Friday, March 15, 2013

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night...

... over the mountains of Borneo, and while it wasn't raining over the Makassar Strait, the clouds had solidly blocked the moon and stars. The only light was the fireworks from port as the Pike ran at flank speed north northeast up the strait. The Pike had Lifeguard duty for a carrier raid on Davao in the Philippines, and the sub was running out of time. They had a mere six hours in hand before they were scheduled to take part in the carrier raid.

The XO, Lt. Bob Vaugirard, was Officer of the Deck. They had cleared Balikpapan, the big Borneo oil port, an hour before. Now they could just barely make the Makassar run all the way on the surface, if they ran at their fastest speed and stayed on the surface an hour past dawn. The lightning flickered and crashed on Bob's left as he scanned the sea ahead and to each side. There was a cry from the port lookout. He thought he had seen smoke - three separate streams - in the last lightning flash.

The XO scanned the port horizon from the Cigarette Deck rail. Nothing. He climbed up to the lookout's perch - a small steel plate for the feet, and a steel hoop at chest height welded to the periscope shears, holding the lookouts aloft eight feet above the bridge deck  - as the lookout hung on off the side. There, in a jagged flash of lightning, the XO saw three towers of smoke as well.

Bob climbed down and looked at the charts. the chances were overwhelming that these were tankers loaded with sweet Borneo crude out of Balikpapan. The most likely route after transiting the strait was north to the Sulu Sea and on to Hong Kong, Manilla, or Japan. The Borneo crude was so sweet the Japs burned it straight from the ground without refining, so the other possibility was east to the Palaus and eventually Truk in the Carolines, Japan's main base, the Gibraltar of the Pacific.

He ordered the course altered from north northeast to due north, a route converging slightly with the convoy's route rather than paralleling it. As the convoy and sub neared, the lookout saw what might be the tall thin stacks of an older destroyer escorting them. The sub was also passing the convoy. Bob ordered the sub down to decks awash - a state where the decks were just at water level, with the waves breaking on the conning tower shearwater - slowing the speed from 19 to 14 knots, and reducing the silhouette of the sub to the size of a fishing boat.

The skipper had slept through the change in route, but came awake as the Pike slowed and wallowed through the lightly choppy seas. He came up on the bridge, and the XO outlined what he had seen and done. The skipper rapidly built a situational map in his head. They discussed various courses of action - the XO was nervous about missing the lifeguard appointment, and was trying to lose as little time as possible on this side excursion. The skipper was more sanguine, and brushed aside the XO's concerns. Those fat, sassy tankers guarded by a fast but lightly armed old destroyer were calling his name seductively.

The skipper decided. They would go in for the kill. They altered course again, to NNE, converging more sharply with the convoy yet. They rapidly neared. The Skipper decided he needed a better idea of the disposition of the convoy, so he went aloft himself, up to the port lookout station. The poor man once again dangled from the hoop, his toes on the platform, a line clipped to his harness his only margin of safety.

The skipper was a man of astonishing clarity of vision - skilled in interpreting the slightest hints of structure - and he rolled five successes, a masterwork. A big flash of lightning gave him a wealth of information. There were four big tankers in two columns, ranging from 7000 to 10000 tons, wallowing deep, and filled with sweet Borneo crude. Racing up the starboard side was the tall tacks of an older type destroyer. This was what he expected. What he did not expect was the presence of another, new type destroyer trailing the convoy, and two fast, well armed frigates - one leading the convoy and the other racing along the other side.

He called for another course change - hard to starboard. The Pike had almost run into a buzzsaw. The tempting convoy was too strongly protected. The Pike was an older sub, with only four torpedo tubes forward and two aft. The Skipper felt sure he could take care of one destroyer, and maybe another escort too, but two destroyers and two fast frigates were too much. The Pike ran to the east, now far behind schedule. Their six hours in hand had dwindled to a half hour, because they couldn't run the strait on the surface any more. They would have to dive early, going from 19 knots to two knots submerged, long before they got to the end of the strait.

Unlike the other encounters, which were randomly rolled, I sculpted this one to tempt the Pike away from its mission. The bad, intermittent visual conditions allowed me to very gradually ramp up their awareness of the danger. If the Skipper hadn't made a spectacular success in discerning the structure of the convoy, I might have sent the Pike to the bottom. The trap worked perfectly. The Pike is teetering on the edge of missing its rendezvous, and cannot allow any other distractions until their duty is performed. Even then they may not make it - the edge is that razor thin. The stakes are now very high indeed!

No comments:

Post a Comment