|MISFIRE ... MISFIRE
by Bart Bartholomew
In the blue-green ocean off Hawaii, SARGO sped towards the target. Exhilaration like I felt when stalking a deer made me yearn for a position in the gun crew. As a lookout, I wondered how a rookie could compete against seasoned sailors?
The veteran gun crew gained their proficiency through years of drills. Some earned five dollars a month as qualified gun captains or gun pointers and all wore gunnery E's. The diving alarm propelled me adroitly down through the conning tower hatches to the control room. I rigged out the bow planes. SARGO leveled off at 60 feet. Later,
"TAKE STATIONS FOR BATTLE SURFACE," gushed adrenaline through my veins.
The gun captain, pointer, trainer, sight setter and hot shell man scurried up the conning tower ladder. Loaders carrying 11 pound three inch shells followed.
“Hold the depth at 60 feet" the Diving Officer ordered.
"AYE, AYE, SIR," I replied as electric motors hummed at full speed. Trimmed light for positive buoyancy, SARGO was ready.
"BATTLE SURFACE. FULL RISE ON THE BOW AND STERN PLANES. BLOW THE FORWARD GROUP. BLOW ALL BALLAST TANKS."
The bow climbed to a ten degree up angle. SARGO popped to the surface like a cork. Saltwater dripped down the open hatches. The deck gun barked. SARGO dove. Five bull's-eyes out of five shots exhilarated the crew.
On becoming a Gunner's Mate striker, my battle station changed to firing pointer on the fifty-caliber machine gun.
By December 7, 1941, my experience was three short bursts from the machine gun during the voyage from Hawaii to Manila. Peacetime budgets were not generous. During several disheartening war months, I yearned for gun action.
On September 15, 1942, one of six erratic torpedoes blew a hole in a freighter. The Division Commander suggested gun action. “PREPARE FOR BATTLE SURFACE,” elated me.
“BATTLE SURFACE,” scared me as I lugged the 6O pound fifty-caliber machine gun topside side. The loader and I mounted it. As I swung gun toward the enemy vessel my finger started squeezing the trigger. The silhouette of the Gunnery Officer filled the sight as he screamed, “OPEN FIRE WITH MA- CHINE GUNS."
I tapped his shoulder. Turning, he looked down the barrel of the 50 caliber. As he jumped aside, I squeezed the trigger.
My eyes followed the tracers arching toward the enemy ship. Armor piercing and incendiary bullets created sparks like Fourth of July sparklers bouncing along the steel deck. The enemy crew jumped overboard as the freighter sank. Elated over the victory, I waited 13 months for the next gun action. This time on a new submarine.
A thorough search of the Submarine Base Ordnance Library before Bonefish commissioning left me without a gun operating and repair manual. Turning to the Base Ordnance Indians for help, they shrugged their shoulders and wished me good luck. The cranky, antiquated deck gun converted to a wet-type submarine mount disheartens me daily.
No number of brass shims or adjustments removed the excess play in the training rack or elevation gear. A watertight cover that leaked closed the interrupted-screw breechblock. A firing lanyard attached to the salvo latch backed up the balky foot firing mechanism.
Completely disassembled, polished, greased and reassembled, the unyielding firing mechanism worked until after a dive. To fire the pointer sang out, "MARK," when on target. A pull on the firing lanyard fired the gun. The barrel liner became another unexpected hurdle.
To install the muzzle tompion after firing, I hacked-sawed off the protruding barrel liner. The rookie gun crew performed great in practice but I worried about battle.
On October 14, 1943, I fired a 20MM burst across the bow of a two masted, 10-ton schooner. Seven enemy soldiers hightailed it overboard. Armor piercing an incendiary shells ripped the schooner's bull. It sank to the water line. A Molotov Cocktail set it ablaze. Delighted we didn't need the four-inch 50-caliber broadside gun from a WWI combat ship; I yearned for more gun action.
The test of the obsolete gun arrived in the form of a converted 700-ton Island Steamer. On 11 December 1943, patrolling a few miles off the West Coast of Borneo, radar picked up an enemy ship at 10,000 yards. At 6000 yards, the deck gun spoke answering my prayer.
Our first high capacity projectile missed. The Minelayer opened fire with a three-inch gun. All enemy shots fell short.
Our second round hit. The next round silenced the enemy gun. Bellowing black smoke engulfed the Minelayer. Seven hits and many near misses drove the enemy toward shallow water. After firing the fifty-third round, the time worn gun refused to return to battery.
Two loaders help push the gun to back in battery. One more round ended the battle as the Minelayer sank. While I sawed off the protruding barrel liner, a diving Zero fighter forced a crash dive. On the next war patrol a burst from a Tommy Gun across the bow of a suspicious 60-ton sailing ship halted him.
Soldiers scurried around on deck when our Captain ordered the enemy crew to abandon ship. Some did. As I raked the wooden hull with 20MM shells, other soldiers scampered overboard. Exhilarated by gun action, I waited.
On the third patrol, I relinquished my position as gun captain on the worrisome cannon. During a lull in torpedo action on 16 February 1944, a deck gun target appeared.
The Cape Paderan Radio Station on the French Indo China coast was bathed in moonlight. Manning the 20mm on the forward gun deck, I waited while BONEFISH rolled in heavy swells.
"COMMENCED FIRING DECK GUN ONLY."
The pointer mashed the foot firing mechanism and shouted, “MISFIRE." The gun captain jerked the firing lanyard. It slipped from his hand and flew overboard. He shouted, “MISFIRE.”
Vaulting over the gun platform rail, I landed behind the relic. Reaching behind the breechblock, I tripped the salvo latch. Flame shot out the muzzle as the recoiling breech walloped my left arm jerking my shoulder out of its socket. Every time the pointer shouted, “MARK,” I tripped the salvo latch. Eleven high capacity projectiles peppered the mountain like buckshot from a ten-gauge open bore goose gun. One shell hit the radio station. Not a 4.0 performance but a stroke of luck.
Improvise, a prewar term, surely applied to the converted 4 inch 50 caliber Spanish American War relic. Orders to new construction separated me from the mutinous gun.