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Bottoming Out

New - 21 April 2006


Paint Out the Numbers

Chapter Six

Bottoming Out


It was two days later when we began to make our approach on the straits. Bill was better but, according to Doc, still in critical condition. He didn't have pneumonia, but the corpsman was sure his present cold and fever would develop into it sooner or later. He had not insisted on the Captain's turning back, but had asked him to do so to play safe. The Captain had refused; apparently thinking to have Bill alive at all was a miracle in and of itself. And of course there was no justification. We were, after all, a warship.

We had submerged not long after Bill had been picked up and were now running submerged, snorkeling on two engines. Jim had the diving watch and I was to relieve him before too long. I was trying to sleep beforehand, but having no luck. I would like to have gotten rested more, but the problem of the straits (I had since found out which ones), had been on my mind. Hal's horror had been justified. It was simply a great deal of shallow water.

Running them on the surface would have been no problem, but submerged? I didn't envy Hal his job. Finally I gave up the idea of sleep and decided to check on the work on the LORAN. It was still out and I was getting increased pressure from all concerned.

When I arrived in control, only Black, an ET striker was there. "Where's Rudinak?"

"Morning, Mr. Marks. He's below checking out a tube."

"Mr. Marks," I turned to see Hanco, the leading auxiliaryman sitting by the hydraulic manifold which operated the vents. He was only a first class machinist mate, but stood the Chief's watch at the manifold. There were not enough Chiefs and he was one of the better first class.

“Morning, Hanco.”

“Sir, what's with the Navigator? He's been running around in a state of panic for several days now.”

“Oh really, I hadn't noticed.”

“Come on, Mr. Marks. Everybody knows that we're about to go through some straits. Is that why Mr. Lawrence is so disturbed? Worried about going aground?

“I watched him for a moment. Hanco was too intelligent to lie to, so I said, “We're going through some straits submerged. And, if we go aground, we'll undoubtedly wipe out the bow mount and the whole mission.”

“Then why go through submerged?”

“To avoid detection. It'll be daylight.”

“Oh hell, you know as well as I do, the commies have had us located since we took in number one line.”

“Maybe, but we've got to play the game.”

“Speaking of games, what's with the Captain and the officers? I heard he wanted to leave Ensign Balence for dead.”

I looked at the auxiliaryman. I doubt if he expected a straightforward answer from me on that question, but I wasn't in a mood to banter about the Captain and his problems. “I don't pretend to understand why the Captain does what he does. It's too deep for me.”

“Well, just don't come to any blows up forward in officer's quarters. I can't stand the sight of blood.”

“Don't worry. We wouldn't dream of doing anything that might upset you.”

As I was walking back to my stateroom, I heard the Captain's voice with a tinge of anger. I hadn't passed his stateroom door yet, and the quality of his tone stopped me. Seeing no one around, I listened. The Captain was talking.

"I don't see any mistake at all. Sam's remark that I had wanted to leave Bill behind is asinine. The decision had to be made to discontinue the search. The fact that we found him right at the end has nothing to do with whether my decision was right or not.”

“Possibly,” the Exec answered. “But the fact remains that the officers and, for that matter, the crew are convinced that you didn't give a tinkers damn about saving Bill's life and… “

"That's a lot of crap. The fact that they can't see beyond their noses is of no concern to me. The Flotilla will know that I'm right, and that's enough for me. I don't need the crew or the officers' approval on my actions.”

"But the point is, the morale is dangerously low. I think we should try to come up with something. Maybe if you show the officers your true intentions, like visiting Bill's sickbed…”

“The point is, I will not be dictated to by my officers or my crew. I'm the Commanding Officer and that's going to have to be enough to satisfy them.”

“Captain, the…”

“And I can't see that there's any further point in discussing it. So if you have nothing else you wanted to talk about, I have work to do.”

“Yes sir."

I started as I realized the conversation was over. I was thinking of ducking into the CPO's quarters when the Exec came out of the Captain's stateroom. He immediately saw me and I froze. Our eyes met, I knew he was fully aware of my eavesdropping. Then he turned and stepped into his own stateroom, closing the curtain behind him.

