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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
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.