Wake Island is a small place, a small isolated place.
It was going to take us at least a week to reach the atoll, and it was going to be a long stretch. Ploughing into a churning sea, we were departing from the routine of the first three weeks of sailing.
But still, we had no idea why we were sailing far from normal patrol routes.
Somewhere far off the bow was a small base, with fuel and supplies.
A good current seemed to be carrying us across the Pacific towards Wake Island. For most of the crew this was a new destination, far from the typical off shore patrols we had always done.
But up on the bridge, everything was routine about the transit except for the lack of clear direction. Or maybe it was that the direction was too clear, too simple.
“What’s going on up there, in the ivory tower?” I asked Diaz, as we sat on a couple of bits on the port weather deck.
“Same thing as always, just sailing west.” She replied nonchalantly.
The fuel barge was pushed alongside the ship shortly after we dropped anchor.
“Take the slack out of line one” shouted the Bosun in a yellow hard hat, as the deck crew was managing the mooring lines holding the fuel barge fast to our ships port side.
As they were making up the fuel barge on our port side, a small supply boat came along the starboard side to drop off food and dry goods. They also took whatever it was that we couldn’t burn or toss into the ocean during the transit.
Overall it was a busy few hours.
“Jesus, they sure got that over in a hurry,” I said watching as the fuel barge was pulled away from the port side.
“Yup, that’s true,” started Diaz. “Word is that we’re going to be underway before sunset.”
“No shit, this was a legitimate BSF, wasn’t it?” I asked.
Diaz looked over at the low lying island for a minute before responding. “Apparently, first time for everything. And too bad about that, I was really hoping to add Wake to my list.”
“Definitely would’ve made for some good bragging rights down the road.” I answered staring sadly at the island.
From wake, the ship set a course straight into the rising moon. We were headed back east, for who knows what reason. It seemed almost incomprehensible that we’d sail almost five-thousand miles just to pick up fuel and food.
Especially to just turn around and head back to where we started.
The crew was starting to get anxious about it too, of course that changed when they let us have swim call and three days of holiday routine.
There’s just about nothing that jumping off the ship into equatorially warm waters can’t cure.
Trust me, it works almost every time.
It’s always an alarming moment, when the turbines spool up in the middle of the night.
Unless you’re actually in CIC, there’s never a warning.
Just a change of speed and direction.
As the bridge called down for both turbines to be put online, I quickly made my way out of Main Control and into the furnace like engine room. Bringing up the turbines wasn’t difficult, and so I went about it without much thought.
And then, just before 22:00 I pulled back the PTOs to engage first the port, and then starboard turbines. Shortly we were at flank bell.
Before most of the crew was awake.
Before they were aware of the howling turbines screaming into the chilly open ocean night. A small blip appeared on the edge of our awareness. It was almost exactly where they said it would be.
I knew it because I was on watch.
Diaz knew it because she woke up to prepare for watch relief and talked to a friend on the mess deck.
“What is it that we’re chasing?” asked Diaz, preparing for the watch to come.
“Not sure, they never specified, just a vessel,” replied her friend across the blue table.
“Why are we stopping?” asked the nervous watch stander struggling to keep up with rapid commands.
“Because we’re supposed to stay just over the horizon from the contact,” replied the XO, who was up on the bridge.
As the vessel came about, the lookout struggled to see the contact off the port side. It wasn’t there.
“No surface contact of any kind,” was the brief report from the fly bridge.
The ship rolled heavy as they slowly came around in the choppy water. Almost imperceptibly, the cannon on the front of the vessel adjusted to the position of the contact.
With GQ secured, we were sitting outside of the steering compartment, away from prying eyes.
“What the hell was that about,” I asked Diaz nervously.
“Aside from a drill, we haven’t fired the 76 since Vietnam,” she started. “And that was a war.”
Leaning against the white bulkhead, I scratched my forehead. “What type of vessel was it anyway?”
“I’m not sure, no one is talking about that. But looked to me like a yacht, not sure why though,” she replied. “All the same, everyone is freaked out, even the command.”
