Some Singaporeans may be fortunate enough to visit the wonderful province of Kanchanaburi of Thailand during their national service days. Who can forget the wonderful canteen where food is good (but oh so sinful!) and cheap, and the gift shops are stocked with “CK” jeans, “Armani” products etc that will make any true Singaporeans drool in delight. And certainly not forgetting the beautiful canteen helpers who are ogled by thousands of hot-blooded NSFs, “lau-jiao” NSmens, and of course, the regulars. But I digress…
Training in Kanchanaburi during the summer season is no walk in the park. Temperature soars to 40 degrees Celsius and above during daytime, and plummets to below 20 at night. Drinkable water is hard to find, and every soldier has to ration water supply before marrying up with the supply trains.
Due to the extreme hot weather and drought, vegetation and plants in the training areas is very dry and thus becomes extremely combustible. A gust of wind can easily result in bush fire.
It was during one of the droughts that representatives from a certain Armoured Regiment had to take part in a division exercise, acting as skeleton enemy troops. This story tells the near-death experience of three NSFs, 3SG X (the section commander), CPL Y and CPL Z (3SG X’s section mates).
These three soldiers were given orders to scale a hill about the height of Mt. Faber and plant a few target boards to simulate company size of enemy entrenched. They were instructed to fire their rifles (blanks, of course) when the reservists Armoured battalion appeared in the axis to draw their attention as part of the division exercise scenarios. Besides equipped with two M-16s, the soldiers were given one smoke grenade. 3SG X did not particular like the idea of using the smoke grenade, as he clearly remembered the advise given before the exercise that any heat will potential ignite the dry vegetation. Given the hot weather, 3SG X instructed his men to bring along their water bottles.
As soon as their M113 stopped at the foot of the hill, the three soldiers gathered the items, confirmed the instructions with the officer, and made their ascent up the rather steep hill through a narrow trail that was covered with thorny shrubs and bushes.
The climb was tiring; the gradient was steep, the equipment was cumbersome to carry, and the thorny shrubs were, to put it simply, a pain in the arse. They finally made it to the top and promptly set up the target board. 3SG X assessed the situation and found that the possibility of the reservists spotting the target boards under such dense vegetation was pretty minute, and he was sure that given the attitude of reservists and the deafening roar of M113 and SM-1 tanks, they would not hear the rifles too.
3SG X decided that, if the rifle shots could not get their attention (the axis was about 1 km away), the last resort was to ignite the smoke grenade. He felt extremely uncomfortable with this as he noticed the surrounding vegetation was pretty dried. But for the sake of the exercise, he would have to carry out the orders diligently. As a precautionary measure, he and his men made a 1.5m x 1.5m clearing on the ground by removing all twigs and leaves. He then instructed CPL Y to ignite the smoke grenade on his commander, and “make damn bloody sure” to toss it in the clearing ONLY.
After going through the plan, the trio then settled down for the long wait. After about 2 hours, 3SG X, through the bino, spotted a convoy of armoured vehicles roaring down the axis. He immediately ordered the men to fire their M-16s. True enough, the convoy did not do their IA (Immediate Action) drills. It was clear that no one heard the shots. 3SG X had no choice but to give the order to ignite the smoke.
Alas, it turned out that CPL X, who was tasked to do just that, was not comfortable with handling a smoke grenade. After much fumbling, he managed to pull out the ring and tossed the grenade in the middle of the clearing. “Ok, they should see us this time…” thought 3SG X.
After three seconds, all hell broke loose. Smoke came out of the grenade alright, but the intensity of the heat soon sparked tiny flames in the surrounding shrubs that were at least 3 meters away!!! As soon as the trio spotted the flames, 3SG instinctively ordered the men to put out the flame with the water from the bottles before it spread. A noble but impossible effort indeed, for the dryness in the shrubs, twigs and leaves provided a conducive environment for the flames to spread.
In a matter of seconds, the trio was surrounded by fire, and the bottles were already emptied. In a split second, knowing that putting out the fire with their pee is not a viable option, 3SG X grabbed their men, who were still shaking their empty bottles frantically, and shoved them towards the trail, and yelled “FUCK IT!!! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, NOOOWWWWW!!!”
It must have been a rather comical sight, seeing three soldiers running full speed down the steep trail, ignoring the cuts on their faces, arms, and hands by the thorns. They soon reached the foot of the hill and without delayed, jumped into the cargo hatch of the M113.
“Sir, bush fire! We have to leave!” yelled the soldiers.
The driver woke up immediately, started the engine, and zoomed away from the hill, which was now engulfed in thick black smoke and roaring flames…
The group finally stopped at a river a few kilometers away from the hill. It was clear that the fire was spreading really fast, as the sky was now covered with smoke. After narrating the incident to the officer, 3SG X and his men decided to take a closer look from the river. Just as they were approaching the riverbank, they noticed a group of Thai farmers were resting and having their lunch. Soon, their lunch was interrupted when a despaired looking farmer caught their attention to the burning hills. Yes, hills, for the fire had spread to the surrounding hills and was making its way to the sugarcane plantations at the foot of the hills.
To cut a long story short, the plantation was destroyed by the fire. 3SG X and his men were thinking of spending the rest of their NS doing extras for this rather unfortunate incident. Worse of all, the trio was distraught by the images of wailing farmers who fought the fire in a losing battle. They felt so terrible for the farmers that none could talk for hours…
On the same night, 3SG X was ordered to the battalion HQ to be interviewed by the CO. The funny thing is, 3SG X was not afraid, as he was confident that he did the right thing and took the necessary precautions to ensure the success of the exercise. Soon, he was standing in-front of the CO, a burly man with a tough reputation. 3SG X narrated the incident clearly to the CO, and he listened attentively. The CO then told 3SG X that it turned out that Division Commander was present at that location and was thus aware of the whole incident, so the CO had to report accordingly.
“Deep shit…” thought 3SG X. “Chiam until 40 years old liao!”
However, luck was on the trio’s side. No extras were dished out, and 3SG X was told by the CO that he acted responsibly by making an effort to create a clearing for the smoke grenade, and had to ignite it to save the exercise. Thus, no fault was found. And that was not all. To the trio’s relief, SAF compensated the farmers for their losses, and it turned out that they quite liked the fire actually, for they had more than what the products could fetch in the market, and they did not have to harvest it!
And it was rumoured subsequently that all smoke grenades and thunder flash were banned from exercises in Thailand. Not sure if this ban is true, or still holds, but it sure had a happy ending. The trio could have perished in the fire if they left the scene a few seconds later…