Communications: Paul Oates
The Daily Radio Sked
Arriving at my first Patrol Post in 1969, I was introduced to that slender and sometimes tenuous life line of TPNG outstations, the radio schedule or ‘sked’.
In 1969 in the Morobe District, both outgoing and incoming signals were transmitted on the one frequency and you could only either send or receive but not both at the same time. The radio (a Crammond from memory), was about two feet long by one foot square, oblong metal box and usually sat on a bench or table in the office. It had a transmission signal strength dial and a frequency selecting dial, a speaker and a handset with transmitting button and not a lot else. You normally had to take the back off the box to change the crystal and therefore the frequency. I believe they were very similar to those radios issued to coast watchers during the war and I sometimes seriously thought could have been the same sets. Certainly anyone who had previously served in the armed services could well have raised the odd eyebrow when first introduced to this piece of equipment from yesteryear.
The ‘sked’ was also a ‘party line’ in that all the other stations could listen in to and anyone who had a short wave receiver could also ‘tune in’ and listen to the conversations. While there was an Administration code (changed monthly) that was used to send officially sensitive signals (telegrams), most of the traffic was in clear speech. When I say clear, I mean that in a qualified way as all sorts of interferences often impeded the ‘traffic’. Sun spot activity could also close the airwaves for some time, even days or may have caused the voices to distort out of all recognition. There were crackles and bursts of static and sometimes other transmissions would interrupt the program without knowing they were doing so. Mining exploration camps were notorious for this and there was also the odd transmission (‘Apa Kaba’?) from over the border.
Outstation radios were operated using two 12 volt car batteries. The plan was to have two batteries ‘charged up’ and ready so that when the batteries currently in use started to go flat, you could quickly change them over and not go off the air. To charge the radio batteries up, stations were issued with a battery charger.
Radio Battery Chargers came in two models: . Unserviceable, and 2. On their way out.
From memory, the chargers I saw had the initials J.A.P. on the generator and they could well have been from WW2 vintage. A small petrol motor turned the generator and if you were lucky, kept the spare batteries charged up. Spark plugs kept ‘coking up’ and it was a constant struggle to keep the high revving motor going. A battery hydrometer was available to test the charge of each battery. Battery chargers were often unserviceable and many outstations were constantly sending their chargers in to Lae to be serviced. If you were lucky to be on a station that had a vehicle, you could use the vehicles battery however my first few stations only had motorbikes for transportation.
In 1969 and early 1970, the Morobe District outstation radio ‘sked’ was run by Mrs Peg Loder for the TPNG Posts and Telegraphs.
To a new, green, ‘wet behind the ears’ liklik kiap however, the radio could be very intimidating, especially when you weren’t familiar with the locally accepted transmission protocols. Terms like “Roger D” and “Cheers” were combined with the necessity to co-ordinate pushing your thumb button down when you wanted to speak and then say “Over” and release the button when you wanted to listen. Any misunderstood words had to be spelt out in the NATO phonetic alphabet in numbered groups, one word to a group.
More than one person was left saying something when someone else was also talking. The result was no communication at all. A young officer from another station had just been freshly introduced to the radio and was trying to order some provisions for his next patrol.
“What do I ask for?” he said.
“Aw, just ask some cans of those meals you heat up,” he was told. “You know. Steak and Onions, Camp Pie and vegetables. Mix ’em up. That sort of thing.”
So the chap got onto the radio and spoke nervously to Country Orders in Lae. He was asked what he wanted to order.
“Err…um… A dozen hot mixed meals,” he said and was thereafter known as “Hot Meals.”
There was reportedly a stunned silence and then an “eh, what?” from the Country Orders person on the other end of the radio telephone.
A love sick truck driver got on the blower from Kainantu in the Eastern Highlands and asked to be put through to his girlfriend in Lae. “I’ll be back in four hours,” he said. “I just can’t wait to see you.”
The girl sounded less than enthusiastic. “Remember this is a public radio line,” she said.
“I don’t care,” the bloke went on, “I’m REALLY desperate to see you.” For those who had missed out on the ABC’s long running radio show Blue Hills, this was enthralling stuff. We listened with bated breath for the next instalment.
