Chapter 1

A hushed voice: "Stanton has to be happy with this. After slicing his drive into the rough, then two stroking onto the green, he now lacks a fifteen-foot putt to be one over par. Of course, fifteen feet is a long way, especially over mixed grass with a diverse cross grain that . . ."

"Do you mind?" J. D. Stanton snapped. "I'm trying to play a little golf here."

Jim Walsh cleared his throat and grinned sheepishly. "Sorry; just trying to create a little atmosphere."

"I know what you're trying to do. You're a stroke behind. If I miss this putt we'll be even and you'll have your first and best chance of beating me."

"I... I'm hurt," Walsh said, his voice oozing with insincerity.

"Sure you are." Stanton lowered his head, eyed the cup, then the bail. Slowly he drew back the putter and gently swung it forward. The club head made a soft "clack" as it struck the ball. Starting off straight, the bail began a slow curve toward the hole. A moment later it dropped in.

"You are the luckiest man in the world, Captain Stanton," Walsh said loudly. "That ball should have stopped short by two feet, but no, it just kept rolling. And do you know why?"

"Because the universe is centered around me?" Stanton replied with false arrogance.

"There are plenty of people who would debate that with you—including my sister."

"I remind you," Stanton said as he placed his putter back in his golf bag, "that your sister has been my wife for twenty-five years. She's still happy about that, you know."

"That's because she doesn't play golf with you." Both men laughed as they stepped into the golf cart.

"True, she is a wise woman."

"I still think you're the luckiest man on earth."

Stanton looked around the verdant golf course. He agreed. He was fortunate, indeed. His whole life seemed blessed, a fact that was not wasted on him. Of his thirty years in military life, four had been spent as a student at Annapolis, fourteen in service aboard or around submarines, and six years as captain of his own Ohio class nuclear sub. The final six years, he had taught naval history at Annapolis. Forty-eight years old and six months into retirement, he spent his days writing history books, reading, and playing golf.

"Well," Stanton said finally, "are we going to talk until it's dark, or are we going to play the final two holes?"

Jim Walsh did not answer right away. He was looking toward the frontage road that ran by the golf course. "That may depend on those two." Jim nodded toward a man and woman, each dressed in standard khaki naval uniforms. They had emerged from a dark blue sedan and were walking toward them.

"What do you suppose they want?" Stanton asked. "They look serious."

"Don't ask me, I'm just a chaplain, remember?"

"Yeah, well, I've been retired for six months. They can't be here for me."

"I bet the fine print on your discharge papers says different."

Stanton sighed heavily. Jim was right; he could be recalled back to duty on a moment's notice, but that was unlikely. Only something extremely urgent could trigger such a recall.

"Well, if they're here for either one of us, it can't be good. When they come looking for the chaplain it means something bad has happened."

"Amen to that," Jim exclaimed.

Neither man moved from the golf cart to meet the two officers, preferring to wait until the last second to find out why the navy had dispatched two of its people to a golf course.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," the woman said. She had a pleasant round face graced by intelligent brown eyes and short auburn hair. Stanton judged her to be no older than twenty-five. Her lieutenant bars looked as if they had just been taken out of the box that morning. With her was a stocky ensign with a ruddy complexion. He looked even younger. "I'm sorry to bother you. We are looking for Captain Julius D. Stanton."

Stanton cringed. He hated the name Julius. "That would be me," Stanton said without humor. "That's Captain J. D. Stanton, retired."

"Yes, sir," the lieutenant replied. "I'm Lieutenant Donna Wilcox and this is Ensign Harold McGlidden."

Stanton nodded slightly, but said nothing.

"Sir, I've been asked to escort you to—"

"Perhaps you didn't hear me, Lieutenant," Stanton interrupted. "I'm retired. I'm no longer in the navy. Now I play golf three days a week. This is one of those days, and you're burning my daylight."

"Yes, sir. I understand." Donna stiffened. "Nonetheless, sir, my orders are to present you with this." She held out an envelope. "I am to escort you to the location specified in that document."

Stanton snatched the envelope from the woman's outstretched hand and quickly opened it, barely noticing the bold words Eyes Only printed on it. It took only a moment for Stanton to examine the paper.

"Is the admiral inviting you to tea?" Walsh asked with a wry smirk.

"Hardly," Stanton replied solemnly. "It's an invitation, sure enough. I'm being recalled to active duty."

"Does it say why?" Walsh inquired sympathetically.

