The sharp Guppy II bow on the submarine lifted almost imperceptibly toward the sky ... slowly ... gently ... in apparent disregard for the laws of gravity. Distant waves crashed in upon themselves in the distance, and their booming percussions blended into a rumble of thunderclaps that was in one instant deafening, and in the next, consumed by the screaming wind. Stormy Petrels had been playing in the spindrift above the great waves, soaring down into the trough below the lookouts, and then rollicking high above, getting lost to sight in the water-filled air. They were all gone now.
The tube of steel - engineered to hover silent and unseen beneath the surface of the ocean with near-perfect neutral buoyancy - is out of its element on the surface. The diesel boat's bathtub-hull rolls uncontrollably in the trough of the smallest waves, and any angle beyond forty degrees from vertical increases the probability that acid from the main batteries will dump to form deadly chlorine gas. Captain Gillette ignored his intended navigational track, and put the bow into the waves, his ETA no longer important. Like a chess master, a good Skipper hones his skills for the normal task of outsmarting opposing target forces on or under the surface, and the consequences of his skill level vary with the world situation. When Mother Nature is angry, consequences are more simple: Survive or die.
It climbed... until my stomach hinted that we were about to do an inside loop. The bow hung in the air above my lookout-port, above my head. White foam poured from the limber holes and then dissipated in all directions as it was blown by heavy winds from the tank tops. It hung there so long that I remember thinking ridiculously that I should be able to see Najimo Saki or Point Loma lighthouse from this height - were it not for the pelting salt spray that stung exposed skin and filled the air in every direction. The bow held its angle and then, with my shoulder pressed painfully against the aft constraint of my lookout station, I watched it pause as the whole world dropped from under the ship and she pitched downward into the trough. The deafening clap of water crashing into water and teak decking was amplified by the reverberations in the steel to which I was chained. The wall of water in front of us seemed even higher than the point in the sky where the bow had just been. My stomach lifted until I felt it pressing against my lungs; and I felt green water rushing over my head and blasting into my face, and then the reluctant dive ended and the bow ... slowly ... gently ... almost imperceptibly, lifted toward the sky.
The Officer of the Deck was attempting to hang the XJA Sound-powered phone back into its snap-in cradle, while wedging his body between the Target Bearing Transmitter (TBT) and the plexiglass bubble, rigged above the TBT in better weather as a wind breaker. He managed to get the XJA seated just as we hit the trough, and was knocked loose from his perch, and yanked short by the three-foot safety chain snap-hooked to the TBT stand. Sounding like a hundred-pound sledgehammer hitting plate metal, the green water hit the outside of the doghouse and rushed through a small window - shattered out by a previous wave - like water from a fire hose just below his prone body. The geyser picked him up and deposited him upright, on his feet, facing the lookouts.
"Prepare to ... Lay below to Conn," he shouted to the lookouts above the screaming gale. "Stand by to open the hatch," Simultaneously, he passed the word on the 7-MC to below-decks:
"Conn, Control, Bridge, Opening the Conning Tower hatch; shifting the lookout watch to the Conning Tower."
"Bridge, Control, Aye, Aye."
The lower Conning Tower hatch was already closed - on the latch - in order to direct as much salt-water into the inadequate Conning Tower bilges as possible. Much of it overflowed and was sucked into Control. Diverting salt water from the Control Room with its array of electrical and electronic equipment was high priority. The auxiliary gyro had already tumbled, but the main gyro was still on line, and the Electrical Switchboards were dry. The personnel in Control replaced wet rags around the grates under the lower Conning Tower hatch with recycled dry ones from the Forward Engine Room. "Bridge, Con, Aye." The Quartermaster of the watch put down the 7-MC mike, and raised both scopes so the lookouts could resume their ineffectual search of the non-existent horizon immediately; a collision with another storm-tossed ship would send us both to the bottom. He then pressed his body tightly against the bulkhead next to the bridge hatch cowling, to get out of the way and avoid the rush of green water sure to come through the hatch when they opened it; more importantly, he was ready to grab the hatch lanyard, yank the hatch shut and dog it down as soon as the bridge watch was in Conn. Hesitation could let in more sea water and cause shorts in the electrical gear our lives depended on.
