April 24, 2005
A recruit who died during his basic military training is said to haunt the barracks in Pulau Telong
By Karl Ho
IF YOU’RE a national serviceman, you might have heard this story. During a route march once in Pulau Tekong, a soldier from Charlie Company disappeared. Tekong is the offshore base where recruits undergo basic military training (BMT).
One of the toughest training exercises, the route march sees soldiers laden with combat gear marching distances of 3 to 24km.
Despite a thorough search, he was only discovered the next day along the route march trail. His entrails were laid out next to his body, alongside his full pack and rifle. Although he was subsequently cremated with full military honours, his spirit refused to leave, or so the story goes.
HALT, WHO GOES THERE?: Legend has it that after the ghost of Charlie Company was spotted standing among some trees, subsequent route marches were diverted to avoid the area. — FILE PHOTO
In the dead of night, recruits have reportedly heard the dead soldier shouting for Charlie Company to fall in. Some have even seen him by the bed he used to occupy.
On a subsequent route march by another company, the officer-in-command was said to have spotted a soldier standing among some trees in a distance. Subsequent route marches were then diverted to avoid the area.
The story goes on to say that priests who were sent to Pulau Tekong to investigate suggested that a third door be added to one side of the dead soldier’s barracks so that his restless soul could ‘escape’.
At the time, most of the barracks in Pulau Tekong were single-storey rectangular blocks with wooden walls and zinc roofs. At each end was a door and double-decker bunk beds and metal cabinets lined the two sides. After the third door was built, reports of the sightings ceased.
Gruesome truth or a hoax perpetuated to scare fresh-faced recruits?
The Charlie Company urban legend has been a talking point since the 1980s, and has been circulated extensively on Internet chatrooms like military.sgforums.com. It was also re-enacted in the homegrown television series Incredible Tales in March last year.
LAST MAN: Being at the tail-end of the contingent, the missing soldier was not noticed till an hour later. — FILE PHOTO
Titled The Third Door, MediaCorp said the episode was one of the most popular in the 13-part programme and garnered higher ratings than those for popular sitcoms such as Phua Chu Kang.
Like all folklore, this urban legend changes after every retelling. One version has it that when the soldier was found, he had been impaled with an entrenching tool that soldiers use for digging trenches.
When LifeStyle contacted an army veteran to verify the story, he had a good laugh.
Mr Wee Kia Pak, 60, was with the Singapore Armed Forces for 30 years. He retired in 1994 as a lieutanant-colonel. He was also the commanding officer of the then Infantry Training Depot in Pulau Tekong from 1983 to 1987. He said he had neither seen nor heard about the bunk or the ghost.
‘In all my years at Tekong, I’ve not seen anything out of the ordinary,’ he said.
The Defence Ministry (Mindef) declined to discuss the urban legend. A spokesman also said Mindef has no official records to show that the three-doored bunk exists.
But I have seen it. I did my BMT in Charlie Company on Pulau Tekong in 1993. My quarters were in the old camp which is now used for field training. Recruits now bunk in the new Schools 1 and 2, which opened officially in 1999.
During my BMT, the three-doored bunk – at the edge of the parade square – was diagonally across from my quarters. It was used as a lecture theatre-cum-storage space.
Armed with information and personal experience, I set off to investigate if Charlie has had any unwelcome company.
NEWSPAPER archives show that the urban legend is anchored in some truth. On May 23, 1983, a 19-year-old recruit was found missing after a 16km route march in Pulau Tekong. A Straits Times report on Sept 13 that year said his platoon was at the tail-end of a 136-man contingent, which marched off at 4pm.
The contingent returned to camp at 8.10pm and he was found to be missing an hour later. This was despite the fact that two headcounts were conducted during training.
A slip-up had occurred in both instances, where a recruit and a platoon commander were mistaken respectively for the missing soldier.
His body was found at 5.15pm the following day, about 5km from his camp and 20m from the route march track. His full pack and uncapped water bottle were found in a nearby bush. There were no signs of a struggle.
Mr Ricky Chua, 41, now a construction site supervisor, was the army motor transport supervisor who dispatched vehicles to help search for the missing soldier. He said: ‘My drivers told me that when they found him, he was lying on a ground sheet, holding his rifle. He looked like a normal, sleeping person.’
A coroner’s report said the soldier had died from a ruptured stomach. An open verdict was recorded, but investigators did not rule out the possibility that he might have been hit hard by an object like an entrenching tool, which was found near the body. His rifle muzzle was also muddy, which suggested that he had slipped and fallen onto his weapon.
