Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Time of Changes

My time in National Service was characterised by changes. Changes to the uniforms we wore, gear we carried, style of man-management and doctrine.

It is best encapsulated in how I started my NS in starched No.3 and then exited it wearing the camouflaged No.4.

In many ways, my batch were the "in-betweeners" - folks who sampled a little of the old school 70s and had a taste of where the SAF was heading in the 80s and beyond.

The changes started intruding when I was in OCS Senior Term. One day, we were told to report for a lesson in casual No.4, boots brushed. Not the usual stiff No.3 with polished boots.

Really? Serious? No more polishing of boots? Woo-hoo! I could literally hear whoops of relief echoing through the corridors of our Delta Company.

The next change came the chance to wear new camouflaged uniforms. We knew there were two designs up for selection, but on that day, they gave to us the Commando one, the design with the narrower camouflaged stripes, those that looked like jiggly strips of chopped cabbage. It was made of cotton, and when washed, would wrinkle more because of the extra colors. No matter. We were the first Infantry men to wear camouflaged uniforms in public. It was National Day Parade at the Padang.

However, soon after the parade, we returned the uniforms, gave our feedback and heard nothing more on the issue.

The next change was to exchange our 20-round M16 magazines for 30-round ones. We were glad because the old ones would empty very quickly with just a few pops of the trigger; we had to reload frequently. With the change in magazines came the new SBO. We, after all, would need new pouches to carry the longer magazines in.

Wearing the new SBOs was like first time wearing cargo pants: More pocket space!

The old SBO was terribly stiff and we had skin burns while trying to climb that low wall in SOC or when 'fireman lifting' a buddy. The ammo pouches also could never close properly and the strap hooks always needed black tape to keep in place. Not long after getting the SBO, we got our new fullpack as well. The new pack was miles better than the old one. For one thing, it had side pouches we could actually close. Previously we would lose things (such as the aluminium tent pegs) when our fullpacks got thrown into the three tonners. We had to resort to packing our stuff in plastic bags to make them chunkier in those lousy pouches. Because adventure shops then were selling better stuff, we were very happy to get rid of these WWII relics once and for all and begin to adopt more modern gear.

Perhaps the biggest change I've ever encountered during my time was when I passed out of OCS as its first batch of Mentor instructors. The Mentor system at the time replaced the old Tactics Team system, which had been training cadets for quite a while... my batch included.

I didn't like the Tactics Team instructors very much because more often then not, they were rather ill-tempered and abusive. There was also a 'us versus them (cadets)' mentality because come lesson time, we would be handed over to whichever team was conducting the lesson. Our platoon commander and platoon sergeant might not be even present, and so, we would be left to the mercies of these manic instructors.

One celebrated incident happened during Evade and Capture, one of the last exercises of our Senior Term. An instructor got overzealous in his role as tormentor and hurt a cadet. I believed the cadet got whipped and hung too long from a ceiling. This kind of thing would not have happened if the new Mentor system was in place. Under this new system, the whole nine-month OCS course would be handled by the cadet's own officers, i.e. PC and PS, with the help of four Mentor instructors, each assigned to one section. The respective company commander was overall in charge of the whole program, so no one would want to see a cadet under their charge hurt.

I did not continue as Mentor instructor but switched to join the Demo Team as its new head. It was quite fun because together with the Weapons section, we were the only specialist instruction team left in OCS then. It's ok, we were decent instructors well-loved and respected.

Another incident with the old Tactics Team instructors happened to my platoon mate and topo partner Sam. We were rushing to our next checkpoint in the forest because we were running a little late. We were glad to finally spot the checkpoint instructor who was sitting on his foldable 'safari' stool chewing on a stalk of grass. He wore a soft Ranger hat. We went up to him and reported.

Instead of asking if we were having problems, this instructor looked us up and down and started berating: "Who do you think you are? Two slow ladies?" Sam and I got nothing to say. We were late, but only just.

"Are you sure you are even a man?" With that, he grabbed Sam's balls and squeezed. Sam was shocked and stood paralyzed. I too was shocked and instinctively grabbed my rifle. I don't know what I would have done if that instructor had not let go. I think he must have seen my intention and turned away. He gruffly signed our map with the next checkpoint coordinates and bellowed us to get the hell out of there.

Along the way, I asked Sam if he was ok. He mumbled something, and I could see that he was tearing up, probably more from disappointment than shame. Did that instructor have to do that?

Back in OCS, I popped over to Sam's bunk to see if he was ok. As usual, he had his Christian songs on. He seemed to have recovered his composure. I asked if he wanted to complain to our PC. He replied no, that  he didn't want to stir up any controversy and so would just let it go. Sam was a good chap. Enthusiastic and athletic. It made me wonder why that instructor had picked on him. Well, it could easily have been me instead. Sam was certainly no "gu niang". After OCS, he went and joined the Commandoes.

Another big change came when I was already an officer and settled into my role as Demo Instructor. I received a memo to attend a class on Transactional Analysis, or TA.

I'd read Eric Berne (the father of TA) as a schoolboy out of personal interest, so knew what it was all about. I was just surprised that the Army was embracing it.

TA is all about ego states and ids, that primary force that drives our desires and wants. According to Berne, we present ourselves in three ego states whenever we engage someone: Parent, Adult, Child. We switch ego states depending on whom we meet (real, ego or imagined). If we meet someone needy (Child) we might turn on our protective self (Parent) - it all depends on what kind of emotional reward we want to get out of that social transaction or how we might want to handle it. Why TA is called, well, TA.

Berne's work is best understood in his seminar book "Games People Play". Many of its examples, however,  seem to illustrate how one might deal with people with addiction and unreasonable behaviours. After finishing that book, you will be able to recognise emotional blackmail in all its varied and sneaky forms.

How then could TA be applied to the Army? Were all its officers and men masters of emotional blackmail that Eric Berne had to be called upon for help? (Haha)

The obvious help that TA could provide were those essential insights into our ego states whenever we communicated. More often than not, the relationship between officer and men was one of authority and subordinate. If officers presented themselves less as a Parent, would the subordinate respond less as a Child? An Adult-Adult transaction is often (mistakenly) deemed to be best, but emotionally, the pay-off is low. So, there's no point in harping why we can't be all Adult all the time. The best is to recognise a transaction for what it is.

And so, I think TA helped ushered in a new age of Communication and Understanding between officer and men and between everybody else at the time.

I think its impact cannot be underestimated. It probably helped to empower individuals to think more for themselves and for the Army to approach productivity from bottom-up than top-down. WITS (work improvement teams) was highly popular and functional in my time.

A Child after all doesn't grow if it is not asked to be Adult.

That said, for a while afterwards, there were many officers in OCS who walked around with rather confused minds and egos. Should I present my Child? Or wear my Adult. Maybe I should rein in my Parent. Haha. It was an interesting period.

But there was no confusion when the SAF decided to promote warrant officers to junior officer status. To me, that was long-time coming. I've always believed in ability rather than rank. And something like a silly school certificate should not stand in the way. The SAF is a specialised force unto its own. It can do whatever and however it wishes to capable within its own ranks. No need to follow what happens in the civil service where paper qualifications are everything. I am glad there is a better through-path for capable soldiers now. And a recognition that not everyone with bars on their shoulders are effective leaders in peace time or war. Leadership is the most important asset in any army.

The next change in my NS life came when we started to wear the new two-tone coloured No. 3 for official duties. It was without doubt a  hands-down winner over the old starched ones. And we got to wear our berets too.

Of course, the final change came when I traded in my Temasek Green uniforms for those new insulated camouflaged No.4s. They were warmer to wear but protected us better from scrapes. These 'camous' stayed the standard No. 4 uniform for quite a while. Only recently was it replaced by the new 'digital' camous that is lighter green in colour.