"Not specifically, no."

Donna cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Captain, but those orders are secret and for your eyes only."

"I'm aware of that, Lieutenant," Stanton retorted sharply. He was angry and frustrated by the recall. "This is Lieutenant Commander Jim Walsh. Please don't insult the chaplain to his face."

"Yes, sir," Donna responded. "No insult was intended. It's just that—"

"It's just that you're doing your duty." Stanton softened his tone. "I can't fault you for that." Turning to his brother-in-law, Stanton continued, "It looks like the game's over, Jim. They're pulling in my leash."

"I understand. Just as well, I was going to beat you anyway."

"Not in this lifetime," Stanton snorted. Addressing Wilcox and McGlidden, Stanton said, "Very well. Meet me at my home. I'll change into my uniform—"

"Begging the captain's pardon, but we've taken care of that," Donna said. "We first went to your home looking for you. Your wife was good enough to provide us with a uniform."

"My wife gave you one of my uniforms?" Stanton said with surprise. "You actually had the audacity to tell her that I've been recalled and then to ask for a uniform?"

"Yes, sir."

Stanton looked the lieutenant over. "I don't see any bruises. You seem to have come through that unscathed."

"Yes, sir. She was very gracious to us." Donna smiled. "But if I may, sir I would suggest taking flowers with you when you return home."

"Saving it all for me, is that it?"

"I can't be sure, sir, but flowers never hurt."

Stanton laughed. "I'll take that under advisement. Take me to the clubhouse; I'll change there."

"Very good, sir." Donna and McGlidden stepped aside to allow Stanton to walk to the car.

Turning to his brother-in-law, Stanton said, "Why is it I feel that this is going to be a very long day?"

"Instinct," Walsh said. "I'll take care of the clubs and the cart; you take care of yourself."


Stanton stood looking at himself in. the mirror. Despite not having worn the khaki uniform in half a year, it still fit. He would never admit it to the two naval officers who waited in the hall outside, but he enjoyed the feel of the uniform. Despite his protestations about being called back to duty, he missed the daily routine of the navy. He missed giving and receiving salutes, he missed the missions, but most of all he missed the sea.

While many sailors complained about the required WESPACS that bound them to six-month excursions at sea, Stanton relished it. He did not miss land, did not miss the city. All that he ever missed was his wife whom he loved dearly. He knew the months he spent at sea were lonely and difficult days for Peggy, but she was resilient and never complained.

The very weight and feel of the uniform made Stanton feel good. He had always liked the way the cut, the emblems, and the color made him look. At middle age, he was still trim and fit. The gray in his short, dark brown hair was just enough to make him look refined and experienced without appearing old. His hazel eyes still sparkled, still beamed intelligence and confidence.

A knock on the door jarred Stanton's mind back to the moment.

"How are we doing, sir?" It was Donna's voice.

Instead of answering, Stanton stepped briskly from the men's room. His two escorts immediately came to stiff attention.

"As you were," Stanton said. "Let's get this over with." He walked down the aisle to the country club dining room and out the entry doors, Wilcox and McGlidden close on his heels.


August 1, 1943

150 nautical miles northeast of the Azores

Richard Morrison was angry.

Concussion.

Rocking.

Lurching.

An ear-ringing noise reverberated down the metal cylinder in which Morrison stood.

It shouldn't have happened, Morrison thought. It was a bonehead mistake—my bonehead mistake. Looking up from the fingernail he pretended to nonchalantly clean, he looked at the men who surrounded him. Each gazed at him with anxious eyes, awaiting any words that came out of his mouth. He said nothing, returning his gaze to the chosen fingernail.

He wanted desperately to reach up and pinch the bridge of his nose, or to rub his eyes, but that could be interpreted as nervousness or even fear. Although such an interpretation would be correct, it would send the wrong signal to his crew, something he did not want to do. He had to appear unflappable.

Concussion. Once again, Morrison was rocked back and forth. The sharp sound pierced his ears and made his head pulse with pain. The deep underlying rumble that accompanied the concussion vibrated through him, threatening to liquefy the very marrow of his bones. He and his crew were in hell.

"Depth?" he asked quietly.

"Passing one-five-zero," came the loud reply. Answering was a sailor in the control room who Morrison knew could not be over nineteen years old. The lad was scared stiff; fear oozed through his words.

"Very well," Morrison said calmly. "Water temperature?"

"Five-three degrees and dropping steadily."

