Read an Excerpt
By Edward P. Stafford
Naval Institute PressCopyright © 1988 United States Naval Institute All right reserved. ISBN: 1-59114-796-4
Chapter OneKEY WEST
Predictably under the circumstances, the captain of the 692 was reserved and subdued but polite and businesslike in his tiny wardroom. His own bunk to starboard, both upper and lower berths to port, and the table, which folded out from the forward bulkhead, were covered with registered, classified publications and documents. Each had to be personally sighted, its number verified, and its pages inventoried by both of us. Although I was tempted to accept the numbers of pages listed on the covers, he was not. He was going literally by the book. The impression he gave was that he had been burned once and summarily relieved, and his neck was not going to be out again, not even one inch of it.
After two hours of checking and counting, a third of the job was done, and there was still the inventory of portable, accountable, Title B equipment. Obviously it would be impossible to be under way by 1800. I anticipated a blast from operations but when that news was reported, they unexpectedly granted a reprieve of twenty-four hours. It was close to 2300 when the papers changing custody and responsibility were all duly signed, witnessed, and returned to the safe.
As I drove north on Biscayne Boulevard through the palm-lined, jasmine-scented tropical evening, a little war wasgoing on at the seat of my emotions, with pride, excitement, and anticipation arrayed against doubt, loneliness, and anxiety. I was proud to have been selected by those with experience in such selections, which implied their high regard for me, but since my abilities as the CO of a warship were unknown quantities, I was nagged by prickles of doubt about how I would measure up. I was excited at the prospect of command, of voyages to lands and ports unknown to me, in the cause of my country. But I would be separated indefinitely from my beloved young wife of fourteen months, who was expecting our baby in July. Along with the heady anticipation of action with the enemy came the unavoidable anxiety of a realistic awareness of my own mortality. Happy thoughts warred against sad, and the battle surged back and forth through my heart and head with first one and then the other dominant.
Before I had arrived at our apartment on the bay at Thirty-fourth Street, the hard, objective, irrefutable facts themselves imposed if not a peace, a truce. Command of the 692 had been offered to me and I had accepted. Orders had been issued, custody assumed. Events were on the march, the die cast, the course set. Doubt or anxiety could only be destructive and would lessen as I gained experience. Loneliness I would have to subdue and tolerate.
The next morning at 1015 the twenty-seven sailors of the USS SC 692, in immaculate whites, formed three sides of a square abaft the pilothouse and inboard of the tall, zenith-pointing 20-millimeters. The incoming and outgoing COs, in dress khaki, backs to the pilothouse, stood in the open fourth side of the square with the two other ship's officers behind them. The captain read his orders detaching him and sending him on to other duty. I read mine. Like the little change-of-command ceremony itself, the orders were short but definite and decisive.
LTJG EDWARD P. STAFFORD DVG USNR HEREBY DETACHED PROCEED
TO PORT IN WHICH THE SC 692 MAY BE AND UPON ARRIVAL ASSUME
COMMAND OF THAT VESSEL.
When I had read my orders, I saluted the former skipper and spoke the simple, timeworn words by which command at sea has changed since the days of Drake and Nelson, "I relieve you, sir."
As he said a few words of good luck and farewell, I looked around at the men with whom I would share my life, men whose lives and welfare were now my responsibility. I was glad to see a few rating badges. The man with the tattoos who had been working on the fo'c'sle the previous day was a bosun's mate first class and his huskier, hairier helper was a seaman first. There were a first-class motor machinist's mate and a couple of second class, a third-class gunner's mate, a signalman second, a quartermaster third, a yeoman second, an electrician's mate second, a couple of third-class radiomen, a sonarman third, a mess attendant third (the only black face in the crew), and a ship's cook first class. The rest were seamen and firemen, most of whom looked like exceptionally serious high school juniors. Among the nonrated men I recognized the dark-haired sailor, apparently a gunner's mate striker, who had been lubricating the 20-mm guns when I had first seen the ship.
