Pat Palmer: the code was the thing

Pat Palmer
Pat Palmer

Pat Palmer rises to greet me as I enter her comfortable, spacious room at Camberwell Green. The dresser is crowded with family photos and, as she tells me, despite her 93 years and a recent stroke she has no intention of shuffling off this mortal coil yet; she has too much still to experience.

She was born Patricia Simpson in 1925, the younger of two sisters who grew up first in Carramar Avenue, Camberwell, then later in Wattle Valley Road, Surrey Hills. Her grandfather had started Simpson’s Manufacturing in Burnley. All his sons worked in the company and Pat’s father was the chemist. They made many products – lanoline, shampoo, brilliantine . . . eventually diversifying into cosmetics.

Pat went to school at Strathcona before leaving to become a touch typist. Her boyfriend had joined up and after training in Queensland to be a commando, he was sent to Borneo. “I didn’t see him again until the end of the war,” says Pat. “He survived, but came back full of malaria”.

It was in 1942 that Pat joined the WRANs. She was working with the Crippled Children Society in Queen Street at the time and one particular day, having gone for a walk, she came upon a Navy office. Then and there she decided “I’m going to join the Navy”. When she took the papers home for her father to sign (she was still under age), he said “No, you’re not!” But Pat was determined, and at last he relented.

After two weeks on the HMAS Lonsdale to do a rookie course of drilling and marching she, being a touch typist, was drafted to work stationed at a block of flats called “Monterey” in Queens Road, St Kilda, that housed a joint US-Australian code breaking unit. Her category and (somewhat oblique) job title was “Writer”.

“We worked 8-hour ‘watches’ spread over the 24 hours; the work never stopped. The most amazing thing gained from being in the Navy was discipline. It was drummed into us!”

They worked under the US Navy, who brought the IBM computers out to help in deciphering the Japanese code. As with those working at Bletchley Park in England, they were all placed under oath not to divulge what they were doing. Pat expanded on this: “When my family asked ‘What are you doing?’ I would answer ‘Just typing’. Only one girl was heard speaking about her work at a party. She was dishonourably demobbed the next day. One of my girlfriends was at the ceremony and said ‘It was just terrible seeing her hatband ripped off, her badges taken, and she gone, in disgrace’”.

It was not until decades later that the real work carried out was revealed. What they were listening to were some of the most secret transmissions of the Japanese – messages so sensitive that they could not be transmitted by telephone. Instead teams of despatch riders set out from the base every two hours day and night, ferrying messages along the Point Nepean Rd to the Monterey Flats.

After six months at Monterey the government built barracks on the other side of the Albert Park Lake (where the Formula 1 takes place now). Some girls were billeted there, but Pat was allowed to sleep at home (in Wattletree Road, Malvern). She preferred this, though acknowledged “it was a bit scary walking to the station through streets darkened owing to the brown-out”.

In describing her work, Pat said, “The allies had obtained photos of the keyboard of the Japanese code machine. These were put onto our keyboards, and that is how we typed the messages. The code was just lines, like matchsticks, so we didn’t know what we were typing. The cryptographers trying to read the code could refer to the Japanese keyboard, which was a huge breakthrough. We were just typing for the eight hours of our watch, about eight of us sitting in a room next to another huge one filled with the massive IBM computers that the Americans had brought out. They were working all the time, causing the whole floor to vibrate constantly. The noise was incredible!

“The computers produced masses of paper, which we were busy converting to punched cards that in turn went to large teams of sorters. We didn’t have any idea what we were typing; we just knew how serious it was. We had been told this when we started – and we wanted to help. It was hard, constant work, but we all wanted to serve”.

After the war Pat became a manageress in a boutique. She loved selling clothes and dressing ladies, as well as the opportunities to travel, buying for the business. She has a keen interest in sport – particularly tennis and golf, which she continued to play into her eighties. She loves continuing to learn in life, communicating with people, being involved with the church and delights in seeing her family continue to grow. The aging process and a recent stroke seem to be just a hiccup in a life that Pat is thankful for, and feels blessed to continue with optimism to greet each day.

About Chris Gray 9 Articles
Chris’s first opus: ‘I must not throw stones at the teacher’ won the Miles Franklin Award for Excellence. In 2006 ‘The Runes of Arkhan’ was published. He now writes regularly for The Burwood Bulletin.