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U s s seawolf submarine.., p.5

U.S.S. Seawolf: Submarine Raider of the Pacific, page 5

 

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


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  "Bring her up and be careful. We may have something up there."

  The Wolf rose silently through the dark waters.

  "Here we are, sir," from the bowplanesman.

  "Up periscope." Holden's voice was almost casual. We heard the drone of the periscope sliding upward in its channel. A moment later: "Down periscope!" Holden's voice had a new note in it. "Call the Captain."

  A messenger hurried to Captain Warder's stateroom. In less than two minutes the Skipper, in shorts and sandals, was climbing up the ladder. His sandals made a slapping sound. His deliberate words came over the intercom: "What do you have, Mr. Holden?"

  "A Jap destroyer, sir. Portside bearing three one zero relative."

  "Good!" said Captain Warder. "Up periscope." He held it up there less than fifteen seconds. "Down periscope. Battle stations."

  His voice had scarcely faded away before the raucous aaaap! aaaap! of the battle-station alarm blared through the boat. Half-naked, their bodies gleaming in the yellow light, the men tumbled out of their bunks. The narrow passageways were suddenly filled with men and then as suddenly cleared as each man fitted into his assigned position.

  The approach party—the men who had to plot the maneuvering to place the Wolf in the best possible position to fire, taking into account her course and the enemy's course and speed—grouped themselves about the plotting table in the control room. They were Ensign Mercer, Ensign Casler, Frank Franz, and one H. H. Thompson, called "Hard-Hearted Henry" simply because of his initials. Maley hurried in to stay with me in sound. Rudy Gervais, an exuberant Frenchman, just twenty-one, his face shining, his dark brown eyes alert, took over as helmsman.

  Everyone was at his post.

  In sound, Maley and I, with our phones on, listened hard. As from a great distance, I heard a gentle Ping! ... Ping! as though someone had plucked the E string of a violin. This was the telltale sound of the enemy's sound-detection apparatus. He was searching for us—sending out electrical sound waves—and we were listening for him. We waited.

  Over the intercom, Captain Warder's even voice: "She's a Jap, all right. Akasaki class. Big destroyer. Guns mounted fore and aft. Multiple torpedo tubes midships. Depth charge racks. Estimated course, zero seven zero. Estimated speed, fifteen knots. Range, 3,000 yards. Seems to be patrolling outside a cove." Pause. "Down periscope." Then, in a satisfied tone: "We'll wait a couple of minutes. Then we'll make another check."

  Zero seven zero meant the enemy was on a course 70 degrees from true north. Zero zero one, for example, would mean one degree; three five nine would mean 359 degrees. Thus we could plot our approach, having the enemy's course from a fixed point on the horizon.

  The crew of the Wolf waited, silent. Slowly we slipped into position. The sea was rough now; we rolled and pitched. I had the Jap propellers in my earphones: whish—sh ... whish-sh ... whish-sh ... and now and then a suddenly weakened fluff ... fluff ... whish ... sh! The enemy destroyer was pitching so heavily that every few seconds his propellers cleared the water altogether and churned the air.

  "Ah!" Captain Warder's voice was eager. "She's heading directly for us. Probably en route to the homeland. We won't attack until we get in a more favorable position." Then a change in his voice: "Wait a minute, wait a minute! ... If the Japs have a destroyer out here, they must have something inside that cove." Silence. Then, as though debating with himself: "Sea conditions are against me. Fish might broach. On the other hand, this is a man-of-war. He's enemy shipping. I'm ordered out here to destroy him. But if I attack, successful or not, they'll know I'm here, and then they'll pull whatever they have inside that cove away from here."

  The Wolf marked time. Captain Warder was thinking it through. Was it to be this Jap destroyer, sitting before us, a fat, inviting target, or was it wiser to ignore him and set our sights for bigger prizes inside the cove? Two full minutes dragged by. No one spoke. I heard men coughing, clearing their throats, shuffling, making the small noises men make under pressure. Deeper in the boat, men stood and watched the loud speakers, waiting. I heard the Jap's screws over sound. I spun my dials, kept him clear, and gave the Captain his bearings:

  "Screws bearing zero two zero, Captain."

  "Very well, Eckberg." Still preoccupied.

