Dirk Pitt 18 - Black Wind
Japanese Imperial submarine I-403 and Seiran float plane
December 12, 1944 Kure Naval Base, Japan
Lieutenant Commander Takeo Ogawa glanced at his wristwatch and shook
his head in irritation.
“Half past midnight already,” he muttered anxiously. “Three hours late
and still we wait.”
A young ensign staring through the glazed eyes of a sleep-deprived
insomniac nodded slightly at his superior's grieving but said nothing.
Waiting atop the conning tower of the Japanese Imperial Navy submarine
i-403, the two men gazed across the naval yard searching for signs of a
pending arrival. Beyond the expansive naval base, a haphazard
twinkling of nighttime lights glistened about the scenic Japanese city
of Kure. A light drizzle fell, lending an eerie tranquility to the
late hour, which was broken by the distant sounds of hammers, cranes,
and welding torches. Repairs to enemy-damaged ships and new vessel
construction persisted around the clock in other parts of the shipyard,
in a futile rush to aid the increasingly bleak war effort.
The distant whine of a diesel truck soon echoed across the water.
the sound rising in intensity as the vehicle approached the submarine
docks. Rounding the corner of a brick warehouse, a slate-colored Isuzu
cargo truck rumbled into view and turned along the wharf. The driver
inched his way cautiously toward the submarine's pen as he struggled to
make out the edges of the darkened pier, barely visible under the
truck's wartime-blackened headlights. Pulling alongside a large
gangplank, the truck ground to a halt as its worn brakes squealed
loudly in protest.
A moment of silence ensued, then six heavily armed soldiers sprang from
the truck bed and enveloped the vehicle in a perimeter guard. As Ogawa
made his way down from the conning tower to the dock, he sensed one of
the guards pointing a weapon in his direction. The soldiers were no
Imperial Army regulars, he noted, but elite members of the feared
Kempei Tai military police.
Two uniformed men exited the cab of the truck and approached Ogawa.
Recognizing a superior officer, Ogawa stood at attention and saluted
“I've awaited your arrival, Captain,” Ogawa stated with a tinge of
Captain Miyoshi Horinouchi ignored the innuendo. As staff operations
officer for the Sixth Fleet, his mind was occupied with graver matters.
The Japanese submarine fleet was slowly being decimated in the Pacific
and the Imperial Navy had no answer for the antisubmarine warfare
technologies being deployed by the American forces. Desperate battles
by the fleet's submarines against overwhelming odds inevitably resulted
in the loss of crew and vessels, which weighted heavily on Horinouchi.
His short-cropped hair had turned prematurely white, and stress lines
creased his face like dry riverbeds.
“Commander, this is Dr. Hisaichi Tanaka of the Army Medical College.
He will be accompanying you on your mission.”
“Sir, I am not accustomed to carrying passengers while on patrol,”
Ogawa replied, ignoring the small bespectacled man at Horinouchi's
“Your patrol orders to the Philippines have been rescinded,” Horinouchi
replied, handing Ogawa a brown folder. “You have new orders. You are
to take Dr. Tanaka and his cargo aboard and proceed immediately per
fleet directives to strike at the enemy's doorstep.”
Glancing at one of the guards holding a German Bergman MP34 submachine
gun pointed in his direction, Ogawa asserted, “This is most unusual,
Horinouchi tilted his head to the side, then took a few steps to his
right. Ogawa followed, leaving Tanaka out of earshot. Speaking
softly, Horinouchi continued.
“Ogawa, our surface fleet was annihilated at Leyte Gulf. We counted on
a decisive battle to stop the Americans, but it was our own forces that
were defeated instead. It is just a matter of time before all of our
remaining resources will be assigned in defense of the homeland.”
“We will make the Americans pay heavily in blood,” Ogawa said
“True, but there is no question that they have the will to conquer,
regardless of the losses. The slaughter of our own people will be
appalling.” Horinouchi contemplated the sacrifice of his own family
and fell silent for a moment.
“The Army has approached us for assistance in a valiant operation,” he
continued. “Dr. Tanaka is affiliated with Unit 731. You will take
him and his cargo across the Pacific and launch an attack on the
American mainland. You are to avoid detection and protect your boat at
all costs en route. Succeed, Ogawa, and the Americans will bow to a
truce and our homeland will be preserved.”
