The long black pennant streaming from the yardarm of the pitching, Plunging PC boat, a large submarine-chaser, shrieked this warning to the rest of the convoy. Battle stations were manned on the double. The hopes and prayers of the merchant crews rode with the tossing little craft. Not a very large ship, perhaps, but it was all that stood between them and a possible sudden watery death.
A few days before, the PC’s, looking like small steel slivers in the gray haze of dawn, had lain at anchor, waiting for the convoy to hum. Looking down from the superior height of their decks, the merchant sailors might have been inclined to laugh as they passed the puny-looking little vessels. It had seemed odd for these giant ships, huge British freighters with catapult-projected Spitfires mounted on their bows, American Liberty ships fresh from the shipyards, Norwegian tankers with the highly polished mahogany Paneling of their bridges, ancient French hulks carrying tiny antiquated cannons on their poop decks, to be escorted by the Lilliputian PC’s. Now, though, no one saw any humor in it at all.
From the moment the minefield had been passed the big French destroyer at the head of the formation and the PC’s had set up an impenetrable ring of sensitive sound about the cargo ships. Zigzagging in and out, constantly on the alert for enemy U-boats, they constituted adequate submarine defense for the convoy.
The 1600 to 2000 sound machine operator had just relieved the watch. Sitting down and turning the knob that controlled the Sound beam, he had jerked to attention at the first echo to come in. The unmistakable “ping” of a contact had been clearly audible.
Searching the area carefully with his apparatus, he had quickly noted the speed, distance, and bearing of the target. In a brief moment he had made every check and verification. “Sir,” he had shouted to the Officer of the Deck, a lieutenant (junior grade), “I’ve a very strong contact at bearing two seven five, true, and about -------- yards away.”
The seaman at the wheel had peered over his shoulder, his face pale and grim.
The OOD had hurried over to the sound machine from the wing of the bridge where he had been taking a sight on the convoy. After listening to the echo for a moment he had dashed over to the phone and called the commanding officer’s stateroom.
“Captain,” he had reported hurriedly over the phone, “there’s a strong contact at two seven five at about------------------------------ yards.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” he had answered a moment later. Running over to the general alarm he had rung it, snapping out orders.
“Steer two seven zero, both engines ahead full speed, hoist the sub attack pennant.”
Men sprang into action in all parts of the ship. The raucous buzzing of the general alarm had not yet died away when guns were being manned, ammunition broken out, damage control and medical parties at their stations, watertight doors closed and dogged down, and engine-rooms readied.
At first appearances it might have seemed to an observer as if all was disorganized confusion. Men had darted about in an apparently aimless undirected way. Yet in an incredibly short time the ship was a well functioning unit of our anti-submarine arm. She was ready with speed, accuracy, and power to strike the undersea raider.
To insure the vessel operating with a maximum of speed and effectiveness each man had been given a battle station. For many months they had been trained in their duties. Now the time spent in the countless drills proved to have been very well spent. To a man the crew was ready.
The captain, a lieutenant commander, a middle-aged veteran of World War I, stood on the bridge directing operations. The chief gunner’s mate—he had been aboard a battleship at Pearl Harbor that fateful day in December, 1941—headphones on head crouched at his post between the stern depth charge racks. “Junior,” a seventeen-year-old lad who had been in the Navy about four months and held the rank of seaman second class, stood by the after gun, pale as death but ready to pass a shell up to the first loader. “Stu,” the Negro officer’s cook third class, had scrambled down to his station in the magazine, and was shouting up in his rich baritone, “Just holler down, and I’ll send up plenty of these pebbles to heave at Mr. Hitler’s children.” Everyone stood by, ready for anything that might come.
The little ship veered sharply away from the convoy. At full speed she bounced and punded terrifically. At times it seemed as if the bottom must give away under the violent beating of the sea. Still, her decks awash and leaving a wake like that of a speedboat, she continued her charge out to the dangerous rendezvous.
Knowing from the many turns they were making that they had picked up and were chasing the sub, the crew kept a sharp watch on the sun-flecked water. No one could tell when the enemy, deciding that he was cornered, would try to make a fight of it. All eyes were on the alert for the narrow wake of a torpedo.
Back at his post “Guns” readjusted the phones so as to more clearly hear the orders. As the ship noticeably slackened speed everyone stared at him. He remained motionless and cool. At the sound of a bell he bent down and pulled a small lever. One of the depth charges rolled off the racks, dropping into the water with a splash. Very soon afterwards it exploded, making the ship tremble, and throwing a mountain of grayish water high into the air.
Turning in a sharp circle the PC was back over the same spot even before the disturbed water had had a chance to settle. Stopping her engines, she lay there for a moment, motionless, listening. Now, indeed, nerves were tested. If any of the men gave in under the strain it was understandable- They were completely at the mercy of a “tin fish,” and they knew it. As a whole, though, the crew came through in great style, none the worse for wear. These were the best tactics the captain could have used. The ordeal was soon over.
