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IN MEMORY OF PHILIP IRWIN WOLF

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Stories from the Kingfisher (pseudonym ‘The Sleeperfish’)

By Philip Irwin Wolf (December 24, 1924 to June 15, 2001)

August 1, 1980

 During World War II, I was eighteen years old making my first war patrol as an electrician mate on a U.S. submarine in the Pacific. My assigned battle station was in the Forward Damage Control Party with responsibility to repair equipment that might be damaged during a depth charge attack by the enemy.

We were in the midst of being heavily depth-charged by a Japanese destroyer for torpedoing and sinking one of the ships in his convoy when the Conning Tower passed the word for the repair electrician to come to that compartment on the double.

I grabbed my bag of tools and meters, scrambled from the forward battery compartment wardroom into the control room and up the ladder to the crowded Command Center of our submarine. The Captain saw me and said, “The electric brake on the number one periscope hoist motor is slipping. It won’t hold its level. Fix it.”

I crouched down over the motor assembly and had just begun opening the brake housing when the tell-tale click-click of a depth-charge detonator sounded close by.

In that split-second before the main charge went off, the Captain looked at me, recognized my fright, and knowing that I was on my first patrol, said, “Don’t worry, son, he doesn’t know where we are.”

That instant the whole ship shuddered as we took a close series of depth-charges right on top of us. Cork, tools, dust and people jumped in the air, the ship twisting and vibrating. I looked up from my death grip on the motor housing and the Captain smiled again and said, “I guess he is a pretty damned good guesser.” I unfroze my grip, giggled nervously, and went back to work and did my job. He was a good guesser.

Story Line:

Our story is that of a group of young men on a patrol aboard a U.S. submarine in the Pacific in 1943. We have a group of high school and early college-age males performing the intricate and complicated tasks in ballet-like precision. Each man depends on the next to do his job at the right moment, in the right way and with the utmost dispatch.

We take them from the tender as they slip out of the submarine nets and head for the Empire. Running fast on the surface, they head for their area and their trial of monotony, danger, fear and triumph. They return a crew of welded individuals all sharing the pride and the swagger of the ‘special troops’ who wear their dolphins and combat pins and disdain the wearing of area ribbons as something for the other warriors.

Characters:

Paul Valler: Age 18 years, enlisted Navy 1942, late, before 18th birthday. Graduate of high school and half semester of college before joining up. Attended submarine school in New London and electrician’s mate school in St. Louis (temporary quarters set up in technical high school). Transferred from submarine school to Mare Island, Vallejo early in 1943. Sent to Pacific in late spring and attached to submarine tender in Pearl Harbor. The tender goes from Pearl to the Marshall Islands and then to submarine.

Charles (Tex) Rogers: Chief electrician’s mate aboard submarine. Age 41. Married, two children both under 16. Firmer electrician with power company on the West Coast. In Navy in 1920’s and on an old R boat.

Sam Bender: Electrician’s mate, age 23, pre-Pearl Harbor enlistee. Looks down on ‘Pearl Harbor Avengers.’ Submariner for three years, married. In Manila at start of war. Out of Philippines on one of the escaping submarines. Typical peacetime sailor who in a way resent the intrusion of the war and the fact that men recently enlisted are getting rated to the station of men with many years more service. Also, they get to the service school.

Jim Lockwood: Pharmacist’s Mate. In Navy from pre-Pearl Harbor. A frustrated medic. Served three years in naval hospitals. Attended submarine school with Valler.

Captain Robert Maclyn: Annapolis, 1938. Married with family. Executive officer for several patrols on other submarines. First command. Well-trained, eager to make a success out of his first command.

Swenson: No first name. Nickname: Flat-top (balding). Lt. Commander and executive officer of ship. Served under the previous captain and with many of the crew.

