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Bad Luck

New - 21 April 2006


Paint Out the Numbers

Chapter Seven

Bad Luck


Number three engine went out the first time we tried to snorkel after we left the straits.

I was in the sack trying to decide whether or not to get up and do some work when Larry came up to the wardroom, where the Captain was, with the news.

"Captain, Number three engine just went off the line."

"Oh? Well I guess we expected that, didn't I." Captain was certainly taking it calmly.

"Yes sir. We were coming on to snorkel and Number three just didn't make it.”

"You didn't try to blow the mast with Number three, did you?"

"No sir. We've been using Number four when lighting off for snorkeling. But we had no sooner got number three on the line than it took off and Phillas kicked out the fuel racks. He seems to think it may be the vertical drive.”

“Have you tried to restart it?”

"No sir. The common consensus among the enginemen is that they'd all like to be in the Forward Torpedo Room if we try to light it off. Phillas claims that if it is the vertical drive and it's misaligned, the whole engine will come apart.”

You're kidding?”

“No sir. If the vertical drive shears, and it will if it's out of alignment, the upper drive shaft will run away and rip the engine apart.”

“But do we know for sure that it's the vertical drive?”

“No sir. We're tearing into it now to check the problem. We've got Number One engine on the line with four now."

"Okay. Well, I guess Mr. Lawrence will be quite happy that we went through the straits early, like we did. Now we'll still be able to get to our rendezvous on time."

"Yes sir." Larry was decidedly unenthusiastic.

Meanwhile, the Captain couldn't resist adding, "Remember, when you've got your own command, to count on something going wrong, plan for it, and you'll never get in trouble."

Oh shut up, you old bastard, I thought. I could never stand to hear any man pat himself on the back. And when this Captain started telling Larry McGee the facts of life, it turned my stomach. Then, as Larry left the wardroom, I heard the Captain talking to himself.

"Damn, I'll be glad when this trip is over."

I couldn't have agreed with his sentiments more.


The day of the plant was like any other day. But then again this is always true of a submarine submerged. It's hard enough just to tell night and day, much less a change in the weather conditions.

There had developed no evidence that the plant had been damaged by our going aground, but the Captain's face had lately developed a strained look; his skin seemingly stretched over his entire skull. He moved around the boat much slower now, as if a heavy load was on his back. He was still keeping most of the details to himself and this might have accounted for his change in attitude. But I didn't really see the need for it. The air of secrecy was normally unnecessary once the boat put to sea. A spy would have to take over communications to really accomplish much.

Of course on this mission the plant would be worthless if the enemy ever found out about it. So the Captain's security measures may have been somewhat justified. You might never know one way or the other.

Despite his being kept in the dark, Hal was still nervous as hell. We were heading for the mainland, so it was not hard for anyone who saw the chart to figure out what eventually must happen. There was certainly no point in laying in close to the mainland without accomplishing something . The trick was to dash in and dash out before anyone had a chance to spot us. Right now we were obviously dashing in.

Then one morning (I forget which, it's easy to lose track of time on a submarine), the Captain called Battle Stations. It was done primarily to cover any eventuality, but when I heard it, I was sure we had been spotted. When I reached my Station by the Tactical Data Computer in the conning tower, I quickly realized the truth and settled down to contemplating how many people they could manage to stuff into the conning tower this time.

In an area of about forty square feet, there were two periscopes, a mast well, and the Navigator's chart table; all of which accounted for about 10 square feet. What remained was given over to thirteen people: The Captain, X.O., Hal, Ed, myself, Chief Brown, Ford, Blankenberg on the helm, a seaman for navigator's recorder, Marvin on the Fire Control panel, another quartermaster with the log, a man to run the periscope, and Rudinak standing by in the event the radar was needed. Then to complete the confusion, everyone had to be able to move out of the way of the Captain when he swung around on the periscope.

I generally jammed myself between the mast well and the bulkhead, just to the side of the computer (the Exec liked to be able to see the readings on the computer). I noticed Hal sweating over his charts from the forward part of the plotting table with Chief Brown just across from him, keeping tabs on the ship's movement. The Exec stood directly behind Hal, leaning back against the radar console. Ed was at the other end of the computer, where he fed in the weapon data. His Firecontrolerman, Marvin, stood beside him with a set of head phones, in front of the first control panel. It was located directly over the lower hatch, and Marvin straddled the hatch whenever he operated the panel.

The Captain was not as easily located. He was shifting around, continually trying to get comfortable. Then he would give up the attempt and take a sweep on the number two scope. Occasionally he would give Hal several lines of bearings for a fix. He used the second scope since it was the attack scope. It has a much smaller neck and, consequently, makes a much less noticeable wake and is harder to spot from surface ship. The number one scope is larger - its optics are correspondingly better and, in consequence, is normally used for navigation and during darkness.

The Captain had been on number one at first because it had been dark. But now it was first light and he had gone to his number two attack scope to make the final run on the plant site. When he was not on the scope or telling Hal why he couldn't get a fix because he didn't want to overexpose the scope, he was on the intercom asking sonar if they had any contacts. They would, of course, have told him immediately if they had, but he kept asking them and they kept giving him polite negatives.