Angus Hutton, the manager of the Garaina Tea Plantation near Morobe Patrol Post then got on to Country Orders and gave his weekly shopping list of groceries. He then summed up with: “…and now for the Medicine Cabinet,” he said. “One bottle of Rhum Negrita, one of scotch whiskey, one of Napoleon Brandy, one of …… ”
Things were fairly prim and proper in those days. Swearing was a ‘no no’ especially in telegrams. I can remember the District Commissioner, ‘Father’ Bill Seale’s leaving a message for the OIC. Mrs Loder rang the DC’s number and put him on the line to the OIC. The DC must have got used to speaking privately on the telephone for he came out with some colourful superlatives. “You did a bloody good job up in the Western Highlands,” he said. “Just trace a road down to the coast for me. It’s Sh-t easy.” And so on.
“Yes Sir,” said the OIC and the DC hung up. Mrs Loder seemed a bit rattled for a while after that but what could she say? This was the DC talking.
When ‘Mac’ Vines, the Head Teacher of Kabwum School had a lawn mower that was taking an inordinate amount of time to be repaired, he started to get agitated. The grass at the school wasn’t getting any shorter and snakes were a concern. Finally he sent a telegram which required him to spell out each group. He read out the telegram in the following manner: First Group “Where”, next group “the”, next group “B” for Bravo, next group, “L” for Lima, next group “O” for Oscar, next group “O” for Oscar, next group “D” for Delta, next group “Y” for Yankee, next group “H” for Hotel, next group “E” for Ecco, next group “L” for Lima, next Group “L” for Lima, next groups are ‘is”, “my”, “lawn” “mower” then signed off the message. It got an instant result too. The lawn mower was on the next plane.
To pay for each private radio call, you bought postage stamps from the general office and stuck them onto the list of calls made. The stamps were then initialed to prevent them being lifted and used again. We assumed that there was a monthly reconciliation made in Lae against the calls that we made and the value of the stamps on the back of the list of calls that we were required to send in to PNG P&T every month via the mail bag on the weekly government chartered aircraft.
Overseas connections were quite expensive and calls to Australia were timed to three minute intervals. You kept looking at your watch and calculating how much the call was going to cost you. That pressure created problems with some in Australia who had no idea of how to cope with terms like ‘Roger’ and ‘Over’, etc. and to keep their usual ramblings to an absolute minimum. Those who found the concept of only talking after you said ‘over’ hard to understand usually caused you to miss most of what they said because you were transmitting at the time. Christmas calls were by necessity, very brief and often all that was said was ‘Hello’ and ‘goodbye’ once all the family had a turn.
The 510 Portable Radio
Patrols and Base Camps were sometimes issued with a portable radio to communicate with their District HQ. These radios were clearly ex military and were known as a 510 Portable. The equipment consisted of two halves, each with its own, heavy, dry cell battery. All items fitted into an Army green wooden box about 5 foot long (1½ meters). On patrol, the box was lashed to a pole and carried between two people.
To set this radio up, you had to attach the batteries, screw the cable connection together and attach the aerial. The aerial was a long wire with a connecting wire in the middle leading to the radio.
You had to set up two poles about 20 feet apart and attach the aerial to the tops of the poles at either end. The poles had to be roughly aligned by compass to the radio station you were trying to contact. Then you stretched the wire between the two poles and connected the wire from the centre of the aerial to the radio. To use the radio, you donned a headset with earphones and a mouthpiece to leave your hands free. It also had a normal handset that could be used in tandem.
Once all that was done, you then had to tune the radio using two internal dials. Each radio was issued with the appropriate crystal that ensured the right frequency (maybe it was 5640) was being transmitted to communicate with, in my case, Lae Post and Telegraphs. Then you could either call Lae out of hours and hope someone was listening or wait until your turn came up on the weekly work day morning and afternoon outstation radio schedule. There was also an abbreviated Saturday morning opportunity to call Lae.
Using the 510 Portable radio to communicate with Lae at Ogeranang airstrip in
1970. Councillor Zeme is listening in to the radio traffic. Obviously it was a
warm day. To the left is a bucket that was being used to move the soil during the
airstrip’s construction. I’m also using my short wave transistor radio to save the
510 batteries while waiting for our turn to come up on the ‘sked’.