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U s s seawolf submarine.., p.3

U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific, page 3


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

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  "Open the hatch!"

  The fresh air rushed in.

  Someone said, "Christ, I was wondering if I was ever going to smell that filthy stuff again!"

  We breathed deeply. We had been down far, and now we were up; and the Wolf was still as good as new.

  The Wolf’s shakedown cruise—to shake down or shake out the bugs in her system—began April 12, 1940. From Portsmouth to Galveston, to Tampa, to Corpus Christi, to Cristobal, Canal Zone, to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, to Annapolis, and back to Portsmouth again—a two-months trip to test her under every possible condition.

  At the same time the crew was put to the test. We grew to know each other better, to learn each other's habits of work.

  Teamwork is the essence of a submarine, and only by endless and incessant practice through one maneuver to another can a crew acquire perfection, so that they can tumble out of their bunks and click into split-second precision almost the instant an alarm sounds. Each of us became letter-perfect in our stations. Before, in our training periods, we had learned to know the Wolf—every cubbyhole, every cable. Now we learned to mesh together.

  Our stations, our duties, were as clear-cut as the assignments given a crack football team in a championship game. Life was the title we were fighting for, and death always lurked as the penalty for a man who wasn't where he should be, for a man offside. We couldn't afford to make mistakes, and officers and men moved, transferred, replaced each other, with clockwork regularity.

  Lieutenant Holden, engineering officer, dove the boat and was in charge of all machinery. Ensign Mercer, communications officer, decoded messages, handled confidential publications, was ordered to guard with his life the Wolf’s secret U.S. Navy codebook.

  Sousa, chief petty officer, was liaison man between officers and enlisted men. We learned that Ensign Casler was a poor cribbage player, but an expert navigation officer; that Dishman rarely failed in an emergency; that Sully had a knack for baking cakes; that Loaiza was always complaining that he was afraid and always proving the opposite. We grew to know Captain Warder, to learn how precise and accurate a technician he was, and how human.

  One afternoon some of us were on the Cigarette Deck, the afterpart of the bridge, listening to a portable radio. We were sitting on wooden benches and lounging about, absorbing the sun.

  Captain Warder climbed up from below. He was wearing shorts and undershirt and sandals.

  "Hello, boys," he said affably. And without further ado he began setting up exercises to the music. He stood there in the sun, unconcerned, arms up, arms down, bend, rise, one, two, three; one, two, three, in time to the music, giving himself the commands a little more breathlessly each time, until he was out of breath. We couldn't help chuckling.

  "Go ahead and laugh," he said. "You'll never see me with a bay window."

  After that, he went up on deck each afternoon when he could, and exercised. He knew how cruelly confinement can work on your body, making your legs weak, your feet swollen, your back aching, until a mile's walk on land becomes torture.

  Back in Portsmouth the Wolf received her post-shakedown overhauling. Errors in construction, defects in gears, leakages, were corrected. She was trimmed, tightened, tuned. In September we left for Newport, Rhode Island. There, for six weeks, day after day, we had extensive torpedo practice. The torpedo crews sent practice fish crashing into fictional destroyers. Nothing was overlooked. Then to New London, Connecticut, where we spent hours practicing escapes with Momsen lungs. The Wolf had proved herself; we had to prove ourselves. In peacetime, submarine crews are like boxers between bouts. They are forever in training. The fight may never come, but they train as if it were to come any moment. There are competitions and contests to keep them on their toes. Each submarine competes for records in engineering, gunnery, torpedo marksmanship, communications—every phase of submarine activity.

  Marjorie had been expecting our first baby; and in April, shortly after I left with the Wolf on her shakedown cruise, Marjorie went to San Diego to rent a house, furnish it as our permanent home, and await the baby's arrival. In New London I waited expectantly for word from San Diego. It came in October. I had no inkling of what it was when I took it, myself, in the radio shack. In Morse code a message came in. It was the Submarine Base, New London, calling the Seawolf. I answered, "Go ahead."

  Again the formal letters. And then, as I took down the words on my typewriter, the message spelled itself out:

  "Launching-took-place-this-morning-early. It's-a-stem-winder. Fully-equipped.

