Chapter IX: Barrage
On the barrage it was first thought that the only thing necessary for sinking a submarine was just to hear him on the tubes and run over where he was and drop a bomb. Although the first couple of barrages brought in reports of possible sinkings, there was much luck attached to it. The S. C. 78 one night was lying to and a submarine was heard directly beneath her, although no sounds had been heard previous to this. The chaser immediately got under way and laid a pattern with eight bombs, when quantities of oil came to the surface, and since no more sound could be heard on the tubes, she was granted a possible sinking. Unit A followed a submarine for three hours, running at stated intervals, stopping to listen and get the bearing, which was plotted in the same manner as taught in the New London school, but each time when it was thought they were almost in attacking position, the submarine would zigzag and the chase would continue.
Before going on the barrage we had been told by a British officer who was giving us information as to their ways and methods, to always answer recognition signals immediately. "Of course," he said, "these trawlers and M. L.'s cannot hit you even though they do shoot two or three times, but on the whole, you know, it is better to answer recognition signals fast." It was either on the first or second barrage that the 94 saw a ship loom up in the darkness. Now previous to our arrival at Corfu there had been a surface raid by the Austrians, so no one thought of running a chance of allowing an enemy cruiser to be discovered lying within gunshot of him when daylight came. This ship might be either a friend or enemy, therefore the 94 flashed a recognition demand which wasn't answered immediately, so she followed this with a shot from her three-inch gun. The first shell entered the boiler room of the ship, which turned out to be English. After this incident it was very noticeable that the British did not treat the American recognition demands in the easy-going manner that they answered their own M. L.'s and trawlers.
When the chasers had been on the barrage a couple of weeks they had learned to distinguish all types of ships heard. There was one sound, however, that was continually reported and could not be accounted for. It was a tapping sound. Many units had chased this sound with no result. One morning Unit B picked this up and signal was sent to the rest of the barrage by wireless that we were in contact with a submarine, and requesting that all ships stop. To our imagination this tapping sounded as though there was trouble in a submerged submarine that necessitated hammering. We pursued this for five or ten miles in a general northwesterly direction. When we got near the Albanian coast the chasers had gotten somewhat out of position, the center boat falling behind. We stopped our engines to get another bearing, and the tapping came from almost the center of the triangle we then formed. Signal to bomb was immediately hoisted, but before this order could be executed a black object broke the surface, running along directly for the 215. It resembled a torpedo nearly expended and the 129 fired at it, but we imagined the shot landed over the horizon. At any rate, the torpedo was safe, and then a large black tail appeared just behind this dreaded object, and we recognized the big blackfish so prevalent in these southern waters. Twice that same day this tapping resulted in our finding blackfish, so the tapping question was finally settled and the blame put on these underwater creatures.
It was the custom when at sea for the officers to stand six-hour watches. The deck force stood four on, and four off, but the radio and machinist department and listeners were fortunate enough to be able to run four on and eight off. When on a chase, general quarters were sounded, and every man on the boat had to be at his station. If the chase promised to be a long one, the cook was relieved subject to call. The chases often lasted hours making it necessary for the cook to return to the galley. Should a chase commence after one watch had been on for three and a half hours and continue until time for that watch to come on again, it was obviously unfair, and the executive officer had the problem of straightening out the difficulty. One hour was usually consumed for each meal. Between chases, regular watch system and meals, so little time was left for sleep that we were all thankful we did not have added the British tea time. When off duty, there was very little recreation at sea except cards and similar games. As the arrow used for signaling was painted red on one end and white on the other much amusement was had by the crews betting upon which color would be upward at the stop of an impartial spin. Often on moonlight nights the phonograph was brought on deck and records tried out. On hot days a few at a time were allowed to swim over side, but owing to the prevalence of sharks and the necessity of being ready for immediate action, the swimmers stayed within a few feet of the ship. When off duty another popular occupation was the scrubbing of clothes, which dried very quickly in the hot sun. In early August the temperature on deck was found to be 140°F. It was so hot below that it became the custom to wet down the decks at sunset. When in port many of the crew slept on deck under awnings, but at sea they had to go below as sleeping on deck would interfere with immediate gun action, and this could not be allowed. When in harbor three chasers were tied up to one buoy, causing a great deal of maneuvering on hot days to keep from being made the inside boat where any breeze was less felt.