Ogawa was stunned by the words. His fellow submarine commanders were
waging a mostly defensive battle to protect the remnants of the surface
fleet, yet he was to cross the Pacific single-handedly and launch an
attack that would end the war. He might have ridiculed the idea, had
it not been a fleet staff officer dictating the order to him out of
desperation in the middle of the night.
“I am most honored by your confidence, Captain Horinouchi. Rest
assured my crew and officers will uphold the honor to the emperor. If
I may ask, sir, what exactly is Dr. Tanaka's cargo?” Ogawa
Horinouchi gazed forlornly across the bay for several seconds.
“Maka^e,” he finally muttered quietly. “An evil wind.”
Under the watchful eye of Dr. Tanaka, a half-dozen oblong wooden
crates were carefully loaded by the Kempei Tai guards into the forward
torpedo room of the I-403 and tightly secured. Ogawa ordered the
submarine's four diesel engines turned over and the deck lines
released. At half past two in the morning, the iron sub nosed slowly
into the inky harbor and inched its way past several other fleet
I-boats docked in the yard. Ogawa noted with curiosity that Horinouchi
sat silently in the darkened truck on the pier, refusing to leave until
after the I-403 was well out of sight.
Creeping past the docks and warehouses of the sprawling navy yard, the
sub soon approached a massive shadow looming against the darkness
ahead. Lying quietly in a repair dock, the massive battleship Yamato
towered above the submarine like a behemoth. With its massive
eighteen-inch guns and sixteen-inch-thick armor plating, the Yamato was
the most feared vessel afloat. Ogawa admired the lines and armament of
the world's largest battleship as he sailed past, then felt a touch of
pity toward her. Like her sister ship, the Musashi, recently sunk in
the Philippines, the Yamato, he feared, was destined to find her way to
the bottom of the sea before the war was over.
Gradually the lights of Kure fell away as the submarine snaked around
several large islands, then entered the Seto Inland Sea. Ogawa ordered
increased speed as the mountainous island outcroppings fell away and
the first gray patches of predawn light tinted the eastern sky. As he
marked their route in the conning tower with the I-403\ navigator,
Ogawa was approached by the executive officer climbing up from below.
“Hot tea, sir,” Lieutenant Yoshi Motoshita said, thrusting a small cup
toward the commander. A thin man with a warm demeanor, Motoshita
mustered a grin even at five in the morning.
“Yes, thanks,” Ogawa replied crisply before gulping at the tea. The
hot liquid was a welcome tonic against the chilled December air and
Ogawa quickly drained the cup.
“The sea is unusually calm this morning,” Motoshita noted.
“Fine conditions for fishing,” Ogawa said reflectively. The son of a
fisherman, Ogawa had grown up in a small village on the southern island
of Kyushu. Accustomed to a hard life on the water, Ogawa had overcome
a modest background by passing the formidable entrance exams to
Etajima, the Japanese naval academy. After gaining his commission, he
was drawn to the growing prewar submarine force and served on two boats
before attaining command of the I-403 in late 1943. Under his
leadership, the I-403 had sunk a half-dozen merchant ships, along with
an Australian destroyer in the Philippines. Ogawa was considered one
of the top submarine captains remaining in the rapidly shrinking
“Yoshi, we'll initiate a zigzag running pattern when we reach the
strait, then submerge before we leave the mainland. We can take no
chances with enemy submarines patrolling off our coast.”
“I will alert the crew, sir.”
“And Dr. Tanaka. See that he is situated comfortably.”
“I have offered him my cabin,” Motoshita said with a pained look.
“Judging by the stack of books he brought with him, I think he will
keep himself occupied and out of our way.”
“Very well,” Ogawa replied, wondering silently about his unwanted
As a crimson sun crept up over the eastern horizon, the I-403 veered
south from the Inland Sea into the Bungo Strait, a pathway above Japan's southern island of Kyushu that poured into the Pacific
Ocean. A gray destroyer limped past the sub on its way back to port,
listing heavily to one side and showing a rash of gaping holes in its
bridge and decks, the result of a nasty encounter with a pair of U.S.
Navy Hellcats. On the submarine, several petty officers crowded the
conning tower to take a final glimpse of their green island nation,
uncertain as all seamen departing for bat de whether they would return
When the approach to the Pacific became visible to the lookout, Ogawa
issued the command to dive. A loud bell clanged throughout the
submarine and sailors scurried to secure the deck and hatches.
