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.
On July 6, 1942, I was standing on the fantail of the minesweeper Fulmar off Portland, Maine, when the signal tower started blinking away. By the time I could get to the bridge, the message had already been typed up. It was for me.
ENSIGN RUSSELL E. SARD, USNR HEREBY DETACHED X PROCEED TO PORT YP-438 X MAKE REPORT IMMEDIATE SUPERIOR IN COMMAND IF PRESENT OTHERWISE BY DISPATCH X DUTY IN COMMAND YP-438
Appointment as commanding officer is the great moment in any young naval officer’s career. What made it all the more unbelievable was my relative lack of experience. I was twenty-five years old, had been the Fulmar’s executive officer for six months, and had joined the Navy a little over a year before. When we tied up to the pier, I went to the section base and found out that my new command was being converted to a warship in the Boston area and that my relief was expected within the next few days. But by the time the new exec arrived and had been broken in, July had turned to August. I was detached on August 7, in the morning, watched the Fulmar sail without me, then took a cab down to the dingy railroad station.
I bought a paper. The Germans were pushing hard at Stalingrad, the Marines had landed at Guadalcanal. I could not focus on any of it. My appointment to JG had come through, and I was wearing the extra half-stripe on my sleeve. The braid on my cap was salty green, and in my pocket were orders taking me to Boston and my first command.
As the train pulled out of the station, I savored all the contentment of a man going from here to there not caring how the trip was accomplished—no bearings, no charts, no logs, no breakdowns, no endless peering through the fog. I intensely enjoyed the unreal isolation. By the time the train reached Portsmouth, I was asleep.
The imps who inhabit the mists of our subconscious delight in disturbing the peace; or perhaps the train was going around a curve. At any rate I woke up with a jerk, and in the fraction of a second before waking I felt a little sting of fear. It stemmed from a most obvious cause—inexperience. When I didn’t know something on the Fulmar, it didn’t really matter; I could ask the captain. Now I was the captain. There would be nobody to ask.
The train pulled into North Station in Boston. I met my wife, and we went out to the Ritz for cocktails, to Joseph’s for dinner. For the time being I ceased to worry about tomorrow.
The next day I duly reported to 150 Causeway Street, headquarters of the First Naval District, and, of course, waited for several hours before getting the thirty copies of my orders stamped by somebody. Although putting a ship in commission is harassing, it is also great fun, since you get masses of things and you don’t have to pay for any of them. The objectives are straightforward enough: try to procure those items on the allowance list and steal those items not on the allowance list.
You train your men and see to it that the routines and paperwork are set up properly. Beyond that, it’s Christmas every day, gifts all over the place, and no bill from Bloomingdale’s in January.
Finally my orders were endorsed and I had a chance to talk to the personnel officer. He told me that my ship was undergoing conversion at a yacht yard nearby in Quincy. She was very small by Navy standards: 120 feet long, about 130 tons. She had been a Gloucester fishing schooner.
My wife and I drove out together, first to find the ship, then to find a place to live. We passed the big Fore River yard with mighty ships abuilding. She wasn’t there. I finally found her yard near a mudbank at the head of the bay—a very broken-down spot, with only a chief around. I knew my ship needed an overhaul, but I was not prepared for what I found. The masts and rigging had been stripped from her and were lying on the shore like the guts of a dead cat. All that was left of my vessel was an old Atlas diesel, a fine engine in its day back in 1906, but after thirty-five years not likely to be in tip-top shape. Nor would spare parts be readily available. The hull was filled with dry rot and the smell of fish. The chief tried to ease the blow: “She used to be a beautiful two-masted schooner, and when we get through with her she’ll be seaworthy enough,” he said. Then he added: “When the war is over, we’re supposed to put all that rigging back on. It’s a pile of rusty spaghetti right now, and I don’t suppose it’ll be any better a year from now. That’s what happens when the politicians demand ships out of thin air. They wouldn’t give us the money when we needed it.”
We stepped back on the dock. As we turned to go, two workmen walked over to the ship and looked at her. They both burst out laughing. The sound filled me with an unreasonable rage.
One of the workmen asked me, “You don’t expect to sail away in that tub of junk, do you?”