There was much complaint on this barrage because the British did not observe listening periods. Neither the trawlers nor destroyers would stop their engines for five minutes, and it interfered so much with our listening that we were finally moved to a parallel of latitude south of Corfu Island. As twelve chasers were not able to cover this whole line, the result was that the submarines came down on the surface and ran around our end. Unit A had a thrilling chase of four hours after a submarine with sails. When they began to get within gunfire, the craft submerged with sails all set and was lost track of. At night this location was a most precarious one for our little boats, because convoys from the Italian coast came down to the east and passed along the line. The chasers very much resembled submarines, and although the Italians knew we were there, they were taking no chances that objects that appeared to be American might really be Austrian. If they did not fire on us we had just as much excitement in keeping from being run down by their destroyer escort, which travels around them in circles at a speed of over thirty knots. Complaints arose again here, because of our inability to hold a line of such length, and finally the British moved us back to the parallel between Fano Island and Cape Maria de Leuca on the Italian coast. The left of the line was supported by British M. L.'s. Twelve chasers were in the center, a little over a mile apart, and on the right were British trawlers. This was the most satisfactory line we had ever had. Naturally we found fault, however, as it is not "navy" to do otherwise. In the first place, and since it was a line that was determined by latitude longitude positions, the chasers and the M. L.'s each did their separate navigating. The M. L.'s, according to the chasers, were out of position always, being either ten miles north or south; and according to the M. L.'s the chasers were just as far off theirs. The trawlers never attempted to stay in position, and admitting it there was no complaint. Then again, a submarine that came down near that position of the line where the American and British met, was pretty safe, for the M. L.'s got under way when the Americans were trying to listen with their devices, effectually drowning all submarine sound, and the chasers, being faster and larger than the M. L.'s, would not give up the hunt to the smaller craft. However, the saving grace of this situation was that the M. L.'s, though supposed to be on a line with the chasers, were generally ten miles north or south of them, so that whoever got contact first had a pretty good chance, until they came to the other's position.
A prescribed amount of navigation had to be turned in to the mother ship after each barrage. This was checked up and showed whether or not the officers were competent to navigate their vessels on independent assignments.
The paper work on these boats was extensive. A cable was sent after each barrage to Admiral Sims in London, which comprised everything relative to the enemy that had occurred during the four days. Each chaser would submit a report generally in writing to the unit leader who would forward a unit report to the squadron commander. A listening log which included every sound heard on the tubes, a telephone log of every word sent or received, engine room reports of daily gasoline and oil consumption, number of revolutions and time of running, battery specific gravities and breakdowns, number of rounds of all ammunition expended and how, number of depth bombs on board and expended, number of hours at sea and miles run, then the diagram of the chases participated in, and detailed report of submarines heard or seen, had to be submitted early in the morning after reaching the base. Requests for repairs, supplies, water, and provisions must be sent to the mother ship as soon as possible as we had only three full days in port.
One night the recognition signal was given to a group of M. L.'s and was answered by the wrong signal. Since target practice had been held that day, there was no particular anxiety to shoot, so, knowing them to be M. L.'s the unit of chasers came within hail. When the commanding officer of the M. L.'s was told through the megaphone that his reply was wrong, he stoutly contended that it was not, thereby making it necessary for the ships to come alongside of each other and straighten out this question. The Englishman had the correct signal for the day- before, and made merely a little error in his calendar. The thing that hurt the chasers most about this incident was the discovery of the advantage that the British had in basing at a town where such a party could be celebrated as to erase one day from the calendar.
