War & Heroes

In Loving Memory of Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry, SJ, SBt

There is a story that had never been told until the last school reunion when its protagonist had shortly passed away. Today, I have a tweet from Dr. Aamer Iqbal asking if I had narrated a certain antic about driving a truck on a runway. That’s a great story from my ‘criminal’ past and I think it needs a re-telling.



The year was 1974 (or was it 1975?) when I had either not been promoted as a Captain or had just been demoted back to Lieutenant. My Regiment 67 (SP) Light Anti Aircraft went practice firing at the Khudai ranges near Muzaffargarh and I was deputed as a liaison officer at Rafiqui Air Base, Shorkot from where the F-86 Sabres took off with the sleeve we were supposed to shoot to kingdom come.
I, who had always chaffed at everyone always breathing down my neck in Kharian, was suddenly independent and my own master. Here, I was with a Dodge three-quarter ton truck (Korean War vintage), radio equipment, two wireless operators and a driver and with no nobody to tell me what I ‘should’ have done or be doing.
On the second day at Shorkot, I got it into my head that I should check what I can clock on the Dodge’s speedometer. And so, leaving my crew with the wireless, I drove to one end of the runway. There I turned around, just as they do with the aircraft, sat there revving the ancient engine, again like they do with the aircraft, and then let the clutch out imagining myself as a World War 2 fighter pilot in a Focke Wulf 190. Through the gears I raced, the engine roaring for all it was worth until in top gear and about midway down the runway, I was cruising at a grand seventy miles per hour.
I thought that was not good enough.
At the far end of the runway, I turned around and repeated the action hoping to top eighty. It did not work and again at the other end I turned the Dodge around for yet another run. This time I was about halfway down the runway when, through the wind screaming in my ears, I heard sirens. In the rear-view mirror I espied two Air Provost jeeps drawing up behind me, with a Sergeant madly semaphoring for me to pull over.


Tall and slim, thick chevron moustache, handsome tanned face with dark swept back hair, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was visiting his alma mater after winning laurels for his service to the country as a fighter pilot.


When we stopped, the man came over and seeing me, a Lieutenant, saluted smartly, “Sir, the Base Commander sends his regards.” In military parlance, a senior sending his salaam meant more often than not a bollocking. With one jeep leading and other behind me as if I was going to break off and flee, we drove to the offices. Now, damned if I knew until then who the Base Commander was, but as the Sergeant escorted me to the office, I was immensely pleased to read the name ‘Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry’.
No problem, I thought to myself as the door was opened for me to march in. I did, halted in front of the desk and threw my smartest salute to a man I had admired when he visited the school in October 1965. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. Tall and slim, thick chevron moustache, handsome tanned face with dark swept back hair, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was visiting his alma mater after winning laurels for his service to the country as a fighter pilot. And one conferred with the coveted Sitara-e-Jurat, too. ‘Cecil Chaudhry’, the whisper had screamed through the corridors of St. Anthony’s High School and there were eight hundred wide-eyed boys agog and keen to shake the hand of their hero.
Now, here in Shorkot on a crisp October morning ten years after that event was one of those very boys hauled in for a severe reprimand. The Base Commander sat erect, peak cap on his head and hands folded neatly in front on the desk. Clearly, he was ready to blast the idiot Lieutenant to the dark side of hell.
‘Sir, I too am from St. Anthony’s!’ I called out Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) style even before Cecil could let loose. There was a moment of silence in which the only audible sound was Cecil’s exhalation. ‘Oye, tumhara dimagh kharab ho gaya hai?’ (hey, have you lost your mind?)
Asking me if I was crazy in Urdu meant the storm had passed. It had passed because I too was from St. Anthony’s High School, Lahore. Cecil took off his cap, placed it neatly on the side, ran a hand over his hair and pointing to the chair across from him said, ‘Sit down here, you idiot.’
He asked me about my years in school and my career in the army. I had him guffawing when I narrated how I was faring in uniform. When he was ready to dismiss me, Cecil added, almost in a by-the-way sort of manner that my crazy jape on the runway had kept three F-6 aircraft from landing.
We said our good-byes and just before I ducked out of the door, Cecil called out, ‘You try that again, and I’ll have you thrown in the quarter guard.’
Time flew and some time about 2002, I met Cecil again at the home of the good Philip and Priscilla Lall in Lahore. I asked him if he remembered the foolish Lieutenant who drove a truck on the Shorkot runway. He thought hard and said he vaguely remembered ‘some idiot pongo’ doing some crazy stuff like that. I said it was I. Cecil threw his head back and let out a huge laugh.
April 13 marked the death anniversary of Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry (SJ, SBt), one of Pakistan’s most loved war heroes.
The son of Elmer Chaudhry, a former science teacher and Pakistan’s first photo-journalist, Cecil was schooled at St. Anthony’s High School in Lahore before pursuing his BS in Physics at the Forman Christian College. He subsequently joined the Pakistan Air Force Academy in 1958, in the GDP course.
On September 6, 1965, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was No. 2 in a flight of 3 F-86 aircraft led by Squadron Leader Rafiqui. Their target was Halwara airfield of the Indian Air Force. This formation of 3 F-86 was intercepted by 10 Hunter aircraft of the Indian Air Force. During the engagement, the leader's guns stopped firing and he handed over the lead to Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry, who very ably and aggressively continued the fight against heavy odds.