I caught myself wondering how these men and boys compared to the German submariners who were their mortal enemies-at least one U-boat of them was probably within fifty miles at that very moment. And why had this clean-cut, alert-looking crew and this trim and tidy little warship been found "unsat" by the training officers at SCTC, and what could be done to weld them into a sea-going, fighting entity able to face and defeat the redoubtable enemy? First things first, I thought. Let's get the 692 to Key West, evaluating the crew's performance in a night passage offshore, see what operations are scheduled, what facilities and time are available for training, and go from there.
Immediately after the change-of-command quarters, I met for the first time the other officers of the SC 692. One was Lieutenant (junior grade) Charles Shelby Coffey, Jr., from Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, a graduate of George Washington University, who had also completed two years of law school there. Now he was executive officer, communications officer, administrative officer, personnel officer, and engineering officer of the USS SC 692. The other was Ensign Roy Jordan Washer, who held a B.A. in business administration from the University of Richmond. Ensign Washer was now gunnery officer, supply officer, welfare officer, recreation officer, and wardroom mess treasurer of the 692.
Since by decree of the SCTC, in a standard ship's organization book for SCs, the CO was also navigator, ASW officer, medical officer, and morale officer, all the responsibilities necessary for the day-to-day functioning of the ship were now assigned and covered by these three men. All the elements that would shape a new entity were in place. The result would be an individual small U.S. warship, with her own unique character and personality, her own capabilities and limitations, and her own personal and professional reputation among her sisters and her seniors. The plans were drawn and the building materials on site; the process of creation could now begin. But the merit of this finished product would not be judged by critics next year; it could well be tested under fire next week. And here success might mean survival, but poor workmanship was punishable by death.
At 1500 on Saturday, 9 January 1943, having fueled to her full 4,400-gallon capacity, the USS SC 692 stood out the long, straight, narrow channel known as Government Cut, which leads from Miami to the sea. Only a few yards to port the afternoon traffic flowed east and west along MacArthur Causeway between the separate cities of Miami and Miami Beach. Ahead, to seaward, on this short winter day, the sky was already noticeably darker than that over the land astern. From the causeway the little ship must have looked determined and formidable, her guns plainly visible in silhouette, the ensign snapping at her truck, a curl of white water at her bow, and a cluster of officers and men in evidence on her open bridge.
But from ashore, however close, there was no hint of the intensity or variety of emotion contained in and on that little hull. Only six weeks out of the builder's yard, she was sailing on her first operational mission into a sea contested by a hidden but deadly enemy. Having failed in her training exercises, she was, in effect, certified unready. No man aboard could accurately guess, beyond her immediate destination, where she was going, how long she would be there, or exactly what she would be doing. The officers, on whom their lives depended, were strangers to the crew; and the crew, on whom the lives of the officers equally depended, were a similarly unknown quantity.
The 692 came away from the dock cleanly and sweetly, reacting instantly to helm and engines, turned neatly on her heel, and settled steadily on course down the channel's center. She felt good under the feet. The crew was alert and responsive, sensing the moment and determined to show their mettle. The 150 nautical miles to Key West were marked at frequent intervals with lighthouses, and the sea was predicted to be calm. I was on my way to sea for the first time, age twenty-four, standing to sea in wartime on my own bridge, entrusted with this fine warship and her crew by the United States of America. I was doing my best to appear assured and confident, knowing instinctively the absolute necessity of appearances to the other twenty-nine men in that small hull in these critical hours. I even managed what I hoped was a confident wave to my wife and her mother, who followed for a while in our car along the causeway.
Then, quickly, we were down to business. The night's courses were all laid off on the chart: the Miami sea buoy south to a point three miles east of Fowey Rocks; thence on ever more southwesterly and westerly headings to pass the same distance abeam of the lighthouses at Triumph Reef, Pacific Reef, Turtle Reef, Carysfort Reef, The Elbow, Molasses Reef, Alligator Reef, Tennessee Reef, Sombrero Key, and American Shoal before turning due north into the Main Ship Channel at the Key West sea buoy.