“Of course we’ll sail her,” I answered with such violence that both men fell silent.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
As if to signal our departure the skies opened up and rain came down like Niagara Falls, blotting out the lights on the shore in an instant. As we moved out from the lee of the land, the full force of the gale hit the YP with a series of violent shudders that made both me and my motor mac pray very hard that the engine would hold, at least until we cleared the land. There would be little chance for anyone to survive in the mountainous surf that would be breaking off Race Point.
My plan was to head out to sea during the early part of the night and then run toward the mainland with the sea on our quarter. By taking the worst of it early, perhaps the YP could survive even if the engine failed and we had to drift.
By now the waves were breaking over the bow with such force that the rest of the crew could not come on deck to relieve the watch. In the wheelhouse there was the signalman, the boatswain, the shakedown officer, and myself. We worked the wheel in ten-minute shifts; it took enormous physical effort to hold the ship to her course, and no one had the strength to keep the helm for longer than ten minutes. My cabin, which was also the chart room, was a mess: books, drawers, equipment, were all sloshing around the deck. Fortunately the navigating problem was simple.
In the blackness, the only sound besides the wind and the waves was the incessant talk on the voice radio. The whole sea around Cape Cod seemed to be filled with small boats in trouble—one had lost a rudder, another was sinking, a third had engine failure, a fourth was about to pile up on the beach near Barnstable. Their cries for help were as terrifying as the storm around us. I became violently seasick.
As the hours wore on, I acquired a little more confidence in the engine, but I didn’t dare admit it to myself, lest the very thought bring bad luck. I figured a DR (dead reckoning) position and decided to make the turn to the reverse course around 11:00 P.M. If my assumed speed of three knots against the storm was correct, I could not possibly run aground if the engine quit. But I had no idea if we actually were making three knots good over the bottom. We had an hour to go before the turn, during which period I threw up four times more. The storm had reached hurricane force, and we couldn’t tell what was ocean and what was sky. The sheets of rain mixed with the spume from the waves till the whole world seemed to be nothing more than a solid curtain of water.
At eleven I decided to wait another half-hour just in case my DR was wrong. In the meantime I threw up a couple of times more. I had no idea how the YP would ride in a following sea, but for most ships a following sea is very dangerous. At eleven-thirty we commenced the turn. After a few dreadful rolls that filled me with genuine terror, we came about and headed in a westerly direction with the sea on the port quarter. Then, God bless her, the YP rode beautifully. She tore through the water; the pounding and shaking was gone, and since we were riding with the wind, the force of the storm seemed less. She was going so fast that I felt more like a witch on a broomstick than a sailor. The rain let up slightly, and for the first time we could tell what was ocean and what was sky, and we could see the great waves rushing ahead of the ship to clear a path.
At one-thirty the sky almost cleared for a moment, and we saw, very faintly, an aircraft beacon. Then the weather closed in again.
The beacon was probably from around Salem or Beverley on the North Shore of Boston and was disturbing since there was no way to estimate how far off shore we were. I didn’t think we were close, but I didn’t want to take the chance. I ordered a turn back into the storm, and again the terrible pounding made me sick immediately. In fact, I had been seasick every ten or fifteen minutes and had stopped counting after the fourteenth time. But the light did finally come and showed us a distant shore to the south. No landmarks were visible, and it was not until noon that I got an accurate fix that placed us about two hours away from the harbor entrance.
In the meantime the engine room reported that the engine would not be able to start again if it stopped. (It’s not like an automobile: if you want to back down, you have to stop a ship’s engine and then start it in reverse.) Hansen came up to explain. The change in him was startling. He was not merely haggard from his long stretch in the engine room; he looked like a child who had just been hit by a stranger in the street.
I sent one message to the section base requesting docking assistance and another to the Harbor Entrance Control Post asking them to let us through as promptly as possible.
Any skipper remembers his good moments of ship handling, and this one was spectacularly good. I came in well to windward, judged everything just right, and we ended up five feet from the dock, dead in the water. The small group of officers and men who were watching made my moment even more satisfactory. I noticed them pointing at the bow of the ship, but I couldn’t figure out why and at the moment didn’t care. I was delighted to have returned safely after taking the ship through a hurricane and to have made a perfect landing without backing. I felt like the little boys in the Steig cartoons of dreams of glory.
