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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
“Well, being as how the engine is kind of old, I wouldn’t recommend going at anything but standard speed.”
“Oh Lord, how about slow?”
“No, sir, every speed up to standard is critical.”
“How about full?”
“Oh no, sir.”
“Well at least I can back down, can’t I? Otherwise, it’s going to be a little rough getting to a dock.”
“If you have to back down—please, sir, back down as little as possible.”
“All right, Hansen, I’ll try.”
And so Hansen returned to his pipes and valves, and I wondered whether what he said was really true. If an experienced chief got hold of the engine and the same thing happened, it might be prudent to get the ship surveyed out of commission; if all we could do was go ahead standard at eight knots, the YP could not be of any conceivable use to the Navy. I was totally untrained in engineering and could make no judgment. But in any event, Hansen’s repairs allowed us to get into Provincetown Harbor.
Shortly after we dropped anchor, the shakedown officer came into my cabin and said, “Captain, small-craft warnings are up. Did you notice them?” Stunned that the watch hadn’t reported it to me, I went out on deck. The wind was indeed rising. I started to chew out the man on watch until he asked, “What is a small-craft warning, sir?” The red pennant flying from the mast of the weather station, I explained. I thought of the crew on the Fulmar, all of them regular Navy, and sighed.
The wind was blowing from the Southeast. Provincetown Harbor is open in that direction and has a sandy bottom, which means poor holding ground in heavy weather. I called my one officer and instructed him to keep taking continuous bearings to be sure we were not dragging our anchor, and then I went over the ship, making certain that everything was well lashed down.
The seaman on watch reported that the small-craft warning had been hauled down. My relief at the news was shortlived—about eight seconds all told—for the weather station raised the gale-warning flags. Already the wind had risen to a point where you had to lean into it to keep your balance, and the waters of the harbor churned with foam. With a sinking feeling, I noted that all the fishing boats around us were getting under way, fleeing like birds before the storm.
Ensign Mills called me and said he thought we were dragging. The crew went to special sea detail and the engine was started, while our curious mass of pulleys and cables laboriously raised the anchor. The YP went forward a few hundred yards. I dropped the hook. At first, we seemed to hold, but slowly, maddeningly, the bearings began to change as the ship dragged her anchor once more. Had I been sure the engine would keep running, I would have stood out to sea, but after the talk with Hansen, I decided to try again.
We anchored twice more, and each time the same thing happened. As the sky closed down with darkness and rain, accurate bearings became more and more difficult to take. The wind rose and shrieked through the rigging. Then the engine room called to say they had to shut down for about five minutes, and Hansen came on the bridge with the look of a man betrayed.
“Captain, I told you we could only go standard speed.”
“Will you be able to fix it?”
“Yes, sir, but not to do what we’ve been doing. I’m sorry, sir, we just can’t keep changing speeds.”
I figured we could drag safely for ten or fifteen minutes. I didn’t want to drop the big anchor except as a last resort, since we would never be able to haul it up again. In a few minutes, the engine room called that the engine was fixed. Then, to my horror, a fishing boat dropped anchor close astern of us. We were still dragging and frantically signaled them. They paid no attention. So I dropped the big anchor after all and started the engine. It was too late. When we next swung to port, we would surely collide, my stern with their bow.
The only thing left to do was to cut the anchor cable with an ax. I ordered the engine ahead. The two ships collided then, but it was only for an instant, and the damage was slight. The YP slowly pulled clear, leaving two anchors at the bottom of the bay. I had delayed standing out because of the engine, but it didn’t matter now: the choice had been taken from me. If the engine failed, disaster was certain, but the simplicity of my position was almost a relief.