise an eyebrow as he replied back:
“ETA on Warlord’s arrival?”
“So the old chap is coming in himself, huh?” Fernandes said to himself and then back to Gupta: “Okay. Can they land over here?”
“Yes sir. That tar area over there I was showing you.” Gupta replied.
“Good. Mark it with a Green-Very flare.” Fernandes looked over to his radioman who handed Gupta a Green-Very. Fernandes continued to talk to the radioman: “Tell Warlord-Central that we are clear over here. LZ is open and marked with green smoke. Tell them to consider all other areas hazardous for now. Do it.”
A few moments later Gupta had green smoke bellowing from the flare in his hands just as the sounds of an ALH filled the skies. It was the first friendly helicopter noise the Paras had heard for some time now, and it sounded good to them. Gupta and Fernandes looked over from the green-grass near the LZ as the ALH crew circled around the airbase perimeter and then approached the small cloud of green smoke coming from the opening at the centre of the airport. The helicopter touched down a few second later, dissipating the green gas clouds under the main rotor wash. As the engines wound down, Gupta and Fernandes walked over just as four Paras armed with INSAS-UBGLs jumped out of the rear and side doors and took up positions alongside the LZ. A couple seconds later Lt-General “Warlord” Potgam stepped out and received a sharp salute from Gupta and Fernandes which was not returned.
Instead, the gruffy and old Potgam looked around and saw the devastation at his main logistical node in Bhutan. He had a frown on his face that would wilt a junior officer in less than three seconds. He was also in his combat fatigues with a belt mounted sidearm. The cold winds in the valley caused him to remove his cap and cover his balding head. Only after the cap fit him snugly, did he bother to face Fernandes and Gupta and snapped off his return salute, allowing the former to return to ease. Neither Fernandes nor Gupta said anything until Potgam opened the conversation:
“They will pay for this, gentlemen. Mark my words. They will pay for this.” Potgam turned to face Gupta, who nearly froze under the stare of the three star general in his face:
“Son, are you the FACT commander?”
“Yes sir!” Gupta replied back.
“Damn fine work under the circumstances boy. I heard the comms between my HQ and your boys. Tough situation overall. Handled well. I heard your Air Force boys suffered pretty high casualties?” Potgam said in as polite a voice as he could manage, which wasn’t much. Gupta managed to choke out a few words:
“Yes sir. FACT-Alpha is combat-ineffective now. We need a replace FACT to come in and take charge of operations down here.”
“And have a wet nosed boy take command of this shitty mess? No. You stay right here. I have arranged FACT-Bravo to replace your losses, but you stay in command. You aren’t getting off this warfront that easily. This war is stretching our limits and resources very quickly. We need all the experienced guys we can get. Unless of course you have lost the nerve to stay here and fight! Have you?” Potgam said.
“No sir!” was the sharp reply.
“Good. Okay gentlemen. Let’s go. We don’t have much time. Latest RPV Intel suggests that the Chinese Infantry Regiments stacked against Thimpu are now advancing. Initial contact in less than two hours with our Special Forces guys up at the sharp end. Once that happens we will need all the support your battery can provide, Fernandes.” Potgam said as he led the way back to the terminal building area, followed by his entourage, Fernandes and Gupta. Potgam continued to talk:
“Fernandes, get things organized a bit over here and then leave someone to manage things. I need you back at your Battery HQ when the shit hits the fan in the next few hours. Gupta over here can coordinate with your and my Liaison over here and get this mess sorted out. We are prioritizing some anti-air assets for this area now. The first two Tunguskas will arrive here later today. When they do, I am splitting them up between the airport here and your Battery location to the northwest. Additional Paras will arrive and replace airport security over here. Coordinate with Colonel Patil when he gets on the ground here with his Para forces. He will be the overall Para commander for Bhutan. I have tasked him to weed out the Chinese spec-ops teams to the north of here and between Thimpu and us. Cannot have them running in the weeds causing trouble.
“I am coordinating a major Para operation with Patil once Thimpu is secure. The reason I am telling you this is because it all depends on this airbase becoming operational for us to be able to crush the Chinese Regiment drive on Thimpu using those Pinaka MLRS from your battery, Fernandes. Without these, Bhutan will fall, gentlemen. So understand the severity of the situation you find yourself in and stand up to it. If Patil has his way, we will be trapping the three Chinese Regiments in Bhutan in a death-trap of his choosing. And then he will kill them all.
Gentlemen, I plan to give him his way. And you had better not get in mine...”