The lines were doubled up, and I had just secured the engine when the storm played me a final dirty trick. The wind tore the screen door from the hook that had been holding it open and slammed it on my fingers. To this day I can’t straighten out the fourth finger of my left hand. I went ashore to sick bay, had my hand dressed, and called my wife. Coming back to the ship, my hands and legs shaking with fatigue, I saw what the men had been pointing at. The sea had ripped off sections of the hull planking at the bow. A quick inspection of the rest of the YP showed me that everything was loose: guns, winch, depth-charge rack. The whole deck house had been lifted about three inches off the deck, and only four steel rods and bolts had kept us from being swept into the ocean.
I was too tired to think of anything more. When my wife arrived, for the first time in our married life I made her drive. I found myself unable to say a word. When we got home, I made a stiff drink. The second one helped a little. My wife had used up all her ration stamps to buy a steak, but the sight of food made me feel sick again. I was barely able to apologize for not eating it and went upstairs. When I sat on the bed to take off my shoes, I could not resist just lying back. In three seconds I was asleep with my clothes on.
Subsequently in my Naval career, I was in worse storms, and many times had to go three days without sleep as opposed to the mere thirty-six hours this time. But I don’t think I ever got as tired. The combination of lack of sleep, wrestling with the wheel, green crew, brokendown engine, and seasickness is fairly unbeatable. But I had learned a lot, particularly how to be seasick. It’s like yoga; if you learn to relax while being sick, you can get through it with little effort; in fact, it becomes no more than a minor discomfort, somewhat more unpleasant than a belch, not much more tiring. If you fight it, it turns you into a mass of jelly.
If you survive, there is nothing like a storm to change a bunch of civilians into a crew. It’s worth twenty shakedowns, and even if the men didn’t know much about seamanship as yet, the gale had made them a unit, proud of themselves and understanding the need for discipline, alertness, and all the other virtues that they had been lectured about without previous effect.
As far as I was concerned, I learned much more from the storm than the experience in seamanship. I learned that you can live with fear, if you treat it the same way as seasickness. The idea is not to try to fight the fear and get rid of it, but to fight any loss of control your mind has over your actions. Little things can help or hinder; being exhausted, for example, is often a help, and acts as a sort of calming narcotic. Perhaps there are those who are naturally brave, but I was not cast in the heroic mold, and I had to devise my own means to try and do the job. At the section base they had said that the winds were eighty-five miles an hour with gusts up to one hundred and twenty, and if you could survive that, well, how could it be much worse?
When I staggered back to the ship at five o’clock the next morning, the duty officer told me that we were to return to the yard. The repairs took about a week. My wife and I were happy to see our friends again, but it wasn’t really much fun. I felt like a package returned to the sender by mistake, and at the end of the repair period I was glad to leave.
This time we docked at the South Boston yard. The atmosphere there was very different from a strictly Navy yard, because big transports were at the docks, and the area was swarming with troops getting ready to embark. I didn’t know what was up, but these soldiers were obviously going into something big. They were fine-looking men and marched up the gangways singing “Deep in the Heart of Texas.” The transports sailed the next day, and suddenly little YP seemed awfully unrelated to the war. November was almost over, and our orders were to get under way on December I and head for New York, where we would get onward routing to the Caribbean.
As usual before a departure, I didn’t get much sleep: to bed at one-thirty, up at three-thirty. We got under way at dawn. The day was clear, the water calm, but the temperature kept dropping, and by noon it was ten above zero. As we passed by Plymouth, the engine broke down not more than a couple of hundred yards from the spot where the depth charge had been dropped. It was as if the YP had been frightened by the memory of the last time. The damage was quickly repaired, but it dashed my hopes that after all the overhauls and repairs the engine might work somewhat more consistently. However, we lost very little time, and soon we were chugging on down to the Cape Cod Canal. I hoped that we would get through and anchor before dark.
Going through the Cape Cod Canal is no more difficult than driving down a four-lane highway, but because of its importance to coastal shipping, no ship could pass through without a pilot. None was on hand to take us through, and we had to circle for two hours. It was pitch black by the time we arrived at the Buzzards Bay end. When we passed under the bridge to the Cape that I had driven over so many times in the summer, I thought what a different creature the ocean is in the winter: familiar places look strange, and a calm day in December is rougher than a rough day in summer.
