Hong Kong

by Ron Gorence

The strip of brine in the South China Sea between Kaohsiung, Taiwan and Hong Kong, B.C.C. ( a British Crown Colony in 1957), was transited entirely on the continental shelf. We were amazed at the strange colors of the sea around us, but the fathometer's failure to record any soundings over a hundred feet beneath the keel was just one more boring aspect of sea-travel at fifteen knots. The ocean was luminous green - every shade of green - and spotted occasionally with large patches of slate-grey, seemingly shadows of non-existent clouds or reflections of phantom underwater reefs. Ralph, the port look-out was also a recent graduate of Submarine School in New London, Connecticut. Between binocular sweeps of the horizon, we pitied the poor civilians who could only drool over Carribbean brochures, and the Atlantic diesel boat sailors who never stood watch with their sleeves rolled up. We'd watched large fish cruise up and explore our keel. The bow cut through the long waves, and pointed us toward Hong Kong which, we had been informed by the old salts, made San Francisco and New York City look like Hicksville.

"Permission to come on the bridge?" We recognized the raspy voice of Chief Winker, an old WW II submarine vet - the only one I ever met - who was riding the Razorback at the time.

"Ever been here before, Chief?" I asked after the OOD had responded, and he was topside.

"Yup," he said as he put his chin on crossed arms resting on the bridge cowling, and gazed out at the pea-green horizon.

Nothing else. He was old. We'd been ashore with him in Kaohsiung, Pearl Harbor and Yokosuka, but he never talked. He'd get drunk, and somebody would carry him back to the boat because he wore a Patrol Insignia under his dolphins and ribbons. No wife, no story, just a lonesome drunk. His Chief's hat was flapping in the wind because he'd taken the stretcher out of it, and he had grey hair around the ears. No one else ever wore a hat at sea. He must have been at least forty. We were surprised when he started mumbling in the general direction of Hong Kong, "Heard a story about a boat that got depth-charged right about here, and the crew got out."

"Here? You mean right here where we are now?"

The OD and both lookouts forgot their duties. The wind was calm, but he spoke softly, so we leaned toward him..

"Yup, just up there, just south of Matsu Island. A Tin-can came along and found Momsen Lungs bobbing in the wind. No bodies, but they figured some of the boys got out of the boat okay."

We had been taught in Sub School that Blow-and-Go emergency escape methods were far-superior to the old Momson-Lung, but even the instructors regarded both methods as totally worthless. Test-depth for the Razorback was 312 feet. The skipper was not allowed to exceed that limit except in emergencies. Boats with our pressure hull had been known to survive a thousand-foot dive during the war, but many of the diesels which tried deep evasion were never heard from again. Even if the hull didn't crush, the task of opening an escape hatch under four-hundred feet of sea-pressure would be as phenomenal as a butterfly lifting the whole boat out of the water.

The only time boat sailors were in shallow water was in crossing the continental shelf on the way to open ocean. Escape training, like Political Influence, has zero value when you are hovering 300 feet beneath the Pacific. We had all come to believe that Submarine Escape Training was in the curriculum only to pacify worried mothers back home. Winker's story convinced us otherwise. He pointed out to us that a submarine's ability to hide from an enemy in less than a hundred feet of crystal-clear water was limited, so the possibility of escape had to be plausible.

"Of course, we were too busy sweating our trim or patching up equipment and screwed-up torpedoes to think much about those things," he continued. "No WesPac cruises in those days..." Then shifting gears, "What did you think about that shark?" he asked me.

We'd surfaced one dark night just before Kaohsiung, and the Quartermaster damn near broke a leg scrambling up to the bridge. He said he'd stepped on something large and slippery, but managed to grab the TBT, so he could immediately make his report on the 7MC, "All clear forward! All clear to port. Clear around the horizon." After the OOD and lookouts got on station a red flashlight was passed up. They determined that the stink and slippery deck had been caused by large pieces of Hammerhead shark lodged in several places where the sea couldn't wash them free. He had apparently beat himself to death while we snorkeled.

"Quartermaster wouldn't admit he filled his skivvies," I answered. "Good thing that somobitch was dead."

"Well," said Winker, "Most of the life in any ocean lives on the continental shelf. The South China Sea has more kinds of shark and the deadliest sea-snakes in the world."

Not only could the old Chief talk, he apparently had read a book or two.

"Most of the guys who sailed in the old Wolf Packs figured there were a lot of escapes around here." He looked around to make sure none of his audience was distracted by searching the horizon, "We figured it was better to go overboard under an iceburg off Kamchatka than around here; you might last five minutes in cold water."

He turned around and grabbed the cowling over the bridge hatch, "Damn glad we killed that somobitch! His great granddaddy probably ate some poor kid from Iowa. Permission to go below?"

Ocean transit is never boring when you have something to think about. There always is.

We pulled into Hong Kong the next day, but that's another story.