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U s s seawolf submarine.., p.16

U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific, page 16


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

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  "This isn't a destroyer. It's a damned anti-sub ship, something like a corvette. Secure battle stations. Come left to zero eight zero and let's head out of here."

  Listening to the Jap, I knew he was not wasting his energies wandering about. His course was straight, and the sudden thought that he might have a plane working with him—a plane that had already spotted us—flashed through my mind. I heard the growl of his screws. They were coming closer, fast and powerful. It was time to warn the Captain.

  "He's heading right for us, Captain," I sang out.

  The Skipper said, "Are you sure, Eckberg? I don't think he saw our periscope."

  I said, "Positive, Captain."

  Maley, at my side, nodded agreement.

  "I'll have a look around and see what he's doing," said the Skipper.

  The sound of the Jap's screws grew more intense. They bored into my brain. He was coming in for the kill. We were no longer the hunter but the hunted. I screamed, "Captain, he's dead astern ... He's coming over us ... He's ready ..."

  Captain Warder didn't give me a chance to finish. "Right full rudder! All ahead full!"

  That last command saved our lives. A second later a thunderclap split my eardrums, and a knifelike pain slashed through my head. The photographs bounced off my arm. Dust from a million hidden crevices clouded the sound shack. Maley flew off his chair and landed with a crash on the deck. I was swept off my stool and landed next to him. Bits of cork mixed with the dust. Our heavy sound gear rocked and swayed.

  I kept tearing at my earphones, trying to get them off before another thunderbolt should split my head. From far off I heard Captain Warder's shout, "Take her deep!"

  He didn't have to give that command. The depth charge was so close it smashed us down into the sea. It was the closest call the Wolf had ever had. Again and again the Jap dropped his charges. Each one rocked the Wolf. Every plate, every rivet must have been put in her with a prayer, for somehow they held. Water roared through the superstructure, sounding as if it were traveling a hundred miles an hour. Through my mind flashed, Now the shack is getting a real cleaning! I saw Maley fighting to get to his feet. With each charge he slammed against the bulkhead and was forced to his knees like a punch-drunk fighter. He was wearing a pair of faded shorts, and he looked like a man in a ring. Bits of cork stuck to the stubble on his face. He looked dazed. Then he glanced at me, shook his head, and laughed. He couldn't control himself. He was depth-charge happy.

  I began to laugh, too. We sat there in the midst of hell, laughing until the tears rolled down our cheeks and we were gasping for breath.

  "What are we laughing for?" Maley managed to get out, and, laughing, I tried to say, "We're so goddamn silly-looking, sitting here ..."

  Then silence. Painfully I got to my feet and back at the sound gear. I heard the retreating screws, fainter and fainter. Had we scared him away?

  Captain Warder plopped down into his chair outside the sound shack. "Where's he now?" he asked. "What's he up to now?"

  For the next hour there wasn't a sound in the boat except the Captain's voice asking for bearings. Finally I could report, "He's gone, sir."

  Captain Warder rose heavily from his chair. "Good!" he said, and walked slowly away. We never knew why he fled.

  "I'm going to hit the sack, Eck," Maley said. I buried my face in my hands and fought to keep awake.

  It was many days now since we had tasted fresh air and felt the sun. When I finally got to my own bunk, I was so keyed up I couldn't fall asleep. We were working near a bad mine field. Anti-sub patrol boats were all over the place. We'd never know when we might surface in the night and have a battery of Jap guns blow us out of the water. We were absolutely alone.

  We had attacked and attacked—and failed.

  I couldn't keep Marjorie out of my mind now. I lay in my bunk and looked up at the photographs. Something told me she needed me. When I did fall asleep, I slept badly.

  Call it telepathy or what you want. That night, nearly halfway around the world, Marjorie did need me. She was near death with pneumonia. The physicians had nearly given up hope. They told her mother so. That night Marjorie repeated over and over again: "I must live for Spike. I must live for Spike." And one time, in the early hours of the morning, she sat up in bed and called in a clear, loud voice: "Mel, Mel, come in here! What are you standing out there for? Mother, go over and tell him to come in here!" She stared into the darkness and then lay back and fell asleep.