When we anchored off Mattapoisett, the temperature was about ten below. The cold penetrated the whole ship, clothing, bulkheads, pencils. I left a call for two in the morning and went to bed with mittens and wool helmet. But I was still cold and couldn’t really sleep. At two o’clock I had a cup of coffee in the engine room, the only reasonably warm place on the ship, and then made preparations to get under way. The anchor gear had frozen, and the men had to haul in the anchor by hand, a difficult job because there was a coating of ice around the cable.
The wind that blew away a thick morning fog also coated the whole ship with a layer of ice and made it seem even colder than it was. I sat on the high stool in the wheelhouse, wrapped in two blankets, looking more like a sick Indian than a brave Naval officer. As I sat, I noticed the ship was getting sluggish and slower. After she took a long time to right herself from a roll, I suddenly realized what a dope I was. The scuppers were clogged with ice, and every wave that broke over the bow was adding more water. The ship was filling up like a bathtub. The crew turned to with pipes, axes, and whatever was handy and, working knee-deep in water, cleared the scuppers. In the meantime the engine broke down, and we wallowed for more than an hour.
At length Hansen reported that although the engine was fixed, we probably would not be able to run for more than two hours without shutting down. So I decided we had better head for New London instead of New York.
We stayed there for several days, the ship a frozen lump of wood. The base was helpful, but the engine never did really get fixed. Obviously complete overhaul was necessary, and for that we had to get to New York. I planned to leave during the day, run through the night, and arrive sometime the next afternoon. The day we were to leave, the news came over the radio that the Allies had landed in North Africa. So that was where the transports were going when we saw them leave South Boston. They had departed only a few days before us; they had gone all the way to Africa, and we had only made it as far as New London.
We set out for New York in midmorning and by noon were headed down Long Island Sound, where the YP proceeded quite well in the calmer waters. We had one breakdown, and we had to shut down once, but otherwise the night was uneventful. We arrived off the pilot station that afternoon. As at the Cape Cod Canal, we had a long wait before a pilot was available, and once again we entered a strange harbor at night. I could have gone in without a pilot, but although I had lived in New York, I had never gone down the East River by boat, and I decided I’d better have a guide. The tide was with us and running strongly. As we passed Blackwells Island on the Manhattan side, the blackout brought the buildings very close. I felt as if I could reach out and touch them and had a feeling of nostalgia and a little envy for the people who lived in those great towers and had warmth and a night’s sleep.
We dropped below the tip of Manhattan, left Governors Island to port, and headed for Tompkinsville on Staten Island. After threading our way through an incredible number of freighters, we approached the Navy piers around midnight. I warned the pilot about the engine, and we came in slow. We were able to back down but then could not get her started again and had to work our way into the dock simply by hauling on the lines.
The next morning the view of the harbor brought home the war. The dozens of dirty tramp steamers that covered the harbor bore visible signs of the struggle with the enemy and the punishment of the sea. I had seen hurt ships in the Boston Navy yard, but it was not the same: the damaged destroyers seemed more like knights of old with breastplates dented by the joust than participants in a modern struggle. But these ships, mostly minesweepers, had lost the look of Navy neatness; with the severe icing on hull and rigging, they looked like the pictures I used to see of trawlers returning from the Grand Banks.
I took the ferry to Manhattan, admired the rather dashing manner in which the ferry captain handled his ship, and proceeded to 90 Church Street to report to the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier. I was sent to a commander, who motioned at me to sit. He had a copy of a letter he had written to the First Naval District, which he pushed at me.
“Thirty of these ships have come through New York,” he said, “and every one of them has come through in miserable condition. I have made a list of the most common problems, and before you tell me yours I’d like to know if any of them apply to you.”
I looked at the list. It was a long one, but only two of the items applied. We had spent so much time in the yard that we were better equipped than most ships of our class. The commander beamed when I explained that, but when I told him what had happened so far, he hit the ceiling.
“Goddammit, Captain, why do you sail with a ship in that condition? You’re the commanding officer, and it’s your responsibility to see that things are right.”
