Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Tough Cadet Training

Whenever OCS is brought up, the conversation invariably veer to how tough the training is.

It is a question that is not easy to answer. I believe any training is tough if you are not prepared for it - SAFINCOS, OCS, Ranger, Pathfinder, Commandos, Snipers, etc. - you name it.

My first instance of tough training was during BMT. It shouldn't have been but my mad dog of a PC got it in his mind to make us super fit so we would all qualify for OCS. What he did not foresee was scaring half the platoon into thinking OCS was worse than his BMT (which included leopard crawling in PT shorts across a field full of mimosa plants), and so withdrew from the selection process. The consolation for the few of us who did make it was that we were indeed super fit. So much  so that our first three months in OCS (Junior Term) was like a walk in the park. For the rest, the physical exertions were quite strenuous. The only thing we all had in common then was that we didn't get a whole lot of sleep.

OCS at the time was tough like that, and for a variety of reasons. We were being trained to lead, so as leaders-to-be, we were expected to be tougher than the men we would eventually lead. Physical fitness was paramount for an Infantry Soldier. You cannot be charging up a hill and collapsing from exhaustion before the first bullet is fired. Or be hyperventilating so much that you cannot give a proper command. For example: "I...I...We...We...flank...flank...damn it! Let me sit down for a bit!"

So, a lot of my OCS Junior Term time was spent building up on physical fitness. We did Runs, Road Marches, PT (physical training), IPPTs, Push Ups, SOC (std obstacle course), etc. The push-ups were quite a lot, no thanks to the zealousness of the often cruel Tactics Team Instructors. We dropped 20, 30, 50, 100, 200 "like nobody's business". In the Army, each generation of trainers would give back 20% more what cruel punishment they themselves had endured as trainees. It's like a father to son thing but in a perverse manner.

The other tough part of the training came from high expectations. If these were not met, we all got "turned out" at odd hours of the night to go running. Sometimes with fullpacks (not before falling in to pack and repack the darn thing). My platoon was quite fortunate in that we had a rather unusual PC. After some initial turnouts, he pretty much left us alone. His demand was simple: If we did not lose face for him, we could manage ourselves in whichever way we saw fit. And so we tried our darnest to do well for him to, 1) Avoid punishment; 2) Manage ourselves so as to have more free time.

If we lost face for him (like falling asleep while digging a trench) we would be swiftly punished. His punishment was simple: 'Take Extra', meaning there would be duties during the weekend. In other words, a weekend burnt spent in camp. No one liked his weekend burned, so we would do our darnest to avoid it. In the end, our Platoon 10 did well in all manner of tests, even outdoing the so-called Scholar Platoons in our Delta Company. Our PC's hands-off man-management method proved to be more effective than the old regimented Army Way.

Of course, even though our PC was hands-off, the instructors in OCS were not. They took us for lessons and training and so, we as cadets had to obey their every beck and call including all kinds of punishment dished out. Sometimes, even the Duty Officer was cocky and would turn out a platoon at will, if, let say, the Armskote was not done up properly for 'clearing' or some minor infringement.

So in OCS, we lived a life of temerity and worry, not sure when the next punishment or harassment might come. In between we fought to stay awake during lessons and try not to lose our way topo-ing (which would result in more extras being signed).

Planned physical exertions often came in the form of PT lessons. There was Log Training, exercises with the Medicine Balls, Rugby, Boxing, and Taekwondo. (I'd learnt Karate-Do but that did not excuse me from having to learn TKD)

Unplanned exertions were the overnight Topo Exercises, Missions, and Field Exercises. In the day we would practice our moves; at night we would go out for Missions. For tactical reasons, ambushes were often triggered near dawn. So by the time we finished, it would be eight in the morning. Often, we were allowed to sleep and than wake and attend lessons at around 10 A.M.; hardly enough time for 40 winks! (Back then in OCS, we had a saying: If a soldier can sleep anywhere, an officer cadet can sleep anywhere plus do it standing up with his eyes open!)

So an endless cycle of this and that left us cadets all stressed out and tired. When we got home, our mothers would make us ginseng and other herbal soups to keep us strong and healthy. There was Bird's Nest or Brand's Essence of Chicken too. Yes, we all drank quite a bit of that brown Essence of Chicken liquid, even smuggling some along for overseas training like Ex Lancer in Brunei. For Taiwan, I brought chocolates. Taiwan's weather is kinder and not so heaty!

