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
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.