The Sub Base is a pleasant place to dine. I am invited there often, mostly by a close friend, an Annapolis two and a halfer. We were shipmates in the Pacific, and have that rare communication of understanding exactly what the other says. A keen observer and writer, he has just received the award of the United States Naval Institute for a scholarly article. He is with the CINCPAC communications is his pigeon.
Down the hot road, crunching volcanic rock under foot, keeping well inboard from the thundering trucks, from the cars impatient to pass, I watch the sugar cane across the road bowing and waving helplessly in the suction of the passing traffic. Pass through another gate to this section, separated from the main base by a crowded arm of the harbor. A bluejacket presents arms, I return the salute. "Good evening." "Good evening, sir." My first words today since my daily reproving of Ben. Over a busy yard-spur of the railroad. Fussy little engines wheezing and puffing importantly. Long lines of small harassed freight cars squealing loudly in protest at being pushed and shoved so rudely. Coal smoke and coal cinders mixing with volcanic cinders.
On the bright water of the harbor the tugs are persecuting the ships, nudging them familiarly in the sides with their thrummed noses, croaking hoarsely at them in short-blasts. Cranes are picking their vast pockets for wealth, before their big empty bodies are pulled and shoved away by their tormentors. The rusty subs, like big fish caught by many wire lines alongside the docks, their conning towers rising from their backs like dorsal fins. Their backs are open and the deadly bright fish, which had not been ejected, are hoisted carefully from their stomachs. Their scaly paint is dry and sooty on their long slim bodies.
A conning tower, taken some years ago from one of our old subs, is planted at the intersection of two roads, and in the little park to the left, on concrete chocks, rests a two-man Jap submarine caught in the harbor on December the seventh. Like a large embarrassed torpedo, she is always surrounded by curious men.
The big modern B.O.Q., with its outdoor swimming pool and tennis courts hard by, with its dance floor encircled by palm trees, is an oasis in the throbbing Base. My friend is waiting in the large dim lobby, leaning against its glistening cool marble walls. At dinner we sit next two sub commanders, classmates of his. Their ships are the pig-boats I just saw, and they will go into the same drydock tomorrow, side by side; for they have both been depth-charged by destroyers and bombed by planes. The faces of these two skippers are dead white, crows feet at the corners of their tired eyes, a twitch of the upper lip not yet controlled tells of the long strain. They hide it by laughing and joking. Their understatement is a lesson in the economy of words, their modesty an unspoken example. Day after day, hiding beneath the surface, stealthily hunting, watching through the one small eye blinded, seeing, obscured, peering through the restless waves above.
Night and recharging on the surface; listening for dots and dashes out of the air, hearing the fading or quickening sound from the dim solitude below. So often out of range, the ships are coming, passing, going. Destroyer? The distant flash, the unexpected star shells telltale light right above, its sudden bright stars shattering the black night. Or diving like a porpoise beneath a hail of shells down the searchlights blinding beam that springs from the black loom of the island shore. Dawn a crash dive to escape the silver plane with red ball on its wing, dropping out of the morning haze, a cold flash straight from aloft.
Then the coolly awaited chance, the sober checking, the order quietly given. The muffled belch, the tin fish is on its way. Another burp, and a second torpedo starts its short fatal cruise. Watch as long as you dare. The big ship broadside to you, continues to bow at the rising sun, rises slowly, bows again see that Jap "can" spin about! He sees the wake hang on "Stand by!" A column of white water obliterates the targets bridge a second flash of flame puff of smoke the camera got it too. "Right on the button! Boy!" Two destroyers converging fast at you KLAXON! The deck dips sharply forward down, down. Many little black needles telling their stories on illuminated dials, rows of lights changing colors white green red give their message. The depth indicator reeling off the increasing feet, the weight of fathoms, the tremendous pressure. A jarring grunt painfully singing ears the ship shivers. Again the shuddering thump closer! Flung against the hard steel. "Standard rudder " "Take her up." Hide and seek with death, deep in the hostile waters. Outguessing the cunning enemy waiting above.
We know the enthusiasm of these two men for this duty, their pride in the performance of their ships, their pleasure in the preponderance of volunteers for service in subs. It is nigh impossible for them to conceal their bitter disappointment when ordered to new construction. Like big kids pulled out of a football game that they are helping so much to win. Away back to New London, Connecticut, to condition and command a new untried ship.
One United States submarine torpedoed four of the Imperial Japanese destroyers in Aleutian waters there is a story of daring and experience. Our Regulars are trained to coolness and bravery, to die gallantly, this is second nature since Annapolis. The Reserves learn it the hard way.
We linger with them on the steps of the vast Administration Building in the deepening twilight. Across the way there is a soaring round tower, the rising spiral stairs entwining the tall tube to the overhanging hexagonal top. Three bridges tie a leaner square tower to the tall tank. For a tank it is, used to simulate the rescue of trapped men through an escape hatch from the cold tomb of a submarine dead on the bottom. They must learn to rise slowly, through decreasing pressure or else, they break the surface like leaping fish, and die horribly of the "bends."
I point to the darkening silhouettes against the deepening sky. "There will be no palms when you two stand at the base of this identical tower at New London. It will be in no time that this will seem far away. These twin tanks are nearly six thousand miles apart, but the other is eleven miles west of my house in Stonington say Aloha for me, please." We part, and they enter to cope with paper work, in the hot light of the buzzing interior. The dark exterior keeps its secret well. Not a light anywhere. We are on an ALERT CONDITION ONE.
"Gosh, there are a lot of planes up tonight." Without warning, tall stilts of light vault into the sky, careening stiffly about, as they pass and repass, cross and recross crazily, they inadvertently surprise the strange contours of the towers. The twining stairways momentarily stand out naked and black here, lose stealthily there. The towers, stark and rigid, are exposing details overlooked in the flooding light of sun or moon. Ships searchlights in practice for things to come, learning to stab aloft for the flying menace. In threes they concentrate on their helpless falcons, released for this purpose from field and deck. For Air has welded the metal of Army and Navy as never before. "I have secured another picture, I think." "What? Where? Wait a minute. Ive got it. What a point of view!" Chuckle.
Timing Routine. Just as suddenly as they leapt skyward, they telescope, collapse into their receptacles, leaving a faint momentary ghost where they had just been. Once more the violet tropical sky remains serenely undisturbed, and we trudge towards my little house as the moon rises over the palpitating Base, just as she did when these ancient volcanoes spewed their lava sizzling into the sea, that turned it into ashes. The cinders now form the foundations of the Navy Yard in which our Vulcans forge.
Without warning, tall stilts of light vault into the sky, careening stiffly about as they cross and recross crazily - ship's searchlights in practice for things to come, learning to stab aloft for the flying menace.