You know your uniform has passed into history when construction workers start wearing them as work clothes. It happened to my Temasek Greens. Now it is happening to my 'broad patch' camous. These workers do recognise a good set of work clothes when they see one.

After note: During my time, the man-carry 60mm mortar was retired from service as well. Took three fellas to carry it including ammo. They were very heavy and everybody tried to "siam" carrying it during training. But it was a very useful near-range artillery weapon which was replaced by the M203 grenade launcher (which we also learned to handle). Next story: Brunei Training

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Lost Fingers

Looking back, I am glad to have joined the Weapons and Demolition 'Demo' Team in OCS. Besides feeling extra special about being the only instructor team left in the school, the experience gave me extra confidence and knowledge in handling dangerous explosives even if the kinds we deployed then were limited to military use.

We used two kinds: 1. Those that were very sensitive to temperature and pressure; 2. Those that you could throw into a fire. Knowing which was which and what was what made one less a "panic chicken" when confronted with a sample to use. At OCS, it made for a saner existence and a calmer teaching environment.

Probably the most notorious explosive of them all had to be this electric detonator that came in a small aluminum tube with two long trailing electrical wires attached (usually in yellow and white). Most folks were fearful of handling EDs and who could blame them! They were easily induced with electrical energy by stray radio waves and explode. You see, a detonator is very simply a small explosive charge that sets off a larger one. And often, a VERY MUCH BIGGER ONE!. This is because explosives are like chronically lazy people who needs a kick up their backsides to get them going. And like a party balloon exploding, they would wake up with a pop. Like Austin Powers might say, "It's shockwave, baby!"

Basically, in the world of explosives, there are two types of detonators: Electric (ED) and non-electric (NED). The difference lay in how you want to set it off. The detonator themselves are of the same construct. If you slice one open (just imagine it, don't do it), it consists of a high explosive (HE) element at the far end, some intermediate explosive in the middle, and some fire-sensitive explosive at the near end. Sometimes the middle bit is skipped and only two composite compounds are used. And the reason for having a fire-sensitive end is so it can be activated by a burning fuse (which is nothing but gun powder or cordite wrapped up in water-proof paper). Often, this sensitive compound of the detonator is cued to pressure as well, so it is not good to go stomping on one! Or even attempt to push one into a plastic explosive like they always do in the movies. The friction can cause heat and make the detonator explode. We were taught to always use a pen or finger to make a hole first!)

In EDs, the means of firing is an electronic fuse, not a match-lit one. Think of a bulb filament being afixed inside a non-electronic detonator. When that filament glows, kaboom! So when carrying EDs around, it is never a good idea for the two wire leads (one +ve, the other -ve) to be picking up stray electromagnetic inductions. The detonator bit may be small (usually the size of an AA battery and half as thin) but it is after all an HE charge. Even if you don't die, a large part of you will be pulverized. I don't recommend it even if it is to tenderise meat. And high explosives have a particularly noxious smell.

To prevent EDs from accidentally catching, the thing to do is twist their end strands together. In this way, eddy currents (i.e. induced electric currents) will be shorted out and not circulate. You live to blow something else up another day!

One demonstration we liked to show the cadets during the lesson on detonators was called The Helmet Show. It was to emphasize how powerful a small detonator can be. We would fire off an NED under a steel helmet (the good ol' SAF steel helmet). A loud boom would result sending the helmet flying some 4m into the air. It's quite the spectacular sight and cadets would ooh and aah. They then quickly suck in breath when the helmet lands with a mighty thud in front of them.

I went through the same experience as a cadet myself. It gave me renewed respect for explosives, especially seeing how that powerful NED is not much bigger than our little pinky!

After the show, the cadets would then be required to practice crimping a detonator to a safety fuse. Although dummy detonators were used, some of the cadets still shivered with fear. It's true, if you had crimped too high on the sensitive part of the detonator it would blow up in your face. But with dummies, there was really nothing to worry about. (Well, unless you are the sort of clumsy clod who can even cut off a finger while trimming nails...then, God-bless.  You know, it's kind of impossible!)

However, we instructors were extra merciless with those "scaredy" cadets. We would drum into them the need to be discerning. No cadet graduated from my class (or any of my instructor's) as a Panic Chicken nor Cocky Bastard. Handling explosives require knowledge, care and respect. If you are short on one attribute, your time on this Earth could be severely limited. And on critical missions, I just cannot have an officer be unsure of handling what I find to be a powerful and useful weapon.

Back then, cadets in OCS had always been taught explosives during their Demolition lessons; they learnt the various kinds of charges and how to use them to blow up obstacles and booby traps. They would then carry this knowledge with them when they graduate as officers. But how much they remember or is confident of executing any demolition work is up to anyone's guess. Often, they only reprise this knowledge when setting up simulation charges for use during 'realistic' training exercises. At the time, a common explosive charge for this purpose was Ammunol (my spelling), a cylindrical thing sized between a condensed milk tin and a Milo one. It was more for sound effect than actual destruction although the hole it did make was rather large. Hey, it is still made up of TNT flakes loosely packed into a plastic container! An HE charge no less. Also, explosives in flake form can still do extensive damage. We used to pack a sack of it and place it at the base of a slope to send to blow a three tonner over (what is now known as road side incendiaries or IEDs (Iraq War-speak)).

As head of Demo Team, I always wondered how much explosive knowledge my cadets would retain after graduating as officers. If they were my students, I could make a guess. But for cadets/officers prior to my time, I had no inkling. If officers forget, they could simply refer to a handbook on the subject. It was the same anyway in the world's military.

One day, the thing we feared most happened. An officer and a couple of cadets were seriously injured during a routine training exercise. A simulation explosive circuit they had set up went off before it was fully put in place.

It killed a cadet instantly and wounded another; I think he lost an arm. The officer in charge (someone I didn't train and who was about to ROD) lost a number of fingers and had a side of his body burnt. Scant consolation for him.

As usual, a BOI - board of inquiry - was formed. My school head then, a Major Tan, called me into his office to better understand what could have happened. He gave me some details and asked for my opinion. From what he told me, it was an obvious case of premature detonation. That event in itself is not surprising. Electric thunderstorms have been known to set off detonators by accident. I remember reading a Vietnam War case of how claymore mines - an electrically fired anti-personnel mine - would set themselves off when surrounded by electrostatic air. And thunderstorms were then known to even set off road mines by direct lightning strikes.

But it was how the cadets and officer were injured that told me how the accident might have happened.

There is a sequence when it comes to laying out an explosive circuit. First, you need a trigger. Second, a detonator. Third, if the distance to the charge is long, a conducting det-cord is required. Fourth, the charge itself. It is quite straight forward on paper and it doesn't matter if it is an electrical or non-electrical setup - they all follow the same schema.

However, the actual work is quite different: There is only one sequence to doing it right. You start with the main charge and work backwards. You don't ever mix the more sensitive smaller charges (detonators) with the less sensitive bigger ones (a main charge like Ammunol) until you are ready to do so. (There's an operational imperative for putting the main charge in position first, but I let you figure that out for yourself.)

However, some soldiers (the commandos?) like to take the short-cut and lay everything out at the same time, i.e. have someone connect up the main charge while someone else is fixing up the trigger device. Another guy would be laying down the det-cord. It is like having three persons clean a rifle when it is fully loaded and cocked.

I know many elect to do it this way just to save time. This is especially so when the simulation circuit is large (trying to simulate multiple bombings) and the exercise is at night and everybody wanting to finish early and go home. But it is a very dangerous stunt to contemplate. Only in very extreme circumstances (involving the Special Forces?) should it be done.

