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Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gillman Camp Incident

The OCS Instructor Course I attended at the beginning of 1983 ran for eight weeks. One of the highlights was a live-firing exercise that was a little unusual. Instead of shooting in a line and from a static position, we fired at targets as we walked through a section of Area D jungle. It was as if we were on patrol and encountering real enemy.

I remember feeling all grown up at the time. We were being entrusted to handle a fully armed and loaded weapon on the move. I guess that one black bar on my shoulder must have been truly magical. It instantly transformed an obedient cadet barely a month ago into a man capable of deciding whom to shoot at on the spot. Pretty impressive, no? So I was thinking perhaps two bars would be pretty neat. But that would have to wait. "2-L-T" probation was for one long year.

The Demo Team 
A fortnight or so into our course, two 'full-lefts' came to talk to us. I recognised them as Lt Tham and Lt Yeo from the Weapons and Demolition Team. They said they needed two instructors to join their team as they were ROD-ing later that year. They also added that given the nature of the job, they would leave it to us to volunteer. It sounded interesting so I kept it at the back of my mind.

With the new Mentor system, we chosen instructors didn't know what to expect at the beginning. But as new information gradually filtered in, we better understood what was asked of us. As Mentors, we would be assigned to an OCS platoon to take care of a section of cadets. We would then assist the platoon commander in delivering the whole nine-month OCS course. Course instruction was previously handled by the various Tactics teams. But since they have been disbanded, the onus now lay with the companies themselves. At the time, each batch of cadet intake was two-company large. The polytechnic batch came in September and was sent to Alpha & Charlie. The two A-level batches came in during March and June and were sent to Delta & Foxtrot, Bravo & Echo. Golf Company was reserved for female cadets, who were all professional soldiers.

If not Mentor?
Thinking about my future role, I realised then that it wasn't as rosy as I thought it would be. Sure, I wanted to train the next generation of officers, but being stuck with a section of cadets for nine whole months seemed more like a nanny's job than what I was trained for. If the cadet slept, we slept. If the cadet woke, we woke. If the cadet farted, well.... Also it didn't seem as if there would be much autonomy to manage our own time.

If I didn't want to be a Mentor, then what?

Learning something new now seemed a better option and so I made up my mind to join Tham and Yeo. I was not alone in my thinking. There was another Mentor-to-be who thought the same. His name was Fong.

Tham and Yeo were estatic when they heard the news. Previously, everybody they spoke to had shied away because they thought the job was dangerous. Besides weapons, the W&D team also taught explosives. There would plenty of running away from lit fuses and the handling of sensitive detonators.

Are you crazy?
A few of my former platoon mates in the OCS Instructor course were concerned. They thought Fong and I had lost our minds. "Why risk your 2.5 yrs NS for this?" "What if something really bad happens?" "What if you lost fingers, an arm, a leg?" "A dick?" that last one was from Gerard, the eternal joker from Platoon 10. He's not silly, just witty and charming. It's no surprise then that he was our platoon's GSO when we had our farewell party a few weeks earlier. GSO stood for "Girls Supply Officer". He and I were from the same outgoing junior college.

Truth be said, I think Fong and I had a bit of daredevil in us then. We felt that since Tham and Yeo were still in one piece standing right in front of us, the work couldn't be all that bad. The fact that we would be in charge of Weapons Live Firing was the icing on the cake. Imagine the spare rounds we could fire to our heart's content!

And so, roughly five weeks into our instructor course, we got yanked out and sent away for a conversion course at the School of Combat Engineering in Gillman Camp. It happened pretty quickly and swiftly, leaving us no time to say our farewells nor even to entertain second thoughts. Hmm, why the rush? Maybe there's a catch?

Another course
The catch was that it would be a three-month long course. Ok, we had just finished a nine-month one, so going for another wasn't that appealing. Now our Mentor friends are the ones laughing and thinking we were the ones inking the wrong deal.

The thing was, although Gillman Camp had a Bomb Disposal Squad, we weren't learning just from them. The explosives part was just a big part of an even bigger thing. The full course was named the Infantry Pioneer Conversion Course, or IPCC It was meant to convert an ordinary infantry officer into an Inf Pioneer one, someone equipped with Combat Engineer skills. But at the time, Inf Pioneers were considered half-baked CEs - why we weren't given the blue beret to wear upon graduation.

A warning/On strike
Speaking of blue beret, Tham and Yeo did warn us beforehand. They said we were going into hostile enemy territory (the blue berets) and so had to be extra humble and courteous. At the time, different service arms were rather protective of their own turfs. Tham and Yeo were worried that we might bump into xenopobic CE egos and pride. Their last parting words were: "Do us proud." Fong, in his usual confident way, just said: "Aiyah, no worries, we'll top the course!"