"Maintain crash dive until two-two-five feet, then ease the bubble to zero. They should have lost sonar by then."

"Aye, Captain, maintain dive to two-two-five feet."

Creaks and groans echoed off the metal bulkheads as the water pressure compressed the submarine's skin.

"Two more splashes, Captain." The words came from a. sweaty sailor who monitored the hydrophones.

Morrison could feel his crew tense. Each one knew that more depth charges were on their way, and if they exploded close enough to the USS Triggerfish they could cause severe damage, maybe even send her to the bottom with her crew encased in the hull of a massive metal coffin. An explosion just fifty feet away could cripple the boat; twenty-five away the blast would be lethal. Their remains would never be recovered.

It had happened to many others before. Already the United States had lost over twenty submarines. In each case an epitaph was written in the record books: "Overdue and presumed lost."

The words appeared in Morrison's mind like the credits at the end of a Betty Grable movie: "USS Triggerfish, overdue and presumed lost." Sixty-five brave men overdue and presumed lost; six officers, overdue and presumed lost; scores of wives, children, parents, and sweethearts left to wonder at the final fate of those whom they loved.

It was that last thought that most bothered Morrison. He had been in tough situations before. He had even had to endure depth charges before, but in those times he had endured knowing that his life was right and that he had taken care of matters that would arise in his death.

This time was different. He had left something undone, words unspoken. Morrison had always been a family man. He loved his role of husband and father and had taken great care to protect his family from disruption and anxiety, at least the best he could during a world war. But the day he shipped out, he and his wife had a rare argument. Morrison was tense about the upcoming mission; he hadn't slept well and was feeling slightly ill. His wife Sandi, a normally quiet and reserved woman, had been pressing him on some matter that he considered unimportant in light of his departure. Now for the life of him, he couldn't remember what it was she wanted. All he remembered was snapping at her and she returning words of like kind. Soon they were shouting, their hot words permeating the small navy house with anger.

Morrison had stormed out of the house, his duffel bag over his shoulder. As he looked back he saw his wife in tears and their four-year-old son standing at the door. He turned his back and walked away.

That image haunted him every hour he had been at sea. Once his anger had settled, he realized the foolishness of the argument and recognized its source as simple fear. He was afraid he would never hold his wife in his arms and never see his boy grow. She had been fearful that her husband might lay entombed in a submarine at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of facing those fears they had argued.

Morrison felt the perfect fool. He wished with all his might that he could have those moments to live over again. There would be no argument, only embraces, hugs, and kisses.

Concussion.

The lights flickered, blinked out for a moment, then returned. A second later another explosion. The submarine rocked harshly, causing the crew to frantically grab for any support possible to keep themselves from falling headlong into a bulkhead.

Morrison heard his executive officer swear in the control room one deck below him. "This guy really knows what he's doing."

"Splashes."

The exec swore again.

Not only had Morrison left home under the worst possible conditions, he was also responsible for their present danger. It had been a mistake, the kind of mistake that a junior officer would make, not something a seasoned captain on his third patrol would do. They had been bearing down on a German supply convoy and, in keeping with their general orders to sink any and all enemy ships, had taken a depth of fifty-five feet. Through the periscope, Morrison had counted the number of ships in the convoy. It was a small one with a troopship, a tanker, and a supply ship, as well as two smaller craft. All of this was led by a warship fore and aft.

Plotting torpedo solutions based on the bearings given by Morrison, the crew targeted the trailing warship. The idea was simple: kill the aft warship, then take a new bearing on the lead ship which would attempt to circle back on the sub. Two torpedoes for each would leave two more in the bow tubes for one of the supply ships. Once those "fish" were in the water, Morrison would call for a crash dive, level off deep allowing his crew to reload the bow tubes, and then they would again assume periscope depth. If possible they would begin a pursuit of the remaining ships.

It was a good tactic and would have worked well had not Morrison's mistake and bad luck short-circuited the plan. Morrison's blunder had been an elementary one. Normally when the periscope broke the surface, Morrison would check for ships by making a 360-degree search. But when he had looked through the periscope, he immediately saw the convoy, and forgoing normal procedures he began issuing attack commands. Had he searched the entire horizon he would have seen yet another ship, a German destroyer, bearing down on them from close range.

Still the plan might have worked if the MK—14 torpedoes fired had exploded instead of impacting the side of the target with an impotent thud. He wished his boat had been equipped with the more reliable MK— 18 torpedoes. Too many men had died because of faulty magnetic detonators.

