Every step brought 3,000-plus recruits closer to the end of their BMT; every second brought each company closer to showtime; every heartbeat a compelling statement of commitment to defence from these young warfighters-to-be.
The recruits had walked this 24-km long route before... but only virtually. The men and young women had been talked through their 24km route march journey during Powerpoint briefings by their BMTC instructors. But there was no rehearsal.
On October’s first evening, they did it for real. BMTC recruits knew they were making history. Their Graduation Parade would mark the first time BMTC’s four schools paraded together and their excitement, their collective eagerness to achieve mission success was palpable.
Boots on the ground, songs on their lips and a steady jaunt in their step, the snaking columns which stretched more than one kilometer-long pushed ever closer to Marina Bay. At the Float at Marina Bay – a steel platform the size of a soccer field made up of pontoons floating on a reservoir – recruits would meet their parents and loved ones. The event was formally known as the BMTC Graduation Parade for batch 03/10.
Journey’s end was at the Float.
Journey’s beginning was the SAF Ferry Terminal at Changi Point, a breezy seaside military facility which served Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) units bound for Pulau Tekong (Tekong island, Singapore's largest offshore island) for war games.
As each Penguin Boat fast ferry disgorged its load of recruits and BMTC instructors, the massive troop column began to take shape. Section by section, adding up to platoons and full companies, some 3,000-plus recruits were assembled, counted and marched off in four waves.
Looking at the near full-strength recruit companies, it was clear few recruits had chickened out from this venture.
Days before the 24km route march, BMTC instructors fanned out along the route to mark out rest areas, scout potential traffic hazards and plan road crossing spots. They had penciled in contingency plans for rain, Cat 1 lightning risks and other factors that might mess up the landmark event.
The route march was meticulously plotted on Powerpoint charts that tracked the movement of all 13 BMTC companies from start to finish, with detailed tables indicating where everyone should be at a given time.
Despite all that planning, there was no rehearsal on the actual ground and the recruits gave it their all.
At the line of departure at the SAF Ferry Terminal, recruits went through final checks under the watchful eyes of their instructors and safety officers.
“Equipment check!” roared a young recruit picked as the IC (in-charge) for his platoon.
“Equipment check!”, the recruits from Viper Company Platoon 3 chorused.
“Magazine check!” the Vipers repeated, multiple hands slapping plastic magazines on SAR-21 5.56mm assault rifles repeatedly to emphasize the point.
“Gas regulator check! Muzzle check! Reflector check! SOG check!...” The inventory check of easy-to-lose items proceeded apace.
Then the go signal. Chanting marching tunes repeatedly like pagan incantations, the company stirred, boots crunched the ground and off they went. See Viper COY march off here.
At one rest point, Colonel Simon “Excel Through Basics” Lim, Commander BMTC, watched his recruits and instructors with a keen eye. A Singapore Army commando warrant officer, whose name was lost in the darkness, stood silently by the colonel's side. A handful of BMTC officers and WOSpecs orbited COL Lim – the rest had been deployed along the route itself and at the Float – ready to lend a hand.
One wonders what went through COL Lim’s mind as he watched the recruits. If he was worried about training injuries, he didn’t show it – the medical plan was as thorough and professionally-managed as the SAF could arrange. The weather could have been a point of concern. But in hindsight, the route march was executed on a fine night. (At around 0420 Hotel on Saturday 2 Oct’10, the heavens opened up and drenched eastern Singapore with a furious pre-dawn thunderstorm.)
The BMTC companies had many nocturnal denizens of the Lion City for company as they threaded their way through park connectors towards their objective.
These ranged from amorous couples whose touchy feely at East Coast Park was interrupted by columns of recruits on the march, groups of campers crowding round BBQ fires who, curiosity aroused, left chicken wings to burn as they watched and photographed the recruits, and the gay distractions at the carpark near the Fort Road turnpike (and by this I don’t mean happy…).
And who could forget the insomniac exercise nuts – roller bladers, cyclists and assorted runners – who chalked up their mileage in the small hours of the morning, flitting past the companies at an uncomfortably close distance?
Rest stops were arranged every four kilometers. At each rest point, BMTC logisticians pre-positioned jerry cans of fresh water to keep every recruit and BMTC instructor hydrated. This was a troop movement unprecedented in the training school’s history and as Friday crossed into Saturday, few BMTC HQ staff enjoyed a decent night’s rest.
Towards journey’s end, the imposing 10-storey tall Sheares Bridge represented the final obstacle before the recruits could take a breather. The green columns crept steadily up the bridge via the pedestrian paths, recruits marching two by two, coaxed on by instructors and driven by their personal desire to complete the march.
There was scarcely time to soak in the sights of the Singapore’s skyline. Each BMTC company was determined to finish what it started and a steady stream of recruits soon flooded the harbouring area near the Singapore Flyer.
The 13 companies were mere hours away from being disbanded and the recruits who formed each company were keyed up for this final event.
This was no time for shut eye. They had a parade to catch.
Acknowledgements: Senang Diri is grateful to the instructors from the Singapore Army's Basic Military Training Centre for their courtesy and access, to former 03/10 recruits for proving that young ones don't give up easily, and to the Singapore Army's Army Information Centre for making things happen.