  Marge-had-an-easy-time. She-misses-you-dreadfully. Congrats. Dutch."

  I ripped the sheet out of my typewriter and bellowed, "It's a boy! It's a boy!"

  Heads popped. Somebody started hammering on a bulkhead.

  "Where are the cigars?" a voice growled.

  The hand of war reached out to touch us first on Friday, November 15, 1940. We were in San Diego, Marjorie, Spike—our five-weeks-old youngster, christened David—and the Seawolf.

  The Wolf had come in on Wednesday from New London. We had all been granted a five-day leave, and for the first time in months Marjorie and I were enjoying a normal family life, now made more wonderful by Spike's presence. About 10 a.m. on Friday the doorbell rang. It was Sully. He had his hat in his hand, and he looked uncomfortable.

  "Eck," he said, "you got to get back to the boat."

  "What!" I demanded. "We just got here!"

  "I know," he said. "But those are the orders. I've got instructions to round up everybody."

  I led the way into the living room. Marjorie was bathing Spike in the kitchen, and I could hear them cooing and laughing together. I left Sully sitting on the edge of the sofa, and I went into the kitchen, trying to think what to say. When I saw Marjorie and Spike together, so happy, I didn't have the heart to tell her.

  I said, "It's Sully. It's pay day, and I told them to let it ride; but I guess they want me back to pay me."

  She looked up, and I think she knew I wasn't telling the truth.

  She knew Sully wouldn't have come all the way out to see me for that.

  "All right," she said. "Get back as soon as you can."

  Sully came into the kitchen, and, fast-thinking Irishman that he was, he knew what to do and say. He strode over to the bathenet and put his arm around Marjorie, and then tickled Spike under the chin.

  "What are you trying to do?" he demanded, turning to me.

  "You're always telling me he has red hair. Why, it's almost white."

  I left them talking together and went upstairs to put on my blues. I didn't take my seabag along, so that I'd have reason to return and say good-by.

  A few minutes after Sully and I reached the Wolf we were called to quarters. Lieutenant Deragon stepped up. He was a family man himself, with one child, and he knew what effect the news he was about to tell would have on us. He cleared his throat and said, "We're leaving tomorrow. Destination unknown. I can't tell you the hour. Now go ashore, conclude your business, and be aboard at 6:30 a.m."

  Marjorie and I did little that last night but sit around and ogle Spike. We couldn't get our fill of him. We put him on the carpet, and he lay on his back gurgling. We watched him until he fell asleep out of sheer weariness. Then we put him to bed and began to pack. It was just as well that we kept him up so late. The next time I saw my son he was two and a half years old.

  While we packed I began to feel homesick—the first time in my life that I was homesick before going off. The last thing I placed in my bag was Spike's photograph. That would have a place of honor next to Marjorie's on my radio gear.

  We were up at 5 a.m. the next morning. It was raining. Marjorie insisted upon walking down to the streetcar stop with me.

  Then I had a feeling, a powerful hunch that it would be a long, long time before I'd see her again. I had a sinking feeling that I would never see her again. I fought to shake it out of my mind.

  "Keep your chin up," I said. "I'll write every chance I get. Watch out for Spike. Don
't let him know you're worried."

  She managed a smile. "I'm not worried," she said, lying to my face. "I'm not worried a bit. You can take care of yourself."

  I told her, "Why, you'll probably be riding a transport out to Pearl in a few weeks, and I'll see you there before you know it."

  For some reason, we assumed we were going to Pearl Harbor.

  And, waiting there in the rain, we both lied to each other. We talked about what I would do as soon as I got to Pearl. I'd look for a nice house. Five rooms would do. We talked about how much rent we could afford to pay—we settled on $35 a month, furnished.

  The streetcar came. I said, "Well, I'll be seeing you, honey."

  Her last words were, "I've got my fingers crossed, darling."

  Then she began to cry. "Now, now," I said, awkwardly, and got into the car. I had a small handbag. The streetcar was empty except for one old man, probably a night watchman on his dreary way home, and I sat in the rumbling car, saying to myself, "I wonder when I'll be riding a San Diego streetcar again. I think I'm headed for places I've never seen before."

