Here’s the story of the first S’poreans who passed the US Ranger & Airborne courses in the 1960s
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
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Always a commando, published in 2019 by Marshall Cavendish, tells the story of Singapore army pioneer Clarence Tan.
The book, which you can buy a copy of here, is written by Thomas A. Squire, Tan’s son-in-law.
The book tells the story of Tan’s experience joining the Singapore Volunteer Corps in 1959, eventually becoming the first commanding officer of the Commandos in the newly-formed Singapore Armed Forces.
We reproduce an excerpt from the book recounting Tan’s experience going through the U.S. Ranger and Airborne courses in the 1960s.
By Thomas A. Squire
While Clarence and his colleagues had been going through their course, the government had been in the process of advertising for and recruiting the first group of completely new officer cadets to be inducted into the Singapore army since independence.
By the end of March 1966, a large number of young men from all over the island had applied for the advertised positions. This was encouraging, especially given the Chinese aversion to joining the army.
The economy at the time was tough. Most Singaporeans were still living in squalid conditions in the city slums or simple kampongs, and much of the work available for young men from these communities was tough manual labour or hawking of goods around the streets. Joining the army provided an opportunity for a stable government salary.
A base monthly salary of S$270 for an officer cadet, with additional top-ups depending on education level, was a nice draw card. An officer cadet with an honours degree could look forward to a total package of S$600 per month, with allowances thrown in. This was good money in tough times.
The brochure sent out to potential candidates such as school leavers, graduates, and civil servants included the image of a young Singapore army officer driving a red MG Midget convertible sports car.
The idea that a kampong kid or city slum dweller could one day afford his own sports car must have been very enticing.
The photo reflected a true story: the car belonged to Clarence, and the officer behind the wheel was the man himself. Clarence had been roped in for a bit of marketing for the fledgling army – and it must have worked, as nearly 3,000 young men applied.
Of these applicants, around 300 recruits were selected and reported for enlistment, to form the first batch of officer cadets.
On June 1, 1966, just two weeks after they had graduated from their own instructor course, Clarence and his fellow instructors began training this first batch of officer cadets, at the newly created Singapore Armed Forces Training Institute, SAFTI. Clarence was appointed as a section instructor, as well as the officer-in-charge of demolitions training.
That would be his job for the next 13 months: moulding a team of officers and NCOs to join him and his fellow pioneers in leading this tiny but growing army.
Clarence would not get to see his charges graduate, though. The Ministry of Interior and Defence had other plans for him.
With one week to go, Clarence was sent off to the United States with a younger colleague to embark on U.S. Ranger and Airborne training.
Unbeknownst to him at the time, this was to be another defining moment in his career.
Prestigious course only for the best and fittest
The U.S. Ranger course is one of the most respected courses that an American soldier can attend. Only the best and the fittest are accepted into it.
Participants can come from any division of the U.S. army: infantry, armour, cavalry. It is an extremely prestigious course, and is specifically designed to harden the participants up for the toughest of operational engagements.
Some say that 10 weeks on the course is equivalent to six months in an operational environment. As tough as it was to get into the course, it is even tougher to stay in. Clarence and his colleague learnt this the only way you can.
For the next 10 weeks the Singaporeans, with their mostly American course mates, were pushed to their limits.
On a day-to-day basis, they had no idea where they were going next, what they would be doing, or when their next meal would be. They went to bed late and got up at 5am every morning; sleep was a luxury.
At times they went for days with no sleep at all. It was intense.
Even on day 1, people dropped out
The course was split into three phases and at each phase the soldiers’ performance was evaluated.
There was no room for sympathy. If you didn’t make the grade, you were out. Even on day one, people dropped out.
The Benning Phase, so named because of its location at the Fort Benning Army Camp in the state of Georgia, was up first.
The trainees were put through physical, mental, and leadership assessment and combat exercises. Here, even the fittest were made to question themselves.
Then they moved on to the Mountain Phase where they learnt the art of mountain warfare. Rock climbing, mountain climbing, river crossing, and hill work.
Next was the Florida Phase, where they trained in the everglades of Florida and never saw dry land for days. To finish it all off, the final exercise involved a patrol through the night, culminating with a raid on a camp in the early hours of the morning and being told at 6am that they had two hours to get back to base.
If they got through the camp gate in time, they passed. If not, they failed.
Failure was not an option
Of the 200 men who started the course with Clarence, less than a hundred made it to final graduation.
For the American soldiers, failing was not the end. They had the luxury of being able to retake the course if they dropped out along the way.
This was not an option for the two officers from Singapore. They had to pass. The Singapore government had paid good money for them to be there, so they were more heavily motivated to pass the first time.
This was in contrast to some participants from other Southeast Asian nations like Thailand, South Vietnam (which was a distinct country at this time), Malaysia, and Laos. These countries were all on the American Military Assistance Program, so they got their training for free.
Clarence and his colleague were successful in passing the course on their first try.
Up next: U.S. Airborne course
With the completion of the U.S. Ranger course, the two men immediately moved on to another one at Fort Benning: the U.S. Army Airborne School, colloquially known as Jump School. There they learnt about military parachuting.
Clarence had already made one parachute jump in Singapore before he joined this course. While there was no parachute training in the army in these early days, there was a civilian parachute club on the island.