  "Target seems to be drawing aft, Captain."

  "Yes—ss, that's right. He's staying on the same course. Let me know if the pattern changes." Then, with sudden finality:

  "Secure battle stations. We will not attack. We're going to look inside that cove."

  The whole crew relaxed. But the tension was gone only momentarily. The Wolf was going into that cove and make the Japs like it, too. We'd see action quickly enough. Kelly's Pool Room became crowded with men off duty drinking coffee and talking things over. Captain Warder and Lieutenant Deragon pored over their charts in the control room: slim men both, one big, the other small, both in khaki shorts and sandals, their bodies glistening with perspiration under the subdued light. Circumspection was the word now.

  All that day we patrolled carefully, waiting for cover of darkness. With nightfall, the seas grew mountainous. We drew away from the bay: Captain Warder wanted his men to catch some sleep during the night.

  A few of us tried to doze off, but we were too tense. Some of the boys were seasick. Most of us stayed at our stations, checking and rechecking our gear. Langford and his torpedo crew toiled over their fish. It takes six strong men to move a torpedo on its rollers and bring it out for inspection. At Squeaky's command, the men seized a heavy line and tugged. The great, twenty-foot torpedo slid out on its tiny rollers from the loading rack. They went over it as a diamond cutter goes over his diamond, then slowly they slid it noiselessly back into place.

  We submerged at dawn and started into the cove. The approach was a delicate matter. We spent four hours negotiating the short distance, making periscope observations every few minutes. The order would come, "Up periscope." The glistening metal pillar—for all the world like a huge, shining perpendicular piston—would glide up with a soft drone, up out of its well until the periscope lens was above the surface of the water, far overhead. Captain Warder would place both arms over the two crossbars protruding more than a foot from either side of the periscope base, and, half-hanging on them, his forehead pressed against the sponge-rubber eyepiece, he would rotate with it like some strange acrobat in slow motion. I knew what it was like to look through that eyepiece: the sense of shock you had when you saw the brightness of daylight, the sun sparkling on the blue waters of the sea. Looking through a periscope is like looking through a high-powered binoculars: almost under your nose the sea heaves and tosses, so near that you almost pull back from the spray. The droplets of water roll down with amazing speed from the elliptical object glass, and the image is framed and clear. If the sun were too bright, a twist of the wrist—and a green filter fell into place. I knew that with a flick of his right hand Captain Warder could reduce his magnification to 75 percent of normal—this if he found himself so near a target that it occupied the entire field of vision and a lesser magnification would give him a more complete picture of target and surroundings. With another flick of his hand he could sweep the sea from horizon to sky; a glance downward at the periscope base, and he knew almost instantly how far away, in yards, the target stood; and all these infinite calibrations could, with a single press of his right thumb, be transferred into the very torpedoes themselves so that, once fired, they became all but human flashing toward their victim at such a rate of speed, with such a change in direction, set to explode precisely at contact.

  Slowly we crept up on our still-unseen prey. In the silence, above the steady whine of the Wolf’s motors, we could hear overhead the gurgle and splash of the sea itself. The Skipper gave way, after a little while, to Lieutenant Holden, and with each "Up periscope" Holden took his navigation fixes, using points of land for reference. Stationed at sound, I heard the rough sea. The water noises were deafening, a roaring, snapping, crackling bedlam blaring through my phone
s like static in a terrific electrical storm. To hear the beating of a ship's screws above this scratching inferno of sound meant listening with such intensity that often you mistook the pulsations of your own blood for the enemy.

  Suddenly Holden's deep voice rang out: "Call the Captain!"

  The Skipper raced up the ladder. "What have you got, Mr. Holden?"

  "I don't know, sir. I saw the mast of a ship."

  "Can you make him out at all?"

  "No, sir."

  The Captain took over the periscope. He studied the sea for a full minute, then pulled the periscope down again. "There's a ship in there, all right. Looks like a big baby. Hmmmm." Silence. "Mr. Mercer"—he was turning to Ensign Mercer, standing over his charts on a tiny desk less than three feet away—"how's the depth of that water?"

  "We can't go in far, sir," said Mercer. His voice had a different timbre. "It's pretty shallow. But I think we can get within firing range."