An incident that bothered the chasers a great deal occurred about three weeks after the barrage had been started. A sort of squeaking sound that could not be identified was heard on the C tube. As the way to learn was to investigate all sounds until they could be attributed to some ship or sea creature, an H. V. (signal for all barrage to stop) was sent out and a chase of this noise was begun. It was followed as long as the barrage kept in motion, but when all boats had obeyed this signal, it mysteriously disappeared. Later on in the day another unit took up the chase of this squeaking, and for a time it was considered the hoodoo of the detachment. In one chase, however, this sound came from close aboard, and as soon as the stop signal had been countermanded, commenced again. All bearings pointed directly toward a certain British trawler, and as this trawler proceeded on its way, it followed her. On investigation of the trawler, it was found that she had a damaged screw, every revolution of which caused vibrations in the water recognized on the C tube as squeaking. Thus another unknown sound was eliminated.
Listening devices are peculiar affairs that have not yet been anywhere near perfected. One night the 215 was laying to and a destroyer was seen under way under the lee of Fano Island about five miles distant. The listener was called on deck and showed this destroyer. He went back to the magazine and reported that she could not be heard on the tubes. When the destroyer, however, was clear of the island she could be distinctly heard and her bearings given for some time. Another incident of this sort occurred when the H. M. S. Adamant and three British submarines came down the barrage from windward; they could not be seen until they were within six hundred yards, but as they passed to leeward their bearings and the number of ships could be made out for half an hour. This peculiarity of the tubes is inexplicable. Official reports attributed it to aeration of the water – light and heavy spots.
While on the barrage the surface craft gave us as much bother as submarines. About two o'clock one morning B Unit heard a sound that might have been a submarine on the surface or a destroyer. The only distinguishing mark of a submarine sound is an all-metallic one. Chase was immediately taken up and a destroyer sighted. It was thought that there were other ships in company with her, and a recognition signal demand was flashed. No answer was given, however, and the 215 fired three shots. By this time they had come within near enough distance to recognize her as an Allied convoy, or perhaps neutral. From former experience with one of this sort, when asked why she did not answer the recognition signal she replied that being an Allied ship was enough without all this "other red tape," therefore it was thought unnecessary to question further. This chase had no more than been completed when a similar sound was picked up. It was now about three-thirty in the morning, and this last ship was going along the Albanian coast standing to the northward. When the first streaks of daylight came the chasers were pretty much in formation. It was not long, however, before the center engine of the 128 ran a hot bearing and she dropped a mile astern. The bearing was cooled and she was just catching up to the 215 and 129 when an exhaust manifold was broken on the 129 necessitating her laying to for some time. There had been great rivalry between the 128 and 129 since they had been practically the only boats with a regular navy crew. As the 128 passed the 129, little sympathy was shown for her, as demonstrated by the yells and hurrahs that went up. So the 215, still leading, and the 128 now about five hundred yards astern continued the chase. The system was to run for twenty-five minutes, get a bearing of the quarry, and follow that line of bearing. At four-thirty we met a bank of mist and it was so thick we could not see fifty yards from the ship. General quarters was held going through this bank but speed was not slackened, and when the chasers finally emerged they were exactly parallel, the 128 on the 215's port beam. Here a real race began. The 215 had been recognized as the fastest ship of the fleet, and the 128 was just going to show her a stern to be followed. Everybody was in high glee. They ran down to the engine room hatch simulating hand-shakes as congratulations to the work of the engine room force. The black gang, however, had no time for anything of this sort. They were pushing the engines to the utmost, and running double watches out of enthusiasm. Every five minutes one of them would stick his head out of the hatch for air, his eyes streaming from the intense gas below. In the chart house the wheel was given to the best steersman that no distance should be lost by undue rudder movement. One energetic engineer even went so far as to walk away up in the bow to dump oil receptacles that the ship might slide along the faster thereby. Every five minutes reports were sent down to the engine room encouraging them, for here was a chance for the 128 to show up this flagship which had such an enviable reputation. However, since our course tended to port, the 215 had to run a longer distance, being on the outside; yet she kept on the beam all the time, and we tried to fool ourselves into thinking we were keeping up with her. When the course finally straightened out, however, she began to draw away, and it was with a sigh of relief that we gave the order to abandon the chase. We were now off Brindisi, Italy, and had sent a wireless for destroyer help. These came smoking out of the harbor, and probably taking us for submarines, came right at us. It was daylight now, so that when they were within gunshot they recognized the American flag, and we were saved the inconvenience of dodging their bullets.