Clarence was friendly with a British major who was into recreational jumping and, figuring that it was the kind of thing that Clarence would be into, he invited him along for a jump.
Following two nights of training, Clarence made his first jump out of a small Cessna C172 3,000 feet above Sembawang, in the north of the island. He loved it.
But jumping at the U.S. Army Airborne School took it to the next level.
2 weeks of preparation before the actual jump
The U.S. Army Airborne School is the U.S. army’s basic paratrooper school. It pumps through thousands of jumpers every year.
And, just as it is today, the course was an intensive one, split up into three weeks: Ground Week, Tower Week, and Jump Week.
During Ground Week, Clarence and his fellow course mates spent their time learning about their parachutes and how they worked, practising how to exit from aircraft, and how to execute the PLF (Parachute Landing Fall, a technique designed to reduce the chances of injuring themselves during landing).
There was also a heavy physical fitness component, culminating in the standard Army Physical Fitness Test.
During Tower Week, the men got their first exposure to height when they jumped from a 34-foot tower in a mock-up parachute harness that hung from a zip line, an exercise intended to introduce them to the unique feeling of jumping from an aircraft, then swinging around below the parachute when it opens (apparently, 34 feet is the point at which people begin to feel uncomfortable about how high they are off the ground).
Later in the week they did more realistic practice jumps from a 250-foot tower. In this exercise, the men donned a real harness attached to a real parachute that was already opened around the circumference of a large ring above them.
The parachute, attached to the ring, and the paratrooper, were hoisted to the top of the 250-foot tower, from which they were subsequently released, and floated back down under the canopy. In reality, this was their first descent in an open parachute.
This ingenious invention gave the trainees real exposure to the final moments of their jumps, without having to go up in the aircraft.
During this second week they also learnt what could go wrong and how to get themselves out of trouble – how to fix entanglements, extricate themselves from power lines and trees, and how to deploy their reserve chute (in case the main chute fails).
By the end of these two weeks, they had been drilled so much, to the point that muscle memory took over from their fears, that they were ready for the real thing.
Jumping out of an airplane, 1,250 feet above ground
On the Monday morning of Jump Week, Clarence and his classmates filed into the back of a Fairchild C119 aircraft at their training base of Fort Benning, Georgina, and flew up to a height of 1,250 feet above the airfield.
Even though it was not his first jump, this one did seem a bit scarier.
As with many high-adrenaline activities, often the exhilaration of the first time overshadows one’s fear, and it’s not until the second and third time that fear really kicks in.
Reinforced by the previous two weeks’ focus on what could go wrong, Clarence’s heart raced as he stood on the open rear door of the aircraft.
He then jumped into the nothingness below.
The immediate sensation was that of the wind snatching him and rapidly pulling him away from the aircraft.
After what seemed a long time, but was barely seconds, there came an abrupt, but reassuring, tug on his shoulder, and the roar of the wind that had first greeted him as he exited the aircraft faded into absolute silence.
He looked up and checked that his large green, round chute was open. Thank goodness for that.
After ensuring the lines were not entangled, he surveyed the silent world around him.
The airfield waited below, as did the canopies of those who had jumped before him. But there was no opportunity to contemplate this situation for too long. They were only jumping from 1,250 feet, after all. The ground was fast approaching.
Hurtling to the ground at 25 km/h
While initially floating down, under the canopy, to the spectator, and even the jumper, everything looks and feels rather graceful, and the rate of descent appears to be quite mild.
It is not until the last few hundred feet that the true rate of descent becomes apparent.
An experience that can be terrifying for the first-time jumpers. The landing speed with one of these army parachutes is on average around seven metres per second (25 kilometres per hour).
And Mother Earth ain’t no bouncy castle.
The only tool an army jumper has to cushion their impact upon kissing the ground is their body. As he approached the final 200 feet, Clarence placed his feet and knees together, bent his legs slightly, held on firmly to his guidelines, tucked in his elbows and chin, and crumpled sideways to the ground.
Feet first, followed by the side of his left calf, left thigh, left hip, then the left side of his back. He then rolled on to his back and looked up to the sky. It was done.
Army jumping had none of the elegance displayed by the sport and show jumpers that many of us may know today.
Army chutes are functional. They will keep you alive but, and even more so with the military parachutes back then, there was no way to slow your rate of descent in the final moments and step out into a short run, like the show folks do.
Try to land standing up in an army chute, and you will break something. So, they had to fall right. That’s why they had the PLF drilled into them.
Returning to S’pore with two new badges
Clarence did a total of five jumps with the U.S. Airborne — two with no gear, two in full combat gear, and one at night.
The night jump provided the perfect example of how important it was to perfect the PLF.
In the dark of the night the men were unable to see the ground approaching, so it was simply a matter of holding the correct body position and waiting, and letting the body instinctively fall to the ground at the moment of impact.
At the end of the course he was awarded with his parachute wings.
Following the parachute course, the two men returned to Singapore with the very prestigious U.S. Ranger and U.S. Airborne badges sewn onto their uniforms.
Clarence was also returning with a third alteration to his uniform. His epaulets were now carrying three pips. While he was away, he had been promoted to captain.
Top photo composite image. All photographs from Always a Commando courtesy of the author Thomas Squire and family.
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