Excerpt Chapter 2: Midway Remembered

Returning through the Mess Hall enroute to my cabin, I caught an interesting conversation between Pope and Earl Baumgart.  They appeared to be nursing their coffee, among other things.

“All I’m saying,” Baumgart was quietly insisting, “Is she may have slid into the water smooth as cream, ever since, she’s been plagued with problems.”

“She’s still here, ain’t she?”  Pope retorted.  “She’s like a kid sister—quick to get into trouble and just as quick to weasel out of it with barley a scratch.”

“Is that what you call Midway?  A “scratch?”

“She got out, got fixed, and went on to a spectacular patrol, what more do you want?”

“Wait, what happened at Midway?” Elton said, sweat-faced, slamming and latching the cool room trapdoor.

“Tell you what kid,” Pope said, “put on some Glenn Miller and I’ll tell you.”

Elton jumped on one of the Mess Room tables and shuffled through the shelf full of records.  Clyde, finished with his inventory paperwork, winked at me as he passed, pulling his well-worn deck of cards from his pants pocket and said “I have the last bit of my salary burning a hole in my pocket.  Who’s up for a game of poker?”  He slid onto a bench at another table.

“I’m in” Baumgart slid into place across from Clyde.

“Me too,” Pope strolled over, mug in hand, “especially if Lady Luck will not desert me.”  He patted Betty Grable’s bottom on her poster affectionately.  “Jacobson?”

“No thanks.”  I said, waving my cup.  “I’m a cribbage man myself.”

Trumpets blaring out “American Patrol” erupted from the record player.  “Hey, can I play?”  Elton grinned, turning around.

“Sorry kid.  You know the rules.  No relaxation time until you’re fully qualified.  Hey, Turner, you play, don’t cha?”  Pope said.

“Sure do.”  He grinned.  A quick glance at Melvin confirmed his duties at bread making were complete.  “And I have some dishes the kid can do, unless you still need him.”  He looked at Clyde.

“He’s all yours.”

Elton rolled his eyes.  “Dishes?” he asked in disbelief.

“I’ve got some oil filters to clean if you’d prefer…”  Baumgart offered with a grin.

“No, no, dishes will be fine.  At least I can hear the story.”

“Sure thing kid,” Pope turned to Clyde, “Deal ‘em.”  I tucked myself in to the table next door.  I’d heard bits and pieces during the last patrol when I was a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, but this was the first I’d heard the whole tale

Clyde flicked the cards around the table with a practiced grace as Pope lit his cigarette and took a long draw on it..  “Now where was I?” he mused, “Ah yes, Midway.

“Well, first of all, Midway is a tricky base to get into even on a calm day.  It’s this ring of reefs surrounding three spits of sand, and the harbor and channel have to be regularly dredged to keep them deep enough for ships and subs.  Whenever you come to Midway, they send a pilot who’s familiar with the waters to the sub to help guide you in.

“Of course, the day Flier attempted it, was in the midst of one of the worst winter storms that season.  It was one of those storms that howled for days on end.  The moment we hit the shallower waters around Midway, the waves started to break over the deck and into the induction valves, flooding the engines.  We had to shut down the diesels and push forward on battery power alone.  Half the time, the waves and rain were so bad you couldn’t see the islands at all.”

Pope glanced down at his hand, told Clyde, “I’ll take three,” and tucked these in his hand with barely a glace before resuming.  “Midway radioed us to stand by for the pilot, but by the time he came out on the tug, it was far too dangerous to transfer the man aboard, so the tug signaled us to follow her wake into the channel.  Captain slowed down a bit to let the tug get well ahead in the waves, then entered the channel.  Just after we passed the entrance buoys, this massive wave comes out of nowhere, picks up Flier and shoves her starboard.  Captain ordered us hard to port to correct Mother Nature, but another wave grabbed us, picked us up and dropped us on the reef, neat as you please.  Shook us so badly, it knocked Baumgart here out of bed, didn’t it?”

“I wasn’t the only one,” he grunted looking at his cards, and throwing a few quarters in the pot.  “Dishes and food went flying everywhere, no one knew what was going on.”

“To make matters worse,” Pope grinned, warming to his story and the rapidly growing audience drifting in from the Crew Quarters, “some screwdriver got thrown into main terminal, and the short-circuit started a fire that spewed thick, oily smoke up and down the sub. Seawater was flooding in the engine rooms and the Forward Torpedo Room, everything was chaos.

“Meantime Captain was throwing Flier’s rudder back and forth and trying desperately to either back her back off the reef or throw her over the reef, and to time her power runs with the waves that engulfed her, but every wave just threw her higher and higher.”

“Full house,” Turner grinned.

“What the–!”  Pope laughed.

“Apparently, you’d better be a storyteller or a card player.” Turner smirked, “cause you sure as hell can’t do both at once!”

“Nah, you were just lucky that time.  I’ll get you next round.” Pope said gathering and shuffling the well-worn cards.  “I’m watching you.”

“You’re also just jabbering without finishing the story.”

“Yeah, yeah.  So, in the meantime, the anchor detail had gone to the foredeck to try to drop anchor to prevent Flier from climbing higher up the reef, and this huge wave swept two guys, Jimmy and Gerber, overboard and Dag got slammed into conning tower, laying open his side with a deep cut, didn’t you Dag?”

A crowd of men now surrounded the table, and Dag was in the back.  “Sure did,” he said, pulling up his shirt to reveal the deep, jagged, red line that trailed down his side.  “Don’t forget this one,” he said, pointing at the scar running from his lower lip to his chin, “and my winning SMILE!”  He grinned, revealing a mouthful of missing teeth.  “Couldn’t shut my mouth and damn near broke my jaw.  Took the dentist at Pearl forever to fix me up.”

“Yeah, yeah, go on about yourself, why don’t cha?”  Pope grinned before resuming his story with his spell-bound audience. “Flier kept getting battered, she twisted back and forth, I thought she might start spinning like a top next. Cap ordered the ballast tanks and two fuel tanks dumped, hoping that would lighten us enough that the next big wave combined with our churning props would push us off, but the storm wouldn’t cooperate.  The shafts got banged to hell and began leaking water.  We were running all trim and bilge pumps and a bucket brigade besides to keep ahead of the flooding in the stern.

“Up on deck, Banchero spotted Gerber in the water, and threw him a life ring, then the crazy fool threw himself in the drink after it when the ring didn’t fly far enough.  Both of them were swept out of sight into the lagoon, and we hoped they would be okay.  But Jimmy…well, we didn’t see Jimmy after the wave took him, we couldn’t even throw him a life ring.” Pope’s voice dropped from the jovial storyteller in a moment to soft regret.  The game screeched to a halt for a few seconds.  Some of Pope’s spellbound audience bowed their heads in a moment of silence, a couple crossed themselves.   After a moment, Pope seemed to shake himself back to reality and continue.

“Suddenly, there was this beam of light shining through the rain, and the silhouette of a massive ship.  It was the newest sub rescue ship at Midway, Macaw.  Word passed down to us that she was coming, and we set up a cheer.  We were saved!  Ten minutes later, they send us a three word message: ‘We are aground.’”  The room groaned.  “Sure enough,” Pope resumed, “there she was, just next to us, with all of her men scrambling all over the deck trying to pry her free too.”

Baumgart won that hand, another was dealt, but the story continued with hardly an interruption, the Mess Room now packed with avid listeners.  “For days the storm continued, sometimes calmer, sometimes furious, but never quiet enough to pull either Flier or Macaw free.

“Six days later, on a Saturday, the storm finally cleared and we could see the Macaw’s sister ship, Florikan, standing by outside the reef—”

“WITH the Jack and the Gudgeon, who were trying to get into Midway, but we were blocking the way.”  Baumgart interrupted.

“Well, more the Macaw than us, her stern was the one hanging in the channel.”

“Still humiliating,” Baumgart grunted, with several of the old hands agreeing.

“Okay, granted, it wasn’t our finest hour, especially when we found out Florikan been specifically sent from Pearl to fetch us and had been sitting out there for three days, waiting for the storm to let up.

“By this time, there was only a skeleton crew on both ships.  During the few lulls, nearly a third of our crew had been evacuated to the Macaw via the most rickety looking boatswain’s seat[1] you’ve ever seen, and from there, most had been evacuated to the main island at Midway, where they found Gerber and Banchero already in the hospital, Gerber nursing a broken arm.”

He paused for a moment to consider his cards, and a new hand piped up, “What happened to the other one—Kohl?”

“Cahl, James Francis Peder Cahl,” Baumgart replied solemnly.  “He was found washed up on the beach, but it was too late.  He was buried at sea with full honors at Midway Island, while we were still stranded on the reef.”

“Jimmy’s belongings that were in his pockets and such were sent to Flier over the boatswain’s seat, and Captain had to write his new wife the news.”  Pope said quietly, tossing his hand back at Baumgart who had dealt.  We all sat in respectful silence once again for a few moments until Pope resume. “Flier was banged to hell.  Steering was gone, our rudder bent beyond use.  The prop shafts leaked everywhere.  She had settled in deep enough that most waves washed over the deck and some of the big ones broke over the bridge.  The engines were clogged with crushed coral sand, and every wave brought a shriek of protest from Flier. We didn’t know if she would float once we pulled her off.

“We had been wearing our lifebelts for those six days, and Captain and the Exec were at each other’s throats—”

“Liddell?”  Elton asked, incredulously.