In the end, we did just that - top the course. But not before we accomplished something else. We caused a ruckus, something that remained talked about for quite a while. We - two officers from OCS - went on strike!

Really? Officers rebelling? Sounds more like the Philippines.

It happened half way into the three-month course. Matters had come to such a head that we felt we had no choice but to "ba gong" (strike) and not go on. I still remember that day quite clearly.

We were on some hill constructing sandbagged bunkers and wire obstacles. It had been a few days already and raining, so the place was all wet and muddy. Fong and I were also tired, having been up all those nights planning, supervising and constructing the work - work that had to be carried out under the cover of darkness.

With us was another officer, Barry, who had also come to join the course to train with his platoon - they were from a unit. The three of us took turns to play Platoon Commander during mission exercises.

All of us were drenched, tired. I was also walking like a cowboy ("kah kui kui", Hokkien) from a burn rash that pained me from a thighpit. That is what you get from friction from wearing too tight a pair of pants in the rain for too long. In reality I should have had exchanged my No.4s for a new set before leaving OCS.

Unplanned
Fong and I did not plan the strike. We just decided there and then that things had gone too far. The Combat Engineer NCOs training us were getting out of hand, being rude and harassing our men. (They knew as officers we outranked them but still, we were the trainees.) They were making the sections re-do stuff just for the fun of it and not because they were sloppy. Our men were looking at us pleading in their heads: "Are these guys serious?". If we officers were tired, they were doubly so.

Part of the problem was that these CE Trainer NCOs looked down on our Inf Pioneer status. I don't blame them, most folks then considered the IPs as "second-rate" combat engineers. In reality, we learnt as much as they did. We only did not practice as much bridging and heavy plants as them. Our short 3-month course did not allow time for all that. But we covered the same syllabus as everybody else, including the building of a wooden bridge.

Fong and I were not like Barry who had come from a unit (active camp). Our understanding was all based on doctrine. We found it all sensible and that the IPs provided an essential if not crucial service to the infantry battalion where it resided. It's one of the platoons in the Support company, the others being 81mm Mortar, 106mm Gunners and Scouts.

Infantry first, Pioneer second
However, more than just being Pioneers, the IP platoon was first and foremost an Infantry unit. They could be used as a stand-by force to flank, reinforce or protect. I found that out the hard way during reservist ICT.

But because of years of neglect and poor understanding of its role, the IPs had been nursing a kind of poor image and self esteem. Even Barry felt the same. When asked what IP life was like in a unit, he said: "Easy lah. During mission time, my guys are all attached out. I just hang around HQ."

The reason his IP sections got handed out was because many a time, when the point-platoons of the companies got bogged down by obstacles (usually the wire sort) an IP section would help them cut or remove the obstacle. It's why the IP folks were called the Demolition people; they blew or broke things up. The wire obstacles were also often booby-trapped, the more reason one needed Demolition people to be about.

"Pai mia" soldiers
But in reality, a lot of play during mission time was all theoretical; the IPs were expected to just go through the motions. This did not do much for their sense of purpose nor self esteem. Already, the IP force carried with them extra equipment than the usual infantry fella, plus to be treated like a 'nobody's child'? It's no wonder then that the IP soldier's term for Pioneer was "pai mia", or rotten life.

When I finally was able to use my skills in Reservist, I changed all that. I made sure my CO understood the IP role, my guys knew I took care of their welfare, and that they didn't get attached out unnecessarily. If they were dispatched out, I would check on them always so they would always remember that they were IP and not somebody else's "ka kia". I even carried my own signal set so my runner could help the weaker guys.

Changed perceptions
In fact, my CO was so impressed with the IP role that he made sure the battalion had two IP PCs turning up during crucial ICTs (like in Taiwan). As mentioned, IP PCs were versatile in their training: Pioneer and Infantry. But that time in Taiwan was really Singaporean kiasu. If the other IP PC was turning up, I could have deferred my ICT and spent time on my career.

What changed my CO's mind was my strict adherence to Combat Engineering principles. If a mined area needed 1.5hrs to clear, it was 1.5hrs - no more no less. Previously, a CO would tell his IP PC: "Get it cleared in 10mins." In reality that is not possible even if the mines were laid out there like cupcakes for Yogi Bear to pick up. Real mines are caked in solid mud.

It wasn't easy at first. I had to make sure my own knowledge was tip-top before getting my guys to master  their own. In time, it would transform how they viewed themselves and importantly, how others viewed them. They knew I would back them up if their knowledge and reasoning were sound.

Story continues...
Now, back to that situation in Gillman.

