Sir! I Have Two Contacts Bearing...

by Joe Roche

It was a typical fall day. Windy, chilly and overcast. I had just returned to Orion after a weekend in New York City, visiting my wife and new baby boy. I had been TAD to Orion for a week while Sirago was at sea. She pulled into Pier 22 sometime over the weekend, loaded stores and fuel and was prepared to go to sea again at about 0900 that Monday morning. I had just enough time to pickup my orders from the squadron office, grab my seabag and make my way over Sirago's brow. The sea and anchor detail had been set. I made my way to the after torpedo room hatch, dropped my seabag down and was going to change from dress blues to dungarees, but was told I didn’t have enough time, just lay topside to handle lines. I was indoctrinated early on to 'dirty' in my submarine career, when I was told to crawl into a line locker and tie up the line I had just coiled up. So much for clean Blues! Little did I know that in the days and years to come, 'clean anything' was a relative term.

After we backed out into the channel, I had my first chance to go below to change my clothes, meet our COB and get assigned a bunk in the after torpedo room. I was told I had the first watch after we secured from the sea and anchor detail. I noticed the boat starting to bob, weave and stumble like a punch-drunk fighter after being hit in the head too many times. We were heading into a storm.

By time the first call to chow came, the boat was pitching violently from port to starboard. Myself and only a few others sat down to lunch. After lunch, I was handed an oversized, smelly, filthy parka, an inflatable life vest and stood my first watch on the helm. The lookouts were going to be rotated, one at a time, due to the weather. And because of the weather, I had a hell of a time maintaining my course. That gyro card was spinning like a top. I’d add too much rudder one way then the other, trying to keep it on course. I got a few 'mind your helms' from the OOD on the bridge. Who, by the way I could barely hear due to the howling wind.

My turn arrived to relieve the lookout. The quartermaster who had been holding on to his radar gear, every so often would give the course and speed of the two destroyers off our port side to the OOD, so I knew what to look for when it became my turn topside. Which I was looking forward to, in spite of the weather. Hell, I wasn’t seasick. How bad could it be? The quartermaster's name was Maurice Laubach and I never will forget when he told me to get my gear on. After I donned the smelly parka and life vest, he gave me this five or six-inch wide belt that had a huge ‘D’ ring attached to it. Attached to the ‘D’ ring was a heavy line about three feet long with a pelican hook back-spliced to the line. His instructions were as follows:

“Buckle this belt tight around your waist and as soon as you get topside, clip the hook into the TBT handle, RIGHT AWAY.”

I stupidly asked why.

“So you don’t get washed overboard! We’ll never find you and the parka your wearing will drag you down under the water even if you can inflate the life jacket.”

Now, I never saw a deer jacked in car headlights in my life… But I knew I must have looked like one at that very moment.

His last instructions to me were, “When I pop the hatch, get the hell out of the conn.”

I did as I was told and proceeded to enter into a world of noise, wind, unmitigated power. Nature in all her primordial splendor and malevolence.

Before I go on, I have to say that I came to Sirago from the fleet and had been in hurricanes before. But nothing could be compared to being, at times, three to four feet from the ocean one minute on a roll to port, then thinking the boat is going to roll over on its back the next minute as it heels over to starboard.

The lookout I relieved gave me the binoculars and said “Good luck,” waved in some vague direction of the two destroyers and in between waves jumped into the conning tower. I then introduced myself to Ltjg. Mike Leeds, who asked me to give him a bearing of the ships on our port side. I stuck my head out from behind the bubble and thought the first layer of skin was being ripped off my face. I gave him my best guesstimate as to the relative positions of these poor devils. The destroyers were being tossed from wave to wave like rubber balls. Made me glad I wasn’t on one of those things… Barely! I couldn’t believe I had volunteered for this duty. It must have been a case of temporary insanity.

The water was the color of bright green bile, the sky was in turn, black then gray. The boat plunged under waves, not over them. As each wave passed over the bullnosed bow, I watched wide-eyed as green water rose up through the superstructure to our knees. Then rose up to our waists. Then rose up to our necks. At some point I remembered one of my mother's favorite sayings. She used to say, “You made your bed, now you have to sleep in it”. It became perfectly clear to me, exactly at that moment, what that meant.

I don’t remember much of the rest of that first day. I remember the cold, the wet, the sound of the wind. I remember heading for my bunk and passing through the engine rooms thinking how nice and warm they were. I must have been in a state of semi-shock for the rest of the two-week trip. I remember a few people. The COB Chief Patterson, Mike Leeds, the old cook who wondered out loud what idiots were eating chow in this weather, Laubach and the lookout I relieved that day.

That’s all I remember about it. Just a few hours of my first day on Sirago. Then nothing. Two weeks erased from my memory.