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The Last Cruise Of The YP-438
His job was to destroy German submarines. To do it, they gave him twelve men, three machine guns, four depth charges, and an old wooden fishing schooner with an engine that literally drove mechanics mad.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
We left the cabin, and the chief warrant went with me to the YP. When we got below, he whistled at the sight of the engine, then looked it over with the interest of an old car buff examining a Mercer raceabout. Finally he said: “We’re not supposed to start work till tomorrow, but those heads look as though they might be a bit difficult to get off. If you don’t mind, Captain, I think I’d better send a couple of men over right now.”
It was music to my ears. The men came over and banged away all night, but it didn’t disturb my sleep, and the next morning the watch had difficulty waking me in time for morning colors. By that time a swarm of machinists had come aboard and were busy below. Later that morning the exec of the tender dropped by. He must have regarded me as a cross between a Don Quixote and his son; I can think of no other rational explanation for his interest. The work continued all day, all night, all the next day, all the next night. The engine was completely broken down and reassembled. The men worked with a fervor usually reserved for great causes, and ten minutes before the expiration of the allotted forty-eight hours, we were undergoing dock trials.
We were given an extra half-hour for a trial run in the stream. With the chief warrant and a flock of lesser lights aboard, we turned down the harbor and proceeded to run beautifully for a thousand yards or so. Then we broke down. The chief warrant looked as if he just didn’t believe it: the back of his neck turned red, and he rushed down to the engine room. Soon the engine started up again, and he came back to the bridge and said what all the others had said: “I just can’t understand it. There is nothing really wrong.” His reputation was at stake, and he had spent a good part of that forty-eight hours in the engine room with his men. I thought for a moment he was going to cry.
We returned to the dock in silence. The chief warrant said, “They ought to blow this hunk of junk to bits,” and, ashamed and in a rage, left the YP.
The exec was at the railing when we came back and asked brightly, “How did it go?”
“We broke down,” I answered. He stared at me for a moment.
“Come to my cabin.”
I went, and we sat down.
“You know there is nothing more I can do.”
“Yes, sir, thank you very much.”
“If I were you, I would take steps to get your ship surveyed.” (That meant put out of commission and scrapped. I was shocked at the idea.)
“I’m going to have to try to make it to Miami.”
“That’s not reasonable.”
“I know that, sir, but I’m en route, and nobody in between will do anything.”
“Well, good luck.”
I spent the rest of the day checking my navigation and getting my routing instructions. This was one time when I dreaded the thought of going to sea. In addition to my usual worries about our ability to stay afloat, and the regular problems of winter weather, there were some special added ones. The swept channel was unusually long off the Chesapeake because the continental shelf extended to its greatest width at that point. The seventy miles of channel meant that the whole day would be spent heading out to sea, which in turn meant rounding Cape Hatteras at night. Then, south of Hatteras there was a large minefield and no harbor closer than Morehead City. At that point we would be entering the area of wrecks that I had so carefully plotted in Cape Cod, and which had increased in number since that time. You could not shape a normal course between Capes Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear without running into at least a dozen wrecks, unlit and unmarked.
I set the call for special sea detail at three o’clock, for the trip out the swept channel would take all day, and I hoped to make the turn before dark. We rounded the buoy and chugged into the outer harbor in a flat calm. Dawn came up as we proceeded into Chesapeake Bay itself, and what a blessed dawn for us; not a cloud in the sky, still no wind. And hours later, as we passed Cape Henry, the good calm weather still prevailed. Except for a few minor coughs when we first got under way, the engine was working fine.
All day we proceeded seaward. It became apparent that we would not make the turn in daylight, but at least the sea remained calm. After dark, just before it was time for the turn, all the crew turned out on deck to see how the YP would break down this time. For once nothing happened, and she kept sailing on without missing a beat. It was too good to be true. Later in the evening we picked up the loom of the light at Hatteras and were abeam at about two o’clock in the morning.
By four o’clock the YP had for the first time in her history run twenty-four hours without a breakdown. I didn’t dare even think about it but just sat on the stool and half-dozed, waiting for the dawn.