Escapades of budding heroes of KDA Intake 3 | Sunday Observer

Escapades of budding heroes of KDA Intake 3

9 August, 2020
KDA intake 3 in 1982
KDA intake 3 in 1982

On August 3, 1982, a batch of 14 from various parts of the Island arrived at the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA) in Ratmalana to train as Service Cadet Officers. We had been informed by telegram to report to the KDA by 1500 hrs and we were there on time, accompanied by our parents and well-wishers. We were filled with mixed emotions of keen excitement tempered with a twinge of anxiety, as to what would be in store from now on. We had opted for a career in the Security Forces and now was the opportunity to prove ourselves. We were the lucky 14 out of 1,067 applicants to join the KDA as Officer Cadets of the 3 rd Intake. We had to face four separate interviews: First at Army Headquarters, then the Officer Quality Test (OQT) at the Armoured Corps Rock House Camp in Mutwal; a medical examination at the Military Hospital and the final interview at the Ministry of Defence with the Three Service Commanders and Defence Secretary Gen Sepala Attigala as Chairman of the Board.

All candidates need to get the aggregate required to gain entry to the University as well as excel in extracurricular activities at school level. The selected applicants were Thiru Amaran from Trinity College, Kandy, Saliya Weerakkody, St. Joseph’s College, Bandarawela, Damian Fernando, St. Sebastian’s College, Moratuwa, Upul Wijesinghe, Thurstan College, Colombo, Shantha Liyanage, Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa, Dimuthu Gunawardena, S.Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia, Palitha Sirimal, Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda, Ruwan Upul Perera, Maris Stella College Negombo, Lal Padmakumara, St. Mary’s College, Kegalle and Dhammika Pananwela, Preethi Vidanapathirana, Manoj Jayasuriya, Shantha Edirisinghe and Nilakshan Perera from Ananda College, Colombo. Among them were four Head Prefects, two Cadet Corps Sergeant Majors, Three Cadet Sergeants, One Sri Lanka Schools Basket-Ball player, one Sri Lanka Schools Triple Jump record holder, and two National Level swimmers. We were over the moon when we received confirmation of our selection by registered post, and as instructed we had packed our suitcases with clothing and toiletries, as per the list provided and reported to the KDA as instructed.

Ali Kakula

As young 19-year-old schoolboys all dressed in their respective College blazers and ties we would certainly have made a fine picture on that memorable first day at the prestigious KDA. Soon we said goodbye to our parents and well wishers and no sooner they left, we were taken to the Quarter Masters Stores and provided with various service issues such as boots, mess tins, water bottles, tennis shoes, white T-shirts, KDA Colours Track kits, black overalls, belts, berates, white towels, bed sheets, pillowcases, and other necessities, packed into a big sack bag popularly known as Ali Kakula among service personnel as it resembled an elephant’s leg. We were all delighted, without realising what would be next, when a Warrant Officer and two PT Instructors asked us to carry the Ali Kakula and took us on a camp tour. This was our first taste of what we were in for as Officer Cadets. It was no ordinary camp tour.

There we stood, smartly dressed in crisp shirts and trousers, well-polished shoes, and our school blazers and ties, now carrying our newly acquired possessions in the Ali Kakula trotting on the double from one place to another starting from the Main Gate of the Ratmalana Airport, and then to the side gate that leads to Kandawala Road, Sir John’s Lake(Next to Bata), the four corners of Kandawala Estate, summer hut, aquarium, farm, paddy fields and finally ending up adjoining the Ratmalana Airport hangars. After dinner, we met our seniors.

There were 34 super seniors of Intake 1 consisting of Engineering Cadets from the Moratuwa University and Physical Science undergraduates from the University of Colombo. Our immediate seniors of Intake 2 consisted of 27 cadets - Engineering, Physical Science, and Arts undergraduates. As we were about to go to bed around 10.30 pm Intake 2 seniors came and greeted us in accordance with Military standards.

Respected English teacher

The next day we were addressed by Capt Raj Fernando, a tall Cadet Corp Officer who was one of the most respected English teachers and a fatherly figure to us, who introduced himself as our Troop Commander, and Maj LCR Goonawardena of Artillery, a great officer by all means as Squadron Commander, (former Chief of Staff of the Army, retired as Maj General in 2002) and Sgt Fernando WEA from Artillery as our Intake Sgt, soldier to the inner bone and a Sgt with a high professional outlook.

