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A look at Taiwan’s gruelling naval frogman training facility

An ARP trainee follows orders given by a trainer while climbing the "road to heaven", at Zuoying navy base, Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, December 22, 2021. The "road to heaven", is the final obstacle course consisting of a stretch of rocks some 100 metres long over which the trainees have to scramble on their bellies and complete tasks like push ups to the satisfaction of their trainers. REUTERS/Ann Wang

As a small crew of Taiwanese marines stands shivering on a secluded port in the early hours of the morning, their shorts and lightweight jackets are saturated after a day spent mostly at sea, a chill wind blasts over the Taiwan Strait.

The scene: “Do you have the appearance of a sleeping beauty? Is it true that you’re skipping classes?” As they do sit-ups and other exercises on the rough concrete floor, a trainer yells at the wiry guys, who haven’t slept in days and are slipping in and out of consciousness from exhaustion.

  • They are brought back to their senses by blasts of cold water from a hose.
  • The Taiwanese navy’s elite Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol unit, or ARP, is not for the faint of heart. It is Taiwan’s answer to the US Navy SEALs or the UK’s Special Boat Service.
Yu Guang-Cang takes part in training exercises during the last week of a ten week program to become a member of the Taiwan navy’s elite Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol unit, at Zuoying navy base, Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, December 18, 2021. The trainees have to endure everything from long marches to hours in the water, with constant screaming at by their instructors. Of the group of 31 who started the program, only 15 finished. REUTERS/Ann Wang

The news: In the case of a confrontation with China, which claims the democratic island as its own and has increased military and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan, ARP frogmen might be ferried over the strait in small boats at night to inspect enemy positions and launch attacks.

  • Only 15 of the 31 people who started the 10-week training completed it, with the final test taking place at the enormous Zuoying navy facility in southern Taiwan.
  • Over the course of six days and five nights, the ARP volunteers must suffer everything from arduous marches to hours in the water, all while being screamed at by their instructors.
  • They spend a lot of time in the water or in pools learning to hold their breath for long periods of time, swimming in full combat gear, and infiltrating beaches from the sea.
  • They take a one-hour break every six hours. They must eat, seek medical attention, go to the bathroom, and sleep during this time.
  • They might barely get five minutes of sleep, crouched on the floor under pale green blankets and roused by harsh whistle blasts.
  • The goal is to instil in the soldiers an unwavering determination to achieve their job, no matter how difficult it may be, as well as unwavering commitment to their comrades and the military.
  • All of the candidates are volunteers who are motivated to join the special forces by a combination of patriotism and a desire to push their personal boundaries.
ARP trainees create a “sand storm” as the morning training concludes during the last week of a ten week program to become members of the Taiwan navy’s elite Amphibious Reconnaissance and Patrol unit, at Zuoying navy base, Kaohsiung, southern Taiwan, December 18, 2021. REUTERS/Ann Wang

What they’re saying: “I’m not afraid of death,” Fu Yu, 30, said after finishing the “road to heaven,” a final obstacle course consisting of a 100-meter length of pebbles over which they must scramble on their bellies and do exercises such as push-ups to the satisfaction of their instructors.

  • “What we must accomplish is a soldier’s responsibility,” added Fu, who had previously attempted but failed to complete the course.
  • Wu Yu-wei, 26, said completing the course was a “personal challenge” for him.
  • “The hardest aspect was the timing,” he said, “without being able to rest, having only 15 minutes to use the restroom, drink a gulp of water before moving on to the next portion.”
  • “It’s exhausting for the first few days, but you grow used to it. You must rely on your determination and willpower.”

Outcome and goal: The stress of the previous week is too much for some of the marines, who fall into tears in the arms of ecstatic family members invited to watch them graduate after crossing the “road to heaven” finish line and being congratulated by Marine Corps commander Wang Jui-lin.

  • The goal of the week of hell, according to the trainers, is to imitate the hardships of battle, such as extreme sleep deprivation, in order to see who has the energy and fortitude to make it.
  • “Of course, no one will be forced to come; everyone is here on their own volition. That is why we are so harsh with them and firmly eliminate them,” Chen Shou-lih, a 26-year-old trainer, agreed. “We’re not going to let you through just because you wanted to.”
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