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U s s seawolf submarine.., p.11

U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific, page 11


U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific

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  I put my hands to my phones to adjust them and found them over my temples. I pushed the left phone over my ear—and another charge exploded. This was even closer than the first, right off the beam of the ship. I can hear today only because the phones were not on my ears. The Wolf lurched sharply. There was no screaming, no panic. I listened hard, balanced on the edge of the stool, and I caught the Jap screws again. He had passed our beam. He was going up our port side. He was driving up on the bow. I managed to call out his bearing.

  "Good work, Eckberg," said the intercom. "Keep it up. Good work."

  A moment later Captain Warder's voice came to me again, surprisingly clear. He had abandoned the conning tower and taken a stool in the control room just outside my shack. The conning tower had been sealed off. Now we could see each other if he leaned to the left and I to the right. Here he could talk directly to me, and from here he could control the Wolf’s activities.

  A third depth charge landed. It wasn't as close. I could hear the Jap's propellers through it. Now more charges, each a little farther away. I was shouting bearings, and Captain Warder was snapping orders.

  Our depth gauge had to tell us much. If a charge exploded above us, it drove us down. If the gauge showed eighty feet and a moment later one hundred feet, the charge had exploded above us. If we bounced up, it had exploded under us. The Jap was trying to land them so close that the concussion would rip open the Wolf’s seams. If he managed to explode one directly under us, we'd ride the bubble of air right to the surface, where he could finish us off with his deck guns.

  "She's gone away, Captain," I finally announced.

  The Skipper passed a hand over his forehead. He clenched and unclenched his left hand. "Dick," he said, "pass the word. Have the mess cooks run coffee through the ship for all hands."

  Lieutenant Holden gave the word, and Gus Wright, undisturbed as always, came through with, "Who wants a cup of mud? Come and get it!"

  We gulped down our coffee. And then the entire crew began digging into corners looking for leaks. Zerk and Dishman and Snyder were crawling about in grease and slime, and Zerk came crawling out of a corner with a grin to announce, "Well, she held together down here, anyway."

  Dishman, who had No. 1 engine, would take no one's word that she was all right. He swarmed around her like a mother hen looking out for her brood, inspecting every nut and bolt, feeling, listening, watching.

  Still submerged, we ran for the southern exit of the straits. We thought we had sunk two ships. We knew the Wolf had been hurt by the depth charges—probably not badly, but a few air and water lines had sprung small leaks, according to the report from the men crawling about. We wanted to reach the open sea to surface and recharge batteries, to examine the Wolf’s injuries, and to send a report to the High Command of what we had done.

  We dared not use our transmitter in the straits because the Japs could put direction finders on us. Out at sea, by the time they determined where we were sending from, we'd be away from there with all the ocean to hide in. We remained down until well after dark. Jap planes were still in the area and probably working frantically to spot us. I maintained a continuous watch and heard no propellers over a two-hour period. Captain Warder took frequent periscope observations and reported nothing in sight. But we took no chances. These waters were phosphorescent. A submarine left a white wake easily seen from the air. Not until 9 p.m. did we rise slowly to the surface.

  Now we worked hard. Our auxiliary gang under Zerk toiled all night repairing the leaks. I sent off my dispatch reporting our action and the damage incurred. We recharged batteries. Then we turned in our tracks and headed back full speed for Lombok Straits. We weren't finished with the Japs by a long shot. This time the Skipper chose a new route, to protect himself against a possible ambush. Instead of proceeding around the left side of Nusa Besar, as before, he came around the right, and then the Wolf dove directly in front of the island. We spent from dawn until noon fighting the currents to get into a position to attack the Japs if they were still where we'd seen them the day before.

