NEW SHORT-STORY: The Army Patrol That Went Wrong

BY NALAU BINGEDING

I grew up in Wagangluhu Village, along the banks of the Busoo River in the Bukawa area of Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea.

Busoo River

As a kid the banks of Busoo River was the best place in the world for me. I could not think of another place in the world that could substitute the Busoo River and the many adventures my peers and I encountered every day. The Busoo River was our swimming pool, it was our fishing ground, it was our playground, and the lush tropical rainforests along the banks of the river provided us with countless adventures daily.

Moreover, the Papua New Guinea and Australian defence forces annually used the banks of the Busoo River for joint military drills, and the excitement of watching these military drills after school was a bonus for my peers and I. The sound of machine guns, bazookas, M16 and army helicopters drove our little minds crazy, and all we could think of doing the next day was to come again and watch these epic military drills.

Although we were just third and fourth graders in our local primary school, we knew the names of most of the military equipment used and the types of actions taken by the soldiers in the drills. We also knew what the role of the radioman was and we learned by heart the words he spoke during the drills.  

After the military drills are over and the soldiers leave, my peers and I usually struggled to fit back into our routine village and school lives. And if you saw three or four heads clustering in one corner of the school yard during lunch break or after school, you can be sure the discussion is about the latest military drill along the banks of the Busoo River.

But to really get the hangovers of the latest military drills out of our systems, we would gather at the river after school and act out the military drills using whatever resources we could find in the nearby bushes. We would meet every day after school at the same spot and act out what we had seen during the recent military drills. And to top it off, we would take army patrols along the banks of the river in the direction of the sea, and if dusk sets in we would abandon the patrols and return home.

Acting out the military drills after school would go on for some time until the military madness was flashed out of our systems and life in the village or at our local school returned to normalcy.

But of all the military enactments my peers and I had during our childhood days, I have not forgotten one of our regular army patrols along the banks of the Busoo River. What happened on that fateful day is implanted forever in the back of my mind, and every time I run into my childhood friends I am reminded of the army patrol that went wrong.

Busoo Platoon reconnaissance

It was Friday and we were let off at 10am after completing work parade at school because our teachers needed to go into Lae City to collect their pay cheques.

The school bell rang and it was time to head home, but we all knew where we would meet and what we would do that day. A certain spot along the banks of the Busoo River was where we would meet that very day for our military patrol.

This meet was special because the fifth graders had heard our stories and were enthusiastic in joining us, the third and fourth graders, in our regular military patrols.

When we were all gathered at the appointed place at the river, everyone went about preparing for the military patrol down the banks of the Busoo River. Wild banana stumps, sticks, vines, stems of giant ginger species, known as Golgol, were plucked out of the nearby bushes to make replicas of machine guns, bazookas, M16 guns and a wireless radio.

At first there was some excitement, but soon the excitement died down and there was some silence as every kid in the platoon wanted to make the best gun he could possibly think out. As each individual crafted his gun, he would glance at the others around him to ensure his gun was better than theirs without saying a word. Everyone in the platoon was making a gun except one person, his name was Wayakwa, and he was tasked by our platoon commander to make a wireless radio.

Wayakwa was one of a kid who was usually picked on by other kids at the local primary school for trivial matters, and most of the time you would not find him mingling with other kids after school. But that very day Wayakwa came to join the platoon, and somehow he was appointed to be our radioman and was accorded some respect.

I had crafted an M16 gun for myself, but the quality of my gun was not at par with that of the other kids. And as I took a glance at the other kids and their guns, I could not comprehend why they were so serious in crafting guns that were perfect replicas of real M16 guns, bazookas and machine guns.

There was something special about this particular military patrol so the preparations were meticulous, but I could not work out what it was. I had a hunch something big was going to happen that very day, but I could not tell whether it would turn out to be a good or bad thing for the platoon.

As the preparations progressed, all eyes were now fixed on the radioman and his wireless radio. Everyone wanted the radio to be a perfect replica of a real wireless radio, and once in a while somebody would comment on what had been left out or what needed to be amended to improve the quality of the wireless radio.

And when the wireless radio was completed, Wayakwa was standing beside the replica of a real wireless radio made out of wild banana stumps, sticks, vines and stems of Golgol. I could tell that the wireless radio would have been in excess of 20 kilograms.

For third graders like Wayakwa and myself 20 kilograms was beyond our carrying capacity, but I could tell that Wayakwa was not bothered by the weight of the wireless radio. He was assigned the special task of being our radio man, and it was his responsibility to carry the wireless radio despite its heavy weight to earn the respect of the platoon.

