Luzon Strait, October 1944
“Make your depth three hundred feet.”
The two planesmen turned their brass wheels together but in opposite directions. “Make my depth three hundred feet, aye, sir,” said the diving officer.
Gar Hammond felt the deck tipping down smoothly, but his attention remained on those screwbeats echoing audibly right through the hull as the Jap destroyer kept coming. Steady course and speed. No acceleration. Even better, he wasn’t echo ranging.
He looked over at his exec, Lieutenant Commander Russ West, and watched him force himself to relax his grip on the console rail. “This is nuts,” West muttered, then glanced hastily in Gar’s direction, as if he’d thought it but not intended to actually say it out loud.
“Relax, XO,” Gar said, laughing. “Two thermoclines, remember? He’s deaf. As soon as he passes overhead he’ll be totally deaf.”
The exec managed a weak grin back, but the destroyer’s screwbeats were getting louder, that unmistakable pah-pah-pah sound making every man in the crowded control room clench his teeth. Gar noticed that no one in Control was making eye contact with anyone else; they’d been on enough patrols to know that fear was contagious. He also knew that someone in the control room wanted to shout out, If we can hear the destroyer’s screwbeats, why can’t the destroyer’s sonar hear us? Because, Gar thought, we’re being quiet. The destroyer is not.
This was the most dangerous phase of the tactic, the one his crew called Asking for It, behind his back, of course. Get out in front of a Jap convoy, submerge deep, let the targets and the escorts pass overhead, then rise to periscope depth behind the last escort and fire a torpedo right into his stern while the destroyer’s sonar was blinded by his own wake and propeller noises.
“Approaching three hundred feet,” the diving officer announced. The hull was creaking under the increased pressure, but Gar had taken Dragonfish down to almost 500 feet before. More importantly, back up, too, a happy modulation on that old aviator rule: You want the number of safe landings always to equal the number of takeoffs.
It was almost time to sprint.
Pah-pah-pah-pah, louder now. The destroyer was almost directly overhead. If he’d detected them, this would be the moment when depth charges would start rolling off his fantail. He can’t detect us if he’s not pinging, Gar told himself. And even if he were pinging, those two thermoclines in the 300-foot water column above them should deflect his sonar beams. “Should” being the operative word.
Gar waited impatiently. They’d accelerate once he passed overhead, get right behind him, rise to periscope depth, take one firing observation, and shoot. He’d done this three times since taking command, and so far he’d never missed. He was, of course, fully aware of how nervous this made his whole crew. If that single torpedo did miss and the destroyer’s lookouts saw its wake slicing alongside from astern, she’d immediately roll depth charges right into the Dragonfish’s face.
“Down Doppler, bearing zero five five,” the soundman in the conning tower reported, the relief audible in his voice. The destroyer was headed away from them. Everyone strained his ears to detect any noises indicating the Jap had rolled depth charges, but all they could hear was those screwbeats, steady at about 12 knots, based on turn count, in the away direction.
Okay, Gar thought. Time to kill this hood.
“All ahead two-thirds,” he ordered. “And come right to zero five five.”
He saw the exec let out another deep breath. Eight knots was just about their top speed underwater, and they would entirely deplete the battery in less than one hour if they kept that up. Both of them scanned the array of instruments and gauges all around them in the control room. Gar felt the sudden surge of power as Dragonfish heeled into her turn. Control was, as usual, crowded and tense. The air was filled with the haze of diesel fumes and human sweat, mixed with a faint tinge of ozone as the batteries dumped amps.
“I’m going up,” he told the exec. “Diving officer, bring her to periscope depth. Handsomely, please.”
Once he’d climbed up into the conning tower he told the torpedo officer to make ready tubes one and two. The attack team seemed steady, especially now that the tin can above had gone past them without loosing a barrage of 500-pound depth bombs. The deck sloped upward as the Dragon rose to periscope depth. The conning tower was under red-light conditions, just like Control. It was dark outside, and Gar needed his eyes to be night-adapted once he raised the scope. Conn was even more crowded than Control.
“Passing two hundred feet,” the diving officer reported from down below.
“All ahead one-third.”
The helmsman acknowledged the order.
“Leveling at one hundred feet,” called the diving officer.
It wasn’t very hard for Gar to keep a picture of this tactical plot in his mind. Pausing the ascent was standard procedure. The last thing they wanted was for the boat to punch through periscope depth and broach in full view of the destroyer’s after lookouts. He should be about 800 yards in front of us now, Gar thought, well within visual range even though it was past sunset. Assuming you had the time, it was always best to stabilize and trim her at 100 feet, then rise slowly to periscope depth.
“Sound, confirm bearing.”
“Mushy bearing zero five niner, Cap’n. Plus or minus five degrees. I’m listening through his wake.”
“Zero five niner, aye. Helmsman, come right to zero five niner. Indicate turns for three knots. Sound, watch that Doppler carefully.”
“Sound, aye.” The Doppler, or pitch of the audible screwbeats, was a critical indication. Down Doppler meant that the destroyer was going away from them; up Doppler meant the opposite. Steady Doppler meant he was broadside to them and thus probably turning around. They waited.
