New - 21 April 2006
Paint Out the Numbers
"Mr. Balence, Mr. Balence. Get up.” I looked up and through a haze of dreamland saw Braels, leaning toward the Ensign in the top bunk. But the body laying dormant in the bunk above me made no acknowledgement.
"Mr. Balence, get up. The Executive Officer wants you to get up and check on the air compressors," the messenger insisted.
Now I should explain that it's an unwritten Naval law that one never touches a sleeping man, even to wake him for a watch. It stems from the old days when a seaman could not be sure he wasn't being attacked. So the messenger could only talk Bill into awakening.
Apparently there was little hope for Bill, so I got into the act.
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Bill. Get up.” I wanted sleep more than the drama of rousting the Ensign out of his pad.
"Mr. Balence," pleaded the messenger, already growing weary of the game.
"Hmmmmmmm," the upper bunk replied.
He was still alive! Marvelous! With such an incentive as this, the messenger found new hope.
"Mr. Balence, the Exec wants you to get up and check on the air compressors. They've crapped out again."
“The air compressors just went out of commission.”
“The Exec wants you to check on them and report back on when they'll be repaired.”
"Oh for the love of…” The Ensign left the gripe unfinished, but both of us were able to fill in the rest. The messenger smiled while I gave out an audible chuckle.
Seeing the Ensign start to drag himself out of the bunk, Braels chalked up another successful mission and left.
"Up and at 'em, Bill baby.”
Bill grumbled at my mock encouragement. Reaching out with his hands, he grabbed an overhead pipe and pulled. With much grunting he managed to extract himself from the narrow confines of his pad and lower himself to the deck. The difficulty had been a clearance of only about 15 inches from the overhead to his bunk.
All the time he was mumbling, "That's all I need, get up so the Engineman can tell me personally the same thing they've already told the Conning Officer.”
"You should be honored to be considered so important."
"Well, hell. I just got off watch. And I haven't had any real sleep in the last 20 hours. But what really makes me mad is that there is absolutely no point in it. My going back there won't accomplish anything. They'll fix the damn things just as soon as they can.”
I listened quietly to the Ensign's ramblings. I saw myself in the same position just two short years ago, and smiled.
Bill was up now sitting on the single chair in the stateroom, his head being steadied by his right arm. He reached down to retrieve his shoes, which were scattered about the deck with three other pair. By holding each individual shoe out into the passageway, he was able to find the two that were his. It had never occurred to him to turn on the stateroom lights.
"Look Bill, you've got to realize one thing about the Navy. It's standard procedure to worry. While admittedly the air compressors are important to a submarine, it's much more important to appear busy and concerned. Anyone not running about like a beheaded chicken is suspect. You've got to make waves.”
“Aw, hell. Look, I'm not going to accomplish anything going back to the engine room demanding the know when the air compressors will be fixed. They'll tell us when they can.”
“Sure I'm sure. Why just the other day when they were having trouble with the hydraulic pump, I was talking to Phillas about the problem. When I showed some genuine interest in what he was doing and asked him how long it would take to get it fixed, he said a week. Then the Engineer showed up and said it had to be fixed immediately, whereupon he then bargained Phillas down to two days. But it still took a week.”
“But Bill, that's not what the Navy wants. You've got to be more practical.”
“But hell, why can't you just be honest? Those guys will give you honest answers if you ask for them. But anytime you demand an answer that suits you, you'll get it and it'll mean absolutely nothing.”
"You're missing the point, Bill. In the Navy it's not how you play the game, but whether you win or lose that counts. And you have to convince your seniors that you will in fact win, if only to ease their minds. In the Navy no one is allowed to admit defeat without losing face. Keep them convinced that you'll win, that their face is saved, and they'll be happy.”
“But that's basically dishonest.” The Ensign was showing signs of being disturbed now.
"All good Naval Officers are basically dishonest. They have to be to do their job. The honest ones will never get the job done, and consequently, in the eyes of the Navy, will be considered incompetent."