He apologized immediately and said, “I know you have little choice in the matter, but every damn one of these ships has been a waste of money. This time I’m really going to raise hell and see that you get fixed up.”
He left me waiting for a long time but returned with every requisition I had brought approved, including a complete breakdown and overhaul of the main engine. (Ordinarily one was doing well if 50 percent of requisitions were approved.) The commander had stuck out his neck for me, a stranger, and had won the fight, even down to a new anchor winch. The allotted time for overhaul was a generous three weeks.
I left feeling very happy and called my wife to say that we would be together for Christmas.
The YP-438 got the best cooperation from the Tompkinsville Section base, and the engine was broken down in short order. But the more they got done, the more they found that needed doing. The men worked very hard over the engine, especially Hansen, who by now seemed to be able to create something out of nothing. More than one workman came to me in wonder not only at the work he was doing, but also at how he had managed to keep the ship running in the first place. I had promoted him once and hoped to do so again as soon as he had his minimum time in. But that was not to be.
Hansen had been walking around redeyed with lack of sleep, and I told him to get some rest. He just said, “Yes, sir,” and went on working. Then one evening when every piece of the engine had been gone over with minute care and reassembled, and the hand-machined spare parts put in place, they tried to start it, and the damned thing would not work. It would have to be broken down all over again. Somebody laughed out of sheer discouragement, and Hansen went berserk. He yelled, screamed, and brandished a kitchen cleaver. The crew subdued him, and he was led off to a hospital in a straitjacket.
This willing and capable man had simply been driven mad by a crazy demon of an old diesel, and as is so often true, his downfall was hastened because he was too conscientious and worked too hard. Many a good man struggled over that engine and gave up. But had Hansen not been so fanatical, we would never have survived the storm on our shakedown cruise.
We got a new engineer named Zimmerman. He was older than Hansen, and competent, but he lacked the fervor needed to breathe life into that engine.
At this time the President announced that a million men would be overseas by the end of the month. I had a feeling we were not going to be among them, and my discouragement was increased on seeing men who had returned sporting African campaign ribbons. Not only had they gone to Africa and made a landing, but they had come back, and all the while we had been stuck to a dock.
I was learning more than I realized about how to get things done at a shipyard. In every yard there was always somebody whose only desire was to get the job done and to hell with red tape. Sometimes he was a civilian, sometimes an officer. The important thing was to find that guy. If you allowed yourself to be moved around for long enough by the paper shufflers, you would eventually meet the guy, the one who did the work. In Boston a civilian, in South Boston a chief, in New London, the CO of another ship, the commander in New York, a foreman in Tompkinsville.
Because of the added complications of the engine, we got another week’s availability, during which time we received our dock trials and regular trials. Then the sailing orders came by messenger.
JANUARY 16, 1943
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
ACTION TO: YP438
THERE IS A POSSIBILITY OF ENEMY SUBMARINE AND MINE ACTIVITY ALONG THE ATLANTIC COAST X DESTROY ENEMY FORCES ENCOUNTERED X WHEN FULLY PREPARED FOR SEA PROCEED COASTWISE WITHOUT DELAY TO MIAMI X UPON ARRIVAL MIAMI REPORT BY DISPATCH TO COMCARIB SEAFRON FOR DUTY AND TO COMGULFSEAFRON FOR ONWARD ROUTING X …
This was the first time I had been officially notified that the ship was slated for the Caribbean, and I wondered what would happen if we broke down at some little island with no repair facilities. The phrase “possibility of enemy … activity” meant the Germans were sinking one to two ships a day off the Atlantic coast. “Destroy enemy forces encountered”—well, a couple of months back a similar YP had encountered a submarine off the Jersey coast. Not wanting to waste a torpedo, the Germans had simply stayed out of range of the 20-mms and shelled the ship. The crew took to the boats and rowed to Atlantic City. The only casualty was the YP, which burned and sank.
I planned to shove off about a halfhour before dawn to squeeze every ounce of daylight for the trip. After passing the narrows successfully, the YP-438 headed out into the swept channel. We proceeded the required distance past the minefields, changed course, and headed south. At last we were on our way.
