One of the hardest things to do – no matter how appealing it may appear to the harassed and stressed among us is to watch time pass.
To sit and do absolutely nothing; on one's own, or at least separated from all one's fellows, silent and still. For hour, upon hour, upon hour.
It is harder if it is in the intense heat and humidity of tropical conditions. It is even harder if it is through the long reaches of the night; blackness relieved only by filtered starlight, or the luminosity of one's watch which one mustn't look at, or it all goes slower yet. It is harder still if you are a soldier lying in ambush in the Borneo tropical rain forest, and the enemy may be close by.
In August 1965, although I gloried in the title of Troop Commander, I commanded only one gun section located deep in the jungle on a little hill appropriately named Bukit Knuckle. We supported C Coy of the Australian infantry regiment, most of whom were located in defensive positions around our gun pit, but with one platoon in an ambush position a few thousand metres away along an approach track.
It was late on such a long hot night. I was with the Company Commander, Bill Broderick, in the stifling command post we had dug and sandbagged in to the side of the bukit. Radios, all netted in to their various frequencies, were silent around us. Bill and I had been together for some weeks. Our small talk was exhausted and we had got bored with the muddy scrabble set. Bill was not your natural Aussie sub-unit infantry commander; he was too measured and careful for that, though he was later to lead his company in a successful operation which required determination and guts.
Time passed in the half light of the kerosene lamp.
Suddenly a radio crackled inches from our ears. Our platoon sets had a capacity to allow speaking in a whisper. A slight hiss, but it was unmistakably Pat Beale, the Platoon Commander in his ambush position sending, in hushed tones, "3 this is 31, over."
Bill grabbed the hand set. I leapt to alert my gun crew and set my Technical Assistant to his plotter. The gun was already laid on a pre-arranged defensive fire target just beyond the ambush position. Bill responded, "31 this is 3. Send your message, over."
A silence again. What was happening out there? Then, "3 this is 31. Tango Tango, Lima Sierra, over. Pat was sending code using the phonetic alphabet of the day.
Bill seized the company codes. No TT, LS. "The young idiot," snarled Bill, "he's using last week's codes." We searched the company codes, the battalion codes, the artillery codes. No TT,LS. "I'll skin him when I get hold of him," said Bill after we had turned the dugout into a chaos of paper and codebooks. Pat Beale was already not the favourite subaltern in the Company. Six years later he was to earn a Military Cross in Viet Nam, and, further, to add a DSO before he retired. Now, he was a young larrikin with a wild streak, which had already earned him weeks of Orderly Officer duties when the Company eventually came out of operations and returned to base.
Intensely concerned and galvanised for action, Bill picked up the handset and spoke in a tense staccato whisper. "31 this is 3 -- Your Tango Tango Lima Sierra not understood -- Over."
We waited again. Then, blasting our ears in normal conversational pitch came Pat's voice, as he worked off so many hours of mind-numbing boredom. "3 this is 31. Twinkle twinkle, little star."
I often wondered whether Pat ever did work off those Orderly Officer duties.
John Masters, April 2001