This ship is the Sleeperfish, a fleet-type submarine, put together in Groton, Connecticut in 1942. 315 feet long and 17 feet wide. Consists of 7 compartments: forward torpedo room, forward battering compartment (officer’s quarters and chief’s quarters), control room, directly over the pump room and under the conning tower, after battery compartment (gallery, meat locker, and crews’ quarters, wash room shower and toilets), forward engine room, after engine room, maneuvering rooms (directly over motor room) and after torpedo room. Six torpedo tubes forward and four tubes aft. 10 fish aft and 14 fish forward. That would be two and one-half loads aft and two loads plus two extra torpedoes forward with a crew numbering approximately 85 men.

I 

            The mechanical flag gong sounded throughout the submarine, jerking the crew into alertness and starting them off from their places with the tautness of greyhounds sprung from a leash. From the first tone of the alarm, the familiar surroundings changed into a blur of hurrying bodies and sliding figures passing each other through the narrow water-tight doors separating the compartments. The loudspeakers suddenly picked up the hiss of amplifier noise and the Captain’s voice splattered out, “All hands, man your battle stations; all hands, man your battle stations. Prepare for torpedo attack submerged.”

            Coming from the after torpedo room and working his way past the control cubicle in the maneuvering room, Paul brushed past old Van, the Chief Electrician’s Mate heading for his battle station at the propulsion board. Paul’s face must have stopped the older man. He was half-turned toward the boy almost instantly.

            “Paul,” he said, “It’s just like another practice run. Take it easy and watch the others. Don’t forget, kid, you’re the rated electrician in the forward damage control party. You have to tell them what to do.” His hand reached out and grasped the blue dungaree shirt and the shoulder. He didn’t wait for an answer but squeezed the sailor’s shoulder, and with the same gesture sent him on his way towards the bow.

            Paul’s mouth opened to say something, but he swallowed the thought and made only a squeaking grunt as he raced away. He knew that he was going to be the last man at station and that he would delay the ready report from the damage control group and this overwhelmed the fear that swept him.

            As he raced through the engine room forward, he caught glimpses of men plugging in the portable battle phones and clipping on the breastplates supporting the mouthpiece. They all seemed to be changed from the faces he had becoming used to living with for the last two weeks and looked dry and different.

            As he went through the control room he saw that all stations were manned and heard the acknowledgements being made to reporting rooms. The watch officer’s glance in his direction was almost a boot in the seat of the pants as he took the hatch with the learned action like hurdling a low barrier on a track field. Almost automatically his pace slowed and air sucked into his mouth and pushed down his gorge.

            As he stepped into the small wardroom he saw that Ping, the machinist mate in the group, was waiting for him and he nodded his head. “Control room, damage control party reports all battle stations manned and ready for action.” Ping’s fingers had hit the talk button instantly and he cradled the mounting plate with his free hand to take the drag off his neck. His head cocked to one side as he leaned against the partition waiting for acknowledgement. “Aye, aye, control 2,” he said and again cut out.

            “Alright, let’s shake the lead out and get our gear ready. There’s liable to be a long night ahead of us,” a new voice said. Paul swung his head and looked down his side of the wardroom table and saw Jerry Baker, the Pharmacist’s Mate, grinning at him. “I have the easy job around here on a night like this. Whoever heard of a quack having to give sulfa pills for a depth charging? I’ll save my pills for you happy characters after you have a chance to get into trouble in Pearl.”

            In front of Baker on the table lay the first aid kit in its shapeless bag. Paul looked around the small room and at the men seated around the table and standing down by the forward bulkhead: The black officer’s steward, Fisher, round and friendly all-over and an old hand. He had made seven runs on the boat and was a good sailor; Neal, the new boy who had reported aboard with him from the tender in Pearl Harbor. God, he looked almost white from fear. It stuck out all over him like it was painted there. He’ll be no good to us, Paul thought; Ping and Ratay, old hands from the machinist mates and mature for the twenty-three years they each carried; Rolmward, electrician’s striker and just out of school in the states. He’d be a great help, too. As an electrician he didn’t know from beans but he could take orders and that would help. He turned his attention to checking his repair kit: fuses, splicing tape, jumper cables, meters, tools, wrenches and mallet and wood wedges for the leaks in the hull.

            Jesus Christ, if the hull pops in here, we’re fixed fine. A little salt water in the batteries and we’ll breathe chlorine gas for sure. Not for long we won’t, that’s for sure. Wonder how long it would take? Shit, I’d rather drown. No, not that either. I just want to make it; that’s all.

