NSman artillery pioneers mark 50 yearsThe tough training they went through in NS helped these veteran gunners build strong bonds. This year, they celebrate their 50th anniversary since they were commissioned as artillery officers.
Story by Thrina Tham / Photos by Amos Chew & Courtesy of 7 BAOC & New Ubin Seafood
This group of veteran gunners, who went through blood, sweat and tears together, continue to remain pals 50 years down the road.
Young men when they met as recruits, they were among the pioneers operating the 120mm mortar – a 100kg beast that was often dismantled and carried on the backs of soldiers.
On 10 Dec this year, with most in their 70s, they gathered to celebrate their Golden Jubilee, exactly 50 years after they were commissioned from the 7th Basic Artillery Officer Cadet (7 BAOC) Course on 10 Dec 1972.
Man-packing the 120mm mortar
Back then, Artillery soldiers were quite literally of a certain breed, recalled Mr Maurice Alphonso, 70. "The barrel of the 120mm mortar (we had to carry) was about 5 feet and weighed about 45kg."
"The top would not be stable if you did not have a certain height for it. And its baseplate was also wider, so again you needed somebody of that stature to carry it," said Mr Alphonso, who last held the NS rank of Lieutenant, and stands almost 2m tall!
The mortar weighed 108kg with all its parts, and was the first artillery weapon bought by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
As part of operating the 120mm mortar, soldiers had to quickly dismantle it and physically transport its components. This was what the pioneers recalled with dread as "man-packing".
"Man-packing is one of the toughest exercises we had to do," said Mr David Choo, 73, who last held the NS rank of Captain. "It was to simulate a wartime situation where you don't have vehicles and the enemy is firing on you.
"You have to unpack the mortar, put the parts on your shoulders and carry them. And when you're in a new place, you have to get ready to fire again."
The soldiers often trained for hours in such exercises. In their final man-pack challenge during their officer cadet course, they walked for close to 20km from Ulu Sembawang to Taman Jurong – in what was mostly underdeveloped and trying terrain at the time, recalled Mr Alphonso.
"The training was such that we depended on each other. It allowed us to know that we shouldn't give up – if we did, the mortar couldn't fire," he added.
Today, the Artillery formation operates a suite of sensors and systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and the howitzers, giving them precision and firepower in the battlefield.
Training men of steel
Whatever the men packed in firepower, they matched in physical training.
Their days started with five basic exercises (or 5BX), which often stretched to six or seven exercises.
"Our 5BX was around Taman Jurong Camp, which was about 2.5km," said Mr Chris Bala, 70. Along the way, the soldiers would break into various drills, which included push-ups, sit-ups, duck walks and wheelbarrows.
"When we came back to camp, we would be completely drenched. But it was all part of the toughening up process to prepare us for live operations," said Mr Bala, who retired from the SAF as a Captain.
It also helped the men build strong bonds as they supported each other through the tough training, he said. "The camaraderie that developed as a result of the training we went through was a very lasting thing."
Bonds that bind
Celebrating their 50th anniversary, the men met up at New Ubin Seafood's YMCA branch – most of them are now fathers and some grandfathers even. (New Ubin Seafood's owner, Mr Pang Seng Meng, was an Artillery pioneer who graduated among the 12th batch of officers.)
They greeted each other as you expect old pals to – leaning in for chest bumps and back pats, eagerly asking one another how they've been.
"The unique nature of our batch is that we have a few guys whom I call ‘unifiers'. They are always sending out invites for meals, and they keep the momentum going," said Mr Bala.
Apart from their own regular gatherings, the 7th batch of officers also catch up with the rest of the Artillery formation at the Gunners Rendezvous held quarterly at Khatib Camp.
Said Mr Bala: "Past and the present officers and non-commissioned officers come together for this tradition. So it further enhances this bonding."
Watch as the Artillery pioneers relive their tough training: