Table of Contents
OTHER BOOKS BY DON KEITH
The Ice Diaries: The Untold Story of the USS
Cold War’s Most Daring Mission
(with Captain William R. Anderson)
Final Patrol: True Stories of World War II Submarines
The Bear: The Life and Times of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant
In the Course of Duty: The Heroic Mission of the USS
Gallant Lady: A Biography of the USS
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First published by NAL Caliber, an imprint of New American Library,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, April 2010
Copyright © Don Keith, 2010 All rights reserved
NAL CALIBER and the “C” logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA:
Keith, Don, 1947-
War beneath the waves: a true story of courage and leadership aboard a World War II submarine/Don
Includes bibliographical references and index.
eISBN : 978-1-101-18624-4
1. Billfish (Submarine). 2. World War, 1939-1945—Naval operations—Submarine. 3. World War, 1939-1945—Naval operations, American. 4. Rush, Charles W. 5. Submariners—United States—Biography. 6. Unites States. Navy—Officers—Biography. 7. Courage—Case studies. 8. Leadership—Case studies. 9. World War, 1939-19455—Indonesia—Makasar Strait. 10. World War,
1939-1945—Naval operations, Japanese. I. Title.
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For all the submariners who pulled the hatch
cover over their heads,
flooded the ballast tanks, and
swam beneath the wave tops on our behalf.
“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”
Submariners who have survived an enemy’s depth charge attack say it is almost impossible to describe to anyone else what the experience is like. Still, they feel obligated to try.
One sub sailor who lived through several poundings says, “It’s like being somewhere south of hell with Old Scratch himself throwing bombs at you.”
Some say the worst part is the sounds—the noises made by the warships above and by the charges themselves, and that does not just mean the explosions.
Those sounds can be clearly heard sometimes, even through the thick steel hull of a submarine, especially when the vessel is rigged for silent running. Water propagates sounds very well. Too well sometimes.
There is almost always the clacking of the enemy destroyer’s screws as he crisscrosses the trail above, the Grim Reaper wielding his scythe, zigzagging relentlessly, honing in to claim his victims.
Then there is the nerve-racking
ping . . . ping . . . ping
as his sonar constantly, insistently probes the seabed below, looking for an echo back from his quarry that will tell him exactly where to drop his death.
Next, almost inevitably, there is the telltale
of the depth-charge barrels as they hit the water in a circle around where the enemy captain believes the submarine to be. That is followed at once by the increased frequency of the clack and whine of his screws as he pulls away to avoid the blow of his own ordnance.
Then a sharp
—so much like the pop of a nearby lightning strike—that indicates the charge’s fuse has reached the depth where it was instructed to detonate the ash can’s powerful explosives.
There are sounds inside the submarine, too. Sounds that the sailors never forget.
The ragged breathing of a shipmate in the dim, dark quiet inside the boat—lights low to save precious battery power—as everyone nervously counts the time between
and the inevitable explosion. Just as with the duration between lightning flash and thunder, the more time that passes, the better.
Then there is a noise described by some submariners as half a heartbeat. Maybe even an interrupted heartbeat. An odd sound that comes an instant before the deafening, bone-jarring
of the charge’s detonation.
Depending on how close and where the explosion is in relation to the submarine, the hunted vessel might buck, sway, and slide violently sideways or tilt its nose downward or upward. Light-bulbs pop. Meter faces shatter into spiderwebs. Pipes tear loose from their clamps. Personal items and tools slide along the deck or spring from shelves. Dust and cork shower down from overhead like flour from a sifter. Leaks spray seawater all over a compartment with a high-pitched hiss. Water starts to seep in from myriad unseen places.
Sometimes, if the blast is especially vicious, the hull of the submarine might pull apart at a seam for an instant, just long enough to allow cold ocean to spew its way inside before the intense pressure of that same water closes the rent again.
Or at least, the crew prays it closes. Prays out loud or silently. It is hard to tell, because the blast leaves their ears deafened, ringing. Their murmured prayers add to the sounds, the awful sounds.
The crew tries to remain quiet, no matter how badly they want to yell and plead to God, or to the Japanese above, for it to stop. No screams or shouts in response are proper. Only mumbled prayers. Whispered orders. A quiet undertone of jokes as they whistle past the graveyard.
Even the slip of a wrench on a bolt or the squeak of a tightening pipe valve as the crewmen try to stem the inflow of the flood might be picked up by the attentive enemy above. That would be more than enough to give them a hint of where they are, to allow them to drop the next batch of deadly charges closer, deeper.
Some submarine sailors say the thing they most remember of those attacks is the pungent gumbo of smells. And the longer they remain imprisoned beneath the waves, the more that mixture simmers, the more a man has to struggle to suck enough breathable air into his lungs to stay lucid. To even stay conscious.
Sweat, diesel fuel, bilge fumes, acid from the batteries, foul air, oil, spilled food, human excrement and urine from the heads that vent inside while they are submerged, getting pounded. Then the prickly odor of a different recipe of gas when leaking seawater reaches and reacts with the chemical in the batteries.
And fear. Fear has a stench. Ask a man who has smelled it.
He may not want to talk about it, though. He always smells it on himself first.
Within about eight hours after diving, the atmosphere inside a World War II submarine begins to become difficult to breathe. Longer and it becomes toxic, even explosive. Precious air becomes just as much a hazard to the men as the depth charges beating and boiling the sea around them.
All men are wired together differently. Some hold up better under such an attack than others. It is impossible to tell ahead of time which ones can and which ones cannot.
Most do not learn until the very first time it happens. And fortunately, most come through fine, concentrate on their jobs, do what they have to do to get them through and to safety. Even though they may fear they will crack, or they simply do not know, they perform admirably, shining brightly in a dark, desperate situation.
Others do not. They realize at the worst possible time that they simply cannot take it. No matter the simulations, the drills, it is simply more than they can stand.
There is no quiz or Rorschach test to verify ahead of time which man cracks, which man quietly does his job, which man steps ups and leads. It takes the real thing to do that, and by then, it may well be too late.
Submarine duty has always been and remains a volunteer service. Some, when faced with such terror, decide to serve their country in other ways. Others do not survive to make the move off the boats.
The success of the submarine navy in World War II verifies that most submariners shrugged off claustrophobia, misery, heat, choking air, gashes and bruises, and constant, cloying fear. They knew this would almost certainly happen when they signed on.
In a crisis, like a depth charging, they simply do the jobs they trained to do. There is no choice. Each man on board has a place to be—a station while on watch—and a duty to perform anytime he is there. If a man is hurt or overcome or cracks, another is supposed to be able to step into his station and take over. If they do their jobs correctly, they have a considerably better chance to survive the attack, even if they are deaf from the explosions, weak from fear, fatigued from struggling for breath, and bleeding and bruised from the tossing about the attack has caused.