“Well that’s encouraging,” I said looking down the passageway.
The contact was gone.
At that distance, it was impossible for them to definitively know if it was a yacht or some other vessel. But they knew it wasn’t a good sign of things to come.
Without even sailing back to see the debris field, or look for survivors to pluck from the water, they headed back to cutting circles in the ocean. It was as if the patrol didn’t want them to deal with the craziest thing the ship has ever done.
And so the ship sailed on, retreating from the area, with no further guidance from the command.
“I could be wrong, but with these clouds I’d say we are pretty close to shore,” I said, probing for an answer from Diaz.
“I’ve never been one to divulge national secrets, even when the person asking is right,” replied Diaz smartly.
Sitting on the port side, we couldn’t see anything except the steel grey sea and the impenetrable blanket of low clouds above. A light drizzle had been in the air for the past three days, deepening the somber mood of the crew.
“What the hell are we doing?” I asked directly.
“Honestly, I’d tell you if I knew.”
It would’ve been better if the crew was told a lie about what we were doing out there.
About why we just sank what appeared to be a pleasure craft in the middle of the ocean. Sank it without even the courtesy of a warning.
But we were given nothing, and for what it’s worth, the Command wasn’t given much more than that either. Without any real answers, the rumors started to circulate on the ship.
The CO has gone rouge.
The country is on lock down.
We’re on orders to stop a major conspiracy.
But, none of it mattered.
The impenetrable grey clouds continued.
It felt like weeks that we were under those clouds, stuck between two infinite expanses.
As the ship cut circles closer to the continent, the unforgiving cold drizzle coated every exterior surface. It was inescapable, cold, and miserable.
“Have they said anything yet?” I asked.
“You know they haven’t,” replied Diaz, frustrated with the rhetorical question.
“I know, it’s just.” I started, before trailing off. “I mean, at some point, right?”
She didn’t reply, because there was no use. It would’ve been wasted words at this point, and we both knew that much at least.
At 08:30 the oiler ship pulled alongside of us.
It was the first surface contact we’ve had since sinking the yacht about a week ago.
“This is the lamest patrol,” remarked one of the engineers making the connections at the fueling station on the starboard side.
“No shit,” replied her assistant. “You know what’s better than fueling at sea?”
“Yea, a goddamn port call,” She said, stepping back from the fueling station and signaling that they were ready to start.
With that connection made, the oiler started pumping fuel to our ship.
“Well, here’s to another two weeks,” she said.
After refueling, we retreated away from the coast.
Away from the impenetrable clouds.
It was a return to the larger circles we had been cutting in the ocean several weeks ago, drenched in unabridged sunlight. And on the surface, everything was routine again.
Except it wasn’t.
The crew couldn’t shake what happened, how we unceremoniously sank a vessel without any warning or follow-up for survivors. It’s not something any of them had signed up for, not even the most hard-core amongst the crew.
At some point, with even the CO starting to doubt our seaworthiness, we took another swim call.
Endless blue miles of sun soaked ocean separated them from the nearest surface ship.
And a seemingly endless number of underway hours separated them from getting home.
“Extended for what?” I asked furiously.
“I don’t know, just extended.” Replied Diaz, turning a spanner wrench over in her hands. “They just want us out here, doing box ops.”
“Well, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard this side of the date line.”
She put the spanner back into it’s holder near the fire station before responding “That may be, but we’re not the only ones out here anymore.”
“There’s another ship?”
From that late night meeting by the fire station, or any other number of clandestine crew conversations throughout the ship, the anxiety behind the sinking of that yacht returned.
Not that it was ever fully gone.
Why were they returning to Wake for repairs?
Why was the patrol extended?
What are the other ships doing out there?
Slowly limping across the Pacific, we made it back to the far removed atoll. But we weren’t alone this time. Sitting idle at anchor near the small harbor was another ship, a frigate, with a fuel barge made fast to the port side.
“This is such bullshit,” I said, looking at the island from the fantail.
The ship gently swayed at anchor, as Diaz looked around before responding.
