Communications—Radio Codes: Chris Warrillow

Reading Paul Oates’ article on Communications rekindled memories of Christmas, 1968.

I was in Kieta, Bougainville. After many months in the bush (incidentally equipped with an A510 radio), escorting CRA geologists out of Panguna to such places as Mainoki; Atamo and Karaulto (where, most likely, untested gold and copper riches still remain in CRA’s extant Prospecting Authorities Nos. 1 to 7 – now renamed Exploration Licences, I was appointed acting Assistant District Commissioner (a/ADC).

The formal preparations for my duties, immediately prior to the incumbent proceeding on leave, culminated in the signing of the Handover/Takeover Certificate. It was a procedure with which I was reasonably familiar having gone through the process as incoming and/or outgoing officer-in-charge of other stations earlier in my career. At least here there were no Treasury, Commonwealth Bank or Post Office agencies involved. These had been taken over by relevant full-time staff as Kieta town grew rapidly over the preceding months. The police (RPNGC) and prison (Corrective Institution or CIS) also had their own full-time officers.

Listed on the Certificate were the contents of the office safe: the usual documents and “accountable forms”, and details of the petty cash, stamp advance, .38 Smith & Wesson revolver, Lee Enfield Mk V .303 rifle (pad-locked to a wall support), and ammunition for both. However also included, in addition to the familiar Department of District Administration (DDA) code mentioned by Oates, were the “Playfair Code” and an accompanying old document titled The Coast Watching Guide.

Time was short and there were more pressing matters to attend to than having such esoteric historical “leftovers” fully explained to me. What use was all that Royal Australian Navy information going to be to me with our major concerns being landowners, CRA and the proposed mine?

In any case, my temporary elevation to nambawan kiap of the Kieta Sub-District was scheduled to last only three months and I had no reason to believe that there was any threat of an imminent invasion! I had no cause to worry over the possibility of at least a couple of my many duties, that of Coast Watcher and that of Receiver of Wrecks, taking up much of my time.

The World Bank funded telecommunication revolution in PNG commenced in late 1968. So at that time Kieta still lacked a reliable connection to the rapidly developing mainland network which relied greatly on mountain-top line-of-sight repeater stations.

The town did enjoy a “normal” telephone service through the Post Office and its attached telephone exchange. However STD and ISD connections to the outside world were introduced later with, initially, the (then) “state-of-the-art” tropo-scatter technology.

“Radio traffic” was of course also handled through the Post Office. Whether it was by radio link to Rabaul, or some other new-fangled system such as telex, I knew not. Thus it was that, mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, the Postmistress rang my office and informed me that an “urgent” telegram had been received from Canberra.

“Would (I) care to come and collect it before (she) closed down for the two day holiday?”

I drove around to the nearby Post Office and was handed a sealed envelope (the standard P&T type used to deliver yellow-slips upon which telegrams were typed or, on small out-stations, often merely hand-written). Through the envelope’s transparent window frame the (tele?-printed) words “DISTROFF KIETA” on red paper (used for urgent signals) was all that could be read. The lady responsible for handling Her Majesty’s Royal Mail confided “It’s in code too”.

Back in my office I soon found that the telegram was indeed in code: but not the familiar DDA code. Indeed, it was from Naval HQ and thus, I concluded, encrypted in Playfair. Open the safe: out with the manual! Come on: less than an hour to go until the planned six minutes past four departure time for the Kieta Club (unlike these days in PNG we didn’t finish at noon on holiday eves!)

It was after 4pm when I finally cracked it: Merry Christmas to you and your staff STOP Wishing you all a prosperous 1969 STOP …

Only four words to go. Time for beer at last!! Another couple of minutes, and:

A thousand curses! … Acknowledge in code immediately.

Some wag in RAN HQ Canberra seemed to think it amusing to keep us on our toes and test the alertness, or otherwise, of its far-flung outpost.

Damn! Back to the manual and eventually, in Playfair code, I completed an outwards (urgent) telegram form:

Your message acknowledged STOP Same to you STOP Distroff Kieta.

For a moment I wondered if a similar inward-telegram was somewhere in limbo addressed to DISCOM SOHANO and maybe I should update Canberra’s intelligence with information that District Commissioner Des Ashton (incidentally RAN ret.) had recently abandoned the former District HQ on Sohano Island in Buka Passage and relocated to Kieta.

No! Precious drinking time was slipping by. I would brief the DC later.

Grabbing five dollars’ worth of stamps from the advance for payment I returned to the now closed Post Office.

The dutiful Postmistress, whom I’d telephoned to wait for me, opened up her premises to send my telegram on its way shortly before 5 pm. No doubt some duty officer in RANHQ in the ACT, on double-time, would decode it in less than a minute that same evening, shred it and chortle.

“Nothing too serious, I hope?” the Postmistress asked. I thanked her for her trouble and wished her a Merry Christmas with re-assurances that, although it was classified information (wink … nod), all was well and there was no need to do other than celebrate the festive season.

For her troubles I offered to shout her and her husband a Christmas drink if they cared to join me at the Club.


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