Our daily routine was to wake up at 4.30 a.m. and get ready for PT at 5.30 a.m. after preparing our billet including toilets, corridors, windows ceiling fans, etc for inspection.

After PT, breakfast was at 7 am and by 8.30 Squad drill training at the Airport hangar and then back at Sir John’s bungalow for Military studies. The lunch break was from 12.45 to 1.30 pm and then back to Military studies till 3.30 pm.

After the tea break of 15 minutes it was Recreational practices at the Railway Grounds near Galle Road Ratmalana or Kandawela Vidyalaya which was next to KDA. For a few months we attended Military lectures such as Map reading, Service writing, Leadership studies, Current Affairs, Fieldcraft and basic tactics.

University lectures

In September University lectures began and all Colombo University Cadets got transport to Colombo University and back by Army TATA 1210 truck. We alighted at Broody House at Bullers Road, the Army Commander’s Official residence by 7.45 am for 8 am lectures, and were picked up by 6.15 pm at the same location. For lunch, we had to walk up to Volunteer Service Corps Camp at Old Race Course.

All were compelled to participate in sports at the Colombo University as our seniors were dominating most of the sports such as, Football, Rugger, Basketball, Cricket, Hockey, Athletics, Badminton Rowing, and Swimming. In December 1982, before our 1st vacation of 10 days for Christmas we had Parents’ Day where parents and family members were invited to witness their sons’ abilities after moulding them to Military culture.

We also had several Mess Nights, and according to the seating plan we had to sit with Senior Officers of all three forces and with our seniors of Intake 1 and 2 as well. Though there were all kinds of delicious food, we were not that fortunate to enjoy the food as much as we would have liked to, because of the array of cutlery that was laid out and with the senior officers’ eyes focused on us.

We had to find other ways and means to satisfy our hunger. Fortunately, there were plenty of coconut trees in Gen Sir John’s Kandawala Estate. Most nights, especially around midnight a few of us started a covert operation. During the day we did a recce to earmark trees which had a good bunch of kurumba, especially, trees far away from the seniors’ study halls. We had a remarkable guy who could climb any height of a coconut tree in thick darkness.

Not only that, while two of us held a groundsheetand a white sheet rolled in the centre in the form of a circle he would drop the Kurumba bang on target onto the groundsheet even from a height of 40 to 60 feet.

All this was done in complete darkness with no light whatsoever. (We had no access to night vision equipment then). All he could see was the faint outline of the white circle of the bed-sheet and fortunately, he never missed his target as otherwise the two of us would have been the first-ever cadets to die under tragic circumstances at KDA.

Aerial Bombing

So we should go down as the very first guys to practise aerial bombing in the history of Sri Lanka warfare. Ultimately the person who climbed these tall coconut trees to send down kurumba to the pinpoint target joined SLAF and specialised in Aerial Bombing. Later when the seniors got to know this act of destroying the coconut cultivation of KDA we were asked to surrender our machete.

On July 23, 1983, when the LTTE ambushed 14 Army personnel including Lt Waas Gunawardena, we were at the Ratmalana Air Force hangar to receive and assist Security Forces personnel. We will never forget the tragic scene of the special Y-8 plane carrying 14 dead bodies wrapped in polythene covers that landed at Ratmalana.

From the next day we were deployed for Internal Security duties. That was a sombre period that opened our eyes to the stark realities of military life. However, no sooner the situation in the country became somewhat normal we reverted to our usual routine.

Though we could move around with other students at University we were strictly instructed not to engage in any form of ragging as it will lead to the suspension of our studentships as well as being discharged from KDA. Among the next batch of students, a few happened to be the daughters of some senior officers.

For Ragging, we asked them to bring us packets of home-cooked lunches wrapped in Kehel kola with Dhal curry, pol sambol and fried dried fish and asked one of them to get us a good machete so that our Midnight Operation could resume.

Lt Dushantha Chelliah of the Sri Lanka Navy (retired as Commander in 1995 and migrated to Canada) took over as our Troop Commander, straight from Naval Maritime Academy, where he was the Asst Division Commander (the Course Officer of Admiral Ravi Wijegoonawardane, former Chief of Defence Staff).

He was a great cricketer who played for Royal College, Sri Lanka Navy, and Defence Services as an opening batsman. He was a strict disciplinarian and didn’t tolerate any nonsense.


