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U s s seawolf submarine.., p.18

U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific, page 18


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

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  Well, that was clear enough.

  We spent three or four days going up the Australian west coast. We made training dives, fired a few practice rounds of service ammunition, checked our gear, and readied the ship for action. Finally we reached our advance base and fueled to capacity. Then we headed north, entered our old picnic grounds, and headed right up for our first stopping point.

  Our first days were uneventful, but the crew was on constant alert. These were some of the most dangerous waters in the Pacific. The sea bottom was treacherous, a crazy quilt of boulders, shoals, and menacing coral reefs. Some of it had never been charted. The fear of striking a reef was on my mind day and night. Maley and I stood an intense sound watch, each of us doing with less than six hours' sleep out of the twenty-four.

  On the third day, as we were patrolling, Lieutenant Syverson, conning officer at the time, picked up a target. The call went down for Captain Warder, and the Skipper took over.

  The intercom chattered: "She has a two-stick mast ... high bridge ... single-stacker... Range, about 8,000. Looks like a converted passenger liner... She's certainly traveling ... Probably headed for Balikpapan."

  This made her a doubly valuable target. We knew from information given us that the Dutch had virtually destroyed Balikpapan, on the southwest coast of Borneo, fabulous for the rich-ness and quantity of its oil. But we knew, too, that the Japs were trying desperately to put the wells back into condition. It was up to us to stop this Jap from getting to Borneo.

  I picked up the target. Her course was normal. The order came to fire. We fired.

  Seconds ticked by ... a minute now. No explosion yet.

  "I can see both of them," said Captain Warder's voice. "They're missing ahead. Now she's seen them ... Here she is, boys ... coming right for us ... Looks scared as hell, too ... Take 'er down ... Rig for depth charge."

  While I kept singing bearings out to him, I was wondering what in the hell had happened. Just what was wrong? We waited, silent. But the ship never dropped a charge.

  "She's running away," I called out.

  The Skipper upped the periscope. "Damn!" he said. "There the bastard goes, heading right back to the barn. He knows damn well I can't follow him. Secure battle stations. Secure depth-charge stations."

  Now things were quiet. Had we picked up a new jinx? There was nothing to do but lump it. I wandered into Kelly's Pool Hall and found Eddie Sousa. He felt like cribbage. We sat down and started to play and we hadn't been playing more than ten minutes when we heard the distant, muffled thump of a depth charge. I started to get up, but Sousa said, "Oh, hell. They're a long way off. Let's finish the game."

  We finished it and started a second. When a second charge went off Sousa fanned out his cards and said, "Probably sent out a plane to heckle us."

  I said: "Could be, Eddie, but I better get back up with Paul."

  Sousa began shouting: "Damn you, Eckberg, you know I'm ready to skunk you." He looked so hurt and indignant I couldn't help laughing at him.

  He chased me out of the room, yelling: "Come on back here, you yellow dog, and finish this game and get skunked!"

  Paul, who'd heard some of it, grinned when I came in. "Someday Sousa will handcuff you to a chair and make you finish that game," he said.

  After hearing the charges hit the water, I decided Sousa was right. An airplane had spotted us, dropped a few aerial bombs, and disappeared.

  Sousa came in the sound shack and began to complain bitterly to Maley how I walked out on his winning game. Every time he would begin, I would raise my hand and say: "Shhhhhhh, I hear something." This drove Eddie into a frenzy. He wrung his hands and called me every name under the sun. For days afterward he alternately threatened and cajoled me to finish that game. We still have to finish it.

  Sometime during the night we heard over the radio the Nazis had been stopped cold in Russia, and that the Marines were pushing the Japs back on Guadalcanal. Over the radio came word that several of our submarines were working out there in the Solomon Islands invasion.

  Maley commented on this. "I'm glad we're not Marines," he said. "Think of crawling on your belly in the jungle waiting for a Jap to take a shot at you. What a life!"

  As we were about to surface that night, Captain Warder spotted a large sampan. He told Lieutenant Deragon: "I think I'll look this fellow over. He may be a Nip with a radio transmitter and receiver. If he is, we'll shoot him up."

