It is the waning days of World War II and a desperate enemy is doing all he can to hang on, to regroup, to continue the fight in a final, deadly quest for victory. The Imperial Japanese Navy has reportedly dispatched four submarines to the Philippines on a clandestine mission to extract military personnel, collaborators, top-secret documents and—according to rumor—a fortune in gold, all ahead of the imminent liberation of the island nation by General Douglas MacArthur in his historic “return.”
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The USS Batfish, a fleet submarine, is part of an American wolfpack sent to the waters north of the Philippines to intercept the enemy boats. Soon she and her brave crew will accomplish one of the most amazing feats in naval history. But this is not only the true story of a series of small victories that contributed mightily to the win in the Pacific. It is also the very personal account of Batfish’s crew, a typical group of amazingly young submariners who become members of a strong-bonded brotherhood. But this book is also the madcap story of how their vessel came to rest today in the middle of a bean field in Oklahoma. That's right, a submarine, high and dry in what was once the Dust Bowl and in the heart of the Cherokee Nation.
In writing this amazing-but-true tale, Don Keith relied on research and actual war records, but also on hours of interviews with the men who actually sailed Batfish through enemy waters, and with the determined former sub sailors who decided they wanted themselves a submarine, no matter what obstacles stood in their way, as a memorial to their shipmates who died -- in the course of duty.
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PRAISE FOR IN THE COURSE OF DUTY
"To sink one enemy sub is quite something, but to sink three in a single patrol, while coping with one of your own torpedoes jammed part way out of the launch tube with the potential of...blowing your own boat to bits -- now that’s the Super Bowl of submarine warfare. Well told. A fascinating and inspiring true adventure."
-- Captain William R. Anderson, author of Nautilus 90 North, co-author The Ice Diaries, veteran of eleven WWII submarine combat patrols, and commander of Nautilus for her historic 1958 under-ice Arctic crossing through the North Pole.
“The saga of USS Batfish serves as a stirring reminder of the hard-fought campaign waged by American submarines 60 years ago. In the era before nuclear power, ICBMs and deterrence, submariners were genuine warfighters who spared neither their boats nor themselves in pursuit of the ultimate naval mission: sink the enemy.”
-- Barrett Tillman, Author, Clash of the Carriers
“The crew of the Batfish personifies the courage exhibited by our submariners then, and now. This is a must read for anyone who has a concept of duty, honor, and service to one's country.”
-- Robert Vaughan, Author, Whose Voice The Waters Heard, helicopter pilot in Korea & Vietnam, US Army, retired
"Don Keith has the unique ability to make the reader an intimate part of the action. Anyone who experiences this thrilling story will come away with a whole new appreciation for those men who volunteer for the submarine service."
-- Ken Henry, co-author, Gallant Lady, submarine sailor, retired
“They say you can’t go back. Well, that’s not true. When I read Don Keith’s book on the USS Batfish, I was taken back to that time and place when I was there as a crew member.”
-- William J..Isbell, WWII crew member, USS Batfish SS310
Excerpt from IN THE COURSE OF DUTY
Copyright 2005 by Don Keith. All rights reserved.
Any reproduction without prior written consent is expressly forbidden except for brief quotes used in reviews.
According to Cherokee law, the only reason for war was to avenge the death of another member of the tribe. Under the “Blood Law,” the clan of the murdered Cherokee was responsible for revenge. The men of the war party prepared themselves for several days before going on the war trail by fasting and "going to water," bathing themselves in a stream or lake.
The Cherokees believed water had purifying powers that made them stronger against their enemies.
The radar signal on 158 megacycles was screaming, steady, certain. Then, just a couple of minutes after it first appeared, it abruptly went even louder and finally hit saturation.
Whatever kind of vessel was out there in the dark night, it was close by, not far away from where USS Batfish (SS 310) bobbed gently in the soft roll of the Babuyan Channel. 11,000 yards away from them was the best estimate, tracking on a course of 310 degrees. The specter was driving off toward the northwest at what appeared to be a rock-steady twelve knots.
