This yarn, denoting a snippet of history from a Moora resident, is 100% fact.
“Port Lookout, Bridge.”
“Steady white light bearing red 45 Sir. Distance, far.”
“Seen. Thank you Port Lookout.”
9° 3′ 31.3272” S
101° 26′ 51.9144” E
With the motion of the ship moving through the water; listing and heaving, every passage and companion way altered between incline and decline. On a bad day, due to the list of the ship, you could walk on bulkheads. Thankfully today was not one of those days. Clear skies and a reasonably gentle metre and a half swell; from the flight deck you could see the horizon twelve miles distant. Small white caps, ambient temperature around 30 degrees centigrade, the occasional school of flying fish skimming across the water. Anywhere else and it would have been a beautiful day.
He felt as though he had been walking up and down hills since being shaken from his rack (bed) some thirty hours earlier. Sunburn covered his blonde shaven head. He dripped sea water as he went down between decks and then for’ard (forward toward the bow of the ship) to his mess (the space sailors sleep and live in). He was cold, drenched, and entirely over it. The grey overall’s he wore; crossed anchors (symbolising the rank of Petty Officer), golden atop his shoulders, highlighted by their black background, ‘Australia’ embroidered beneath them; crusted in salt from lengthy exposure to the sea and sun.
Leaving his saturated boots outside of the mess, Petty Officer ‘Pando’ Florence, RAN, stepped through the mess entry and stripped naked in the vacant space. Depositing his ‘rall’s into the communal dhobi bag (washing bag/basket), he stalked into the darkness. Men, stacked three high slumbered, the movement of the ship working with the skills of the sandman.
Unclipping his towel from the side of his rack, he donned his tubs getters (put on his shower thongs), and gratefully returned to the light; making the short distance through the mess to the heads (toilets) and showers. On securing a shower cubical, he pulled door closed behind him, flicking on the hot then cold taps. Standing away from the stream, and doing his best to avoid the cold drops as the ship moved around the flow, Florence waited for the comfort of warm, salt free, water.
“Petty Officer Florence, Captain’s cabin.” The pipe declared; shower water temperature now perfect. He turned off the taps for the shower he had yet to have; chin on chest, exhaustion had him surrounded, and was making all effort to invade. Inwardly swearing, he stepped back out of the cubicle, walked back into the darkness to his rack. Reclipped his towel, quickly rummaging through his locker, Petty Officer Florence found a clean pair of socks. On return to the mess space, he lifted a cushion of the mess couch, and located a clean pair of rall’s (overall’s), ‘Florence’ written across the left breast, and attached his SRI’s (Soft Rank Insignia’s – worn on the shoulder, denoting rank).
Wet boots soaking through dry socks, he politely knocked on the Commanding Officers cabin door. The word “enter” arrives in immediate and sharp reply.
“PO Florence Sir. You had me piped.”
He had worked in a number of warships in his many years of service to the RAN (Royal Australian Navy). In that time he had never encountered a Commanding Officer (aka – CO, and affectionately as Charlie Oscar) that he disliked on a professional level. Professional and personal being poles apart. Charlie Oscar in this HMA (Her Majesty’s Australian) Ship was a completely different kettle of fish. More a kettle of incompetence with a frog swimming around creating hell for all it blundered into.
“PO,” he began. “I have neither the time nor the energy for this.”
“The Executive Officer has informed me that you deliberately and directly disobeyed my orders regarding the SUNC’s (Suspected Unlawful Non Citizens – aka – people entering Australia the WRONG way, boat people) extraction from the water; not less than an hour ago.”
“What order did I disobey Sir?” Said with great indifference and little care, for whatever question or consequence would follow.
“My order sending all able bodied ships company into the water, to retrieve those from the sinking vessel.”
“You ordered all Junior Sailors to remain onboard and not to enter the water after my command was issued.”
“Apparently you threatened a follow Petty Officer with violence, if he let any of his sailors over the side.”
“So PO, why did you so blatantly disregard my orders.”
“I believed your orders would have lead to the deaths of the of those in the water.”
“Petty Officer Florence, that was my order and the intent of my order, and you still disobeyed it?! To save the loss of souls to the sea!”