Heavy-weather lookout duty in the Conning Tower had its good and bad aspects. The burdensome foul-weather gear, useless binoculars and the safety belt were discarded. The sounds of normal human voices relieved some of the trepidation that we had felt topside where wind and water were mixing and racing in every direction at speeds no animal on earth could outrun. Warm coffee, undiluted with salt-water, felt as good on my hands as it did in my gut, but anything over half a cup spills as the ship rolls, and it was cold by the time we could release your hold on something solid long enough to pick it up. Anxieties, which were reduced by warmth, human voices and relative silence, were replaced by others. Now the storm was outside, lurking somewhere beyond the pressure-hull like a bear outside a camping-tent that you'd almost rather see with your eyes than envision in anticipation. Topside was like a roller-coaster: you can see the tracks drop ahead as the negative G's move your insides and you know they'll all soon be back in place. The time topside in zero-gravity lasts a lot longer, but it's the same roller-coaster feeling; it's even fun once you convince yourself the ship will right itself. Outside, when the ship pitches or rolls, you can see where up is -- even though it is seldom where you want it to be. In Conn, on the other hand, I found myself trying to force the clinometer's pendulum, by sheer force of mind, to hang straight down. With one foot on the deck, and the other on the starboard bulkhead frame for the UQC underwater phone, and hanging with both elbows draped over the periscope's handles, the concept of up was more a prayer to the clinometer than a meaningful direction. Most boat sailors are religious somewhere deep down inside, but most of them also subscribe to the concept that He helps those who help themselves, so I frowned at the pendulum.
Number two, the attack scope, extends about sixty-two feet above the keel, several feet more than number one scope, but has much poorer optics. I was on number two, and could see green water during each deep plunge of the boat. There was not much else to see, and number one was no better. The glass was a windshield with no wipers, so we attempted to find the probable horizon - the separation between light and dark areas - to search it for other manmade objects which would increase our danger. When the sun went down somewhere beyond the horizon we could see, visibility was worse. My left hand was in constant motion with the elevation controls, because the scope pointed down into the trough or up at the equally-dark sky with each roll, pitch and yaw of the boat. On some rolls, I was unable to hold my footing, and was swung bodily with the scope a hundred and eighty degrees from port to starboard, and had to force my field of view back to approximately the same bearing where I had lost control. A complete 360 degree sweep around the horizon - every direction held equal danger -- was essential. No gaps. We were making two-thirds speed on two engines, which would ordinarily be about nine knots, but in this storm, heading into the sea, we might be making ten knots in the opposite direction. We could be run over from astern just as easily as from ahead, and now in the dark, the horizon's location was only a guess. We hoped lights on another ship would show up through the howling spindrift and fogged scope lenses, though we also wondered if we could maneuver to avoid contact.
Wahoff, our first-class Quartermaster, Assistant Navigator and best emergency helmsman; he had been told to man the helm for as long as he could stay awake. On the wheel for over twenty-one hours now, he looked like a wet rat. His shoes and dungarees were soaked to the knees from salt water, sucked through the upper-Conn hatch while we were on the bridge.
The engines were running in surface-snorkel mode which meant they were getting air from the snorkel induction head valve and exhausting through the diffuser plate - both of which were about thirty feet high on the back of the sail. The normal intake and exhaust were riding 20 feet below the surface as often as above; diesels can't breathe salt water, and their exhaust can't overcome submerged sea-pressure. When the head valve electrodes sense green water between them, they shut the snorkel induction valve, and the engines suck air from the only place available: the inside of the ship where it competes unfairly with other forms of life for oxygen. There's an automatic shut-down on the main engines which theoretically prevents ear-drum explosions, but when the upper-Conn hatch is on the latch the engines suck a high-speed stream of salt-water mist over, around, and past the helmsman. His dungaree shirt had been above the jet stream, but he was also soaking-wet from perspiration. His temperature was not high, but his concentration was. Wahoff's unique skill was more feeling than logic; he felt the ship shudder through his hands on the wheel and his feet on the deck grating while the stern yawed in a large slow circle as the screws came out of the water; he watched the gyro-compass indicator change from a rightward swing to left, and leaned his whole body in unison with the clinometer as it hovered left or right, and then, at just the right second, he'd slam the rudder over hard left or right and put our bow directly into the oncoming wall of water. The trick was to meet the immense force head-on.
I'd been on lookout watch for two hours, and the OD was taking his turn on #2 scope, so I was sitting on top of the cushioned sextant locker, braced securely by both legs, drinking coffee when the XJA chirped.