  "Good!" said the Captain. "Up periscope." A moment later: "Jap seaplane tender at anchor. Looks about 12,000 tons ..."

  Down below, in the sound room, Maley and I looked at each other.

  "Seaplane tender!" Maley pursed his lips in a silent whistle. "Now wouldn't that make a nice Christmas present for the boys!"

  Captain Warder's voice was even. "Bearing three five five relative. Guns fore and aft. Two stick mast cranes. Might be a sub tender. Something alongside of her that might be subs or seaplanes. Down periscope."

  Maley scratched his head. "Funny we don't patrol in a little closer."

  "Hell," I said, "there's that Nip destroyer right around the corner. He can get here in ten minutes."

  Maley looked at me almost scornfully. He was young, and he wanted action. "He won't help her if we get her first, will he? Let's sink the damn thing now and worry about him later."

  I said nothing. Silence in the conning tower. I had a pretty clear idea of what was taking place up there. Captain Warder, brows knit, was at his chart desk, checking carefully through his confidential papers, trying to type the Jap ship we wanted to attack. Apparently he was satisfied, for a minute later:

  "Battle stations!" sang out the tinny voice of the intercom.

  "Battle stations!" echoed from bow to stern of the Wolf. Before the words died out, the aaap! aaaap! aaaaap! of the battle alarm rang through the boat.

  The emergency lights were snapped on. A dull reddish glow suffused the interior of the Wolf.

  "Up periscope ... Make ready the bow tubes. Down periscope."

  Behind the Captain, Signalman Frank Franz stood with phones and chest telephone. He was the Captain's talker and relayed his orders. He repeated: "Forward torpedo room, make ready the bow tubes."

  The Wolf slowed down so that when her periscope was raised again she would not cause a noticeable wave.

  "Open outer doors," ordered Captain Warder.

  Talker repeated: "Open outer doors."

  In the control room below a man worked feverishly spinning a huge control wheel by hand ... ten revolutions, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen ... Far forward in the bow, two great steel doors in the Wolf’s hull swung slowly open, exposing the blunt heads of the torpedoes ...

  "Forward tubes ready, Captain," Franz reported. "Outer doors open."

  "Up periscope!" said the Skipper. A few moments later: "Stand by."

  Then: "No, no, wait a minute! Rudy, come left a little more, little more ... there! Hold her, Rudy... Fire one!"

  There was a sudden whoosh! as though the safety valve of a radiator had blown off. Then a gentle kickback, as though the Wolf coughed, suddenly alive. I felt the pressure on my eardrums.

  Torpedoes are fired by an impulse of compressed air. The air pressure within the boat goes up correspondingly.

  The crew was on its toes: water had to be flooded into tanks to compensate for the change in the boat's weight and center of gravity. The Wolf had to be trimmed, placed in balance again, or she might bounce to the surface like a rubber ball.

  On the phones I picked up the sound of the torpedo, a high-pitched whine as she tore through the water. Captain Warder, I knew, had his eyes glued to the periscope. His orders came crisply.

  "Stand by to fire two ... Fire two!"

  Again the hiss, the jar, the gentle kickback, again and again.

  As each fish left, I picked it up on sound. The first whine died out, then the second came into my phones. It died out. I waited tensely for the explosions. The skipper kept his eyes glued to the periscope. I listened hard. I had to keep my ears on those torpedoes. An erratic fish can circle about and come back to blow you into Kingdom Come.

  Captain Warder's voice was sharp: "I can see them .... They're running hot ... Jesus! They missed the target! Oh, hell! Make ready the aftertubes. Open outer doors in after-room! Hard right rudder!"

  He ordered the Wolf full speed ahead. "All ahead, full! Eckberg, hear those fish run?"

  Yes, I had heard them run. But I'd also heard dull thuds. They were like knife thrusts into my heart. I knew what had happened. The torpedoes had missed the target, continued on, and exploded on the beach.

  I reported heavily. "Yes, sir. All ran hot and missed the target."

  "Hmmmm," said the Captain. Then: "Rudy, come to course two seven zero. Let me know when you get there. Sound, do you hear any propellers?"

  I searched intently. "No screws, sir."

  "Good!" said the Skipper. He was as disappointed as a man can be, but he hadn't given up hope yet.

