Tribute: S. M. Isaac, World War II veteran

S. M. Isaac, aged 95, passed away on Feb. 5 at his residence at Lazarus Church Road, Mandavelipakkam.

He was a veteran of World War II and a retired registrar, Government of Tamil Nadu.

He was well-known in San Thome, Mandaveli and Mylapore for his extensive social work done through charitable and religious organisations. His work touched hundreds of people – no wonder Isaac’s funeral was attended by some one thousand people.

Isaac served the Royal Indian Navy, the precursor to the current Indian Navy, serving as a Telegraph Officer in the midst of World War II. He had been in the thick of action at a truly exciting time for young men of the time.

In 1942, at age 20, he travelled from his hometown near Sriperumbudur to Poonamallee. It is said that he walked the entire way and was given one rupee as allowance, of which 6 annas could buy a wholesome meal. He then travelled to Chennai to work under a relative who had a shop that sold stationery items.

Chennai, during World War II was on high alert, being on the eastern coast of the Indian sub-continent, with the looming threat of a Japanese air attack hanging like a shadow over the city.

Soon after reaching Chennai he was taken up with the desire to do something tangible for the war effort, and in 1942, enlisted in the Royal Indian Navy. Unlike today’s strict criteria for recruitment, there were no physical tests or interviews for prospective recruits.

Close to 100 people were recruited along with him and they were taken to Mumbai by train. They were put into the Naval Telegraph Training Institute at Colaba, where they were schooled in the nuances of encrypting and decoding the Morse Code. The six-month course culminated in a final examination, which Isaac topped, because he was ambidextrous and could decode the taps and spell the message out at the same time.

He was then put on the Navy ship ‘HMS Madras’, one part of the escort contingent comprising the ships ‘HMS Bombay’ and the ‘HMS Calcutta’. (HMS here refers to Her Majesty’s Ship). Surging at a speed of 10 knots, these light ships were meant to be escorts for bigger battleships and troop carriers.

The fleet was soon dispatched to collect a contingent of African soldiers from Alexandria in the British colony of Egypt. They were to transport them to Singapore to face the Japanese, taking a route from Alexandria through the Suez Canal, with stops in Mumbai and Sri Lanka before being relieved at the Malacca Strait.

There were 6 telegraph officers on board, working for four hours each, and their job was to decode messages from home headquarters and other ships correctly. He spent the better half of three years posted on the Navy ship ‘HMS Madras’ witnessing and taking part in many sea battles between the Red Sea and the Malacca Strait. Being a wireless officer, he had the unique opportunity to view the action from atop the ship.

Isaac’s wartime life was rife with excitement – and a few mishaps as well. Once, while he was on duty, a message was wrongly interpreted by a fellow operator and relayed to their superior, a young Lieutenant. When the error was discovered, the Englishman, mistakenly thinking that Isaac was responsible, confronted him and reprimanded him. Later, when he was in his cabin, the young officer entered with a box of chocolates in hand, and apologised to him.

Isaac was part of the Navy hockey and football teams. He even played as a fullback in a match against Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Once back home after three years on the high seas, he was put in charge of the Telegraph Institute in Bombay, teaching new recruits where he previously was a student. In 1946, after the war, he was discharged on his own accord as Chief Telegraph Officer.

Though his stay in the Navy was brief, he was a recipient of several medals of which two were Burma Stars.

After he left the Navy, Isaac joined the Registration Department of Tamil Nadu in Chennai where he remained for the next 30 years until his retirement as registrar in 1978.

It was then that Isaac got deeply involved in social work in his neighbourhood first, and across the city. People recalled his service at the funeral Mass which was held at Our Lady of Guidance Church, Lazarus Church Road.

Contact – Gerard Isaac – 9840949992