After it became apparent to me what went wrong, I suggested to the CI that perhaps the next time, if ever a company was uncertain about Demolition matters, they should just contact my team right away. We would be most happy to do it for them.

Well, a few weeks later, when the use-of-explosives-in-training embargo was lifted, my suggestion to the CI became de facto. Henceforth, all simulation circuits would be designed and laid out by the Demo Team. My team partner Fong and I were only too glad to take on that extra responsibility, which would mean more nights out with the cadets at their training locations. Fong and I would not have it any other way. Something mortally bad had already happened, it made no sense to let it happen again either by chance, by force majeur (unpredictable weather) or even simple human error. In any case, the company commanders and their Mentor instructors themselves were really grateful and would treat us Demo Team members very well, even fetching us food and making sure we always had a spot at their GS dining table. (Fong and I used to joke: "Here goes our last meal!")

The CI never shared with me what the BOI found. They always never do. I did meet up with the injured officer after he was discharged from hospital. Besides losing some fingers, his hearing and sight were also affected. He was one of the better Mentor instructors so I felt bad for him. I just hoped that his emotional scars would heal just as quickly as his physical wounds.

From that time on, OCS never suffered anymore cases of injury from explosives used in training. We had removed an uncertain factor in one of its application in the school.

High explosives are powerful but they can be tamed. Just don't "play-play". Even explosives kept long in storage can behave in unpredictable ways. An example is the hand grenade. But that's another story.

(Note: If you were a cadet in OCS before, a confession for you: We actually used two detonators instead of one in The Helmet Show. It's more spectacular and you must admit, it worked! It does leave a deeper impression. This was something of a legacy practice in Demo teaching and the Team passed it  on from one batch of instructors to the next . ;-) Related story: Dead Cadet

A Dead Cadet

One of the things I learnt in that Infantry Pioneer Conversion Course after OCS was boatmanship. That's how to handle a boat, specifically the aluminium assault boat that the SAF used at the time. More accurately, it is an open-top launch, or in local parlance: sampan. We learnt about its outboard motor and how to fix FOPs or Frequently Occurring Problems.

At the time, we took our boats out from the SAF Changi Slipway, a place where they also stored those giant amphibious Combat Engineer bridging vehicles. Once out at sea, we would travel to Pulau Serangoon or Coney Island to practice. On most occasions, it felt more like we were going for a beach picnic than actual training.

After graduating from the IPCC course I returned to OCS as an instructor, forgetting mostly that I had boating skills. I taught cadets weapons and demolition, not how to skim the coastal seas.

Who would know that one day, my school's chief instructor would call to ask if I was qualified to drive on water. He must have known or else he wouldn't have asked that question. I answered with a hesitant yes, as one would to such obvious questions. "I need you to go fish up our cadet. We found him in Poyan Reservoir," was his reply.

The cadet he was referring to had been missing for a few days. He had been lost in a farm area we all used as a topo exercise area. I believed it was one of those advanced but short distance exercises where one topoed alone or in pairs. There was no need for SBO or weapon even - just water bottle Apparently he had gotten lost whilst moving at night.

It wasn't that difficult an exercise as it involved mostly walking along normal roads outside some farms. The only danger was the farms' green-scum ponds; they were usually flimsily fenced up. Plop into one and there's no telling how deep they went or even how the mud below might suck you in and never let go.

By the time I received that call from my CI, we had been searching for the missing cadet for four full days. Each company took turns to send out cadets and officers to join the search; more so folks from his own company. But although the area of ops was small, we never found a trace of him. It was all very puzzling. Where on earth could he have disappeared to? Every time something untoward happened in our school, all of us would feel as if it happened to our family. The school population wasn't large and we were pretty close-knit.

The cadet's family was distraught, as one would expect from any family with a child in NS. On the third day, when it became apparent that he could be in danger, his family sought the help of a medium to locate him. The medium said he would be found sitting under a tree, which was no help at all. But still, the searchers paid particular attention to places where trees or a small patch of jungle could be found. It turned out to be a fruitless lead.

When they did eventually find him, he was lying face down some 20m from shore in a reservoir. In a direction that was 180 degrees from where his exercise area was. How could a training soldier end up there?

That day, after that conversation with my CI, me and team members headed straight for the reservoir. An SAF boat was already waiting for us there on the bund road. I had the foresight to bring along a groundsheet as I figured we would need something easy to fish him out with.

A body immersed in water that long is not pleasant to look at. When we first sighted him from the boat, he was lying face down in the water near some reeds. Parts of him were sticking out of the water: back, elbows, buttocks, and boots. He looked as if he was skydiving. I noticed something unusual: His uniform was all bloated up as if somebody had blown air into it. We surmised it was probably due to gases released from his own decomposing body.

We slipped the groundsheet under him and scooped him aboard the launch. Back on shore, we flipped him around on his back. He lay there as if frozen in shock, hands clawed. His face was bloated and his eyes were popped against his black-framed glasses that now appear to be too tight on his head. A black velcro band was holding it in place, the kind found commonly in army gift shops. He did look as if he drowned. However, we could only be sure until an autopsy was performed.

Someone gingerly emptied his pockets. Everything was there: black notebook, pen, map, money. This meant that he was not attacked and robbed. So how did he end up where he did so far and diametrically away from his training area and at such a distance from shore?

No one got an answer to that one, perhaps not even today.

For me, it was the first time coming into contact with a dead body like that. I recall the cadet smelling like week-old socks. I believe our bodies all smell like that after we die. That is if there is a body to see up close. I think for his parents, this was only the consolation they got from the whole sad episode. But it is scant consolation. No young man should perish while doing National Service for their country; and not without an explainable reason.

As is with cases like these, a BOI - board of inquiry - was formed. But as usual, we were not privy to its findings. The case was soon forgotten after his own cohort was commissioned and passed out. But this was not the only incident of its kind in OCS during my time. A terrible accident involving explosive charge simulators got us all shocked and unbelieving again.

Business Times, 22 Feb 1984, front page.
After-note: My own guess is that the cadet got lost and then got chased by dogs - why he ran into the water and accidentally drowned. It's all speculation though. I don't remember anyone offering this explanation at the time. But it is always good to carry a stick when passing through farmland. It is useful for beating back dogs when not carrying an M-16 around. Related story: Lost Fingers

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.

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

Mr Sign Extra

If my BMT platoon commander was narcissistic, presumptuous and hard-assed, then my platoon commander in OCS was the exact opposite. 

Mr Sign Extra was more a guardian than PC. The differences extended to the way they spoke, their body shape and size. Mad Dog Wee spoke with a slight American accent while Mr Sign Extra had a Mandarin twang; he at times liked to quote Chinese proverbs. MDW was lean, tall and somewhat tanned; MSE was short, stout and fair with a bit of chubby cheeks. His size made him ideal as a tank commander and he was. He joined OCS from the Armour corps. OCS at the time was a popular way-station for up-and-coming officers. Most moved on to Higher Appointments later on.

MSE's real name was Capt TH Ang. The reason I call him Mr Sign Extra is because that was his popular call-out. Every time we did something wrong, it was "sign extra for this, sign extra for that". Of course, he didn't say it quite like that. It was simply "Take 1!" or "Take 2!" Over time, we regarded OCS as our weekend home so prolific was he. But he was also our favourite PC because he left us alone to our own devices. His only condition was: Don't make me lose face.


His Man-management Style was certainly a 180-degree turn from MDW. In fact, it was rather unique in OCS at the time. 

When I was there, we were the last batch to be coached under the old Tactics Team System where military instruction for Officer Education was taught by specialist teams. There was a team each for Doctrine, Topography, Watermanship, etc, - a total of 11 teams (TT1 - TT11, presumably). I think the idea behind the Tactics Teams was to conserve teaching resources for both Junior and Senior Terms. Only the Weapons and Demolition Team stood on their own (more of this later in another blog entry).