"Like if I don't work on my notebook and do my job instead, I'm lazy. But if I copy the answers from someone else's and keep my work up, then I'm okay?"
"You're getting the picture. Everything is based on winning, on getting the job done – even if it's illegal or unethical – just as long as you don't get caught in any of the latter."
Bill's face showed the shock of realization, the pain of learning a fact of life. But he wasn't given a chance to meditate on the new idea; the messenger had returned to check on his progress.
"Mr. Balence. Are you up yet?"
“Yeah." The messenger had not seen him and jumped involuntarily at the close proximity of the Ensign.
"Uh, the Exec wants you to get hot."
"Yeah, yeah. I'm on my way.” The interruption was sufficient for Bill to fall back to a topic that he was more familiar with. “That bastard, I wish he'd take a flying leap off the bridge someday." He then fastened his belt and stumbled out of the stateroom.
"Be sure and give him my regards." Bill didn't answer.
It seemed as if I had barely gotten to sleep when I was being awakened myself. "Mr. Marks. Mr. Marks, reveille."
With great pain I opened an eye. Wrong one; I couldn't see a thing. Prying the other open I looked up to see the messenger searching for a sign of life. "Mr. Marks, it's cold, rough, and wet on the bridge."
"Okay. I'm awake.”
He smiled and left, while I considered whether or not to accidentally drop back off to sleep. The weather report had not exactly cheered me. I have never understood the submarine tradition of waking reliefs by telling them the weather conditions on the bridge. To inform a prospective Officer of the Deck that the sea is rough, cold, and wet, i.e., that you're going to be freezing cold, bounced around the open bridge, and soaked to the skin in salt water is an open invitation for a man to crawl further under the covers.
Then suddenly I thought, maybe we're submerged. It was a standard joke to tell a relief that it was cold and wet on the bridge when the boat was submerged. Maybe they were just kidding me. But no - the pounding of the waves against the pressure hull denied the possibility.
I think the only thing that gets me up on morning like this is knowing that the guy still up there is praying for your arrival. I thought of Larry McGee, stomping feet on the steel deck, waiting for me to request permission to come to the bridge. I could not be so inhumane to desert him now.
As I crawled free from my pad, I noticed Bill's hand dangling from his. I wondered how much sleep he had gotten; then decided it hadn't been enough and thought no more of it. Holding the curtains open, I retrieved my shoes from the four or five pair on the three foot by three foot deck, grabbed my pants and shirt off "my hook", and ducked out of the stateroom. No sense in waking everyone.
I dressed in the wardroom. When I had put my shoes on, I flipped on the light and began to feel like meeting the world. The light brought a steward, who asked what I'd like for breakfast. At first I ordered eggs, sausage, and toast, but then cancelled the sausage. Greasy food wouldn't do on a rough bridge in these seas. Not that I'm seasickness prone, but I have caught the disease a number of times and make every effort to avoid any possible carriers of the dread illness.
"Good morning, Mr. Marks.”
I was thinking how well rested the Captain looked when Hal arrived with a frown on his face. It was the same look he always got when he had a solvable problem, but where he had to ask permission to solve it. "Captain, l've worked out our present and planned Speed of Advance, and I have us arriving at the straits that you spoke of earlier this morning, much too soon. We'll actually be entering the area about dawn. I assumed you wanted to go through at night and avoid any casual observation, but since our present track puts us there in the daytime, do you want to slow now?"
"Don't worry about it, Hal. I've been planning all along to go through submerged. It makes no difference if it's night or day.”
"Submerged? Sir?" Hal had almost forgot the “Sir”. He slowly fell to the Exec's seat as his face took on a look of horror. He seemed almost numbed by the revelation, but since I didn't know what they were talking about, I couldn't make too much sense out of the conversation.
The Captain had not been putting out a lot of information. I don't think that even Hal knew the final destination yet -- which might not have been too much of a surprise. Only those with a “need to know” would be told any classified information. The question was one of whether or not to tell the navigator.
