As They Roar to Life

by Joe Roche

You could almost feel the electricity in the air. What little air was left. We had been submerged for almost 16 hours, and the air was foul from cigarette smoke, body oders that emanated from men that hadn't seen a shower in almost a month, diesel fuel and the galley cooking fumes that dumped into the forward engineroom where I was struggling to stay awake, along with my oiler. The atmosphere on board had taken a change for the better. Guys were not scowling at each other as much. Were not as quick to jump on anything that was said that wasn't to the liking of another shipmate. We were on the back end of a very long and difficult patrol and the crew were more than ready to head for the barn.

The forward engineroom was blistering hot, not only from the injection temperature of the sea, but we had recently finished making fresh water. The question hung in the air like the torpid heat of the engineroom. Why did we have to make water at the end of this patrol? Does the wardroom know something that hasn't been announced yet? Are we going home or are we going somewhere else. Was the water for the brown bagger's showers? This was on everyones mind. If our orders were changed at this stage of the patrol, there was gonna be a very unhappy crew.

As the hours dragged by, word came back to us that we were going home and had in fact not received a change of orders that the crew was expecting. A rumor. A lousy rotten rumor, started by some lousy rotten sailor who had nothing to do but get everyone crazy. It worked! It drove us all crazy.

It was close to the end of my watch, when the order came over the 1MC, "Prepare to surface, four engines." This was it, we're going home. The order had been anticipated for some time. Long after the fresh milk ran out. Long after the fresh vegetables ran out. Long after what passed as food changed into another life form. Our mid-rats famous cold cuts, turned a slimy looking green, you couldn't tell the bologna from the salami, the mayo had a brown crust an inch thick and no one would venture a guess as to what the yellow stuff was in the bowl.

Both engine room crews had the Fairbanks lined up and ready to go in record time. Then the order, "Surface, surface, surface!" You can hear 600 pound air rushing into the ballast tanks, pushing out the water that kept us down and safe from prying eyes. Positive buoyancy took over like magic. As we broached the surface and heard the main induction bang open, we received a start light on our engine order panal, the oiler opened the engine air induction valve and the throttlemen in both rooms began cranking over the Fairbanks. The oilers split a gut spinning open the inboard exhaust valves. As the throttlemen kicked in the fuel racks the engine roared to life, a pressure was built up and then the outboard exhaust valve was opened. Then the process was repeated until both engines in both enginerooms were running.

"Lets go! Maneuvering, get them on line… Put some 'going home turns' on em!!"

The brown baggers slowly make their way to the after torpedo room where Schmidty is cutting hair for four-bits a head. You add your name to his list and wait your turn. An unwritten law on Sirago, was the brown baggers got to take the first showers. Most of the guys living in J 50 could wait till then. Didn't want the married guys scaring hell out of their babies, did we.

There is something about lighting off the Fairbanks that remains deeply imbedded in my phyche. As they roar to life, the power, the noise, the smell of diesel exhaust, the burning eyes. A tactile feeling, that can only be experienced by being there, in the engineroom. The crushing roar as the engines seem to get into a harmonic sync and then seem to quiet into a throb. Everyone on the boat hears them. The lookouts see the overboard discharge water. Everyone remembers what the roar of the engines meant for them. What comes to your mind when you remember that long-ago sound? I know what comes to my mind. I bet it's the same as you.

Just one more time. Please God, just one more time…