“Steady at periscope depth,” the diving officer called.
“Indicating turns for three knots, and steady on zero five niner,” the helmsman reported.
Gar went to the periscope well. “You ready?” he asked the attack team.
“We have a solution,” the operations officer replied.
“Up scope,” Gar ordered. “This will be a firing observation.”
The electro-hydraulic motors down in Control whined as they sent the attack scope up to the surface, with Gar hunched over the eyepiece handles like a monkey as it rose, all elbows and knees. He could barely hear the torpedo data computer team comparing sound data to what their predicted firing solution plot was showing.
He trained the scope around to the last reported bearing of the destroyer so that he’d be looking right at him once the scope broke the surface. His eyes took a few seconds to adjust, and then he saw him, just a black blob in the darkness dead ahead of them, but with a phosphorescent wake pointing right at Gar’s aim point.
“Bearing, mark! Range is one thousand yards. Down scope.”
One second later he heard the magic words from the plotting team. “Bearing and plot agree. Torpedo running depth ten feet. Tube one ready. Plot set! Fire any time.”
They felt the sudden impulse of pressurized air in the boat as the firing flask expelled the torpedo and then dumped its residual compressed air into the sub rather than releasing a huge bubble outside. Doctrine called for a second torpedo, but Gar disagreed: The torpedo’s gyro was slaved to the ordered bearing. On a long-axis shot like this, if the first one missed, a second one would probably miss, too. One hit, however, would blow the after end of that bastard clean off, especially if the depth charges stacked on his fantail also exploded.
“Conn, Sound, fish is hot, straight, and normal.”
“Run time, twenty-one seconds,” said the ops boss, standing at the TDC—the torpedo data computer.
They all held their breath. Nothing happened for fifteen seconds.
Gar could visualize the exec down in Control biting his lip. He and Russ had hashed this over many times before, with the exec arguing for leaving the scope down after firing when they were this close. The destroyer’s after lookout might see the approaching torpedo wake, but he’d surely see both the wake and the periscope. Gar maintained that he needed to see what happened in order to take evasive measures if the fish missed and the tin can came about. I can’t wait for sound, XO, not when we’re in the clinch.
There—a soundless, bright red flash, down low on the visible horizon.
“Got him!” Gar called down. “Down scope!” A moment later the gut-punching thump of the warhead reached the boat, followed seconds later by several smaller explosions a half mile away. The Dragon whipsawed a bit as the underwater pressure waves enveloped her.
Got him good, Gar thought, as he listened to the depth charges detonating. “Flood negative and make your depth three hundred feet. Helm, all ahead two-thirds and come left to three two five.”
The sound of smaller explosions drifted to starboard as they spiraled down and away from the sinking destroyer. The sound-powered phone talkers in the conning tower were mumbling into their phones, informing the rest of the crew that they’d killed another destroyer.
Gar, of course, felt relieved, although he knew they were just getting started. They’d counted two escorts, one ahead of what appeared to be a three-ship convoy, the other tailing astern. The second escort destroyer would be turning from the front of the convoy now, headed back to see what was going on. They couldn’t yet hear echo ranging over all that noise from the mortally injured destroyer, but Gar knew they surely would.
“Passing two hundred feet,” the diving officer called out as Dragonfish completed her turn to the northwest. This was the second, and most dangerous, phase of the tactic: fire from behind, go deep and 90 degrees off firing axis for 2,000 yards, then turn parallel to the convoy’s course again, slow down, go quiet, and wait to see what the remaining escort would do. It was dangerous because while they turned their stern to the action, they were the ones who became deaf.
As they opened out to 2,000 yards, Gar talked to the plotting team about the convoy. The first lookout sighting had been two smoke columns over the horizon, just before sunset. They hadn’t had to maneuver—the ships were coming right at them. Once the ships themselves hove into view, Gar had submerged and taken periscope observations. He was pretty sure he’d seen two tankers and a smaller something between them, plus one escort out front and the mast of another on the horizon. The exec, ever cautious, had wanted to confirm the convoy’s composition with the radar before they set up on it, but Gar had become convinced that the Japs could detect submarine radar if they radiated for too long. His standing orders were to keep surface and air-search radars in the standby mode unless there was no other way to see what was out there, and then to use only one sweep or two.
He reviewed the next phase with the attack team: After sprinting away from the scene of the first attack, they’d stay deep and quiet. If the other escort did not seem to be having any success locating them, they’d open out some more and then surface in the darkness, light off the diesels, and do an end-around run on the convoy at 22 knots to get back out in front of them. This time they’d be going for the high-value targets, those two tankers. Success during this phase depended on their having an accurate count of the enemy escorts. If they’d missed one, it could get really exciting.
Gar did the math: By the three-minute rule they’d be in the off-axis position in just under eight minutes. He was ever conscious of the battery’s limitations. Running submerged at full battery power was a chancy business for Dragonfish, although they’d done that many times, too, since he’d taken command. If they fully depleted the battery, they’d be forced to surface and duke it out with that remaining destroyer, which meant using their single deck gun against five of his, or even being rammed.