"Mr. Montross . . . the Skipper," the Quartermaster said handing the handset to the OD. I jumped up and took the scope so he could talk.
"Yes Sir. . .." A pause, and aside to Wahoff, "What was your clinometer reading on that last roll?" back to the Skipper, "Helm says 38 degrees," A pause, " No change. Visibility about fifty yards through #1 when she's out of the water. Wind direction still variable; speeds gusting to fifty, couldn't stand up against it topside. Same with the seas. No direction. We're heading generally South; 165 to about 225 degrees true. . . seems to minimize roll best. Quartermaster has logged thirty-five-foot waves from South-Southwest." Pause. "Yes sir, he's on scope watch. . . . Affirmative sir. No problem. Permission to secure one lookout watch? Both scopes manned, no problem . . . feels good to be out of the weather. Thank you, Sir."
Mr. Montross hung up the phone, and turned to me, "Gorence, you're relieved. Captain said to tell you to get below and get some sleep so you can relieve Wahoff."
"When do you want me back up here?" I asked the OD.
"How you feel, Wahoff?" he asked the helmsman.
"Get someone to take the wheel so I can make a head-call and get some coffee, and I'm good for a few hours." He turned his back and shut out the rest of the world as he felt the stern start to rise, his knuckles white on the wheel, but decided it was a false alarm, and he turned back to Montross, "I'm OK. for four more hours, sir."
"Probably a couple of hours." the OD said to me, "Can you sleep?" I assured him that I could, and went below. "We'll call you when we need you - don't put in a call." He shouted after me.
I knew there were sound-powered eavesdroppers in the Control room, so I expected a razzing since the Captain had asked for me, by name, to take the helm - but I got a surprise. The chief on the diving manifold told me to drop my foul weather gear, and he'd take care of getting it back to the engine room for drying. "Just take any bunk in the After Battery that's empty," he said. "Try to get some sleep."
As I turned to starboard at the bottom of the lower Conn ladder, the ship rolled to starboard, and the deck dropped off steeply in front of me, and the Auxiliaryman manning the air manifold grabbed me by the shirt and stopped my nose about an inch away from the I.C. Switchboard. He saved me from a nasty bump - a non-qual cannot catch himself with his hands for fear of hitting a switch and turning off 400 cycle power to the gyros or something equally important. It's OK to bleed but you'd better hope you have not damaged any equipment - especially if you're a non-rated, non-qualified puke. He didn't call me stupid, or anything else - just arrested my fall, and let me go. The old chief who'd sailed with Noah and the snipe who took lug nuts off with his teeth had both been nice to me, almost fatherly! Screw getting discovered in Hollywood. Screw hitting a home run in the World Series. Doesn't get any better than this without Dolphins. I was going to go topside and calm the storm all by myself, until I remembered that the Old Man had ordered me to get some shut-eye.
The mess deck was empty except for two green-gilled mess cooks who were cleaning something off the deck that looked like a mixture of creamed-corn and partially digested meatloaf -- which is what we'd had for the last hot meal before we hit heavy weather. I asked them to help me trice up my rack. I picked the first one forward, starboard side, top in the After Battery sleeping compartment. The lights were out and there were loud snores from guys who were too dumb to worry about a typhoon.
Hank Snow watched me across the passageway from his bunk as I vaulted, with help from a starboard roll, onto the flash-pad - the zippered Naugahyde cover that waterproofs mattress and bedding. Shoes and all, wet where the foul-weather gear leaked.
"That's great, thanks," I said to the mess cooks as they as they lifted the bunk with me in it, and secured the chains at both ends.
"Looks like forty-foot seas out there," I pressed down my flash-pad and squinted at Hank, "Probably headed for a typhoon."
"Yeah, they're 'Baguios' in the Phillippines and 'Willie-Willies' in Australia," He closed his book, "In the Atlantic, where they're 'Hurricanes,' they're real storms. All non-quals are sent to the West Coast for training before they're allowed to sail the Atlantic. You're in the Western Pacific. Got it? Now try not to wet your pants, and keep the noise down. I'm busy read'n here . . . I think this guy's gonna kiss his horse." He rolled his back to me, and reopened his Louis L'Amore to where his thumb had been. His small fluorescent bunk-light shined dimly through an eight-inch space he'd left to squeeze out through in an emergency. Apparently he hadn't heard about the Captain and me.
