A PT Boat at Sea
The Norfolk Navy Base was almost beyond Heike's imagination. The shipyard alone stretched out for almost a mile. Then, at the piers, were the great gray ships of the navy. There were battleships with their massive armor and big guns, carriers loading aircraft, rafts of destroyers, and a motley collection of ships whose uses were mysterious to her. Despite working for the navy, Heike hadn't had any idea what it was really like. Jones and Went were entirely at home in this scene, perhaps more at home than anywhere else. In order not to give them any surplus satisfaction, she was determined not to be outwardly awed or surprised by anything she saw.
The PT boat actually surprised her more than anything else. Expecting a naval version of an ordinary speedboat, perhaps twenty five feet long, she was led to something three or four times that size. It might be smaller than the big ships, but it wasn't small, itself more ship than boat.
The engines seemed already to be going, and, in addition to their throbbing and muffled roar, rather like that of a huge motorcycle, there were all sorts of auxiliary noises. Among other things, water was being pumped out through a hole in the side. She wondered if the boat leaked badly, but, of course, didn't ask.
Heike had known far better than to wear skirts, and, having been warned against the cold at sea, she was wearing her skiing outfit. She had no difficulty in scrambling up a ladder in front of the others, and she was the first to be welcomed by the young captain, a mere lieutenant (jg).
In March, one could expect almost any sort of weather in Virginia, and they had gotten off the morning train about noon into a bright cool day with a light breeze. Heike wondered if she were dressed too warmly, but Jones assured her otherwise. In the meantime, he was carrying her extra layers in addition to his own watch coat. She had teased him,
"You'd look a very impressive naval officer, just like Went, if you weren't carrying ladies' garments."
In response, Jones had pretended to drop them off the side of a pier, but he still had them as she was conducted to a padded swivelling armchair on what passed for the bridge. She whispered to him,
"Am I in the captain's seat?"
"Yes, but you're the honored guest. Anyhow, jaygees are expected to stand."
They got underway with very little fuss. There were no shouted orders involving words such as 'Avast' and 'Ahoy.' It struck Heike that real sailors probably didn't talk like Popeye the Sailor. She, for her part, was glad not to be cast into the role of Olive Oyl.
Moving slowly through the harbor with the engines seemingly only idling, they nevertheless passed a destroyer, also on its way out. They were only some hundred feet away, and the sailors at the rail, recognizing a woman in the captain's seat of the PT boat, did begin to act, and sound, like Popeye.
Having left the destroyer in their wake, Heike wondered if the whole expedition had been planned as anything more than a holiday jaunt. After all, naval officers couldn't afford expensive vacations, and, like congressmen on junkets, they made extensive use of government resources. She also wondered whether Barbara Thurmond knew of the presence of another woman on this particular junket. Probably not.
After finally negotiating the large harbor with its shipping, they entered into Chesapeake Bay and picked up speed. The wind, much of it of their own making, was now strong, and Heike added a sweater and a wool cap. It was actually rather fun. Water flew from the bow as they bounced over the waves, and there was a kind of swerving motion as the boat rolled gently. Went said to Jones,
"This isn't exactly a stable platform for gunnery. Can you hit anything at this speed?"
Heike realized that Went had never been on a PT boat either, and Jones answered, with a laugh,
"PT boat gunnery consists in getting close to a target, preferably at night, and blanketting it with fire from as many guns as possible. A small proportion of the fire hits home, and the rest hopefully demoralizes the opponent."
"So it's a matter of scaring the shit out of the enemy?"
"Yeah. If a submarine torpedo misses, the enemy might not see it at all, and not be scared. This is more like an infantry ambush."
It was easy to see that Went didn't want to be associated with the infantry in any way at all, and he compared the boat invidiously, and somewhat obscenely, to a submarine. The latter, he said, had superb seakeeping abilities. Jones replied,
"I only got out in subs a few times before the war ended. But, of course, they don't plane and bounce off the tops of waves."
As they approached Cape Charles, they got increasingly into oceanic conditions. There was a brisk southwest wind with whitecaps on top of swells, and the boat began to be thrown in all directions. Heike was surprised that the concussion of the waves didn't break it apart, but kept to her code of silence. She hung onto the arms of her chair, while the captain and Jones, used to the action, held on to the bridge railing. At one point, Went got thrown full length on to the deck. Rising and muttering, he asked,
"Do we have to go this fast?"
