23:50 hours Hotel, 23 July 2010: Friday night slips closer to Saturday morning and it looks like the whole of Singapore has descended upon the Kallang Leisure Park.
The car park is huge.
It is also full at close to midnight. This is a challenge the Mobile Column and Ceremony Committee had forecast because they knew the concert dates. Officers and men from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) eye the traffic jam with keen interest as they track the accuracy of their traffic projections.
If things go as planned and civilian vehicles disappear according to what is stated on their plans, all's well. Within the next seven hours, they will pack the car park with more than 210 tracked and wheeled vehicles as preparations for the 3rd National Education show at the Padang get into full swing.
Problems will arise if civilian vehicles hang around - because low loaders are en route and will need somewhere to unload their cargo.
I find out belatedly that the Jay Chou Concert 2010 at the nearby Singapore Indoor Stadium is the crowd magnet. The night is young and it will be interesting seeing how the Mobile Column marshallers bring in the low loaders.
A Republic of Singapore Air Force V-200 armoured personnel carrier circles the car park, frustrated that its usual parking spot is taken by the civilian vehicles. The V-200 crew are prepared to wait and park the four-wheeled APC somewhere else as they watch the bumper to bumper traffic slowly clear the parking lanes.
00:01 hrs Hotel, 24 July 2010: We're into Saturday morning and rush hour has started. A steady stream of low loaders carrying Singapore Army armoured vehicles arrive at the form-up point. As the low loaders stop by the roadside, paperwork is settled as Army personnel - many of them teenage full-time National Servicemen (NSFs), sign off the forms that indicates their war horses were delivered as per contract.
The heavy metal that arrives shows a cross section of the Armour Formation's combat and combat service support capabilities. These include Bionix IFVs of two variants (BX2MT and BX40/50), Bronco all-terrain tracked carriers fitted for assorted battlefield roles, and Bv206 tracked carriers.
Ramps are manhandled into place on low loaders. Newer trucks have hydraulic ramps that fold into place at the press of a button. Older trucks rely on muscle power and the clang of steel ramps, throb of prime mover diesel engines on idle and the clatter of chains as war machines are unshackled brings Sungei Gedong's MT line to Kallang.
00:50 hrs Hotel: Nine low loaders burdened with Terrex infantry fighting vehicles arrive in convoy. In a by-now familiar routine, monkey wrenches snap into action to free chain restraints and chocks are taken off. Army drivers strap on the eight-wheeled IFVs and get ready to gun the engines into life.
Terrex drivers can use TV cameras to see the IFV's six o'clock position but front and rear guides are still mandatory. Two sharp toots of the horn indicate "Engine Start". The powerful Caterpillar diesels purr to life and front and rear guides swing into action, flash lights and hand signals coordinating a mime act that guides Terrex IFVs onto the road.
01:40 hrs Hotel: The first MaxxPro MPTVs arrive. Because of their height, they use a different kind of low loader which allows the MPTVs to pass under 4.5m overhead bridges safely. Compared to the Singapore-made Terrex IFVs, the MaxxPro diesel engines are noisy.
02:00 hrs Hotel: The Singapore Combat Engineers arrive on scene - lots of them. The specialised vehicles that stream into the car park show how Combat Engineer battalions will carry out their mission of survivability, mobility and counter mobility.
It is a noisy affair as vehicle bridges are pulled onto tracked Bionix Launched Bridges (BLBs), mine-clearing trailers are hitched to Armoured Engineer M-113s and the Trailblazer mine-clearing vehicles - in my opinion the noisest of the SAF's tracked vehicles - trundle into place amid the rumble of their diesel engines and the squeal of tracks.
Throughout the night, marshallers track the movement of vehicles from the time they are loaded in SAF camps around the island till they are safely delivered to the FUP.
The online weather report of showers with thunder in many areas in the pre-dawn hours proves mercifully inaccurate. (While preparing for NE2, a heavy downpour flooded part of the FUP and at least four civilian cars were drowned in the flash flood.)
The convoy of low loaders and self-driven machines arrive under a clear, moonlit night. It is, however, a humid night as SAF duty personnel go about their work.
02:45 hrs Hotel: The big cats arrive. The Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks are unloading quickly, much to the surprise of onlookers. Armour personnel explain that wide tracks on these MBT allow tank drivers to coax the tanks off low loaders with relative ease.
03:10 hrs Hotel: More challenging to unload are the Pegasus 155mm air-mobile guns. Draped with tarpaulin to protect them against rain, the guns look like camels as they rest on four skinny wheel axles. Artillery gunners fire up the puttering farm tractor engines and the quartet of Pegasus guns move about in a cacophony of engine noises that sound like mechanised grass cutters in action.
04:00 hrs Hotel: There's a lull in activity as most of the Armour has gone to bed. Sentries posted around the vehicle FUP maintain a vigilant watch. Some off duty personnel choose not to sleep, flipping through inches-thick novels or SMSing insomniac friends as dawn creeps nearer.
We take a break at the deserted Starbucks coffee joint and the escort officer regales us with tales of his attachment to HQ Lancer in Brunei. Time passes quickly as we talk cock and wait for more big cats.
05:45 hrs Hotel: Low loaders that delivered the Leo 2s have made the round trip back to camp and show up with another set of big cats.
Across the darkness at Car Park F, the Combat Engineers continue their racket as military vehicles are arranged in march order in the empty civilian car park. It sounds like a construction site in full swing with engine noises and metal banging away and goodness knows what the Combat Engineers are up to as vehicle marshallers rearrange the vehicles.
06:45 hrs. Dawn breaks. The promised pre-dawn showers never came and wet weather parkas remain stuffed in their carrier bags.
The morning calm finally reigns over the car park. First light reveals several hundred SAF vehicles, parked in neat rows at their FUP.
The near chaos seen as Jay Chou Concert fans streamed out of the car park has been replaced by what can only be described as military precision.
Soon, the Mobile Column participants will arrive. These are the ones who will actually crew the vehicles. They have been spared the night's exertions as they must be well-rested to give off their best showmanship.
Duties will be handed over as the night crew stands down - for the moment.
Thanks to the concert, the full 24-hour duty has been extended some. Traffic marshals for NE3 will be on duty from 23:00hrs Hotel on Friday till 05:00hrs Hotel on Sunday. Some of them are still there, as this blog posting is written.
In a couple of hours, they will reverse the process and load, tie-down and send the SAF war machines back to their MT lines. They will repeat the process only twice more - at the Parade Preview and on 9 August'10 at the parade to mark Singapore's 45th birthday.
Once they're done, this nightime buzz will not be repeated till NDP 2015.
Acknowledgements: Many thanks to the NDP 2010 EXCO for facilitating the opportunity to watch how the Mobile Column forms up, especially to Captain Clarence who stayed from midnight till dawn and the SAF personnel who kept me company in the wee hours of the morning.