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A SUBMARINE COMMANDER TELLS WHY WE ALMOST LOST THE PACIFIC WAR
December 1980 | Volume 32, Issue 1
There is shambles in the convoy. Two big ships are hit and sinking, their forward motion swiftly dragging to a halt, lights flashing around their decks (no need to worry about darken ship any longer), lifeboats and life rafts hastily being readied, men working madly, others seeking their abandon-ship stations on the sloping decks. No time to waste thinking about them, nor of the probability of wholesale destruction and death in broken engine rooms and scalding f irerooms. This is what we came for! It’s what they deserve! Let them die! It’s what they did to our people at Pearl Harbor, on Bataan, and everywhere they touched! But I can’t really hate them. I’ve killed them; I’ve done what had to be done, but I don’t hate them. I’d do it over, but I feel sorry for them.
Both ships are listing badly now. How to avoid the convergence of three others, one of them a big transport, headed our way with unfriendly intent? The rudder is still hard over, our propellers at full thrust—well, not quite. Shift the rudder! Put your rudder left full! All ahead emergency! Maneuvering, give her everything you’ve got! Everyone below is fully awake to the perilous situation. Even the rudder mechanism seems to respond faster than usual. One can instantly feel the effect on the motion of the ship. The closest ships to us are still the two just torpedoed. There’s room to slip between them, and it’s what the enemy might least expect. Moreover, they’ll not be able to do the same as easily, and they’ll not be able to shoot at us with those others in the way.
Having had time to build up speed, throwing increased smoke from the exhaust ports as the last notch of power is demanded from her diesels, our boat swings rapidly left, toward the sinking ships. We steady her on the open space between them, let her lunge ahead. Our engines, so suddenly put on maximum emergency power, have left a large cloud of exhaust smoke at the spot where we did our fishtail maneuver. That will confuse the issue a bit more for our opponents. Passing between the two sinking ships, there is a moment to savor the full impact of the disaster we have wrought on them. The first one hit is now virtually on her beam ends and down by the stern. Everything on deck is in impossible confusion. Deck gear, hatch covers, loose barrels and lumber, lifeboats and life rafts—equipment of all sorts is sliding and falling down vertical decks into the water. The outlines of men can be seen everywhere, many of them apparently wearing their knapsacks, for their shoulders are bulky. Some are standing in clear silhouette on the now horizontal port side. Our engines are drowning out all other sound, but we can imagine the hoarse shouts, the screams, the sound of heavy objects falling into the water and the duller thuds of them falling inside the broken hull. The ship to port is a little farther away, but in equally bad shape. She was nearly as big as the lead ship, and she, too, is covered with agonized humanity.
Neither ship can last many minutes longer. Nearly everyone we see is doomed. For many, trapped inside in what is by now a topsy-turvy nightmare, the nightmare will be mercifully short. For some it is already over, in the stillness of a flooded compartment. Most important, here are two ships whose service to our enemy is now terminated. Their absence will bring the Empire of Japan that much closer to the end.
On the other side of the convoy, the port side, the situation is as chaotic as on the starboard. One of our torpedoes, running through the near column of ships, has struck a freighter in the far column. Her bow is completely gone, from halfway to the bridge. She’ll be under inside of an hour. The two escorts on this side are not visible, yet, anyway. The two remaining ships of the port column have radically altered course and, so far as we can determine, are simply fleeing the scene. This is made to order. We are already going as fast as our diesels can drive us; we simply parallel the nearest ship, taking care to stay out of visual range, drive ahead and then slow way down, with diesels muttering softly again, keeping our stern toward him, barely maintaining steerageway, waiting for him to come on. He does not even zigzag; he maintains a steady course, no doubt wishing to put maximum distance between himself and the mayhem he has just witnessed. In vain, for two torpedoes come out of the blackness, and he is finished.
We have, in the meantime, directed the reload forward to resume. Radar! Search all around and report! The thing of greatest interest is the escort locations, for on this will depend our own next movements. There are two undamaged ships left of the original convoy, and four destroyer types with whom we’d as soon not tangle except in situations of our own choosing. While plot is evaluating the radar reports,’ we maintain moderate speed and steady course to ease reload. Eventually—it seems an interminable time—all torpedo tubes are reloaded and ready. In the meantime, we have begun to hear depth charges, under the circumstances a delightful sound. Plot announces that the two starboard escorts are milling around the spot where we made our first attack. Evidently they think we made all that smoke when we dived, and whatever they are depth-charging, it is not us.