            The others in the compartment busied themselves at their own check lists and gear bags. No one was talking for the moment; each playing-out the drilled-in automatic actions that constant practice brings on.

            Paul suddenly looked up at Rolmward. “Hey, Red, did you check the battery compartment before you put your skinny can down in this fine officer’s country?”

            The freckled squint from the guileless face answered before the New England twang came from the homely, honest face. “Naow, I don’t figure I did,” Rolmward answered. “Want I should?”

            All eyes around the table swung toward the two men and grins showed as they waited for the reaction. “Now, what in the God-damned hell do you think I asked you for? Just so we would have something to talk about you, you ten-thumbed bastard?” Paul felt better; maybe the air cleared a little or something, but the pounding in his chest had muted now. “If it’s all the same to you, would you mind lifting your tail off the cushion and making your check down below. In case you forgot to close any of the water tank valves down there, you may have the pleasure of going down into the battery well and crawling around to do it while we get our lumps from those destroyers escorting those targets.”

            The others stirred out of the way as Rolmward slid along the bench toward the door to the passageway, laughing at his haste, then hilarious all out of proportion as he stuck his head around the opening and said, “Look buddy, you don’t like the way I work, you just get me busted a couple of grades to civilian and I won’t bother you no more.” The head disappeared and they heard the trap door in the passageway open as he let himself into the crawlspace and moved below the deck under their feet, securing the battery compartment.

            The whole ship now seemed to settle down for the moments ahead. It came as a feeling more than an actual sensation. The long waiting period as the tracking party began to accumulate data in the conning tower and pass orders for torpedo settings. Ping acted as the way-station for messages passing through to other compartments. Each order was repeated and the missing spaces filled in by rote. “The target has changed bearing and we’re coming right to meet them. Sound reports many screws clear and distinct bearing zero-three-seven on the bow. He hears high speed screws too; must be those cans escorting the convoy. The Old Man has passed the word that the smoking lamp is lit. Somebody give me a cigarette, hunh?”

            Paul reached into his shirt pocket and took out his pack and passed one to Ping, and lit his own, drawing deep. This was better than it had been. Without a cigarette it could be much worse. He thought back to the start of the chase the night before when the radar had first picked up this convoy headed for Tokyo. They had been sucked out of position by the zigzag pattern and hadn’t gotten in one shot. They had trailed this group all through the day, finally running around them late in the afternoon on the surface after the Old Man had determined their true course and possible destination. The tension building up in him as they tracked had made him almost unbearably nervous. Even the steak dinner Flores had dished up that evening had gone down like wood. Good steak, too.

            Ping suddenly sat up straight and they all alerted to him. “Smoking lamp is out. Here we go, fellas.”

            Instantly, the cigarettes were stubbed but not before the last drag was taken and held deep inside the smokers.

            Paul looked down at the table where his hands had been resting and noticed the pools of sweat that had collected on the linoleum. They vibrated slightly from the ship movement and looked black against the green. He suddenly noticed he was wet all over. The rolled-up sleeves of his shirt were deep blue and two large pockets of wet had appeared under his arms. Little drops ran down his chest and slid to his stomach then soaked into his belt line. Almost furtively, guiltily, he looked around to see if anyone had noticed, but no one was paying any attention to him. All eyes were on the telephone head-set and the talker.

            “We’re slowing down to one-third speed on the motors. There go the forward torpedo room doors. They’re making ready on number one, number two tube, number three, number four, number five and number six.” The air seemed to get thicker now from the few cigarettes and the tension.

            “Torpedo room reports ready on all tubes and standing by. The after room is getting it now, make ready number seven, number eight and number nine. The doors haven’t opened though. What the hell’s the matter with the ‘Man’?” Ping said.

            “Stupid bastard,” Baker said, “the Old Man is saving the after tubes for when they chase us.” His normally quiet, restrained voice was sharp and cutting, almost brittle as glass. His hands had the musette bag crushed between them and his whole figure was one of concentration. “Never mind the comments, just keep talking boy.”