The electric thrill of it all ran up and down the length of the interior of the submarine within seconds of the signal coming up on the radar detector.
Once again, the chase was on.
Thank God it was a perfect night for stalking. Beyond the lip of the boat’s bridge, there was nothing out there but velvet blackness. The sky was still cloudy. No moon. Not even a sprinkle of starlight to wash away any bit of the night. Even the phosphorescence that usually played in the sea wash at the boat’s stern seemed to have given up trying to put on any kind of a show in this stifling gloom.
Ears were sharpened, lookouts alerted, equipment tuned. Every minute or so, as the officer of the deck (OOD) looked on, the radar operator in the conning tower below the bridge called a series of numbers up the hatch, citing the range and course of this new contact. Each report was an echo of the previous one. The vessel they were trailing was not varying its speed or direction of travel enough to mention, but duty and procedure required that he testify at regular intervals anyway.
Two men stood on the bridge of the submarine, just above the open hatch, staring intently into the darkness. They talked quietly as they rested against the chest-high metal enclosure that surrounded them. Neither their posture nor the tone of their voices hinted that they anticipated any sort of life-or-death struggle in the next few minutes. But that’s exactly what the seething radar pip and their sudden chase promised them.
It was the ninth of February 1945, just after 10 PM local time. The Batfish, a U.S. Navy fleet submarine, was now in the midst of her sixth patrol since the beginning of World War II. So far, the run had been less productive than most of the five previous ones. Her crew was hungry.
The pair of officers who stood on Batfish’s bridge used the railing to steady themselves against the slight roll of the waves as they gazed through their binoculars, searching the night for any sign of this unidentified vessel that now shared their portion of the sea. The lookouts above them peered off in each direction of the compass, looking for the new contact as well as for other vessels that might be slipping up on them with the sinister idea of making Batfish their target.
Captain John K. “Jake” Fyfe stared fiercely into the blackness. The skipper of Batfish was an experienced sub sailor. He was now guiding Batfish, his first submarine to command, through hostile waters for his fourth run at the helm.
Fyfe bore some resemblance to the young actor Karl Malden, but now there was a frown on his handsome face as he tried to make out something—anything—out there ahead of their bow. He hoped to catch a glimpse of something that might give him a clue to what it was that they were chasing. He needed only a hint of a silhouette on what little horizon there was so he could determine the size of their prey. The quick flare of a carelessly lit cigarette on the deck of a tanker. A sliver of light from some destroyer’s porthole, its blackout curtain maybe shaken loose in the previous few days’ bad weather.
But there was nothing to see. Nothing but tropical night enveloping them, and only the intercepted radar signal to let them know there was somebody else out there.
Fyfe wasn’t complaining about the darkness. These were perfect conditions for a submarine to hunt in. But the captain knew the setup was equally ideal for the Japanese to stalk them if they were of such a mind. If they even suspected he and his boat were here, the enemy would certainly be of such a mind.
Fyfe could hear the voices of the lookouts in the shears above him, talking softly to each other as they continued their own scan of the darkness.
“You think they’re really carrying gold?” the starboard lookout whispered to his shipmate.
“Gold. Generals. Collaborators. I don’t give a damn. I just want to send their asses to the bottom.”
“Hey, what was Captain Jake chewin’ your butt about when we surfaced?”
“I had on a white tee shirt. He told me he wouldn’t have such a perfect target runnin’ around on the deck of his submarine. He sent me back down to put on a blue shirt.”
The starboard lookout snickered.
“Hell, ‘Ski, don’t you even know how to dress up for a torpedo attack yet?”
Fyfe grinned. He liked the hearts of the men with whom he rode on Batfish. Truth was, he liked the hearts of most of the submariners he had encountered since he first began riding the “plunging boats” not long after graduating from Annapolis. They were such a close brotherhood. Not once had he ever heard anyone seriously question the job they had been called upon to do or the way they went about doing it. Though he could see and feel and smell the fear on them sometimes, he had never heard a whimper or a cry or even so much as a whispered prayer, no matter the ferocity of a depth charging or the viciousness of an aerial attack.