He leaned against the bulkhead near the periscopes and closed his eyes for a minute. The hatch to Control was right at his feet, and he could overhear the conversation below.
“Gotta hand it to him,” the chief of the boat was saying. “Guy can shoot.” The Dragon’s senior chief petty officer, “Swede” Svenson, was almost too tall for submarine duty; he walked in a permanent hunch to keep from banging his head on the low overhead. He had a classic Scandinavian face, all angles and eyebrows, bright blue eyes, a prominent Viking nose, and a permanently ruddy complexion. Being chief of the boat, he was, of course, called “Cob.”
“I’ll give him that, Cob,” the exec said quietly. “But this is still some crazy stuff. We should be shooting at tankers, not tin cans.”
“Maybe this is how it’s done, XO,” Cob said. “The Dragon’s sunk more Jap ships under Cap’n Hammond than she did in the two previous patrols.”
Gar smiled. Cob had that part right. It was all about results these days. No results or even skimpy results, the brass found someone else to be in command, which in fact was how he’d come to command of Dragonfish. Under Captain Mason, who’d put her in commission, they’d had several shooting opportunities and scored on none of them. Mason was a pleasant man, compassionate, tactically very conservative, and always looking out for the welfare of his officers and crew. He’d apparently been a peach to serve under, but the boat’s lack of results had resulted in his early relief.
Then the exec said something interesting. “I’m guess I’m just tired of being scared all the time, Cob.”
“Crew’s scared, too, XO, but they like all those Jap brag-rags on the conning tower just the same.”
The plotting team interrupted his eavesdropping. “Plot recommends coming right to zero five five, speed three, and rigging for silent running.”
“Make it so,” he replied. “Sound, you got anything?”
“Sound, negative. No echo ranging. Yet.”
“They may not suspect a sub, then,” he said as he started down the ladder into Control. There were some sotto voce groans as the ventilation shut down for silent running. The temperature in the control room rose immediately.
The exec agreed with Gar’s assessment. A tanker blowing up in a convoy always meant a sub; a destroyer going boom in the night might mean an operational accident, since subs supposedly gave destroyers a wide berth. So now they pointed the Dragon in the general direction of the convoy’s movement and waited to see what, if anything, the other destroyer did.
“XO, take the conn,” Gar said. “I need a sandwich. Have the crew stand easy on station, but let ’em know we’ll be back at it in about a half hour.”
He went forward to the tiny wardroom, where he took ten minutes to have a sandwich and a mug of coffee. The wardroom had a single table and room for six men at a time. There was a green bench on either side of the table in place of chairs. He put his mug into a dish drawer and then went to his cabin to flop for a few minutes. He needed to relax, and he also needed the crew to see that he was relaxed. What’s the Old Man doing? He’s taking a nap. Oh, okay, it must be safe, for the moment, anyway.
Thirty minutes later they called him, and he returned to the conning tower. Lieutenant Ray Gibson, the ops officer, announced, “Captain’s in Conn,” as Gar’s head cleared the hatch. Gibson was no more than five-seven in his dress shoes. He wore oversized spectacles that made him look a lot like an owl. Given that and his last name, his nickname just had to be Hoot.
Gar asked Hoot what he had for him. Gibson recited the tactical solution, their course, depth, and speed, and where they were plotting the two tankers.
“Where’s that second escort?”
“No data, Cap’n,” Gibson said. “Nobody’s echo ranging, either.”
The exec shook his head. “Two tin cans, neither one of them echo ranging? That make any sense?”
“No, sir,” Gibson said, “but there it is. Sound hasn’t heard the first ping.”
The exec eased through the crowd of people so that he could talk directly to the soundman. “Can you tune that thing, Popeye?”
“Have to take the whole system offline, XO,” Popeye Waller said. He was the ship’s senior sonar tech. “And you know what can happen then.”
What could happen was that the sometimes-balky sonar system wouldn’t come back up, and then they’d be in trouble. No sonar, no ears. The passive side of the sonar was preset into the frequency range of Japanese navy sonars. The exec wondered aloud if the Japs had changed freq.
“If he were pinging, couldn’t we just hear it through the hull?” he asked.
Popeye, who’d pushed back his headphones, rubbed his ears. “If he were pinging directional, right at us, yes, we’d probably hear that. But if he’s in omni mode, the same layer that’s protecting us would deflect most of that energy.”
“And if they’ve changed freq?”
“Then we’d never hear it until he was right on us and throwing bad shit in the water,” Popeye said. He turned around in his seat. “You think they’ve switched?”
“It’s possible,” the exec said. “We never heard the first one either, and he was right on top.”
“Okay,” Gar said. “Enough. We’ll loiter here for a little while longer, then go up and take a look. For the moment, though, I want to stay quiet until we know that second escort isn’t hunting.”
He was hoping the second escort was busy picking up survivors from the other destroyer. With their own speed limited to 3 knots, the convoy, going 9 knots faster than they were, was getting farther and farther away from them. He couldn’t risk depleting the battery with another 8-knot sprint, so at some point he’d have to get up on the surface and on the diesels and chase down the convoy. They had to be damned sure they didn’t surface into the loving arms of a vengeful Jap destroyer.
