Charlie Harrison was going to war.
He walked onto the busy New Farm Wharf, sea bag over his shoulder and a spring in his step. He fidgeted, six feet of coiled energy. Then he shook it off, determined to appear cool in case anybody was watching.
He’d worked hard to get here. Naval Academy, class of ’39. He’d served as a lieutenant, junior-grade on a destroyer, steaming up and down the Atlantic for nearly three years. After the Japanese surprise attack against Pearl electrified America, he’d gotten caught up in the war fever and put in for a transfer. He didn’t want to spend the war playing cat and mouse with German U-boats. He didn’t want to play defense; he wanted to take the fight to the enemy. The Navy approved his transfer, and he attended the Submarine School in New London, Connecticut.
Now he stood on the eastern coast of Australia, ready to report to his new command.
He found the S-55 and another submarine, the S-37, tied to a tender—a big repair and support ship. Men labored among an assortment of hoses, welding lines and other gear to ready the submarines for sea. Sparks sprayed from the welding.
God, but she was ugly. Nothing like the USS Kennedy, his old destroyer with her clean lines, smokestacks, and guns. The S-55 was just a long black cylinder with a short conning tower jutting over her and a single four-inch gun on her deck. Built by the Electric Boat Company in 1922, she was one of the last boats of the Great War era.
He’d hoped for love at first sight, but she inspired neither affection nor admiration.
Two hundred twenty feet long and twenty feet wide at the beam. A complement of a dozen torpedoes, which she launched from four tubes in the bow. Forty officers and crew.
She’d seen some heavy fighting. The conning tower wore a patchwork of welded gray plates—scars of some past action.
In that submarine, he’d live ass to elbow in a cramped, dingy, smelly metal machine under the water for weeks at a time. Cramped, hot, and smelly, the S-class submarines were called “pigboats” by the sailors who fought in them. Charlie had trained on an even-older R-class submarine in New London and had gotten a taste of it.
He’d heard a depth charge attack was like being in an earthquake—a quake that could break the hull and send the boat straight to the bottom.
It was a hell of a way to fight a war. The S-55, his new home, could end up being his coffin. Living in a submarine took a special kind of man. Those who didn’t cut it were put ashore and left there. He wondered if he was as able as he was willing. If he had the right stuff.
Looking at his new home, his romantic ideas about taking the fight to the enemy became real. For the first time, he wondered if he’d made a mistake.
Too late to back out now. He steeled himself to report to the deck watch, who stood on the gangway with a .45 on his hip. Then an apparition in oilskins, gas mask, and thick rubber gloves emerged from the conning tower and descended to the deck. Carrying a metal tank and coiled Flit gun, he stomped down the gangway onto the pier.
He spotted Charlie and lowered his gas mask, revealing the grinning face of a man about his own age. He said, “You wouldn’t believe it.”
“How many cockroaches I just put out of my misery. We’re talking millions.”
“Did you get Hitler?”
The sailor laughed. “No such luck, brother. You our new junior officer?”
“That’s right.” Charlie looked up at the scarred conning tower. “When’s she going back out on patrol?”
“When she’s ready, I suppose. This geriatric tub needs a lot of love.”
“I’d like you to take me to see the captain then, if you’re able.”
The man grinned again. “I’ll be happy to do that. You got a name, sailor?”
“Lieutenant, j-g Charles Harrison.”
“Welcome to the 55, Charlie. I’m Lieutenant Russell Grady, but you can call me Rusty.”
Charlie started at that. Rusty was his senior. Charlie should have saluted. Instead, he’d ordered the man to take him to the captain.
Rusty held out his hand. Charlie shook it, grateful for the warm welcome.
He hadn’t expected to see an officer doing an enlisted man’s duties. It was his first lesson in submarines. Everybody, officers and crew alike, did their share of the dirty work. On the S-55, as the saying went, they were all in the same boat.
Charlie realized that, despite all of his schooling, he still had a lot to learn. He also thought, if even half of the crew was like Rusty, he’d feel right at home on the old S-55.
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