The Last Cruise Of The YP-438

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On July 6, 1942, I was standing on the fantail of the minesweeper Fulmar off Portland, Maine, when the signal tower started blinking away. By the time I could get to the bridge, the message had already been typed up. It was for me.

ENSIGN RUSSELL E. SARD, USNR HEREBY DETACHED X PROCEED TO PORT YP-438 X MAKE REPORT IMMEDIATE SUPERIOR IN COMMAND IF PRESENT OTHERWISE BY DISPATCH X DUTY IN COMMAND YP-438

Appointment as commanding officer is the great moment in any young naval officer’s career. What made it all the more unbelievable was my relative lack of experience. I was twenty-five years old, had been the Fulmar’s executive officer for six months, and had joined the Navy a little over a year before. When we tied up to the pier, I went to the section base and found out that my new command was being converted to a warship in the Boston area and that my relief was expected within the next few days. But by the time the new exec arrived and had been broken in, July had turned to August. I was detached on August 7, in the morning, watched the Fulmar sail without me, then took a cab down to the dingy railroad station.

I bought a paper. The Germans were pushing hard at Stalingrad, the Marines had landed at Guadalcanal. I could not focus on any of it. My appointment to JG had come through, and I was wearing the extra half-stripe on my sleeve. The braid on my cap was salty green, and in my pocket were orders taking me to Boston and my first command.

As the train pulled out of the station, I savored all the contentment of a man going from here to there not caring how the trip was accomplished—no bearings, no charts, no logs, no breakdowns, no endless peering through the fog. I intensely enjoyed the unreal isolation. By the time the train reached Portsmouth, I was asleep.

The imps who inhabit the mists of our subconscious delight in disturbing the peace; or perhaps the train was going around a curve. At any rate I woke up with a jerk, and in the fraction of a second before waking I felt a little sting of fear. It stemmed from a most obvious cause—inexperience. When I didn’t know something on the Fulmar, it didn’t really matter; I could ask the captain. Now I was the captain. There would be nobody to ask.

The train pulled into North Station in Boston. I met my wife, and we went out to the Ritz for cocktails, to Joseph’s for dinner. For the time being I ceased to worry about tomorrow.

The next day I duly reported to 150 Causeway Street, headquarters of the First Naval District, and, of course, waited for several hours before getting the thirty copies of my orders stamped by somebody. Although putting a ship in commission is harassing, it is also great fun, since you get masses of things and you don’t have to pay for any of them. The objectives are straightforward enough: try to procure those items on the allowance list and steal those items not on the allowance list.

You train your men and see to it that the routines and paperwork are set up properly. Beyond that, it’s Christmas every day, gifts all over the place, and no bill from Bloomingdale’s in January.

Finally my orders were endorsed and I had a chance to talk to the personnel officer. He told me that my ship was undergoing conversion at a yacht yard nearby in Quincy. She was very small by Navy standards: 120 feet long, about 130 tons. She had been a Gloucester fishing schooner.

My wife and I drove out together, first to find the ship, then to find a place to live. We passed the big Fore River yard with mighty ships abuilding. She wasn’t there. I finally found her yard near a mudbank at the head of the bay—a very broken-down spot, with only a chief around. I knew my ship needed an overhaul, but I was not prepared for what I found. The masts and rigging had been stripped from her and were lying on the shore like the guts of a dead cat. All that was left of my vessel was an old Atlas diesel, a fine engine in its day back in 1906, but after thirty-five years not likely to be in tip-top shape. Nor would spare parts be readily available. The hull was filled with dry rot and the smell of fish. The chief tried to ease the blow: “She used to be a beautiful two-masted schooner, and when we get through with her she’ll be seaworthy enough,” he said. Then he added: “When the war is over, we’re supposed to put all that rigging back on. It’s a pile of rusty spaghetti right now, and I don’t suppose it’ll be any better a year from now. That’s what happens when the politicians demand ships out of thin air. They wouldn’t give us the money when we needed it.”

We stepped back on the dock. As we turned to go, two workmen walked over to the ship and looked at her. They both burst out laughing. The sound filled me with an unreasonable rage.

One of the workmen asked me, “You don’t expect to sail away in that tub of junk, do you?”

“Of course we’ll sail her,” I answered with such violence that both men fell silent.