  We shoved off that Saturday morning, November 16. Five days later we arrived at Pearl Harbor. There was nothing there then, a year before the Japanese attack, to indicate that this bustling U.S. naval base, more than 2,000 miles from San Francisco, would be marked for the first blow in the greatest war in history.

  We were there only briefly, and we picked up two new members of the crew. I was in the control room when a thin, hollow-cheeked, dark-faced fellow, with dark eyes and a sardonic grin on his lips, climbed down. He was wearing dungarees and smoking one of the largest and smelliest corncob pipes I'd ever seen or suffered with.

  "You on here?" I asked.

  He nodded. "Just came aboard," he said. He looked around critically. "Damn nice boat," he said.

  "You know, we're only here for a little while," I said. "We're due out fast."

  He grinned a crooked grin I was to know and like after a while.

  "I think I know where we're going," he said, "and that's where I want to go. I'm too close to the States now. My name's Zirkle."

  I introduced myself. "Well, where are we headed?"

  "West, buddy, west—Asiatic stations," he said mysteriously, and ducked aft to the mess room. That was my first introduction to the official pessimist of the Wolf and the loneliest man aboard. Zirk never talked about it, but the story was that he had a Chinese wife and children trapped somewhere in occupied China.

  Later in the day, as I was bent over my radio reports, a dapper young fellow stuck his head in. "Eckberg here?" he asked.

  "That's me," I said.

  He stuck out his hand. "I'm your new radioman," he said. "My name's Paul Maley."

  He was replacing a man who had been advanced in rank and transferred to another ship. He was small and dark, with a determined chin, a wide mouth, a long thin nose, and, for a man, the prettiest eyes I'd ever seen.

  "O.K.," I said. "Do you know anything about this gear?"

  He looked it over. "I'm not so hot," he admitted. He was about twenty-three, and I liked him at once. "But I can learn," he added.

  "It certainly is a clean and snug-looking shack you have here."

  I thought it was, too. It had been painted and decorated since the first time I'd walked through the Wolf. The antenna systems, the direction-finder apparatus, the entire interior, ceiling and bulkheads, were painted white. But there was color, too. Beside my chair we had a small stool, part wastepaper basket, about a foot high, with a bright green leather cushion. I had a black typewriter resting in the well of my glass-covered desk. To set off the desk, I'd put some bright blue blotting paper under the glass.

  Green linoleum had been laid on the deck. All in all, with Marjorie's and Spike's photographs high on the panel, and the radio and technical books on the bookshelf, it was a cozy little room.

  "This is a good ship," I said. "She's not thoroughly clean yet, but that's not the crew's fault. We're all working to make her pretty and pretty she'll be. She's going to be a real showboat. Come on, I'll show you where your bunk is." I took him into the forward torpedo room and showed him his bunk facing mine.

  "O.K., Eck," he said, and that was the way it has always been between us—calm, easy, friendly, like two brothers. Maley and I worked side by side. During attacks it would be Paul's duty to keep a lookout for enemy ships while I concentrated on the target.

  The crew of the Wolf had a special job in Pearl Harbor. We washed our clothes when we found the time and pressed our dress uniforms—whites and blues—on the mess hall tables with a small electric iron which we'd all chipped in to buy. The problem of what to do with soiled clothes, with long trips ahead of us, had to be solved. Sully had an inspiration.

  "What we need is a washing machine, an electric one like I've got home."

  We appointed a committee which called on the skipper. He said, "That's a damn fine idea. Go ahead."

  We had a bank aboard the Wolf, called the Seawolf’s Slush Fund. If you were short of money and were going on liberty, you borrowed from the bank against your next pay day. You repaid with interest. Ten dollars cost you eleven dollars. Miss one payment, and you were taxed an additional dollar. This, with accumulated interest, was more than enough to pay for the washing machine.