“No, no, Liddell was our Engineering Officer at that time.  No, our Exec for that patrol was a guy named Adams.  He and the Captain got along like gas and matches.  We weren’t the first ship, or submarine to ground at Midway, but Captain’s command was on the line.  When Scorpion had grounded there for five hours last year, both her captain and exec were removed from command.  But the way Adams acted, you’d think we were sunbathing naked on the deck rather than doing everything we could to get free.  Captain was already under the gun, trying to do what was right for the remainder of what he probably thought was his last command, and Adams constantly angling for God knows what, didn’t help.

“It eventually took the tug that tried to guide us into Midway, plus the Florikan, AND a floating crane to pry us free of the reef, and then we checked her bow to stern.  Surprisingly, despite the fact that she couldn’t steer, couldn’t dive, couldn’t start her engines, she was seaworthy.  So, we loaded everyone up for the return tow.  Got to Pearl a few days later.”[2]

“Without incident?”  I grinned.  “Not the way I heard it Pope.”

“No, no,” chorused a bunch of the old hands.  I had not been on the Midway patrol, but I had heard this part of the story again and again—usually from someone trying to explain the phenomenon that was Pope to a new hand.

“Way I heard it, Florikan and Flier ran into another winter storm a few days later, and the tow cable snapped.  And SOMEONE volunteered to reattach it himself.”  I said slyly.

“Fished the crazy idiot out of the water,” Dag grinned.  “He tried to ride Flier like a bucking bronco in the waves, clinging to the deck as she threw him under water then high in the air, then over the side!  It’s a good thing you had that lifeline around your waist!”

“I got her reattached though, didn’t I?”

“With A LOT of help!”

“Jinxed,” Bamugart muttered under his breath.

“Oh get off it,” Pope rolled his eyes, “she got through that just fine, and went on to have a spectacular first patrol.  Moreover, we got rid of Adams and promoted Liddell, kept the Captain, had the latest technology installed, and to top it all off, we never would have been in the position to stalk those three convoys if we had gone on our original patrol.”  Several of the men nodded their heads and chorused, “That’s right.”

“Trouble stalks her wherever she goes.”  Baumgart growled, several other men nodding in agreement.  “First Panama, then Midway…”

“Good!” Pope snorted, throwing down his cards.  “A submarine who can’t find trouble or who trouble can’t find can’t earn any record or any glory.  Look at the Harder!  Jap destroyers made a special target of her and she turned right around and made dinner of four of them—a fleet record!”  The argument was growing, expanding into several of the listeners, who were echoing, “That’s right!”  “She’ll be a top scorer yet!”

“Hey, are we playing poker or not?” Clyde broke in.  “I signed up for a poker game, not an insane debate!”

As the only officer in the room, I decided to head this off before it got any worse, “All right, gentlemen, that’s enough, just—”

“I don’t care what anyone says.”  Baumgart stood up at the table, towering over Pope.  “I’ve been around submarines for years and on this boat ever since she touched water, and I’m telling you, she’s ji—”

“You had better not finish that sentence Mr. Baumgart,” Captain’s voice rang out.  He stepped through the bulkhead, coffee in hand, eyes blazing, with Jim right behind him.  The men and I flattened ourselves against the walls, opening a direct path from the Captain to Baumgart.  Captain continued in a softer, but authoritative voice, “unless you were not going to say something against my boat.”

Baumgart backed down.  “She—she’s a joy to work on sir.”

“Glad to hear it.  From this point forward,” he announced to the crew in general, “I will not tolerate any more talk about Flier’s luck—at least so-called bad luck—from anyone.  She’s as lucky as any other boat in the fleet and she takes the same chances.  Is that understood by all?”  We were silent, and all nodded our heads.  “All right Mister Liddell,” he turned to his XO, “what’s the movie feature this evening?”

Jim held up the film canister he was carrying in his hand and announced “Destination Tokyo, starring Cary Grant.  Let’s go!”

The poker game was cleared away, the sheet hung and the projector quickly assembled.  The men wanted to move past the confrontation.  Baumgart slipped out, probably back to the engine room.  I didn’t feel like a movie, so I grabbed another cup of coffee before retiring to my cabin to re-read letters from my family.

[1] Boatswains Chair:  a chair or swing suspended by a cable between two points, or two vessels used to transport goods or people.

[2] The Macaw wasn’t so lucky.  Despite numerous attempts, she could not be pried off the reef.  Salvage crews boarded, assigned to take every item of value and then blow her free of the reef, but during another winter storm on 12-13 February 1944, the sea pushed Macaw into deep water, and she sank, taking five hands with her, including commanding officer Lt.Cmdr. Paul.W. Burton.  She partially blocked the channel, and was demolished using explosives.  Her wreck has been surveyed and can be dived today at Midway.

3 Responses

  1. Kristen says:

    Wow, I really enjoyed reading that. I’m impressed with the way the dialogue and the character interaction flows between each other. Keeps it moving well without getting too bogged down.

  2. I only found you web page a few weeks ago. I have really enjoyed reading this! I check your page out every Sunday night. Makes me look forward to the end of the week end. Keep up the good and very interesting work!

    Tom Molyneaux

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