  We surfaced silently and crept up on him. We had not been on the surface over five minutes before Gunner Bennett was down in the control room opening the gun locker and breaking out small arms and some machine guns. We were not going in close without being set for a surprise. Everybody wanted to get a chance to shoot some Japs, but the men who were to do that shooting, if it came to that, were already at their stations.

  The Captain maneuvered carefully. No talking was permitted on the bridge. We used our motors. There wasn't a sound of any kind. The Captain kept his glasses on the sampan constantly. We were taking no chances, and the ship was in a crash-dive condition.

  I don't believe the sampan knew we were about until we were less than thirty yards from her. The Captain looked the sampan over, bow to stern and back, looking for telltale antennae, any signs of gun mounts—there was nothing. After a few minutes, he said: "It's harmless. The only ones on board are a man, his wife, and two small children."

  Gunner Bennett collected the guns. We were all disappointed. We wanted a crack at the Japs at close hand.

  We charged batteries and dove shortly before dawn and headed for another enemy port. Twelve hours later we reached our patrol point outside the harbor. In seizing this port, the Japs won one of the most valuable prizes of the war.

  Before the Dutch moved on, they put the torch to the entire city. Refineries, cracking plants, millions of dollars' worth of re-search laboratories went up in acrid smoke. Most of the foreign population had fled to Java, or vanished into the jungle. Somewhere in that jungle the Allies had a secret airport of which they made excellent use against Jap shipping in the early part of the war.

  Even the workers battled the Japanese invaders. We learned later that employees dumped thousands of barrels of oil into the river to stop the Japs, setting fire to it, but a sudden cloudburst put out the flames.

  The Japs were using the harbor for all it was worth, running oil up to the homeland in anything that would float. Three hundred miles up the coast they had seized Tarakan, too, but only after the Dutch had destroyed the oil refineries, which used to produce nearly one million tons a year.

  Our first day on patrol was quiet. We cruised in deep water.

  But at dawn of the second day the Skipper decided to go inside the harbor. It was a ticklish business, for the Japs had mined it, and we knew the water wasn't too deep. We couldn't afford to make a mistake.

  We went in. We went deeper and deeper. The water grew dangerously shallow. The Skipper had his eye glued to the periscope, scanning the beach installations.

  "Battle stations!" he ordered suddenly. "Make ready the forward tubes."

  The entire boat churned into action. The control party scrambled up the ladder.

  "It's a sub chaser." Captain Warder's words were measured.

  "I don't know if he saw us. I won't attack unless he does. He's small and making high speed."

  This was plenty bad. We were in shallow water. We had nowhere to hide. If he attacked, he could blast us to bits. If he knew we were there, he would attack. It was as simple as that. I listened to the screws, and the thumping of my heart was so loud and strong it seemed to shake me from head to toe. The Japs' screws were faint, then louder, then still louder. Maley pressed his phones against his ears. There wasn't a whisper in the boat. I scarcely recognized my own voice as I gave the bearings: "Three two zero ... three two two ... three two four."

  All sorts of things flew through my mind. I was convinced the Jap would pass close to us, but the pattern of his bearings indicated that he would pass well forward on ou
r bow unless he changed his course radically. But in the back of my mind I knew a plane might have been working with the subchaser, must have spotted us, and put the subchaser on our tail. I found my fist beating the desk in time with the beating screws. Louder ... louder ... up the bow—up the bow— and past us, a good 600 yards away, at high speed.

  Captain Warder sat back on his stool and looked about. "That was a close one," he said with a grim smile. "I guess he's going out to meet someone."

  We began to dive again. We waited and listened, and then went into deeper water. We surfaced at dusk and dove as usual at dawn, to re-enter the harbor. Shallow water or not, mines or no mines, we still had work to do. I heard surf breaking on the beach, the water crashing and clashing over shoals and reefs. But the Skipper brought the Wolf into that harbor as daintily as a ballet dancer.

  All through the morning and into the afternoon we inched our way forward, gathering information. Lieutenant Holden was at the periscope and began to describe what he saw.