"That's right. We're running the straits submerged. We're a submarine, remember?”
Hal was about to speak when the Exec came in and motioned for Hal to move down along the narrow bench. Hal slid down and then, gulping a gasp, "Sir, these straits have some pretty shallow water. They can be awfully tricky.”
“Yes, yes, I know.”
Hal looked defeated, but then, "I certainly don't remember the Flotilla saying anything about this."
"Mr. Lawrence. There is a good chance we may lose number three engine. Why I have to keep repeating it is beyond me, but I intend to stay as far ahead of our track as possible, get where we're going, and be prepared to have an engine drop off the line unexpectedly."
"But the Flotilla..." Hal's voice had a hopeless tone.
“The Flotilla is unaware of our number three engine, Hal," the Exec said.
But the Captain missed the X.O.'s actual point and, winking his comrade/leader smile, enlightened us all. "Exactly. And what they don't know won't hurt them. We can't give all our secrets away, you know."
Hal smiled a pitiful smile and turned to me, "LORAN still out of commission?"
“As far as I know. I'm sure they would have informed me if they'd fixed it.”
"Okay. I guess I'll go back to my charts, hopeless as it is." His entire body dragging, he got up and left for the conning tower.
I had eaten and made my routine trip to the head -- it is absolutely mandatory that one makes a trip to the head prior to going on watch to avoid the additional agony of a bulging bladder. When I came back into the forward battery and passed the wardroom, the Captain told me to wake the Assistant Engineer.
"Bill, get up. Captain wants you."
"Mr. Balence, I've got a job for you."
At the sound of the Captain's voice, the Ensign struggled out of his pad and into the stateroom doorway. "Yes sir?”
"It's time to remove the canvas off the bow and you've been elected as the officer in charge."
"Yes sir. I mean, Aye sir." The Captain had made it sound like an honor.
"Get a two man working party, but don't use anyone who's not expendable." For a moment, the Captain winked at me. "And get hot."
"Yes sir." With that Bill struggled into his clothes and was off.
When I had completed my inspection of the boat prior to relieving, I came back to control and found Bill and two seaman, Lansing and Braker, ready to go out on deck. Each of them had life jackets, rain gear, and life lines. They were already climbing up into the Conning Tower. I followed them up.
In the Conn I worked quickly, checking the charts, our position, various instructions, etc., all in preparation for relieving the watch. Bill and his two seamen had requested to lay into the sail and Larry had okayed it. When I heard him call down to the helmsman to ring the Captain's call, I picked up the phone to eavesdrop. Such is a common and efficient way of keeping up on what's going on. Bill and his helpers were in the sail standing by the sail door, when the Captain answered.
"Captain, this is the Officer of the Deck. Request permission for Ensign Balence and two seamen to layout on deck, to break loose the canvas."
“Hold on a bit. I'm coming up,”
It was mandatory that the Commanding Officer authorize any breaking of the rig for dive condition. Opening a hatch, putting men on deck, all constituted a delay in diving and all required the Captain's approval. The fact that the Commanding Officer wanted to be on the bridge was quite reasonable, and I thought no more of it.
When I hung up the phone, knowing little more of the situation than before, Hal came into the Conning Tower mumbling something about the idiocy of taking the canvas off in this weather. He quickly draped his arms on the raised periscope and began rotating it slowly, scanning the horizon. I finished buttoning my jacket and adjusting my rain gear and then started for the hatch.
The Captain came up at this point and preceded me to the bridge. Once in the sail he started up the first of the two ladders and from there ordered Bill and the seamen out on deck. I hesitated at the bottom of the first ladder and watched Bill as he struggled to get the sail door open. Braker helped, with Lansing trying but not able to get near enough to do anything. Together they triumphed over the spring and the door opened.
Braker quickly reached around the outside to hold the door open against the wind while Bill very carefully stepped out onto the main deck. He always gripped one of the handles as he maneuvered himself to face the door. Bending down he attached his life line to the track.
