Art by Natalie Karlson
For the past three months, my crew and I have been restlessly awaiting this day. Our boat is the fifth generation C.O.D. submarine model. After years of diligent labor, it is the fifth and final prototype. She is destined to bring the fearsome Central Powers to their knees. It gets us to a maximum depth of 163 feet safely at an estimated 15 knots on the surface and eight knots submerged thanks to an experimental steam engine. She is also enhanced with faster self-propelled torpedoes and high-strength alloyed steel to shield the crew from gunfire.
We named her Amphitrite, after Posideon’s wife who is also known as the queen/goddess of the sea, but we just call her Amy for short.
Amy awaits us at Loading Dock 89 where we’ll be departing on “the final wave of the Great War” as we like to refer to it. Our voyage begins in Brooklyn Harbor, New York, and in one hour we will embark on our journey into the depths. In all honesty, we won’t see any of the war on this mission. Submarine development in the United States is nowhere near where it should be.
As excited as I am, the hard truth is that this is a fictitious mission. Simply a sad excuse to try out an experimental sub’s functionality without bringing shame to the U.S. Navy.
I was given the task of commanding a crew of 45 men for ten days to “scout” the U.S. East Coast for German U-boats and then promptly return to dock. However, we won’t be going far enough to run into the Germans.
For the sake of keeping up our ploy, we have been hauling supplies into the sub all morning, sans torpedoes.
However, our 700 ton cargo isn’t nearly the heaviest weight we must lift off our shoulders before boarding. For me, this is hardly goodbye, but my crew thinks they will be shooting torpedoes rapid fire in the heat of battle. Bidding their loved ones farewell will take a significant toll on the crew’s morale.
“Now don’t you leave until I get back,” my second-in-command, Mark, softly orders while crouching down to face his wife’s baby bump. She’s due any day now.
I have known Mark since the first day of boot camp and we have been conjoined at the hip, rising in rank together. However, Rebecca, his newly wedded wife, has been loyal to him since his final highschool days, before he was drafted. Those two are inseparable—truly the definition of soulmates. This is why I was given the captain position. He backed out of the running so he could devote more attention to his wife.
Slowly, he rises and moves towards where I stand, observing the scene from the mouth of our sub.
“Hey, we’ll be back before you know it,” I comfort him as he closes the distance. His eyes are glazed over, void of emotion while he passes by, ignoring my efforts.
He fidgets with his dog tags while tensely standing against the narrow hallway wall.
“Amy is well equipped and weaponized for our survival, don’t think too hard about it,” I try again, following him farther into the boat.
It rubs me the wrong way, lying to my closest companion, but he really shouldn’t worry about our wellbeing. Amy has no torpedoes because she is not ready to see the aggression of battle and, therefore, will not. A sub would normally have 16 warheads on standby to be loaded into the four torpedo tubes. I’d wryly agree that we are not worth the sweat of transporting more than 50,000 pounds of expensive weaponry, but then again, no one asked for my opinion. Logically, we won’t need it anyway. If something goes wrong, the ammunition would only be extra weight, dragging us down into the deep faster.
“Yes, I know we will be fine,” he huffs out. “I’m more worried for Rebecca. She stresses about me much more than I do for myself and the doctor said this anxiety isn’t ideal for childbirth.”
Ah, that makes more sense. Mark is a “strike when the iron’s hot” kind of guy. This is how we both got here, in charge of a highly experimental submarine. Now is hardly the time for him to start worrying. However, if anyone could make his adventurous spirit think twice, it would be Rebecca.
“I’m thinking it’s a boy.” Mark starts to enthusiastically tell me about the names lined up for the baby. Both he and Rebecca are a mixture of nervous and excited, anticipating the reveal of the baby’s gender. At a time like this, hope for the future is a valuable quality of life.
“I’m so glad I talked her out of the name Montgomery,” he says. “Can you imagine having to spell that out everyday?”
“That’s my middle name.” I roll my eyes and shoot him an unimpressed look, knowing he’s already fully aware.
“Exactly.” He stresses the vowels with exaggeration and a sly smirk. “So you know more than anyone how much work it is to write out. The signature line will never be long enough.” His point carries merit but I shake my head anyway and smile along, enjoying our last few moments of casual conversation.
My eyes wander back to the open door of the boat. I see men getting overtaken by their emotional families, some already tearing away from the stifling hugs to make a run for the sub. Very few make it out, reaching the dock only to be pulled back into the mob of love.
I chuckle and think back to the last time I saw my own family. My sister should be a few hours into her school day and mother will have her weekly book group this afternoon. I’ll visit when I get back, I promise myself.
Soon enough, it’s time. Soaking in the last sunshine I will see until next week, I whistle for roll call, piercing the air with the shrill shriek of inevitability.
“I can’t believe this is finally happening, man.” Mark’s face lights up with a grin. “All those years of being underappreciated and here we are, on our own mission to scope out the enemy lines.”
I offer him a weak grin. Luckily his own positivity doesn’t make him suspicious of my lack thereof.
Our mission’s true purpose: make a metal tank swim long enough for a “professional” to take over so it can be taken seriously. It was a painful sting when I was given the truth. We are here to either die or not die. Trained personnel are using us as dummies in their own safety test.
My men stumble into a crooked line, laughing and pushing each other around.
“Rookies,” I mutter under my breath. It’s no surprise I get the expendable troops, this small mission is nowhere near the top tier of military priorities. Our own engineers see this as a hopeless advancement against the Germans, however, my crew does not need to know that. Their main concern should be carrying out their assigned jobs no matter how small they may seem.
I order the crew into our submarine’s belly with their duffle bags and unearned confidence. This is going to be a long ten days. I roll my eyes and follow the last of the submariners in.