“Submerge to fifteen meters,” Ogawa ordered from the bridge.
Large ballast tanks were flooded with seawater and the diving planes
tipped forward. With a rush of collapsing water, the I-403's nose
dipped downward and the entire submarine was quickly gobbled up by the
murky green sea.
In the Pacific waters off the Bungo Strait, aggressive American
submarines lurked in the depths hunting merchant supply ships or armed
vessels en route from the Kure Navy Base. Submarine-against-submarine
attacks were not unheard of and Ogawa was not about to make himself
easy fodder. Entering the Pacific waters, he quickly aimed the I-403
northeast and away from the bulk of the wartime traffic traveling south
toward the Philippines.
As were most subs of its era, the I-403 was powered by diesel and
electric motors. In daylight hours, the I-403 would operate submerged,
powered by battery-operated electric motors that pushed the sub along
at a sluggish 6 knots per hour. Under cover of darkness, the I-403
would surface and crank up the diesel engines, which propelled the boat
to better than 18 knots, while recharging the batteries. But the I-403
was no ordinary submarine. Stretching over 390 feet long, the I-403
was one of a handful of Sen toku-class submarines, which were the
largest built in their day. The massive iron vessel displaced over
5,200 tons and was pushed through the water by four 7,700-horsepower
diesel engines. The I-403's truly unique feature, however, was the
vessel's armament of aircraft. The I-403 could carry three Seiran
float planes which were small converted dive-bombers that could be
launched from a catapult on the center bow. While traveling at sea,
the planes were disassembled and stored in a 110-foot-long watertight
hangar that stretched along the sub's deck. A shortage of aircraft had
forced Ogawa to give up one of his seaplanes for coastal
reconnaissance, however, and his vessel now carried just two of the
Once the I-403 had safely entered the Pacific, Ogawa retired to his
cabin and reread the brief mission orders Horinouchi had given him. The
succinct commands called for him to sail a northerly route across the
Pacific, with a refueling stop in the Aleutians. He was to proceed to
the northwest coast of the United States, where his two aircraft were
to launch air attacks on the cities of Tacoma, Seattle, Victoria, and
On the face of it, it appeared a futile gesture, thought Ogawa. Japan
needed her submarines for homeland waters defense rather than
instigating minuscule attacks with a pair of small aircraft. But there
was the question of Dr. Tanaka and his unidentified cargo.
Summoned to Ogawa's cabin, Tanaka bowed gracefully before entering the
cramped quarters and seating himself at a small wooden table. The
slightly built scientist bore a shrewish and unsmiling face. A pair of
vacant black eyes that were magnified by thick glasses augmented his
Dispensing with formalities, Ogawa pressed immediately for the nature
of the doctor's presence.
“Dr. Tanaka, my written orders are to sail this vessel to the west
coast of North America and launch an airborne attack on four cities.
There is no mention of your duties or the nature of your cargo. I must
ask what your role in the mission is.”
“Commander Ogawa, rest assured that my assignment here has been
authorized at the highest levels,” Tanaka replied in a quiet monotone
voice. “I will be providing technical assistance for the attack
operation,” he continued.
“This is a warship. I fail to understand how a medical officer will
assist in a naval strike,” Ogawa countered.
“Commander, I am with the Army Medical School's Epidemic Disease
Prevention Study Group. We have received materials from a research
facility in China that have enabled us to develop an effective new
weapon against the enemy. Your submarine has been chosen as the means
to launch the weapon for the first time against American forces. I am
responsible for the security and deployment of the weapon on this
“These 'materials.” They will be dropped from my aircraft?"
“Yes, in special canisters that can be accommodated by your bombers. I
have already made the necessary arrangements with your aviation
“And the men on my vessel. Are they in any danger with this weapon
“None whatsoever.” Tanaka's face was inscrutable as he lied.
Ogawa didn't believe him, but figured the risk of the American Navy's
antisubmarine warfare forces were a greater risk to his sub than
anything carried on board. Ogawa tried to procure what little
information he could from Tanaka, but the Army doctor volunteered few
additional facts. Whatever mystery was associated with the weapon, he
kept close to the vest. There was something ominous about the man,
Ogawa decided, and it made him uncomfortable. After sharing a quick
cup of tea, he dismissed the eerie scientist. Sitting silently in his
cabin, Ogawa cursed the Fleet Command for selecting his vessel for the
assignment. It was a mission that he didn't want.