We were fortunate to have played Football, Cricket or Rugby matches with teams of Foreign Naval ships visiting Sri Lanka either at the Welisara Navy grounds or S. Thomas’ Grounds Mt Lavinia, thanks to Lt Chelliah. In addition to sports, he helped us with our studies, and with his contacts, we had our very first sea experience of a Voyage from Galle to Colombo onboard the SLNS Sagarawardana. (Sadly now it’s under the bottom of the sea). We were given onboard training of most of the Navel experiences, and loved the food served onboard Sagarawardane with all kinds of fresh seafood. Lt Chelliah had also introduced us to maintaining a Journal.

We had to write details of events that took place daily and submit to the Troop Commander by Monday morning at 0700hrs before leaving for Campus.

He returned the journals marked and corrected by the same evening when we returned, and promptly we read and did the corrections knowing the consequences well. It’s a great lesson we learned and we still maintain historic information and important dates.

A few of the most disciplined Cadets had the opportunity to measure the depth of Sir John’s lake near the summer hut for our punishments. The water was not salty but the smell of muddy water and different varieties of plants and small fish could be found on our overalls. They were all part and parcel of our training and we still cherish them.

Changing parades

The series of changing parades we had are great blessings nowadays to get ready in 30- 40 seconds. We had to report to Sir John’s bungalow in a couple of minutes - a maximum of 2-3 minutes running back to billets which were 750 metres away then get back and stand in attention in a place where the spotlight was focused on us. (Cadets cannot move beyond that point). Lt Chellaiah would come to the balcony and instruct us on the next kit change and timing.

This goes on for about 20 - 30 minutes. Some tried different tactics, placing all kits, civil, white PT, Battle Order uniform, recreational kit under a coconut tree, and changing rather than running back to billets. Our profound gratitude to you Sir, for, who we are today, as dedicated disciplined gentlemen officers.

Though he was a strict disciplinarian he always respected us as Cadets, trained us to be the best. He punished us when we did wrong, all with good intention, to make us better Officers so that we too will train our subordinates in the same way, in the future.

Normally on Poya Days, we had Bana for about an hour, delivered by one of the Bhikkhus from Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara. With this in mind, on the day before Poya we took our civil clothes and left them at a friend’s place on the other side of the Ratmalana Airport Runway. This particular Poya day in Dec 1983 also happened to be a Saturday which suited us fine for our escapade.

Sri Pada

While the rest of the cadets were plucking Araliya flowers for Bana, five culprits smartly went off crossing the Runaway to our friend’s place for a quick change into civilian clothes and then proceeded to Sri Pada catching the 9.40 am Udarata Menike express train. We didn’t have any plans for meals but luckily, while climbing we got to know a very nice family with four pretty daughters.

They looked after us with food and soft drinks and we just accompanied them to the top and we in turn obliged by carrying all their belongings as we didn’t have anything to carry and it was an easy task for us. Of the four girls, two became a Paediatrician and a Banker. We are still in touch with them. We managed to return secretly by 4.55 am on Monday to be mustered for PT at 5.30 am.

All went well but the Air Traffic Controller at the Airport had spotted five Cadets wearing PT kits crossed the Tarmac but had not reported to KDA as he was a friend of one of our Cadets.

Thanks to him and the rest of our batch-mates, who put the mosquito nets and pretended that we were asleep during night visits when the Duty Sgt comes and checks from downstairs to see that all nets were down and 14 Cadets were sleeping.

We were the very 1st Intake to decline the leave given for Sinhala Avurudu. We were given four days but it was hardly sufficient for Saliya Weerakkody whose home was at Diyatalawa, and travelling alone would take two days.

As such we requested more days on behalf of Saliya, but when officials rejected it we declined the chance to go on vacation and stayed back in KDA.

As a result innocent personnel from the training staff, naval catering, medical, and transport had to sacrifice their leave. We were well served with pack-drills, in the morning, afternoon, and evening continuously on all five days and we became fitter and tougher and well united and bonded.

Mess Assistants from the Navy and two waiters were dead scared of us as we used to complain about the quantity and quality of meals to Duty Officers and then he had to either instruct Catering staff to cook separate dishes for us or improve it to proper standard. Being a batch of only 14 our comradeship was high.

Only two of us had girlfriends at the time of joining KDA and whenever a love letter was delivered by post the recipient had to read it aloud so that everyone could hear.

Others hardly received any letters even from parents but we posted letters to ourselves, just to pretend that we too got letters.