A third of the Triggerfish's crew was new, including the radar operator who took a few minutes too long to note that the smudgy blip on his screen was a ship closing on their location. When he did realize the significance of what he was seeing he shouted a warning:

"Conn, sonar, target bearing one-eight-five and closing fast."

Morrison immediately spun the periscope around. What he saw made his stomach turn: the bow of the destroyer making thirty knots right at them.

"Down scope," Morrison shouted. "Crash dive."

The exec relayed the command and added: "Take her deep. Fifteen degree down bubble. All ahead full. Dive! Dive! Dive!"

The Klaxon belched its dive call. Immediately the ship, directed by its bow planes digging into the water, dipped sharply down.

Issuing more commands, Morrison barked, "Rig for collision!"

Throughout the Gato class submarine, men scrambled to shut hatches and to take positions. In the maneuvering room seamen pulled levers that would crank the electric motors to full speed. On the surface the Triggerfish could make twenty-one knots with all four of its diesel engines churning. Submerged, however, her top speed was limited to nine knots.

Five minutes later the word came that splashes were heard on the surface. The sensitive hydrophones were picking up the sound of explosive depth charges hitting the surface and beginning their deadly descent.

"Hard right rudder!" Morrison commanded.

"Aye, hard right rudder," came the reply from the control room. The first explosions were too far away to cause physical damage, but the sound alone shook the crew. Fortunately, the destroyer did not yet know the Triggerfish's depth or bearing. Morrison's hope was to dive deep enough to lose the surface ship. The water became colder the deeper the sub traveled. If the submarine could drop below a cold thermal layer, then the destroyer's sonar would be reflected back without revealing the Triggerfish's position. The density of the cold water would surround the sub in a blanket of protection.

Ping!

Ping! Piiiiiing!

Sonar from the surface had found them. A crewman began to swear unrelentingly. The executive officer, Steve Sapolsky, shot him an angry glance that carried more meaning than any words could. The sailor immediately fell silent.

Although Morrison and his crew were well below periscope depth, he could still see in his mind the activity on the surface. One of the battleships would circle back to help the destroyer track and sink their prey. That meant that many more depth charges would soon be on their way. It was a cat and mouse game, and the Triggerfish was the mouse.

In review, some would call this a comedy of errors: torpedoes that would not detonate, a captain who made a fundamental mistake, and a radar man who failed to see a target. Except there was nothing comedic about the situation. Each underwater explosion rocked the submarine violently and each concussion was felt with teeth-jarring intensity.

There was only one goal at this point: survive. If they were lucky their craft would remain functional and they would not have to return to port for repair. If they were unlucky; then there would be nothing to repair and they would all be dead—buried in a grave of cold, dark seawater, the surface with its warmth and air eight hundred feet above.

Morrison's mind raced back to that recurrent image of his wife, eyes red from crying, and his son standing in the doorway, thumb resolutely stuck in his mouth, as Morrison walked away in a huff. That was no way to part. As far as he was concerned, he had to survive if only to make amends.

"Depth?" Morrison asked firmly.

"Passing two-double-zero."

"Very well," Morrison replied with a nod, then to his executive officer he said, "Secure for silent running."

"Aye," the exec repeated then barked the related orders. "Secure for silent running. Bring us level at two-two-five feet, ahead slow. Rudder amidships."

The Triggerfish slowed as it leveled in the dark, cold waters. Throughout the boat crewmen began shutting down all machinery that might make noise that could be radiated through the hull and heard by the enemy "on the roof" 225 feet above them. Even the circulation system was shut down so that its fans would not give away their position. Then every man stood silently in place. When essential words were uttered they were done in the quietest possible whisper.

"Splashes." The words were spoken breathlessly. "Sound distant."

Moments later the sound of two depth charges, conducted by the thick seawater, rattled through the sub. This time, however, there was no rocking. The explosions were too far away.

"All stop," Morrison ordered.

"All stop, aye!"

The exec leaned forward toward his captain and whispered, "You don't want to take her deeper? We're capable of greater depth."

"I know that," Morrison said quietly. "I'm betting they know it too. They'll assume that we'll level off just above our crush depth. If they do, the depth charges will drop below us."

Sapolsky nodded. "Now what?" he asked.

"We wait," Morrison replied softly. "Now we wait."

 

     Add to Shopping Cart

Back to Product Detail Page