The sporadic ocean traffic of merchant ships and fishing boats soon
dissipated as the Japanese mainland fell behind the sub's wake and the
vessel crawled farther north in latitude. For the next twelve days and
nights, the crew embraced a normal operating schedule as the sub nosed
northeast, surfacing at night to run at higher speed. The prospect of
being detected by an Allied plane or ship was more remote in the north
Pacific, but Ogawa took no chances and ran submerged during all
daylight hours. Operating under the waves, the bottled-up sub became
like an oven to the men who drove her. Interior temperatures would
climb into the nineties from the machinery, while the confined air
would grow foul to the breath over the hours. Evening darkness was
eagerly anticipated by each crewman, knowing the sub would finally
surface, open its hatches, and vent cold, fresh sea air into the dank
Naval authority on submarines was notably relaxed, even in the Japanese
Navy, and operations on the I-403 were no different. Officers and
enlisted crew mixed easily, sharing the same meals and suffering the
same miseries aboard the cramped vessel. The I-403 had survived depth
charge attacks on three different occasions and the near-death
experiences had bonded the crew tightly together. They were survivors
in a deadly game of cat and mouse and felt the I-403 was a lucky ship
that could defy the enemy.
On the fourteenth night, the I-403 surfaced near the Aleutian island of
Amchitka and quickly found the supply ship Morioka anchored in a small
cove. Ogawa gently brought his vessel alongside the surface ship and
mooring lines were tossed across. As diesel fuel was pumped into the
submarine's reservoir tanks, crewmen on each vessel bantered back and
forth in the freezing cold.
“Aren't you a little cramped in that anchovy tin?” asked a bundled
yeoman at the ship's rail.
“No, we've got plenty of room for our canned fruit, chestnuts, and
sake!” yelled back a submariner, boastful of the superior food the
undersea services were provided.
The refueling operation was completed in less than three hours. One of
the submarine's crewmen, diagnosed as suffering an acute bout of
appendicitis, was transferred to the ship for medical attention. After
rewarding the supply ship crew with a box of hard candies, the I-403
cast off on an eastward tack toward North America. The skies gradually
turned black and the gray-green ocean waters frothed with spray as the
I-403 found herself sailing into the teeth of an early winter storm.
The sub was tossed violently for three nights as waves flooded across
the low deck and crashed into the conning tower as the sub attempted to
recharge its batteries. A lookout was nearly washed overboard into the
icy seas on one occasion, and many of the experienced crew succumbed to
bouts of seasickness. Strong westerly winds aided the voyage, however,
pushing the sub briskly through the swells and quickening its trek
Gradually, the winds began to ease and the seas flattened. Ogawa was
pleased to find his vessel had survived Mother Nature's buffeting with
no damage. The battered crew regained their sea legs and their
fighting morale as the seas stabilized and the submarine neared the
“Captain, I have a final plot to the coast,” Seiji Kakishita remarked
as he unrolled a chart of the northeast Pacific Ocean in front of
Ogawa. The I-403's navigator had ceased shaving, like many crewmen
upon leaving port, and sported a straggly tuft of hair from his chin
that created a cartoonish look about him.
“What is our present position?” Ogawa inquired as he studied the
“Right here,” Kakishita replied as he pointed to a spot on the map with
a pair of dividers. “Approximately two hundred kilometers west of
Vancouver Island. We have two more hours of darkness for surface
running, which will bring us to within 150 kilometers of land by
daybreak on our current heading.”
Ogawa studied the chart intently for a few moments before speaking.
“We are too far north. I wish to launch the attack from a point
central to the four targets in order to minimize flight time. Bring us
south and we'll approach the coastline here,” he said, stubbing his
finger at the map. Beneath his fingertip lay the northwest tip of
Washington State, an angular peak of land that jutted into the Pacific
Ocean like the snout of a hungry dog. Just to the north lay the Strait
of Juan de Fuca, which created a natural border channel with British
Columbia and was the main thoroughfare for maritime traffic from
Vancouver and Seattle into the Pacific Ocean.