I wedged my knee between the asbestos-cork sweat shield laminated to the inside of the hull, and a cable run to keep from getting tossed out of my rack. I reviewed what helmsmanship Wahoff had tried to bang into my head over the past couple of days. There were no books to study, no ship-handling instructions or seamanship manuals. Just a feel for what the sea was doing to your ship, and what she would do next in response to how you reacted. We had experimented once, with me on the scope telling him what the next wave was doing, and Wahoff on the wheel, but it didn't work. It only confused what he could feel through the helm and the seat of his pants. I hoped what practice I'd had, with Wahoff hollering, ". . . stupid, non-qual somobitch," over my shoulder would serve me well enough to justify the skipper's confidence. Wahoff must have told him I could handle it, and I wasn't above a little self-pride, but this was getting real. Please Jesus, don't let me put the rudder the wrong way and increase the roll. I fell asleep just as I started feeling panic.
"Gorence, get up. Hit it! The Old Man wants you." I looked at my watch. I had been asleep over six hours, so I bounced off lockers and tables making my way through the mess hall on a deck that was moving up and down in split seconds to places other than where I intended to place my next step. I felt quite talented to be able to button my shirt and zip my jacket at the same time I kept my head away from hard steel objects.
Wahoff had been relieved an hour ago, and the OD had waited as long as possible to call me. The helmsman who had relieved him had done a good job, but soon the ship started to hang on a series of port rolls for an unusually long time between its normal pitching and yawing. The last roll had been 40 degrees, a new record, and it had hung there for what seemed like several minutes. The torpedoes forward and aft had been strapped down and rigged for depth charge, but there was still some concern that they might shift. All four ship's cooks had come to Control to report that there was not a single box or can still in the place where they had stowed it, and even Hank Snow was in the Control Room cursing the helmsman through the lower hatch. The ship was rigged for red now, so I took my time and walked with my hands - my feet helping occasionally as they found something solid - to my helm station.
"Gorence has the helm. sir. Steering into the seas . . .no ordered course, all ahead two-thirds on two engines, snorkeling on the surface."
"Very well," the OD acknowledged.
I expected some sort of comment from the lookouts, the OD or the QM but the silence from the after part of the Conning Tower was almost spooky. Ordinarily, conversation was held to a minimum, but there was absolute silence, and I wondered if they were staring through the dim red lighting at the back of my head. She steadied on an even keel for a couple of minutes before the bow slowly pitched downward with the sea, and the screws vibrated the stern enough to rattle teeth in the After Torpedo Room. The shuddering astern grew and then she started to yaw, making up her mind whether to roll or pitch. The gyro-repeater began to spin behind the needle, 155 degrees, 162, 175, and past due South in less than five seconds, and she leaned slowly to port. The clinometer was a quarter-circle piece of sheet metal, welded to the hull, with engraved graduations on the round lower edge. A pendulum, exactly like a grandfather clock's with a pointer at the bottom, hung from the apex. At even keel, the pointer wavered back and forth across zero; now it was at 25 port, 26, 27, moving like it was lubricated with molasses, but moving the wrong way.
I put the wheel hard-over right, and waited for the hydraulics to move the rudder over to 30 degrees - right full - and held her there until the port roll slowed. It stopped at thirty degrees, and the clinometer agonized back a degree or two in the direction of zero. It seemed like hours before it moved, but when I was certain she was headed back, I put the rudder amidships. Razorback came back to even keel, and went ten degrees past. I left the wheel alone and she righted. Similar waves ambushed us twice more in the next hour, but then she began to roll ten or fifteen degrees to port and then to starboard. I found I could maintain that stability with about seven degrees right rudder. Heading about 185 true. In the next couple of hours, I came to use full rudder less and less to correct a roll, and the ship stayed within ten degrees of vertical more and more. Someone shouted up from Control, in a tone somewhere between smart-ass and sincere, "Little-Jesus need a sandwich or something up there?" but adrenalin and hunger can't exist in the same space, and I just asked for a black and sweet. By sunrise when I had been on the helm six hours, I was holding fairly close to an ordered course of 070 with little difficulty, and we were headed toward Pearl Harbor, all ahead full on three engines. Going home turns!
I was awakened the next time for my regular 16-2000 lookout watch. I had to eat chow before relieving the watch so I couldn't avoid the crap I knew I'd catch in the mess hall. Someone said that I had triced up my rack so high that the below decks watch couldn't find me until the storm was over; Hank said the Old Man was gonna give me a commendation for using magic to calm the ocean, even though I was the lousiest helmsman in the fleet.
