They were young, fit and eager to don the uniform of the South African Navy and to serve their country.
For the thousands of ocean warriors who passed through the training academy, the memories of the day-to-day routine are recalled fondly at reunions and social gatherings.
And when the South African Navy recently confirmed talks with Transnet for the release of the land to return Salisbury Island to its former glory, the retired officers rejoiced.
The island, which was decommissioned in 2002 because of government budget cuts, is set to re-open as a fully-fledged naval base to fight piracy on Africa’s east coast.
The island’s naval history started in 1942 with the establishment of naval infrastructure but it only became a fully fledged base when the SA Navy moved from Cape Town and Saldhana.
In 1974 the first group of Indian naval recruits arrived on the island.
“Give us your son and we will give you back a man to be proud of,” was the motto of the South African Indian Corps Training Battalion based on Salisbury Island.
This battalion was the first group of Indian South Africans to be accepted into the SA Navy. They later became known as the SAS Jalsena, which in Hindi means sea warrior.
Among the first batch of recruits was retired navy spokesman Warrant Officer Manny Gounden who was one of 31 recruits from Durban.
The battalion was born out of a request by the Natal Indian Ex-Servicemen Legion and the executive committee of the South African Indian Council for the navy to provide training for Indian recruits.
Gounden said one of his most memorable moments on the island involved the maiden voyages of two Indian Navy ships docking there. “It was amazing to see the brand new warship INS Trishul built in Saint Petersburg in Russia.”
He says he was especially proud that India was the first state to send ships from its navy after South Africa became a democracy.
As one of the first Indian permanent force navy servicemen, Gounden, who was 21 years old when he joined, had to undergo basic training.
In September 1974, they made their way to the largest naval training facility in Saldanha Bay via Cape Town on the Orange Express. Over the two-day journey, there was an air of excitement and fear, Gounden recalled.
But Chief Petty Officer Danny Reddy, then 18 years old, swears he had no fear. He became a naval man after his father had shown him a newspaper advert calling for Indians to join the navy. “The picture of men scaling down ropes from a helicopter on to a ship excited me, it spelt adventure. That’s why I joined,” he laughs.
Reddy says the training was extremely hard but there was always an upbeat mood. He recalls that some of the less co-ordinated among them would struggle to get their rhythm right during drills. “Some of the guys had two left feet but they learnt quickly.”
Three months later, the men were appointed as unit staff at Salisbury Island and on New Year’s Day 1975, were officially commissioned under Commander Matt Heyns.
It has been 39 years since they first joined the navy and as they look forward to their 40- year reunion next year, Gounden and Reddy, now both retired, are excited about plans to re-open the island as a fully fledged naval base.
Navy public relations manager, Captain Jaco Theunissen, last week confirmed that six naval ships would operate out of Durban as part of the war on piracy off Africa’s east coast.
He was confident the re-established base would reassert itself because of the port’s strategic position. “It’s good to have the presence of the navy in Durban because deploying vessels to respond to piracy threats will be cost-effective.”
The history of Salisbury Island has seen it commissioned and decommissioned numerous times. It was during an off period that the University College for Indians was established there, between 1961 and 1972. The college’s alumni include Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the late minister of Public Service Roy Padayachie.
The remnants of this college is the first thing Warrant Officer Phillip Labuschagne (Ret) remembers seeing when he first arrived there in the early 1970s. Labuschagne had joined the navy in Simon’s Town and came to the island on the tanker SAS Tafelberg as an apprentice electrician.
“The island was unique. There was total equality and everyone was one big family.”
What was most challenging for the young man who grew up in the then Transvaal was not the intensive training, but mastering domestic duties. “You fend for yourself in the navy. I had to learn to wash and iron my own clothes, to sew.”
Labuschagne said those were the best years of his life. After an initial four-month stay on the island, he was stationed there permanently from 1977 until he retired in 1998. “This was not a job, it was a passion.”
Now supervising the Port Natal Maritime Museum, Labuschagne beamed at the thought of Salisbury Island re-opening. He said he hoped those who would be based there would take as much pride in their island as they had. “We were once voted the smartest base in South Africa. We were not only clean, but well behaved.”
He said it would highlight the presence of the navy in Durban and instill pride in the community.
Another member of the 1974 battalion Chief Petty Officer Logan Naicker (Ret), said he was particularly filled with pride during parades when they were in full formal dress. “There is something about the navy uniform which makes a man walk taller,” he said. He did not only look after his own uniform, but as the chief storeman on the island, ensured that everyone on the base had their regalia. He was also responsible for providing that the ships with everything they needed. Seeing the ships off was as exciting as welcoming them back, he said.
As Gounden, Reddy, Naicker and Labuschagne look back on their long years of service on the island with pride, they also look to the future with confidence that the naval officers who will operate from Salisbury Island when it once again becomes a naval base will be proud warriors of the sea.
In the 1800s navy lieutenants FG Farewell, JS King and HF Fynn visited the Durban Bay to do a survey. When they left on the British brig Salisbury, they left the name behind. That was the birth of Salisbury Island, situated in the Durban harbour.
In the next century, the British returned to establish a trade port. In the 1930s the island was used as a terminal for Imperial Airways flying boats. It was also used by yachtsmen, small boat sailors and campers as a kind of holiday getaway.
The level of the island, originally a mangrove sandbank, was raised by three metres and a causeway to the shore built in 1942.
Railway lines, a floating dock and crane were also installed and wharves built. There was a fleet repair base, barracks and training facilities. This was a major project in preparation for the expanding naval fleet during World War II.
However, the costly development was so massive, the war ended before it was completed. The island was then used as a storage depot for the Royal Navy. It was equipped with docking, training and storage facilities and used by the defence department for erecting military installations.
When the South African Naval Force moved from Cape Town and Saldanha to Durban, Salisbury became the hub of naval activity in 1948. That was until 1957 when the South Africa Navy took over Simon’s Town and Salisbury was decommissioned.