“I know, and the command knows.” She said, flatly. “But, I don’t think it’s up to them either. I’m pretty sure the CO would have us over there on land if it were up to her.”
“Maybe, but all the same. We should. . . we need to be allowed on land for at least a little while,” I replied.
“Or, maybe they just need to get that fuel line fixed so we can leave.”
The ship left the tropical waters of Wake Island without much delay.
After getting the fuel line repaired, it was long before we all heard the turbines spool up again. It wasn’t in the middle of the night this time.
The order must’ve came down at some point just after we all finished eating and started work for the day. I know this because I can remember the stupefying way everyone was wandering around while pretending to work. No one in the crew wanted what they knew was coming.
And none of them could put it out of their mind.
“What’s the machinery status?” I asked, reflexively before relieving the watch.
“Both turbines online, both generators online,” replied the off-going oiler before pausing. “Also, keep an eye on the starboard shaft seal, it’s been leaking a little more than normal tonight.”
“Got it, thanks man. Now go get some sleep,” I said, signaling that I had the watch now.
It had been a long day, which now turned into a long night. Even before my mid-watch, half of the crew was still awake. Anxiously sitting around on the mess deck hoping some answers.
Maybe they’re trying to wait it out?
On turbines the ship burns a lot of fuel, meaning that we can only go so far, so fast. I’ve never been one for advanced mathematics, but I knew that we were pushing the limits of our capacity to keep running this long.
What started as a mid-day turbine run, continued well into the evening.
And it didn’t stop when the sun started to come up over the horizon in front of our speeding ship.
When reveille was piped in the morning and we were still on turbines, the crew became more anxious.
Everyone knew that we were getting close.
Having just left watch, I walked up to the focsle.
It was my usual spot to unwind from hours in the cramped and sweltering engine room.
“You see that up ahead?” asked Diaz.
“What, the clouds?” I asked in reply.
Sitting down on the capstan, I looked up to let the direct early sunlight drench my face. “were you waiting for me up here?” I asked, smugly.
“Yup, figured you’d be up here after watch and I needed a friendly face.”
“Well, you figured right,” I said.
We came down off of the turbines just inside of the cloud cover and waiting. Like a predator hiding under a pile of leaves.
But we weren’t predators.
Not by choice anyway. I suppose design is different than choice, because for what it’s worth we were equipped to some extent to be predators.
An unwilling wolf, bound by obligation alone to hunt down its prey.
So there we sat, bobbing in the cold coastal Pacific waters.
None of us wanted what we knew was coming next, but like the wolf, we knew it was inevitable.
The prey was out there.
“Worse than the howl of the turbines,” started Diaz. “Is the complete silence of sitting dead in the water.”
“You know, normally I like the sound of the waves slapping against the hull during dead ship. But today, I’m inclined to agree with you.” I replied. “If we were on turbines, there’s at least that unavoidable noise to distract us.”
It seemed like an eternity that we sat there, the two of us, not wanting to think about what came next.
And just like so many other people on the ship, knowing there was nothing we could do about it.
The movement of the ship changed from a gentle pitch to a steady roll.
We were coming about.
They hadn’t called it yet, but I could see people starting make their way towards GQ billets. Or at least to pre-GQ Billets.
Disappearing to their hidden corner of the ship, to retrieve snacks or a book to read. Sometimes GQ can take hours, and what else are you going to do.
But this one was different, and reflexive snack retrieval aside, people were upset. And it wasn’t a low level upset either, they might actually do something about it this time.
“General Quarters. General Quarters,” echoed through the ship, over the scratchy 1MC. Reflexively, the crew started reporting to their GQ billets.
As the calls started to come into the bridge, the CO was uneasy.
“So have they all reported in?” Captain Nguyen asked the Ensign that was keeping track of the calls.
“Everywhere except Bow Prop,” responded Ensign confidently.
“Well, then let’s hold off until they do,” stated the Captain, hoping that no one was going to report there.
It was a gamble, but she was certain that the machinist assigned wouldn’t show up.
“Captain, Bow Prop just called in.”