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Scorpion in the Sea
FIVE DAYS EARLIER
10 April, USS Goldsborough (DD-920); At sea, Mayport Fleet operating areas
The radio messenger came through the pilothouse door, blinking rapidly in the sudden blaze of sunlight reflecting off the polished bronze sea.
"Officer of the Deck," he called out, squinting hard.
"OOD, aye," replied Lieutenant (junior grade) O'Connor from the port bridge wing.
"Got a priority action, Sir."
The OOD came in from the bridge wing, pushed his dark glasses up onto his forehead, and took the steel message board. He scanned the top message briefly, initialled it, and then walked across the pilothouse where Commander Johnston Michael Montgomery was trying to stay awake in the warm morning sunshine.
"Priority action, Captain," said O'Connor. "A little bit off the beaten path, too."
The Captain stretched, and sat up in his bridge chair. The chair protested. Mike Montgomery was a large man, with an oversized, straight nosed, nordic face, permanently ruddy complexioned from years at sea, with bushy white blond eyebrows and a shock of blond hair tinged with gray brushed straight back from a wide forehead. He wore the regulation Navy at-sea working uniform of wash khaki trousers and short sleeved khaki shirt, with the tarnished silver oak leaves of a Commander, USN, pinned to the points of his shirt collar, and a gold command at sea star on his right shirt pocket. A pair of hand-tooled, black leather sea boots rucked up the hem of his trousers. He had largehands and massively muscled forearms; the metal message board looked like a piece of paper in his hands.
"Everything we do is a little bit off the beaten path, Tim. Lemme see it."
The Captain's voice had a booming quality even when he was calm. He scanned the message. The rest of the bridge watch looked on with interest. The Bosun Mate of the Watch tried to get the radio messenger to let him in on the message. The messenger, a radioman who considered himself superior to all bosun mates, ignored him.
"Well, you're right, Timothy. This is indeed different. Get the XO up here, please. Quartergasket!"
The Quartermaster of the Watch stepped forward from his chart table. "Aye, Sir?"
"Plot this position, and give me a course at eighteen knots."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
The Captain turned back around in his chair, and reached for his lukewarm cup of coffee. Goddamn bosun mates were putting salt in it again; somebody had to talk to them. He knew the bridge watch was dying to know what was going on; he would let them eavesdrop when the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Ben Farmer, arrived. He leaned back in the bridge chair.
Typical bullshit squirrel assignment for Goldsborough, he thought. The Coast Guard had forwarded a report from one of the Mayport fishermen claiming to have sighted a U-boat out on the edge of the Gulf Stream. Montgomery, a bachelor who lived in the fishing village of Mayport behind the Mayport naval base, knew most of the commercial fishermen personally. He could just see it. Some old fart like Christian Mayfield, stumbling out on deck in the morning twilight to piss over the side after a night-long session with Dr. James Beam and shaking with the predawn D.T.'s, sees a frigging U-boat. Right. Thinks he's back on the convoys. Lucky he didn't fall over the side in the excitement. And now Goldsborough, the one antique steam powered destroyer among all the new gas turbine powered frigates and destroyers in Mayport, would get to go out a hundred milesto the Gulf Stream and look for a U-boat. He sighed noisily. This was the kind of operational assignment which tended to confirm his suspicion that his career, just like Goldsborough's, was drawing to a close.
The Executive Officer appeared on the bridge from the doorway leading to CIC. Lieutenant Commander Ben Farmer was a chunky man, with a round face and a prematurely gray head of hair.
"Yes, Sir, Captain. Quartermaster called me and said we have to look for a--submarine?" The bridge watch team members pricked up their ears while trying to appear as if they were not eavesdropping.
"Yeah, XO. Another Weird-Harold mission for the Goldy-maru. One of the shrimp boats skippers called the Coast Guard on the Marine radio, says he saw a U-boat, gave a position. Group Twelve wants it investigated."
The Exec scanned the message. "But this was, hell, twenty-four hours ago," he complained. "Yesterday morning. That's a pretty big time-late. We were supposed to go in tonight. A hundred miles out, a hundred miles back, and some search time, we're looking at another day in the opareas."
"You broka-da-code, XO. I sense the slick claws of J. Walker Martinson, Chief of Staff to the Lord High Admiral George T., behind this little trip."
The quartermaster interrupted. "Sir, we need 085 to get to the original sighting posit."
"Very well. Mr. O'Connor, 085 at eighteen knots, please."
"Aye, aye, Sir." O'Connor gave the orders to the helm and lee helm. There was a jangle of engine order telegraph bells, and moments later Goldsborough swung her aging 4000 tons of steel around to the east and headed for the Gulf Stream. A light breeze began to stream through the pilothouse, rustling the charts on the chart table and stirring the general fug of cigarettes and stale coffee.
The Captain crumpled his paper coffee cup, and pitched it through the bridge wing door over the side. "XO, make an announcement to the crew that we're going out to investigatean unidentified submarine sighting report, and that our return to port will probably be delayed until tomorrow."