We were on that muddy hill in the midst of rain and a low-wire entanglement wire obstacle. Fong and I dropped our tools, gathered our men. We sat down and demanded to see SCE's head, a certain Captain Choo, a man who had a pork-seller's physique. Our own course commander was a Lt Lin, a skinny chap with thick glasses and a high forehead. He spoke with a deep voice like a detached academic. Him, we seldom saw and so had no interest in asking for him. We wanted the School's head.

When the NCOs saw that we were indeed serious, they panicked a little. But Fong and I were in no mood to back down. If they want to f*** with us, then we'll f*** them right back. Fong and I were certainly not  pushovers. Barry was more easy-going but he too went along because he didn't like his men being treated that way. He too felt slighted.

If you didn't know Fong well, you might think he was one cantankerous fella with strong opinions. In some sense, he was. But mostly, he just didn't suffer fools gladly. Especially fools who liked to play punk. If he wasn't needled, he was a fun guy to be with.

The head of the school rushed over (in his civilian car no less), wondering what the heck was going on. Nothing of this sort had ever happened in the history of SCE before. If Fong and I were like Barry, from a unit, I don't think we would have gotten the attention we did. We were, after all, also from a school, and a prestigious one at that. If something was not right it would travel through the channels. Capt Choo obviously did not want to see that happen.

We told him in no uncertain terms what the NCOs were up too. (They weren't guiding Barry's men but were always asking them to strip what they had done and redo. Not once, not twice. If you have built wire obstacles with barbed wire and angle irons before, you'd know how difficult that is, especially with the Low-Wire Entanglement types.)

We told Capt Choo what it was: harassment. If the NCOs were not interested in being good, patient instructors, then they had no reason to be in a school. We then told him how things were done in OCS, probably hinting that our Chief Instructor  (Major Amin) would also find their methods and attitude undesirable. That last bit seemed to work.

Capt Choo tried to pacify us there and then. But we held firm and refused to continue. We talked some more back in his office. In the end, he had no choice but to replace the offending NCOs. In their place came two new ones whom we thought deserved to be in a school: they were patient, professional and not crapped up about their station in life. But one of them would crack us up with his plural use of the word "soils".

Sgt Soils
"If you dig the soils...." Each time we heard that, Fong, Barry and I would duck under our desks to stifle a laugh so as not to appear rude. "Sgt Soils" we called him; but he was an OK chap.

We also got to see our course commander more often. He had previously squirreled himself away to develop an Apple LOGO program (that turtle thing) for a CAT (computer-aided teaching) module. At SCE, we  used computers quite a bit in our lessons. It was for tests as well as for simulations like how quantities of explosives might be computed and effectively placed. Lt Lin later went on to head up his own computer company.

And so that became the famous Gillman Camp incident. Well, famous for a while at least. The two guys (Richard and Chua) who took over from us when we RODed were suitably impressed. "You know you guys got quite a reputation in Gillman Camp!" Well, it is good to set a precedent. More importantly, to gain respect for that green beret. But overall, our Gillman Camp experience was truly one of a kind. Plus cookhouse food was exceptionally good. (And I loved sleeping in those high-ceilinged colonial bunk rooms. They were so cool and airy.)

Green beret, blue beret
Later on, I heard that the IPCC was abandoned. All IP officers were then required to be converted to Blue Beret instead. Much of the engineering works would be decided at Division Level. I don't know how true that is because in Reservist later the Support Company "estab" remained unchanged, and we IP PCs still played our crucial dual roles.

What I was most glad about during Reservist was changing people's perception of the IP Platoon. I was so successful my CO (Maj Johnny Lim) asked me to help out his fellow CO one time, meaning I was gonna do two ICTs in one year. But it is not good to be too successful. During one ICT I was even asked to act as a combat engineer at Divisional level, which was quite ridiculous given my limited staff command background. And it's a role that required a Major's rank. I was not even a Captain then. You should see the look on my trainer's face that ICT. He and I were wondering where the hell the Blue Berets have all disappeared to!

Although it was just a planning exercise, I was not happy because hey, isn't reservist supposed to be fun and catching up with buddies? I ended up cooped in my bunk pouring over training manuals and data specs. The other officers were out having a beer. Maybe, just maybe, it was karma coming back to bite my ass for causing all that ruckus in SCE those many years ago.

(Note: Well, some advice for you officers doing ICT now: Do enquire about compensation when you are asked to perform higher appointments. During my time, quite a number of platoon commanders were also asked to take on company commander roles. Once is fine, but if too frequent you wonder if the army is abusing their privilege. And push for that course that will better equip you with rank/knowledge to carry out yr duties. Else, you might end up like me cooped up in a bunk studying. You should enjoy your ICT.) Next story: A Dead Cadet

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