The engine broke down immediately. After we got going, we ran steadily for a while without further trouble. My navigation was accurate, and my confidence rose until dusk. As always in the Navy, we went to general quarters an hour before sunset. (The best times for a submarine to attack are at sunrise and sunset, when the silhouette of the ship is clearly exposed but when the submarine has the protection of darkness.) The ocean is at its bleakest at sunset in winter; I wanted to reach up and hold back the sun, and my eyes strained to keep the last ray of daylight on the water. But after darkness settled down my navigation continued well, and I thought I might even be able to take a short nap after one o’clock when we should be encountering a midchannel buoy off Delaware Bay. One o’clock came and went, but no buoy. I checked and rechecked my figures, but I didn’t dare stop or change course lest the engine break down. For the first time in my Naval career I decided to trust my own navigational judgment. I was right, as it turned out—the buoy’s light had been cut by ice—but any thought of a few hours’ sleep disappeared, an obvious impossibility.
The YP struggled on through the night; then, with dawn’s first dim light, the wind freshened, and the sea became choppy, and the engine started breaking down again. Zimmerman came up to the wheelhouse. He had the wild look engineers seemed to get aboard the YP.
“Captain, I don’t know what’s the matter. Everything checks. There’s a little problem with the No. 5 cylinder, but not enough to make all this trouble.”
“We will definitely head for Norfolk,” I said, “and we should be inside the Chesapeake by early afternoon, where the waters will be calmer.” And I added unhelpfully, “Just try to keep her running as best you can.”
The day wore on, the sun was cold and pale, only dimly visible through the overcast. Gradually the sea calmed down, and by afternoon we were approaching Norfolk.
I told the pilot there some of our troubles; he seemed sympathetic, and I had a great idea. Instead of proceeding to the section base, I asked him to take me to the destroyer tender, and I would seek help from them. The pilot was reluctant but finally agreed when I promised not to mention that he had brought us there. Then I shaved and tried to look presentable.
We tied up alongside the tender about eleven o’clock, and after sneaking the pilot ashore, I was led by a messenger to the exec’s cabin. He was a tough, beefy commander, obviously extremely capable, and immediately began chewing me out for tying up alongside him. “Sir,” I said in desperation, “I tied up on purpose to your ship.” That stopped him long enough so that I could continue, “I used to be on a minesweeper in Maine, and whenever we were in real trouble we would never go to the section base. We went to the Denebola, and we knew they would fix us up because they were all regular Navy and the best machinists to be had.” I went on to tell him of our troubles and concluded, “I’ve got to do anything I can to get my ship fixed, and I know you’re the people who can do it.”
The exec softened. “I like to see a man fight for his ship,” he said. “I’ll help you, but I don’t think I’m supposed to. You’ll have to make your own peace with the section base.” Then he went to the door and sent a messenger to find the chief warrant engineer. I was elated. While we waited, he had me tell him about the trip, which amused him highly, and by the time the chief warrant arrived, the exec had a broad grin on his face, much to the warrant’s surprise.
The exec said, “We got an old beat-up ship here I’ll bet you can’t fix.”
“There ain’t no ship that can’t be fixed, sir,” the chief warrant replied.
“I’ll give you just forty-eight hours beginning tomorrow morning,” the exec told me. “Good night, Captain.”
We left the cabin, and the chief warrant went with me to the YP. When we got below, he whistled at the sight of the engine, then looked it over with the interest of an old car buff examining a Mercer raceabout. Finally he said: “We’re not supposed to start work till tomorrow, but those heads look as though they might be a bit difficult to get off. If you don’t mind, Captain, I think I’d better send a couple of men over right now.”
It was music to my ears. The men came over and banged away all night, but it didn’t disturb my sleep, and the next morning the watch had difficulty waking me in time for morning colors. By that time a swarm of machinists had come aboard and were busy below. Later that morning the exec of the tender dropped by. He must have regarded me as a cross between a Don Quixote and his son; I can think of no other rational explanation for his interest. The work continued all day, all night, all the next day, all the next night. The engine was completely broken down and reassembled. The men worked with a fervor usually reserved for great causes, and ten minutes before the expiration of the allotted forty-eight hours, we were undergoing dock trials.
