( Ed. Note: Some of the happenings in submarines are better retold fictitiously. This actual emergency on a war patrol, for example, serves to show the problems and drama of such unforeseen events — without taxing the credibility of an incident recalled 40 years later.)
In the forward torpedo room Len Turner, Torpedoman First Class, began testing the firing circuits on the torpedo tubes. He had performed the routine tests hundreds of times during his ten-year career. But this time he had a mental lapse. He pressed the plunger to test the firing circuit on #1 Tube, but he had failed to disconnect the circuit from the tube before he did so.
Inside the tube was a live torpedo with a warhead on its nose that held enough Torpex explosive to blow off the forward end of the submarine. The trigger was a magnetic exploder that could touch off that devastating power by sensing a change in the earth’s magnetic field.
When Turner pressed the firing plunger, highpressure air blasted into the tube behind the torpedo. Ordinarily, that would have shot the weapon out of the forward end of the tube into the ocean, where it would start its run toward the target. But, since this was a routine test, the outer door of the tube was shut. The weapon, a ton-and-a-half of steel, high-explosive and alcohol fuel, crashed at the forward door. It broke the door open and jammed itself between the smashed door and the tube. More than five feet of the torpedo, including the entire warhead and part of the steel cylinder that contained high-pressure air, protruded into the water ahead of the tube. The engine of the torpedo, driven by the steam from burning alcohol and air, began running inside the tube. The twin propellers furiously churned like a giant high-speed mixmaster.
The captain raced from the forward compartment to the control room. Then, the ladder to the conning tower.
battery shot up
MAKO surfaced to reduce the sea pressure on the inner door of the torpedo tube. If this pressure blew the inner door open, water pouring through the open tube would quickly sink the ship.
Then, Turner put on a shallow-water diving mask and went over the side to examine the forward end of the torpedo and the damaged tube. He reported that the steel shutter that faired the tube to the hull of the ship had jammed shut so he could neither see nor touch the torpedo from outside the ship.
Even with the submarine on the surface, the tube was under-water. Therefore, opening the inner door would still lead to disaster. MAXO was trapped in enemy waters, afraid to move because her motion might turn the paddle-wheel impeller on the exploder, causing it to arm. Once armed, it would set off the warhead by any movement that cut the earth’s magnetic field.
The captain went below, leaving Lieutenant Rhett with the watch on the bridge, along with the three best lookouts. In the conning tower Quartermaster Van Dyke stood by, alert for commands from the bridge. Lemos, the man with the golden ears, searched around continuously with the listening sonar.
A series of “What if’s?” raced through the OOD’s mind.
What if a lookout sights an aircraft approaching? (“Standing dive. No forward motion. Hold the ship with trim tanks.”)
What if a torpedo is fired at MAKO? (“Turn toward . . . Then stop . . . Make a standing dive.”)
A few minutes later, Lemos shouted from the conning tower so he could be heard on the bridge, “High-speed screws bearing zero-six-zero. Torpedo !”
“All ahead full. Right full rudder!” The OOD ordered on reflex.
As MAKO began to turn, the captain pulled himself onto the bridge. “All back full!”
When MAKO ceased moving, he ordered, “All stop.”
The submarine lay motionless on the surface while Lemos searched around with the sound gear. Nothing was heard.
“What happened?” the captain asked the OOD.
“Sound reported a torpedo on the starboard bow. I turned toward it, Captain.”
“We can’t take a chance on arming that exploder. Don’t kick ahead again.”
“Aye Aye, sir.”
Showing his confidence in the OOD, the captain went back to the wardroom.
After dark, the captain activated his plan to extricate HAKO from her desperate situation. Two things were going for him. First, the surface of the sea was without a ripple. Second, the jammed torpedo was in #1 tube, in the uppermost of three rows of tubes. Therefore, it might be possible to trim the ship so as to get the outer door above the surface of the ocean.
Lieutenant Rhett calculated the odds as onein-twenty ~ conditions were in their favor.
The first step of the Captain’s plan required the boat to be trimmed “down” aft and “up” forward. To do this, the diving officer flooded after trim and had the water blown out or all forward tanks. Still the outer door of the #1 tube was under water.
“Ask the chief of the boat to come to the bridge,” the captain called down the hatch.
Shortly Whiteford, chief of the boat, was standing on the bridge ,facing the captain expectantly.