I had noticed that the ship was riding as level as a bar's pool table, but when I got to the bridge, my mouth fell open, and the OD said in response to my gape, "Amazing, isn't it? I've never seen the ocean like this."
The sky was deep, deep blue, and except for a haze on the horizon, not a cloud to be seen. What really got my attention though, was the sea's surface. Not a ripple. Blue marble. If Mount Elbert had been out there someplace, you could have seen its perfect reflection just like Turquoise Lake back home. A sheet of glass, blue as the sky. Razorback's prow sliced through the flat surface like a knife through Navy-issue mayo. The bone in her teeth disappeared before the white foam reached the doghouse, and trailed abaft the port and starboard beams like tiny two-inch wrinkles in silk. The ship's wake trailed off astern in a straight line and disappeared toward the horizon (... not perfectly straight, because I wasn't steering). It was the only evidence that humankind had ever passed through this vast ocean plain. The Quartermaster logged zero wind, temperature 78 degrees Fahrenheit, 5 percent cloud cover. One more strange thing: the Terns. Hundreds of them, sitting on the water like ducks on a pond. All around, and behaving like they were tame - wouldn't budge even after the bow hit them in the butt. Tame Terns in a duck-pond a thousand miles at sea.
"Permission to come on the bridge?" It was Wahoff's voice from Conn.
"Come up." answered the OD.
When he came out from under the cowling, with his ever-present cup of coffee, Wahoff was all spruced up. Shaved, hair combed, starched dungarees and all.
"No dope on radio about the storm?" he asked the OD, knowing full well that the bad weather was a complete surprise to ComSubPac. There were no satellites but Sputnik in those days, so weather info had to come from all the ships at sea who radioed in data.
Montross was the Navigator, and was back on watch with the first team. He asked Wahoff if he thought we were in the eye of the storm, and they got my attention when the answer came, "Damn near positive." I marked a section in Bowditch for you to read when you get off watch. I'm working trying to vector out the best course to get out of this thing."
"Wahoff, Wahoff, Lay to the wardroom on the double. That is Wahoff to the Wardroom." the bridge 1MC speaker called him away, and he went below. We slowed to two thirds speed and changed course to due south about ten minutes later. There were a few scud clouds up ahead, and faint cirrus mare's tales started to appear. They curved in the high atmosphere, and seemed to merge somewhere on the horizon astern.
When I got off watch, Wahoff had laid claim to one of the tables in the crew's mess; it was covered with pilot charts, books and drafting tools. I grabbed a black and sweet and eased onto the bench opposite his, and said, "I've been thinking about striking for Quartermaster. Anything I can help with?"
"Yeah, read that and tell me what you think." He slid a book about the size of four stacked bibles across the table toward me, with his finger on a paragraph headed something like, THE DANGEROUS QUADRANT. I'd heard him previously refer to this book as the Navigation Bible, and it was written by somebody named Bowditch. Not one of the paragraphs following the heading made the slightest sense to me, and I told him so.
"Listen, you've had your qual notebook signed off for over a month. You've been on the boat, what, a year?"
"Ten months," I answered sheepishly.
"Talk to me when you've got Dolphins, and meanwhile get some sleep so you can steer this pigboat. Stupid, non-qual somobitch gotta be good for something." I had the feeling that he liked me. He was also right, I needed to shake my 'Final Qualifications' terror.
He'd packed up his gear and was heading forward, when I asked: "Are we still in the center of the goddamn storm, after all the crap we been through?"
He leaned his head back over his shoulder and sneered, "Getting in was easy."
The deck gang had to go topside, chained from a safety belt to a C-hook, which followed a T-shaped track running the full length of the deck, to check for storm damage. One of the line- locker covers had broken loose. It and the mooring lines it protected now belonged to Davy Jones, and number two fold-down cleat was completely gone. Must have weighed two hundred pounds, bolted down with half-inch studs, and it had just floated away. Seven or eight broken teak deck boards had to be removed and thrown over the side - can't have loose gear floating around the scopes or the screws when we dive. The major damage was to the doghouse. The forward part of the sail just below the bridge had been hammered in until it popped a couple of ½ inch rivets. The missing plexiglass window was welded over, and the doghouse door was welded shut. I was the ship's Leading Seaman, so I grumbled about the welding; it would be my gang's job to file, scrape, sandpaper and repaint the mess they were making.