It became the custom for two units of chasers to go over to Gallipoli for practice with an Italian submarine. Units B and G went over in the early part of September, relieving Units A and K. After a very stormy trip across the straits, we rounded the breakwater of Gallipoli and were met by cheers from those we were relieving. They had had very little food, no ice, and most important of all, no mail. We had all of these on board for them. Gallipoli was the first town in which the enlisted men had been allowed liberty. Here we found a traveling show of some musical comedy type that we thought far surpassed anything of that class in the United States. The acting was good and the music and singing typically Italian. Of course they could not dance, and none of us knew what the lines were. We enjoyed it, however, going two or three nights to the same show. Maybe pretty chorus girls had something to do with it. In the morning practice was held in the harbor with the Italian submarine, Nautilus. The first few days, the submarine's actions were restricted; she could vary from her course only so many degrees, and the chasing and plotting and sham attacks (papers were thrown over in place of actual depth bombs) were all very successful. However, in the latter part of the training, when the submarine was allowed to go at her own discretion, the chasers learned what a small chance they really had. Were it not for the fact that the submarine had to come to the surface every twenty minutes, her crew would have been back for lunch long before us. On the fifth day out the chase had been unsuccessful; only one chaser at a time was able to hear her; this gave no fix and that bearing alone determined our advance. For two successive listening periods the 215 had been the only ship which had gotten any contact. According to her plotting, the submarine was within attacking distance and the signal, a cross, was hoisted for the wing boats to close in within one hundred yards for bombing. This was done, but the cross was not hauled down as signal to drop bombs, but one more listening period was tried to get a three-bearing fix. As the 128 reversed two engines to hold her position abeam the 215, although she still had headway on, a thump was heard under the magazine, and the engine room reported something foul of the starboard propeller. With a great hissing noise of compressed air, which shot a volume of water eight feet in the air, the submarine came to the surface directly astern of us. She had lost her periscope and conning tower and her gas fens were badly damaged. She had come up under the 128 and the noise she was making made us all think the collision had been fatal to her. Then it occurred to us that perhaps this collision had been fatal to us, and we lost interest as to whether the submarine and its crew were going to the bottom or not. A hasty examination was made below deck but no injury could be found from the inside. Then a man was sent over the side and it was found that the blades of the starboard propeller had been either bent or torn off. Nothing more could be found out there at sea. The Lieutenant, who was in command of this training and aboard the 215, immediately had a wherry put over, and tried to appease the angry captain of the submarine, but this accident took all interest in the game out of the Italians, and they turned about and started for home, the 128 following in a dejected manner like an unwelcome visitor to a feast. When a Board of Investigation was held, it was found that slight damage had been done the chaser outside of the broken propeller, and that the watches of the submarine and of the Lieutenant did not agree by one minute. Thus an attack had been allowed to be carried on, according to the American watch, at nineteen minutes after the hour, when the submarine was supposed to come up at twenty minutes after the hour. This unfortunate happening stopped all practice of the chasers for three weeks, a course of training that was most valuable to us at that time.
On returning to our base a new propeller was easily fitted on the shaft by the chaser running her nose up on the beach and divers going over the side, and standing on the bottom, to do their work.
