The Watch–cont’d Part 6

A glance at his watch told him it was 09:55.  How could all that have happened it such a short period of time?   They turned the gun to the correct heading.  He could see the enemy planes but thankfully they were off on the far southern side of the convoy and not attacking but stalking again it seemed.  They were out of range for the 50’s and 20’s but the  5 inch guns could reach them.  He quickly went over the drill with the two merchant marines.  They were nervous.  They had only practiced a few times and that without enemy planes in sight.  Now it mattered and he tried to calm them down and make them repeat their duties and station.  He got the one seated correctly for the elevation control and the ammo loader and showed him how to set the fuses again.  Just as he finished the order to fire came again.  They were firing out to about maximum effective range.  It was only for the 5 inch guns in the convoy plus the weapons on the warships. 

The gun roared again.  The flash and sound scared the new men but they responded well after a moment.  The flak pattern they were putting up blossomed over the far side of the convoy a second later.  Re-load, fire again, repeating the steps again and again.  They were slower but still doing their job.   As he watched the planes got lost in the smoke and puffs from the shells and he never saw them again.  The cease fire order came.  He did see some tracers from the very edge of the convoy streaking up but that lasted only a few minutes.   They secured the gun and made ready for the next round.   But that never came.  They stood their watch at the battle station ready.  All eyes were scanning the skies and horizon.  Even those without the binoculars.   He noticed he was getting cold.  He hadn’t been cold for a while during the attack.  Now it began to seep back into his bones.   The merchant marines had on very light gear and were freezing.   He reported and they brought some extra clothing and parkas for them.    They manned their stations for another two hours and then the order to secure was given.  They cleared the gun and wrapped it and cleaned the pit and he made sure all the gear was in its place.   The PA announced it would be the regular watch duty so he would be off for a while.  His next regular watch wouldn’t be for four hours.  He desperately wanted to get off the deck and inside but he dreaded it also.   He knew they wouldn’t be doing the usual routine after a watch or  after securing from battle stations.   He headed back to his locker to remove his gear.  As he passed the foremast he recalled the men tied to one just like it on his first voyage to North Africa.  Why would he think of that now?   Two sailors had broken into the liquor locker.  The Navy didn’t allow any liquor on board but the merchant marine Captains could and did bring some for themselves and maybe the first mate.  When they were discovered as they were bound to be on a small ship the Captain ordered them chained to the foremast and on bread and water for three days.   He let them in after about a day and half as the weather turned colder.  The Navy Lieutenant on that ship did not object and affirmed the order with a drum head court-martial while they were still reeling.  Life at sea could be rough and even cruel.  But he understood that lack of discipline put them all at risk.  He didn’t feel sorry for those guys. 

The galley was quiet.  He and the Lieutenant and three others were there.  The merchant seamen had already laid out Tom on one of the tables.  He was lying on a piece of canvas the size of a sheet for a bed.  They had undressed him.  The Navy took care of its own and it was the responsibility of the Navy crew to attend to Tom and prepare him for burial.  As the acting pharmacist mate he was his duty to attend.  They brought out buckets with water and rags.  They began to clean his body.  He shivered as he touched Tom.  No one talked much.  The words were limited to “here”, “lift his arm” and only the necessary ones to get the job done.  He guessed they were like him and didn’t really know what to say.  They put on a clean uniform pants and just laid his blouse over his chest.  It was too disfigured to put it on.  When they were about done one of the men took his comb and starting parting Tom’s hair and pulling it back from his face.  He cried then.  He didn’t know why that gesture bothered him any more than everything they had already been doing.  When they finished dressing him as best the could they took the canvas and pulled it over him and sewed it together from the bottom up.  At the last moment before they closed it they added a length of anchor chain inside. 

The Lieutenant announced they would bury him within the hour before dark.   They brought in a stretcher and lifted him onto it.  Everyone left then to go dress.  They all went back to their lockers and got their dress blues out.  He had never worn them onboard any of  the ships.  They were strictly for leave onshore and formal occasions.  Later they were assembled on the quarter-deck.  The entire Naval detachment and a few of merchant seamen not on duty.  The Lieutenant read the sailor’s prayer and they committed him to the deep by lifting the plywood support under Tom’s body.  It seemed so final.  It was final.  The time for sorrow and worry was brief.  You could feel those pains but you had to carry them with you to your next duty.  The enemy sub in the area flag was still  flying and the port of call was still days away.



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