"I don't do pretty," the safety-belted Auxiliaryman told me. " I do strong." Case closed.
Everything looked shipshape topside, so the working party was sent below and the OD turned the ship South-West, course 225 and cranked up three engines, full speed. We were probably making over 21 knots now, with Pearl Harbor 1500 miles astern and opening.
I was off the watch bill now, 'cause it looked like I was going to have another turn steering, but I couldn't sleep. Strange, I could sleep sixteen hours a day on patrol, with a meal, head-break and a four-hour watch breaking it into eight-hour segments. Now Wahoff's words haunted me: "Getting in was easy."
In the crew's mess we talked about submerging - getting under the storm - but the consensus pretty much went along with the Skipper's adamant refusal to consider it. At a hundred feet, there was no light and no turbulence; hell, you could probably play ping-pong at a hundred feet. Razorback could stay down on battery-power twenty-four hours easily if we made dead slow turns. Not enough oxygen to keep a cigarette going after about twenty hours, but if we spread out the CO2 absorbent, we could probably stretch it out to thirty-six hours. Problem is, that at some point, you have to come up. Everyone nodded. Bringing a round-hulled sewer pipe up to periscope depth in the trough of a -twenty or thirty-foot wave would almost certainly amount to the first step of a final dive. Boat sailors, being generally contrary, like to believe that what goes down, must come up. The ship might even survive fifty degrees, but there wouldn't be anyone left to care. Of course, the odds are fifty percent you could come up with either the bow or the stern into the seas, but 50-50 is not an acceptable bet with Uncle Sam's property, which included the boat and everything inside her pressure hull. We had service numbers in those days, just like spare parts.
Flatley came into the mess while we were somberly shaking our wise young heads, "You ain't gonna believe this," he grabbed a cup of coffee and fell onto a bench seat. "It's raining on the bridge, and there ain't no clouds!"
I had to wait till another kibitzer came down from the bridge, because the OD had to keep count of visitors in case we needed to dive in a hurry, and Flatley was right. Nice warm drizzle - and blue sky above. From the bow all around the starboard side there was a bank of dark sky rising about five degrees above the horizon, and dead astern the tops of white cumulonimbus clouds had begun to appear. The raindrops made little circles in the calm sea next to the tank tops, but the pond-ducks were gone. Razorback's batteries were fully charged, so 1600 horsepower from each of the three Fairbanks/Morris engines was going directly to the main motors and the ship's screws.
"We gonna outrun the somobitch?" I asked the OD.
"The storm isn't behind us. The wall of the storm is three-hundred-and-sixty degrees around us; we're picking the best place to break through."
The prow was getting wet now, though no waves could be seen. Must be some mile-long swells building up. I said something vulgar, and asked permission to lay below. I could sleep now. Damn sure better sleep now.
When I woke up, the ship was rigged for red, so I knew I'd had some shut-eye. I grabbed a sandwich, and rigged myself from the waist up in foul-weather gear.
"Permission to come on the bridge." I heard the wind topside, and the blast coming through the bridge hatch was cold.
"That you Gorence? Come up."
The OD and both lookouts were leaning over the port side of the bridge, looking aft.
"We got a line or something hanging over the After Torpedo Room hatch," he pushed me against the cowling leaned against my back, and pointed.
The wind was howling again, so he had to shout; there were no stars in the sky, but I could see something snapping up and down on deck with one end over the side and the other near the hatch wheel.
"Captain to the bridge," through the bridge hatch. No permission involved. A hundred men could recognize his slightest whisper.
Within two minutes, the Skipper had taken the conn, moved the OOD and lookout watch to the Conning Tower to preserve their night vision, and had the signal searchlight rigged on the bridge.
"You Leading Seaman, Gorence? Busy trip for you, huh?" he ignored my answer.
"Control, Bridge, send up a seaman with two life jackets and safety harnesses. We're gonna send men out on deck. Gorence is on the bridge."
The periscope watch reported that the cable was from the aft messenger buoy, which was still in place. The Skipper shined the searchlight aft on the cable. The salt spray reflected the light so that everything was either pitch black or bright as day depending on the wind's whim. He cupped his hands around his mouth toward us:
"I want you to heave around on that cable until you get enough slack to tie a mooring line to it so we can get it aboard. I'll get a couple more men to help."
