Excerpts from Chapter 1 of Circle William
The captain prepared to jump overboard.
The destroyer USS Winston Churchill drifted slowly south on the warm
Mediterranean Sea. Her captain, Commander Bill Schmidt, had ordered the engines stopped an hour earlier and announced a swim call, a very rare occurrence on most ships, but a regular event on Churchill. During swim call, a ship would drift lazily and routine work would come to a halt. It was an impromptu beach party; minus the beach.
As Schmidt turned to head back to the fantail, he saw his second-in-command, Churchill’s Executive Officer, coming onto the bridge. Lieutenant Commander Thomas Oliver Ellsworth looked preoccupied and slightly nervous, as usual. “XO, I’m going to go back aft and jump in. Everything taken care of for the swim call?”
Schmidt saw his XO grimace for a moment. “Yes sir, we’ve got the shafts locked, a boat in the water, cargo nets up on the sides, and a rifleman standing by in case of sharks. I’ve also got the Master at Arms bringing up some blankets for the steel beach…” He looked balefully at his commanding officer.
Bill Schmidt was, in every respect, a typical naval officer. Hewas of average height, and average weight. He bore no unusual scars under his mop of sandy hair. Schmidt had an easy smile which often bordered on a smirk, and rock-solid self-confidence, which sometimes got him in trouble.
“What about the DJ, Tom? Did you set up the big speakersystem?”
The XO shuddered slightly. “Sir, do you really want to get into the music today? We can’t just drift all afternoon if we’re going to make Toulon on time tomorrow morning.”
“We can if we go real fast, XO. Get the DJ up. And throw out a couple of cases of that nonalcoholic beer and the sodas we picked up in Rota.”
Another darn picnic, thought the XO. Ellsworth was the kind of officer who never swore, even to himself.
What a dipshit, thought Schmidt. “Relax, XO. It’ll be fine,” said the Churchill’s captain as he walked away, shaking his head. He said those precise words to his XO at least a dozen times each day. Schmidt was beginning to doubt if Ellsworth, the son of a retired three-star Admiral and a card-carrying member of America’s informal naval aristocracy, had the makings of a destroyer captain. Or at least the kind of destroyer captain Bill Schmidt wanted to sail with. During his career, Schmidt had run across dozens of similar flag officer progeny. With rare exception, the navy juniors displayed an expectation of privilege and promotion. Their attitude, he thought, would have been more appropriate for the Royal Navy at the end of the nineteenth century than the U.S. Navy at the beginning of the twenty-first.
Schmidt’s trip aft was interrupted by the blare of the ship’s announcing system, known as the “1 MC.” “Commanding Officer, please dial one-zero-zero-two.”
Schmidt’s call to the bridge was answered by Ensign Marshall Madison, a newly commissioned and very inexperienced Junior Officer of the Deck.
“Captain, there’s an unidentified submarine on the surface heading straight toward us at over twenty knots. We’ve tried calling her on bridge-to-bridge but she doesn’t answer.” Unless they were emitting some sort of electronic signals, the identity of approaching submarines at sea was nearly impossible to discern.
“Unidentified? What’s her CPA?”
“CPA?” There was a long pause. Schmidt guessed that Madison was trying to figure out why his commanding officer wanted to know the name of the submarine’s accountant.
“Marshall, please put the Officer of the Deck on the phone.” Schmidt heard the crisp voice of Lieutenant Debbie Smith, Churchill’s Antisubmarine Warfare Officer and one of his best bridge watch standers. “Officer of the Deck, sir.”
“What is the CPA, Debbie?” Schmidt quickly asked again. “The submarine’s closest point of approach is .. . let me recheck on the radar… CBDR.”
Constant Bearing Decreasing Range. Collision course. Christ, thought Schmidt, here I am with both shafts locked, about half the crew in the water, an XO trying to set up a disco on the fantail and a submarine bearing down on me.
At six feet tall, Debbie Smith was a full two inches taller than her commanding officer. She moved about the bridge briskly, with an athleticism that had served her well in her days as a volleyball player in college.
“Looks like the submarine is picking up speed, sir. CPA is dead on the bow. I’m trying to get the crew back aboard.”
“Break out some flares, and have the signalmen flash her continuously. We need to know a nationality. I’m on my way up.”
When Schmidt stepped into the pilot house, the Boatswain’s Mate gave the traditional call, “Captain’s on the bridge.” Schmidt got a quick update from the OOD and walked straight to the radio.
“Surfaced submarine, this is United States naval destroyer Winston Churchill, channel sixteen, over.”
Silence. The submarine’s sail was clearly visible cutting through the water, perhaps four miles away. There was a big wake behind them. Man, they are clipping, thought Schmidt, and coming right for me.