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U s s seawolf submarine.., p.13

U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific, page 13

 

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


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  I was leaning on my elbow on the plate glass of my desk, and once, glancing down, saw that my perspiration had run down the glass and into the blue blotter I had placed under it, soaking the blotter and dripping from it, as from a soggy cloth, onto the linoleum deck, already swimming in perspiration. The sweat was rolling down my elbows in streams. The skin of my hands was pinched and white. I found myself nervously rubbing my palms against my knees, kneading the dirt out.

  The stench in the Wolf grew unbearable. It was salty, and acrid, and nauseating, made up of perspiration, oil, staleness, and oven-like heat. Few of us had to answer any call of nature. Fear seemed to constrict our bowels, turn our stomachs into hard knots. Our bodies threw off such quantities of liquid that there was little for our kidneys to do. It was just as well. Our toilet tanks could not be emptied lest the air bubbles give us away on the surface. By 7 p.m. some of the men lay in their bunks near exhaustion. They tried to read, but the words swam before their eyes. The refrigerator had been switched off. Our drinking water was warm. Some of the men drank anyway and became nauseated. Doc Loaiza stumbled through the passageway, groping his way along the bulkheads, passing out saline tablets. They gagged us.

  Once, during this time, Captain Warder stuck his head through the door of the sound shack. He whispered. I didn't get his words. I wondered why he was whispering. He repeated them. Then I understood. How was I doing? I wanted to show him I was at ease.

  "I'm fine, Captain," I said, loudly—but my voice was a whisper, too. The pressure had become so great that your words literally stopped moving the moment they left your lips. They hung in the thick air. When orders came, they had to be squeaked from one man to the next.

  Finally Captain Warder ordered the Wolf taken to periscope depth. We had to surface soon. The men needed air. The lights were dim; the batteries had to be recharged, for when they went down completely, we'd have to surface—or die.

  "I see a destroyer over there," came the Skipper's hoarse voice at the periscope. And after what seemed an age: "He's waiting, all right. He's listening for us. Let's go back down."

  Slowly the Wolf descended. Maley's face was gaunt as he slumped at my side. His cheeks were beaded with perspiration.

  His eyes were red-rimmed. My beard was wet and sodden. It itched horribly. An inch of sweat swirled on the deck under my feet. I sat there, in a half stupor, when suddenly I felt myself tilting back on my stool. An empty can of Maley's pipe tobacco skidded off its shelf. Hell, we were taking a terrific up-angle... Something was wrong. I jumped up and out into the control room. Everyone there was frozen at his place, eyes glued to the depth gauge. The needle was climbing down ... We were going up!

  "Jesus, we're broaching!"

  I was numb. After the punishment we'd taken, this was the end of everything. We were surfacing, showing ourselves, and the Japs were up there, waiting ...

  Captain Warder slid down the control-room ladder. His feet hit the deck.

  "Use negative!" he roared.

  The crew leaped to positions. On nerve alone they stood and toiled with valves and controls and huge wheels, their sweat-glazed eyes on the depth gauge with its needle swinging lower, lower ...

  There was a scream of escaping air. Water rushed into the Wolf’s gigantic emergency tank.

  But we were still going up—up. I could hardly keep my feet. I grabbed a handle.

  "For Christ's sake," a high-pitched voice screamed, "the conning tower's out. They can see us!"

  "All ahead, emergency!" Captain Warder's voice was electrifying. "Bowplanes, sternplanes, hard dive!"

  The Wolf’s powerful motors burst into an ear-splitting whine. She drove forward like a catapult. We waited, breathlessly. We had done all we could. If she surfaced now, it was out of our hands.

  Slowly the needle began to climb. Slowly the Wolf checked her rise and began her descent. But for the moment we had to forget everything and save our lives again. The Wolf was gathering momentum now, plunging toward the bottom so swiftly she might reach depths so great the water pressure would cave in her sides. We had to stop her plunge downward as swiftly as we had stopped the plunge upward.

  "Blow negative!" Captain Warder shouted. Air shrieked into the emergency tank, forcing the water out again. "All back, emergency!" We were reversing our propellers, we were giving ourselves away again to the enemy, sending air bubbles to the surface ...