Now here they were, racing along on this shadowy bit of sea, looking blind-eyed for some of their counterparts. Submariners. Sailors who rode the “devil boats.” Eel boats. Plunging boats. But these particular submariners were the enemy. The enemy who were just as sneaky and shifty and hard to pin down as Batfish was.
That’s why they were out here this black night, running the pass between Fuga and Caniguin Islands, two jagged little piss ant splotches of land north of the main Philippine island of Luzon. They were out here looking for some of their brother sub sailors, but brothers who sailed under a different flag and pledged allegiance to a sworn enemy.
Intelligence claimed that the Japanese had sent four submarines—almost half the boats they had left in the entire sixth fleet—down to the Philippines. They were supposed to be on a high-risk mission to evacuate the last of the Japanese brass who were left in the Philippines, and to pick up pilots, air crews, and technicians stranded there. They were said to be taking them all back to Formosa where they still had planes to fly. And they could possibly be taking along some civilians who were still loyal to the Empire, and picking up documents and plans as well. War plans for whatever was left of the war. Of course there was plenty of scuttlebutt making the rounds among the boats that made up “Joe’s Jugheads,” the group of Batfish’s sister submarines that was patrolling this area with her. There were rumors about mounds of gold and stacks of money and the Filipino mistresses of the Japanese generals.
Whatever they were hauling, the Japanese were in one hell of a hurry, trying to get out ahead of General Douglas MacArthur, who was fulfilling his promise to return and reclaim the Philippines.
The ULTRA intelligence intercept had been cryptic but intriguing: “Believe sub RO-46 will attempt to evacuate personnel from North Luzon 8th February between 2030 and 2130. Loading point 1000 meters west of Batulinao Point. Will be postponed one day if difficulty encountered.”
“You think this might be one of the boats we’re looking for, Skipper?” the man standing on the bridge next to Fyfe asked.
The other man was Lieutenant Clark Sprinkle, executive officer of the boat. He knew that the captain had access to no more information on the new contact than he did. But he also knew already, even though he had only served with the skipper since the beginning of this run, that the man had a sixth sense about these things. Sometimes it appeared that he could smell a destroyer before it topped the horizon or before it had its picture taken on the SJ radar. That he could hear the screws of a merchant ship or tanker before the guys with the sound gear could even detect the telltale noise.
“I’d bet my breakfast pancakes on it,” Fyfe replied with certainty. He kept the glasses to his eyes, scanning the thin line where the horizon would most likely be if they could only see it. “And no matter what it is, I intend to ruin his damn day.”
Sprinkle grinned. He liked his skipper’s sense of humor almost as much as he did the man’s aggressiveness once he began an assault. Fyfe believed in attacking first and getting the details later.
The contact wasn’t an airplane. They could be certain of that. Their SD radar would have seen it already, even if the old equipment didn’t have the ability to tell the direction from which an aircraft was coming.
It couldn’t be any kind of sizeable surface vessel either, a battleship or freighter, or their relatively new SJ radar would have spiked with at least a pip by now, as close as the contact seemed to be. But so far, the radar operator had reported nothing showing up on his screen.
The sound operator had nothing to report either. Whatever the vessel was, he was running quiet, too. Dangerously quiet.
Still, the radar signal the mysterious bastard was spitting out was strong, potent. It was obviously nearby, and on a channel that left little doubt about the affiliation of its owner. It wasn’t a fishing boat. Not unless the fisherman was trying to poach his fish with radio-frequency energy before he caught them.
It had to be a submarine.
Nothing to do but shadow the contact, keep close enough so as to not lose it in the blackness. At the same time, Batfish would have to stay far enough away so it would be less likely that they would be spotted or heard. That would give them a chance to line up a higher-odds shot. And keep an eye out for some other adversarial vessel that might want to crash the party. The hunter could become the hunted in this deadly game and he wouldn’t even know it until he was bagged and barbecued.