  Rudy's voice came over the intercom: "Steady on course two seven zero, sir."

  "Very well, all ahead one-third," replied the Captain.

  "One-third, sir," said Rudy.

  The Wolf, her speed reduced to one-third, moved slowly forward.

  The Captain said: "Up periscope. Are the after tubes ready? Okay. There's a lot of activity up here, as far as I can see. They are trying to get under way. Come right a little, Rudy ... Hold it there, Rudy .... Stand by to fire .... Fire!"

  Again I picked up the high, thin whine of the fish.

  "Easy now, Rudy ... Close the outer doors ... All ahead, standard. I see him now.... They're running straight again—"

  I was listening to the fish with all my ears. They were running straight and hot, all right. Then ka-boom! The Wolf shuddered. Then again, and again, and again. This time our torpedoes had run straight and home. The concussion shook us each time.

  "Explosions, Captain!" I barked into the mike.

  "I can see her!" he snapped back. "Wait ... wait ... They may have hit in the bow." Then, eagerly: "I see white water. I see a lot of white water! Down periscope!"

  We dared expose our periscope no longer. There was a murmur of conversation between the Skipper and Ensign Mercer. Captain Warder, we learned later, wasn't sure if our fish struck the Jap or not. The crew to a man was certain that at least one had hit. But Captain Warder did not even claim this ship as damaged. He had not seen it go down. He was not positive.

  "Proceed with the reloads," he finally ordered. "We are expecting company any minute. Keep careful watch, sound." Then, a moment later: "Send Mr. Syverson up, please."

  In a few minutes the Skipper was talking to Ensign Donald Syverson, torpedo officer, a stubby, red-headed, personable sub man from Michigan.

  "I can't understand it," the Captain said quickly. "I don't know what was wrong with those first fish. Got any ideas about it?"

  "No, sir." Syverson sounded crestfallen. "We readied them according to instructions, Captain. I inspected them myself."

  "I can't figure it out," said the Skipper, musingly.

  I began hearing telltale sounds again. Ping! ... ping ... ping!

  "Got a ship up there, Captain," I announced.

  "Propellers or pings, Eckberg?"

  "Pings, Captain. I think they're on the starboard side, well aft."

  "What do you mean, they? More than one?"

  "Yes, sir. I hear two of them."

  We waited. And then, far distant, a muffled
boom! The Wolf shook. Her joints creaked. The lights flickered, went out for a moment, then on again. It was a depth charge, mild because it was some distance away. Actually, no depth charge attack can be called mild, because when 700 or 800 pounds of TNT explode in your general vicinity, any number of things can happen. A depth charge doesn't have to score a direct hit to sink you. Water is incompressible. An explosion can write your finish if it's near enough for the concussion to place sufficient pressure on the water surrounding your boat to stave it in or crush it altogether.

  The exploding charges were something special to hear. They sounded as though a giant smashed together boulders as large as houses under the water with pulverizing force. If you've ever heard two stones struck together under water, you know how booming and terrifying that small report can sound, intensified and expanded by the water. But this charge, and the one or two that followed, were too far away to harm us. And after a while, there were no, more explosions and no more pings.

  "Hear any propellers about?" asked the Skipper. I said no, and he ordered the boat taken to the regular diving depth. We cruised back into rough water; water so rough I could hear the choppy waves rippling the surface of the sea. A few minutes later, Captain Warder ordered the periscope up again. He spent five long minutes scanning the water.

  "Hell, it's black up here tonight," he murmured. "Damn rough, too. There's a fire near the beach. That might be one of our ships burning. It's so black up here I can't see the land at all.... Well, we'll head out to open sea and charge batteries."

  For some nights and days we made routine patrols, and then one night we began one of the most dangerous tasks a submarine can undertake in wartime—relocating our torpedoes. The Wolf had space on deck to stow extra torpedoes. Since these are massive weapons, relocating them—moving them from the deck to the torpedo rooms below—is a sizable job. Booms must be rigged, loading hatches must be opened, and the submarine is exposed to any attack. Her men are topside, live torpedoes are dangling from the booms, hatches are open, and a crash dive is impossible. Here, particularly, with Jap land all about us, we'd be a sitting duck for the first plane or destroyer to sight us.

 
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