Friday, February 6, 2009

Navy Briefing of the Week - Military Time

Let's begin this week's lesson with a joke - albeit an illuminating one.

An airfield was shared by an air base and a civilian airport.

A message came through to the tower. "What time is it?

The voice back from the tower said, "Who are you?"

The flier replied, "What difference does that make?"

"Plenty, if you're American Airlines it's three PM.
If you're Air Force it's 1500 hours.
If you're Navy it's six bells.
If you're Army the big hand's on the twelve and the little hand's on the three.
And if you're Marines it's Thursday afternoon and it's 120 minutes until happy hour."

Having lived with two Marines for a couple months, I will vouch for the truthfulness in this story. But the bigger issue is our topic for the day - time in the military. It took me three months to get used to the clock in NavyGuy's car. Am I exceptionally slow? (Don't answer that.) His clock was set to what's colloquially known as "military time" and for most of us civilians, this presents a terrible challenge.

Most of you are already familiar with military time; you've heard it in every war movie where an old crusty drill sergeant yells about "getting off your sorry bottoms at zero seven hundred or there'll be hell to pay!" The military avoids labeling different times of day as a.m or p.m (which I learned are Latin abbreviations meaning, "before midday" and "after midday." You're welcome.). Anyway, the military - including the Navy - use the following system to tell time:

You start at 2400 (or midnight). Once you are a minute past that, it's 0001, because the 24 hour clock has started. Let's say you need to check into base at 12:15 a.m. That's 0015, pronounced zero-zero-one-five. From there you have all the AM times- 0100 (zero-one-hundred) being one AM, all the way to 1200 (twelve-hundred) which is noon.

After noon it becomes a little trickier. 1:00pm becomes 1300 (thirteen-hundred), 4:00pm becomes 1600 (sixteen hundred), and 11:00pm becomes 2300 (twenty-three hundred). Once you get to midnight, you start over.

Now, the real issue arises when you need to convert the numbers. Military members are told to subtract 12 from the military time and that will give you the "normal time." For instance, if a meeting is scheduled for 1600, then you take 16-12 and you get 4:00pm. I have a slightly faster way. I simply take the military time and subtract two. It works for most of the numbers; 1300, okay, 3-2=1... 1:00! (This information came from

So this seems like a lot of nonsense to go through when you've got enough other stuff to worry about, right? Well, as irritating as I initially found it (and still find it sometimes), it actually is a good system. Eliminating the am and pm confusion reduces the risk of accidents, miscommunication, and other problems. If an airstrike is planned, there are enough other things to worry about besides coordinating the time with everyone involved. And the U.S. military isn't the only organization to find this time system useful; police departments, firestations, railway stations, bus depots, hospitals, and most of the rest of the world (except us crazy Americans and the Canadians), use military time.

So, will civilians adopt the 24 hour clock and join the rest of the world? Considering that we're some of the lone holdouts in the whole metric vs. English measurement system... I wouldn't change your clocks just yet :)


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