Some of our names were familiar among the Ratmalana Post Office staff as letters addressed to (Name) only and Ratmalana, reached us.

As there were no WhatsApp, Viber, FB, Twitter, Instagram then...... whenever we relaxed we had sing-songs with Preethi singing Mindada Heesara (Master Amaradewa), Upul Wijesinghe Asir Mal Warusawe, Damian’s Just Walking in the Rain (Jim Reeves), Thiru’s Maha Re Yame ( Amara and Dayaratne Ranatunge), Ruwan Upul’s Jeewithaye Na Sapa Duka Misa Loke and of course a few of MS Fernando’s Bilas. Shantha Liyanage used to do bat drills as he played cricket for University and Lal Padmakumara being a jack of all trades advising even carpenters and masons at construction sites at KDA. Manoj was glued to James Hadley Chase books, but Dimuthu had other plans. He used to take us fishing at the Bolgoda lake and Panadura bunt. Whether we liked it or not we went with him.

He knows all the culverts in the Borupone area, where guppy breeds. Later we found that he had fished the best Mermaid of the Kannangara family of three daughters who lived down Borupane Road, that’s Nalika. (Dr. Nalika Gunawardena, former Senior Lecturer at Medical Faculty Colombo and at present WHO National Professional Officer).

The Catholics among us were allowed to attend Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Church, Ratmalana and Buddhists went to the Bellanwila Temple. While returning to KDA we used to check if Dimuthu’s Dad’s Black Minor- EN 2876 is parked under the portico of the Principal’s bungalow, (the highly respected Mr. Cyril Gunawardane was the Principal of the Deaf and Blind School) and if the car was there we were sure of a tasty dinner and a free lift to KDA with Dimuthu.

We will never forget Uncle Cyril and Aunt Dolly’s wonderful hospitality and unconditional affection towards us. Whenever we were invited for a Birthday Party (especially girls’ 21st birthday parties) or any other gathering we got permission but had to return before the 10 pm Roll call so that the Duty Cadet could report that all 14 are present and no one is sick. In case the Duty Cadet wanted to check he would call them personally by 2200 hrs but not later.

Whoever had gone out had to walk along Kandawala Road and look at our top floor bathroom window and if the green towel was hung he could get back to the party and come for the next day PT by 5.30 am, but if it was a red towel he would have to come back immediately, as he was wanted. Coming back we had to navigate a 12 ft. barbed wire fence.

We had our first ever Cadet Ball in December 1984. We were asked to bring our dancing partners and most of the pretty girls of Moratuwa and Colombo Universities were on the floor.

It was organised by Cadets of Intakes 1, 2, and 3 and we were well trained in having these functions as detailed by our Officer Instructors. We had the privilege of associating with Military Academy Intake 16, 17, 18 and 19 Cadets on their Unit visits, and having a Football match played at the Railway grounds and also several Cadet Intakes of Naval Maritime Academy Intakes 11 and 12 and China Bay Air Force Academy.

Among these cadets, there were two future Army Commanders, Three Navy Commanders, and two Air Force Commanders. We also had the remarkable company of a few great Air Force Flyers such as, Jayanthalal Thibbotumunuwe, TTK Seneviratne, and Ruwan Punchihetti as they were attached to KDA while doing their Flying Training at Ratmalana. Sadly all three of them died in action later.

In our last year, five of our batch mates captained University teams. Dhammika - Rugby, Saliya- Football, Damian- Basketball, Dimuthu-Rowing and Ruwan Upul-Athletics.

After completing the University final exams in Nov 1985, four joined the Navy, three joined the Air Force and seven joined the Army for Advanced and further training saying Goodbye to KDA, where we had spent almost three years and three months. Our Passing out parade was held in August 1986, with the Hon Lalith Athulathmudali Minister of Defence as chief guest.

Duties to Mother Lanka

After joining the services our Cadets excelled in their duties to Mother Lanka at the highest level. Especially at sea, Manoj Jayasooriya, Preethi Vidnapathirana, and Dimuthu Goonawardena played an excellent role in defeating Sea tiger crafts and engaging with Sea Tiger cadres face to face.

For bravery and selfless acts, Manoj was promoted to the rank of Commander while at sea (Field/Sea promotion) by the Commander of the Navy in Feb 1999. November 19, 1997 was perhaps the saddest day for the officers of Intake 3 when news reached that Lt Preethi Vidanapathirana, a most disciplined and adorable batch mate and a dear friend had made the supreme sacrifice to Mother Lanka, during a fierce sea battle in Mullaitivu.