A feeling for that man, next in command, suddenly came over me. It had not occurred to me that he would have had the insight to realize the officers' and the crew's unhappiness. The X.O. had always seemed to be alone and apathetic to others. He was still unapproachable, but it was suddenly comforting to know that he was not oblivious to the wants, needs, and thoughts of those of lesser rank. It was then I began thinking of him as the second in command who could take over in an emergency, instead of simply as the Executive Officer who was always prodding the officers in their work. It gave me more confidence in the boat if anything were to happen.

I went on to the wardroom and sat thinking. Then the Captain came in and sat down. He looked worried, as uncertain and confused as I could ever remember seeing him. He ordered coffee but otherwise said nothing. I didn't feel courageous, so avoided interrupting his thoughts. Then as I considered his worried look, Hal came in. Apparently Hal was more unhappy than the Captain.

"Captain, running these straits could blow the whole mission. If we wipe out the bow mount."

"What's that? What happened?"

"Nothing yet, Captain. But if we try these straits submerged?"

I suddenly realized the Captain's worried thoughts. His head was making barely discernible nods, agreeing with Hal's arguments. Then Hal shoved too hard. "Skipper, we could go back out and wait until sundown."

"What? Oh no. We're not backing out now. We're going through submerged. And now."

Hal's mouth dropped open. He must have thought he was making progress. Dumbfounded, he turned and left, slinging an "aye sir" off his shoulder. Turning to me the Captain continued, "There's no problem going through the straits submerged. It just takes a little navigation, that's all.” He wasn't really talking to me, so I didn't answer. Presently he left.


My watch was going pretty easily. The Exec was in the Conn as the Conning Officer. Hal was with him navigating. The Executive Officer didn't usually stand watches, but with Bill off the watch bill and Hal so busy navigating, he had pitched in to help out.

When Larry McGee went up to relieve the Exec, he quickly came back down. As Engineer he was the ship's diving officer and always took the dive during battle stations and at times when the best diving officer was needed. Consequently, he proceeded to take the dive from me. I went into the Conning Tower to observe.

We were no longer snorkeling, but the scope was up quite a bit, with Hal on it, navigating. The Captain came up and told the Exec to take a break. He took the Conn and, as soon as the Executive Officer had left, made his first comment. “Let's not overexpose the scope."

"But sir, I'm trying to get as many fixes as possible. This is a particularly tricky part of the channel."

"And if you keep the periscope up all the time, we'll be spotted and the effort of going through submerged will be lost.”

This type of conversation didn't interest me too much, so I went back down to the wardroom. The Exec was already there, alone, drinking coffee.

“How's it going?”

"Oh, hello, Sam," the Exec responded.

"Taking a break?"

"Yeah, and a good time to do it, too."

"Why's that?"

“Because, if we're going aground, it's going to be within the next hour. And I don't want to be anywhere near the Conn when we do. I figure that's the Captain's privilege."

“You think we're going to hit something?"

"Not really. But it's possible."

Thinking about this, I left and before going back to the Conn stopped by to see Bill. He had the center bunk now, to help Doc in caring for him. "Bill, you awake?"

"Oh hi Sam. Sit down and talk with me."

I dropped down on the small bench and leaned back against the bulkhead. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess. I suppose the officers are having to double up on watches because of me?"

"Not really. The Exec has started standing conning watches and Ed has moved down to stand diving watches. No problem."

“Boy, I'll bet the X. O. loves me now."

"I think he's more worried about your getting well than he is about you getting back on the watch bill."

"Yeah, well I still can't help feeling that he's going to start thinking that I'm not too likely to be getting qualified any too soon."

"The least thing you have to worry about now is getting qualified."

"Yeah, I guess. Hi Doc, come on in."

I turned to see the corpsman leaning in through the curtains. "Got a shot for you, Mr. Balence."

"Here, let me get out of the way."

Bill seemed oblivious to the Corpsman as Doc took his hypo and shot Bill in the arm. He laid there very quietly, staring at the bunk above him.

