I WAS IN my bunk when the first torpedo hit. It was May 20, 1942, aboard the freighter S.S. Lord Calvert in the Caribbean. Before the sound of the explosion faded, I had pulled on a pair of dungarees, grabbed a T-shirt and headed barefooted for my battle station. The general alarm sounded as a second torpedo took away our stern, demolishing the ship's propellers, the afterdeck gun and her crew. We lay dead in the water as a third torpedo blew a giant hole amidships.
We had been hit by a German U-boat--the kind depicted in the new, acclaimed film "Das Boot." As the movie testifies, life aboard a sub is fraught with peril and fear. I can testify to this myself, having served most of World War II aboard a submarine in the South Pacific.
"Rig ship for dive" is the order that seals you off from the world. Hatches are secured and it is the last time you will see the outside for a month or more. On watch, you remain tense at your station, alert for danger--an enemy sub, a floating mine--that will require a deeper dive. The feeling of utter solitude though there is no place to be by yourself, the unrelenting sense of danger, bring the crew together. As time passes, ever so slowly, you become pale, drawn, weak, tense. Armed with torpedoes, you can snuff out life quickly, brutally. Or you can be snuffed out. You wonder when the ordeal will end, how it will end.
When hit by an enemy sub, as we were on the Calvert, you did one thing--you moved. Everyone rushed to their battle stations. You wanted to return fire, but you didn't know where. You fought the feeling of helplessness, terror. After the third explosion on the Calvert, abandon ship was sounded. Somewhere on the main deck I came across a .45 automatic, stuck it in my waistband and leaped over the side.
There was a lifeboat about 50 yards away. I stroked out for her and was helped aboard.
Drenched, I found a seat on the outside. Wondering, worrying, we searched for other survivors.
The Calvert, only her upper decks now out of water, gave off a loud, deep rumbling death rattle and sunk below the surface. The wide deep woosh of her undertow sucked the scattered debris down with her.
The water became a turmoil of swift whirlpools, bubbling and hissing from boiling steam. Then, underwater explosions and sounds of things breaking up. Then a stillness lay over the scene.
Even the scavenging sea gulls, who follow ships far to sea, had left screaming with the first explosion. They were now tiny dots in the sky.
Only the steady low groan of a wounded seaman and the soft lapping of waves touching the sides of the lifeboat broke the quiet.
And then . . .
At our first sighting it could have been about a half mile away. Her black and dull-slate gray bow poked through the surface from her hiding place beneath the sea.
Low in the water, mean-looking, rusted in places, she moved toward us like a tired sea monster stalking her prey for the kill.
Lookouts clinging to her conning tower peered through binoculars, scanning the sea and sky for other ships or planes.
As she closed in on us, our captain, sitting in the stern, ordered, "Throw all your weapons over the side and raise your hands."
Bending low, I held the .45 between my legs, but disobeyed, dropping it quietly to the deck. I removed my T-shirt to cover it and slowly raised my hands. We were prisoners.
As they came closer, we could see that, from the captain on the bridge to the sailors on deck, they were young, pale-looking from long months under the sea, barefooted, naked to the waist, their dungarees faded and worn.
The only one moving was a sailor with a motion picture camera held to his eye. The rest stood frozen, legs spread wide against the roll of the deck. They were holding long automatic weapons, pointed at us.
I wondered if they would fire, if I would fire back.
In boot camp we fired a .45 at targets. I had never fired at anything alive. Before going into the service I had never fired any kind of a weapon.
Their captain was bearded. He held his hands to the sides of his mouth and shouted, in heavily accented English: "Row over to us, we will pull around and form a lee for you."
We pulled alongside, barely touching the round-bellied hull just beneath the surface.
"Is your captain aboard?"
Our captain identified himself, the name of the ship and home port. He answered questions about the cargo, tonnage and ship's destination, which had been Cape Town, South Africa, and later on up to Port Said.
There was a hurried conference on the U-boat's bridge.
Now it would come, I thought. Screaming bullets. Could I duck low enough? Jumbled thoughts.