By the time we got on deck, the ship was pitching and rolling enough that keeping a tight grip on the safety chain was about all we could do. Two of us heaved with all our strength, and couldn't get more than a couple of inches of slack. In an hour there were three of us, spending half our energy in pulling each other off the tank tops and back onto deck by the safety chains. The ship was pitching wildly now and green water over the deck was more of a problem than equilibrium.
We'd lost two pairs of bolt cutters over the side, and everyone but Hammitt was just trying to keep upright and waiting for another pair. We'd frayed a few strands of cable with the bolt cutters but were a long way from cutting through the moving-target's 1" diameter. Hammitt was playing with a hacksaw. I thought it was sort of like trying to empty the bilges with a soup spoon, but with nothing else to do but hang on, I decided to see what Hammitt was doing. He was mostly cussing, because as soon as he tried to lift the cable to cut it, the cable would crush his fingers against the deck. Finally, I maneuvered myself behind him, put my arms around his waist and held up the cable in front of him with some slack from my chain. Hammitt just sort of floated back and forth, up and down, in my arms. At times he was between my legs, and sometimes he sat on my knees. His safety chain ended up wrapped around my left calf. Meanwhile, he ignored the blasts of sea water, the cold air, me, and rest of the world . . . he just sawed. Both his hands were bleeding, because each strand that he cut gave way with a viscous snap that left scars in the teak deck, the steel superstructure and his wrists; his knuckles dangled half-inch strips of saltwater-cleaned pieces of white skin, where they scraped teak on every stroke, but he bounced back and forth with me and sawed. He said later that his feet never touched the deck all the time he was in my lap.
Suddenly, the stern dropped and I turned to see a twenty-footer coming over the fantail. I don't know if I had my mouth open, but the wind was so strong that it filled my lungs and I panicked for an instant: 'Gasping for breath,' inadequately describes suffocation with lungs that are too full. The wave swept us up and slammed us against the tank tops ten feet away, and I got rid of that extra air in my lungs and a little more, immediately. Aching and angry, I clambered back up on deck, and saw Hammitt still down on the tank tops, hanging with both hands to the outboard teak plank, and with an unbelievably stupid look on his face.
"Come on, man!" I screamed through the wind and the thundering engines, though it was my gestures that really communicated, "Let's get the goddamn thing cut, and get outa here."
The boat rolled, and in an instant he was looking down at me; he motioned toward my feet and then lost his grip and landed where he had been pointing. "Gone," he grinned... It was.
The bridge had tried to call us back several times, for our own safety, but the sound-powered headset was one of the first casualties, and the guy manning them was so busy trying to keep Hammitt and me on deck, he'd long since forgotten anything else.
The Skipper gave us enough time to get into dry clothes, and then called us to his cabin. A shot of brandy all around.
"That cable could have dropped onto the screws," he explained, "Particularly if we'd slowed while you were on deck, or later on if we'd have had to slow because of the storm. Could have wrapped around the shafts. Not good losing propulsion in this kind of weather. Well done men."
"Just a minute, Gorence," he called me back alone. "Wahoff says you might be interested in on-the-job training for Quartermaster." He didn't wait for me to answer, "He asked the XO to talk to you."
"Should I go see him, sir?"
"No, I'll talk to him. I'd like you to bring me a request chit when you're ready, and we'll see if we can get you a school or two." I guess my eyes were lighting up too much, because he didn't stop there, "I'd like to see you go through Final Quals before we get into port. If you can't make it by then, I think it would be a good idea if you just stayed aboard in port to study. Wahoff and I are both behind you. Oh, I also spoke to the COB, and he agrees. Good luck."
The Chief of the Boat, the Skipper and Wahoff all behind me. Crap! A month and a half at sea, two months' pay waiting for me, and no liberty when we hit port. I was three-quarters of the way through reviewing all the filthy language I could think of, but the warm clean sheet under the flash-cover, and the gentle drumming of the diesels put me to sleep.
We later learned the typhoon had been christened Vera, and that it killed over four thousand Japanese people, but Razorback had found the weakest spot in its south wall and cut through the storm like it was mayo. We were five days late pulling into port. Jjust outside Pearl Harbor, while I was putting on some decent clothes for Maneuvering Watch, Hank grabbed my hand, shook it twice and said, "Christ, now they're gonna teach you to navigate. . . Whole goddamn Pacific Ocean, and they're count'n on you to find a rock to run us aground on." He reached up and brushed off a small piece of lint from my breast pocket just below my new Silver Dolphins.