At Delta Company, MSE stood out. The other platoon commanders were in the mould of MDW. I think they all came from the same cookie-cutter: Able men can only come from harsh and demanding training.

Of the three platoons, two were known as Scholar; only ours, Platoon 10, wasn't. This meant guys in the other platoons were either scholarship holders or so-called "white knights", i.e. the sons of government ministers and their ilk. Quite a few of them looked studious but we couldn't be bothered. They were having a much tougher time than us under their PCs, so we were rather glad not to be in their shoes. The 9-month OCS course was already like my two-year Pre-U stint: highly compressed and hyper. There was no time to belly-button gaze, let alone time to be envious of anybody or anything.

MSE kept to his word: he left us pretty much alone. Even his platoon sergeant, Sgt Karu, did the same. As PS, he more or less bunked in with us. Sgt Karu was a plus-sized Indian with curly hair and moustache. To me, he always looked quizzical, as if he got a question to ask. As a matter of fact, he often started his sentences with an "Eh". 

Although brutish, in his off hours, Sgt Karu wore an easy smile. But don't be fooled by his size - he was a Ranger. The thing that bothered us was that he liked to trap wild dogs to cook curry with (I am not kidding). During field camps, he would bring along a blood-stained gunny sack - something he would throw in with the rest of the stores in our 3-tonner truck. There was also his trusty Ghurka Knife - a tool that is shaped perfectly in weight to easily lop off someone's head. Or an animal's.

As a platoon of cadets, we were organised into four Sections. We would have Appointment Holders each week to lead the platoon and sections. Appointment holders wore arm epaulettes that denoted rank such as Platoon Sergeant or Section Corporal. The job of the appointment holders was to take care of Platoon Admin like reading of the daily ROs; getting cadets on time to the LTs (lecture theatres) for lessons; the drawing out stores; be answerable to whomever in lieu of our PC and PS when they are not around. The appointments were also a chance for our PC and PS to assess our Leadership and Organisational Abilities. Later in Senior Term came Company-level appointments. Candidates for this were mostly in the running for the Sword-of-Honour Award. I was not that ambitious. 

But I did get along fine with Capt Ang and Sgt Karu. However, that did not mean I was immune to their "sign extra" edict. 

One time, while we were on Marsiling Hill 265 digging a foxhole, I fell asleep unknowingly hand still gripping my changkul. To me, it was just a split second. But when I came to, MSE was there looking straight at me and wagging a finger. "Young man concerned, how can be so easily tired. Take two." 

'Young man concerned...' was his other favourite catch-phrase  He thought all young men should have certain qualities. Another fave word of his was "bastard", which given his Mandarin accent sounded more like "bustard". Coming from him, the word was not intended to insult or be rude; it was just gruff. A substitute for a more common four-letter word.

The 'two extras' I took were quickly served out as Guard Duty over the weekend, consuming both my Saturday AND Sunday. Ouch!


Back in that Marsiling trench, I opened my mouth to protest but no words came out. I threw a look at Gulam, my trench mate. He simply shrugged and mouthed something hapless like: "I didn't see him coming!"

In any case, it would have been useless because Capt Ang rarely changed his mind. When we didn't hold up our end of the bargain, we got punished. In some weird way, he was rather fair.

At another time, he made me sign extra even when I was holding the Platoon Sergeant appointment. I ended up doing Guard Duty again over the weekend. But that was not an ordinary weekend. It was the one before we set off for Brunei, meaning there would be lots of stores and administrative stuff to attend to. Brunei was our first overseas training trip; the other was Taiwan. I took it all in my stride and did not sleep for four days preparing the platoon, as well as myself, for the trip. I was quite proud that we reached Brunei without any hiccups; nor did we have any issues with the stores and such. Sgt Karu was so impressed he decided to keep me on as Platoon Sergeant for the entire duration. That experience made me realise that I was quite the natural Project Manager and it was proved right when I worked one time as a professional Conference Manager. I ran the region's first ISDN conference in Singapore that featured some of the top experts from China and Europe. The Chinese ones were notoriously difficult to locate as their phone system was rather backward and unreliable. Very often, calls would just drop in mid-conversation.

Another thing I excelled at in OCS was being an efficient Armskote Man. This was just another duty that we all took turns to do - opening and closing up of our platoon's Armoury each day. Folks did not like the job because it entailed waking up earlier than the rest and finishing off later packing up. But I was extra quick about it and would wrap things up even before the last guy who returned arms had changed and gotten comfortable. At the time, I was trying to show my guys that it needn't be such a laborious affair. A trick is to engage the School's Duty Officer early and get him to "clear" your armskote before the rest. Else it is going to be a long queue!

Capt Ang in his own way was a simple man with quite a few firm principles. Near the end of Senior Term, he asked me if I wanted to sign on, i.e. become a professional soldier. At the time, my ambitions was focused elsewhere and so I politely turned him down. I liked him but something he did bothered me. He failed my friend Gulam in his Senior Term denying him of a chance to become an officer. To have gone through nine tough months of OCS and failing at the last hurdle is devastating enough, more so if it is undeserved. That's how I felt about it. There were others who should not have passed out at all. And it was not just my opinion but the Platoon's as well. We all went through a Peer-reviewed assessment exercise. Unfortunately, the final decision rested in the hands of our PC.

I think what happened was a result of Gulam's own laid-back demeanour and Capt Ang's bias against his race. Capt Ang thought (like many of his generation) that Malays were all lazy bums with their inherent kampong "tidak apa" attitude. Gulam did himself no favours by being somewhat quiet.

But he was a decent chap whom I regarded as a Modern Malay. He didn't speak much but I knew he read widely and spoke good English. In that trench together, he even cooked and shared his noodles with me (I didn't know he brought noodles - it was not allowed). He was quite the gourmand actually. More importantly he had principles unlike a couple of guys in our platoon. After six months in OCS, you could (pretty much) tell who got integrity and who did not - especially when the going got real tough during the six-month Senior Term. Also, a couple of fellas had failed miserably in their Platoon Sergeant appointments - either caving in to self-gratification or self-preservation. Some just lacked Leadership skills. I felt Gulam did not.

With Gulam, I strongly believed that Capt Ang made an error in judgement. My only regret was not standing up for him. Fighting for his reinstatement would mean getting someone else tossed off. I didn't know who or how to handle that situation then and so just seethed inside. All my mates were quite surprised at Gulam's exclusion from the passing out cohort.

But if you were my other platoon mates, you would remember Capt 'Sign Extra' Ang fondly, if not gratefully. Perhaps Eddy Sim and Samuel (Oh) more so. Both of them got more than their fair share of "extras". I think none of us from Platoon 10 was immune to Ang's instant way of punishment. Sam was a good friend who went on to join the Commandos. I was supposed to join him but I backed out at the last minute. I didn't want to be a "muscle-head" all my Reservist life. A fervent Catholic, Sam would later serve with the Salvation Army (not a true army, you understand).

We might not all agree with the extras Capt Ang dished out, but we certainly agreed with his Man-management style. The result of letting us run ourselves was that we could better decide for ourselves what was important. We also ran on a more democratic and peer-pressured platform. We did things together on consensus rather than on the orders of one imperious leader. 

We also weren't  "turned out" needlessly, i.e. having to undergo extra drills as punishment (like what Mad Dog Wee did to my platoon during BMT). That freed us to concentrate on what we needed to Learn, Prepare and Do. More importantly, we got adequate rest. It was no wonder then that at the end of our OCS stay, when awards were handed out, all the accolades went to us in Platoon 10. The Sword of Honor, the Knowledge Prize, The Fitness Prize, etc. Now, isn't that some achievement for a non-Scholar platoon!