Finally, everything was in order and the platoon was ready to head downstream. Everyone had their faces painted with charcoal and their heads covered in banana leaves or some grass species, and their machine guns, M16 guns and bazookas were in their arms or on their shoulders.

Our radio man was already raring to go, but his 20kg load of wireless radio was still on the ground as he gazed at it with a smiling face.

Then the platoon commander and his subordinates gathered some 10 metres away from where we were and discussed the patrol plan while we waited anxiously for their instructions.

The plan was that the platoon commander, Namun, was to take the lead the patrol and his subordinates of Geding and Uyac’ were to strategically position themselves in the patrol line to give necessary instruction should we encounter enemy patrols. The radioman, Wayakwa, was to be the last person in the patrol line so that he could call for a helicopter from Igam Army Barracks in Lae City if there were any casualties along the way.

Slowly, the platoon headed downstream. There was silence as the troopers cautiously scanned the surrounding bushes for signs of enemy patrols, and once in a while the platoon commander would turn around and signal for us to sit down in the bushes and wait for some villagers to pass by on their way to our village.

The platoon had travelled for 2 miles and the patrol seemed to be progressing smoothly with no casualties, and the presence of the platoon had not been compromised so far. Villagers who were returning from their gardens or fishing trips to the sea did not spot our military patrol, and we were anticipating a successful patrol if the commander would call off the mission in the next 1 or 2 miles.

Danger close!

All was going well as the platoon headed further downstream, but suddenly there was a scream from the front line and the platoon came to a halt. Then the troopers in front whispered to each other and pass the word down the line so that all platoon members were aware of the situation.

The platoon commander, Namun, was hurt. He had step on some rattan spikes and his foot was bleeding heavily.

“Quick, get the radioman to call for help from Igam Army Barracks, said Geding, one of the two subordinates to the platoon commander.  “Call for headquarters to send a helicopter as soon as possible, our platoon commander is down”, said Uyac’, the other subordinate to the platoon commander.

As the rest of the platoon waited patiently, some of our medics began work on the casualty. The rattan spikes were removed from Namun’s foot, the wounds were cleaned with some clear sap extracted from some nearby vines, and juice from the leaves of the piper plant was squeezed into the wound to dry up the blood.

While this was going on, some troopers began preparing a stretcher using sticks and vines to carry the injured person to the riverside for the helicopter to come and whizz him off to Igam Army Barracks for further treatment.

At the same time the radioman had begun making frantic calls to Igam Army Barracks for a helicopter to be sent immediately.

From the back of the line we could hear Wayakwa frantically calling Igam Army Barracks for help. “This is Alpha 1 calling Bravo 2, over? Bravo 2, do you read me, over? This is Alpha 1. Please send a helicopter to Busoo River, over? We have a casualty; the platoon commander for Alpha Company is injured, over?”

Then we hear Wayakwa changing the tone of his voice and answers himself as if Igam Army Barracks was responding to his calls. “Roger, this is Bravo 2 calling Alpha 1, over? Message copied; do you read me, over?”

While the medics were preparing the casualty for evacuation and Wayakwa was calling for help, the rest of the platoon was on alert in case an enemy patrol crossed our path. The troopers were vigorously scanning the river bank and the nearby bushes for signs of an enemy patrol approaching.

Then it was good news. Wayakwa, after making frantic calls to Igam Army Barracks informed the platoon that Igam Army Barracks had dispatched a helicopter and it was on its way.

It was all thumps up for the platoon, and you could see smiles all around as we waited patiently for the helicopter to arrive.

But after some 30 minutes or so, there was no sign of a helicopter coming to pick up the casualty.

The platoon commander, Namun, was already placed in a stretcher, and he was impatient and wanted to know if the helicopter was really coming.

So Uyac’ whispered to the trooper next to him to send word down the line to the radioman to call Igam Army Barracks again to send a helicopter to pick up the casualty. Word was quickly sent down the line and we could hear Wayakwa calling Igam Army Barracks again to send a helicopter.

“This is Alpha 1 calling Bravo 2, over? Bravo 2, do you read me, over? This is Alpha 1. Please send a helicopter to Busoo River, over? We have a casualty; the platoon commander for Alpha Company is injured, over?”

As Wayakwa repeatedly called Igam Army Barracks using his wireless radio, the platoon intently listened. Then Wayakwa turned around and enthusiastically informed the platoon that a helicopter had been dispatched and will soon land on the riverbed of the Busoo River to pick up the casualty.

And as the platoon anxiously waited, we could hear in the distance the sound of a helicopter approaching. As the sound of a helicopter got louder and louder, there were smiles all around and Wayakwa was given some praise for his efforts in getting a helicopter to come so soon to pick up the casualty.