The evening before the fateful day, three batch mates Manoj, Dimuthu and Preethi sailed from Trincomalee harbour as directed by the Commander Eastern Naval Area along with a flotilla of ships and crafts on an offensive patrol to disrupt an enemy movement due to take place between Thiriyaya and Mullaitivu.

Manoj who commanded the prestigious Fast Attack Craft Fortilla (FAF4) twice in his career after perfecting the art of naval battle joined this important operation displaying his unwavering tactical leadership so that he could take quick and vital decisions in battle.

His presence in the theatre was undoubtedly a morale booster to all. Preethi was in Command of another FAC, P452 and Dimuthu was in Command of a Chinese Gunboat SLNS Ranawickrama to neutralize enemy launching pads with SLNS Ranarisi.

The two gunboats, along with eight Dovras, kept on engaging targets both at sea and on land to prevent this logistic move from happening.

The battle, considered as one of the bloodiest battles at sea lasted from approximately 2100 hrs on October 18 to 0330 hrs on 19, 1997. In the ensuing battle, Preethi having successfully attacked one of the enemy clusters was hit by a high calibre gun (probably an RCL mounted on the bows of an enemy boat) which immediately immobilized him, paving the opportunity for two enemy suicide boats to speed towards his boat and ram it sinking the craft within seconds approximately 3.5 nautical miles off Kokilai.

By this time, the enemy was forced to abandon its logistic move and return and only what remained at sea were two offensive clusters of the enemy. Preethi was one of the best swimmers and displayed his energetic personality at Ananda College, KDA and at the University of Colombo.

As the incident occurred quite close to the seashore Manoj and Dimuthu continuously searched the area voluntarily for the next 24 hours hoping to find and recover Preethi and his crew members but there was no sign of them. Preethi was posthumously promoted to the rank of Lt Commander after he was considered to have been killed in action. We never forget to include Preethi’s beloved wife Dr. Dayani Panagoda (Senior Technical Specialist Global Communities at USAID/SCORE) for our gatherings, she too is a part of our Intake family.

Awards and decorations

Manoj retired from the Navy as Commander in 2002. For his gallant and meritorious conduct in battle, he had been decorated 14 times by the President of Sri Lanka and remains as the most decorated person in the Navy, this record has not been broken to date.

At present he is the Executive Director of a well Known Motor Company and Director General Manager of a famous Engineering Company.

Dimuthu retired as Rear Admiral in April 2018, and functions as Director Communications and Publications at Institute National Security Studies, having served as Additional Director Civil Defence Force, and also Commander North Central Naval Area, Commandant Naval and Maritime Academy, before retirement.

His distinguished naval career has been recognized with awards on several occasions having sunk two big LTTE floating armories in deep seas.

Shantha Liyanage retired as Major General in Feb 2018 and held the prestigious appointments as Colonel Commandant Army Service Corps and former Commandant Army School of Logistics. Lal Padmakumara retired as Major General in Sept 2017 and was the former Director Budget and Finance Management of the Army.

Damian Fernando retired as Rear Admiral and was the former Director-General Budget and Finance of the Sri Lanka Navy, proud recipient of USP, VSV, Purna Bhumi Medal.

Major General Dhammika Pananwela retired in Nov 2018, functioned as Commander Security Forces East, and recipient of several times RSP for bravery, NDU for academics and trained to bring death to the enemy from the sky, a qualified combat parachutist.

Palitha Sirimal retired as Lt Col in 2002, and is a Director of a semi-governmental organisation. Ruwan Upul Perera retired as Wing Commander in Aug 2005 and is engaged inhis coconut plantations and other properties in Marawila.

Upul Wijesinghe is the Deputy Chief Executive of one of the largest Life Insurance Companies in Sri Lanka. Others are well settled overseas, Thiru Amaran (Sydney) Shantha Edirisinghe ( London) Saliya Weerakkody (Melbourn), and yours truly in Singapore.

We salute all our senior Officers of Intake 1 and Intake 2 for their insightful guidance and patience for tolerating all our acts of misbehaviour. I take this opportunity to thank my fellow batch mates of Intake 3 for the wonderful memories and camaraderie from the bottom of my heart and humbly salute my brother officers who made the supreme sacrifice for Mother Lanka.

During these past 38 years, we have united not just in friendship but in brotherhood and comradeship. You guys truly are The Best.