We also beat fellow Foxtrot Company to a pulp in the sport of Boxing!

The cadets in the Scholar platoons must have been kicking themselves. I know one of them in Platoon 12 was very confident of winning the SOH award. But besides the officers, there was also Peer Review, so it came as no surprise that the guy in my platoon won. Cadet BK Chan was more down-to-earth. But more than Individual Accomplishment, our good-showing validated Capt Ang's approach: It was novel at the time and it worked!

Later, when I was asked to remain as an instructor in OCS and undergo the Instructor Course, I could only shake my head at a Senior Term platoon in the opposite building housing Charlie Company. The platoon's commander, a certain Capt Martin (actually my former classmate's brother), was turning out his cadets ever so often - many times in the middle of the night. Having gone through Capt Ang's motivational approach, I could only conclude that Martin's approach was rather inefficient and old fashioned. I think OCS could do better with new instructors who taught differently but still produced good soldiers. I was not alone in thinking like that.

Unbeknownst to me, the Army was also thinking along the same lines and was going to change the OCS training system. My fellow instructors and I graduated from our short Instructor Course not as Team Instructors but the school's first 'Mentors'. We did not know exactly what that meant but certainly, it had to be better than the Tactics Team System. Some of the instructors in these teams were certifiably mad, and abusive. We began that year with renewed hope and stepped out in style as new instructors. It was 1983.

Next story: Gillman Camp Incident

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Road March - Songs With Fatt

We all make fast friends during National Service. And remember memorable characters who have crossed our paths. My good friend and partner in crime during BMT was Kum Fatt, a tall athletic chap who at one time was good at playing basketball and volleyball. He came from St Andrews JC, a college better known for its outgoing students and rugby.

One of the reasons Kum Fatt and I got along was because we were both Cantonese. We also shared the same sense of get-up-and-go and getting things done without fuss.

In our platoon, we were known as the two "lead singers" - folks who led the platoon with cadence songs during road marches and 5-mile runs.

We often took turns so as not to exhaust our vocal cords.

You know the songs:

- "Here We Go Again" (and again)
- "Left, Left, Left-Right-Left"
- "She Shall Be Coming Round The Mountain" (when desperate)
- "Airborne Rangers" (taught by Cpl Raja)
- "Training To Be Soldiers" (many variations)

and some more I've yet to recall.

The last two songs were the most versatile as we could append all kinds of lyrics to them... some R(A) and rather funny.

I don't know how we got started but I think it was because we couldn't bear the silence when our sergeant or corporal demanded a song request. They would normally just say "Song!" (articulate they were this way, haha!)

I have always held a mike in school so it wasn't much of a problem for me to take the lead, even if the songs I sang in school were mostly the National Anthem and reciting of the Pledge. And with the outgoing Kum Fatt, there was no contest really.

Kum Fatt was outgoing, but he was not the mad-party type. He's the kind to call upon if you want to go on an adventure. We did that once exploring Mt Ophir together with two other girls, both ex-schoolmates of his. I think he was trying to fix me up with one of them - the skinny one with the surprisingly loud snorting laugh. Other than that, she was rather nice and a good sport.

That trip was memorable and took place in the late 80s. Mt Ophir was still as I remembered it the first time I scaled it some five years back. At the time, all that stopped you from reaching the top of that big rock at the summit was a thick rope. Later, a ladder was added. Along the way, we also set off firecrackers.

The road marches we took during BMT were often the 10km ones in Full Battle Order. We would march along with our rifles slung low across our chest, arms resting on the butt and barrel like some "lao chiau" (old-bird) soldier.

We would often start off brisk and end up strolling back. Near the very end, a mad dash. If for some reason our company commander was not happy, another road march would be scheduled. I think it happened once for some very sloppy timing.

I remember marching in the Lim Chu Kang and Ama Keng areas. On each occasion time, Kum Fatt and I would take up position - one at the front and the other at the back. When one of us got tired of singing, the other would pick up the slack. Two other fellas: Hui Tong and Tim Kum, would play backup. Hui Tong had a raspy voice, so he was more enthusiastic then song-able. Tim Kum was simply game. Both were tall chaps. I remember the guy at the back had to carry a red flag as a safety precaution.

We did not have any major incidents during any of our road marches except for a couple of really slow stragglers. It was always the same few fellas. One of them (I think) simply had a medical condition. He was small and his chest seemed to stick out more than usual. He claimed he had have a slipped disc before.

In our own platoon, we encouraged each other by keeping pace or slowing down deliberately as a group. During such road marches, rain was always a welcome relief, but only if later. Too early and we could end up with 'cloth burn' in the most embarrassing of places.

After BMT, Kum Fatt, like me, went on to OCS. But he ended up in Signals. Me? I got sent to Infantry. I believe Kum Fatt got sent to Signals on the strength of his school results in math. He might not have been very good in the other subjects but he was a natural in math - why he also excelled in gambling. Kum Fatt had a penchant for card games. For a while, he did rather well, especially at a pub in Boat Quay where there were regular sessions of card games in the evenings. He tried to involve me once but I was never patient with cards or games involving luck. Mahjong was ok because I grew up with it. I also didn't enjoy smoking and drinking beer. I was rather a sports fanatic then and took care of what I imbibed, even for leisure.

One time, Kum Fatt taught me how to play "si ki pai" - that Chinese stick-card game. I learnt it at one go, but each time we played, I would lose to him. It was very surreal because it was like 100%. What happened to my luck or chance?

After we RODed, we kept in touch. Kum Fatt would often round up his St Andrew buddies (and there were quite a few of them, both boys and girls), rent a 14-footer truck and then go driving around Singapore. We would sing and talk-cock behind while he drove. He would always complain afterwards that he felt left out while driving. We would pacify him with food and conversation. Being the nice guy that he was, the matter would soon be forgotten.

But we did have wonderful times stopping at beaches, Mount Faber and hawker centres along the way. Such outings would last till the next morning. One time, we trucked during Chinese New Year. It was a great way to visit one another and for singles to band together to do something as a group and importantly, to get away from relatives asking that annoying 'When are you getting married?' question.

One of Kum Fatt's first jobs was with Walls, the ice cream maker. It was rather fun then as he would bring samples of new products to share with us. I remember the time Walls launched their up-market Viennetta range. I think it was the first time a local ice cream company did that: charge a premium price for a slightly fancier ice cream.

One time, besides Viennetta ice cream, Kum Fatt also brought along samples his Sales colleagues had given him. I thought they were tubes of cosmetic cream but they weren't. They were creams for folks over 60 feeling horny and dry below. Lubricating creams they were.

It turned out that his colleagues were from Lever Bros' Health division. Not Desserts.

Kum Fatt was laughing when he opened his car boot to pass me the samples. "See how you can make use of it," he said in Cantonese. I laughed and said something like: "What the hell..." I joked whether Walls were having a promotion, like 'Buy Viennetta and get lube free!' Viennetta was, after all, pitched as a smoother and sexier dessert.

Kum Fatt was generous like that. He would give the shirt off his back if necessary. In life matters, he was pretty easy-going. I only wished he had done something more with his natural talent in math, like go into stockbroking. But after Walls he drifted from one job to another. I do regret not pulling him into Engineering with me. Sometimes, it is not good to be too caught up with one's own affairs.

My actual buddy during BMT was not Kum Fatt but Lawrence, who too came from St Andrews JC. But unlike Kum Fatt, he was a rugby player. He looked the part with his muscular shoulders and short neck. His jutting square jaw also made him look extra determined as a tackler on field.

He was my buddy because in those days, we all got paired by height. Although he was as tall as me, we did not weigh the same. He was heavy whilst I was light. Very light! I was bone light and entered NS at 48 kg. I exited it at 52 kg, not a whole lot more!