But after a while, the sound of the helicopter engine faded. And we could tell that the helicopter was no longer headed in our direction, but it was headed for the headwaters of the Busoo River.  “Maybe the helicopter had missed our location, but it would come back if Wayakwa got back on the radio and pointed out our exact position to Igam Army Barracks”, somebody said.

Yes, most of the troopers agreed that Wayakwa should get back on the radio and call Igam Army Barracks again to pinpoint our exact location. Then Igam Army Barracks could get the helicopter pilot to turn around and head downstream to where we were.

Enthusiastically, Wayakwa got back on the radio and called Igam Army Barracks again. “This is Alpha 1 calling Bravo 2, over? Bravo 2, do you read me, over? Please inform the helicopter pilot to head downstream, over?”

And as Wayakwa was calling Igam Army Barracks, we could hear the sound of a helicopter approaching. The sound got louder and louder.

And as we waited, the sound got even louder and louder, and yes, a helicopter was really heading down the banks of the Busoo towards where we were located.

But this did not stop Wayakwa from calling Igam Army Barracks. We could hear Wayakwa saying, “We are located some 3 miles downstream from Wagangluhu village, and some 5 miles from the sea, do you read me, over?”

Surely there was a helicopter flying low towards where we were.

And as we watched anxiously for what could happen next, we could see some white men inside the helicopter, and the helicopter was attempting to land on the riverbed.

And when the helicopter finally landed on the riverbed, some 30 metres away from where we were, somebody shouted, “The white men are going to steal us and take us to Australia”.

Escape and evade

At that instant every trooper fled in every direction into the thick jungle behind the river bank. Although barefoot, we did not care about rattan spikes or any other mishaps that may be in our way. We had to flee as fast as we could and as far away as we could from the river bank.

In the next few minutes, it was a case of every man for himself. It was abandon ship, and the platoon commander or his subordinates for themselves and the troopers for themselves.

It was chaos and nobody could tell where the other one was going as we disappeared into the thick jungle.

The radioman was left behind as the troopers and their commanders fled into the jungle. And the last thing I could remember about the radioman was that he was still on the radio calling Igam Army Barracks when the civilian helicopter landed on the river bank.

But I was not sure if the radioman had also fled into the jungle just like the rest of us after the helicopter landed on the riverbed.

For the next few moments everyone went his own way, and all one could see was the path in front of him as each kid made his way through the jungle without knowing what his final destination was.

And as kids, this was a terrifying experience, especially when there was a helicopter with white men inside that had just landed on the river bank behind us. The thought of these white man catching up with us and taking us to Australia drove our adrenaline levels so high that running through the thick jungle was just like running a 100m race on a grassy athletic field.

Then after some time there was a call in the jungle. Somebody was calling for all troopers to come together.

May be one of our commanders was calling for all troopers to gather in one place for head count. I was not sure, but I reluctantly made my way to where the call was coming from.

As I made my way through the jungle, I came upon some of the troopers and we slowly headed to where the call was coming from.  

“Come all troopers, we all need to gather to make a head count. Please come quickly, this is an emergency call’’.

We came upon a new garden and there was Uyac’, one of the two subordinates to the platoon commander. He was with some of the troopers, and was making head count as I and the other troopers arrived on the scene. Geding, the other subordinate to the platoon commander was not present.

As the troopers arrived one by one or in groups on the scene, we would burst out in laughter over the incident we just encountered along the banks of Busoo River.

As each group sat around in circles in the garden and chatted about what happened, there was laughter everywhere. Some people could not hold back tears as each story unfolded, and people were literally lying on the ground and holding onto their stomachs as they laughed off what they just heard.

As we waited and laughed off our heads to the stories that were told by each trooper, Geding and the platoon commander, Namun, arrived on the scene. There was laughter all around as these two senior officers arrived on the scene.

After they told of their stories and everybody had laughed off their heads, the platoon commander wanted another head count to ensure no soldier had gone missing in action.

“Do a thorough head count for us to see if anybody is missing in action”, Namun exclaimed. “Uyac’, Geding, my two subordinates, please get all troopers in line and do a head count”.

After a thorough head count the two subordinates to the platoon commander informed the platoon that everybody was present except our radioman. Wayakwa, our radioman was missing, and nobody knew about his whereabouts.

“He was still on the radio as we all fled into the jungle when the helicopter landed on the riverbed”, somebody asserted. “Yes, that’s true, Wayakwa was still on the radio calling Igam Army Barracks when we all fled into the jungle”, somebody else interjected.