“Aye it was Sir. Two hundred and forty six souls in the water was two hundred and forty six souls essentially dead until proven otherwise, Sir. To send our sailors, on your Command Sir, without life jackets, to swim fully kitted into a decent swell, to then be put among people unable to swim, all of whom wearing buoyancy vests.” Florence continued. “At that time, Sir, we were in the process of throwing life rafts into the ogen (ocean), plus two RHIB’s (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat – think Zodiac) were already in the water and removing as many from the sea of their own accord.” He said, his career burying itself with each word passing his lips. “Our ships company, should more have enter the water; if they were not drowned by a mass of people clinging to them, forcing those souls of our ships company beneath the waves, in an attempt to cling to something more buoyant than themselves, killing them all in the process; and either be run over by a RHIB, or have a life raft land on them on being dropped from the ships side to the water, causing further possible death than what was already on display. Aye Sir, I did deliberately disobey your command. The chance of more lives lost out weighed your order Sir.” Not a flicker of emotion creasing his exhausted brow.
Silence is often described as palpable. This silence, the silence emitted by the Commanding Officer radiated heat and venom and hate.
The silence from PO Florence came from the part of the brain saying ‘go and have a shower and a sleep’, then take time in digesting this.
“Petty Officer Florence.”
“Never again will you disobey an order from me, or any person of higher rank than yourself. You are a disgrace to refuse to carry out my orders, regardless of perceived consequence. Never do I want to have this discussion again! And not a word of my interview with you regarding the same is to be mentioned without my direct authority!” Cold fury sliding from each word escaping Charlie Oscars’ tight mouth.
“Moving on PO. What is the condition of the SUNC’s?”
“Two hundred and forty six men, women, and children accounted for Sir. No life threatening injuries; no obvious contagious illness and all have made it soundly through the quarantine process. I have run up 14 bags of intravenous solution due to dehydration, and as per your orders sir, I have given them nothing more. They are now being fed Sir.”
“I am pleased to hear that. However, as I have expressed, these SUNC’s are only to receive medical treatment and supplies in emergency and only under direct order from myself, or, if they are in some way a direct threat to the ship and her company. If you give them so much as Panadol, PO, I will have you on a plate. Secondly, I want your intelligence report by 0800 tomorrow. Do I make myself clear?!”
“Aye Sir. Shall I report to the Chief Coxswain (senior Royal Australian Navy policeman) now Sir, and under what charge?” With a slight pause, “Sir”.
“No. Get out of my sight PO.”
He made it back to the mess. “Water restrictions are now in force” was the pipe that was made as he turned on the hot water tap.
For the second time in three hours, he directly disobeyed his Commanding Officers’ orders by showering, and then went back to work.
Whilst PO Florence was enjoying the warmth of his tubs, little did he know the Captain’s Steward had been in Charlie Oscar’s tiny galley, attached to his day cabin, door wide open.
The Kellick Steward (Leading Seaman – at the rank of an NCO; ‘Steward’ his job) silently stepped out of the galley, placing a mug of coffee before the Captain, surprising him as he did so. Completely forgotten in the undertaking of his duties, yet hearing all that had just been said. The very same Steward that had over heard Charlie Oscar lying over the phone in reporting that there were ‘Kids Overboard’ to Northern Command, Darwin. Something the very same Commanding Officer was to later deny during a very public enquiry, which was to influence the outcome of a Federal Election.
The Captains Steward was posted to the eastern states immediate upon arrival at Fleet Base West; Petty Officer Florence was also posted off the ship, again immediate upon return to Fleet Base West.
You can never be too security conscious. Apparently loose lips sink Commanding Officers.
On a re-read, I feel that I may not have my retelling quite as easily understood as it could have been. The issue the PO had, directly disobeying the Captain is an offence so great, that up until recent times, think the Second World War, was punishable by hanging. Seriously. A ships Captain is as close to God as you can get, his word is final. The reason the PO not only got away with directly disobeying the order, was not only that he was right, but he saved the Commanding Officer from essentially losing his command posting, in the case that his order to send all able bodied hands over the ships side into the ocean, was incredibly unsafe, and would have, I am absolutely certain, have resulted in the deaths of many Australian sailors. It would also have caused a far greater international incident than it did.
Secondly, and whilst I didn’t allude to this in the yarn, the same PO, I know him VERY well, was the person that had radioed the ship stating the SUNC’s “where holding kid’s overboard”, as a threat to get to Australia to take them in. The Captain, interpreting this as ‘there are kids overboard’, and went off to wrongly ring Australia. Long story short, for those old enough to remember it, ‘The Kids Overboard Affair’ was the result; and here before Charlie Oscar is the one man that can not only prove the Captain made a false report, the steward was in his cabin when the call came through, heard everything that was relayed, and then was present when the CO contacted Australia and made a false report. Adding to that, the PO, should it be required, would be at the inquiry to testify.
Dodgy, arse covering at the pointiest end.
Click on the picture above, ‘Death Ship’ – Hoodoo’s.
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