Almost an hour after first contact, Fyfe got the call up the hatch that he had been eager to hear since the first report that they had company.
“Captain, SJ contact. Bearing two-four-zero true. Range, 11,000 yards.”
The target had finally popped on Batfish’s radar. The bearing was off the port bow. Now they at least knew the direction in the murkiness in which to look even if they couldn’t see squat.
Fyfe repeated the bearing loud enough for the men in the shears above him to hear, and then asked, “You boys see anything?”
“No sir. Not yet. We will.”
The contact had not changed course or speed in the entire time they had been tailing him. Something else had changed enough so the bastard finally made enough of an impression to bounce back a shard of the radar sweep. Still, whoever he was, he gave no indication that he suspected Batfish was out here tailing him, getting ready to play a deadly game of tag with him.
No matter. Fyfe and his navigator and the maneuvering room watch and the guys in the engine room and those in the conning tower and control room below made certain that they kept the boat to the east of the contact, shadowing him, ready to dive in an instant if need be or get ready to make a surface attack if that method seemed more prudent. On an almost completely dark night, keeping the target to the west made it marginally darker, and there would be less chance of the Japanese catching sight of Batfish’s silhouette while they steamed along on the surface, hopefully still unaware of their stalker.
Jake Fyfe concentrated on the reported radar bearing, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder. There were other Japanese submarines in these waters, too. That’s why Batfish hunted here in the first place. Other warships, too, though not so many as there might have been a few months before. The war had clearly turned already, its end all but inevitable, but everyone aboard Batfish knew that a cornered enemy was the most dangerous kind of varmint there was. Especially an enemy who felt that dying for the emperor was a punched ticket to a blessed after-life.
Fyfe hoped the radar or his sound man would catch sight or hear the noise of anybody creeping up on their behind. There was little hope the lookouts could see anyone approaching in this gloom, any more than he and Sprinkle and the port lookout could see any sign of the guy who was boldly painting the Babuyan Channel with his radar energy.
“Sound reports quiet screws, 4,000 yards,” came the next report.
Fyfe dropped his glasses and looked at Sprinkle, a cocked grin on his face.
“XO, if I were you, I wouldn’t take my pancake bet. Looks like we got ourselves an IJN submarine.”
“It would have been a sucker bet, Skipper,” Sprinkle said with a crooked grin of his own.
IJN. Imperial Japanese Navy. A submarine. One of their own kind.
No one had to mention how difficult it would be for one sub to bag another. They were simply too stealthy, too sneaky. But Batfish and her crew were duty-bound to try.
Especially if their skipper was Jake Fyfe. His crew swore that Captain Jake would take the five-inch guns to a bumblebee if the damn thing got in his way.
“Battle stations—surface,” Fyfe sang out.
Those three words set the entire boat into an even more intense hum. Every man on watch was quickly at his position, if he wasn’t there already. Those not on watch ran to whatever their assigned stations were, ready to get about the work of sending something and somebody to the bottom of the sea. Every man did just as he had been trained and qualified to do.
No telling what kind of anthill they were about to kick over. They were poised to launch hot torpedoes at some of their own, at fellow submariners, at one of the most elusive targets of the Imperial Japanese Navy. At a vessel that was perfectly capable of shooting deadly fish right back at them.
One that could very well be lining up to do that very thing even as Batfish steamed in all fat and happy, stalking them. The Japanese could have suckered the American sub in with that blatant, blaring radar signal on an unfamiliar frequency. They could have lulled them closer by steaming on a steady, true course, being the perfect bait for a mighty dangerous trap. They could be waiting now for Batfish to drive close in and then blow them to hell and back.
Didn’t matter to Fyfe and his crew, though. This was precisely what they had been sent halfway around the world to do.
And they were the kind of men who did their duty when called upon.
Batfish, her skipper and her crew were about to go shooting.
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