He wished he could close the hatch to the control room. All that hot, stinking air was doing what hot air always does: rise. Popeye had put his headphones back on and was steering the external sound heads around in a careful sector search. Nobody spoke. Everyone waited. The plotting team continued to update the tactical plot on the target convoy using dead-reckoning techniques, but they all knew it was only an estimate. They just had to wait it out. Gar told the exec to go below and start people back to their General Quarters stations.
After another half hour went by, he again asked Popeye what he was hearing.
“Ain’t heard a peep, Cap’n,” Popeye said. “Right now, it’s just biologics and white noise.”
“Well, that won’t do,” Gar said. “I really need to know where that second tin can is, and also what happened to the first one.”
The exec had come back up into the conning tower. “By definition,” he said, “the first one’s right where you torpedoed him. He’s either gone down, or he’s a floating wreck. Two thousand plus yards, that way. Everyone’s back at GQ, sir.”
“Good. I’m getting a bad feeling about that other escort, XO. We’re blind down here. What’s he doing and where the hell is he?”
“You asked,” the exec said softly.
Popeye clamped his headphones to his head and worked the sound-head controls. “No clear bearing, Cap’n. The layer’s got us. But he has to be close.”
“Right full rudder, all ahead Bendix,” Gar ordered. “Control, make your depth four hundred feet, fifteen-degree down bubble.”
The exec dropped into the control room as the Dragonfish heeled to port in her tight right turn, the bow tilting down dramatically.
The destroyer was close enough that they could distinguish a clear up Doppler, which meant this one was inbound with murder on his mind. They were all having to hold on as the planes bit into the Dragon’s lunge for the safety of deep water. Then Gar remembered that spiraling wasn’t the fastest way to achieve depth. He ordered the helmsman to meet her.
“Steadying on one niner zero,” the helmsman called as he whirled the small wheel, his voice exhibiting some Doppler of its own.
Now the destroyer’s screwbeats were close enough and loud enough to penetrate even the protective thermoclines, those invisible acoustic barriers formed by two layers of water at different temperatures.
Gar knew that everybody in the boat was screaming the same mental exhortation in his mind: Go, Dragon, go. The destroyer’s propeller sounds were now just a steady thrashing of the water as he passed overhead.
“Pass the word to stand by for depth charges,” the exec said.
No shit, replied the silent mental chorus.
Then they all heard it: a loud click as the first hydrostatic fuse fired.
A huge blast hammered them, followed by another and then another. A choking cloud of dust, humidity haze, and bits of cork insulation rained down. The Jap was right on the bearing, Gar thought, but their fast dive had saved them. The depth charges were going off at about two fifty, far enough above them to keep the Dragon from being imploded. Two more blasts, off to starboard. Still shallow, thank God. Gar found himself rubbing his magic charm, a chief petty officer’s collar insignia he kept on his key chain.
“Passing through four hundred feet,” the diving officer called. Gar’s arms were rigid against the ladder rails behind the periscope well. Passing through? They’d gone down too fast, and now the boat was below ordered depth. Recover? Or keep going? Keep going.
“Ease your down bubble to five degrees, and make your depth five hundred feet,” he ordered. “Left standard rudder.”
The boat heeled back the other way as she executed the sudden spiral back to the left. Four more depth charges went off in succession, each one hammering the sub’s hull in an ear-squeezing bang. He’s setting them deeper now, Gar thought. The boat’s steel hull was creaking and groaning, literally changing shape at these extreme depths, where even a small leak could sink them.
He looked over at the battery discharge meters. “All ahead Bendix” was slang for max power, regardless of what was left in the batteries, but those damned batteries kept score. They had maybe fifteen more minutes before the lights would go out.
Four more depth charges exploded, but this time, they were some distance away. He looked at the battery meters again.
Hell with this, he thought. I’m gonna go get this guy.
“Slow to four knots and come to periscope depth,” he ordered, visibly shocking everyone in the conning tower. “Make ready tubes nine and ten.”
The Dragon trembled as they came off full battery power to something more manageable and began the climb back to periscope depth, right through that protective thermocline layer that had not kept them safe this time. Why had they not detected pinging? This second destroyer had come right to them as if following a homing beacon.
Pah-pah-pah-pah. Slower now, as the tin can up above repositioned somewhere behind them for another run.
“Got him on zero seven five,” Popeye called. “Down Doppler.”
“Passing three hundred feet.”
“Level straight to sixty feet,” Gar said. No more fine-tuning. He was going to get up there, take a look, and take a shot. Right now this guy thought he was in charge. We’ll see about that. They waited as the sub came up, tipping back and forth a bit as the diving officer fought to keep her in trim.
“Sixty feet, aye,” called the diving officer.
Then they waited. The TDC team was entering sound bearings and assumed ranges, trying to coax the computer into a firing solution.
“Bearing zero eight zero, null Doppler. He’s turning.”
Coming in for another try. Gar hoped he would be set deep this time, while they would be back at sixty feet.
“Target’s entering our baffles,” Popeye announced.
Gar closed his eyes for a moment, visualizing the tactical picture. They had no idea of the range to their adversary, but he knew the tin can would steady up as he ran in to make another depth-charge run. That’s when he would become the target.