            “Screw you, pill-pusher. You don’t like the way I’m talking, you wear this thing,” Ping answered. “If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s a non-combatant telling me how to run my job.”

            “Knock it off, you two Pearl Harbor Avengers. There isn’t either one of you who could whip your way out of a wet paper bag,” said Ratay. He was old-Navy, pre-Pearl Harbor and in Manila on December 7th with the subs tied up like sitting ducks and eating aerial bombs. “Come on, you hillbilly, keep talking. What the hell’s going on now? Jesus, you’re just about as useful with that thing as breasts on a bull.”

            Ping started to answer and then got back to his reporting, “Here we go. A pause, someone is breathing like a damned steam engine.”

            Paul thought, ‘Hell, it’s me.’

            “Stand-by, number one torpedo tube. Readyyyy—FIRE ONE.” The ship lurched as 600 pounds of compressed air slammed into the tube and kicked it out into the water and on its way. The slug of ingested water pushed the trapped air bubble back into the torpedo room bilges and the pressure in the boat went up a shade. Not enough to force them to pop their ears, but they all knew it was there. “FIRE TWO—Jesus Christ, lover of my soul, the Old Man’s a shooting fool. FIRE THREE—come on you blind bastards: just drive those big fat Marus into the pickle factory. We’re in a bunch of cigars. FIRE FOUR—hey, who the hell is timing in here?! FIRE FIVE—“

            “I am,” said Paul. “I checked the first one out and I’m marking the seconds. You just keep talking.”

            “That’s the bunch: there goes number six. What’s the matter kid, you look like you’re beginning to enjoy this ride,” Ping said to Paul. “This part I’m going to like. I don’t know about the crap that comes after this,” he smiled.

            “Now we head for the barn. All ahead, full speed left full rudder. Come steady on course one-seven-five. Christ, what the hell does the skipper want to do: sink them all? He is going to shoot from the after room now.”

            “Open all after room doors. Ready all tubes—ready seven, fire seven. Well, this ought to be real fast now. Fire nine. All secure. All secure. Close all torpedo tube doors. We are slowing to one-third so they can close the forward doors. Take her down to two hundred feet All ahead flank.”

            “How long has it been, Paul,” asked Fisher as he looked up from the book he was reading.

            “Fisher, what in the god-damned hell are you doing with that thing? Ain’t you got any sense?” Paul asked. “Rolmward I can excuse, but you been here before and this is a bunch.”

            “Man, Fisher answered, “you got something better to do? All we got to do in here is sit and wait. Ah sure like to read. It sure beats this worrying.”

            VROOM. Off in the water a hammer of sound reached out and slammed into the pressure hull and jostled the ship. Number one had found a home.

            At three more second intervals the thunder carried through the water to them. Then a silence. Up in the forward room, they could hear the shrill screaming of the torpedo gang as they rang their joy. Then, again, two more hits and their rude movements of the Sleeperfish a few seconds later.

            “Man, that’s shooting. Six hits out of nine fired.” Fisher’s fat face creased up all smiles. “Man, I like the one driving this boat. He gets nothing but hot coffee from now on. The exec, he gets mud; but the Old Man’s my boy.”

            “Fisher, you silly shit. You mean you’ve been giving the Old Man cold coffee? You wouldn’t dare. He’ll have that shiny black can of yours filled full of boot if you ever tried it.”

            “What the hell, half the time he don’t care what he’s drinkin.’ I give him good coffee though. The exec gets shit; and he’s so damned thick, he eats it like it was honey.”

            “Shut up you guys. I want to hear what’s going on with this phone. Oh, oh, here he comes. Sound reports high speed screws dead eastern and coming out fast. He’s closing fast and there is another one behind him.”

            “All hands, all hands, rig for depth charge; rig for depth charge. Rig for silent running. Rig for silent running.” The slamming of water-tight doors on their polished steel flages and the spinning sound of dog-wheels being turned up sounded loud as the fans and auxiliary equipment stopped, and the whole ship became three hundred feet of steel with eighty-five men trying to be silent for their lives.

 

 

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