SS Scapa Flow



Last Voyage of the Quien Sabe (Scapa Flow) Chapter 9







 C H A P T E R   N I N E 

At the time our rescue ship was sighted I was at the tiller standing up
at the stern of the boat. I remember a short pang of disappointment
because I hadn't sighted the rescue ship first. I had the best lookout
position, being higher out of water than any of the other men, but my
vision ahead was obscured by the mast and the mainsail. Alabama, at a
seat near the bow, raised the cry: "I see a ship dead ahead!"
Instinctively the men tried to lurch to their feet, even though this was
impossible for a majority of them because of the crowding. This
lurching made the boat rock dangerously, and almost caused me to fall
off the stern. I went down on one knee, and was just getting back on my
feet when the mate ordered all the other men who had succeeded in
standing to sit down. The young Puerto Rican A.B., being the lightest of
us, was boosted up the mast as far as possible. He reported the amazing
news that he could see two ships, and maybe three. He was flatly
disbelieved and recalled, and Alabama was boosted up the mast. Alabama
said he thought he could see four ships, and that we were heading right
for them. About this time I saw a ship myself, just to starboard of the
boom end of the mainsail. Immediately the men set up a great babble of
"Keep her steady on her course, Professor." These admonitions were
absurd, of course; it wouldn't have made the smallest difference what I
did, outside of swamping the boat: we were bound to be seen now. But our
logic was not very strong at the time, and I kept the boat pointed east
as steadily as I could, We had run smack into the center of a small
convoy of five 

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ships, escorted by a trawler and a corvette. In ten minutes we could
see all the ships clearly enough to make out their types.

The corvette was cutting over toward us from a wing position on the
convoy; obviously it was the ship designated to pick us up. The men
began to howl with joy and slap each other. "We made it!" was the most
frequently heard cry, with "Seventeen days" a close second.

Suddenly the atmosphere of good cheer was destroyed temporarily by the
chief engineer. He commenced the routine which had been so devastatingly
accurate when Sal had sighted the neutral. "Ya, ve see dem, but dey no
bane see us." Although even then we could see men on the corvette
heaving a rope ladder overside for us, we were thrown into furious
terror by the chief engineer. We all screamed at him to shut up, and
called him all the filthy names we could think of. At last it was
evident to the chief that we were to be picked up after all, and he
began to nod his head. Our collective mood shifted again to joy,
although our sense of logic didn't become any stronger.

Despite the fact that in a few minutes we would have all the water to
drink on the corvette that we could want, and other drinks besides, we
broke out the water and began to pass it around by the cupful. The bosun
passed a cup up to me at the tiller, taking just as much care to avoid
spilling it as if it had been a regular three-ounce ration. The men got
out the remainder of the can of powdered milk, and, disdaining to take
the time to make a mash of the milk with water, or to remember that food
also would be available on the corvette, tossed pinches of powdered milk
in their mouths, followed by gulps of water. We soon had wet white
powder all over our mustaches and beards.

The mate managed, between his pinches of powdered milk and swigs of
water, to remember to get the sails down, and as soon as the boat lost
way I let go the tiller and devoted both hands to the water and powdered
milk.

The corvette pulled alongside while we still were busy eating and
drinking.

A Corvette is a very small war vessel, and men reaching over the rail of
the main deck could lock hands with ours. 

A little before we started to leave the lifeboat we regained

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normal reactions to such indignities as being stepped on the face and
belly, and, though good-humoredly, we began to swear at each other and
demand that the others take their feet off us. The men in the
bilge-bottom of the boat, who so far had been denied all vision of the
ships, began to howl to the men on top of them to "Get off me, you
bastard. I can't even breathe down here!" This, despite the fact that
they had endured this position, in their turns, for seventeen days.

For a moment, as the men on the corvette reached willing arms down to us,
or pointed to the rope ladder, there was a curious hesitancy to leave
the lifeboat. But then, after some men had been pulled aboard the
corvette, there was a near-panic among the rest of us. We surged much
too rapidly to the side from which the men were being pulled up, and
almost turned the boat over. A number of us raised our voices in cries
of, Okay!" or "Hold everything" or "Don't forget me!" As soon as the
last man was aboard the corvette, three or four British sailors leaped
into the lifeboat and began to hack away at its bottom with axes. They
passed up to the corvette all of our tin cups: the corvette was short of
cups. The Britishers jumped back aboard the corvette, and we moved away
from the lifeboat. A long burst of 20 mm. fire was sent at the lifeboat
to speed its sinking, but it was so well made that it still stayed
above water. A second and longer burst put it under, We survivors spread
round the main deck, one of the seemingly incomparably efficient
Britishers taking each of us under his personal care. We all could walk
except the badly injured gunner, Prince, and the Egyptians. The man who
singled me out was one of the corvette's quartermasters, or helmsmen. He
asked me if I wanted a smoke, which of course I did. I took a couple of
drags, and then he told me there was some lime juice farther forward. I
went with him three or four steps and then slumped. He caught my
shoulders before my head hit the deck. I didn't go out completely, and
can remember being carried through a door and into the ship. Somebody
must have passed the word "malaria" to the ship's doctor, for a
thermometer was put into my mouth. The doctor kept a chart of my
condition for the week we survivors were on the corvette. The first tem-
perature entry was 103 and succeeding ones went as high as 105. 

