The fighting in the east is rarely discussed when India and Pakistan debate the 1965 war. But on this day, exactly 50 years ago, a 25-year-old fighter pilot did the Indian Air Force proud with his heroics in the east.
On Monday, Flight Lieutenant Alfred Tyrone Cooke, who took on three PAF Sabres over Kalaikunda, struck two and chased the third away after his Hunter run out of ammunition, returned to the Bulls, the No.14 Squadron, to present it his Vir Chakra.
Now 75, the soft-spoken former fighter pilot came all the way to Ambala from Australia where he settled after leaving the IAF. With him were his wife and two sons.
“I am overwhelmed to be here. Thank you for giving me this honour. I was just doing my job, defending my area, and shooting down as many enemy fighters as I could. I was very lucky to have survived. My Vir Chakra belongs to the squadron”.
The Commodore Commandant of the squadron, Air Vice Marshal Sunil J Nanodkar, and Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Devashish Kukreti, accepted the medal from Flt Lt Cooke.
Fifty years is a long time but Cooke still recalls that September 7 over Kalaikunda. “I was on a Combat Air Patrol near the East Pakistan border with the instruction that we were not to enter Pakistani airspace. We were told to engage Pakistani jets only if they ventured into our territory. I was diverted to the Kalaikunda air force station near Kharagpur in West Bengal which was under attack from the PAF. As I neared it, I saw black smoke rising and my blood boiled. I told my wingman, Flying Officer S C Mamgain, that we are going to get these b******s.”
He went after a Sabre — it was being flown by Flying Officer Afzal Khan of the PAF — flying dangerously low. Cooke eventually got a clean shot and the Sabre blew up, killing its pilot.
But there was no respite. He had to immediately engage another Sabre. He fired at it repeatedly, riddling it but it kept flying — on its return to East Pakistan, the Sabre was written off as damaged beyond repair. “I later realised that the CO had not instructed squadron armourers to equip our guns with high explosive rounds. After the initial 25 rounds, I had only ball ammunition which is used for target practice,” he said.
Cooke took on a third Sabre though he knew that his Hunter had run out of ammunition. “I did so because this enemy fighter was on the tail of my wingman. This is perhaps the only brave thing I did during the action.” The Sabre eventually broke away and returned to its base.
He had words of praise though for the enemy, saying they were “good… aggressive”.
“I thought it was going to be a duck shoot when I went after the first Sabre but the man was good.” He said the Pakistani pilots were flying copybook, so their actions were predictable. “You need to learn from the book, then throw it away to adapt and innovate.”
Presenting a memento to Cooke, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command, Air Marshal S B Deo, said it is important for the present generation of fighter pilots to learn from the war heroes.