  "I see a lot of houses over there," he said. "Now I see trees ... there's a big clump. Now what's this? Looks like a radio antenna." Pause. "Battle stations! ... Call the Captain! ... Left rudder, Rudy! All ahead full!"

  The Wolf leaped forward. We were in shallow water. This was doubly dangerous. Something was up. Holden's voice:

  "I was busy scanning, Captain, and I took a look behind us; and there, almost on our port beam, is a big tanker and an escort. I think we can get them."

  The Skipper took over the periscope. He whistled.

  "She certainly is a big one ... Too bad she didn't come in before ... That's our friend of yesterday coming in with her. O.K.," he said. "Down periscope. We'll try and get in." We plowed at full speed into even shallower water. Then we cut our speed, and Captain Warder upped his periscope. "Damn it, she's drawing away from us," he said. "Nothing we can do. Secure battle stations. We'll trail her in and see if we can get a shot."

  We followed that ship right into the mouth of a fresh-water river. The Captain tried every trick he knew stalking her, but she was too far ahead of us.

  Captain Warder would have preferred to wait outside the harbor and catch the tanker, but our schedule called for a change. Reluctantly we gave up the hunt and continued up the coast.

  On the way the conning officer picked up a smudge of black smoke. It looked like a fat freighter. We went through several maneuvers, were annoyed by a series of brief rain squalls, and finally, about five hours later, we caught up with our target. It turned out to be a seagoing tug!

  We were several days without sighting anything of importance. At times the Skipper, who was getting ship hungry, took the Wolf so close to shore we would have been able to swim in. The night of the fourth day, Lieutenant Deragon, dropping in to chat, told me where we were heading.

  "And from there?" I asked. He smiled noncommittally. I knew we would learn soon enough. Next day the word had gotten around to the crew, and all kinds of rumors flew about. First we were going to Brisbane, then Pearl Harbor, then Dutch Harbor, and finally Midway. Something told me we were on our way home. It was now many months since we had left Cavite. We had already been out a long time on this patrol.

  Home seemed so far away that night. How would my son greet me? I put my hands behind my head and looked up at their photographs—Marjorie and Spike. Well, they'd waited a long, long time. For months now, in our letters, we had been planning what our first night would be like. We'd settled on dinner in some quiet little restaurant, candles on the table, a full-course meal, topped off by a bottle of expensive wine that had to rest in a bucket of ice. We wouldn't discuss the war. Marjorie wouldn't talk to me about the Wolf. No questions about the ships we sunk, or the escapes we had. We would talk about ourselves and about Spike, and about the home we intended to build after the war.

  That house had been started one quiet night in the sound shack when I was writing a letter to Marjorie. I talked about a house—a dream house. I even included a few sketches. In the next batch of mail, Marjorie included a number of suggestions. She had ideas about the location of the kitchen. Spike's room should be here. We'd have a sunroom there. Throughout the long months at sea in every letter I wrote I carried the plans a bit further. Finally between us, we had it finished, just as we wanted it. The last time I saw Spike he was twenty-six days old. I wondered about my brother Roy. He owns a bar in 'Frisco. I promised myself a terrific binge there. Angela, his wife, would top off the evening with her specialty—a spaghetti dinner with all the trimmings. Toward dawn I fell asleep, and it seemed only a few minutes before Lamby was shaking me, telling me it was time for my watch.

  We arrived at the new patrol area in midafternoon, and things began to pop at once. It began when Lieutenant Mercer, at the periscope, summoned the Captain. He had spotted a ship—a two-mast affair.

  "You're right," observed Captain Warder. "Here are the masts, now ... Battle stations!"

  Our approach was perfect. We fired a few moments later, and the whine of the fish heading straight for the Jap was music in my ears. This time there was no miss. I began to report it.

  "They're going ..." I wasn't able to complete the sentence. A terrific explosion rocked the Wolf. It was the concussion from our torpedo; we must have struck a munitions carrier. It was as terrific and deafening as a depth charge. I tore off the earphones and held my splitting head. My ears were ringing. Maley was shouting, but I couldn't make out his words. He pointed to the intercom system. I leaned over and pressed my ear against it and heard the Captain giving a blow-by-blow description of the sinking ship. His voice sounded as if he were at the end of a bad telephone connection.