"Captain, we've got to have another fix. We're within 5000 yards of the site.”

"Alright, Mr. Navigator, we'll take a stab at it.”

The Captain then went to the scope as the periscope jockey moved the handle to start the hydraulics lifting the scope. As it slammed into the raised position, the Captain was on it, his eyes thrown against the rubber eyepiece. He was already turning, watching carefully for any signs of life. He spun around twice then stopped on one bearing, then two more, giving cuts for Hal's fix. Then he yelled, "Down scope," and the periscope fell silently back into its well.

I watched Hal's face as they plotted the line of bearings. The hope in his expression suddenly turned to disaster and he dropped his head into his hands. Chief Brown growled his thoughts, “Either the Captain had the wrong light house, or they moved the one on the chart a mile up the coast.” The Captain either didn't hear him or simply ignored him. Probably the latter, since he didn't need our approval.

I was becoming amused. The fact that we could be completely blowing the whole mission never occurred to me. It was that the whole operation had all the aspects of a farce. The Exec obviously didn't care a tinker's damn either way, Hal was in a frustrated agony, and the Captain was nervously trying to appear confident.

Using the best data he had (mainly dead reckoning), Hal started calling out distances to the plant site, “Three thousand yards.”

Chief Brown, in an aside to me, continually added, “Give or take a thousand.”

When we reached what was ostensibly one thousand yards, the Captain yelled down to Larry on the diving stand, “Get ready Larry." Then to the helmsman, “Tell Maneuvering to made dead slow turns.” At five hundred yards he went to stop. Then at two hundred, he backed down at one third to kill his forward motion. The speed of the boat went to zero and the Captain ordered all stop, and told the Forward Torpedo Room to actuate the plant release. Quickly they reported back that she was released, and the Captain started backing away slow.

“Conn, sonar. I think we're dragging something on the bow.”

“All stop,” the Captain ordered. “Tubes forward, are we dragging the plant for god's sake?”

The Captain was excited, but then I noticed the Exec start to take notice. “Sonar, are you sure the noise wasn't the plant hitting the bottom?”

“No sir, it's more of a scraping sound.”

The men in Tubes Forward then reported, "Conn, Tubes Forward. We think one of the cables didn't shear. Should we actuate the release mechanism again?"

"Oh my God!” The Captain's face had gone white. "Tubes Forward, this is the Captain. Cut that damn thing loose."

“Conn, all we can do is actuate the release mechanism. The cables are in the tubes and they're flooded.”

Sudden the Captain turned on Ed, “The man we had in the scuba gear…”


"Right. Get him out with wire cutters and cut those cables. And you go up to Tubes Forward and take charge."

"Aye sir." Ed took off for the hatch as Marvin relayed the word on the phones to the Forward Torpedo Room.

"Damn good thing we had that guy suit out." Then his smiling face became serious again, "Larry, we're going to flood the escape trunk with a man in a minute. So get ready to compensate for the extra weight forward.”

Before Larry could reply, Frank in Sonar, reported, "Conn, sonar. I've got what sounds like a closing contact on bearing 340°. It sounds like an active sonar."

Suddenly the farce had ended. Submarines – who wanted to maintain silence above all else -- used passive sonar primarily, which essentially was just listening. But active sonar was sending out a specific ping and listening for echoes. Whoever used active sonar was not concerned about alerting others to its activities. In the current situation an active sonar's pinging meant an Anti-Submarine vessel. And this was not an exercise where they would only drop dummy charges.

"Start tracking him Sam."

I did as the Exec ordered and put the bearing into the computer. The Captain began beseiging sonar, asking for ranges, aspect, anything he could think of. But, since all they had heard had been the sonar pinging, all they could give was bearing.

But you could get a lot of information out of bearings. And I was trying when the Exec reminded the Captain, "Why not take a look, with the periscope?" Sarcasm at a time like this meant a cool head.

As the scope went up, Tubes Forward said they had the man ready in the escape trunk and that it sounded, sure enough, like the plant was dragging. Everyone seemingly ignored the report.

With the attack scope up, the Captain yelled bearing mark on the contact. I knew we had a problem; the surface vessel was directly off our beam, which meant we made a very big target for his sound waves to bounce off of.

Then the Captain stepped back and the scope started down. "Destroyer," he said between gulps, "and she's turning toward.” He stood there for a second without a word.

Then the Exec asked, "Did you get a range?"

Almost absentmindedly the Captain answered, "No." Then his mind began thinking again, "Tubes Forward, do we have any tubes?"

He was interrupted by the X.O., "No, and we don't have time. We'll have to use the stern tubes."

The Captain looked at the X.O. and said, "Right. All ahead two thirds, left full rudder."

"Captain, the plant."

"Oh hell, forget the plant.”

The Exec was on the phone, "Tubes Aft, make the two mark 14's ready to go in all respects."

