The merchant ship Lady Eva drifted silently over the rolling waves of the Western Pacific, gently tossing up and down as each ocean crest hit its massive hulk. Alone in the vast emptiness of the ocean, it was left behind to find its own way by the American convoy. It was the fate of all ships that couldn’t keep up or were disabled. Better to lose one ship, then to risk many more to the silent Japanese hunters of the deep. The sun was just beginning to set on the Western horizon, and soon the darkness would give it better protection from being spotted by an enemy submarine. Only a couple of more hours of helplessly drifting as the repairs to the engines were being completed.
“How longs it been?” asked Thomas.
“Five hours,” Miller replied as they both leaned against the ship’s railing.
“I do not like it, da seas too calm, always da bad sign.”
“That’s just crazy seaman talk, you’re always seeing bad signs.”
“It be a bad sign I tell ya, and look at da sky, she’s boiling red.”
“Ahh, your daft it will be dark soon and in another hour or so we’ll be moving again.”
“I do not like it, dere’s something in the air.”
“What are you men doing?” interrupted First Officer Vandel.
“Nothing sir, just getting some fresh air is all.”
“Well put out those butts, it will be dark soon and get back to your posts.”
“Yes sir,” both men replied as they hurried away and disappeared down the port stairwell.
Vandel was First Officer under Captain Harrington, a former Marine, he had lost an arm during the Omaha landing the year before. His father had to pull some strings to get him this assignment, it was only his second crossing as First Officer, a stern disciplined young man, much too sullen for his age. The war had done him no good and now his life was just the duties of First Officer.
Captain Harrington was in the bridge going over maps and charts, using a compass and ruler, discerning how far they had drifted since the engines had quit.
“Captain sir,” said Vandel
“Yes what is it?”
“I’ve just caught Miller and Thomas, loafing off again on the mid-deck sir.”
Captain Harrington gave a quick glance towards Vandel and resumed his calculations.
“Snyder, why don’t you go down to the gallery and get me some hot coffee and see if you can stir up some stew too while your down there.”
“Yes sir,” Snyder replied as he hurried through the door and down to the galley.
“Vandel, don’t be too hard on the men. They know what they have to do. Many of them have been with me since before the war began, they’re good men. So just relax a little and you’ll find that your job will be a lot easier.”
“Captain sir, discipline must be maintained or the men will become lazy.”
“That’s true, but this isn’t a navy ship. Things are a little more relaxed here. When the sh*t hits the fan, you’ll see that we have one of the best crews anywhere, besides right now, we’re drifting at sea, in enemy territory and there isn’t a whole lot to do until we get going again. So my recommendation to you is to ease up, get to know your men and trust them, just as I trust you.”
“Sir, there’s always something to do on a cargo ship.”
“Just think about what I’ve said.”
The cabin door opened and Snyder returned with coffee and a pile of sandwiches on a wooden tray.
“Sorry sir, there wasn’t any stew, so I made some sandwiches. Got you some coffee too Mr. Vandel, no sugar right?”
“Thank you Snyder, sandwiches will be fine,” said the Captain.
“Come with me Mr. Vandel, lets take a look at how the repair work is going.”
Captain Harrington grabbed his coffee and one of the sandwiches then headed out into the fresh sea air. Mr. Vandel set his coffee down and retrieved one of the sandwiches putting it in his pocket and grabbed his coffee mug again then followed Captain Harrington through the door. Captain Harrington stood near the railing only a dozen feet or so from the wheelhouse.
“You know Mr. Vandel, I’ve been a Captain for 15 years, mostly on this ship. I’ve seen a lot of men come and go through the years, a lot of First Officers too, and I’ve found that if you treat a man right, he’ll do much more than you’d expect and will show you some respect. Everyman is different of course, some are as different as night and day, but they all want to be treated fairly. If you don’t treat each man the same you’re asking for trouble. That’s something you’re going to have to learn.”
“No disrespect sir, but I am the First Officer, I know my job and the men mustn’t become lazy and forgetful.”
Captain Harrington finished his sandwich and glazed out at the open ocean.
“It’s not about whether you know your job or not, I know you do. It’s about how you treat the men. I’ve heard the rumors and the grumbling about how you’re always looking for something to be wrong, something not done just right. Working on this rusting barge, isn’t a very glamorous job. Most of the men on this ship would rather be in the Navy or Army fighting the Axis, but for one reason or another they ended up here. They would rather be anywhere but-----”
“Torpedoes, Torpedoes!!” yelled the watchman on the quarter deck.
“Sound the alarm,” screamed Captain Harrington.
The alarm sounded only for a few moments before the first torpedo exploded near the bow, lifting the bow a few feet with its explosion, the second torpedo exploded a few seconds later near the midsection, just barely missing the engine room and the diesel storage room. The ship started listing towards the starboard side as explosions racked the ship. Two massive holes were letting in the ocean water causing secondary smaller explosions and rumblings within the ship. Below decks the men scrambled towards the stairways amid the ever increasing black smoke and rising water. Every man ran towards the gangways, stopping only to yell out a friend’s name or to help someone nearby, very few had any chance to grab a life vest. On the mid-deck First Officer Vandel was thrown overboard from the concussion and tossed into the black waters.