All submarines have what is jokingly referred to as the B & 0 railroad. It's a single track that a hook in the shape of a squared letter “C" can hook onto and slide along the length of the track. There is no way off the track except at the sail door, with the forward track and after track both originating from the hook at the door. The track has holes spaced along it where an additional hook on the life line can secure the man in one spot, but it is seldom used. At the hook-on point by the sail door there is a guard stop, which is designed to prevent the hook coming off the track unintentionally.
Bill slipped his hook over the guard stop and onto the track, and with careful words explained to his men just how to do it, taking care to hang on in the meantime. Then he moved forward along a hand railing on the sail, while his life line slid forward on the track. He held the door open as each of the seaman went through the door and hooked onto the tracks.
Everything apparently under control, I went to the bridge. Larry, the Captain, and two lookouts were already there. At first I thought Larry was being sick, he was leaning over the forward part of the bridge. Then I realized that he was watching his charges on deck. I looked over from his side to see Bill moving up the deck toward the canvas. He was getting wet from the spray, but there were no threatening waves.
At the bow the three men released the four secondary holds and then Bill, motioning the seaman back, reached for the main release. He pulled it and nothing happened. Then a wave hit the bow and the canvas flared up in place. Immediately the wind caught it and threw it off toward the right, directly at Bill. He fell backwards onto the deck as the canvas first covered him, then fell into the sea. Bill was thrown over the side to the length of the life line, as both seaman went down on deck.
Then they were both back up and after Bill as he hung on the side, scrambling to right himself. Another wave hit and sent Bill sliding along the length of the forward deck, his life line obediently sliding along its B&O railroad track.
I think Braker might have gotten to Bill at that point, if Bill's life line hadn't cut both the seaman down by their ankles as he went by. Then to complicate it, his hook being forward of theirs, caught theirs and they were dragged down the track as he went toward the sail. Larry had ordered All Stop to stop the screws and threw the rubber to swing the stern in case anyone went over all together. There was really little else to do, as I had already passed the word "Man Overboard'”.
But the Captain was having a cat. He kept screaming, "Get him, get him.”
The bad news was that both seamen were still down. They were now against the sail and Bill was just below the sail door, where he had managed to get back on his stomach on the sloping sides of the tank tops. Each of the three life lines had slid to the guard stop and were holding. Lansing reached Bill's life line and, with one hand on it, grabbed the step-handle below the sail door. Bill was on one knee pulling himself up when the final wave hit him.
There was nowhere for his line to slide and the force of the wave, catching Bill full in the face, was sufficient to part his only link to the boat. The wave engulfed him and we saw a foot through the surf and he was gone. The Captain was screaming, "All Stop, Right full rudder, Man Overboard", over and over. This probably didn't help inasmuch as the boat was already at stop with its rudder full right, and the word had already been passed on the man overboard.
Meanwhile, Larry was waiting to back down once he thought Bill was clear of the screws. I yelled down for the man overboard rescue team to lay into the sail.
The starboard lookout then yelled out, "There he is!"
I think I glimpsed what he was talking about - a patch of international orange in the surf. But it was clear of the screws. Larry had already ordered, "All back full”, in order to go after Bill.
Then the Captain apparently decided it was better to twist in place than to back down to get a run at him.
"Port ahead full.”
"Captain," Larry yelled, "We're on three engines, we can't twist.”
"I have the Conn. Tell maneuvering to shift to the battery."
I did so, realizing that precious time was being lost in the flail of conflicting orders and shifting of propulsion. All I could think was to go after Bill, Larry, the only one with any presence of mind left, had yelled down for both seamen to get back into the sail.
The Captain was still searching the waters for Bill with his binoculars. Then the seaman on the starboard lookout cried, “I don't see him.”
“What?” the Captain turned on the man as the lookout turned to face him, horror stricken.
“Don't you know you're supposed to keep your eye on him constantly?”
“But I did. He just…”
“You damn idiot! There's a man's life at stake here! Now find him. Find him!”