  If ever the Seawolf seemed destined to meet her end, this was the moment.

  Ba-room! The first depth charge came over. With it the Wolf seemed to split up inside. Before my eyes the bulkheads billowed inward, then returned to their original position. The huge radio and sound gear, 800 pounds of panel and tubes and machinery, swayed like a drunken man. Water swished and churned madly through the superstructure over my head. In the engine room men were swept from their feet. And thrown from side to side, hurled from one bulkhead to the other, with wood and metal crashing and splintering about us, my mind went round and round like a broken record playing over and over again, "Where is he, where is he, there he is, there he is, O God, there he is, there goes another, is that the last, is that the last ...?"

  Then, for a little while that seemed an age we waited at our stations, mouths dry, gasping, in air so foul, so thick, you could almost feel it in your hands. It was dusk in the world above us. Somehow the word came through. We had broached because somebody misinterpreted an order. Someone had blown too much water out of our bow tank. We went deeper now, and waited. I sat with my earphones, Maley at my side, and I trembled. Would I ever get out of this alive? We'd probably all be completely exhausted, every man helpless on his bunk now, if the broaching hadn't knocked us into alertness again. I looked up, and Lieutenant Deragon was in the doorway, looking at us. I must have looked pretty bad. He disappeared but was back in less than a minute.

  "Here, Eckberg," he said, with a stony face. "You look as though you'll be needing this." He placed a roll of toilet paper beside me and vanished again.

  That broke the tension. Maley and I grinned at each other.

  "Remember those freighting days," Paul whispered. "Remember how we griped when we could sit around and play cards and argue about the news? Remember how we griped we were just carrying freight around ..." He coughed, and grinned again.

  Captain Warder, the perspiration beaded in his eyebrows, deep lines in his face, looked in. "Eckberg, how much sleep have you had?"

  "I don't know, Captain," I said. "I'm not very sleepy." I was so keyed up now I could have remained awake all night, I think.

  The Skipper mopped his brow with a wilted handkerchief. It was Maley's watch coming up.

  "I think we're going to stay down a little while longer," he said. "But most of the excitement is over. You'd better turn in and get some sleep."

  "I don't think I can," I said. "I want to see us up and away so I can quit worrying."

  The Skipper looked at both of us, and the corners of his mouth turned up in a tired smile. "All right," he said. "You boys have done a real job today. We'll get out of here and head for home now as soon as conditions permit. See that you get some sleep, Eckberg." And he was gone.

  Somehow the time passed. Men with towels around their necks moved sluggishly with mops, swabbing the sweat from the decks, wringing the mops out into buckets. Buckets full of sweat stood in corners of the Wolf. Maley and I stewed in the radio shack. We alternated on the sound gear. We couldn't slow ourselves down.

  It was nearly midnight when Captain Warder appeared again. "We're going to surface very shortly," he said wearily. "Take a good sweep all around and let me know what you hear."

  I bent over my gear and searched. We knew it was black night up there, and that Captain Warder depended on sound to let him know what conditions were. I must have spent ten minutes investigating every suspicious noise in every degree of the circle.

  Finally I reported, "There's nothing up there as far as I can tell, sir."

  "That's fine." His voice came hollowly from the con
ning tower. "All right, boys. Bring her up to periscope depth."

  We rose slowly. Captain Warder upped his periscope. For fifteen minutes he scanned every inch of the horizon. I think it was the most concentrated scanning he had ever done. Then, his arms over the periscope crossbars, he turned. "Have the night lookouts come to the conning tower," he said.

  The word was passed for the night lookouts. They climbed up.

  "Boys," said the Captain, "I don't have to tell you to keep a sharp lookout tonight. I know you're tired, but this good air will revive you. Report anything at all suspicious." Then he ordered, "Surface!"

  Three blasts of the horn, and up we went. At 1: 10 a.m. the hatch opened. The Wolf had been under for many hours and most of her crew had been without sleep for forty-three consecutive hours. The air roared through. A sudden chill made me shiver as I sat at my desk. Lieutenant Deragon came by again. He looked in. This time he grinned. Nothing ever seemed to upset him.

  "Why don't you turn in, Eck?" he said. "We're O.K. now."

