First Time Back

by Mike Hemming
 
 

Its been almost 25 years now. A cold December day then, a warm September one now. Walking slowly aboard, the memories come back... Every part of her bring a story and a face into my mind. A jumble of them race through my brain... Funny, sad, exciting and scary.

By the sail, I stop and touch the three white painted numbers on the gray fiberglass. Three numbers imprinted on my very soul. My passport, for if I say them in response to the question, "What boat?", the questioner will know I've 'been there, done that', as we say. We will share little bits of our histories, to find if we sailed with others that we both know. Even if we don't, we know and understand what we have done. We are not like others who can never fully realize what it was like.

Through the sail door I climb to the bridge, not quite ready to drop below into the past that I've been away from for so long. Almost afraid that it was a dream, not reality. No, it was real, because from the bridge I can remember my first sight of the real ocean blue. The vastness of it that I will sail over and into for those next years. The calm beauty, the deadly cold anger of the North Atlantic with its howling winds and giant waves, the pressure of its depths always outside waiting. I think of lying to in the tropics after the day's ops, charging batteries in the warm night air. The fleet off in the distance doing whatever they do at night.

Going forward, I drop down into the Forward Room. The smell is still there and now memories stampede forward in my mind. The smell, like no other, separates us from all others.

The reload party sweating and hauling a Mk 14 into its tube for firing, I step to reach a line and miss a deck plate. The gouge it took from my shin still shows. John laughing, slaps a piece of tape on it as I haul the line, cursing.

"You ain't gonna bleed to death from that little nick."

No I wasn't little but I didn't.

Walking aft through the Forward Battery, not too many memories here, didn't spend much time with tablecloths and silverware. But that's okay, it wasn't my place. At the Yeo's shack though, I remember the little bird that landed on the bridge far at sea. Yeo took it below and fed it and kept it in the shack until we came near land again. I think of that little bird sitting on the carriage of the typewriter as he typed papers. With Yeo only fussing with his tiny friend when it crapped on his paperwork.

In the Control Room as the non-priority engine room oiler, I manned the trim manifold submerged. Under Lt. Noel Schilling's tutelage, I got good enough for it to be my battle station. The man was a trim wizard, somehow attached to the deck feeling changes almost before they happened. He was not one you could mess around with by moving men around the boat to screw up his trim. He could be pumping the right weight of water from forward trim to after trim before the projector was turned off. His perfection was hard to master but once learned, you could flood in only 100 pounds at 300 feet! I once reported,

"Flooded 101 pounds from sea to forward trim."

To which his answer was,

"Pump 1 pound from forward trim to sea," before saying, "Belay my last." with a grin.

We once had a TM nicknamed 'Hogjowls' (for obvious reasons) who was a great joker. One of his tricks was to pull the pin on an imaginary hand grenade and hand it to you saying,

"Here, hold this," if you screwed something up.

One day, Hogjowls screwed up big time on the planes and sent us toward a visit to Ol' Davey Jones. With much blowing tanks and angles on the planes, we just missed Davey's mailbox, so we didn't have to stay for chow. After the dust settled, it got real quiet as the skipper came down from the conn. He first turned toward the forward battery, then back and tapped Hogjowls on the shoulder saying,

"Here, hold this."

Climbing into the Conn, I remember periscope liberties and a few helm watches. But qualifying on the radar stands out because the night I was finishing up on the scope, we surfaced about 2000 hours. It was a big submarine dance with 6 of us all after the fleet. We were first up, so I got to report the others coming up, Sierra 1, Sierra 2 and so on giving range and bearings, it was great practice and showed I knew my stuff. I reported Sierra 5 bearing 157, range 8000 yards. On the next sweep a new contact appears, I quickly report it Sierra 6 bearing 147, range 6000 yards. After the bridge acknowledged it, I get from the bridge,

"Where did Sierra 6 come from?"

Having seen 5 other boats surface on the scope in the previous 15 minutes I answer,

"Sierra 6 surfaced, Sir."

Asked twice to "Repeat your last", I do. By this time there is much radio traffic asking,

"Who the hell is Sierra 6?"

When Sierra 5 starts to close on her, Sierra 6 dives. Later to resurface at a greater range and lights off radar that the ECM reports as a Whiskey class radar.