  Sully, as the moving spirit, and Mr. Deragon, representing the officers, went out to buy it. They walked into the biggest department store and, once inside, got into an argument as to which was married longer. The oldest husband in point of service should have the privilege of selecting the machine. As usual, Sully, who'd married at twenty-two, won the argument. He picked the machine—a gleaming white enameled beauty, big and round and perfect. It was delivered by ship's boat. Getting it down the hatch was a work of art. The entire ship's crew acted as sidewalk superintendents. When we finally squeezed it in, we didn't know where to place it. A submarine is built for efficiency, and there isn't any waste space. It could go into the washroom, but then there wouldn't be any room for anyone to get in and wash.

  Sully said, "The hell with that. We'll change the washroom."

  With that he set to work tearing down the hand-and-face bowls in the washroom in the mess hall, as well as mirrors, soap dishes, and towel racks. The auxiliary gang worked on this special assignment of love for three days, moving them all to the forward bulkhead of the washroom. Everyone, including the officers, took a hand helping them. One shower room was not much use anyway, since it was loaded up with soap powder and salt-water soap for Gus Wright and the mess cooks, and nobody used it because it was too much trouble to move out the stuff and then put it back again. We placed the washing machine in front of the shower, and there it stayed.

  We christened it Baby, and she was one of the real heroes of the Wolf—actually, the only heroine aboard. She took all kinds of punishment without grumbling. She was coddled, she was cussed, she was depth charged, she was damned—and she was loved. She was not always innocent. Sometimes she developed a temper, sometimes she was impatient, and sometimes she was as unpredictable as a woman. There was the afternoon I spent a good part of an hour sewing three buttons on a pair of shorts. Baby made short shrift of my work—probably sheer feminine jealousy. When I took them out, they were minus the buttons. I must have stood there and cussed her for five minutes. But from then on Baby was our sewing critic. If she didn't rip off the buttons, you'd done a good job.

  Before long the fore and aft part of the ship—the mechanics, or "Winton Wizards," and the deck force, or "Deck Apes," who were always competing against each other in baseball and liberty parties, were feuding about who could use Baby, and when, and why a clean machine like her had to take grease-stained dungarees in the first place.

  Our second day at Pearl Harbor, Maley and I returned from town to find electricians spiking the Wolf’s batteries. I'd heard of this, but I'd never seen it before. It's an emergency measure to increase the speed and power of the boat, but at the expense of the battery's length of l
ife. Since a submarine moves on battery power when it's submerged, only an emergency would compel the skipper to shorten the life of his batteries.

  "This doesn't look so good," I said to Paul. "We're heading for trouble, sure."

  The third day we took torpedoes aboard—not exercise torpedoes, but warheads. They went into place under my bunk.

  There could be only one reason why we were getting war shots ready. That was to sink somebody. On the fifth night we pulled away from Pearl Harbor.

  Now, for all practical purposes, we were on war service. The official declaration of war was still a year away, but our High Command was on the alert. We traveled with darkened ship; night lookouts were posted, four at a time, each to sweep one-fourth of the sea with powerful night glasses. We trained constantly; we were ready. The blow would come soon, no one knew when—but the Seawolf was ready.


  The Wolf Strikes Back

  MONDAY MORNING, December 8, 1941, the Seawolf lay in Manila Bay, anchored 600 yards from Cavite. We had been there for two weeks, waiting our turn to be overhauled. The port was as busy as a beehive with submarines. Two of them, the Sea Lion and Sea Dragon, our sister ships, were undergoing a complete yard overhaul. That meant removing all engines, tearing down the electrical systems, and then rebuilding the ship—a six- to eight-weeks job. The Dragon was almost completed, but the Lion's engines were still lying on the dock. The Wolf was scheduled to go in for repairs on Thursday. We had quite a gathering there that day. Most of our Asiatic fleet, under Admiral Thomas C. Hart, was based in Manila Bay, its home port, and I should judge that at least thirty submarines were almost within shouting distance. Three submarine tenders—the Holland, the Otus and the Canopus—were on hand, too. They carried torpedoes, submarine spare parts, provisions, and stores. Admiral Hart himself was in Manila that day.

  Jim Riley, an old shipmate of mine, and I were celebrating our reunion that weekend, and Monday morning found us in the outskirts of Manila with big heads. We needed a lot of black coffee. We climbed into a cab and made for the Plaza Café.

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