“He’s somewhere in the baffles,” Popeye replied, impatiently. As in, I just told you I can’t hear him anymore. “Dead astern.”
“Passing two hundred feet.”
He turned to the torpedo data computer team. “Set running depth to ten feet, torpedo gyro to three zero five, shoot nine and ten when ready.”
Pah-pah-pah-pah-pah-pah. Closing rapidly. The external sonar heads were blinded by the Dragon’s own propeller noises, but the destroyer was close enough now that the whole sub could hear him coming in. Three seconds passed, and then they heard and felt the first fish punch away from the stern tubes, followed a few seconds later by the second.
“Right standard rudder, make one full circle, then steady on two seven zero, periscope depth, and make ready tubes seven and eight.”
“Hot, straight, and normal,” Popeye reported.
“Run time unknown,” said the TDC operator.
“No kidding?” Gar asked, and everyone grinned for a brief moment. He’d fired blind, but there was a decent chance the destroyer would be coming at them right on that bearing.
Then came a satisfying blast, followed by a second one. Gar saw the exec wince as the whole boat shook from end to end, then realize those weren’t depth charges. The torpedoes had found their mark. Lucky, lucky, lucky! It sounded like the destroyer was disintegrating right on top of them. Time to stop that turn and get out from under.
“Steady as you go.”
“Steadying on—one eight five.”
“Passing one hundred feet. Coming to periscope depth.”
“All ahead one-third, turns for three knots.” He waited for a full minute for the speed to come off the boat. “Up scope.”
A moment later they leveled off, mushing into the surface effect of topside waves as they slowed. Gar straightened up as the scope came up, the lenses still underwater.
“Passing eighty feet.”
He held his breath. The scope might be dark, but there was no lack of sound effects. Two torpedoes had torn the approaching destroyer apart. The roar of an exploding boiler filled the conning tower, accompanied by the cacophony of rending steel as the destroyer’s shattered hull collapsed into the mortal embrace of the ever-hungry sea. Thankfully the sounds were coming from astern of them now.
“Level at periscope depth,” called the diving officer. His voice sounded more than a little bit strained.
These guys needed to buck up, Gar thought. It was one thing to lie in ambush for a fat merchant ship and blow its bottom out from a mile away. It was quite another to get in close with a Jap destroyer and go a couple of rounds—and then do it again.
He scrambled around the periscope well, completing a three-sixty quick-look. A steady rumbling noise filled the conning tower as the destroyer sank, her remaining boilers bellowing steam into the cold sea as her bulkheads collapsed in a series of loud bangs. Gar mentally pushed away images of her crew being boiled alive as they were dragged down into the depths.
Remember Pearl Harbor, you sonsabitches.
“Okay,” he said. “That’s that. Stand by to surface. Plot, give me a bearing to that first tin can datum. Radar, conduct two short-range sweeps as soon as you can.”
Everyone in the conning tower seemed to exhale at the same time, and then they all jumped in unison when the sinking destroyer’s depth charges started to go off as he plunged past their set points. The Japs always kept their ashcans armed. Any of the crew who had managed to get overboard alive were now having their insides squeezed up out of their throats.
Remember Pearl Harbor.
“Radar reports no contacts within five miles.”
Got ’em both, he thought. The three-ship convoy must have kept going once their escorts started mixing it up with Dragonfish.
“One radar sweep, long range,”
He could hear a commotion below as the bridge crew assembled down in the control room. The chief of the boat was coaxing the planesmen, who were having trouble maintaining a level depth with everybody moving around in the boat. The radar mast motors whined as it slid up to full height to improve their radar picture.
“Conn, radar: one contact, zero six five, twenty-one thousand yards.”
“Surface,” he said.
The Klaxon sounded. “Surface, surface. Lookouts to the bridge.”
There was a mad scramble down in the control room as the diving officer operated the ballast tank levers while Cob monitored the angle on the boat. The people in the conning tower had to flatten themselves against the bulkheads to admit the lookouts and the officer of the deck. Their ears popped as the first lookout opened the hatch. Everyone welcomed the cold, fresh air, even when it sprayed some seawater into the conning tower.
“XO, take the conn. Put three diesels on the line, and one for the can. Head to intercept that radar contact.”
* * *
Gar remained in Control until the surface watch had been established and the boat’s ballast tanks trimmed for surface running. He told the diving officer to make sure the negative tank remained full. If the Dragon had to submerge fast, the extra weight in the negative buoyancy tank would help get her under quickly. Satisfied, he nodded at the exec and went forward.
No radar contacts within 5 miles meant that both tin cans had been sunk, so now it was time to get back to the business at hand. They weren’t necessarily home free, though. There was always the possibility that those destroyers had sent off a distress call to the Japanese air bases on Luzon. The intel people back in Pearl had reported that the Japs had some of their new, radar-equipped night bombers in the region. Plus, there was that third, intermittent radar contact they’d seen in the convoy. It could be one of those new patrol frigates the Japs had begun using. One-third the size of a destroyer, but lethal nonetheless.