"That was your rabies shot, Mr. Balence. Now you're fully protected, from everything but loose women.”

"Thanks loads, Doc."

I walked on down the passageway and waited for the first class corpsman to finish and come back aft. When he did, I stopped him, "Doc, what's this about pneumonia?"

He looked about quickly before stepping inside the yeoman's shack and saying, "Oh there's a chance of his present condition deteriorating and his developing pneumonia. But it's not too likely. I'm not really as worried about losing him as I was. He's a pretty sick boy, but I think he'll make it.”

"Any chance we'll have to abort the mission?"

“There's no chance of that. The Captain will let him die first. That Bastard!"

"Take it easy Doc. We may need you."

"Well I know who we don't need. At the present rate he'll have half the crew on their backs. One thing you can bank on, though; it's all going into my medical log.”

"Well the most he can accomplish right now is to ground us."

"And maybe crack open the hull."

"Don't lose any sleep over that, Doc.”

He grunted and, stepping back out of the shack, continued on his way aft. After a moment, I went back forward. Bill was asleep, so I stepped back into the wardroom. The X.O. was still there.

“Doc seems pretty unhappy," I said.

“That right? Have you also noticed that Hal is unhappy? Or Chief Green? Or the entire crew, including officers? Tell me something I don't know.”

“What do we do now?”

“As protestant lay leader, I recommend prayer.”

"Why? Why does he do it?"

“Do what?”

"Oh you know. Ignore everyone's feelings. Do the opposite of what you or I would do?"

"What makes you think you know what l'd do? I doubt seriously that you would agree with me all the time. But the Captain? Well who knows why he does the things he does? It's a very complicated world."

"I suppose so. I think I'll go see if McEngine wants me to take the dive.”

I left the Exec and went to Control.

Larry didn't want a relief yet, so I went up to the Conn. As I reached the top of the ladder, I saw Hal with sweat all over his face, raising number one periscope. His hoarse voice croaked, “Captain, I think we're too far to the left.”

"We'll decide Mr. Lawrence, right after you get this fix.”

Hal sighed. "Stand by for a fix.”

“Aye sir.” I saw Chief Brown in the back of the Conning Tower, ready to take the bearings. I moved on up and stood by the upper hatch as Hal began taking cuts. "Mountain peak, bearing... Mark!" He quickly swung the scope to the left and then zeroed in again. "Jut of land, bearing... Mark!”

He was swinging again when the Captain yelled down the open lower hatch to Larry, “Mark your depth.”

“Five six feet coming to five eight, sir.”

“Well get me down, I've got a scope Up.”

“Yes sir, I'm trying."

I moved to where I could see the depth gauge that the Captain was watching. We were still going up. It was now 52 feet – which meant there was six feet of scope exposed.

“Downscope,” the Captain ordered. Hal turned to the Captain, and then pulled the handle that released the scope. It fell silently into the well. “You'll have to wait on your fix, Mr. Lawrence, until the diving officer gets back on depth.”

Hal said nothing but went back to the navigator's table to see what he had got with only two lines of bearings. I caught just a glimpse of Chief Green's face of bemused disbelief.

The Captain was yelling, "God damn it McGee, get me down.”

"Aye sir.”

I could hear flooding of the trim tanks to get us heavy and back on depth. I then noticed that the angle on the boat was slightly tilted up a couple of degrees. We were already at 50 feet. Why wasn't Larry using a down angle?

Hal then rose up from the chart table and said, “Captain, those last two bearings put us in fifty feet of water. I think we've bottomed and are imply sliding up the beach.”

Then I heard Larry yell, “Broach!” This meant forty eight feet from the keel to the surface of the water; and that the top of the sail was now breaking the surface.

"Captain?” When there was no immediate reaction, Hal yelled down, “All stop. All back full.”