Our huge difference in weight (almost 10 kg) was a problem especially when Mad Dog Wee (see other blog) made us fireman-lift each other along that circular road around ITD Camp (now truncated due to road expansion). Whilst I struggled each time, Lawrence would run as if I was a fly was on his back. Although I suffered when lifting Lawrence, he wasn't having an easy ride too. My bony shoulders would dig into him and cause him to complain that his balls hurt after each back-breaking fireman-lift run. But mostly, he felt bad that I had to carry his much heavier frame.

"Fly" is the right term to describe me then. Later in OCS, we all had to take up boxing to train up our aggression (rugby being the other). I was placed in the Light Flyweight class (weight limit being 49 kg).

In boxing, we were supposed to fight fellow cohort company Foxtrot, but we ended up fighting among ourselves at Delta Company, especially Pl 10. The reason was that many of the Foxies got disqualified because of poor eyesight (i.e. being bespectacled). The same reason also disqualified many of the studious types in scholar platoons 11 & 12 in our own company. So, we were left to compete among ourselves which was a bummer.

In the finals, I was matched up with Leong my platoon mate. He was a nice chap with a droopy look not unlike Stallone's. But Stallone or not, I won my weight class that day. However, there was no joy in winning because I gave Leong a black eye. It was one of the weirder moments of my time in OCS... having to out-punch my own platoon mate!

They should have just scrapped the whole stupid contest when the Foxies were retired. What's the bloody purpose in fighting your own friend and mate? Aside from that, I learnt that boxing is not an easy sport, especially when you have skinny arms more suited to wielding a 90 g badminton racquet than gloves that weighed a ton after just five short rounds. Anybody who had boxed before would know.

Note: Two notable characters from Foxtrot Company were Philip Jeyaratnam and Ishak Ismail. The first is JB Jeyaratnam's son. The second is Singapore's currently highest ranked Malay officer (Brigadier-General). Philip was pretty low profile then (well, I was in Delta Company). Ishak was the more talkative and outgoing. Like Gerard (see The Gilman Camp Incident) he too was from my 'outgoing' JC. And the tubes of lubes? Well, they remained in my cupboard for many years. When I finally cleared them, they were dry. Very dry. Quite ironic. Tubes of lubes that couldn't help themselves. Next story: Mr Sign Extra

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Range Practice

One of the things about doing NS is that you can try out stuff that you don't normally do, like shooting a rifle. But unlike in an arcade where a token can buy you endless bullets and moving targets, Army rifle practice is often best remembered for a lot of preparation work and admin.

The trigger word here is Butt Party.

This term conjures up early morning wake-up calls, a mountain of stores, three-tonner rides before sunrise to some god-forsaken rifle range, often infested with mosquitoes out looking for early breakfast. There would also be mental images of starchy smells of pasty glue, of buckets of small squares of patch-up paper and of signal sets that have to be drawn from a Signal Store somewhere, "batteries fully charged and ready". Butt Party is not a party at all. And Range becomes a nightmare if you are one of those BOBO or WOWO shooters. Either way, it means that you are a soldier that cannot even hit an elephant five paces from you.

Going for Range for such shooters is usually a nerve-wracking trip. There would be consequences if you don't shoot well. And if you were in a Butt Party, you would have plenty of time to think about that.

In my day, the rifle ranges we went to were the ones at Upper Thomson Road, Safti (Pasir Laba) and Pulau Tekong. The Pulau Tekong one coincided with live grenade-throwing because the island too had a Live Firing Range.

The job of the Butt Party is simple: Set up and manipulate the targets whilst the rest shoots at it. When it became turn for the Butt Party soldiers to shoot, another detail of soldiers would take over. Most of the ranges were manual, i.e. you would need soldiers to move the targets up (to shoot at) and down (when their shot-time is up). Not all ranges were equipped with line comms then. Communication was typically via the old combat 77 Signal Set, a leftover from the Vietnam War.

The targets we shot at were printed paper pasted on plywood. They came in two designs: 1) A full-height charging soldier called Figure 11; and 2) a chest-up prone soldier called Figure 12. We often used the Fig 11s as Far 300m Targets and also as Near 20m Targets fired at with automatic burst from the hip. Fig 12s were mostly used for shooting at from 200m. For some reason I always did better with the 300m targets. But despite that, I still managed to get my Marksmanship Badge at the end of BMT.

Well, way before we went to the range, we had to learn how to handle our rifle. At the time, we were using the same Colt M16 semi-automatic rifle that US soldiers used in the Vietnam War. It was supposed to be a reliable weapon even in muddy conditions. The rounds it used, 5.56mm, was a common hunting round. And in recent years, it has been adopted by Nato as a standard round for its troops.

The M16 is not single-shot, meaning you do not have to reload a round after each shot. Gas mechanics will make sure your rifle's chamber is always loaded with a round to be fired off - why the M16 is known as a "semi-automatic". In full-automatic mode, you can basically expend all rounds by keeping your finger tight on the trigger. It takes less than 10 seconds to finish off a magazine of 30 rounds, why I think gung-ho folks like Rambo and Arno Shwarz are full of bull when they single-handedly defeat an army with just two belts of ammo strapped across their chests. You'll need a freaking truckload of ammo standing by!!!

Believe me (or any NS man) that it is simply not realistic to be trigger happy. In a battlefield situation a single bullet can mean the difference between you living or your enemy dying. However, that being said, automatic fire has its use in battle: it keeps your enemy pinned down in a pinch (no pun intended). It was something Vic Morrow did often in TV's Combat! In WWII, soldiers carried single-shot weapons whilst troop leaders like platoon sergeants (Morrow) carried Thompson sub-machine guns. There's also a dedicated gunner who carried a more powerful full-automatic weapon called the BAR (Brown Automatic Weapon) - their version of our GPMG or General Purpose Machine Gun that the SAF uses. However, what we used mostly mirrored what the Americans used in Vietnam. I don't why this is so; didn't the US lose the war?

I remember my first time firing an M16. It didn't sound too loud and had little recoil. I was quite disappointed actually. But there was no mistaking the power of the bullet that left the barrel; it could smash through most things hard, let alone soft flesh. And as I later learned in OCS, the M16 round (a Remington derivative) liked to yaw in flesh, i.e. tumble and fragment to cause nasty injuries. It was better to be shot at by an enemy wielding an AK-47 whose round, although heavier, behaved better. The worst you got was a large hole, not itsy-bitsy bits of bullet ricocheted and embedded in organ and flesh.

Recruit Range Practice was quite different from Reservist Range Practice. No doubt the procedures remained quite the same over the years but the motivations for doing well were entirely different.

During Recruit time, you aimed to do well not just for your platoon but for your company too (three platoons make a company). The Company Commander liked to see more of his recruits obtain the Marksmanship Badge; it is proof that his NCOs and commanders have been doing a good job instructing the botakheads (recruits) to excel. In Reservist, you shot well so as not to come back for Retraining. That would interfere with your civilian career or time spent with girlfriends.

We had range practices that led to range tests. These tests determined if you were to be awarded the Marksmanship Badge. I remember the morning of my test very well. I was feeling a bit out of sorts (I might have eaten something suspect at breakfast). Plus, I also didn't manage to zero my weapon during the previous range practice (I think we had either run out of time or ammunition). In shooting, zeroing is the process of finding your aiming point. If you can fire three bullets to land on the same spot, then you probably got your rifle's aiming point pretty well down pat. In shooting parlance, that's called a "grouping".