Completely shaken, the lookout turned and joined the rest of us in searching for the man.
Then Larry said, “Sir, we're still backing with full rudder. Do you still want,,,?”
“What? You idiot! Where are you going? All stop.” Larry ordered all stop. Then he went ahead at two thirds to start a search pattern. Ford arrived on the bridge with more binoculars and we all began searching. Each of the periscopes were manned, but no one couldn see anything.
The Captain continued to stutter and stammer about, furious at the world. Realizing the very real possibility of having lost Bill, he struck out at Larry. “Why didn't you control the boat. You let us to back too far, and now we've no idea our initial position.”
Larry was taken aback, but then weariness dropped all his guards. “You had the Conn, Captain, the moment you gave the first direct order.”
The Captain glared at the statement, red faced, and screamed, “Get off the bridge. You're relieved!” Looking around quickly, he saw me. “Mr. Marks, take the bridge.”
Larry didn't glance at me, but immediately strode to the ladder and dropped on down. I then took over his search pattern as best as I could figure it out.
And we searched.
Slowly the futility of the search began to nag at us. The Captain, refusing to share the blame, continually grumbled, angered at Larry's supposed incompetence. Then he started making comments about quitting the search.
“We just can't leave him, Captain,” I said.
“I didn't say 'just leave him'. But we have to be reasonable. If he's lost, he's lost. No amount of searching will save him. In these waters he can't last long in any case.”
I said nothing and went back to searching. A new sense of urgency had set in. It might be true that the frigid waters of the north Pacific would kill him eventually anyway, but I did not see giving up the search, if only to recover the body.
“No one likes to leave a man like this, but we have to be reasonable. He's probably already frozen to death and it'll serve no good purpose to waste time here. I think Bill would have…”
“There he is!”
I turned abruptly to see the port lookout pointing with one hand and holding the binoculars with the other. The direction was not far off the bow and I had the boat going after the contact almost immediately. We could find nothing. Then when we had gone a ways, the lookout reported that he had lost him. No one else had seen him. I slowed to one third, to re-begin the search.
The Captain, staring at the lookout, suddenly asked, “Are you sure you saw him, Blankenburg?”
“Yes sir. I saw his lifejacket.”
“Don't think you can keep us searching just by pretending to…”
“I've got him.” The starboard lookout was now pointing abeam with his binoculars on some distant object. I couldn't see anything, but turned toward anyway and began building up speed.
The Captain had turned to look, too. But I knew he was skeptical. He kept asking where, the lookout only pointing. But no one else could see it. Still I would go along with the lookouts, rather than abandon the search.
Suddenly, Ford announced he had him in sight. Both the Captain and I turned to look at Ford. When I saw his face, I believed him. Whether the Captain did or not, I don't know. But then Conn reported holding him on the scope on bearing 034°. I adjusted my course immediately and then I saw it, the bright international orange, bobbing in the water.
I yelled down to get someone on deck with a grappling hook. Our corpsman was out immediately, with two elongated life lines extending from the sail door. He waited in front of the sail as I maneuvered the boat alongside the floating body. Bill was about twenty yards off the starboard side, the waves pushing him away, when the corpsman caught the life jacket with his grappling hook. Within seconds he was being reeled in as another man with two life lines got down on the deck to grab the Ensign's body.
“Is he dead?” No one answered Blankenburg's plaintive wail. The body appeared completely lifeless. Then they got hold of his jacket and quickly manhandled him into the sail. Soon the deck was clear, with only the open sail door evidence of anything unusual.
“Come back to base course.”
“Aye sir.” Ringing up standard on three engines and swinging to our former course, I avoided the Captain's eyes. When I did turn to look at him, he was leaning against the railing, looking unconcerned. But his face was sweating, his hair completely unkempt. His eyes were reddened by the salt water and spray.
Then he looked at me. After a second he looked away. His face changed as he saw a coffee cup on the deck. “Let's get all the coffee cups below.”
