“Change heading to 045 degrees and reduce speed to 15 knots” says Lt. Jay, the officer of the deck for the midnight to 4 o’clock watch. I am the junior officer.
“Aye aye, sir. Change heading to 045 degrees and reduce speed to 15 knots,” the helmsman replies and the quartermaster notes the change in the ship’s log.
“Mr. Hagerty,” says Lt. Jay, “Send down some of your crew to assess ice on the main deck. We don’t want to freeze up and roll over. Make sure they are all wearing safety harnesses.”
I head below to wake some of my men and when I return to the bridge, Jay says, “I am sure glad the old man is out cold. I hope he stays that way.”
We are somewhere off the Grand Banks and we are getting a dose of typical November weather. We passed the New Bedford fishing fleet around 2300 hours and their crews were all out on deck, sliding around with no safety harnesses. We could not fathom how those guys could keep from falling overboard. Their ships were maybe 150 feet in length and ours was over 400.
All at once the sonar man comes on the line.
“Sir, we have contact with a submarine, bearing 094 degrees with a subsurface speed of 22 knots.”
“Quartermaster,” replied Lt. Jay, “ give me the coordinates of our present position.”
“Sir, estimated coordinates are 42.5 degrees north, 61.5 degrees West”
“Does that put us in International Waters?” asks Lt Jay.
“Yes sir, we are approximately 300 miles off the US coast and 240 miles off the Canadian coastline”.
“Thank God,” Jay whispers under his breath. “The old man is no fan of subs, no matter where they are from.”
“Sonar to bridge, we have confirmed contact with a submarine, probable nationality Soviet, Probable Class Akula, 10,000 tons with a top speed of 52 knots submerged.”
The Lloyd Thomas had begun anti-submarine drills with the Brunswick, Maine Naval Air Station four days before. No Russian submarine had been detected in the Gulf of Maine in the last 60 days. We were now ready to go home and the last thing anyone wanted was a full blown drill, especially in the face of this northeast storm.
“Sonar, get me the heading and speed of this bogy and ask the Communications Officer to come to the bridge”.
“Before you could say World War Three, Lt. Tom was standing next to us.
“Tom, do we know who this is?” asks Lt. Jay.
“Yes, Jay,” says Tom “ we’re pretty sure it’s the Rostov. Captain’s name is Melnikov, 42 years of age. Left Murmansk 22 day ago. And by the way, the Rostov is nuclear!”
“You mean you don’t know Melnikov’s wife’s name or his shirt size?” Jay replied.
“We are working on it. Give us 10 minutes.” Tom laughed and disappeared below deck to the communications center.
“Shit, standing orders are to wake the old man if we find a Ruskie out here. Pete, will you go down and wake the Captain?”
“Mr. Hagerty leaves the bridge to wake the Captain,” the quartermaster repeats out loud, then writes it verbatim in the log.
“Quartermaster, from now on, I want you to record every command given tonight here on the bridge.”
“Aye, sir. That is what I am doing.”
“I know that. This is not a reflection of your work. I have just got to make sure you can handle this. It could get very busy here in a few minutes.”
“Thank you sir, I will get some support”.
Just then the old man appeared, barely awake and in pajamas, wrapped in a Naval Academy blanket.
“What’s up Lt.?” he asks.
“Sir, we have a Russian boomer, heading east north east at an approximate speed of 22 knots. We made contact nine minutes ago and just confirmed its name and relevant specs.”
“ Lt., change course to 094 degrees. Increase speed to 22 knots. Let’s see what this son of a bitch is up to.”
This new course set us directly into the path of the oncoming waves. The effect was immediate. As the ship plowed thru the now oncoming sea, we would crest through one wave and crash down into the valley of the next. Spray towered over the hull and began immediately freezing to everything. I suddenly remembered my men working to chip ice off the deck. I made my way down three floors to the main deck and ordered them all inside. As we stood soaked and shivering in the passageway I began to feel the full effects of the ocean on the ship. Everything that was not tied down fell to the floor. The Engineering Officer came thru the bulkhead door and said that they had burst one high- pressure steam hose on the starboard engine.
I made my way back to the bridge and reported to Lt.Jay on the conditions below deck. I watched the quartermaster writing furiously everything that I was saying verbatim. Jay was still in command of the ship until the Captain ordered differently.
“Lt., what is the state of the HEDGEHOG rockets?” asked the captain. I knew that we had anti-submarine rockets mounted on the forward section of the ship, but they were closely guarded and rarely talked about.
“Sir, HEDGEHOG is at stage 3, covered and locked.” Jay’s first job on the ship was the Weapons Officer so he was quick to respond.
“Lt Depew, take the HEDGEHOG to Stage 2.”
“Sir, with all due respect, Stage 2 is called for only if we are provoked. This sub is in international waters and moving away from us.”
“Bull shit, this Russian captain is no fool. Look what he is doing to us. He knows who we are, why we are out here and he knows the sea conditions and our top speed. He is trying to sink us by dragging us through this storm till our engines fall apart or we roll over. I know his game.”
“Sir, we are in international waters. He has every right to be here as we do.”
“Lt., I am going below to get dressed. When I come back I want to see HEDGEHOG at Level 2. If we are still getting beat to shit, then I am prepared to go to Level 1. Am I clear?”
“Captain has left the bridge, Lt. Jay still Officer of the Deck,” chimed the quartermaster. Jay’s face looked pale in the red light of the ship’s night controls but he was composed.
“Peter,” Jay whispered as he took me out aside. “I want you to go find the Chief Bosunmate. He is the Sergeant at Arms for the ship. He has a side arm and handcuffs. I want you to tell him to come immediately to the bridge. If the Captain insists on going to Level One, I am going to arrest him and relieve him of his command. I will make this clear to the Chief. Just tell him to hurry.”
Jay was a graduate of the Naval Academy. He had wanted to be an Annapolis graduate since he was a small boy. He and his wife had opened up their family to me and were willing to respect my position on Vietnam. I had the highest admiration for him both as a leader of men and as a husband and friend. I knew I was now seeing the beginning of the end of his Naval Career.
“The Captain has returned to the bridge,” announced the quartermaster.
“Sir, do you want the con?” asks Jay.
“I will let you know if and when I will take control,” replied the captain.
“Engine room reports damage to # 2 superheated steam lines,” came a voice from the radio.
“Lt., what is our present position relative to the bogie?” asks the old man.
“Sir, we are approximately 3000 yards and slowly closing.”
“Let me know when we are within 2000 yards and take HEDGEHOG to Stage 1 now” replies the captain.
Everything now slows to a crawl in my mind. Lt. Jay motions to the Chief Bosunmate who has arrived on the bridge. They begin a conversation over on the port side of the bridge out of the captain’s hearing range. I see the Chief look at Jay like he has misunderstood what the Lt. has told him. I see the Chief unclip his handcuffs, I see Jay make his way across the bridge and then I hear Lt. Tom’s voice on the squawk box saying,
“Comm. Center to bridge, bogie increased speed to 48 knots, we have lost contact with the Rostov.”
The Chief takes a step backwards, steadies himself on the hand railing while Lt. Jay gives new orders to the helmsman steering the ship.
“Change heading to 240 degrees, change speed to 12 knots”. The captain stands there silent, alone in his thoughts. He turns and without a sound, leaves the bridge.
“Captain has left the bridge. Come to new heading and speed. Lt. Jay has the conn.”