Thursday, September 20, 2007

Defending the country with body and soul

Brigadier Philip Thomas, who passed away recently, was a veteran of three wars

By Shevlin Sebastian

"Whenever my father went on an assignment, he would write to us every three days," says Thomas Phillip, the son of Brigadier Philip Thomas, 88, who died on September 8 in Kochi. "However, during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, we did not get a letter for three weeks."

At that time, the family was stationed in Jhansi. The Brigadier’s wife, Chachiamma, was working as a volunteer nurse tending to wounded soldiers at the military hospital, when one soldier told her stunning news: Thomas saab had been killed. “My mother was very upset,” says Phillip. “She would sit in the evenings and hug both of us and cry. I was 13 and my brother, Joseph, was 11. But we did not receive any official word about his death.”

Every day, they would pore over newspapers for news about deaths in the war. Fortunately, after three weeks, Chachiamma got a letter from the brigadier saying that the truck, which was carrying the mail, had been bombed. “It was a nerve-wracking period for us,” says Phillip, 55, who is the managing director of Cochin Spices.

But there were happy memories, too. When the Indian Army overran Sialkot, Thomas found two dogs, a male Egyptian sheep dog and a female bull terrier, which he brought back to Jhansi. He did not know their names, so he named them Bhutto and Begum. “At that time, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, while Begum is how you address a Pakistani woman,” says Phillip. It was during this war that his father was promoted to Brigadier.

Thomas embarked on an Army career by chance. In 1943, he was told by a friend that the British were offering commissions to Indian graduates to be officers in the British Indian Army. (Thomas was a mathematics graduate from St. Thomas College, Trissur). So, he applied and got selected. “It was a big thing to be an Officer commanding Indian, as well as British troops,” says Phillip. “The pay was also excellent. In 1946, as a Captain, he was getting Rs 800 per month, which was a small fortune in those days.”

Thomas took part in the Second World War, fighting in the British Indian army, against the Japanese. After the war, he held postings in Delhi, Darjeeling, Ahmednagar, Hyderabad, Ranchi and Ramgarh in 1961.

During the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, the Chinese army launched an attack on the Sikkim border. Around 700 Indian soldiers and a lieutenant colonel, Badhwar, were killed. Thomas’s regiment was sent in as a replacement. When Thomas inspected the area, he saw that one of the reasons for the debacle was because the artillery guns had not been strategically deployed. He did a reconnaissance and found an ideal embankment where he could place the Russian-make field guns. “Gun positions are crucial in times of war,” says Phillip.

With accurate shelling, Brigadier Thomas and his unit stopped the Chinese advancement. However, the land, where he had placed his guns, happened to be the burial ground of the Chogyals, the rulers of Sikkim. Tashi Namgyal Chogyal complained to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who referred the matter to Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon. Ultimately, B.M. Kaul, the lieutenant general of the Eastern Command, asked Thomas for an explanation. The Brigadier proved that the location was vital for India’s interests.

Later, after stints in Dehra Dun, Tezpur, Belgaum and Naba (Punjab), Thomas retired in August, 1971, after 28 years of service. “However,” says Phillip, with a smile, “he was able to draw pension for 36 years, much longer than his service period.”

So what sort of a man was he? Says his younger son, Joseph, 53: “He never complained about anything. This was a quality he displayed upto his death. Weak and unable to speak, he would always whisper ‘I am alright’ to everyone who asked how he was!”

Says Dr. C.T. Mathew, the founder principal of Government Dental College, Calicut: “My brother was a man of enormous energy who worked with immense dedication.” At that time, a collector was getting a salary of Rs 500, and so, Thomas, with his salary of Rs 800, was able to send money to help his father, who was a school headmaster, to tide over financial difficulties. “When I went for my dentistry course in Mumbai,” says Mathew, “it was Thomas who paid a considerable part of the expenses, even though he had a family of his own.”

Of the two sons, Phillip was unable to join the Army, since he had flat feet, but he tried four times. Joseph served for 32 years in the Army, before he took premature retirement in 2005 as a Colonel. He is now a Senior Vice President in a logistics company at Bangalore.

In the end, Thomas had a lung infection which led to septicimea, which affected his kidneys and his liver. “He died at 11.30 p.m. on September 8,” says Phillip. “If he had lived half an hour more, he would have been able to celebrate his 61st wedding anniversary.”

A sudden memory comes up for Phillip: “Before my father left for the 1962 and 1965 wars, he would take me aside and say, ‘If I don't come back, as the man of the house, you will have to look after your mother and your brother.’ But he came back. But this time, when he actually went, he did not tell me.”

A tear rolled down his face.

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from New Indian Express, Kochi)

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