We were given an extra half-hour for a trial run in the stream. With the chief warrant and a flock of lesser lights aboard, we turned down the harbor and proceeded to run beautifully for a thousand yards or so. Then we broke down. The chief warrant looked as if he just didn’t believe it: the back of his neck turned red, and he rushed down to the engine room. Soon the engine started up again, and he came back to the bridge and said what all the others had said: “I just can’t understand it. There is nothing really wrong.” His reputation was at stake, and he had spent a good part of that forty-eight hours in the engine room with his men. I thought for a moment he was going to cry.
We returned to the dock in silence. The chief warrant said, “They ought to blow this hunk of junk to bits,” and, ashamed and in a rage, left the YP.
The exec was at the railing when we came back and asked brightly, “How did it go?”
“We broke down,” I answered. He stared at me for a moment.
“Come to my cabin.”
I went, and we sat down.
“You know there is nothing more I can do.”
“Yes, sir, thank you very much.”
“If I were you, I would take steps to get your ship surveyed.” (That meant put out of commission and scrapped. I was shocked at the idea.)
“I’m going to have to try to make it to Miami.”
“That’s not reasonable.”
“I know that, sir, but I’m en route, and nobody in between will do anything.”
“Well, good luck.”
I spent the rest of the day checking my navigation and getting my routing instructions. This was one time when I dreaded the thought of going to sea. In addition to my usual worries about our ability to stay afloat, and the regular problems of winter weather, there were some special added ones. The swept channel was unusually long off the Chesapeake because the continental shelf extended to its greatest width at that point. The seventy miles of channel meant that the whole day would be spent heading out to sea, which in turn meant rounding Cape Hatteras at night. Then, south of Hatteras there was a large minefield and no harbor closer than Morehead City. At that point we would be entering the area of wrecks that I had so carefully plotted in Cape Cod, and which had increased in number since that time. You could not shape a normal course between Capes Hatteras, Lookout, and Fear without running into at least a dozen wrecks, unlit and unmarked.
I set the call for special sea detail at three o’clock, for the trip out the swept channel would take all day, and I hoped to make the turn before dark. We rounded the buoy and chugged into the outer harbor in a flat calm. Dawn came up as we proceeded into Chesapeake Bay itself, and what a blessed dawn for us; not a cloud in the sky, still no wind. And hours later, as we passed Cape Henry, the good calm weather still prevailed. Except for a few minor coughs when we first got under way, the engine was working fine.
All day we proceeded seaward. It became apparent that we would not make the turn in daylight, but at least the sea remained calm. After dark, just before it was time for the turn, all the crew turned out on deck to see how the YP would break down this time. For once nothing happened, and she kept sailing on without missing a beat. It was too good to be true. Later in the evening we picked up the loom of the light at Hatteras and were abeam at about two o’clock in the morning.
By four o’clock the YP had for the first time in her history run twenty-four hours without a breakdown. I didn’t dare even think about it but just sat on the stool and half-dozed, waiting for the dawn.
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.
At the yard, I met with the repair officer who turned out to be wonderfully efficient and helpful. There was no need to go looking for the man. He was it.
He told me that it would be several weeks before we could get into dry dock, and that we would be going in with a British cruiser. We would probably be there a long time, much longer than we needed, because of the time it would take to repair the cruiser. I called my wife and told her to come down as soon as she could get a train ticket. We got a room at the Bruton Inn annex, a most charming spot. There was no heat, but a man would come in every morning and light the coal in the fireplace. The lower part of Charleston is as fascinating as any city in America, and the officers’ club was one of the better ones.
The yard workmen were as nice as they come. Even after a job was completed, they would drop over to the YP to see how things were going with us, and some of them even lent a hand on their own time if there was need. The engine was overhauled and repaired. Finally the British cruiser arrived, and we followed her into the dry dock.
During our lengthy stay all kinds of things had happened in the world; shoes were rationed in the United States, Gandhi went on a three-week fast, Germany lost the Battle of Stalingrad, the Japanese abandoned Guadalcanal. All this before we even got out of dry dock.
The YP failed her trials in the stream, and it was another five days before we could leave. I received a copy of a mysterious invoice in which a box of airplane parts was being sent—not for transshipment but for us.