"Aye, aye, Sir." Farmer stepped closer, and said in a low voice, "Do you really believe that they saw a real submarine?"
The Captain shifted his large frame in the chair.
"No, XO. I don't. And what's more, if Group Twelve thought it was a real sighting, they wouldn't be sending us --they'd get one of the new Spruance class guys underway, send a real ASW ship out to take a look. But, what the hell; it beats boring holes in the ocean doing CIC non-maneuvering tracking exercises."
The XO squinted at the message again. He needed glasses, but refused to get a pair.
"Yes, Sir. I guess so," he said. "We'll have to hold an ASW brief this afternoon, say, 1330. If we're gonna do this thing, we'll need to post the blue and gold ASW teams. That's four on-four off watches, until we give it up. They say how long we're to look for this--er, U-boat?"
"Nope. So I'll mess with it all night, and then we'll do a Unless Otherwise Directed message and come the hell in. We've gotta get these boilers off the line; both of 'em are blowing steam, and I want to get those HP drain valves unscrewed by the end of next week so we can still go on the Fleet exercise."
The Exec nodded. "I'll tell Ops to file a new moverep."
The Captain sat back in his chair. The bridge cooled off noticeably as the ship picked up to eighteen knots and headed seaward. The bridge watch talked quietly among themselves about the sudden ASW mission. The word quickly spread through the ship, as the phone talkers chattered on their sound powered telephones to the lookouts and the main engineering spaces.
Mike Montgomery had been in command for almost two years. His selection for destroyer command had been exciting; his assignment to command Goldsborough had been something of a disappointment. Goldsborough was atwenty-seven year old, all-gun destroyer, armed with three automatic five-inch bore naval rifles, anti-submarine torpedoes, and even an ancient depth charge rack on the stern, courtesy of a senior admiral's pet project to get depth charges back into the fleet. She had four high pressure steam boilers which could drive her at thirty two knots if everything in the main spaces stayed steam-tight, which rarely happened. From the waterline up, she presented the classic lines of a large, modern destroyer, although her ability to defend herself against modern jet aircraft had long ago been eclipsed by high performance anti-ship missiles. Her Achilles heel was the elderly steam propulsion plant, compounded by an aging hull. Most of her class had been decommissioned when maintenance costs had begun to overrun operational capability. Goldsborough was now the sole remaining steam-powered destroyer based at the Mayport naval base, surrounded by the newer gas turbine driven Spruance class destroyers, which, at 8000 tons, were twice her size and one-third her age.
Because of her age, Goldsborough had been taken off the deployment list, which meant that she did not go overseas with the carrier groups on their six month deployments anymore. She stayed home and took part in fleet exercises and other training evolutions in the waters off Florida and occasionally in the Caribbean. She had inherited the role of semi-permanent duty destroyer, which meant that she was on call for all sorts of pop-up missions, like this one.
Mike had long ago realized that not being able to take his ship on deployment meant that he had become a marginal prospect for promotion to full Captain, USN. The selection boards for Captain paid a great deal of attention to fitness reports written by carrier battle group commanders on their destroyer skippers, especially during deployment operations overseas. On the other hand, Goldsborough was much sought after as an assignment by the enlisted men, whose promotions were dependent more on time in service and competitive examination than on deployments. For many, whose wives had found good jobs in the area, not having to go overseas for six months at acrack was as close as the enlisted could get to a homesteading situation and still be on regular sea duty.
Duty on Goldsborough was pleasant enough. The base at Mayport, placed at the mouth of the St. Johns river, near Jacksonville, Florida, was small enough to be friendly and personal. There were only two admirals, and one of those was usually deployed overseas. Career Navymen understood that the importance of petty regulations varied directly with the number and seniority of admirals present, and thus Mayport was a pleasantly laid-back naval station, especially when compared to the huge fleet operating bases up north in Charleston and Norfolk.
"It'll take us until 1530 to reach the datum, Captain," said the Quartermaster, interrupting his reverie. He refocused on the submarine problem.
"Very well. OOD, we'll have an all-officers at 1330 for ASW action brief. I'm going below."
"Aye, aye, Sir. I'll get the word passed."
The Captain stood down from his chair, and stretched. The sea was absolutely flat calm, and its surface had gone from bronze to silvery gray in the haze of a typical late spring day off the Florida coast. In the distance the surface of the sea was dotted with small fishing boats, cabin cruisers, and the occasional commercial fisherman or shrimper with nets over the side. On the horizon, one of the massive, 60,000 ton Toyota car-carriers was getting larger as she closed in on the entrance to the St. Johns river for the run up to the port of Jacksonville.
Mike wondered at the thought of a fishing boat Skipper seeing a U-boat. Most of the Skippers he knew would not recognize a submarine if they fell over one, and some were often not sober enough to know they had bumped into something. As a bachelor, he had spent enough evenings in the back bar at Hampton's Fish House with the fishermen to know something about their drinking habits. This was undoubtedly going to be a major waste of time. He let himself through the door at the back of the pilothouse and headed below to his cabin.
Copyright © 1992 by George Mason University Press.