In OCS during my time, some combat roles were extra tough. It involved carrying heavy weapons that were part of the Infantry Platoon's "estab" or organisation, that is. One such weapon was the 60mm Mortar. It took three men to form a team. One person to carry the base plate and tripod, two others to carry the ammo, sights and main tube. The ammo were usually simulated with sand in the canister tubes. Boy, was this weapon heavy to lug around. I think each man-pack weighed something like two and a half sacks of rice each. Ok for a short stretch, but after a while, it would start to weigh down terribly. Plus, the man-packs were made of tough aluminium with lousy padding. It dug into the flesh.

I recall that each time the platoon called for a halt, the Mortar folks would find a slope and rest against it. Trying to remove and put on the man-pack was just too heavy and cumbersome. And if you sat down on your bum, you would need someone to help and haul you up again. So heavy it was.

The 60mm Mortar was later replaced by the M203 Grenade Launcher.

Besides the 60mm Mortar, the Old Infantry Platoon had also the 84mm Recoiless Rifle as part of its firepower. It's unlike any rifle you have seen. It looks more like a rocket launcher because it is fired from the shoulder. But the 84mm RR loads and ejects like a rifle where a chamber has to be loaded and emptied. Maybe that's why it is called a "recoiless rifle" then. The 84mm RR was a two-men team: One to carry the rifle, the other to carry the ammo, which again was packed with sand for Training Purposes.

There was a  trying time with these weapons during Taiwan training. We were retreating from a Combat Situation and the poor chaps who were carrying the Mortar equipment had it the worst. They were lagging behind and straggling. In the end, all of us ran back and pitched in, taking turns to carry the equipment and pulling our guys back to the front of the retreating line. It did not help that we had big-sized pretend-casualties to carry as well.

It is tough training in an open and scenic location such as Taiwan. Brunei was all infested tropical jungle terrain mostly unpleasant. But still, the training in Taiwan was invaluable. It opened our small island minds to a bigger expanse of a country. Flanking a hill took on new dimensions in time and space.

During my time, OCS was still in SAFTI at Pasir Laba. It was right at the end of the road in. My company, Delta, was in the last building. Years later, this building would be demolished to make way for an intruding highway. By then, OCS had shifted to the new and modern SAFTI Military Institute.

Back then, the old SAFTI was surrounded by Army Training Areas. We often did evening runs to these places. One place has more significance: Pengkang Hill. It's a dreaded place in SAFTI Lore. In the past, cadets were brought up there to sprint up its steep, slippery gravel slopes and be punished if they didn't make it. Cadets would end up with bad cuts, bruised knees and sprained ankles. Some were even made to "leopard crawl" up.

However, during my time, any activity on Pengkang Hill was banned, and it is ironic that my BMT PC actually made us run up there rather than my OCS PC. Now you know why we named him Mad Dog Wee. (The link to that story is below.)

Although we skipped Pengkang Hill, one place close to it made OCS training tough: Trench Fighting Hill.

It's just a low hill with a maze of reinforced trenches built in it. There we learned essential Trench Fighting Drills like how to organise ourselves in such a maze to flush out an enemy, and what to do if someone lobbed a grenade in. We developed Code Words to tackle that kind of situation. "Apple" for hostile grenades, "Orange" was for our own. We learnt how to clear fortified positions and fight off tears if caught in a Trench Bunker full of smoke.

The tough part of Trench Training was all that and more. Mostly it had to do with moving about constantly in a trench all crouched up and bent. We moved this way to keep our heads low and out of target. Soldiers who didn't during war time usually got their heads blown off. When that happens, even a steel helmet is of little use.

After a short time Trench Training, we all developed "thunder thighs". Even Badminton Champion Liem Swee King didn't have thighs as impressive as ours! And it was no fun aching like that for weeks on, walking like cowboys in the mean time. That's physical toughness for you.

So, is OCS tough? Yes, but if you are fit and can do things quickly and efficiently, then there is no problem. Also, learn to command (forget the Hollywood stereotypes) and command well when asked. I've found it useful to read more war stories, especially those involving jungle warfare. The ones from the Vietnam War are all very practical and instructional. But I think the simple rule for Infantry Commanders is: "Adapt and trained your men well and bring everyone home alive."

Most of all, no matter how tough the training is, keep your dignity, integrity and sense of humour. In the end, no one likes a lousy mate... in OCS or after becoming an officer. Or even as an NCO for that matter.

Afternote: You can read my BMT story here: Mad Dog Wee.  Related story: Mr Sign Extra Next story: Army Guys and Porn 

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