This arti­cle is part 4 of 8 in the series War Plans

The long-range patrol plane was in the process of mak­ing its out­er loop and begin­ning the leg that would take it back to base.

These patrols were, typ­i­cal­ly, just long and bor­ing, with noth­ing but the vast expanse of ocean to see, and today was no different.

From twelve thou­sand feet, the ocean below appeared quite calm, but the expe­ri­enced crew knew that waves were crest­ing at four or five feet, not exces­sive by any means, but bely­ing the appear­ance of total calm from this altitude.

Clouds were wispy and bro­ken, allow­ing good views across many miles of the blue below.

It was not uncom­mon for crews at this stage of the patrol to become some­what com­pla­cent. Some tend­ed to nod off briefly, but the inner-plane chat­ter through the comm sys­tem worked to help keep them on their toes — espe­cial­ly when the pilot would make a spe­cif­ic inquiry to one of the crew and expect an imme­di­ate answer.

Ever since these patrols had been accel­er­at­ed a few days pre­vi­ous­ly, the rotat­ing crews had won­dered, to a man, just what had prompt­ed the increased vig­i­lance. However, there was no expla­na­tion com­ing from high­er com­mand, so rumors were abun­dant among all per­son­nel, vir­tu­al­ly all of it wrong.

Still, the urgency which attend­ed the ini­tial com­mand to height­en the aer­i­al patrols was suf­fi­cient to instill some degree of ten­sion amongst the crews, and the patrols had not been under­way long enough to quell that ten­sion much.

“Patrol one-nin­er to base.  We have reached our out­er loop and are mak­ing the turn for our return to base.  Nothing unusu­al to report.  Out.”

The pilot had allowed his co-pilot to take over the con­trols to help him gain some hours to cred­it to his fly­ing time.  This was fair­ly rou­tine pro­ce­dure when con­di­tions were nor­mal and the co-pilot was enjoy­ing his time “on the stick” as it helped break the tedi­um of being sec­ond fid­dle on the flight deck.

“John, any idea what all these end­less patrols are about?  The C.O. has been pret­ty closed-mouthed about the neces­si­ty of all this fly­ing and I have to admit, I’m begin­ning to miss being home with the wife and kid.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know any more than you.  All we can do is fol­low orders and keep our eyes open.  Whatever head­quar­ters thinks may be lurk­ing out here, we had bet­ter be the ones to spot it.  If one of our patrols fails to keep some­thing from get­ting through, there’s going to be hell to pay.

“You okay with tak­ing her on into base? I may just catch a few winks before we get back.  I was up pret­ty late last night in a pok­er game.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.  Go ahead and doze if you like.  I’ll tell the crew to keep alert.”

As John crossed his arms over his chest and closed his eyes, Ron eased his grip, gen­tly adjust­ed the throt­tle set­tings, and set­tled down for the sev­er­al-hun­dred-mile trip back to base.

‘John and Ron, the fly­ing cir­cus,’ Ron smiled to him­self, glanc­ing side­ways out the cock­pit win­dow at an ocean that seemed motion­less despite their airspeed.

* * *

As the ship made a hasty turn to back­track over its pre­vi­ous course, the explo­sions from the depth charges which had just been hurled over­board ceased as the last two gey­sers of water set­tled back onto the ocean sur­face and the run­ning swells.

Lookouts aboard were peer­ing through high-pow­ered binoc­u­lars along the ship’s ear­li­er path, look­ing for any signs that the depth-charg­ing run had been successful.

Suddenly, an excit­ed voice erupt­ed over the ship’s inter­com, “Looks like she’s breech­ing, sir!  Two points off the port stern.”

As the cap­tain and most of the oth­er offi­cers and men inhab­it­ing the bridge swiveled their gazes to the report­ed quad­rant, a dark object par­tial­ly cleared the sur­face of the ocean amidst a churn­ing of white water, paused briefly in posi­tion, and slow­ly set­tled, first to the sur­face and then grad­u­al­ly began to dis­ap­pear back into the blue water.

“Ahead, one-third,” was the com­mand relayed to the helms­man as the ship began to slow and cor­rect­ed its course under the deft han­dling of the coxswain to the loca­tion of the sighting.

“Dead slow,” came the next com­mand, and the white water sweep­ing across the bow of the ship set­tled to a mere trick­le and changed to a mud­dy, almost black pres­ence, a sweep of oil rid­ing on the sur­face of the water — a sure indi­ca­tion that dam­age had been done to a ves­sel there.

Looking over the side of the ship, all those watch­ing could see a dark cig­ar shape in the water below, becom­ing more and more faint as it set­tled toward the bot­tom, a cou­ple of thou­sand feet down.

“Well,” said the cap­tain, speak­ing to no one in par­tic­u­lar, “I guess we’ll know before too long whether or not we’re in for court mar­tial or com­men­da­tion.”  The iden­ti­ty of the sunken ves­sel would not like­ly be known until some nation began to inquire about a miss­ing submarine.

The lit­tle ship resumed its patrol path, now besmudged with oil from a sunken boat and filled with a crew with a hun­dred opin­ions about what they had just done.

  • Chuck Witt

    Chuck is a retired archi­tect, a for­mer news­pa­per colum­nist, and a life­long res­i­dent of Winchester.

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