ESCAPE FROM THE DEEP – AN EXTRACT

Steichin-42

The Tang was soon moving away at full speed, around 23 knots, partially hidden by a cloud of exhaust fumes.
Other captains might now have plotted a new course and not looked back. Not Dick O’Kane. At 10,000 yards from the convoy, he slowed the Tang. He was going back for more—to finish off the transport he’d seen dead in the water.
O’Kane ordered his torpedo mechanics to pull the last two torpedoes from their tubes and examine them. With so few left, he wanted to make sure there would be no mistakes. Pete Narowanski, Hayes Trukke, and the other torpedo mechanics carefully checked the Tang ’s last two fish. They then loaded them into forward tubes numbered five and six.
Thirty minutes later, Tang was ready to deliver the coup de grâce to the stricken transport…. The Tang moved forward at six knots, her bow pointing at the transport. There were no escorts in sight.
Floyd Caverly looked at the screen of his SJ radar in the conning tower.
“Range: fifteen hundred yards,” said Caverly.
The submarine crept slowly closer.
Nine hundred yards from the target, O’Kane was ready with his remaining two torpedoes—for all he knew, they were the last he might fire in combat during the war.
“Stand by below,” O’Kane ordered.
“Ready below, captain,” replied Springer.
“Fire!”
A small jolt was felt throughout the boat as the next-to-last torpedo was fired….
Now just one torpedo was left. Once it had been fired, the Tang could head back to safety, having completed one of the most destructive patrols of the war.
O’Kane called for a time check. It was 2:30 A.M. on October 25, 1944.
“Set!”
In the conning tower, [Lieutenant] Larry Savadkin operated the torpedo data computer. He pressed a button which set the final firing angle of Tang ’s last torpedo.
“Fire!” ordered O’Kane.
Frank Springer stood a few feet from Savadkin in the conning tower. He pressed the firing plunger. Again, a jolting whoosh as the last torpedo, Number 24, left the Tang. The submarine shuddered as compressed air forced the torpedo from its tube and seawater flooded back into the tube.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski slammed his fist into the palm of his left hand.
“Hot dog, course zero nine zero,” he cried. “Heading for the Golden Gate!”
“Let’s head for the barn,” someone else shouted.
There was a massive explosion as Number 23 torpedo hit its target, sending flames and debris shooting into the sky….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold scanned the waters with his binoculars. He stood next to O’Kane. Suddenly, he saw the last torpedo, Number 24, broach and then begin to porpoise, phosphorescence trailing it. A few seconds later, it made a sharp turn to port and then, unbelievably, began to come about.
“There goes that one! Erratic!” shouted O’Kane.
The last torpedo was now heading like a boomerang, back to its firing point…back toward the Tang. Something had gone terribly wrong. Perhaps its rudder had jammed or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned.
“Emergency speed!” cried O’Kane.
Below, twenty-year-old Motor Machinist’s Mate Jesse DaSilva had just left his post in the engine room, having decided to get a cup of coffee. He was standing with one foot in the mess. Over the intercom, he could hear the bridge crew react as the torpedo headed back toward the Tang.
“Captain, that’s a circular run!” he heard Leibold say.
“All ahead emergency!” shouted O’Kane. “Right full rudder!”
“Bend them on,” added O’Kane. “Control, just bend them on.”
In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply, knowing the Tang needed all the power she could get if there was to be a chance of saving lives.
The torpedo was now making straight for the 300-foot submarine. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed, their eyes “popping out of their sockets.” The Tang was moving at about 6 knots, 20 less than her final torpedo.
“Left full rudder!” ordered O’Kane.
Bill Leibold watched in stricken silence as the torpedo headed right at them, coming dead-on toward the Tang. Then he lost sight of it as it continued down the port side.
Maybe it will miss. Maybe it will veer away and begin another erratic circle. Maybe the Tang will evade just in time….
In the conning tower, Floyd Caverly waited like the other men for the inevitable.
Surely there is enough time to get out of the way—to get the hell out of here? Surely?
Speed. Speed is all we need…just enough to get out of the way. If only the Tang would just set by the stern and set off like a speedboat.
But the Tang was not a speedboat. She could not avoid the charging torpedo. It hit the Tang ’s stern with a massive explosion somewhere between the maneuvering room and the after torpedo room, killing as many as half the crew instantly and flooding all aft compartments as far forward as the crew’s quarters, midway along the boat.
Caverly was standing looking at a radarscope when it happened. He…thought that the Tang had been snapped in two. The waves of concussion from the explosion made him feel as if he were experiencing a massive earthquake. He did not know which way to step to catch his balance. The deck plates rattled and shook. Lightbulbs went out.
In the conning tower, there was chaos.
“We’ve been hit!” cried Executive Officer Frank Springer.
In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski found himself flat on his back from the huge explosion. He picked himself up. What happened? There had been no alarm. One moment he had been rejoicing, looking forward to carousing in San Francisco. Now he could feel the Tang sinking. Had the Tang been hit by a Japanese shell?
…[Narowanski] and the other men in the forward torpedo room remained calm. They were well trained and had many years’ experience between them. As they tried to figure out what exactly had happened to the Tang, they scanned the compartment for damage. There was surprisingly little. Then, their training kicked in. They closed the watertight door leading to the next compartment. One of the men, who was still wearing headphones, tried to contact other compartments but without success. Someone else turned on the emergency lights.
[They] were lucky. Unlike men trapped in other compartments, the torpedomen knew they had a way out from theirs—they were a few feet from one of only two escape trunks on the Tang. The other was in the after torpedo room, which was flooded, its occupants either killed instantly by the explosion or now drowned….
On the bridge, Bill Leibold saw a cloud of what looked like black smoke. In fact it was water thrown up from the explosion. He and other men on the bridge felt the boat being wrenched, as if it were being split in half.
A few feet from Leibold, Dick O’Kane watched, aghast, as the tops of the after ballast tanks blew into the air. Water washed across the wooden main decking, around the five-inch main gun, and then toward the aft cigarette deck where Tang’s 40mm gun was positioned, several feet from where O’Kane now stood on the bridge.
“Do we have propulsion?” he then asked, speaking into his bridge phone.
There was no answer.
O’Kane again shouted into the bridge phone.
The men in the conning tower below could hear him. But O’Kane received no reply. The explosion had knocked out the microphone on his bridge phone.
“Radar!” shouted O’Kane. “I want to know how far it is to the closest destroyer and what the course is on that destroyer.”
Caverly picked up his microphone in the conning tower.
“The radar is out of commission,” said Caverly. “I have no bearing or range right now.”
“Radar,” barked O’Kane, “I’m asking for information and I want it now!”
Caverly realized that O’Kane’s microphone was out of action so he stepped over to the hatch and called up: “The radar is out of commission.”
Caverly then gave the Tang ’s last bearing and range, but O’Kane did not hear him. He had stepped away from the hatch.
“I want information, radar!” O’Kane shouted again, desperately.
Frank Springer grabbed Caverly by the nape of the neck and seat of his pants and began to shove him up the hatch.
“Get up there and talk to the skipper!” said Springer.
Caverly climbed up the ladder to the bridge [and]…stepped over toward O’Kane, who was a few feet from Bill Leibold…. Water started to rise up toward the bridge. It had soon covered the aft third of the submarine.
“Close the hatch!” cried O’Kane.
But it was too late. The Tang began to sink, tons of water pouring into the conning tower. The after section of the submarine had flooded….
Caverly knew it was now time for every man to look after himself.

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About alexkershaw

WRITER AND JOURNALIST AUTHOR OF NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLERS ABOUT WWII
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