Somehow this got through to the Captain. He yelled down, “Larry, we're aground, and I'm backing off." I heard Larry secure flooding the trim tanks and start pumping the water back to sea. We'd be heavy as a rock now. The screws had started backing when I felt the shudder. There was a dull thud, back aft. The angle of the boat was about 3 degrees up, so it was a fair bet the screws had just hit the bottom. Any submarine school student can tell you that, when you back down submerged, your stern will always sink.

Larry would have expected it, but he didn't have time to counter the effect of full astern. Depth control while backing is hap hazardous at best. The After Torpedo Room reported that they thought they had heard the stern hit. But then suddenly the screws hitting the mud didn't concern the Captain anymore.

“Larry, don't let the bow hit.”

“Captain," Hal was asking, “Maybe we've already wiped it out.”

"Maybe, but until we check the leads in the Forward Torpedo Room, we're going to try to keep it safe.

Slowly, Larry got back down to where the sail was completely submerged (fifty feet) and fighting the angle to keep it between two down and zero degrees, backed away from the beach. Then Hal ordered ahead full to kill the sternway. As soon as we started to move ahead, he ordered ahead dead slow. Then, using small rudder, he turned the boat toward what he hoped was deeper waters. Everyone started to breathe easier.

Then sonar reported, “Conn, sonar. I think we've got a nick in the screws. It's making quite a bit of noise for one third speed.”

“Damn it!” The Captain turned to Hal, “That's all we need. A noisy screw.”

“We must have really hit back there.”

"The God damned Diving Officer may just have wiped out the entire mission.”

I decided that it was time for me to leave. When the Captain -- who was complaining to anyone who would listen -- turned to me, I quickly said, I'll go down to sonar and see how bad the noise is.”

“While you're there, find out why sonar didn't hear us sliding up the fucking beach!"

I quickly moved down the ladder. Larry was covered with sweat and looked miserable. He gave me a look of complete disgust then went back to watching his gauges. Stepping by him, I kept going and dropped down the hatch to sonar. Rudinak was rummaging through a spare parts locker in the cubby hole adjacent to sonar.

“Morning, Mr. Marks. What're you doing up there, dragging the screws through the mud?”

"Just about. How does it sound?”

“It seems noisy enough to me. But pick up a set of headphones and see for yourself.”

Frank Marvin, the only sonarman aboard was on the sonar stack, carefully turning the bearing wheel, listening intently to the water's noise. He saw me and lifted one of the earphones from his ear.

"Hand me a set of earphones," I told Frank directly. "I want to listen to the screws.”

He immediately opened a small cabinet and gave me the earphones. As I put them on, he plugged them into a receptacle and then swung the bearing wheel around to listen in the direction of the screws. Listening intently, I could hear the steady beat of a nicked screw. It wasn't too loud at our present slow speed; but at faster speeds it would be sufficient to signal our whereabouts to any enemy in the immediate area who might be listening.

Having heard enough, I turned to go.

"Mr. Marks, will we abort the mission?"

"What for, Rudinak?"

"That screw is pretty noisy."

"I doubt it. I already know what the Captain's reasoning will be. He'll simply say that any surface craft will be on active sonar, so that the noise won't have that much effect."

"What about an enemy submarine?"

"I doubt that he'll consider that point - just say there are none in the area."

"But why? What's so important about this blasted mission?"

"The Captain wants no aborts on any mission of his. Besides, the screw's not all that bad as long as we continue along slow."

"Just hope we don't have to speed up."

I stayed in sonar for a while longer, going over some of my work. But then I left to eat lunch in the wardroom. Passing through the Control Room, I noticed that Ed now had the dive. When I reached the wardroom, Hal was there, waiting to eat.

I asked, "We clear of the strait?"

"More or less. It's a straight shot to open water now. Barring the possibility of one hell of a current , you can put your prayer wheel away."

"Good morning." Hal and I both turned to Jim who had just entered the wardroom. He was buttoning his shirt and looking very refreshed. He noticed our state, and glancing back and forth at each of us, asked, “What's going on?” When neither of us answered immediately, he added, “I've been asleep.”


Chapter Five -- Man Overboard

Forward to:

Chapter Seven -- Bad Luck


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