5th November 2000
Front Page
Editorial/Opinion| Business| Sports|
Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine
The Sunday Times on the Web

Old soldiers never die

Bound together by two World Wars, a happy band of ex-servicemen share evergreen memories with Uthpala Gunethilake as Poppy Day approaches

preparing for the dayThe house in many ways matches those living in it. Like the residents, it is old, nearly 80 years. Standing away from the main road, flanked by a spacious garden and backyard, it is a serene haven for its dwellers who, like the house itself, have memories of a lifetime to recall with pride.

"You can't get a place like this anywhere in the world," assures Tikiri Banda Herath, ignoring his friends who laughingly ask him when he last toured the world. But unlike the house, their memories belong with thousands of others scattered around the world, which make up the history of the World Wars. For, the residents are ex-servicemen, the majority who have served the British Army during World War II. 

Mr. Herath is one of 15 ex-servicemen who live in the Veterans' Home in Katana, run by the Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen's Association (SLESA). It was opened in 1987 on the initiative of A. B. Maas, then Chairman of SLESA's Committee of Managers which is responsible for the running of the elders' home, in the house which belonged to the the late Bharatha Wickremasinghe. SLESA is affiliated to the British Commonwealth Ex-Servicemen's Association. "The Commonwealth Ex-Servicemen's Association looks after the veterans who fought in the British Army during colonial times, and our home is one of many around the world run with their help," says Lt. Pemsiri Seneviratne, the resident manager. 

Of the 15 residents of the home, five are ex-servicemen of the British Army who later joined the Ceylon Army and who therefore receive a pension. "We have designed small chalets for them with all the facilities, and we charge them Rs. 2000 a month," says Lt. Seneviratne. "There is also a dormitory, with separate cubicles for veterans of World War II who, since they did not join the Ceylon Army, do not receive a pension. They are housed free and we give them a monthly allowance," he explained.

Apart from the contributions by donors, the Poppy of Remembrance Day, which blooms every November 11 partly funds the home. The funds allow SLESA to house 22 residents, give them meals and other facilities, and keep a staff of four. 

A great sense of camaraderie prevails here, maybe because they have something in common being war veterans. The oldest member of the home is 92 and the others are above 70. However, around noon when everyone gathers in the living room to wait for the bell to announce lunch, they hardly seem like a group of elderly people. With ready smiles they tell me their stories. "We are like a family. But some don't like to spend their time entirely in the home, so they get leave and visit their children or friends. There is one gentleman who gives tuition to the children in the area. In the evenings some of us get together and play cards and chat," says Lt. Seneviratne, himself from the Sri Lanka Navy. 

Kingsley Dias (81), occupies a chalet and is one of the newcomers, but says that he has fitted in well. He joined the Ceylon Garrison Artillery (CGA) in 1943 and after the war, joined the Ceylon Army in 1951 and served in the Ordnance Corps. A graceful man despite his age, he says he spends his time reading and listening to Jim Reeves.

S. Dambadeniya is the 'dean of the corps' at 92 years. Though he cannot move about with ease anymore, he remembers his wartime experiences in detail and with pride. When the Japanese bombed Colombo in 1942, Mr. Dambadeniya had been the officer on duty at the Ratmalana railway workshop. When it was evident that their camp was about to be attacked by the Japanese, it fell on him to raise the alarm. Ratmalana went down in history with the Angoda Asylum and a few other places as sites bombed by the Japanese, but according to Mr. Dambadeniya, Ratmalana survived without any casualties. "After the raid, Brigadier Guff and Admiral Sir Geoffrey Leighton visited the camp and asked me how many casualties were there. I said, 'None, sir'. Then they both said that it was a great job," he recalls with pride.

D. G. L. Athukorala, 91, boasts of being one of the first four Ceylonese riders in the CGA. Affectionately called 'shell company' by his companions because he spends his free time making coconut shell spoons, he had also served in the South East Asia Command (SEAC), and had been in Hiroshima just after it was bombed. But more importantly, he eagerly recalls that he won an All-Island Prize for agriculture while in the army, and says that he helps out in the garden. 

No one is as proud as S. Aloysius (79) about his time in the army. He lovingly treasures all memorabilia from the army, from a book of Rules of Conduct to the Life Member card and official badge of the Artillery Association, sporting a T-shirt stamped with the picture of this badge. He feels that the glory went out of war when guerrilla warfare came in. "We attacked enemies whom we could see. But now you don't fight face-to-face. Too many people die in vain, and it's just not worth it."

These veterans had an active hand in the Poppy Day project too. The Armistice on November 11, 1918 , saw the official ceasefire of World War I, and later the day was declared the "Day of Remembrance" for the fallen. Folklore has it that the poppy which was originally white, began to bloom in red in the fields where soldiers were buried. Thousands of soldiers who died in the battlefront at France were buried in Flanders, now a part of Belgium. The Red Poppy of Flanders, made famous through a few verses pencilled by Colonel McRao who was in charge of a small post, thereafter became the symbol for the fallen.

This year, the poppies that were sent to SLESA from the Royal British Legion were packed and made into various ornaments by the inmates of the Veterans' Home in Katana. 

Whatever else they did after the war, these veterans have remained essentially soldiers at heart. 

Index Page
Front Page
Sports Plus
Mirrror Magazine

More Plus

Return to Plus Contents


Plus Archives

Front Page| News/Comment| Editorial/Opinion| Plus| Business| Sports| Sports Plus| Mirror Magazine

Please send your comments and suggestions on this web site to 

The Sunday Times or to Information Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.

Presented on the World Wide Web by Infomation Laboratories (Pvt.) Ltd.
Hosted By LAcNet