The sun was directly overhead, a white blazing heat. The gulls returned, the only sound as they swept low to gaze at their feast of oil-soaked fish.
The U-boat's captain spoke again. "I'm sorry, gentlemen, that we had to meet under these circumstances. But it is war. Maybe another time, another place."
He signaled for us to lower our hands and the sailors on deck relaxed. The tension was broken.
He asked if we had a compass, and enough supplies, and verified our course to find land. He gave an order and her engines kicked on. She moved slowly away to a tiny silhouette in the distance.
We rigged a small sail and, combined with rowing and the help of a slight wind, we moved slowly in a direction where we hoped to find land.
The U-boat appeared off and on during the long hot afternoon but always far in the distance. We were told by an experienced seaman that she was using us as bait in case our SOS had been heard and a rescue attempt was on the way.
But there was none--no plane, no ship.
Sharks followed close to the lifeboat during the hot days and freezing nights. Our rations were two cups of warm water a day and two hard sea biscuits.
Toward evening of the third day, land was sighted but we lay offshore for the night for fear of dashing against the reef in the dark. We landed early in the morning on a small offshore island where suspicious villagers stood at a distance and stared. Some of the men held rifles, their fingers on the triggers.
But toward dusk, two lean, darkly tanned U.S. soldiers rode into town on horseback from a coastal battery somewhere and identified us as American survivors. Hostility disappeared and the natives shared a meal of fish heads and rice. That night we sat in an open cantina, sipping warm beer and listening to music from a crystal set.
Back in the States, I went on 30-day survival leave, then reported for shore duty in East Boston. I was assigned to a funeral detail. Following that, duty on an offshore patrol craft, a painted-over former Gloucester fishing boat, did not satisfy my dreams of action. While ashore in Key West one night, I ran into a home-town buddy who wore twin dolphins on his sleeve--the symbol of a submariner, he told me. Except for the U-boat, I had no idea what a submarine was. He took me to his; it was cramped, but he talked of action. He also said there was a 50 percent bonus in your paycheck. I put in for a transfer to submarines. My acceptance came through a week later.
Shortly I was serving in the South Pacific, waging war against the Japanese.
The patrols were long and dull--until contact was made. Then we could strike. Then came the fear. Fear of discovery. It came during the depth-charge attacks against us, in the eeriness of the dull lights from the battle lanterns, the severe heat and lack of oxygen, feeling the closeness to death at each ear-splitting explosion. Then dead silence. Then up above, the sound of churning propellers--chug, chug, chug, chug--the enemy searching us out, coming closer. Often, we were passed by.
Once we sank a Japanese ship with two well-placed torpedo hits. Now it was the escort's turn to come after us. Our motors would kick ahead softly as we sought a lower depth. It could go on for hours, this game, all in dead silence, with oxygen so low a cigarette couldn't be kept burning, the intense heat reaching 100 degrees or more. We'd sit in our skivvies only, and waited.
We'd hear the chug-chugging again, louder, closer, the clack of the depth charge. Then, blam, blam. The vibrations would shake a bulb from a socket. You'd make a quick move to catch it before it crashed to the deck. No luck. Would they hear it? The voice, quiet on the speaker system, would intone, "Damage-control crew to forward torpedo room." In some insane way, the paraphernalia carried by the damage control men would seem funny: a canvas bag filled with corks and a wooden mallet to plug up the holes.
Only the guys in the control room knew what was going on, how deep we were. Mere thoughts could paralyze you: the thought of a rivet loosened in the hull and blown out like a pistol shot--the pressure from a stream of water could put a hole right through a man.
How many escorts up there, you wondered. Subs had surfaced to fight it out with one and found a second lying still in the water, waiting to move in for a kill.
"Rig ship from depth-charge attack" was always a welcome command. Then, "Surface. Surface."
The engines would kick on. A blast of fresh air would fill the sweat-drenched compartments. There would be loud talk, laughing, boasting. Death would be postponed.
Soon, though, we would be back at it, doing full speed to get in position for an enemy convoy. Then we would submerge and wait. Wait for the perfect shot. Wait to surface again.