There was another ear-squeezing pressure wave as the diesels were lit off. If the air in the boat were unusually foul, the crew would crack all the watertight doors in the boat. Then the engine room crew would start the diesels with compressed air and let them take suction within the boat through the open bridge hatch for a few seconds before opening the main induction valve topside. This would quickly suck all the accumulated gases out of the boat, replacing it with air coming in from the conning tower hatch. It also created a momentary tornado in the control room, where any pieces of paper not nailed down began to fly around.
Once the diesels were on the line and warmed up, the exec would order flank speed, about 20 knots. Gar calculated the pursuit time: The convoy had been making between 10 and 12 knots, so their overtaking speed was only about 10 knots. An hour or so, then, and they’d go back to their sanguinary work.
The word came down from the bridge to secure from battle stations. This meant that all the watertight compartment hatches could be fully opened, and Gar could make a quick inspection tour. Three of the ship’s main diesels were feeding the propulsion motors; the fourth was recharging the starving batteries. He checked the hydrogen meters in the forward battery to make sure the heavy charge wasn’t building up explosive gases. Then he grabbed another cup of coffee as he passed by the wardroom, where three of the junior officers were talking excitedly about the destroyers and the skipper’s “amazing” torpedo work.
Gar knew better. That last shot had been a Hail Mary if ever there’d been one—firing two fish on a sound bearing from depth meant that the fish had had to launch, turn, stabilize their gyros, climb, and then stabilize again at ordered depth in under a minute before colliding with the destroyer’s onrushing bow. Amazing, yes, but amazing luck, not amazing skill. He asked himself again why they hadn’t detected pinging. This news would really interest Pearl. The Japs had been slow to realize that the American submarine force was becoming a much bigger threat to Japan’s survival than the big American battle fleets. They were starting to improve their sonars, depth charges, and use of radar. Their torpedoes had always been the best in the world, unlike what the American submariners had struggled to deal with for the first two years.
He held on to the bulkheads now as he progressed forward; the boat was encountering the deep swell that was always present in the Luzon Strait. At flank speed, she pitched up and down in what felt like slow motion. Some of the guys he walked past already looked a little queasy. Being submerged a lot of the time, submariners were often lacking in the sea legs department.
In Forward Torpedo the sweating crew was just finishing the reload of tube one. The interior of the sub was still under red-light conditions, and the torpedomen looked like they had been slow-roasted during the previous hours. Dragonfish had sailed from Pearl with twenty-four torpedoes: fifteen steamers, seven electrics, and two Cuties, as the new homing torpedoes were called. After Torpedo carried eight fish, four in the tubes, and four reloads. The balance lived in Forward Torpedo. Gar was not a fan of the electrics, but they were the prescribed weapon for use against Jap ships that could shoot back. The merchies, on the other hand, could only watch in horror when the telltale trail of bubbles from a steamer appeared, poised to open up their engine room.
Tonight he’d fired steamers at both tin cans, which technically was a violation of approved doctrine. The main advantage of the electrics was that they left no telltale wake to show the escorts where the submarine was lurking. Gar, however, was no slave to doctrine, especially when it was emanating from big staffs, safe back in Pearl. The second tin can had already known where they were, and the first one wouldn’t have been able to see the torpedo wake embedded in his own wake, bubbles or no bubbles. Besides, the steamers had a much bigger warhead. In any event, he was protected by the unwritten rule: Nobody in Pearl would be second-guessing his using steamers as long as the targets were on the bottom, where all Jap ships belonged. Except, he thought, the chief of staff at SubPac, Captain Mike Forrester, who was not one of Gar’s fans.
He walked back aft through the boat, talking to the men and generally taking the crew’s emotional temperature after the fight with the destroyers. The chief of the boat joined him on his way back to After Torpedo, where they’d finished reloading. As they headed back forward toward Control, he paused in the passageway and asked Cob if his predilection for engaging destroyers was truly scaring the crew.
“They love it when they sink a Jap ship,” Svenson said. “But there is a pretty high pucker factor when you decide to go one-on-one with a tin can.”
“Going after them is a better tactic than just going deep and spreading our legs,” Gar said. “You go deep and just wait for it, you hand the initiative to them. You start shooting back, you raise their pucker factor and maybe throw ’em off the scent. I’ve seen escorts run for it when we shot at ’em. The best defense, and all that.”
“Yes, sir, and I agree with you,” Cob said. “I’ve never felt so damned helpless as when we’re down below and getting hammered on. The guys’ll get used to it.”
“I hope so, Cob, ’cause this cat’s not gonna change his stripes. We’re out here to do a job of bloody work, and I’m just the guy, unfortunately, to take the fight to them for a change.”
“They’re good guys, Cap’n, but most of ’em are real young, remember?”
Gar knew Cob was right about that. The average age on board was probably twenty.
“Captain, please contact Conn,” came over the announcing system.
Gar grabbed the nearest sound-powered phone handset, set the dial for Conn, and twirled the handle once, causing a squeaking noise at the other end. The exec picked up the phone.
“Whatcha got, XO?”
“Plot has these guys zigzagging. We’re gonna be on ’em pretty quick—their true speed of advance is only six knots. I’m assuming a surfaced attack unless we discover another escort. I’d like to set battle stations, surface, in ten minutes.”
