The Last Cruise Of The YP-438

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It was the happiest dawn for all hands. Cape Hatteras marks a climate division, and when the sun rose, it was almost warm, maybe as much as forty-five degrees. Even better, the sea had the smell of tropical waters. One of the men sighted a school of flying fish off the port bow.

There is a buoy south of Hatteras, which we picked up in midmorning. It marked the start of the wreck area. The northbound convoys would rendezvous here, and here the submarines would wait for them. We passed our first wreck in the area, then another, then another. Surely a sunken ship is as sad as any of the sad sights of war. It is not spectacular, the way a devastated city is, or as gruesome as a pile of corpses, but it brings a melancholy chill. The masts of the wrecks poked above water with maybe one spar bobbing loose; there was no wreckage or oil visible, and only rarely did a hull show above the surface. It was quiet and sad, and a little spooky. If you ever need proof that a ship is a living thing, look at a sunken one.

The men watched with a sort of awe. But as the morning wore on, the day got warmer, and the sailors actually were able to remove their winter clothing and turn their faces to the sun. By late afternoon small cumulus clouds appeared, and at sundown the wind dropped and we had a magnificent sunset. Then the sky turned a pale tropic green, and the little white clouds turned black. A cold wind rose, and the sea developed a nasty chop. Winter was still with us.

We were in a cross-sea, and it made me seasick for the first time since Provincetown. We had to hold our course to the Cape Fear turning point, which came a bit later than my dead reckoning. I gave the order for the turn with some reluctance. Sure enough, things went back to normal. We broke down immediately.

The trouble centered around the No. 5 cylinder and continued for the rest of the night. Once again, I knew, I could not make port in daylight. I was beginning to tire; it was my second night without sleep. The breakdowns now came with such regularity that they took on almost standard routine, with the flavor of a classical dance. The sequence went something like this: a funny smell would come up from the engine room. Then little wisps of oily smoke would curl up through the deck into the wheelhouse. Then would begin a series of loud thumps below decks ending with a particularly loud crash. The engine would stop, and I would look aft and see the black gang running like hell up the ladder, closely followed by a thick cloud of black smoke.

After a period of wallowing, the smoke would clear, and the black gang would return to the engine room. Finally, we would start up again and proceed until the next breakdown.

The first time it happened, I thought the ship was on fire, but after that we accepted it in rather blasé fashion. More serious was the fact that the seams had definitely started to open from the wrenching in the cross-seas, and the bilge pump was having difficulty keeping ahead of the water. The pump was powered by the electric generator, which was set too far down in the hull. If the water level rose to the generator, we would lose all power for the pump, and we would have to shut down the main engine. Then we would sink. We rounded up all buckets and containers just in case and got out a piece of canvas. If I lost power, I thought I’d at least try to sail the damn thing in.

With the coming of the day, the seas eased a bit and the bilge pump held its own. The engine continued to break down. Late that afternoon, however, we picked up the channel buoy for Charleston. I felt justified in breaking radio silence to request pumps at the dock. The water had risen above the floorboards of the engine room and was only a couple of inches from the generator.

It was dark long before we reached the harbor entrance. Partly because of the strong current and partly because of exhaustion, I made a very poor landing alongside a British minesweeper. A large pump stood ready on her dock. But in the calmer waters of the bay, the seams had closed up and our own pump had gotten her almost dry.

I was slaphappy—I’d had just three hours’ sleep in the last ninety—but before turning in I had to make my reports at the section base. They were annoyed because I didn’t need their pump, but I was too tired to care.

It was terrible waking up at six the next morning, but I had a meeting with several of the base officers, who simply wouldn’t believe that the ship leaked. I had to take them aboard and show the mark that the oily water from the bilges had made along the side of the ship, like a ring around a very dirty bathtub. This finally convinced them that I had to go into dry dock. The same thing happened when I asked for a complete overhaul of the main engine. They wanted to know when it had been done before. I told them a week ago, and they thought I was faking something until I showed them the log, and their engineering officer took a look at the engine. So they finally decided I needed to go up the Cooper River to the Navy yard.