  "I know," I said. And I asked him where we were. We were on our way to get around the point of the island, he said. "Let me show you," he added, and he led the way to the charts in the control room. He pointed out the route we were taking. We were going to a port in Australia. It was to be our new home port. "Here we are now," he said. "We turn at this point and head south."

  "Where were we when we broached, sir?" I asked. He pointed that out. I said frankly, "I don't like it. We're not very far away from those destroyers."

  "No," he said, "but we will be." He glanced at the speed indicator. "No, it won't be long now," he went on. "Anyhow, there's no use your staying up any longer. Turn in and get some sleep. You need it."

  I said I wanted to stay up until we got around the corner, and so I did. First I sat down at radio and sent a long dispatch to the High Command, dictated by Captain Warder, recounting what had happened to us. Then I turned in.

  When I awoke it was afternoon. I had slept fourteen hours. The Wolf was riding cautiously at periscope depth, on the alert for planes. Most of the crew were in their bunks, too, recuperating. They were too tired to talk. That night, after surfacing, we received a message from the High Command:

  A wonderful cruise.

  Your accomplishments rank among the greatest of all time.

  Congratulations.

  Captain Warder had copies typed and posted conspicuously about the Wolf. The men clustered around the bulletin board in Kelly's Pool Room and read the Captain's personal PS:

  TO ALL HANDS:

  I want to take this opportunity to express my deepest thanks for your ability and your conduct,

  and above all, your devotion to duty. It is my firm hope that I will be with you all when we put

  out to sea on the next patrol.

  Respectfully,

  F. B. WARDER.

  We knew the Japs had air supremacy in the Christmas Island area, and we proceeded cautiously toward Australia. Finally, one afternoon we were near enough to the Australian coast to surface in daylight. Captain Warder reported from the bridge, "It's a nice day ... A little cloudy. Choppy sea up here. We'll let a few of the boys come up."

  I waited my turn. Frank Franz called down, "Got your dark glasses, Eck?"

  I shouted up, "No. What do I need them for? It's cloudy up there, isn't it?"

  "Sure," he said. "But that doesn't make any difference. You better wear those glasses."

  I was too anxious to go up. I had not been topside for many days and nights. I stopped at the entrance of the bridge. I shielded my eyes with my hands.

  "Permission to come on the bridge, sir?" I asked the officer of the deck.

  It was Lieutenant Syverson. "Come ahead, Eckberg," he said.

  I watched my feet as I moved up. Now, two steps to daylight. I lifted my hands, and lightning seared my brain. I clapped my hands over my tortured eyes. I saw red. My eyes burned as though I had been scalded. Hands over my eyes, now peering a bit, slowly I grew accustomed to daylight.

  It was a beautiful day. Never had the sea seemed so blue, the whitecaps so white. My eyes drank in the glory of the sky and the open air. The smell of salt was so strong in my nostrils that I had a fit of sneezing. The taste of salt was in my throat. I stared at the other men as they came up. Their bodies, naked from the waist up, were an obscene white, like the white underbelly of a fish. Their faces were gray, like the faces of men taken out of dungeons. We discovered that only a few minutes on the bridge under that cloudy sky sunburned us. We discovered that none of us carried an ounce of excess weight. It was as though we had been in a Turkish bath, reduced and exhausted and dehydrated, days on end. When we finally climbed back into the depths of the Wolf again, we realized for the first time how foul the odor was. The air above made us dizzy when we came down. Our faces were flushed. We began to perspire. I lay down in my bunk for a twenty-minute rest after ten minutes in the air.

  Our Australian port was only a few hours away, and it might mean our first mail since the war began. All the magazines we'd used to get at Manila might be waiting for us. But the mail! Word from home! We relaxed completely. We slept and ate—an orgy of fresh vegetables and milk and butter at the port was wonderful to look forward to—and went on deck every chance we had. We played our phonograph hour after hour. "The Five O'Clock Whistle" and "Melody in F" and swing and boogie-woogie sounded in Kelly's Pool Room day and night. We began breaking out our shore clothes. Men were pressing their dress blues all day long on the mess table. The ship's iron was hot twenty-four hours a day. For the first time in months we opened our razor cases. The blades were rusty and green with mold.

