JACK CRANE could have flown the Atlantic to take up his new duties as "roving correspondent" in Europe and Africa. The Consolidated Press had made a reservation for him on the plane. Then Crane told them, "No, I'm going by ship."
"I want to see the Battle of the Atlantic with my own eyes," he told the cable editor. "I want to see for myself how our Navy, working with Britain and Canada, is driving the Axis U-boats off the seas.
"We've issued plenty of news, lately, about the ships we lose. I want to write a different story a story about the United Nations navies, and how (in spite of losses) they are licking Hitler's submarines."
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The ship on which Jack Crane left "an East Coast port" was not a new one. It had been built in Maine, many years ago. It was one of those smoke-grimed, hard-working little freighters that, in the days before the war, used to carry American automobiles and farm machinery to ports all over the world.
Now, instead of automobiles, her decks were loaded with Detroit's newest product 30-ton tanks. Instead of plows and tractors, her hold was full of all the deadly implements of modern war.
Jack Crane had a cabin in the officers' quarters amidships. He shared it with the first engineer, a Scotsman named Craigie.
Craigie liked to play chess on a miniature board which he carried in his jacket pocket. During the first days of the voyage, when all was quiet, he and Crane played chess endlessly on this board.
The convoy was beyond Iceland before there was any sign of trouble. Then, one afternoon, Crane heard anti-aircraft guns firing. A moment later, a big British cargo ship used its seaplane-catapult to launch a fighter plane.
"One of Hitler's long-range observation planes must have been located overhead," Craigie told Jack Crane. "The Nazis use planes to spot our convoys."
Crane wondered what the great convoy must look like to an enemy pilot overhead. There were so many ships that, from where he stood, Crane could not see the end of them.
From above, they must look like a dark pattern on the sea. Ahead of them, astern of them and all around them, warships moved ceaselessly, watching and listening for a sight or sign of Nazi submarines.
Crane thought: "This convoy is as strong as good equipment and good brains can make it." Yet, even so, he knew he was in danger. Even from the best-protected convoys, ships are sometimes lost.
ATTACKS AT A DISTANCE
The next day, the convoy must have been twice attacked. Crane could hear depth charges exploding. Several times he saw the puff of guns on the horizon. But things were happening so far away that Crane found it strangely unexciting. He told Craigie so, when they started a game of chess that evening.
"I almost wish I'd crossed by plane," he said. "I've a feeling I'm in the middle of a battle but there's no fighting close enough to see."
Craigie looked up from the chess board. "Don't get impatient, Crane," he said. "As long as you're in a battle, you're likely to see action."
Like everyone else on board, Crane went to bed that night with his clothes on and his life-jacket for a pillow. He woke up at midnight. The Navy gun crew was firing the ship's surface guns.
Crane went out on deck and climbed quickly to the bridge. There was no doubt where the fighting was now. It was centered round his ship.
Slightly ahead, Crane could see (through the darkness) the outlines of two American destroyers. An officer told him the warships had moved in close after Crane's ship had detected an Axis submarine.
"We're in the middle of a whole 'wolf-pack' of German submarines," an officer shouted to Crane. "It looks as if their planes are coming, too."
Sure enough, the anti-aircraft guns were firing now. Crane watched their tracer bullets in the sky. Ahead, one of the destroyers was using a searchlight. Astern, a red glow in the sky showed where one of the ships in the convoy was blazing from a hit.
It reminded Crane of a nightmarish Fourth of July celebration. Occasionally, to add to the effect, he caught a glimpse of a Nazi torpedo plane flying, like a monstrous bat, against the shooting stabs of light.
HIT BY A TORPEDO
When the hit came, Crane never heard or even felt it. All he was conscious of was a blinding flash of light. Minutes or seconds later, he found himself lying on deck. In his ears was a rumbling of broken wood and metal and a gurgling of pouring sea-water.
A torpedo had struck them squarely amidships. Whether it come from a plane or submarine, Jack Crane never knew.
Pulling himself to his feet, Crane ran to the side of the ship. The deck was tilted crazily now. Some of the life-boats had already been lowered away. One was still dangling on its tangled lines.
Crane sprang into it and helped a crew man cut the boat free. They were just in time.
Water was fast pouring into the ship through the great torpedo hole in the side. As the ship keeled slowly over, the deck cargo began to break loose. Suddenly, with a roar like an express train, a cascade of trucks and tanks poured into the sea.
Seeing the tanks go under, Crane was horrified at the loss. So many hours of work, so much precious material, so many weapons that might have been used against the enemy all had gone beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
Then he heard a voice beside him. It was Craigie, the Scottish engineer.
"Don't think about the cargo we've lost," he said. "Look around and see how many ships the Navy is getting through."
Crane looked. Against the horizon he could make out what seemed to be an endless line of undamaged ships belonging to the convoy.
Craigie was talking again. He had his ever-present board out. "Let's finish this game, Crane," he said.
So it was that, in a small lifeboat, adrift in the North Atlantic darkness, the two men began to play chess.
NEXT WEEK: HOW JACK CRANE IS RESCUED AND TAKEN TO A BOMBED ALLIED PORT