  When we checked the date, it was the same day, almost to the hour, that the Jap ship was dropping the pattern of depth charges that nearly finished the Wolf. Marjorie always said she could have sworn I was standing outside her room that morning, staring in at her with a strange, helpless smile.

  The next day I felt better. A load seemed lifted from my shoulders. Word came through that we were ending this patrol soon. We'd be heading for Australia again. The crew became light-hearted. Zerk, Eddie Sousa, and Swede came into the control room in the afternoon and began shooting the breeze. Zerk had his pipe under full draft and said he would fight the first man that tried to put it out.

  "That damn thing kills a bug at ten feet, Zerk," Swede told him. "Someday it'll kill all of us."

  Zerk just looked at him.

  Someone brought up the last depth-charge attack.

  "It's that jinx, that's what it is," Swede said, pounding his big fist on his knee.

  Zerk nodded in a cloud of smoke. "That damn observer we're carrying," he said. "Without him, we'd have knocked off every one of those bastards."

  We tuned in on the radio to see what our old friend, Tokyo Rose, had to say. She was in her usual good form. She put an old Rudy Vallee record on this time, and we listened to that. Somewhere she found a Benny Goodman record, and we thought that was a nice touch.

  "American submarines have been detected and have been vigorously dealt with by the Imperial Fleet," she announced triumphantly. "Several of the large undersea raiders are known to have been sunk."

  We laughed. Out at Christmas Island we'd been a "nest of Allied submarines." We were doing all right, we decided.

  The auxiliary crew spent some time now going over the Wolf with a fine-tooth comb. Zerk summed up the damage. "Just a couple of pipes sprung a leak," he said. "She's not hurt bad. I understand that one of Gus's Silex coffeepots was smashed, though."

  We all groaned. One less coffeepot was a major calamity.

  Gus later broke the news to us that from now on our menu would consist of dehydrated potatoes, rice, and bread. There'd be canned meat, but no butter. What we had left had turned bad. Most of the meat we took on at Australian ports was mutton and Australian hare, both of which were too gamey for us. We were beef and pork eaters, and we didn't like Australian meat. I found that I was eating less than usual. My throat was beginning to hurt. For two or three days at a time, it hurt every time I swallowed. Doc Loaiza fixed up a gargle, but it didn't help much.

  The new diet wasn't anything to write home about, bad throat or no bad throat. The potatoes tasted like balls of cotton. The meat was Spam, which is fine if you like it. Most of us lost our appetites. If it hadn't been for Gus Wright's fresh bread, I don't know what we would have done. It was delicious, soft, with a nice even brown crust that melted in your mouth.

  Our washing machine was going full blast now with most of the boys getting ready for liberty, pushing each other aside trying to monopolize the mirror in the washroom. Sousa battled with the black gang in the engine room about messing Baby up with their oil-drenched clothes.

  "All they do," he complained to me, "is throw their stuff in the machine and don't give a damn how she looks when they leave her. I'll knock the bastards' heads off if I catch them."

  Swede was the only man who refused to use Baby. "The hell with her," he said. "I'll never wash my own clothes. It ain't American."

  It was a nightly joke to see Swede pull out his "locker stick"—a long piece of wood used to pick soiled clothes out of a locker—and look thro
ugh soiled shorts, shirts, and dungarees for a clean change. His locker was bursting, and yet he'd invariably dig out a new pair of shorts or a clean shirt.

  "What did I tell you?" he'd chuckle. "Always one more."

  Captain Warder read and relaxed in his room. His desk was piled high with magazines and best sellers. Behind the green monk's-cloth curtain his little stateroom was a model of neatness and efficiency, with a picture of his family—his wife and four youngsters—on the desk, his logs and papers neatly piled in place. He was finishing Van Loon's Geography, reading the Naval Institute Proceedings, a navy magazine popular among officers, and The Army and Navy Register. He also had a copy of Wuthering Heights in his room. At night he'd join his officers—Deragon, Mercer, Syverson, and Holden—in a game of hearts in the wardroom. We always knew when he slipped the queen to one of his men. His booming, ringing laugh—he laughed infrequently, but it was loud and contagious when he did—would fill the tiny wardroom and echo in the passageway.

