Accent on Living

I HAD only the vaguest idea of what a convoy exercise would be like, when the Navy gave me a chance this spring to observe one. A large number of ships escorted in close company and managing to stay out of each other’s way was roughly what I expected, but the problems posed and solved during a week at sea were a good deal more novel to me than that. The purpose of a convoy training exercise is twofold : to give submarines experience in finding and attacking a convoy, and to give the surface vessels and their air cover lessons in counterattack and avoidance of the submarines. The participants in this case were three submarines, against a screen of a dozen or more destroyers and escort vessels, a large carrier, two blimps, a frigate as flagship, and a tanker and an ammunition ship in the role of the merchant vessels to be protected. (What it now calls a frigate the Navy formerly called a destroyer leader. This could be confusing, for a frigate in many foreign navies, including the British and French, is a much smaller and less formidable vessel.) For locale, envision a strip of ocean 30 miles wide and 300 miles long, beginning about 200 miles off Cape May and extending in an easterly direction. Eastbound, the problem called for the convoy to enter the strip between 8 A.M. and noon and to travel its length before 6 P.M. the next day. The submarines, already lying in wait somewhere in the strip, would come into contact with the convoy at a time and place predetermined by the admiral in charge of the exercises but unknown to anyone else, and who “sank” what in the ensuing scramble would eventually be established by an evaluation, in split-second timing and measuring and comparing, of everything that each ship had done.

The east bound contest proved to be a rather one-sided victory for the convoy. Only one submarine established any sort of contact. lt surfaced around midnight and blithely sent up a Hare and announced that it had “sunk’ U.S.S. Mitscher, the frigate. But this was somewhat after Mitscher’s people had been “sinking” the submarine for quite a while by simulating the use of their truly awesome assortment of depth charges and homing torpedoes; moreover the flagship’s speed and the sinuosity of her course were such as to make her a poor target. This, then, became a question for the umpires to decide later on, but it was certain that the contact was claimed not against one of the protected convoy vessels but only against one of the screen, and that the other two submarines were unable to come to grips with anyone.

The westbound exercise, begun after an overnight breathing spell, was a problem of evasion. No one, including the admiral, knew where the submarines would be, and the task was to bring the convoy through the strip without detection. The strategist in this case was Hear Admiral R. T. S. Keith, Commander of Destroyer Flotilla Two, a soft-spoken Virginian who seemed to enjoy to the limit outwitting the enemy, and outwit them he did. His strategy was simply to send live escort vessels to enter the strip westbound at its southern edge as decoys, while the rest of the group entered at the northern edge. By using a noise-making device, the decoy vessels could make themselves sound like a larger group of ships to a listening submarine. For good measure, the admiral even sent the two blimps along with the decoys on the chance that they would be seen at long range by a submarine and taken to indicate the presence of the convoy. These arrangements all proved to be successful: no submarine detected the convoy, and a rueful report from one after the close of the exercise caused great satisfaction aboard the flagship. What it took to be the convoy had been heard approaching, so the submarine explained, but when it went in to attack, the convoy never showed up at all.

There was no atomic-powered submarine in the exercises. To the layman it looked as if the earlier type of submarine, with its limited speed and range when submerged, is going against rather heavy odds when it attacks a modern convoy, even a fairly slow one. The odds would be heavy provided, of course, that in wartime, when escort vessels must bespread wide and thinly, the convoy could be as heavily protected as ours was. A look around the horizon showed the diversity of weapons in use, all at the same time: the escort ships themselves, with armaments far more powerful than those used at the war’s end; the vast sweeps by long-range patrol bombers; the variety of planes from the carrier, including helicopters which can listen as well as see in the search for a submarine. Most, if not all of these, are in constant communication through a short-range radio voice system, which can be heard in a limited area without betraying the location of the convoy as ordinary radio signals would. The system is especially valuable at night, when the ships are blacked out and are not using radar; for radar, like radio, affords the enemy a chance to get a bearing on ships using it. It was somewhat unexpected to learn, after taking for granted the usefulness of the short range voice system which chattered away without cease, that merchant ships in general are not thus equipped and that the communications problem in a big convoy, without it, would still have to be solved visually, a method which in thick weather or a blackout could be ineffectual.

Mitscher seemed to me something quite out of the ordinary. Looking like an outsize destroyer with a length of 493 feel and a beam of 50, the ship displaces only 3700 tons by reason of the wide use of aluminum in her construction and fittings. This relatively light burden is propelled by turbines developing 80,000 horsepower, so that one does not take seriously the Navy’s figure of 35 knots as Mitscher’s “designed speed.” As she lay at her buoy in Newport Harbor on a sparkling spring morning, Mitscher was the best-looking ship I had ever seen. Her skipper, Commander Sheldon Kinney, now aged thirty-seven, won the Navy Cross in World War II for commanding escort vessels that sank four German submarines and participated in sinking a fifth, and I doubt that Commander Kinney’s U.S.S. Mitscher is to be taken lightly by any submarines, atomic or not.