Then somebody solemnly threw in the notion that maybe the helicopter and the white men inside had taken hold of our radioman and had taken him away. Poor guy, maybe he is now on his way to Australia with the white men in the helicopter. We may never see our radioman again, and what will we say to his old mother when we arrived back in the village that day.

There was silence, and everybody was anxious as to what happened to our radioman. The absence of our radioman was a big concern to the commanders and the troopers as our little minds endeavoured to fathom the events that led to our escape into the jungle and the disappearance of our radioman.

However, somebody suggested that we should call out again to attract our radioman’s attention. Maybe he is still in the jungle, but he is scared and does not want to come out.

“Yes, let us all call out for the radioman”, our platoon commander interjected. “Maybe he has gone too far and could not hear us or he has met some people from the village and has accompanied them back to the village”.

Then everybody started calling out for our radioman. “Wayakwa, come back, we are here in the garden. The helicopter is gone, and there is nothing to fear. Please come out, we have to go home now. Please come quickly, we are waiting for you”.

The callings went on for a while, but there was no return call from Wayakwa. We could hear the birds singing in the trees, but we could not hear any human beings returning our calls.

Maybe Wayakwa has gone home or maybe he is on his way to Australia right now.  If he is on his way to Australia with the white men in the helicopter, he would never return to our village. He may become like the white men and speak English like them and live like them. He may have a better life in Australia and forget all about Busoo River and our little village.

Then all of a sudden we could hear somebody coming through the bushes. It was as if a bulldozer was pushing its way through the jungle. We could hear somebody breathing heavily, and the bushes gave way as this person came running through the jungle.

“It’s Wayakwa, our radioman. He is here at last”, somebody shouted.

It was Wayakwa alright. He had heard our calls in the jungle and had come to find us.

Recover and regroup

As Wayakwa came onto the scene, we all were relieved that he had finally found us. We were all happy that he had not been taken away to Australia by the white men, and surely we would not be in trouble with his old mother or the village people when we returned to the village that day.

It was a joyous moment for the troopers and our commanders. We were all present, and no soldier was missing in action.

As Wayaka took his seat in the garden, every trooper went up to him and hugged him. It was as if Wayakwa had come back from a faraway place after being away for many years.

As soon as Wayakwa had taken a good breather and had regained his composure, everybody wanted to know what happened to him after the helicopter landed on the river bed.

At that instant, Wayakwa burst out in laughter as every trooper and commander joined in. The laughter went for a while and then there was silence.

Regaining his composure, Wayakwa began his account of what happened. “I was still on the radio calling Igam Army Barracks when the helicopter landed on the riverbed. My eyes were fixed on the helicopter when I was calling Igam Army Barracks, but I was not aware that all of you had fled into the jungle”.

“After realising that I was the only one left, I ran away into the jungle with the wireless radio still on my back. I had gone some 30 meters or so, not realizing that the wireless radio was still on my back. But the radio got stuck in between two trees as I tried to squeeze myself through. And in order to free myself, I just dumped the wireless radio on the forest floor and fled into the jungle”.

Even before Wayakawa had completed his story, some of the troopers and commanders were lying on the ground holding onto their stomachs as they laughed off their heads. Some of the troopers literally had tears in their eyes as they laughed their heads off to Wayakawa’s story.

After all the laughter, Wayakwa completed his story. It was a long story, and every time it hit a funny part, there was laughter everywhere.

Wayakwa’s story was the climax of the army patrol that went wrong that very day.

Wayakwa was commended by the commanders and troopers for being a good radioman. In fact, his frantic calls to Igam Army Barracks had really brought a real life helicopter to land on the riverbed in real time as anticipated by the platoon.

Nalau Bingeding

This was a children’s military game that we played out in the jungles beside the Busoo River many years ago. But it was a reality when our radioman’s call for a helicopter from Igam Army Barracks in Lae City actually landed a real life helicopter right beside us in real time as we had anticipated.

It was a day like no other and an army patrol like no other. It was an experience we would cherish for the rest of our lives. And as for me, I have cherished it for most of my life.

Nalau Bingeding, shown in the picture above, is one of the troopers and the author of this short story. He is a former public servant, now a private citizen living in Port Moresby.
Wayakwa Aimak, the radioman, is now living in the village. He is currently the chairman of the Law and Order Committee for Wagangluhu village. 
Namun Awaka, the platoon commander, is now a common villager living in Wagangluhu village.
Geding Tiaga, one of the subordinates to the platoon commander, is now living in the village. He is currently the Peace Officer for Wagangluhu village.
Uyac’ Dhao, one of one of the subordinates to the platoon commander, is now living in the village. He is currently the Deacon of a local Pentecostal Church in Wagangluhu village.    
Busoo Platoon members

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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