On September 6, 1965, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry was No. 2 in a flight of 3 F-86 aircraft led by Squadron Leader Rafiqui. Their target was Halwara airfield of the Indian Air Force.


About 60 miles inside enemy territory, he destroyed two enemy Hunter aircraft with his gun attack. His courage and professional ability in such adverse circumstances was outstanding and he successfully managed to return to the base after having lost contact with other members of the formation.
On September 15, 1965, in spite of insufficient information from ground radar, Flight Lieutenant Cecil Chaudhry pursued his attack aggressively on enemy bombers and chased them 150 miles from his base. During the engagement, he destroyed one enemy Canberra bomber. The services rendered by him were beyond the call of normal duty and contributed a significant share towards Pakistan Air Force achieving air superiority.
In the 1971 War with India, he had a close call when his plane was hit over Indian territory, he ejected and returned safely to Pakistan. Four days later, he shot down two Indian fighters in the same area.
For these acts of courage, dedication and professional ability, Group Captain Cecil Chaudhry was awarded Sitara-i-Jurat and the Sitara-e-Basalat for his role in Pakistan’s war with India in 1965 and 1971.
Cecil Chaudhry became an educationalist after leaving the Air Force and was affiliated with the Punjab Education Foundation. He served as the principal of St. Anthony's College for fourteen years, before becoming the principal of Saint Mary's Academy, Lalazar, Rawalpindi, succeeding Sister Eileen Ann Daffy. He retired from this post in July 2011.
Chaudhry remained an influential, independent human rights activist, as well as working for the betterment of children with disabilities and for educational reform.
He was a mentor to late Shahbaz Bhatti from 1990 onward. It was Cecil Chaudhry who founded The All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) in 2002, which was headed by martyr Shahbaz Bhatti.
He was also affiliated with the National Commission for Justice and Peace and was instrumental in leading the fourteen-year campaign that led to the restoration of Pakistan's joint electorate system in 2002.
Cecil Chaudhry died at the age of 70 in Lahore on April 13, 2012 after a battle with lung cancer. In August 2013, President Asif Ali Zardari approved the conferment of the President's Pride of Performance Award upon Cecil Chaudhry.
In November 2014, Chief Minister Punjab, Mian Mohammad Shahbaz Sharif, renamed a portion of Lawrence Road Lahore to ‘Cecil Chaudhry Road’. Lawrence Road holds great significance in Cecil Chaudhry's life as this is the road where St. Anthony’s High School is located, from where he not only received his schooling but also served as Principal of this institution for the longest ever period of fourteen years.
To keep her parents’ legacy alive, Cecil Chaudhry's daughter, Michelle Chaudhry, founded The Cecil and Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF), an independent, non-government, non-profit organization, dedicated to the eradication of injustice from the society by advocating on behalf of the underprivileged, underrepresented and marginalized groups within Pakistan.


 

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