  Captain Warder peered through the periscope. Nothing. No ships in sight. We scanned the sea endlessly all that day and found no trace of the Japs. Later we learned that they failed to make that landing on Bali that day and the Wolf was credited with having repelled it. We patrolled for two days in and out of the straits. We heard the Japanese version of what we'd done off Bali the second night when we tuned in Radio Tokyo. The English voice was contemptuous:

  "Our fleet has again shown its superiority over the Allied submarines." (Snickers from us.) "In a recent landing on the Island of Bali"—(More snickers)—"our forces ran into a nest of Allied submarines. The advantages went to our fleet forces. We destroyed—"

  "By Christ," exclaimed Sousa, "we're a whole nest of them, you know that?"

  "—several of the enemy and not one of his submarines was able to accomplish a successful attack. This type of warfare is becoming more and more successful. It will not be long until we have eliminated the last Allied submarine from Pacific waters."

  Zerk commented, "Well, probably they have sunk a lot of our boats we don't know about."

  Sousa glared at him. Lieutenant Deragon said, "You see the kind of fairy tales they're putting out? How are they going to win the war by putting out stuff like that for home consumption?"

  John Street, with his score card, just grinned.

  After that depth charging, the crew of the Wolf seemed more closely knit together than before. Maley and I particularly seemed to hit it off well. Even though one of the sound shafts was out of commission, neither of us felt at ease in action after that unless we both were in the shack.

  Now we patrolled constantly. We had several uneventful days. We remained submerged during the daylight hours, surfaced at night, recharged batteries, then waited for dawn, hoping each day would bring us a target. One night a message came for us to keep out of the straits from dusk until dawn. A Dutch raiding party of cruisers and destroyers was coming through. The following night, lying off the straits in the position assigned to us, we had a box seat for the show. Frank Franz, bridge lookout at the time, told me later that he saw flashes of gunfire and the flare of bursting shells. Apparently our Dutch friends met a Jap raiding party in the middle of the night and sank four or five Jap ships.

  A little later another urgent dispatch: a Jap convoy had been sighted, was on such and such a course.

  When the convoy struck the center of the straits we were there, waiting. Captain Warder again determined the point where he thought the Japs would attempt to land. We waited for the false dawn, when a submarine commander has good visibility, but it is difficult to detect his periscope a few inches above the water.

  The Wolf dove at 4:30 a.m. We hadn't sighted the convoy yet. It was a moonless night. As soon as we got down and leveled off, however, I heard the familiar ping! ... ping! ... ping! There they were! On the alert.

  Now Captain Warder exhibited the most skillful maneuvering I've ever seen. By sound we were able to determine that eight ships were coming toward us, four in single file and two each on either side as escorts. Obviously, the four in single file were troop transports; their screws labored through the water. The other four were destroyers. Their screws beat with a cleaner, quicker beat. By sound alone Captain Warder maneuvered the Wolf to a point he sought between the two leading transports. In that position he could fire all of our torpedoes in rapid succession and with maximum damage to the enemy. It was as clear-cut as a problem in geometry.

  "Yes, here they are!" Captain Warder announced at the periscope. "This is a real landing force. They've probably got them packed in there like sardines ... Are the tubes ready?"

  The word came back: "All tubes ready, sir."

  The Wolf waited.

  "Stand by ... Fire!"

  Now, in order, the Wolf sent torpedoes crashing into the two leading transports. Without waiting for the result, the Skipper swung his periscope around, got the first destroyer in
the cross-hairs of the object glass, and barked: "Fire!"

  A series of explosions shook the Wolf as our fish crashed into the three ships. I heard screws.

  "We hit all three," came Captain Warder's jubilant voice.

  "Here come the others. Those other three destroyers are making a beeline for us. Down periscope. Take her down! Rig for depth-charge attack! ... Dammit .." His voice trailed away. "I'd have liked to see those three babies sink!"

  We went down. We wondered how bad this would be. Then the screws began pounding in my ears. Here was one set of high-speed screws, and then another, and then a third. Now I had too many to keep track of: they were coming and going in all directions. Although we were shaken up by their depth charges, no great harm was done. But they were persistent. We were depth charged intermittently, and not until noon did we hear the last of them. We waited. The heat began to increase again. When we'd been submerged for hours, the Skipper upped periscope for a swift glance about.