“Chief, take the five strongest men on the ship to the forward room. Send all the other men to the after room. When I give you the word, open that inner door and attach a tackle to the tail of the jammed torpedo. Pull it back quickly into the ship and then shut the inner door.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Whiteford disappeared down the hatch. Below, selected five bulls: Chief Engineman Barnes, Steward’s Mate Crawford, Cook Matuoci, Gunner’s Hate Hines, and Torpedoman Len Turner. They went to the forward torpedo room as “All hands lay art to the torpedo room,” was broadcast through the boat.
Quickly, without question, sixty-six men hurried aft. There, men lodged themselves between torpedo tubes, on top or torpedoes, outboard of skids, on the deck, — anywhere their bodies would fit.
Now MAKO lay helpless, unable to dive. Like a wounded sea monster crouched on her haunches, she lifted her broken tooth above the surface of the ocean.
“Open the inner door on Tube Number One,” the Chief ordered.
Whiteford rotated the heavy bronze door disengaging the lugs that held it shut. The door swung open on its hinges and water poured into the torpedo room. But quickly the stream subsided even though the torpedo hadn’t moved.
Turner crawled into the empty rear of the tube behind the torpedo and hooked the block of a heavy tackle to its tail. He edged back out and attached the tackle’s other block to the bulkhead of the torpedo room.
Ten strong hands grabbed the tail of the tackle. Legs were braced while five broad backs pulled with all their might. Still the torpedo did not move.
Whiteford grasped the torpedo tail ahead of the other five men and called out, “All right . . . One. . . Two. . . Three . . . HEAVEN!”
Twelve strong arms hauled in unison. Neck cords stood out. Muscles strained like stretched cables.
The .torpedo moved a fraction of an inch.
Again they heaved. Another small bit of movement.
For two hours, sweat streaming down their straining bodies, inch-by-inch they ” horsed” the damaged torpedo out of the tube, finally sliding it onto a skid in the room.
When Turner shut the inner door of the tube, Whiteford went to the bridge.
“Captain, the torpedo’s secured in a skid and the inner door’s shut, sir,” he reported.
“Very well. Good work. All hands return to stations. Rig for dive.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
The men in the after torpedo room moved back forward to their stations and the diving officer retrimmed MAKO for diving.
Attempts to close the outer door damaged tube failed. It was irreparably and fully open to sea pressure.
of the jammed
“We can’t move that outer door, Captain,” Whiteford reported.
“We can live with that,” the Captain felt, “but not with that exploder in the warhead. It may be armed. Can you remove it without blowing all of us up?”
“Very well. Keep the door to the forward room shut while you work on it — and nobody else in that room except those you need to help with the job. After you remove the exploder, bring it topside and throw it over the side.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Whiteford returned to the forward room.
“Turner”, be said, “stay with me while I get this exploder out . . . . Everybody else lay aft to the . crew’s mess and have a cup of coffee.. Crawford, dog down that watertight door behind you as you go aft and stand by it. Don’t let anybody open it.”
“Right, Chief.” Crawford grinned, showing his gleaming ivories.
Turner handed Whiteford a wrench to turn the exploder’s screws. Whiteford moved it carefully slowly removing the first screw.
“Whew.” Like a man removing the fangs from a cobra, he extracted the remaining screws.
“Turner, you take the for’ard side and I’ll take the aft. Let’s lift it out real slow and easy,n Whiteford advised.
Slowly they raised the exploder from its cavity in the warhead.
“All right. Lemme have it,” and Whiteford wrapped both arms around the exploder holding it against his chest.
“open the upper hatch,” he said.Turner responded quickly.
“I’m going up. Stay close behind me and don’t let me fall,” Whiteford told Turner as he clenched the exploder to his body with his right arm while reaching up his left hand to grasp a rung of the ladder. As he climbed, Turner pushed him from behind. When Whiteford reached the upper hatch, he leaned his back against it for support — resting there for a minute. Then he leaned his shoulders forward and placed his elbows on the deck. With both hands he set the exploder gently down. Taking care not to touch the exploder with his feet, he climbed out and stood on the main deck.
Then with both hands, he picked up the exploder. Walking slowly to the edge of the deck he heaved it over the side.
It did not explode.
Only then did Chief Whiteford and his shipmates breathe normally.