The mess hall in the After Battery is quiet, not like it always was when she was in commission. It the background, I hear the bulkheads whisper the million sea stories they heard in her 23 years of life. Some true, some half true and a few 100% pure BS. A true one from a WW II veteran told of being held down for hours by a particularly nasty Jap destroyer. As he finished, I could see in his eyes the pain of the loss of this boat and crew after he was transferred off before its next patrol. He later sat talking quietly with me after the Thresher went down, not far from us. I don't remember all he said now, but as he got up to go on watch he said,

"Remember them. We are the only ones that will."

Hogan's alley is almost gone with some of the bunks that made it, removed. The crowded dark stink that made it is banished by time and light. Men milling around, climbing in and out of racks, living shoulder to shoulder or sleeping feet by head. Today, prisoners have more space and privacy to call there own.

With almost eagerness, I now step into my realm, a kingdom of power, noise and heat... The Forward Engineroom. So many hours spent here immersed in a racket nearly beyond comprehension, sound that enters your bones. Damn! I miss it sometimes, the heat and noise.

Now it's cool and quiet, but no cleaner. A point of pride with the snipes on this boat was the upper level was always clean. The lower level was never shabby either. Our dungarees were filthy but our rock crushers were clean and shiny. For my first job, I was handed a can of paste wax and told to shine the already gleaming coffin covers. Spray painted with a refrigerator white enamel, they shone trying to hurt your eyes. Now sadly, they are painted gray and showing brush streaks.

Grinning to myself, I stand by the throttles and run through the procedure in my mind to start #1 main engine. Without realizing it, my hand curls around the start lever and the other grasps the fuel rack. Yup, its all there, my mind hears once more the shuddering shaking roar of a big diesel lighting off. My mind's eye sees the blast of gray diesel smoke erupt from the big exhaust pipe topside followed by the rush of cooling water. The smoke dissipates as the engine warms and settles into its smooth, throaty rumble. Sometimes we used to get all 4 engines ready then fire them up in sequence 1,2,3,4... One after the other, with resulting smoke cloud aimed for Mother Onion's quarterdeck.

In the After Engineroom, I remember working 30 hours straight to replace a vertical drive on #3 main engine at sea. A back-breaking long, hard job for 3 men... The 3 of us breaking only for chow. We didn't have to do it there, but this boat always went out and came back with all engines on the line. No limping home for this boat if we could help it, while I rode her.

Maneuvering Room, where the electricians took all the juice we gave them and moved the boat. It could be a world of heat here too, but the main motors were much quieter. I liked this place and often sat here shooting the bull with the controllermen. They often let me 'throw sticks' on a dive, changing the power source from the main engines as they were shut down to the batteries. One of the great things about sub duty is that we all know each other's jobs for qualification. So if you want to sit in maneuvering, sonar or anywhere and help out, you are welcomed. I used to love going down in sonar and listening to the noisy ocean around us. Hearing whales singing, shrimp clicking and ships screws thrashing across the surface above us. I even heard planes swooping low over the surface while hunting us.

Below in the motor room my deep submergence station was tightening the main shaft packing glands as we went down. This stemmed the flow of water which lubricated and cooled the shaft as it turned. However it required me to lean over the spinning shaft to tighten the nuts. It's a good thing OSHA never saw this procedure. On the way back up the procedure was reversed, to allow more water to leak in along the shiny, spinning shaft.

The After Room, where I learned to love the motion back here... That 'figure 8' put me right to sleep. She was a good boat with all this extra room, even nonquals had racks. My bunk gone now, my wall locker locked up, that skin book I left tucked up under the frame is gone. I'm sure.

The signal gun still there, remembering the Forth of July in Jamaica, trying to put cherry bombs in beer cans and shoot them out before they blew. Didn't work, but we had to try. We would open the door and pull out the shredded can and try again. It finally dawning that it just wasn't enough time. Sure did impress the ORI inspector on the next ORI with our speed in firing a real flare. If he only knew how we practiced.

Going topside, my wife there, waiting. I'm thankful she gave me some time alone with the 'other woman' in my life. I'll introduce her to where I lived and sailed on now. I'll share some of the memories with her from another time, another life, and another world. And she will understand some of what ties me to this ship and the men that manned her.

 

BACK