The pilot who ‘shot’ Pakistan

On the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war, Wing Commander JM Nath recalls the missions he flew to photograph weaponry and enemy positions.

September 06, 2015 04:45 am | Updated March 28, 2016 03:40 pm IST - Coimbatore:

Then Squadron Leader JM Nath receiving his second Maha Vir Chakra for his 1965 operations from President S. Radhakrishnan

Then Squadron Leader JM Nath receiving his second Maha Vir Chakra for his 1965 operations from President S. Radhakrishnan

Fifty years ago, when he leapt into his Canberra, a twin-engine jet bomber fitted with cameras, and flew into Pakistan on a top secret mission, then Squadron Leader Jag Mohan Nath already had a Maha Vir Chakra awarded to him for the earlier 1962 operations. He had flown into Aksai Chin and Tibet and returned with valuable inputs on the ground situation and enemy troop activities there, both before and during the Indo-China conflict.

Three years later, in September 1965, he was awarded another Maha Vir Chakra, this time for his role in the Indo-Pak conflict. The Maha Vir Chakra is the second highest military decoration in India, after the Param Vir Chakra, and is awarded for acts of gallantry.

Today, as India observes the 50th anniversary of the 1965 India-Pakistan War, Wing Commander Nath is the only living Indian Air Force officer to be decorated twice with this honour. On a recent visit to Coimbatore, where he first came as a cadet to Air Force Administrative College in 1948 for his initial training, he recalls the 30 reconnaissance missions he flew into Pakistan.

Mr. Nath — Jaggi to colleagues — is frail and stooped at age 85. Speaking softly, he recalls that his missions were so secret that only one other person knew about them: the then air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh.

As Mr. Nath describes his flights, his hands deftly demonstrate the loops and barrel rolls he did in his Canberra aircraft, as he dodged and ducked, to avoid being shot down by Pakistani Sabres. The terrain was mountainous, blips on his instrument panel told him there were four enemy aircraft on his tail, the fuel gauge was running empty and when he re-entered Indian territory he was almost shot down by his own comrades who mistook him for the enemy!

Vital visuals

In those reconnaissance sorties, he flew in broad daylight almost skimming trees so that the Pakistani radar could not detect his aircraft. Then, when he felt there was something to be captured on camera, he climbed to 12,000 feet to get the best pictures. “I would be exposed for full five minutes,” he says. Mr. Nath’s black-and-white pictures yielded a treasure trove of information. Indian jets scrambled to destroy a powerful radar in Badin near Karachi, and the army almost reached Lahore.

About a month into the conflict, Jaggi was once again deployed deep into Pakistan territory to find out about fighter aircraft based in Samungli near Quetta in western Pakistan. “I flew over Leia (now Laya) in Pakistan. I was born there. That is my village. I went to school there,” he says.

Growing up in his village, Mr. Nath watched the planes high in the sky. “I couldn’t take my eyes off them. My uncle told me, ‘you should become a pilot!’”

His family members were all doctors, but Mr. Nath wanted to be involved with planes. As it happened, he found himself at Red Fort, Delhi, where recruitments were on and he joined the Indian Air Force.

Top secret assignments

Mr. Nath’s hush-hush assignments and bravery took him to rooms of the chiefs of the three services, political leaders and bureaucrats during the conflict. He was witness to what he describes as “astoundingly bad decisions, miscalculations and errors in judgment.” But those are nothing when he thinks of the incredible courage and grace under fire that his comrades displayed, many of whom lost their lives. Mr. Nath left the Indian Air Force in 1969, and joined Air India.

As he leaves for home in Mumbai, Mr. Nath shows a book on heroism that he is reading: Elephant Company by Vicki Croke, a story of man-elephant bonding that saved lives in World War II. “I was gifted this book by Ian,” he says, unable to recall the last name of the Pakistani pilot whom he befriended in Dubai. “He joined the Pakistani Air Force the same year as I did.”

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