Young America
October 14, 1942, p.8
American Seaman


He was in the crow's nest when the bomber came. He yelled his warning...

American Seaman

by Howard Fast

THIS is the story of Bill Ryan.

It's one of the few stories in this series where the name used is the hero's real name. That's because Bill belongs to no fighting service; he wears no uniform and he bears no arms. He can walk on the streets of New York or San Francisco or New Orleans, and a passerby wouldn't notice him – except perhaps to wonder why a boy so healthy and husky is out of uniform.

Bill doesn't mind that, because Bill is a merchant seaman. Before the war he was an art student, and a sincere one. He left his studies only long enough to make a trip or two before the mast each summer.

After Pearl Harbor, he put away his paints. He still wants to paint, but he doesn't want to paint the war. He feels he can do a little to get this very terrible business finished – then he'll go back to painting.

After Pearl Harbor, Bill joined the Naval Reserve. They asked him what he wanted to do, and he said he'd like to ship on a merchantman. It was work he knew something about.

"Fine," they agreed.

So he shipped on a merchantman, and he's made one voyage – so far. It lasted eight months. He was going to write something about it, but he lost all his notes the second time his ship was sunk – yes, the second time on the same voyage. So this is his story, put together from the bits Bill is willing to tell.

*   *   *

It started out quietly enough. The unarmed freighter slipped away from an American port one day and pointed her sturdy nose toward India.

There was no real trouble riding across the South Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope – unless you call dodging two subs and being trailed for five days by a surface raider real trouble.

Bill didn't. He said it was a quiet voyage until they were off Ceylon.

Then a Jap dive bomber showed up. Bill still wants to explain how it felt to be on an unarmed merchantman and watch a Jap wheel gracefully back and forth overhead. He was in the crow's nest – lookout – when the bomber came. He yelled his warning and stayed there; he figured if he tried to come down, there wouldn't be time to cross the deck in safety.

The Jap went into his dive and planted the bomb amidships. After that, Bill came down on the run.

"You blankety-blank fool," the captain roared, "get out of there before more show up!"

Then fire broke out, and for two hours they fought it. Meanwhile the boats were lowered overside. The single Jap had left – to return with six others.

When they saw the planes coming, the captain gave orders for them to take to the boats. They slid down the ropes, cut loose and rowed for dear life. But the Japs were in no hurry. They circled and circled, and then planted bombs one after another along the length of the ship.

"That was all right," Bill says. "That's war. But then they began to machine-gun the boats, and something happened to me then. I changed–"

Bill had a head wound, and that meant a week in the hospital at Ceylon. In that week the hospital was bombed twice.

"The Japs knew it was a hospital," Bill says flatly.

Concerning that hospital, Bill tells about a nurse – the bravest and best human being he had ever known. She has nothing to do with Bill's story, except that he can't stop talking about this simple English girl who was never afraid.

*   *   *

"It was bad in India then," Bill observes. The Japs had started to take over Southeastern Asia; no one knew where they would stop. The American Volunteers – "Flying Tigers" – were leaving Burma, and they were a good deal down in the mouth. Bill spoke to them, and to Australians who had been driven from Singapore.

So Bill wanted a ship; he wanted to go back into it. He traveled across the length of India to find one and then, with the deck under his feet, with the prow pointed toward America, he felt better.

Trouble came the second time when they were almost home, off Trinidad in the Caribbean. Bill remembers that he was on watch with one of the crew – a friend of his. The seas were running heavily – large, gray waves that sloshed over the deck and poured water through the scuppers. They saw a flash, like the silver back of a big fish, but they didn't know what it was.

Bill had never been torpedoed before; that time he thought the flash was a dolphin. The next time, he says grimly, he'll know better.

The explosion threw him full-length on the deck. He cut his face, got to his feet somehow and ran for his boat station.

He never saw his friend again.

There were 11 men assigned to the boat Bill got into – but only one other showed up. The rest were gone; the ship sank in two minutes.

"Two minutes," Bill says thoughtfully. "You never know how long or short two minutes can be."

In the water, Bill and the one other man in his boat picked up seven survivors. Two other boats had gotten away from the ship, the captain in one. Then the German submarine surfaced. The captain and crew came onto the conning-tower deck.

"What boat was that?" the Nazi captain called in perfect English.

Bill will never forget the tone of his voice. He thinks he may meet that captain somewhere, somehow.

*   *   *

The sea was too rough for the boats to keep together, and before dark they were separated. One of the other boats made Trinidad; the third was never heard from again.

"It was a very rough sea." Bill doesn't like to talk about the boat that disappeared.

In his boat they were afloat 28 hours During the night, they did little but bail water and tend the wounded. They didn't want to eat; after the shock o the torpedo, food was the last thing in the world a man thought of. That night one of the men in the boat died. They buried him in the sea.

All the next day they hoarded their food anxiously, making sail for Trinidad. Bill thinks they would have reached it if they'd had to, but luckily they were picked up by a Dutch steamer The Dutch captain was very good to them. He landed them down in British Guiana.

Bill is back in America now, none the worse except for an. ugly scar on his head. He's joining the Navy, and in a few months he'll be an officer. He still prefers the merchant marine but he can't forget either the Jap bombers or the voice of that Nazi U-boat commander. And he wants to face then again on an armed ship.

THE END

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