Mad Dog Wee was Conducting Officer that morning. He showed particular interest in me and two other guys who had the same problem. Our weapons were yet to be zeroed. Before the actual test begun, he gave us a single detail (shooting turn) to fine-tune and zero our weapons. I didn't like my rifle. It was pretty loose at the barrel guard. I had to twist it in order to hold it firm. That in turn affected my posture. To make sure that I didn't loose my grip, I tried pulling down on my rifle sling. It at least helped align the front barrel, keeping the foresight tip in horizontal line with the rearsight 'O'. It seemed to work OK.

The thing about last minute zeroing is that we still have to run to the butt to get our target papers back, which is tiring. We then hand the results over to a Zeroing NCO who would make an inference about how our shots went. He would then use that to make adjustments to our rifle aiming sights. To do this he would either click the foresight tip (with a sharp pair of tweezers to adjust its height) or adjust the dial that controlled the rearsight (laterally). Sometimes both. But that morning, Mad Dog Wee left nothing to chance and decided to zero our weapons himself. I still remember that scene around the Admin GS table.

My grouping that morning was neither here nor there, which did not give me much clue as to how my rifle was handling. I had hoped for a close grouping so I could relax and shoot a high score. With a not-here-not-there grouping, you tended to question your own technique even. Did I breathe right? Did I squeeze the trigger too fast? Was my sandbag firm? Where did the mistakes come from? Aka a host of insecurities!

The Marksmanship Test (that's what the generic shooting test for all soldiers was called) had four parts. 1) A 300m foxhole grouping; 2) A prone 300m grouping; 3) A run down to 200m prone grouping; and 4) A run down to 20m for burst fire. We each had a different magazine for each test.

I think the 300m tests were an "Own time, own target, fire!" whereas the 200m test was timed. The same with the 20m test.

For the timed tests, the instruction was always "Firers, watch your front!" The targets would then flip from side view (a thin line) to face you full frontal. When time was up, the target would revert back to its 'invisible' side profile.

In "own time own target", when a shot landed on a target (say, 300m away), the Butt Party soldier holding that target up would flip it about to indicate that it was hit. If you saw no action, then your shot had probably gone astray. How did the butt party soldier know? Well, he could feel your shot because he has been holding on to your target. The vibration from the shot landing would tell him.

Shooting at the wrong target was something that happened sometimes. But more so when we had to run towards the 200m line from our 300m foxhole position. Some soldiers would get disoriented and then end up aligning themselves to the wrong target, especially having to prone. Soldiers who wore spectacles were most susceptible. Their sweat-fogged lens made it doubly difficult for them to see when they ran.

I should know because I wore spectacles. But I later abandoned my glasses and preferred to use my good left eye instead. Till this day, it remained 20/20 whilst my right is slightly off.

During Reservist, when aggregate battalion shooting results mattered more than individual performances, we sometimes helped each other out. Those of us who were better would help the bobo or wowo shooters. If I had landed 2 of 3 shots on my target, I would then save the last one for a wowo's target, assuming he had missed one first. Finding four holes on a three-shot target was not ideal as it would lead to much questioning and possible investigation if neutral observers were around.

Then, there's Night Shooting.

Night shooting was fun because we would use tracer rounds with the normal rounds. Because a tracer round would leave a streak of red light, it illuminated a path to the target. I can't quite remember but I think it was one tracer for every three rounds of normal. It was particularly impressive during Night Live Firing when everyone fired at the same time. More so when the GPMG joined in.

The targets would also be illuminated with "illum sticks", or night sticks that glowed.

That day during my BMT Marksmanship Test, because my weapon was not so finally zeroed, all I could do was rely on instinct and trusted techniques. When results came back that I had indeed scored a Badge I was over the moon. Shooting was a fave sport of mine which started during my NPCC student days. Then we had shot with .22 pistols. Although I did ok, I never liked it because my teenage hands were never comfortable with the large pistol grips. With an M16, the story was different. In my platoon, only a handful of us were awarded the Badge. But that did not matter. The whole company finally managed to get an above-average score. Previously, the results were close to failing. If an infantry man cannot shoot, it's like a chef who cannot wield a knife. We might as well go join the Navy or Air Force. If we had failed, that indeed would have been very "malu-malu".

Next story: Road March Songs With Fatt

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Field Camp

Besides Range (i.e. shooting practice), I think Field Camp ranks as the other "most memorable" activity during my BMT.

Our first field camp took place in Marsiling just off Mandai Road. The track to it is now blocked, but you can easily side-step those concrete cubes placed there. Unsurprisingly, the place used to be part of a rubber plantation. We always seemed to camp in such places probably because of the space afforded by the trees: it was easier to do Fire Movement. Also, the SAF liked going back to familiar training grounds. It's all written up in some dusty training manual by some Tactical Team head. Who wants to write a new one?

Before setting off for FC, we were of course taught how to set up a tent. A tent can be made of various stuff and takes all kinds of shape. Its only purpose is to provide shade. In the Army, we used what we were given: groundsheet, commscord, stakes and iron pickets. We also used our changkul or personal hoe (what in dialect is known as a 'chang-koh'; those who have not grown up in a farm or kampung may not know). Personal hoe, sounds bad, doesn't it? But it is a tool you will get to hate much later, for it gives you blisters (like some STD, haha).

I know, the groundsheet is a bit of a misnomer as it also doubles as the tent cover.

The changkul? Well, that is for digging a trench around the tent. This 'trench' worked better in theory than in practice. The reason is that when it rains here in Sg and Brunei, it pours. So unless you have dug a moat around your tent, be prepared to sleep a little wet!

To build our tents, we would use angle irons and a monkey wrench (which was actually not a wrench at all but an angle iron 'pounder'). The angle iron was a general purpose bar with notches for fencing. We would use it between tents to hold up their center lines. A tent cloth (i.e. a groundsheet with eyelets) would be stretched out with guylines and pegged down. We had to tighten these guylines each morning as dew always weighed down the tent every night.

Our first FC introduced us to Field Rations. Unlike today where the rations reflect both cosmopolitan and home grown dishes (i.e. pasta and black glutinous rice), the rations we had back in the old days were pretty much like refugee food. This is not to knock free food. Our rations were basically ready to eat stuff from the supermart thrown together in a clear plastic bag. Categorically, they were just biscuits and canned food.

There was canned sardine, pork cubes and braised chicken. The latter does sound too good to be true and it was; we never saw any. It was always sardines or spicy pork cubes. For staple, instead of rice, we had shortbread (buttery biscuits - a very British thing that might cause your stomach to run. I usually give it away) and hard tack.

Now, back then, NS was all about crew cuts and hard tacks. Hard tacks were not thumbtacks. They were milky biscuits beige in color and "hard as tackboard", hence its name.

Hard tack did not come prepacked in the field ration pack; they were in bigger quantities packed in cardboard boxes. Each hard tack was wrapped in army-green wrapper four-a-piece and fitted rather nicely into SBO pouches as an 'on-the-go' snack.

Many folks found the hard tacks dry but I thought they were ok. That's because I have always been a very biscuit type of person who would even eat a sandwich with a soda piah inside. Try it with a peanut butter jelly sandwich. Life for you would never be the same again!

For breakfast, we often ate hard tacks with pineapple jam that came in small squeeze packs. They were a luxury during FC. I think anything resembling a dessert is a luxury when out in the field. Most folks would bring their own chocolates, unofficial of course, as well as chewing gum (which is a great way to clean teeth!)

Besides the pineapple jam, the other item of 'barter value' (just as how cigarettes were during the Vietnam War) would be the Tang-like powder drink mix that we would empty into our water bottles to make lemonade with. Boy, on a hot day, that lemonade drink was just as satisfying as a plate of ice kachang!!!