  The nearest ship was 8,000 yards away. Captain Warder raised approximately six inches of periscope above the water—and damned if the Jap didn't see it, from that distance of more than four miles!

  "Down periscope! He's started to head this way," exclaimed the Skipper. "I don't know if he saw us or not. I don't see how he could have from that range. I'll take another look to be sure."

  The periscope slid up again. Captain Warder had it above surface less than five seconds.

  "Down periscope! He has seen us!"

  The Skipper turned around. His voice was louder. "Do you know," he said, "I saw men all over that ship. They were hanging on the masts and on every piece of superstructure, and every man had a pair of binoculars!" He added, "I'm taking no more chances with the periscope. Sound, what's he doing?"

  I could hear the Jap clearly. "I have a bearing, Captain. He's bearing one nine zero, steady bearing."

  "Good! Keep track of him. Let me know everything."

  The Jap screws grew louder. They were drawing dead astern. My heart was in my mouth.

  "Captain!" I yelled. "He's coming and he's coming fast, and he's going to come right over us!"

  The Wolf was as still as a grave. Now every man in the ship, standing at his post, his heart beating fast, listening with all his might, heard the propellers of the destroyer reach a roar, fill all space with sound, pass over—and then go on.

  There was not much water between the stool upon which I sat tense and the keel of the Japanese destroyer. And not a depth charge was dropped. Later Captain Warder analyzed what must have happened. A Jap lookout sighted our periscope, but reported it simply as an "object"—not a periscope. The destroyer sped over to investigate. His course was so true that he passed directly over us.

  The heat was beginning to tell now. In the maneuvering space it had reached 140 degrees. The air was foul with the odor of human bodies. We dripped with perspiration. Captain Warder ordered saline tablets distributed, and Doc Loaiza, whose beard now made him look more like a Turk than a Puerto Rican, for it framed his mouth in a perfect black oval, passed them out.

  When he came by, his feet squelched in perspiration, almost half an inch thick on the deck. A messboy brought in a gallon jug of water. I lifted the jug to my lips, drank, and spit it out. It had become brackish. It had a coppery taste from the lining of the water tank. Repeated tossing about had stirred up the sediment. It wasn't fit to drink. Maley sat beside me, naked to the waist, mopping his body with a soaked undershirt. The pressure in the boat was high from the compressed air we’d sucked back each time we fired a fish. The air-conditioning had been off so long the heat had reached a terrific point.

  Captain Warder, sitting in his chair, perspiration pouring off him, asked repeatedly, "Anything on sound now, Eck?"

  Each time I reported, "I can still hear them, sir, but nothing very close."

  My watch over, I lurched across the control room, through the passageway, bumping against the bulkheads, and climbed heavily into my bunk. It grew hotter. I lay there, trying to breathe, as gently and as little as possible.

  At last Captain Warder dared to take another periscope observation. He saw nothing. And finally the Wolf rose to the surface.

  The Wolf had been submerged for long hours, and for most of that time with her air-conditioning off and under the cumulative air pressure of the compressed air sucked back in the firing of eight torpedoes.

  The hatch was opened. As if produced by magic, a small gale roared through the ship. Papers flew about. The clothes of the men standing in the passageway billowed outward; their hair stood on end as though they had touched an electrically charged rod. The foul air imprisoned under pressure in the Wolf was rushing out the hatch, and they were in its path. The Diesels started up: the gale was reversed; fresh air poured in.

  The men breathed deep draughts. They began to talk again. "Doesn't that stuff smell good!" and "Oh, God, it does!" Then, laughter. "Well, goddammit, we gave them hell and we got away with it, didn't we?" And, "I'll bet we can hear those slant-eyed bastards hissing all the way over here!"

  Captain Warder wasted no time. The Wolf headed directly out to sea. Once more we inspected our damage and sent a report of our action. This time damage was practically nil. We all managed to get a good night's sleep.

  Next morning, refreshed, we headed into the straits again. We had got three Jap ships, and we wanted more. But we could find nothing. Apparently we'd frightened them off again.