"Conn, Sonar. Contact rapidly closing. Sounds like a Destroyer. Estimate range to be about 6000 yards.”

Suddenly a crashing noise reverberated throughout the boat. Everyone froze, not knowing what to do.

Then, "Conn, sonar. We just lost the plant. Sounded like we ripped it off on something. It's breaking up and making a lot of noise."

The Captain started yelled into the intercom, "Sonar are you sure? It's breaking up?"

"Yes sir. Making a helluva noise. I can hardly hear the destroyer now."

"Sonar," the Exec had come alive as the Captain fell back against the number one scope's mast, "What's the Destroyer bearing now?"

“About three five zero."

"Mark your head."

"Passing two four five."

"Port stop. All back full.”

It took a moment before I realized that the Exec had given the order. Taking over command at a time of crisis is absolutely forbidden in the Navy. But the Captain was obviously not capable of rational action. He was simply slumped against the periscope. The transition of command had been so smooth, I doubt that most of those in the conning tower were even aware of it.

Slowly, as I recovered from the shock of this ‘mutinous action', I began to see what the Exec was up to. He was going to twist us around until we were heading in the opposite direction and use the plant's breaking up as a cover for our escape. The bubbles and noise the plant would make in its death throes would be an effective target for the active sonar and screen our departure.

"Conn, sonar. I've lost the Destroyer behind the plant."

The Exec's face lit up as he went to all ahead full and straightened his course. . Everyone now sensed what he was trying to do. We kept wondering if the Destroyer would be fooled.

Then I noticed the X.O. was timing something. Watching his watch, he said, "We're going to lose our screen as soon as the Destroyer reaches the plant. Then we'll have to slow or he'll pick us up again." Then, he ordered, "All ahead one third. Rig for silent running.”

Our own noise immediately fell off.

"Sonar, Conn. Let me know if you hear anything . "

We coasted on through the water for a few seconds, then sonar reported, "I think l've got the Destroyer coming through the plant."

“Is he still pinging?”

"Yes sir." Then, he added, “Something just hit the water, and another."

"Hold on,” the X.O. said, “Sonar, be ready for depth charges.”

I grabbed the computer when the first charge went off, wondering if the sonarman got his headphones off in time. The entire boat shuddered as lights flickered. But our distance from the plant made it seem not much more than firing a slug of water from the torpedo tubes, a test we commonly conduct.

Another blast quickly followed of about the same intensity. More blasts. . But slowly the boat's shuddering became less.

"All ahead two thirds." We all turned at the Captain's orders. He saw the Exec looking at him as if the Captain had countermanded a lawful order. The Exec had gotten the feeling of command and now felt put upon.

The Captain felt he must explain, "We've got to get away."

"Conn, Sonar, we're cativating with the nicked screw, and it's making a hell of a noise."

Almost apologetically the Captain acknowledged, "All ahead one third." To confirm the order, the Exec continued, "That Destroyer will have to find us all over again if he wants us."

"Conn, sonar. I can't find the Destroyer. There's too much noise from the charges back aft. My scope is one solid blob in that area."

I realized that the plant, even in its death throes, had accomplished something for us. It had helped us get away, even if intelligence would never hear a word from it. Of course the mission was a miserable failure. Worse than that, it gave the enemy a clue that we were trying something to even be in these waters. Whether we blew any further attempts by our farce was yet to be seen.

As I looked around the conning tower, I could see the expressions of exultation at escaping slowly turning to awareness of the mission's failure. The Captain's notice of our good luck was moving inexorably toward the failure.

"Well it looks like we lost them. That was bad luck to have that Destroyer come up like that. If he hadn't been there, we would have had no problem. What I can't understand is how he just happened to be there. He shouldn't have been. The plant would have worked if he hadn't showed up. It's not our fault. We can't account for the whole enemy fleet."

Then, as if he had suddenly remembered something, “What the hell happened to the big diversionary attack? They were supposed to draw all the destroyers off of us. Somebody else blew it; not us. Hell, no; not us!”

His voice rambled on while everyone avoided his eyes. I hoped he'd shut up and leave us be.

But the Exec wasn't paying any attention to him. His mind was still working. "Captain, recommend we come thirty degrees to the left and clear the coastline.”

The Captain gave the order and, once we had swung around, the Exec was on the intercom, "Sonar, Conn. The Destroyer should be well clear of our own screw's noise. See if you can pick him up."

A minute later sonar reported, "Conn, Sonar. I still can't find the Destroyer. The area is still pretty noisy, but I do know that they're not dropping any more charges."

"Bert," the Captain looked at his second in command demurely, "Do you think we ought to risk an NAE?"

The fact that he would ask for the Exec's help ended any respect I might have ever had for him. The X.O. could show no more respect than I felt, for he answered his Commanding Officer curtly, as he would a child,

"That would only draw them to this area. NAE's are for breaking contact; they won't help us now."

The Captain shook his head as if he understood. Then, sensing he was no longer needed, he left the Conn and went to his stateroom.


Chapter Six -- Bottoming Out

Forward to:

Chapter Eight -- Retribution



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