The Last Cruise Of The YP-438

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A couple of ships stood out from the section base. One was a sleek twin-engined job that looked like an ex-rum runner. The captain was a very jaunty fellow with his cap set at a rakish angle. “I’ll pull you off,” he called. “I’ve got plenty of power.”

So we passed him a line. He maneuvered into position and slowly opened up his throttle. He wasn’t kidding about having plenty of power: the two engines sounded like a squadron of planes. But the YP-438 would not budge. Then I heard, over the roar, a splintering noise. His boat jumped forward leaving his entire stern behind dangling at the end of the tow line. At first he thought the line had parted, and he cut his engines. Suddenly he saw he had no stern left; he gave the truest double-take I have ever seen, gunned the engines full speed ahead, and roared to the dock, where he instantly sank.

The other ship that was standing by told us no other vessel at the base could possibly get us off the rocks. Obviously we had to abandon ship. He came alongside. We passed over the publications and logs, and he returned to the base to get a lighter with a crane. We worked like mad to get as much equipment as we could on deck. The tide was dropping now, and the seams had split open. All machinery had been secured, for there was already a foot of water in the engine room. The cook, however, continued to get a sumptuous Sunday roast ready in the galley. In fact, a few minutes later he came up to me and said, “Dinner is ready.”

“Oh, for crissake,” I replied, but he was persistent: “What shall I do with it?”

At a total loss for an answer, I said, “Keep it warm in the oven.”

“Yes sir,” he replied snappily and marched back to his galley.

The lighter came alongside. As we loaded gear on her deck, the crane picked up the guns, the anchor winch, and the depth-charge rack. It was like an operation without anesthetic: the wood was so rotten that we didn’t even take out any of the bolts. The crane just ripped the equipment up and swung it onto the barge.

After they left, the cook came back and said, “Sir, the dinner, now?” I gave him what I thought was a withering look, but he said, “Sir, you ought to eat something; you haven’t had a real meal since yesterday noon.”

He was right. I was ravenous; I told him to bring the roast to the bridge and I would carve for everybody. Just as he was bringing the roast, O’Brien came up to say that the men’s service records were still in the hold and to ask permission to get them. By now there was over five feet of water in the hold, so I told him to be sure no more than two men would dive down at a time and to have the others watch out for them.

The men started diving, and I started carving. Each time a soggy service record was brought up, I would put a hunk of meat on the point of the knife and flick it to the finder, who would catch it like a seal. All tension went. For a while it was like a party. But I was still the captain, and as soon as all the records were brought up, I told them to knock off, and we had our last meal on the YP-438. Then the fuel tanks burst and blobs of diesel oil came to the surface. The brief mood of gaiety passed; it seemed as if we were watching the death throes of a living thing that had tried hard but was just too old.

We made several trips to the base carrying what little was left. Then the YP began to break up. Water flooded the hold right up to the main deck. Big swells started coming in from the ocean, and the last few minutes aboard were precarious. The small boat could no longer come alongside, and I had to jump to make it.

That was my last official act aboard the YP-438. I watched her all the way in. Great disappointment overcame me. I hadn’t made it. I had lost my ship. Yet the weight of worry was lifted, and I was so exhausted that I nearly fell asleep in the boat watching my ship die. I found a bunk at the bachelor officers’ quarters and fell in.

The next morning the YP-438 had disappeared.

The day after, I telephoned my wife and told her what had happened and not to tell anybody. I would join her in a day or so but couldn’t say just when.

The last time I saw the men came about because the duty officer called me in and complained they were hard to handle and wouldn’t work at what they were told. I asked what they were working at. “Weeding the commandant’s flower bed.” I said I’d go out and speak to them, and sure enough, there they were pulling out no more than a weed a minute. One of them saw me, and they all snapped furiously to work. As I came up they smiled sheepishly, then dropped their rakes and hoes and saluted smartly. I returned the salute. We said good-bye, and I asked them not to spoil their good records, for they’d soon get another ship. One of them said, “It isn’t fair, sir—”

I cut him off. “Bear with it. If any one of you does anything wrong, remember, you’re still a crew, all of you will be blamed.”