“Lower the lifeboats,” screamed Captain Harrington as he tried to direct the men. “Abandon ship, lower the boats, get them into the water.”
The Lady Eva with it’s kneel cracked listed more and more to starboard. Flames started to engulf the ship with small explosions occurring throughout the lower decks. Frightened men emerged from the smoke filled gangways and jumped over the sides into the darkness. Captain Harrington made his way along the railing and into the bridge, then into the radio room.
“Welden, did you get a message out?”
“I think so sir.”
“Very good, now get out of here.”
“Snyder get out of here.”
The three men joined the others trying to lower the life boats.
“Never mind the winches, cut the ropes!” commanded Captain Harrington.
The fires below reached the diesel fuel storage compartment and the ship exploded along it’s midsection, nearly breaking the ship in half. The few remaining men on deck were tossed into the air and landed in the fire swept ocean.
“Over there,” yelled Miller who was aboard one of the small lifeboats.
“Pull them in Peterson,” said Miller as he grabbed the hand of a terrified crewman.
“Look there’s another, it’s the Captain.
“Pull him in quick.”
(cough)…“Thanks men…keep looking,” Captain Harrington said as Miller wrapped him in a blanket. “Never mind about me, save as many as you can.”
First Officer Vandel clung to a packing crate, barely able to keep his head above water.
“I’ve got him.”
“Do you see anymore?”
“No, and I can’t see the other lifeboats.”
The Lady Eva made a metal to metal groaning sound and snapped in two, the stern section quickly descended below the ocean’s waves leaving behind the bow section with its prow pointed skyward, bobbing in the ocean. As Captain Harrington and the men scanned the water for other survivors, a black cylindrical shape rose from the depths and the hatches of the Japanese submarine opened. The Japanese sailors gathered on the deck and began firing their rifles at the men still in the water, all of them laughed at their enemy as they shot at anything that resembled a man.
“God damn monkey faced bastards, I’ll kill em,” said Miller.
“Keep quiet, everybody down,” said Captain Harrington.
Captain Harrington’s lifeboat slowly drifted away from the flaming wreckage and into the darkness. A final explosion ripped through the night as the Lady Eva finally sunk below the waves. The submarine’s alarm sounded and then it too, disappeared below the waves.
“What kind of animals would shoot helpless shipwrecked men?” asked Miller to no one, his hatred for the Japanese at a boiling point.
Captain Harrington looked at the few men that had been saved then sat at the stern, guiding the rudder of the tiny boat.
“Get some rest men it’s going to be a long night.”
Only five men, in a lifeboat that could hold 25, five men cast into the blackness with only starlight to guide them and a Captain to lead them to safety.
“Captain sir, it’s Scot, his arm is badly burnt.”
“Let me have a look.”
As Scot lay semi-conscious on the floor of the tiny craft with his head in the lap of First Officer Vandel, Captain Harrington cut away the remains of Scot’s shirt from his left arm, blood and oil soaked burnt skin tore loose as he did.
“Give me the med kit.”
Captain Harrington cleaned the wound as best he could and sprinkled sulfa powder over the burnt areas then wrapped Scot’s arm with bandages.
“Here give him a shot of morphine, Mr. Vandel look after him and see that he’s made comfortable, try to keep the salt water from soaking the bandages. Everyone try to get some rest, we’ll know more about our situation in the morning,” said Captain Harrington as he returned to his seat at the rear of the boat, steering the craft as best he could into the blackness.
For six days the tiny craft floated among the ocean’s swells that were only two -three feet high, some days it seemed that the water didn’t move at all. The relentless tropical sun kept bearing down on the men, sapping the strength from their bodies even as they slept. What little water the Captain gave the men would quickly form beads of sweat that dripped down their faces, giving them no relief, just an angry thirst for more and more water. Captain Harrington had decided on the first day only to give each man the minimum amount of water they would need just to survive, just two liters per man. There was plenty of water and canned rations stowed away on the lifeboat, it been stocked with enough provisions for 25 souls, and there were only 5 of them. Captain Harrington had figured that if he carefully watched the provisions they would have enough to survive on for about 45 days, he knew from his years aboard ship that they could be adrift for much longer. They were just a small dot lost in the vastness of the Pacific. Each day he would scan the horizons through his binoculars for any sign of land or a passing convoy. Scot seemed to get no better, he would often groan through the night, while some days he would be fully aware of where he was. Small groups of flying fish would occasionally jump into the boat, a heaven sent treat for the men when they came. Sharks were often seen circling the lifeboat, their black unblinking eyes staring up at the strange invader into their realm, at night they would bump into the bottom of the boat, feeding on the small fish that hid there.
To be continued...