Gathering about the sound gear, the captain, the executive officer, and the sound man tried to pick up the sub’s motors. A sound came through the machine’s amplifiers pausing for the smallest fraction of a second to look at the dial, the captain ordered, “Both engines ahead two thirds. Come left to one eight zero.”
Back on the fantail “guns” rapidly made the settings on the “ash cans” in the racks. When he finished these he ran a few feet forward to where the K-guns were mounted. He removed the safety forks from the charges in the guns, set them for the proper depth, attached an electric wire to the firing mechanism, and then hurried back to his original position.
He had no sooner returned when two of the TNT containing cans, released by remote control from the bridge, fell into the water. A loud report and a blinding flash followed closely as the K-guns were fired. They hurled their missiles which traveled in a slow arc, landing about 150 feet on each side of the ship. Then two more cans dropped from the racks. The pattern was calculated to thoroughly cover the area.
As the last charge left the racks “guns” reported the fact to the bridge. The ship immediately picked up speed. At the same time “guns” yelled, “Reload K-guns, on the double.”
Four men ran to the small boom mounted near the depth charge locker, and, attaching it to one of the spare charges, reloaded the empty port K-gun. Then they reloaded the starboard one.
The increased speed had carried them a scant 200 yards beyond the spot where the final- charge had disappeared in the gray sea,
when the “cans” which had been released began to go off. At each detonation the midships section of the PC seemed to rise out of the water, while the bow and stern showed a tendency to droop. For hundreds of yards around, after the huge spouts of water raised by the explosions had settled down, the ocean was a gray oily mass, its surface covered with head fish. It looked like fish chowder coming to a boil.
In the wheelhouse the three men were once more gathered around the sound apparatus. Angrily the captain said, “The damn thing is still going. I can still hear the screw beats. Can’t you?”
The others nodded in assent. Walking over to a chart hanging close by, he studied it for a second. Turning to the exec, he said, “We’ll attack once more.” At that he ordered the men at the wheel and at the annunciator, the instrument which is used to transmit orders from the bridge to the engine-room, “Both engines ahead standard speed. Right, fifteen degrees rudder.”
The ship wheeled in a graceful curve. After circling in this manner for a short while, the speed was soon cut down again. Afore depth charges were dropped. Again, the ship shivered violently. Again, huge geysers of water were flung up.
There was a difference, though, in the color of the water. A great cheer arose from the men on the deck of the American patrol craft. The blackness of fuel oil was clearly visible. As the surface calmed down a spreading blot of oil about 50 feet wide remained.
“We got her, we got her,” Junior yelled. Running to the side of the ship, he pointed at the black blob. “See the ‘slick.’ We got the damned thing, all right,” he shouted hoarsely.
Other men ran over to the side to stare at the flowing lifeblood of the stricken sub.
“Where in the hell do you people think you are, Central Park lagoon? Get back to your stations and train those guns on the slick,’ before you all go on report,” the gunnery officer bellowed from the flying bridge. This put 'an instant stop to the rubber-necking.
Immediately every gun on the ship was pointed at the greasy spot. The bigger ones pointed their long noses over the side menacingly, the anti-aircraft were cocked looking like rattlesnakes coiled for the strike, even the toyish-looking light machine guns were poised ready to bring down any foolhardy Nazi sailors who might feel inclined to man a deck gun. The carelessness often evident in drills was completely lacking. No one could tell whether the submarine commander would take a last desperate chance and spring to the surface to slug it out.
No more signs of the U-boat had been picked up, and at length the captain gave the order to return to the convoy. The signalman sent a message to the French destroyer to the effect that an enemy submarine had been contacted, damaged, and possibly destroyed. The attack pennant was hauled down, and “secure,” was sounded.
Balancing himself to keep his footing on the pitching ship, Junior seemed to express the sentiments of the crew when he said with a sigh of relief, “Boy, I’m sure glad to hear old ‘Boats’ ugly voice when it says such pretty words as ‘secure.’ I wasn’t scared, but am I glad it’s over with.”
In the archives of the Navy Department in Washington there is probably a terse little report which says that a certain PC contacted an enemy submarine at such and such a latitude and longitude, and that the submarine was damaged or possibly sunk. More partisan members of the crew, like Junior, swear that the U-boat is a piece of scrap at the bottom of the ocean and her crew feeding fish. Others, like “guns,” would probably look at the questioner, and, smiling laconically, ask, “Did you ever hear about the girl I knew in Brooklyn?”
Regardless of what is said by the sailors, or in the vague terse official reports, there is no denying that hundreds of convoys move up and down the coasts of Africa, America, and Europe escorted by the PC’s. Further, there is no denying that, despite their diminutive size, the rough riding PC’s have contributed to keeping open the lanes over which travel the vital materials of war. And we must admit that they have done an excellent job of it, too.