Only a few hours into our mission and I’ve ordered more pushups than direction headings. I can’t believe that teenagers were drafted this year; they seem too boneheaded to even scrub the floors properly. Let’s hope we don’t actually encounter U-boats, I pray through a throbbing migraine.
I stand at the front of the sub in the captain’s cabin, scoping out the dark abyss of water we are steadily propelling into. It is obvious there are no German submarines this close to our base, but constantly checking our only forward visual is more of a stress habit than anything else.
Every hour I have our engineer check the steam engine. Every two hours we must rise for fresh oxygen. Every thirty minutes I am asking for updates on our system’s functionality. I check our coordinates constantly. I barely get any sleep, no doubt because of my anxiety, and I am relying on coffee to keep me working. Nothing can go wrong. The Allies need this vessel to win. I am too invested to keep my eyes shut for something as easily avoidable as sleep. Real or not, this mission will be a success.
Mark has been checking up on me routinely, too. He’s worried I will die from a heart attack before we make it home to the dock. Once in a while I let go of the reins so he can substitute for my position, but all that does is leave me alone to panic in my secluded room.
Lord, I think I’m dying. Either that or I’m already in Hell. Five days in, and only five days left, I think while swaying in the uncomfortable cot listening to the early morning crew doing anything but their jobs.
When was my last cup of coffee? My groggy mind unfocuses and my vision flickers to black as if magnets have forced my eyes to stay shut. Though, unfortunately for me, the relief is short lived when Mark’s loud barking voice sends my brain into hyperdrive.
“Get up! Get up now! U-boats! There’s a million of ‘em, I swear! Wake up!”
I’m awake in an instant, my muscles moving themselves with a quick pace to the captain’s cabin.
Gingerly looking through the thin scope, I see dark masses in the distance. They’re hard to distinguish, but there they were. Floating like resting giants waiting to be awakened. No no no no, this isn’t supposed to happen. We aren’t ready for fighting yet. Swiveling the scope I get a definite head count of at least six U-boats. Not good. They don’t appear to be on the move, but that could change in a single order.
They see us, I swear they see us. I freeze up, bracing myself for one to slowly turn and point their torpedos at us, yet they remain dormant. Dormant for now, that little voice in my head reminds me. It really is a miracle they didn’t hear us coming.
I can’t tell if they see us at all. It’s mind numbingly stressful. The submarines have no side windows and no scopes to see far distance. They only have sonar, so there’s a chance they think we are a slow whale or perhaps a misplaced U-boat of their own. Out of all the unknown, there’s no doubt that we need to leave, now!
“Torpedoes. We should use our torpedoes!” Mark exclaims.
“No, Mark! We can’t, there are too many of them. That’s suicide!” I shut down his illogical idea. He’s too eager to fight for his own good.
“Okay then, let’s just load ‘em to make sure we can defend ourselves if we encounter more,” he argues stubbornly. “Prepare the torpedoes!”
“No!” I’m bellowing now, halting anyone from moving and carrying out his orders.
“Because we don’t have any damn torpedoes!” I’ve lost my cool. I snap my head to face the man I know is in charge of the steam engine. “Get us out of here!”
The urgency in my voice can’t contain the raw fear gnawing at my spine. No way can Amy take a torpedo hit, nevertheless six at once. We can’t even out-maneuver one if we tried. If I were captain of one of those U-boats, I wouldn’t even waste a second torpedo on us.
The silence that follows my words hangs thickly in the air, the disbelief compressing my crew’s buzzing nerves into a slightly delayed reaction. The air is electrified with spikes of fear once the submariners start bustling to their stations. Mark stares at me with what I can only compare to the look of a wounded animal, but I ignore it and turn around to face the task at hand. This can wait until we’re not about to die.
We’re currently not moving, which is an unfortunate circumstance, but necessary since the U-boats are nearby. Had we noticed them sooner, we could have potentially been able to make a wide 180 degree turn on our eight knot speed, but now we must pivot gently to avoid getting any closer to the U-boats and causing excess noise.
It’s a mockingly slow speed. Painfully slow. Almost disrespectful for such a grand submarine to move this leisurely now that danger’s been found. Starboard side is gradually becoming exposed to the six U-boats, giving my already frightened men a ghostly shiver up their spines. The chill of an unseen enemy far off in the distance, yet still too close for comfort. The beeping of the sonar slices through the silence, keeping a harrowing tempo for our own heartbeats.
Everyone is holding their breath when we are directly parallel to the looming U-boats. Now is the time they could spot us, our own silhouette larger than ever. Their sonar must have found us by now. Still, we continue to rotate steadily. Almost in the clear to use our full speed home, my crew stationed on the starboard side lets out their shaky breaths of relief.
As we finally straighten out, I rush back to the scope in my cabin. Amy is gaining speed quickly and the roaring of our engine is like a dream come true. I can tell everyone is relieved that we are out of our compromising position, but my nerves are still frayed from the abrupt close call. I’m conflicted, trying to simultaneously see if we are being chased from behind as well as check for oncoming danger in the cabin’s scope.
I can’t find Mark, so I’m left running like a frantic nut job to the front and back of the sub, checking our safety from both perspectives. Just as I make my sixth check on the captain’s cabin viewpoint, I see it: a U-boat in the distance, angled about 45 degrees from our current position, easily in range of our empty torpedo launcher. I notice our own sonar is beeping in a wild frenzy too.
At this moment, Mark shows up at the door to the cabin.
“Looks like we are all clear. Explain yourself,” he sneers. He’s aggravated, and rightly so, until I slowly turn around to face him.
His scowl drops quickly, seeing my own expression and hearing the sonar alarm. Wide eyed and horrified, we hear a loud bang outside of our ship and remain motionless. Shocked, the only thing I can think to do is count to three.
One… Two… Three…