Chapter VII: Malta
We reached the island of Malta about ten o'clock one night, where the convoy laid to and turned on all lights to follow the Leonidas leading the way into a small cove. After traveling so many miles "dark" and for so long a time, the thirty chasers and two ships with all their lights on made us think of New York, so far off, which has its great white way so dear to sailors from everywhere. There was a chance of a submarine taking a shot at us, but we all got safely inside the cove and there anchored. It was a most dreary sight to us when the sun rose next morning, for we saw only a few ramshackle homes with no town, and that longed-for liberty did not much appeal to anyone.
While at sea it was the custom to read the coast pilot publications to learn what was of interest in the next port, but this outlook did not agree at all with the book.
The unit leaders were shortly called aboard the mother ship, and in a little while they brought back the glad news that we were to proceed immediately to the harbor of Valetta. This turned out to be a wonderful harbor, amply fortified from the sea side with high walls or bastions running down to the water itself. The buildings and walls are all of yellow color, making everything look clean and shiny under the brilliant sunlight. We got into our dress uniforms and straightened up the appearance of our boats as we neared the entrance. The harbor was crowded with shipping, and the "bum boats" and pleasure craft flitted about mostly propelled by oars, and not infrequently just escaping collision. If a ship keeps right on its way and pays no attention to these "bum boats," the little craft will always somehow or other escape being run down. While here some of the chasers had to tie to buoys, but some were lucky enough to tie up in tiers to the quay. The sun was very powerful and we experienced our first taste of tropical climate, having had no rain since leaving Gibraltar as it was now the dry season. Liberty was granted as soon as Captain Nelson had consulted the senior Allied officer present, and as many as could went ashore.
Valetta is an up-to-date town situated on an eminence overlooking the sea. Steep walls run down to a beautifully protected harbor, which stretches way back with numerous arms. Like all cities under British control it is neat and clean, and as orderly and well laid out as the old winding streets will allow. The palace of John Valetta, the first dignitary of the city, is the main curiosity of the place. There is a dinky railroad that runs back into the interior of the island where are the convents. The Maltese as a class are ignorant, only a very small number of the natives knowing how to read or write. A general view of the country, which has a dry brown appearance with the houses white or yellow dotting it here and there, and old buildings, and the curious dress of the peasants reminds one most strongly of pictures of the Holy Land.
While at Malta some of the chasers were sent out to meet convoys that were passing. Units were so distributed that they would convoy for fifty miles and then be relieved by another unit. While on this duty a remarkable example of the efficiency of the S. C. tubes was demonstrated. According to the story, while the 215 lay at her designated position, she heard a convoy of twelve large ships four hours before they got to her. The convoy was making around fifteen knots, and that would give the listening device a radius of sixty miles.
At six o'clock one morning we got an S. O. S. from a torpedoed ship, the Porto Mortzo, and the commanding officers of the chasers made ready at once to get away. Orders were received to proceed to a certain latitude and longitude about one hundred miles in a general southwesterly direction to render any assistance possible. Three chasers cleared the harbor as 128 was throwing off her lines. On coming outside we could not see the others in any direction, so thought they had gone around the north end of the island. According to the chart the distance was about the same around the south end, so we set out by that way at full speed to try and beat them to our destination. On clearing the island, we still could not see them and feared they were too far ahead. Nevertheless we kept up the fastest speed we could maintain, and about two o'clock in the afternoon ran into wreckage. We proceeded through it, then circled, with a five-mile radius, but found no bodies nor traces of submarines. There was wreckage of all sorts, bulkheads, the wing of a bridge, beds, mattresses and numerous other pieces and articles. After a careful search, we had target practice with our three-inch machine guns and rifles on the various objects as they were passed until we came to an area covered with cases of lemons. [See Note 1] Here we lay to, and putting over the wherry proceeded to load our decks. The sight of these lemons made us all think of Sunday-school picnics and folks at home. The wherry picked up only the choicest prizes such as fenders, boxes of soap, and other flotsam. The lemons were so thick in the water that the crew just leaned over the side and hauled the cases aboard. While we were enjoying these gifts of Providence, the other three chasers appeared on the horizon and shortly they were engaged in the same business as we. Number 128 picked up seventy-two cases of lemons, six cases of soap, three fenders, and many other articles. Although we had not seen a submarine, we felt we had made the trip worth while.
When we returned to Valetta we were ordered into dry dock and re-painted. About half of the chasers had already been in dry dock while we were lemon chasing, and on completion of repairs had proceeded to Corfu, Greece. As soon as the rest of us came out, we got under way with the Leonidas for the same port. Formation as before was kept around our mother ship, but no daily pilgrimages to the horizon were taken. About nine o'clock on the first evening out the tiller ropes of the S. C. 128 broke and we had to lay to for an hour before we could get them properly repaired. At first we were afraid to use naked lights on deck lest some neighboring submarine might want us for a souvenir, but seeing this precaution delayed work until the Leonidas had gotten beyond hearing of our S. C. tubes, for there were many water noises that night, we threw aside precautions and finished up the job. Water noises are those made by the waves on the outside of the hull. When the chaser rolls, the water in the bilges between the ribs also is heard on the tubes. All the shavings were not removed when the chasers were built and in the case of S. C. 128 and S. C. 129 the drain caps in the bottom of the forward gas tanks had been overlooked, with the result that at the first filling five hundred gallons of gasoline had gone through the tanks into the bilges. This loosened the tar along the seams so that it and the shavings had clogged all limber holes under the tanks, which are set down so near the bottom of the ship that the bilges cannot be gotten at beneath them. Under average weather conditions the interference made by the bilge water can be listened through, but in a choppy sea these noises drown out further sounds. We had no sooner overtaken the convoy when the other tiller line broke, and the performance was repeated.
__________Subchaser.org Editor’s Notes:__________
Note 1: There is another account of this incident in the Subchaser Club Newsletter, Vol. II No. 6, June, 1921, A Lemon of a Trip, by George Fernandez, a transcription of which may be found in the Subchaser Stories - Published section.