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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
Looking back, my fury was a good thing; their derision turned my disappointment into an absurd determination to make a go of it. I’d show them up.
The conversion of the YP (yard patrol)-438 went on fairly rapidly. The rotted planks and wheelhouse were replaced, and three 20-mm guns were fixed to the adapter rings at the bow. The galley and crew’s quarters went in forward, while the fishhold became storage and office space. Petty officers’ quarters were put in aft of the engine room, captain’s quarters aft of the wheelhouse. Racks to hold four depth charges went aft, and a new signal mast was added.
Equipment started to arrive, too, but not the equipment we really needed. Important items, like mooring lines, tools, typewriter, and anchor, were all in short supply. At a regular yard you could scrounge around and find something, but here there was nothing. Apparently the allowance list had been made up using a destroyer as a model, and as a result, one thing I received promptly was an enormous shackle for a flying moor, which fancy vessels used in crowded waters when mooring in formation.
For some reason we received two of everything. I ended up with twelve frying pans. When I tried to turn in the surplus, the supply officer treated me to a tone clearly reserved for the lowest traitors and goldbrickers:
“It’s on your allowance list, isn’t it?”
“Then you must need it.”
A crew of eight had been assigned (this made for about one and a half frying pans per man), plus one officer. The leading seaman, O’Brien, was a competent sailor with a great fondness for the bottle. He would be the boatswain. The other members of the crew were all in their teens, straight from boot camp. The motor macs had been to school for a couple of months, and so had the cook, but none had been to sea. Normally, 20-mms use a three-man crew. With three guns I would be one man short, not to mention the engine room and depth-charge rack.
Since there was no quartermaster, I put in all the chart corrections myself, a job I rather liked to do, except for the confidential wreck charts that showed the location of our submarine victims: they reminded me how different a sailor is from ordinary civilians. Whenever I went to a cocktail party, I would be burdened with the hundred wrecks I had plotted between Hatteras and Canaveral, and the knowledge that one day soon I would be sailing those waters.
The YP-438 was about ready by late September. Mornings were chilly, and fall had tinged the lower branches of the maple trees. Stalingrad was holding; the Royal Air Force was bombing such diverse spots as Rangoon, Düsseldorf, Mandalay, and Rome. The YP successfully underwent dock trials. Then came the trial runs. The yard was in charge, and I merely went along for the ride. We found that the YP would cruise at eight knots with maybe a flank speed of ten —the minimum rate at which we could drop a depth charge at medium setting without blowing ourselves up. It was a beautiful day. I thought of the dying summer, the pleasant times with my wife, and the stability of my friends who owned homes and knew where they were going to be a month from now. And I thought of my ship, once a solid schooner, now looking somewhat like an outhouse on a raft.
After we returned, the yard boatswain stuck his head in the door.
“Captain,” he said (it was the first time anyone had called me that), “I just got the word—commissioning ceremonies at 1400 tomorrow, under way at 1430 for Lockwood Basin.”
“Good! The ship passed her trials, then?”
“With flying colors.”
He saw me gulp slightly. “Anything wrong, Captain? If there is you’d better let us know before the Navy takes over from the yard.”
“Everything seems to be all right.”
That evening, I suddenly remembered I didn’t know a thing about a commissioning ceremony and dug through my papers until I came up with directions that applied to commissioning a battleship. If I had a man to raise the ensign, a man to raise the jack, and a man to raise the commission pennant, it would leave a not very impressive total of five sailors to stand on deck for the ceremony. Somehow it didn’t seem right, and I frantically thumbed through the Watch Officer’s Guide, Knight’s Seamanship, and Naval Customs and Traditions trying to find something that would give me a clue as to what would happen. I kept thinking, Oh Lord, what if I should mess up my first act as commanding officer in front of the crew, the yard workmen, and the representative of the First Naval District.