A fairly heavy swell was running the day we left Charleston, but otherwise the weather was good. Going down the Cooper River, everything worked nicely until a destroyer passed us heading upstream for the Navy yard. Her wake caused a butterfly nut on the fuel line to break. The engine stopped. Then and there I wanted to turn back. But after the nut was replaced, the YP behaved well enough—we only had one short breakdown during the day—and we put in at Savannah late that night. The next evening we anchored at St. John, and the following afternoon, in the vast wreck area south of Cape Canaveral, we began to have bad engine trouble again. Cylinders Nos. 2 and 5 were not functioning. Zimmerman said he could get them going, but he didn’t know for how long. The nearest base was at Banana River, but that would mean going against a cross-sea, so I decided to head for Port Everglades, the port for Fort Lauderdale.
The engine took a long time to repair, and when we finally did get going, it sounded terrible. By midafternoon, just as we drew abeam of Palm Beach, we had another breakdown. Zimmerman came to the bridge after fifteen minutes.
“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t fix it.”
There was nothing left to do but call the Fort Everglades section base for a tow. Our tug hove into sight just as it was getting dark. It turned out to be a sixty-foot yacht of not more than 70 tons. Since the YP was 120 tons, we would be a long time towing.
The captain yelled through a megaphone: “Do you have a towline? We don’t have one.”
An auspicious start. I called back that we would pass over our anchor cable.
Then he yelled, “This is my first trip on this ship, so bear with us.” The luck of the YP-438 had returned in force. When we passed the cable to his ship, I could see that the crew was as green as the captain. They made us look like a bunch of veterans. But after considerable heaving and backing and filling, we finally got started. I knew nothing about a proper tow, but I had had plenty of time before the arrival of the yacht to read up on it as much as I could. I slowly payed out the cable until we towed easily two wave lengths behind. But the other ship was so light and had so little power that progress was slow: when the tide turned against us and was running full, we actually went backwards.
The tide slackened after midnight, however, and we made some headway; an hour or so before daylight we reached our destination. Port Everglades is an artificial harbor with a submerged breakwater extending out on the north side of the entrance. Just as we were to enter, a tug with a sugar barge stood out against the gate signals. The captain of our tow thought we would collide and, to my horror and consternation, started to circle. We would pass over the submerged breakwater, twelve feet underwater. He would make it easily, but we drew over fourteen feet at the stern. We couldn’t anchor; he was towing us with our anchor cable. We couldn’t cut the cable because then we would surely drift onto the breakwater. Our only chance would be if his turning circle were tight enough. While we signaled frantically at the yacht, I had O’Brien slack off on the cable. At least we wouldn’t hit quite as hard. By the time the captain got the idea and tried to turn more sharply, it was too late. We were solidly on the rocks. We signaled for help, and the yacht tried to pull us off. She couldn’t move us. The tide was about to drop, and if we didn’t get off in about fifteen minutes, we wouldn’t get off at all.
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.”
O’Brien spoke up, “I’ll see to it, Captain.” I’m sure he did, but I never found out because I never saw any of them again. That day I took a bus to Miami and met my wife and some friends. “What’s the matter,” one of them said, “your ship sink or something?”
I said, “Yes.”
That stopped the conversation.
Despite the YP’s wan showing against the German navy, the little ship proved a good school. How well her skipper learned his trade is reflected in the citation accompanying the Bronze Star that came to him a year and a half later when he was captain of a fine new 326-foot LST (Landing Ship, Tank):
“For Heroic Achievement as Commanding Officer of a Landing Ship moored alongside other ships during explosions and fires on those vessels at a Naval Base with his ship fully combat loaded, ablaze from stem to stern, [Lieutenant Russell E. Sard] coolly and courageously got her under way, displaying excellent seamanship in extricating her from very cramped quarters. At the same time, he directed the extinguishing of the fires on his ship, which was ablaze as badly as any in the nest, exposing himself without thought of personal safety to the constant rain of shrapnel, large metal fragments, and burning debris resulting from the ships outboard. His courage and leadership were undoubtedly the governing factors in the saving of his vessel to the Navy and his conduct throughout was in keeping with the highest traditions of the Naval Service.”
After the war, Ellis Sard worked in radio and television; today he is semiretired and lives on Cape Cod.