This is the story of Indian Navy’s historic Yemen Rescue under the Command of Milind Mohan Mokashi and his brave men aboard INS Sumitra in March 2015.
On 31st March 2015, Commander Milind Mohan Mokashi of INS Sumitra received the order to rescue Indian citizens who were stranded in Yemen where situations were highly volatile in the midst of a civil war. There was a lack of surprise on board the INS Sumitra. Milind and his men already knew how the situations were escalating in Yemen and were expecting such an order. Without wasting any time they set course for Aden.
Without any essential charts or maps, it was really difficult for them to make their way to an unfriendly port of Aden.
The team of 8 MARCOS on the INS Sumitra was prepared with weapons and boats. Armed and ready for anti-terror operations, these commandos would sanitize the area surrounding the ship and provide a formidable layer of security.
About 22 KM out, the INS Sumitra stopped. The port was closed for normal operations and without clearance from Saudi Arabia, which now controlled the airspace over the port and whose jets were carrying out uninterrupted strikes, moving the ship any closer could be catastrophic. Looking through binoculars at what had become one of the most dangerous ports in the world, Commander Mokashi waited.
It was already 1600 hours, the crew on INS Sumitra knew that their mission had just become infinitely more dangerous for the ship and for them.
Commander Mokashi ordered his MARCOS to lower their vanguard boat and set out for the port. Led by an officer and armed with assault rifles and sidearms, the 8 commandos sailed through the darkness of the ancient harbour to sanitize the ship’s intended path. Carefully scanning the area, the 8 men make sure there were no suspicious boats of terror groups rebels who would have snuck their way after sunset after knowing the arrival of a foreign warship. The team leader signaled back to the ship that the area was tentatively secure, but they needed to be prepared for any eventuality.
As dusk gave way to night, the INS Sumitra was finally ordered to proceed towards the port. Meanwhile, the MARCOS team had found groups of Indian citizens sheltered inside shipping containers. This was a good news but the commando wasn’t finished. The number was more than double of what the crew of INS Sumitra had prepared for or expected. There were 350 people waiting to be rescued and not one of them could be left behind.
At 1945 hours, INS Sumitra docked at the deserted port of Aden. A sole Yemeni individual at the harbour, possibly a port official, approached the ship. Aware of their mission, he issued an ominous instruction.
“You have 45 minutes to dock fully, get your people and leave,” he said.
Commander Mokashi and his XO (Executive Officer) glanced at each other. 45 minutes. Both knew that demand was beyond the realms of the possible. Even if the crew screened and embarked 1 Indian per minuted, it would take 6 hours to board the 350.
Wasting not a moment more, the crew of INS Sumitra began their work. Gradually increasing their tempo and getting into the rhythm of their mission. Minute before they began, their Captain had a word of advice for them.
“This is a mission of honour. These are our people. They’ve just been through a lot of trauma. They’ve had t leave their homes and belongings. Many of them will be women, children and the elderly. We have to deliver them out of this place in a very short time. But let’s be as gentle with them as we can. No high-handedness. No harshness. Be firm, but not impolite. Let us imagine what they have been through,” Commander Mokashi said to his men.
As the process began, the 8 armed MARCOS who had arrived earlier formed a wide outer cordon ready to engage with any threat that emerged from the darkness. An inner layer of armed naval sailors formed a QRT near the embarkation point. On board the ship itself, 2 MARCOS sat perched on one of the ship’s masts. While 1 kept a watch with his binoculars, the other sat with his Israeli Galil 7.62 mm sniper rifle, his head bent to the telescope sight, scanning the port for anything be potentially needed to take down.
The boarding finally began, with the Indian citizens being scanned, photographed and boarded. The Indian Navy does not yet deploy women on board warships so the screening of women was done by several enlisted elderly women from the group. Several Indians boarded needed immediate medical assistance while others needed to be calm down after the trauma of escaping a bombed city. Many hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours.
The crew had already vacated their cabins and quarters for the rescued Indians. Women, young children, and senior citizens were given priority accommodation in the officer’s and sailor’s made mess decks.
After the last Indian had been boarded, the MARCOS and naval sailors finally relaxed from their ready-to-fire positions and got back aboard their ship. As the ship pulled away from its berth, several people remained at Aden awaiting rescue. But the INS Sumitra had permission to board only Indians – a restriction that would change a few days later.
Through that night, INS Sumitra sailed at full speed across the Gulf of Aden. After a few hours of adjustment, exhausted from worry and exertion, most of the rescued Indians fell asleep.
The INS Sumitra arrived in Djibouti at 0700 hours on 1st April. The arrival and disembarkation of 350 rescued Indians became a broadly televised event in the Indian media, with the Minister of State External Affairs, Gen. V.K. Singh waiting at the port and famously addressing the crowd.
Commander Mokashi finally afforded himself luxury to exhale. He thus ensured successful completion of the first evacuation operation by the Indian Navy from the worn-torn Yemen under testing and war-like situation. He knew that his work has just begun.
He and his relatively young team carried out evacuation operations from three different ports of Yemen (one from Aden and Ash Shihr Oil Terminal and three from Al Hodeida).
In the five trips made, a total of 1621 personnel (961 Indians and 660 other nationals including 317 women and 137 children) were evacuated to safety from the worn-torn country. The exemplary level of resolute courage and outstanding leadership of Commander Mokashi ensured the success of five missions to war-torn Yemen, including one at night.
On 16th April, after delivering their final load of Indian nationals to Djibouti, Commander Mokashi and his crew, already heroes back home, got fresh orders. Seventeen days after they were diverted from their original mission in the Gulf of Aden, there were ordered to return to their anti-piracy patrol. After 2 more months of securing ships and making its way up or down the gulf, INS Sumitra was summoned home to Chennai.
On Independence Day 2015, Commander Milind Mohan Mokashi was awarded the Shaurya Chakra for ‘unparalleled valour, conspicuous gallantry, bold and faring decisive actions beyond the call of duty’.
“This operation wasn’t handled by me alone, or by one man. The success of the mission was to us as a team,”
says Commander Mokashi, who was promoted shortly after his gallantry decoration to the rank of Captain.
The inspiration for writing this article came from the book ‘India’s Most Fearless’ written by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh. I highly recommend you to read this book, it contains many such tales of Modern Military Heroes.
Also, follow our website and facebook page for more articles like this and also do check out other articles.