“Make it so, XO. Keep the gun team below until we know for damned sure there aren’t any more escorts. And Russ? I want you to conduct the next attacks. I’ll be up there shortly, but I’m gonna sit back and watch the whole picture while you sink these tankers. Okay?”
“Absolutely,” Russ said.
Gar hung up the phone and told Cob they’d be back at GQ in ten minutes. Cob hurried away to spread the word. Gar made his way to Forward Officers’ Country for a quick head call.
One of the submarine force’s superstars in terms of tonnage sunk, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton, had introduced a different command-and-control approach to submarine attacks. Prior to Morton, the captain and only the captain conducted every attack. He manned the scope, supervised the TDC, approved the plot solution, chose the attack bearings and methods, and did everything but push the firing button. Morton, who became famous for conducting most of his attacks on the surface, realized that there was too much data coming at him during an attack, so he decided to step back from the minutiae of the actual attack in order to better grasp the big picture: where the target was, where the escorts were, where the next target was going to be, where the best escape routes lay, what the radar picture showed, and so on. Morton let his XO, another superstar named Richard O’Kane, execute the individual torpedo attacks, while he, Morton, made sure some other part of the tactical picture wasn’t getting ready to bite them in the ass.
The result was a superbly trained exec who could go on to a command of his own already highly experienced in attacking Jap ships, as O’Kane had amply demonstrated. To do it required a very confident captain and an equally competent exec. Gar hadn’t adopted this system yet, but, having removed the warships from this particular convoy, small as it was, he felt this was the time to let Russ have a shot and try out Morton’s system. As in every other aspect of submarine command, until you actually tried it, you never knew.
He went back to Control, where the battle teams were already taking their places in the red glow of the night-lights. He told everybody there that the XO was going to run the attacks and that he was going sit back and criticize. There were grins all around, albeit nervous grins. He knew he was going to have to work on this problem. A scared crew was a dangerous crew—a man who’s afraid will freeze faster than a man who’s on the hunt with his blood up. Training, he reminded himself. We have to do more training.
“Set battle stations, surface.”
He climbed the ladder into the dim red light of the conning tower to begin the dance. The stream of cold fresh air whistling through the hatch to the bridge was wonderful. The diesels were purring as only Fairbanks Morse engines could. The exec was getting ready to go up to the bridge, where he would conduct the torpedo attacks against the two tankers up ahead. Instead of the periscope he’d be using the target-bearing transmitters, or TBTs. These were simply a set of high-powered binoculars welded to a movable frame. The frame was connected electrically to the TDC weapons control computer. The firing officer would point the TBT at the target ship and squeeze a button. The target’s bearing would be transmitted to the computer, and a firing solution would soon materialize. The computer would then continuously communicate the appropriate gyro and depth settings to the torpedo itself, which would be launched as soon as the attack team agreed that the computed solution looked right. The TBT was a bit crude, but very effective, because the firing officer didn’t have to worry about up-scope/down-scope delays in getting the firing data into the computer. This time, Gar would stay down in the conning tower, directly below the bridge, and oversee the tactical plot and the TDC’s outputs, watching out for errors or any indications that they weren’t the only killer maneuvering out there in the dark.
The roar of the main engines subsided as the exec brought her down to 10 knots. The plotting team was back on station, and there were two target tracks unfolding on the plotting table, courtesy of some quick radar sweeps as they’d closed in. The exec could not yet see either of the two tankers, who should be running dark.
“Where’s the third guy?” Gar asked the plotting officer.
“Haven’t found him,” replied Hoot, back on station. “TDC has a solution on the lead ship; we just need to get closer.”
Gar studied the dials on the torpedo data computer. The range was 3,200 yards; they needed to get in to under 2,000 yards to ensure the torpedoes could reach the target.
“Go easy on the radar,” he said. “I don’t want it to become a beacon.”
“Actually,” Hoot said, “the exec says he thinks this guy is showing a light. He’s using TBT bearings on that. We took one radar range ten minutes ago, and we plan to take another one before he shoots.”
“Oh, my,” Gar said. “A stern light. Talk about a fatal mistake.”
“Yes, sir. Whoops, there’s a zig.”
Gar stepped back from the plot as the team tracked the target’s movements with little penciled x’s on the plotting sheet. From what he could see, the two ships were trying to zigzag in a loose column formation, which was probably why the lead ship had left a dim yellow light burning on his stern. The exec called down a course change to accommodate the targets’ new course.
Gar itched to go topside to see what the exec was seeing, but Russ needed to learn how to do this without coaching. That said, nobody was using the periscopes. The plot was clear enough, the exec had a visual on the target, and the computer was happily crunching numbers, so he stepped over to the night scope, raised it, and took a look down the indicated bearing. He saw precisely nothing.
“Target’s changed course to zero three zero,” Hoot called. “Seems to be steady on that now.”
“Give me a radar range,” the exec called down. “One sweep.”
The radar operator let the radar come up for a few seconds, then turned it off.
“Range is sixteen hundred yards, bearing one three five from us,” the operator announced.
