The Last Cruise Of The YP-438


As with so many things in life, I needn’t have worried. The officer in charge of commissioning ships couldn’t make lit from Boston and, on the phone, told the yard chief to act in his place. At 1400 he came aboard in a great hurry; another ship was coming into the yard, and he wanted us out as soon as possible. He gave me the orders commissioning the ship, mumbled something, signed something, and left.

I was now the captain. It was the loneliest moment in my life, and I was quite jittery. But we got under way without trouble, and when the No. 2 line dropped away from the deck, the final umbilical cord was cut. I was on my own. I rang up ahead slow, which seemed to symbolize the start, and there were a few seconds of fierce pride and joy. It was a clear, calm day in early October, the clouds were very white and the water very blue.

The ship wound its way through the narrow channel past the Fore River yard and out into the islands of Boston Harbor. I gained some confidence. At least we had not sunk. But then I took a wrong turn and saw the bow nosing toward a couple of saplings stuck in the mud. I backed down full, and in the process churned up some mud, but I never knew whether we touched bottom or not. (In the Navy, to touch bottom is the equivalent of rape in civilian life.)

There is an advantage in having an inexperienced crew: nobody knew what had happened. The engine developed a slight wheeze in protest from having had to back down so suddenly, but otherwise we progressed as planned.

At Lockwood Basin preparations for shakedown began immediately. For the first time I was able to test the anchor gear. It was an extraordinary arrangement. Because of the shortage of anchors, the YP-438 had received two. The regular one was too light to hold the ship, and the spare was too heavy to be pulled up by the winch. Hauling in the anchor cable (cable was used on small ships because of the shortage of chain) required a Rube Goldberg arrangement of ropes and pulleys and,come-alongs that covered the entire deck and took forever to operate—when it did operate.

No other ships were being readied at Lockwood Basin just now, and since the shakedown officers had nothing to do, they concentrated on me. As a consequence, the list of things to be done soon grew to several hundred items.

Several days before we were due to shove off, a new PC steamed in, looking like a vest-pocket destroyer. The shakedown officers, fed up with pretending that yachts and converted fishboats had anything to do with the Navy, swarmed over the PC and left me in comparative peace. I accomplished a good deal, but I was far from ready when orders came through directing me to proceed to Provincetown, Cape Cod.

We set out at dawn with an increased complement of four men, bringing the crew to a grand total of twelve. We had at last equaled the number of frying pans. The shakedown officer who went with us was a very sensible man who knew a good deal about the ocean. My other officer was Ensign Mills, a nice young lowan straight out of the cornfields with a three-month stop over in Chicago for indoctrination. This was the first time in his life he had seen the ocean.

I was keyed up but not as nervous as when we left Quincy. We got under way smartly, sailed down the bay correctly, and waited for the antisubmarine nets to open without drifting where we didn’t want to drift. The Harbor Entrance Control Post let us out promptly, and we set off on a course roughly paralleling the south shore of Boston. The weather was fine, the sea calm. As we drew past the sand spits of Plymouth, we made ready, as ordered, to drop a depth charge.

We went to general quarters, and I rang up our meager flank speed. The YP shivered and shook with the unaccustomed exertion. The depth charge dropped and went off with a violent thud.

As if from fright, the engine broke down immediately and the heads overflowed. A ship as small as the YP did not rate an engineering officer or even an experienced motor mac. The highest rating was a motor machinist 3rd class named Hansen, a nice-looking Swedish boy from Minnesota. What he lacked in experience he tried to make up for in conscientious hard work. With the engine repaired, Hansen came up to the bridge to talk to me.

“There are some things, sir, I’m afraid you can’t do if the engine is to keep running.”

“Such as?”

“Don’t drop no more depth charges.”

“Suppose we see a submarine?” I was making what I thought was a mildly ironic remark, but Hansen answered seriously.

“Sir, you know as well as I do we aren’t going to sink any submarine at our speed and no sound gear.”

“And only four depth charges. I guess you’re right.”

“Yes, sir. Then you won’t drop another?”

“I’ll try not to.”

“There is another thing, sir.”

“What’s that?”