On the chart the passage appeared straightforward and easy in the extreme-the nautical equivalent of a night stroll down a broad and curving avenue with a lamppost on every corner-and for a different ship with a different crew on another night, it would have been exactly that. Arcs drawn with a compass from each lighthouse at a distance equal to its charted range of visibility showed that for 80 percent of the voyage there would be a major aid to navigation in sight; for almost half the trip there would be two, permitting cross bearings and good fixes. Three miles to seaward of the reefs was a comfortable distance yet close enough to avoid the northward current of the Gulf Stream, which a little farther out ran at more than three knots. The sun set out of a clear sky into a calm sea. The wind was just a breath out of the northeast, making dark patches of ripples in the dusk.
It was a night for a pleasure cruise, or a holiday or honeymoon. But aboard the USS SC 692 it did not feel that way at all. The ship was darkened. Radio silence was in effect. Gun crews stood by on the 3-inch forward and one of the 20-millimeters amidships. Another man stood by the depth-charge racks back aft. The sonar probed ahead with its long piiiiiing. On each side of the bridge, lookouts swept the horizon ceaselessly with binoculars. Below them the helmsman kept the ordered course (175 degrees magnetic) by the big, red-lighted steering compass just forward of the wheel, and to his right another man stood at the engine controls, where other red lights showed the ordered speed (1100 RPM for 12 knots). Abaft the two men and on the starboard side of the pilothouse, the chart was spread out on its table, with parallel rulers, pencils, dividers, and a stopwatch picking up the glint of the shaded red chart light on its gooseneck.
In accordance with the doctrine specified at SCTC and in force throughout the U.S. Navy, the ship was in Condition of Readiness III; that is, one third of the crew was on watch, one third of the armament manned. At eight P.M. (2000) the first section took the watch; the second section would take over at midnight (2400) and the third section at 4 A.M. (0400). Every officer and man aboard except the cook was assigned to a section and thus stood watch for four hours and was off for eight. Under more hazardous conditions, the ship would go to Condition II, with half the crew on watch and half the armament ready. Condition I was general quarters, battle stations, with all hands on watch and all weapons, sensors, and controls fully manned and ready.
I was officer of the deck (OOD) in the first section, with Mr. Coffey and Mr. Washer heading up the second and third. The quartermaster of the watch in the first section was the only rated QM aboard, a young third class from Chicago named Elmer André. In my first night passage in command, it was a comfort to have a rated quartermaster to assist with the navigation.
Since the 692, like all subchasers, was without a gyrocompass, it took three men to take and plot each visual bearing. One man on the flying bridge took the sight through the vanes of a dummy compass called a pelorus, the "north" or zero-degree mark of which was always the ship's head. He called "Mark!" and the relative bearing down the voice tube to the pilothouse, where the helmsman announced the heading on the magnetic compass at that instant. The third man at the chart table recorded the bearing, heading, and time; converted the relative bearing to a magnetic bearing; and corrected that for deviation and variation to obtain the true bearing, which could be plotted on the chart.
Since a fix requires at least two nearly simultaneous bearings (three are better but hard to get at night south of Miami), piloting took considerable time and effort that first night under way. And it received the full concentration of the new CO; I was not about to add my new command to the long list of ships that since the days of Columbus have left their broken hulls on the reefs that guard the Keys.
Not far into that first passage, the first inadequacy in crew training came to light. When only one lighthouse is in sight, and therefore only one line of bearing is obtainable, there is a handy method of fixing a ship's position with almost as much confidence as with a pair of crossed bearings. It is called doubling the angle on the bow, and the most convenient case under that category is called a "bow and beam bearing." All the navigator has to have is a knowledge of his speed over the bottom and the precise times that the light bears broad on the bow (045 degrees relative in this case) and exactly abeam (090 degrees relative). The geometry works out to an isosceles triangle in which the two equal sides are the distance the ship has gone between the times of the two bearings, and the distance from the light to the ship at the time of the second bearing. In other words, the ship's distance from the light when she is abeam of it is equal to the distance run between bearings. Thus, as in the case of the 692 that night, if a ship is making 12 knots and the time between the bow and beam bearings is twenty minutes, she will be four miles (the distance run in one-third of an hour) off the light when it is abeam. Continues...
Excerpted from SUBCHASER by Edward P. Stafford
Copyright © 1988 by United States Naval Institute
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.