“Stand by to mark visual bearing. Stand by—mark!”
“Plot set!” Hoot reported. “Bearings and range match. Fire any time.”
“Fire two!” called the exec, and the console operator mashed down on the mushroom-shaped firing button. Gar waited for him to fire a second fish, but the exec was apparently going to do it the captain’s way. Gar smiled, set the scope onto the firing bearing, and waited.
Hoot was holding up a stopwatch. “Run time one minute thirty,” he called.
“Hot, straight, and normal,” announced Popeye, ever vigilant for a circular runner.
“Stand by to mark visual bearing on target two. Stand by … Mark! Estimate range at twelve hundred yards.”
“Plot not ready,” Hoot said. “Range and bearing not in agreement.”
Gar left the scope and stepped quickly over to the plot, where he saw that the TDC’s course and speed on target two were not agreeing with the exec’s last visual bearing.
“He’s still turning,” the exec called down. “I’ll get another bearing in one minute.”
“Why the hell can’t we use the radar?” Hoot grumbled.
“Because we don’t know where that third target is, or, more importantly, what he is,” Gar said. “Could be a tin can, just waiting for a radar signal to home in on.”
A sudden glare of bright yellow light flooded down into the conning tower from the bridge, followed by a very loud boom. Gasoline tanker.
“Clear visual bearing on target two … Mark! Estimated range, one thousand yards.”
“Bearing close, range agrees,” called Hoot. “Solution!”
“Fire three,” the exec ordered.
Gar went back to the periscope, dialed in a glare filter, and took a look. The first tanker was low in the water and burning from end to end, great gouts of flaming gasoline pouring off her port side. He came right with the scope and saw the second tanker, about a half mile behind the first. She was larger and now completely illuminated by the fire. As he watched she began a turn to the right, but then an enormous waterspout rose up just behind the pilothouse as the Dragon’s torpedo struck home. Moments later, the dark ship began to sag in the middle as her keel gave way. This one wasn’t burning, which meant an engine room hit. The XO was on a roll tonight.
He turned the scope back to the burning ship, which, if anything, was burning even harder now. Then he continued to the left, scanning the seas, whose small whitecaps created brilliant green lines in the light of all that burning gasoline. Twenty degrees to the left of the burning ship he saw something that made his heart stop.
“Captain has the conn,” he shouted so that the exec could hear him topside. “All ahead flank, emergency,” he yelled. “Come left with full rudder. Emergency dive, dive, dive!”
The helmsman responded instantly, although the rest of the men in the conning tower just gaped at him for a second before springing into action. The dive Klaxon sounded as the propellers bit into the sea and the sub began to heel to the right. There was a roar of escaping ballast tank air outside, followed by the first of the lookouts dropping down into the conning tower, with just the tips of their shoes barely touching the rungs as they literally fell down the ladder. Then came the OOD—officer of the deck—and finally the exec, who paused only long enough to secure the hatch, creating an immediate squeeze on everyone’s ears as the main induction valve slammed shut and the diesels died away. In the space of ten seconds or so, they were back on the batteries.
Gar was still glued to the scope. “TDC, mark my bearing, prepare to emergency-fire tube number eight, running depth at twenty feet! Stand by … Mark!”
“Mark at three five zero, tube eight standing by.”
“Fire eight, shift your rudder, make your depth three hundred feet, ten-degree down bubble.”
The air in the sub pinched as the torpedo left tube eight.
“Pressure in the boat, green board,” the diving officer called out belatedly from Control. It better be, Gar thought—we’re under. “Make my depth three hundred feet, aye, sir.”
“Hot, straight, and normal.”
“Captain?” It was the exec.
Gar unstuck his eyes from the periscope as it went underwater, sent it down into its well, and refocused into the conning tower. The exec was staring at him with a what-the-hell expression on his face. His shirt was soaking wet from waves hitting the bridge as they’d executed the emergency dive.
“Periscope,” Gar said. “Clear as day.” He glanced at the compass indicator. “Ease your rudder to left standard.”
“Target number three,” the exec said, softly. “A goddamned I-boat.”
“Torpedoes in the water,” Sound announced. This stopped everyone in the conning tower cold. They should be safe, Gar thought, unless the Jap submarine skipper had guessed their course and intended depth once Gar had called the crash dive. Should be, unless the Japs had developed a homer.
“And down Doppler,” Popeye announced. “They’re going to miss astern.”
A collective sigh of relief went up.
“Where’s the layer?” Gar asked.
“Last layer was three hundred twenty.”
Deep in the distance they heard torpedo eight explode, but whether it had hit the other sub or simply reached its end of run, they couldn’t tell. The chances of their having hit the other sub were almost zero.
“Make your depth four hundred, rig the ship for silent running. Slow to four knots. We’ll head east for a while.”
Behind them they heard some breaking-up noises as the second tanker went down. Apparently the other one was still on the surface, trying to boil off the Pacific Ocean.
I need a drink, Gar thought. That had been too damned close for comfort. Instead, he told the XO he’d done good work. “Two for two, with single torpedoes. Who taught you that, anyway?”
Copyright © 2013 by P. T. Deutermann