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Quinine was given to me in large regular doses. During the first couple
of days after rescue I nearly died. I was put in the bunk of the
quartermaster who had given me the cigarette, and wasn't able to leave
it for five days. The whole course of my malaria was very strange. I had
been able to live and stand regular watches in the lifeboat for
seventeen days without quinine, rest or medical attention. But the
moment I was in a doctor's care, and could get rest and quinine, I
folded.

My bunk was in the forepeak of the corvette. There were numerous other
bunks around me, and the Britishers who owned them took turns playing
host, getting my water, carrying away my urine, and spending hours
sitting and chatting with me. Ironically, once food was plentiful, I
could have little, as the ship's doctor believed in the theory of "stuff
a cold and starve a fever." But I got some thin soup and the
quartermasters who bunked near me gave me a great deal of hot chocolate.
On the fifth day I achieved the triumph of making the toilet on my own,
though I had to call for aid to hold me up while I urinated. The sixth
and seventh days on the corvette I was so much better that I was able to
get out on deck for air and to eat some solid food. Alabama, who had
sighted the convoy, was congratulated effusively by the survivors. He
was clearly the winner of the prize money which had been offered, during
our second week adrift, to the first man to sight our rescuers. The
money involved was two dollars apiece, and it was to be paid as soon as
we reached a point where we could obtain money. Two dollars apiece from
twenty-six men would give fifty-two dollars to the winner, enough to buy
a good suit of clothes in New York.

But Alabama never collected. Though two dollars apiece wasn't very much
to any of us, no one felt disposed to pay the money. Some men justified
their nonpayment on a technicality. These said that, while Alabama
actually had sighted a ship in a convoy, he hadn't precisely identified
the actual ship which would pick us up. It was not known who had first
seen the corvette. Despite his complaints, Alabama never got any portion
of the once suggested prize money. Upon our rescue, more than half the
men were in pretty good shape, although on an, average each man had lost
about a quarter 

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of his normal weight. The injured gunner, Prince, had lost the greatest
percentage of weight, dropping from about 160 pounds to under a hundred.
My own percentage loss in weight was greater than most, because of
malaria, dropping from a 150 on the Scapa Flow just before the
torpedoing to 105 upon rescue from the lifeboat. Only seven of us were
ill enough when we reached port, a week after rescue, to require
hospitalization, The corvette which rescued us had seen as much service
as any corvette in the British fleet. She could make only fourteen to
sixteen knots, but had been very successful in convoy work and had
several U-boats in her official bag. She was equipped with the most
modern detecting devices. Although we had made only three hundred miles
east during our seventeen days in the lifeboat, we had materially aided
in our own rescue. We had brought our boat back into the radius in which
the convoy system then operated west of Freetown. The overworked British
escorts took the ships through these waters, which were considered the
most dangerous because of their nearness to the big harbor of Freetown,
and then let the ships go on alone. The escorts then turned back to get
more ships. After sailing east for most of the seventeen days, we were
picked up by a corvette escorting a convoy headed west. We traveled west
for a couple of days, and then turned east again as the corvette sped
back to Freetown. We had put out of Freetown on November 7, 1942, been
torpedoed on the 14th, picked up on December 1st and landed in
Freetown on December 7th. Thus we had spent precisely a month getting
nowhere at all and losing thirty-four men, a ship, and a valuable cargo
of manganese ore and rubber. The day we were picked up was the day
nation-wide mileage rationing began for the conservation of rubber tires
and gasoline. This was almost a year after we entered the war. The men
on the corvette which picked us up were a pleasant political tonic. The
tiny warcraft had a complement of about a hundred men, and only four of
them were regular British naval men; all the rest were wartime sailors.
They wanted to get the enemy licked and then get back to Civvie Street
as quickly as possible. They had few illusions that their oft-referred
to Civvie Street would be the same as when they had left it. The
corvette

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was crammed with tracts outlining different, and better, Civvie Streets
than the old one. There were serious, heavy works on economics,
sociology and political science jammed under nearly every mattress. I
knew the British to be a nation of book readers, but I was amazed at the
number of books on this corvette, many of which were leftist in
character. A poll among about thirty of the British sailors, selected at
random, showed ninety per cent of them to be socialists. A surprising
number of these socialists had no use for the Stalinist dictatorship of
Russia, although some were semi sympathetic. Most, however, had not
forgotten that Russia had been supplying materials to Germany while
England had stood alone, and that, far from establishing a second front
against the Germans, Russia had denounced the British as imperialist
warmongers for fighting for their lives. Some of these men had been on
escort duty on the Murmansk run, and had seen their convoys pounded to
bits by German bombers, with never a Russian bombing raid on the German
bases. Although the men on the corvette were polite in discussing their
opinions of America, it was easy to see that, while there was
considerable hatred for the Russian government, there was nothing
stronger than contempt for the American government-but there was plenty
of that. A half dozen men said to me, in various ways: "Roosevelt talks
a good war, doesn't he?" These British had also an unbounded contempt
for the United States Navy, but were willing to admit they might be
wrong, for, as they put the matter: "We've seen little enough of it."
Despite the interest of these Britishers in political theory, the
subject they pressed me eagerly to set them straight on had nothing
to do with conditions in the States. A rumor, started, no one knew where,
had run over the corvette to the effect that Deanna Durbin was dead. Did
I know anything about that? The matter genuinely concerned them, and
they were very disappointed when I said I couldn't very well tell them,
because I hadn't heard much news from the States or elsewhere in the
preceding month. 

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