And it was very similar to that Staminade sports drink mix so popular at the time. Just scoop a spoonful into an empty cup and add water. But I think Staminade was later banned for sale as it was like salt. Drink too much and when you cross a road, your heart will flutter as if you were riding a roller coaster. Not good.

Er, when I say Tang, I am referring that mother of all powder drink mixes. -The granddaddy. It has nothing to do with the other Tang icon, CK, who made it rich selling silk hankies, pots and pans, and cheap umbrellas to both angmohs and locals alike.

Now the canned food.

To open them up, I didn't use my army issued jack-knife (a very well-made but rather useless thing). It was blunt and heavy and unlike the multi-tool Swiss Army knife, it had only a blade and can/bottle opener. We mostly used it to cut string with.) I used my own miniature can opener instead - something my dad had gotten from the US forces in Vietnam in the 60s on one of his work trips. Made of hardened steel, it could remain sharp for very long. That's not the only thing I liked about it. This tiny can opener, folded flat and on itself, was just an inch and a half in length! Very compact and small! In Singapore, you can buy one from an adventure store along Beach Road not far from Raffles Hotel. It is probably the simplest and best product I've come across. My mom loves it too and still keeps one in her kitchen after all these years.

The first thing we did arriving at any FC site was to act like settlers, i.e. mark out territory. This was because no one wanted to be near the latrines. The latrines were nothing fancy but just deep holes in the ground dug with an augur turned by hand. Everyday, a section from each platoon would take turns to do Latrine Duty, which was not much of a stretch. It involved throwing disinfectant powder into the holes. But with so many men in one Infantry training company needing to "do their business" everyday, this method was only marginally successful. Going to such an open-air latrine was often stressful and done in a hurry: You fight the smell as well as the buzzing bottle flies and mosquitoes. We often protected our asses with insect repellent (such as OFF) before going. We sprayed our balls too!

To settle who pitched their tents where, we used the time-tested method of "lom chiam pass". No favouritism, no argument. Heheh...

Lessons during FC usually entailed sitting on an open sandy ground surrounded by trees and in front of a flipchart board. That's when you discover the not-so-complicated tactics of the SAF as well as the wonders of Nature: birds chirping, leaves falling, and ants marching in peculiar lines. You also learn an important lesson: that disposal underwear isn't the best underwear option. Your butt will feel every sorry bit of sand that marks the ground. Move a bit and it is as if a dot-matrix printer is sending you pinprick messages, probably saying, "You dumbass! Wear something else!"

At first we sat through the lessons hugging our rifles. Later, we were allowed to lean them into a teepee shape. What we wore to the lesson depended on what was taught. If it was Field Craft with practice afterwards, we would wear our SBOs (aka 'Army Bra') with helmets by our side. If it was just theory, we would simply wear our No. 4s. But we still hugged our rifles. There's a cardinal rule during field camp: don't ever lose your rifle. Our section corporals would attempt to steal them at every chance they get. They then accuse us of being careless and hand out severe punishment. If they were in a good mood, they might let you off with just a "Drop 50!". If someone had seen them taking the rifle in the first place, then they got nothing to say.

One of the key lessons we learned during FC had nothing to do with Army Tactics. It was how to bathe. It all centers around the principle that water is precious. We were instructed to bathe with just one mess tin of water. Think about it, we would probably use up one and a half pails of water in the same endeavor at home. But now, we are asked to use a fraction of it. Girls reading this might cringe. But the reality is that when you have to do it, you will find a way. The end result is to be as clean as possible without playing host to all kinds of skin infections. There is a logical way about it and it is this: the various creased parts of your body are first priority when it comes to Ration Bathing; namely your neck, armpits, thigh pits and behind the knees. For us boys, this includes the penile foreskin as well. It is most essential. No one wants to be saddled with an itchy dick, especially when donning camouflage. No bush or tree ever scratched itself 'down there' if you know what I mean!.

Besides soap, foot powder was the other great necessity when keeping one clean. As a matter of fact, you could go without soap but DO NOT EVER leave home (i.e. Base Camp) without adequate foot powder. Of all the things that the SAF has ever issued, I'd vote Foot Powder as their most "powderful" item. It did  prevent us from getting foot rot and Hong Kong Feet. Used sparingly all over, we could sleep like a newborn baby all comfy and talcum powdered-up like. It was also essential in 'dry-cleaning' underwear. One desperate days, we would simply flip them inside out, powder it surreptitiously and wear it again like new. If you have trouble with this, just recite this Cantonese saying: "Slap your butt and pretend nothing's ever happened." It works like a charm!

Of course, one cannot go on bathing like this or else the whole SAF would look like a bunch of mud-caked aboriginals. After four or five days, we were usually given a chance to take a full bath, often at a nearby Army barrack. We would wash hair, body and clothes and everything. Clothes were secondary as we were all supposed to have brought extra sets. Our platoon sergeants were pretty strict about this. Fresh clothes are not only essential to hygiene but morale as well. Some of our fellow recruits liked to bring a set less so their fullpack is lighter. But if found out, the punishment was severe.

Finding a tent buddy is another thing to do upon arrival at FC. We were often left to our own discretion in this matter. Obviously, it is best to choose someone with no BO issues. I know, after a few days, we would all smell of the same stale sweat, grime and mud. But I did come across someone whose BO overpowered all these. The more important criteria, actually, is to find someone who is neat and who would help pack up in the morning. Equally important is to find someone who could talk-cock with you at night, when everybody is lying on their fullpacks trying to catch some sleep.

Routine at FC did not vary from normal days back at the barracks. We still did our early morning 5BX exercises and area cleaning. Afterwards, it was back to our tents for ration breakfast and 'morning business' (toilet). Like our baths, freshly cooked food would be available after some days in the field - usually after some intense field exercise. But the veggies would usually be overcooked (from being left in the food containers too long); and oily Lemon Grass Stewed Chicken (which sounded better than it tasted). It's true, the breakfast beehoon is like barbed wire. But hey, I like beehoon no matter what, which helped heaps. And back in the cookhouse, there was always a jar of light yellow plum sauce on the dining table to make every dish taste superb. It's the same kind of sauce one would apply on roast duck or roast goose.

Water, it is the most important commodity during FC. We had water parades where our bottles were inspected to make sure they were full, else we had to drop 20 (punishment) and afterwards, run to the jerry cans to top up. (Here's a tip on how to make water last when you are really thirsty: Do not gobble up your water at one go. Swill a little in your mouth first. When your tongue gets wet, it fools your mind into thinking your thirst has quenched. Afterwards, continue with one or two small sips. I works! and the tip is especially useful in trying places such as Brunei and Thailand. But still, water parade the night before is best!)

You cannot talk about FC without mentioning insect repellent. Mosquitoes can be notorious during FC or training in Area D where you are likely to meet 'commando-style' mosquitoes that sting when they bite and feel like grit when you crush them. Makes you wonder if they did indeed wear armour! Besides these qualities, Commando-style Mosquitoes weren't very stealthy. They land in front of you like some gung-ho soldier daring you to smack them. So Commando in behaviour!

The tube of insect repellent cream the SAF issued to us was totally useless. Its value was to crack and mess up the insides of our fullpack or SBO pouch. I don't know why the SAF never gave us something more effective. We certainly did feedback (aka complain) to them a lot about it. But in those days, the SAF kit we got were mostly leftovers from the US or British Forces from the 50s and 60s. Maybe that insect repellant cream too! In the end, folks just bought whatever was effective (and odourless) from the camp Gift Shop. The Army frowned on any repellent that was scented (like OFF) and for good reason. We were training to fight a war in the jungle, not sash-shay down Champs Elysee!

One last thing: BMT FC for recruits is mostly about Basic Field Craft and can be very uneventful. It simply gives one a taste of what is to come. And much more would happen in the first three months of OCS.

Next story: Range Practice