After reading ‘The saga of a World War II Veteran,’ I called its author, Jagannadha Rao. The book was more the jottings of a war scenario than a novel. It interested me because it reflected the author’s remarkable memory and his way of meticulously preserving some of the rarest photographs and even the daily menu during his Air Force days! He is probably the only surviving member of the British Royal Air Force squadron posted in Akyab Islands (Burma) during World War II.
“Salutes to you, Sir!” I said, and pat came the reply, “To you, too!” He was referring to an earlier article
I had written on the James Wheeler Davidson Award conferred on him by RC Madras. He was the first recipient of this prestigious award given in honour of Rtn James Davidson, referred to as a ‘World Citizen’ by Paul Harris himself. The award honours Rotarians who exemplified Rotary’s motto, Service above Self, through long years of commitment to Rotary, furthering its cause in action and spirit. His instant reply to my greeting had me smiling no end!
“Father breathes Rotary. It keeps him alive,” says his son, K V Ratnam (Rao’s father is also known by this name and he too was a Rotarian!)
The Grand old Hero of Vizag, as he is fondly referred to, Rao is a moving encyclopaedia on Rotary. He joined RC Visakhapatnam in 1960 when he was 37; served as president during 1965-66. He proudly recalls having received the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri at Vizag airport in 1965. He still attends every club meeting without fail and enthusiastically participates in all the discussions related to service projects and other club activities. He is credited with a phenomenal Rotary extension work that includes inducting about 20 members into Rotary and was GSR (Governor’s Special Representative in charge of forming new clubs) for 7 Rotary clubs in the District.
Down memory lane
Rao’s memory is amazing; each incident is etched in his mind. “I saw the first ship, SS Jala Durga sail into Visakhapatnam Port and I was there when Pandit Nehru launched India’s first indigenously built ship, SS Jala Usha, at Hindustan Shipyard in 1948,” says Rao delving into the past. “I have known this city since the time it was a town without electricity. Thanks to the Visakhapatnam Port Trust, the town received power in 1934 from the port’s substation. During those days, power would be available from 6 pm. to 6 am., when the port was closed.”
He still attends every club meeting without fail.
He is among the very few to have witnessed the Japanese bombing of the city in 1942. “It was around 8 am when we first heard the drone of an aircraft. We ran to the terrace to find two small aircrafts flying very low. The Second World War was on. We were trained by the civil guards to handle air raids; hearing the siren, we ran below and scampered beneath the cots. But then they were only Japanese reconnaissance planes. The actual raid happened around 1 pm. and again at 5 pm. Five planes in an arrow formation flew over and dropped bombs in the port area. There was an exodus of people to neighbouring towns and by nightfall, Vizag was deserted, except for the defence personnel,” he recalls.
Though Rao pursued his higher studies as a science graduate, he was advised by his father, K V Ratnam, an advocate and Chief Warden of Air Raids Precaution, to join the Air Force for flying. He humourously recalls that he was rejected as a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force because his ear drums were reported to be weak and they might burst while diving. “Today I am 91 and my ears are just perfect!” he proudly declares. But he got selected to the British Royal Air Force to work in the Radar branch.
I have known this city since the time it was a town without electricity.
After his release from the defence services in 1946, he joined his uncles in hardware and paint business and established his own in 1952. Though his son takes care of the business now, Rao makes it a point to visit the office daily and meet old clients, and inspire the youngsters too.
He has authored two books — Vintage Vizag Days, which he sent to Dr Abdul Kalam who acknowledged it promptly, and The saga of a World War II Veteran (Rao has sent two copies of this book to Prime Minister Modi requesting him to hand over one copy to US President Obama!) “I expect a reply from Modi by January 26 and I shall inform you when I hear from him,” he says confidently.