It wasn't clear who was really in command, but they immediately slowed. The captain did say,
"We have a meeting with the tug towing the target in two hours, but I guess we can at least get her in view."
Heike understood that they might miss the appointment, but it wasn't her problem. Jones explained,
"We were going to practice an interception at night, but we thought it might be better to try it in daylight first."
He then added in an undertone,
"I don't think Went really understands what's involved."
The motion of the boat was now quite different and less violent, but, with the waves on what seemed to be called the starboard bow, there was a lot of rolling. This amounted to a different ride at the amusement park, one that Heike didn't particularly mind. It turned out that they were only making ten knots, and Went, on being informed, exclaimed,
"In a surfaced sub, we could easily do fifteen in these conditions, probably more."
"In the south Pacific these boats were mostly used in sheltered waters between islands. The open ocean is a different matter."
It was clear to Heike that Went was fast becoming disillusioned with the idea of using PT boats, cheap and plentiful as they were, as a major element in the defense against Soviet missile submarines. But he didn't seem to be about to call off the exercise. He would, of course, persevere as a matter of principle. That was when he got sick.
The first time, he didn't even make it to the lee rail of the bridge to let go on the deck below. The sight of a senior officer throwing up and being thrown into the effusion by a roll of the boat might have amused the young captain, but he was, at the least, very good at hiding his amusement. He tactfully summoned a seaman to clean up, one who said, "Allow me, sir", as he dabbed at Went. Went was now standing, holding on the the rail, and looking unapproachable. The captain came up from below with a ham sandwich for Heike, and offered refreshments all around, being careful not to look directly at Went. Before long, Went was sick again, this time over the rail. Shortly thereafter, Jones went to Went and said,
"Look, Went, this isn't going to work. We're rolling around and getting nowhere, and we won't even be able to intercept a tug with a target, much less a submarine. Even if we did, we wouldn't be able to hit anything."
Went reacted by calling over to the young captain,
"Mr. Thompson, we'll practice firing at that bell buoy over there. Please run the engines dead slow and hold the boat in position."
Heike could just hear Jones remonstrating quietly,
"My God, Went, we can't sink a navigational aid."
"We'll have Heike fire at it."
Heike didn't like the implication, and felt like showing Went a thing or two.
Jones fitted Heike with some ear muffs, and a young seaman helped her into the turret, which amounted to a little house with a glass dome. Half squeezing in with her, he showed her how to aim the twin fifties, and how to pull the trigger. The motion of the boat, now head on to the seas, had become quite moderate, with almost no rolling and only moderate pitching.
Heike guessed that she wouldn't be able to control the guns once they started firing, and would end up firing embarrassingly into the air. She therefore determined on only a short burst. The big red buoy was only a couple of hundred yards away, and, after some practice, she was able to get and fairly well keep the sight on it.
It did seem as if all hell was breaking loose in the little glass house when she pulled the trigger, but she let go immediately. Some of the tracer bullets flew over the buoy, but some, probably the first ones, made a loud clang as they hit the bell. There was cheering on deck and congratulations for Heike as she was helped from the turret. Not too carried away, she said to the others,
"An enemy sub would blow us away before we could get that close, wouldn't it?"
No one denied it, and Jones added,
"You can't shoot accurately in a sea like this without practically stopping, and that's something you never do in combat."
Went, his honor seemingly saved in some obscure way, ordered a return to base. The buoy remained afloat as they left, and Jones said quietly to Heike,
"I think your shots hit the bell without penetrating the hull of the buoy."
"What if I'd sunk it."
"Relations between the navy and the Coast Guard are always iffy. We might have had to pay reparations."
Went wasn't sick again, and had a coke as they tooled back with following seas. He looked fully in command of himself, if not the boat. He did allow to Heike,
"Lord Nelson was sea sick the first three days of every voyage."
"Were you sick in submarines?"
"Never. I'd rather be depth-charged in a sub than go to sea in one of these damned things."
Dinner was quite a festive affair at one of Norfolk's better restaurants. At one point, Went said to Jones,
"You told me that PT boats would be useless in an anti- submarine role. Why didn't I believe you?"
"Because you believe that any difficulties can be overcome with sufficient determination."
"A lot of men seem to have been frustrated by the ocean. Was it Darius or Xerxes who had his men whip the waves to punish them for being too rough?"
Neither Jones nor Went knew