  This routine, easy, without strain, went on for a week. We were sticking our nose into every cove, and inlet, and bay. The Captain was still ship-hungry. He wanted to come back with something. We'd just had too much bad luck so far.

  On the fifth day we were proceeding submerged when the conning-tower officer spotted a patch of smoke. He called the Skipper, and both agreed it would be a race between the Wolf and darkness if we wanted to plunk her. Captain Warder had to be very cautious now. We were near the lower Philippines and had to watch for possible aircraft attack. He upped periscope now and then. Once he said:

  "Damn it, there's two of them. They're both coal-burning tramps, merchantmen, high masts, high stacks, probably jumping from one island to another. They are not zigzagging. Both are old Marus ... Battle stations!"

  After a pause: "We'll fire from the forward tubes. It's getting dark here. Can you hear them yet?"

  I searched. "Not yet, Captain."

  The approach party set to work. I had the heartbeat of the Jap screws. They were coal-burners, all right. Maley joined me. We wanted one of these babies badly. I began to call out bearings.

  "Make ready the forward tubes," came the Skipper's voice. "Open the outer doors. Willie, I don't know if I can fire on these or not, it's so dark up here now. Has sound got them?"

  Lieutenant Deragon said, "Bearings coming along satisfactory, sir."

  "Okay, Willie," said the Skipper. "Take her from here."

  The Jap was close now. He was lumbering along at ten knots or so. It was only a matter of seconds before Lieutenant Deragon snapped:

  "Fire one!"

  Immediately we caught the high whine of the fish traveling hot and straight. I looked at my stopwatch to time them. I saw the seconds ticking away. Maley and I watched the fine thin hand slowly crawl around the face of the watch.

  Captain Warder climbed down from the conning tower. He passed the sound room. One glance at his face, and we knew that, bad as we felt, he must feel worse.

  "I'm going back to see Deragon, Paul," I said. I found him sitting in the control room, toying with a pencil in his shirt and looking miserable.

  "Were our bearings correct, Lieutenant?" I asked.

  "You men were correct, Eck," he said wearily. "We checked your bearings. I don't know what could have gone wrong."

  I felt a little better. At least sound hadn't been at fault.

  That night the crew talked about the jinx. They had joked about it before, but now they didn't know what to believe. Before I hit the sack I turned on the radio and heard that the Swordfish had taken a large toll of tankers and transports.

  Three days out of port, I went topside. It was the first time for many days and nights. I climbed out on deck. The glare was blinding. It was like staring into a brilliant searchlight. I should have known better from my last experience, but I wanted to be up there. I buried my face in my hands. Pain stabbed at my eyeballs. I held onto the rail. I gulped the fresh air. For the first time I knew how exhausted I was.

  Late that day I went up again. This time the glare wasn't so bad. My eyes were becoming used to it. When the other men came up, I realized that the crew of the Wolf looked like men in a nightmare. These long patrols didn't do us any good. Our faces were gray. Our lips were so dry that a few days later a plague of fever sores broke out among us. Our faces peeled. As before, ordinary daylight sunburned us.

  Captain Warder, who had temporarily halted his setting-up exercises, was up on deck now, starting them all over again. I took a look at the bridge. The Wolf was as bedraggled as her crew. A blanket of slimy moss covered the deck. The chains were rusted and looked as though they hadn't been used in years. The hawsers were soggy. They lay curled and decomposing under the deck. Where paint had chipped off, leaving the dull steel bare, the Wolf looked like a mangy dog. There were signs of where the garbage gang had tossed their nightly swill overboard. There were several places where the acid contents of the stuff had etched into the paint.

  At one spot the aft portside was stove in—testimony to our nearly fatal depth charge. The memory of that moment was still vivid in my mind. Again I heard the awful thunderclap that seemed to tear my head apart; again I choked and gagged with the dust and cork.