  "Christ, boys," he was yelling. "We knocked the lifeboats right off her ... There go the smokestacks ... Some damn fool is trying to blow the whistle, steam is coming out of there. There go the Nips jumping over like rats. There's a second explosion. She's going down already. She's breaking apart." He paused and called to Lieutenant Mercer: "Jim, hurry up if you want a picture of this. Only the stern is showing now."

  Ensign Mercer clipped his camera to the eyepiece. "Got her, sir," he said.

  A moment later Captain Warder, back at the periscope, announced, "There she goes ... Good-by!"

  My ears still rang from the first blast, but I replaced my phones and listened. A few minutes later I heard the underseas roar that meant her boilers had exploded.

  Paul took off his headset. He leaned over and yelled in my ear.

  "That's one Jap bastard that won't do any damage, Eck!"

  The Captain, still scanning the surface, kept up a running description. I put my ear against the intercom again.

  "Congratulations, forward room and sound," he was saying. "Good work, everybody. Wait a minute: There are lifeboats up there. Men are swarming over the sides. Damn it, this sinking can be seen from the beach very easily. I can't take any chances. We'll have to take prisoners rather than let them hit the beach and spread the alarm."

  His voice dropped. "I don't understand that ... Wait a minute, though ... Yes, I do! We blew the oars right out of the boat. I've been wondering why they weren't rowing. There must have been plenty of men on that ship ... I'm figuring on going into that Gulf, and I don't want those men to spread the alarm. We'll track them until dark. If conditions permit, we'll take prisoners." He kept his eye to the periscope. Men were swimming aimlessly about; others were clinging to spars and debris. Every piece of wreckage had a figure clinging to it. "Those lifeboats are crowded to the rims now," he went on. "There's a lot of people swimming around up there yet. All right Jim, mark this lifeboat, zero ... zero ... five ... Look out for signs of activity. Let me know at once if anything shows up."

  He turned the periscope over to Ensign Mercer. As he came by the sound shack, he looked in. "Good work, boys," he said. "Take it easy for a little while. We may be busy later."

  Lieutenant Deragon went over our records to see if we could identify the ship we'd sunk.

  A few minutes later Ensign Mercer,
after checking tides and currents, told the Captain the Japs were being floated out toward the Celebes. They were on their way to the open sea, without oars or provisions. According to the charts, the nearest land was 600 miles to the south.

  Captain Warder was silent for a moment. "Well," he said at last, "we won't have any prisoners tonight." He paused again. "They'll never make it. Those poor bastards swimming around ... Well, there's nothing we can do about them."

  We waited until darkness and then surfaced. Jap lifeboats were still bobbing up and down. They must have been a terrified group when they saw the long black shape of the Seawolf bear down on them. The first two Japanese the Captain saw were youngsters. They looked about sixteen, he said. They were stark naked, clinging to two pieces of wreckage. Their clothes had been blown off by the blast. The Captain leaned over the rail cable. "Savvy English?" he shouted.

  One boy turned, screamed what sounded like a panic-stricken warning, then let go of his piece of wreckage and swam off. The Captain shouted after him, but he churned the water like a long-distance swimmer and finally vanished in the darkness. Captain Warder asked the remaining boy if he could "Savvy English." The other shook his head.

  "Sousa," the Captain called, "go down to the rail and see if you can make out a name on that wreckage."

  Eddie leaned far over and examined several pieces floating about, but he could find no identification.

  Sousa threw a line out to the boy, but the Jap chattered and would have nothing to do with it. Sousa shouted in exasperation, "Grab hold the line, grab hold!" but the Jap pushed it away each time it dropped nearby. Captain Warder watched this scene silently.

  "All right, Sousa, you can't do anything with him," he said finally. "Pass the word below to bring up a life jacket and a bottle of whisky." They were handed up and tossed to the Jap. He caught them and held them. Captain Warder commented dryly:

  "If he puts on that jacket and drinks the whisky, he'll never know what hit him."

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