“We may be diving in a while. I don't want a bunch of junk up here.” But it wasn't enough. Slowly the lookouts', Ford's, and my stare reached him through his outer armor. “I'm going below.” He dropped on down the ladder, all eyes on him.
“Permission to lay below, sir. I'd like to check on Ensign Balence."
"Sure Ford, lay below."
When he had gone, "That dirty bastard; he'd have left Mr. Balence to the sharks."
"Shut up, Blankenburg." I didn't want to start on something. I still had my responsibilities as an officer and couldn't desert my Captain yet. Not at least until I could think about it. I doubt if he deserved a hearing, but... Why did he want to leave?
I suppose someone has to make that decision, eventually. But the Captain - he didn't care. Maybe it doesn't make any difference. Maybe Bill's dead, and we did nothing more than waste time and get a dead body on our hands. Maybe he was right; maybe he could be forgiven. But the question remains – why?
Did his talk of leaving stem from duty to the boat, or something else? But what the hell, if Bill's dead, then everything is worthless. Come on Ford; what's happening? I think I would have cried from doubt if l'd thought it would do any good. But I knew it wouldn't.
Then Ford came back to the bridge, smiling. "Well, Doc says he's alive. Probably his lungs are half salt water and he's got pneumonia, but he is alive."
"Does he really have pneumonia?"
"Don't know yet. If he doesn't, he sure as hell is going to have something.”
"What about the grappling hook? Did it cut him?"
"Only scratched him - it caught the life jacket. Well, I'll just go back down now, I just figured you'd want to know."
"Sure, Ford, and thanks. Thanks a lot."
After my watch when I was in the Conning Tower writing my log, Hal came up and told the bridge to get ready to dive. I quickly finished my log and went down to Control. I had barely made it around the Control Room table when I heard the klaxon go once, then a second time.
Nothing happened for a second. Then a lookout came through the conning tower hatch. His feet never hit a rung, while his arms slid down the attached hand rail. He landed hard on the grating below the ladder. But he moved out of the way fast, for the second lookout was right behind him. When clearing the bridge on a dive, it is considered good form to step on the guy ahead of you; otherwise you're moving too slow.
When the second lookout was down, he moved quickly to his position on the stern planes and began testing them to see if they worked. Meanwhile, the first lookout had already started the bow planes on their way out - they are normally tucked to the side while on the surface. The lights on the control board had all turned green with the exception of the bridge hatch light, which meant it was still open. Then its red light went off and the green one came on. The Chief of the Watch yelled "Green Board" and pulled the levers to operate the vents.
The rush of air leaving the buoyancy tanks resounded within the close confines of the Control Room. Slowly the boat became heavy as water entered the boat's ballast tanks through the flood portals and the submarine started its descent. Jim came through the hatch, dropping the length of the ladder. He first checked the control board, then yelled "Green Board" to the Conning Officer. He was given a depth of 58 feet (measured from the keel of the submarine), which meant we would remain at periscope depth.
We went down at about a five degree angle. As we passed 35 feet, Jim ordered "All ahead two thirds; blow negative to the mark." The auxiliaryman at the air manifold hit the hammer valve to put high pressure air into the tanks and force the water out. With it the noise of the air cut out all conversation in the Control Room.
With all main ballast tanks and negative at the mark, the submarine properly compensated in the trim tanks would have a neutral buoyancy, and thus could not dive quickly enough to avoid being hit with a wave and possibly capsizing. Negative tanks is designed to give the boat negative buoyancy, and is then blown to the mark when the boat goes under the water. The boat gets down much faster this way and helps to pass rapidly through theoretical point where the boat has absolutely no stability.
As the boat leveled off, the Chief of the Watch closed the vents (the air now gone - the vents are shut in case of emergency surfacing). When he saw negative reaching the mark, he signaled the auxiliaryman to secure the air. The control room quieted down as we reached 58 feet and leveled off. Jim reported his depth to the Conning Officer.
We were down.
Chapter Four -- At Sea (Literally)
Chapter Six -- Bottoming Out
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