  As port grew closer, we went over the Wolf with cloth and polish. We wanted to bring her in spick and span. Magically she began to gleam again, though she still bore her scars. It would take more than polish to hide that wound in her side.

  At the entrance to the mine field outside the Australian port, we were met by the U.S.S. Isabel. She brought us in alongside a tanker, and we fueled up. Mail came aboard, and for the next few minutes there wasn't a sound throughout the boat.

  Marjorie's letters, answering those I'd written the last time I was here, awaited me. Everything was all right. She and Spike were O.K. She'd had pneumonia, she said, but she was all over it now. Not until later, much later, did I learn of the strange coincidence—the strange awareness we both had of each other that night she nearly died.

  The following morning we were all called together, and the Skipper made a little speech.

  "I don't want any of you to feel that you have neglected your jobs or that you have let me down in any way on this patrol," he said. "We made a tough cruise, and we had our share of tough luck. But don't let that get you down. Remember, you're the crew of the Seawolf. You can hold up your heads with anyone. I hope to be with you when we set out to sea again."

  We looked at each other. Was Captain Warder leaving us?

  That, it appears, was his first inkling that he would soon be given another command—perhaps a more important command—in the future.

  He continued: "And I want to say, 'Well done and congratulations.' Now go ashore and have a good time. That's what I'm going to do."

  He turned to Lieutenant Deragon. "Anything else, Willie?"

  Lieutenant Deragon cautioned us about talking ashore. And that was all.

  We worried a little about what Captain Warder's future plans were. Swede said it for all of us. "This is the way I feel about it. I hate like hell shipping out if we lose Freddy." We had come to depend on him so much we couldn't bear the thought of shipping out to sea under a new skipper.

  The first night in port I met an old friend, Chief Torpedoman Francis Morales. He was having a beer with Sousa in Sousa's room. The last time I'd seen Morales he was a husky man, pushing a big paunch in front of him. Now he looked almost haggard. He must have lost forty pounds. His hands shook when he lit a cigarette. He had been on the Rock, he said, almost to the end.

  The Japs, he said, were devilishly clever. They worked on you every which way. "They wear you down physically," he said, "and then they start on your minds. Before the end, those sons-of-bitches set up big loud-speakers on the Mariveles side of the shore, and they'd play American records at us—one song over and over again."

  "What records?" I said.

  "They played 'I'm Waiting for Ships That Never Come In,'" he said. "Then they'd play a weepy Christmas song sun
g by Bing Crosby. It would break your heart. Over and over again, blaring out over the water, like that. I tell you, it was horrible there at night. The boys were half-starved, they were sick and shaking with malaria, the wounded were crowding the Rock's tunnels, and those bastards were playing Christmas songs."

  Months later I learned Morales' true story. He was one of the most daring men on the Rock. He'd learn the location of Jap military stores, beg half a dozen sticks of dynamite, wrap them in waterproof paper, and get a PT boat to take him out to sea. Then, the dynamite tied to him, he would swim through the shark-infested waters to the beach, sneak through the Jap guards, plant the dynamite, set the fuse, and sneak back to the boat. He did this many times. After that he volunteered to sneak through the jungle to gather information on Jap positions. He never got caught. He was a good and a brave man.

  That first night, when I got back, I had troubles of my own. My throat began to pain terribly. The next day it was worse. The pain was intense when I swallowed. I went to the doctor on the tender. He looked me over.

  "You've got bad tonsils, chief," he said. "Very bad. It's the hospital for you."

  At the hospital I was told they'd have to take them out.


  Anchored in Sick Bay

  I WAS told I'd be operated on in an Australian hospital. It was crowded with patients at the time and, since I was only a minor case, I waited. The Wolf remained in port several weeks and sailed on another mission more than a week before I went on the operating table. When I knew she was gone, I felt lower than I'd been in weeks. I don't think I realized until then how much that steel hulk and the officers and men inside her meant to me. I saw pictures in my mind of the Wolf cruising along on the surface. I could hear the order, "Clear the bridge!" I saw the Skipper maneuvering for the kill. I knew then that nothing the Japs could do, save sending us to the bottom, could be as bad as being on the beach while my own ship was out to sea.

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