  On the fourth night my radio spluttered with an order from the High Command to leave the area and start a new patrol.

  We had been out for some time now, and our new patrol was an area off Tjilatjap, a Javanese seaport on the south coast used by the Allied powers to evacuate personnel from the East Indies to Australia. Hours before we reached our position we saw the city aflame. The flames lit up the sky for miles around. Bridge lookouts told us the shoreline looked like a carnival of light and fire. Only the pillars of black smoke twisting furiously upward told the story. The Dutch, following the scorched-earth policy, were putting the torch to everything before the Japs arrived.

  For several days we made routine patrols, watching the burning city, and waiting for the Japs to show up and pluck off their prize. Then a new dispatch ordered us into the southern entrance of Sunda Straits, a 60-mile-wide stretch of sea between Sumatra and Java. If the Japs hoped to reach the southern coast of Java in their southward push, they must use the Sunda Straits. Our job was to sink anything they'd try to send through. We had perfect conditions in these waters, which were deep and maneuverable, and Captain Warder and Lieutenant Deragon spent hours poring over their chart tables, plotting out the probable shipping lanes the Japs would use.

  "I think we can ignore the Sumatra side," Captain Warder's voice said. "I don't see anything there. But the Java side does have a beautiful harbor. They might try to put some ships in there." He added, "But we can't get up there because of the water depth." And finally: "Very well, Willie, this is the way we'll do it: We'll run back and forth on a coastal patrol for several days. If we haven't made any contacts by that time, we'll set a patrol to take us into the center of the straits."

  We spent quite a few days there, and saw nothing but the wreck of a Jap bombing plane. It was a long patrol, made under the constant strain of expectation, and for the first time an attack of nerves broke out. Half a dozen men weren't talking to one another. By this time we had been out on the longest sustained run we had made so far—and most of the crew had not seen the sun or been topside all during the patrol. It didn't help any that we were all running short of cigarettes. There were less than half a dozen packs left on the boat. Some of the men had a few cigars, and they nursed these along. Those who smoked pipes weren't in any better fix. Their tobacco was all gone. There were some pretty stretched tempers on the Wolf.

  Then came a dispatch from the High Command ordering us to patrol the Christmas Island area and then proceed to a southern port.

  Heading for port! That meant a new lease on
excitement for all of us. We hopped to it. Christmas Island was a little piece of British land south and west of Java, valuable for its phosphate. It was John Street, with his gift for looking up things, who checked on the place and discovered it was an old pirate hangout. O.K., we thought. We'd do a little pirating ourselves.

  We started immediately, diving by day and surfacing by night. At dawn of the third morning we were in a perfect position to dive off the island. Captain Warder took pains. The Allies were reported still in possession of the island and to have established batteries on shore. These batteries had spotted a couple of reconnoitering Jap subs and were presumed to have sunk them. We had to be careful: from a distance all submarines look alike.

  The Skipper could find no sign of life. Our charts indicated that the only dock facilities on the island were in a small inlet called Flying Fish Cove. The Skipper found the cove and kept a wary eye on it.

  "I ought to go in there tonight and blow that dock up," I heard him say. "The Japs probably will have it, anyway."

  "Might be a good idea," came Ensign Mercer's voice.

  Captain Warder hesitated. "But there are probably some natives on the island. They may be killed on the docks."

  Nothing was done. That night we received a coded dispatch:

  "Air reconnaissance shows transports, destroyers, and cruisers en route to Lombok Straits." Apparently the convoy was bound for Christmas Island.

  Well, my thoughts ran, if anyone can keep us out of harm, this man will do it. He's an artist with a submarine.

  "What I want to do," the Skipper was saying, "is to put your direction finder on this frequency and keep searching. Be sure you cover it thoroughly. I want you to sweep over your entire range of frequency constantly."

  With action in sight, petty quarrels vanished. Men spoke to each other again. Stations were checked and then double checked. It was as though an electric shock had gone through the crew. We patrolled all day. We saw nothing. I searched and searched and searched.

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