Doctors say physical trauma or pressure on the abdominal area, especially when the stomach is full, can rupture the stomach wall.
When asked for his views, Dr Gwee Kok Ann, a consultant gastroenterologist with Gleneagles Medical Centre, said the soldier’s stomach – probably already bloated with water – burst after some form of trauma, causing him to lose consciousness and eventually die.
‘But the urban legend is overstretching the truth. Disembowelment is definitely not the same as a stomach rupture,’ he said with a chuckle. Indeed, witnesses said there was no sign of entrails.
Mr Yong Kin Fui, the dead soldier’s platoon commander, was the one who found the body – intact. LifeStyle tracked him down through the 1983 newspaper report.
Now the owner of a trading company, the 44-year-old said the recruit was ‘quiet, not prominent or outstanding’.
‘Later, I realised he wanted very much to go to Officers’ Cadet School, which could be why he carried on with the march even though he was feeling ill,’ he said.
He said he had not heard of the bunk or the sightings. He watched The Third Door episode on TV last year, but didn’t think it was related to the tragedy. During the yearly Qing Ming Festival, he visits the dead soldier’s niche at Mount Vernon columbarium after paying respects to his own ancestors.
One thing about the incident still puzzles him. ‘He was very near to the track, which meant that he should have been very easy to find the night before, because we covered the same grounds,’ he said.
The dead soldier’s family placed an obituary in the newspapers on May 29, 1983, thanking the Evangelical Reformed Church of Singapore, among others, for its condolences. LifeStyle tried contacting the family through the church, but the family did not get back to us by presstime.
TRAINING DAY: The old barracks, like the one here, where Charlie Company was quartered are now used for exercises. — FILE PHOTO
LOCATED off Singapore’s north-east coast, Pulau Tekong is the largest of the country’s outlying islands. Used as a training base for the British since before World War II, it now houses SAF facilities such as the Basic Military Training Centre, Headquarters Infantry and the School of Infantry Specialists.
Multi-storey barracks have since replaced the wooden ones, but thanks to its history as a battleground during World War II, it remains a repository of spooky tales.
Advertising agency creative director Low Yew Heong, who used to be an instructor based in Tekong during his NS, recalled a common horror tale: ‘A recruit was cleaning a toilet when the walls started bleeding. He was more afraid of being scolded by instructors than the supernatural event, so he scrubbed even harder.’
But he said he had not come across anything spooky himself.
Military urban myths also include ‘solutions’ to supernatural phenomena. For instance, training on Thursday nights is supposedly off because these nights are ‘unclean’.
Soldiers are also reportedly advised to take their berets along at all times as the SAF crest has been blessed by representatives from the major religious groups and can ward off evil.
But NSmen whom LifeStyle spoke to said training still goes on on Thursday nights, while a beret is part of the official uniform and hence, indispensable.
So why do tales of the supernatural plague the army?
Author and theatre director-actor Jonathan Lim believes they are coping mechanisms for young men faced with the ‘period of uncertainty’ during NS.
‘Yes, the story is frightening, but because it happened to other people, you feel safe and saner,’ said the 30-year-old. He will launch a book about the supernatural in Singapore in August.
Unlike other ghost stories, where hauntings reoccur, Mr Lim viewed the Charlie Company urban legend as a ‘successfully resolved problem’. This thus offers solace not just to recruits, but also concerned friends and family.
‘The third door is built, the ghost is gone, and life in the army goes on. I believe this case happened, and that people created this legend. It has a lot more social value than the fact itself.’
Mr Low admitted that telling ghost stories was a way to kill time and bond with one’s mates. ‘We’re boys doing a man’s duty, which entails being cooped up in jungles and other dark places. So obviously our imaginations run wild sometimes.’
I COULDN’T complete my investigation because Mindef did not give permission for me to visit Pulau Tekong. But revisiting Tekong in my mind, I realised that my memories of the three-doored bunk weren’t creepy, but nostalgic.
After lights out, a few of us would huddle in one corner of our barracks to talk about it in hushed tones. When our camp was opened to visitors in the second week of BMT, the three-doored bunk was the holding area for soldiers waiting for their friends and family. I was among them.
I didn’t see any ghosts then, or in the three months that I was in Tekong. Neither did recruits like Chan Wai Kit. The 19-year-old was enlisted in January and completed his BMT there last month. He had heard of the story, but was not worried.
‘I’m too tired from training to worry about this kind of stuff. But whenever I go to some dark corner in the field to relieve myself, I’ll mumble something like ‘I’m sorry’.
‘It’s always better to be safe than sorry.’