The soft-spoken demeanor and warm smile of Sonam Wangchuk does not reveal the fact that in Ladakh, his name is synonymous with unadulterated courage and exemplary leadership. Major Sonam Wangchuk and his team of 30-odd soldiers won the first victory of Indian Army in Kargil, without any artillery support !
This is the story of that daring mission and its unsung hero, Major Sonam Wangchuk, a man whose gentle exterior hides the tough interior of an officer the Indian Army is extremely proud of !
In 1999, Sonam Wangchuk was a Major in Indian Army’s infantry regiment, the Ladakh Scouts. Nicknamed the “Snow Warriors” or “Snow Tigers”, this regiment specializes in mountain warfare.
Knowing the mountains like the back of their hand, Ladakh Scouts carry out reconnaissance missions and set up observation posts for army regiments operating at high altitudes.
On May 26, 1999, Major Wangchuk was on an annual vacation at his home in Khakshal in Leh. On having heard that he had to resume duty, Wangchuk told his son Riggyal he would return soon and promised that they would celebrate his birthday together on June 11. During that time, the Dalai Lama was visiting Leh and Major Wangchuk, a deeply religious Buddhist, was one of the first people to seek the spiritual leader’s blessings before heading to the front.
Two days later, Major Wangchuk reported at Handen Brok, a Border Security Force base camp in the Chorbat La sub sector of Batalik. The last stop before the Line of Control, this was the post from where recon patrols were sent out into the mountains. With his natural acclimatization to the region, local knowledge and experience in Siachen, Wangchuk was often given the task of establishing an observation post on the Line of Control high in the mountains.
At that time, the Indian army was still in the dark about the extent of Pakistani infiltration. Unaware of the heavy Pakistani presence just above, Wangchuk and his band of 30-odd soldiers of the Ladakh Scouts left on their next mission to establish their post on an 18000 feet high ridge just inside the Indian side of LoC.
Glacial, slippery and rocky, the steep mountain had a gradient of 80 degrees, and climbing it in the freezing sub-zero temperatures of Ladakh was a tough test for even skilled mountaineers.
During their ascent towards the LoC, Major Wangchuk and his team were ambushed by the enemy firing from a vantage position. In the heavy shelling, a NCO of the Ladakh Scouts was killed. Leaving behind one of his jawans to take back the body of the slain soldier and the information the base about the ambush, Major Wangchuk held his column together to continue the climb to LoC. He knew it was essential to prevent the infiltrators from occupying the strategically superior position.
Under heavy Pakistani fire from the flanks, the incredibly nimble Major led his team by deftly dodging bullets and ducking behind boulders. When bullets fell short, the team climbed to higher positions and rolled boulders on to the enemies. Halting and charging ahead with dexterity, Wangchuk and his team finally made it to the ridge in three hours.
Spotting a group of intruders trying to scale the ridge from the Pakistan side, Major Wangchuk then planned a daring counter ambush of his own. He told his men to hold on till the enemy came within range. When they did, he attacked them from the flank. In the gun battle that ensued, four infiltrators were killed, and their machine guns, ammunition and controlled stores were recovered.
Next day, Wangchuk and his band of scouts set out to clear the Chorbat La axis of all enemy intrusions. With the minimum time to plan their approach, the team, unlike other units, never got artillery support in their mission. At 18000 feet, where the thin air makes breathing ragged, they kept going till they had accomplished their very dangerous mission. With the LoC once again under Indian control, the mountains echoed with the war cry of the Ladakh Scouts, Ki Ki So So Lhargyalo (The Gods will Triumph).
Cut off from the world except for their wireless and living off survival rations, Wangchuk and his men remained on one of the world’s most brutal battlefield for over a week to snap shut the crucial infiltration point. Not only had they prevented any subsequent infiltration, their daring act had returned India to a commanding position on the vital ridge that the intruders desperately wanted to occupy.
The Kargil War was just starting and Major Sonam Wangchuk had given the Indian Army a much-needed strong foot hold in the Batalik region. His incredible show of bravery and astute strategy had won him a commendation from the Chief of Army Staff, General Ved Prakash Malik, the first for an individual in the Kargil war. For his exemplary service, Major Wangchuk was honoured with the Maha Vir Chakra, the second highest military decoration in India awarded for acts of conspicuous gallantry in the presence of the enemy.
Major Wangchuk is considered an extraordinary soldier, an contradiction even, in the close-knit community of Ladakh. While his bravery and battle prowess is legendary, Wangchuk, the son of a paramilitary person, is scrupulously polite, genial and humble.
“Even as the Army and the country was raving about his wins in Kargil, he treated it with little excitement and kept smiling through it all,” said an Army officer, who knows him well.
Major Sonam Wangchuk was not expected to fight the war and didn’t even have enough ammunition to do so, but he didn’t let this stop him from defending his country. Fighting with all they had, this unsung hero and his scouting unit notched up the first crucial win for the Indian Army in the Kargil conflict. Its time we give them the respect and recognition they deserve.