During our early stay at Corfu we had been bothered by fires, owing to the inexperience of some of the engine room force. The 244 had a fire one morning owing to a backfire in her auxiliary. Fires are very serious in these gasoline ships, especially in the engine room, which is separated by a single bulkhead from six depth bombs of three hundred and fifty pounds of TNT each, and by another single bulkhead from gasoline tanks of twenty-four hundred gallons. There is so much oil and gas around that when a fire occurs the best thing to do is to leave the engine room, stuff up all ports and all but one ventilator, then pour down available chemicals through this one opening. It is a good theory, but it is very trying to stand on the topside and wait to see if the extinguisher is going to take effect. The next morning fire was started in the gasoline floating on the water alongside the same boat, and this was popularly attributed to that boat also. At ten o'clock the day after, the commanding officer of the unit to which the S. C. No. 244 belonged sent three men to that ship armed with extinguishers and fire axes to report to the officer on duty for his "daily fire." The men were sent back to their vessel with a message to the sender to go to the farthermost regions opposite in direction to that in which the air men work.
At conferences in port after barrage, the western unit frequently reported tapping sounds that were thought to be under-water signals between submarines. These could not be exactly located as they changed position. However, the general locality was placed as off Cape Maria de Leuca on the Italian side. The shore listening station on the cape also reported them. The British told us they had heard them and previously bombed in the area with the result that no more sounds were heard. Now they had commenced again, and it was thought that they originated from a signal submarine whose duty it was to give information of the barrage to home-coming submarines. During the last week in September a unit of chasers brought in a report of bombing an area that would end the signaling submarine. According to the printed diagrams and reports they had followed the sound till a submarine was distinctly heard, then a chase of this sub. ensued. The diagram showed successive runs and stops to listen of the chasers, and the course of the sub., which was in a general northerly direction. After three or four runs they got within attacking distance, and laid a pattern of depth charges. After this, no more sounds were heard. The submarine apparently had followed a straight course, approximately at a speed of six knots There was diversity of opinion at the base whether this really was a submarine or a noise-making torpedo sent out to lead the chasers astray. To some it did not seem reasonable to suppose a sub. would follow a straight course when so closely pursued, especially as the barrage had been maintained long enough for submarines to learn that chasers were dangerous enough to be reckoned with.
Another time on the barrage Unit C brought in the following report. A submarine was heard, and followed to close proximity of the English trawlers, who had become very active since they received money bounty on their submarine sinkings. This unit calculating that it was within attacking distance laid a pattern of charges. The nearest trawlers, taking the cue, started dropping bombs of their own, and a seaplane which was hovering above landed in the water and signaled S. C. No. 349 to come within hail. As the chaser was making her way to the airman the commanding officer perceived a trawler off his port bow on such a course as to meet him. As the chaser had the right of way, he expected it now, but he did not get it, for straight along went the trawler dropping his bombs, but at no set intervals-just dropping them anywhere, anyhow. As these depth charges are very powerful the commanding officer of 349 suddenly concluded it would be most prudent and much safer to get out of the way of this Englishman who was dropping bombs so promiscuously, so he gave his engines full speed astern, and was just in time, for the trawler rambling along on its way cut close across the chaser's bow, and when directly in front let go another "can." With a dull explosion off went the charge, throwing water high in the air and giving such a jar to the chaser as to threaten to break every feed pipe on board. At this the waiting aeroplane, with the whirr of a scared partridge, shot off into the air, where it remained until this energetic trawler moved on with his dangerous predilection for throwing bombs about and dealing fire and brimstone to the innocent fish. Then the airman circled, and landed within hail of the American. He told the commanding officer he had seen the submarine about six hundred yards away and pointed out its probable course. He said he would continue the search from the air, and then just as he started off in a glide something gave way among his depth charges, and overboard one of them slipped not two hundred yards from the ship. The explosion of this bomb was not very serious to the chaser as aeroplane bombs are small and not nearly so powerful as chaser bombs; nevertheless, the humor of the afternoon's experience with this explosive was not, till long afterwards, appreciated by the chaser's crew.