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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
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.”