  Captain Warder relaxed, too. He resumed his setting-up exercises, a slender, bearded figure in shorts and sandals, taking deep breaths, flexing his muscles, counting to himself. In the afternoons he closeted himself in his stateroom and wrote out his reports—his war diary of the Wolf’s activities. Rudy Gervais accosted the Captain with an idea.

  "Captain," he said, "how about us decorating our conning tower with Jap flags? We sunk a lot of ships."

  The Skipper thought it over and said, "No, Rudy, I don't think that's a good idea. The Seawolf doesn't need flags up there. Everybody knows we sink ships. Let's not brag about it."

  That disappointed some of the men. They liked the idea of having the Wolf come in with a broom upside down sticking out of the tower, or with some silhouettes of Jap men-of-war we'd sent down. But we had to admit that in sub circles everyone knew the Wolf did all right.

  Finally the Wolf reached a prearranged rendezvous point, outside the port. Here a pilot came aboard and led us through the mine field guarding the entrance of the harbor. Then luck was with us. What we'd been waiting for—the bag of mail—was brought aboard. I grabbed a thick bundle of letters that bore my name and hurried into the sound room. Maley had his bundle and was reading them in his bunk.

  I was so nervous I couldn't get the first envelope opened. I seemed all thumbs. But from the first one tumbled four snapshots. They were of Spike and Marjorie. I couldn't tear my eyes from them. I studied them over and over. Here was Spike in his carriage—the same Spike I had left, but much bigger. Here he was laughing in the sun—and behind him, Marjorie, looking the picture of health, smiling and wholesome and waiting for me. I felt like bawling. I read all the letters. Twenty-five of them, two from my brothers, twenty-three from Marjorie. She gave me a detailed picture of Spike. I followed him through each letter. He was a husky kid ... he hated that afternoon nap ... he was eating like a horse ... now he was grabbing the sides of the crib and trying to stand up by himself ... That hour made up for many things.

  As we were about to glide into the harbor, another American submarine, Lieutenant Commander Lucius H. Chappell commanding, came into view. She had been out on a run and was returning to the dock. Captain Warder, who had never been in the port before, decided it would simplify matters to follow Captain Chappell in. He signaled him, "Go ahead, I'll follow you in."

&
nbsp; The reply came back: "Congratulations, Seawolf. Proud to be with the record-breaker. After you, sir."

  CHAPTER VII

  "For Heroism ..."

  FOR THE first time now we had a chance to get an overall look at the Wolf. She showed the punishment she had taken. Patches of her black paint had peeled off, and the bottom white showed through. Green moss, like a fantastic beard, flowed from her keel. The starboard side forward was peppered with shrapnel. Paint was chipped off the deck—testimony to the battering-ram action of depth charges. The mooring lines were swollen and rotting as they lay coiled in the sun.

  At midday we found ourselves in a large channel clogged with ships. Warehouses flanked the docks, some of them so expertly camouflaged that we couldn't believe our eyes. We stood on deck and watched, and yearned for cigarettes. Captain Warder flashed a message to shore: "Please send out one case of cigarettes and twenty gallons of fresh milk." And soon a launch was bobbing alongside and the cigarettes were delivered. "Have at 'em boys," invited the Captain, and we all lit up. Captain Warder, his patrol report under his arm, left the ship.

  Now fresh fruit came aboard, apples and oranges. We grabbed them and began munching, and we talked about liberty. Someone said, "Shall we talk about women now or should we lead up to it gradually?" We were exhilarated. After a little while the Skipper returned, looking pleased.

  "Mr. Deragon, get them all to quarters," he said. "I have something to tell them."

  We lined up in two ranks, still in our working dungarees. We must have been quite a sight: bearded and unkempt, our hair over our ears, some of us wiping grease off our hands with cotton waste.

  "I have just come from the squadron commander," said Captain Warder. "I want to tell all you men that the entire High Command is pleased, exceptionally well pleased, with our performance. Needless to say, I feel the same way.

  "I don't know how long we shall be here. It looks as though we'll have to undergo an extensive overhaul. That means a good rest for all of us. Now, when you go ashore, don't discuss any of our operations with anyone, even with your own shipmates. Leave the Seawolf tied down here. Don't drag her down into the city." He turned to Deragon. "Willie, anything you'd like to say?"

 
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