Kakishita hurriedly plotted a new route on the map and recalculated the
distances. “Sir, I compute that we can arrive at a position fifteen
kilometers offshore from the point marked ”Cape Alava' in twenty-two
“Excellent, Kakishita,” Ogawa replied smugly as he eyed a nearby
chronograph. “That will allow us plenty of time to commence the attack
before dawn.” The timing was right. Ogawa wished to spend as little
time as possible in high-traffic areas where they might be spotted
before launching the strike. Things seemed to be falling into place,
he thought. With a little luck, they might just be on their way home
from a successful mission in just over twenty-four hours.
A buzz of activity overtook the I-403 after it surfaced again that
evening as preparations were made to launch the aerial strike.
Mechanics pulled out the fuselage, wings, and pontoons of the aircraft
and began piecing the parts together like some giant toy model. Seamen
rigged the hydraulic catapult and carefully tested the device by which
the planes would be launched. The pilots attentively studied
maps of the region, plotting their course to the drop zones and back.
And the ordnance men, under the cautious direction of Dr. Tanaka,
configured the bomb racks of the Seiran bombers to hold the twelve
silver canisters still stored in the forward torpedo room.
By three in the morning, the I-403 had crept quietly to its staging
point off the Washington coast. A light drizzle was falling and the
six lookouts Ogawa had stationed on deck strained to peer through the
murky darkness for signs of other vessels. Ogawa himself paced the
open bridge nervously in anxious wait to see the aircraft off, so that
he could hide his submarine under the protection of the rolling seas.
Another hour had ticked by when a hurried squat man in a grease-stained
jumpsuit approached Ogawa tentatively.
“Sir, sorry to report we are having troubles with the aircraft.”
“What is the problem at this late hour?” Ogawa countered, clearly
“Aircraft number one has been found to have a faulty magneto. We must
replace it with a spare for the motor to operate. Aircraft number two
has a damaged elevator, apparently due to shifting that occurred during
the storm. This we can repair also.”
“And how long will it require to complete both repairs?”
The mechanic looked skyward for a moment, contemplating his response.
“Approximately one hour for the repairs, sir, plus another twenty
minutes to load the ordnance from belowdecks.”
Ogawa nodded grimly. “Proceed with all haste.”
One hour turned into two and still the planes were not ready. Ogawa's
impatience grew as he noticed gray streaks in the eastern sky,
signaling the approaching dawn. The drizzling rain had stopped and was
replaced by a light fog that enveloped the sub, cutting visibility to
less than a third of a mile. Sitting ducks, perhaps, but at least
ducks in a blind, Ogawa thought.
Then the stillness of the morning air was shattered as a cry from the
sound-detection operator belowdecks pierced the air.
“Captain, I have an echo!”
“I've got you this time, Big Brother!” Steve Schauer yelled into the
radio transmitter with a grin, then pushed a pair of throttles to their
stops. Alongside him in the fishing trawler's cramped cabin, two
teenage crewmen, exhausted and reeking of dead fish, looked at each
other and rolled their eyes. Schauer ignored their looks as he lightly
fingered the wooden wheel of the plodding fishing boat and began
whistling an old drinking tune.
A pair of fortyish siblings with youth in their veins, Steve and Doug
Schauer had spent their lives fishing the waters in and around Puget
Sound. With skill and hard work, they had thrown all their earnings
into ever-larger fishing boats until they traded up for a matched pair
of fifty-foot wooden hull trawlers. Working as a team, they
successfully fished the Washington and Vancouver shorelines with an
uncanny ability to sniff out large schools of halibut. After a
three-day excursion, with their holds full of fish and their coolers
empty of beer, the brothers would race each other back to port like a
pair of kids on roller skates.
“It ain't over till the paint scratches the dock,” Doug's voice
crackled over the radio. After a particularly good haul during the
1941 season, the brothers had splurged on two-way radios for their
boats. Though intended to help each other coordinate the catches, the
brothers spent most of their time on the airwaves goading each other
As Schauer's boat chugged along at its top speed of 12 knots, the skies
lightened from black to gray and a spotlight beam shining on the water
ahead of the bow gradually lost its illuminating effect. Ahead, in the
mist, Schauer saw the faint outline of a large black object lying low
in the water. A second later, a small orange flash emanated from the
object's center for a brief instant.
“Is that a whale off the starboard bow?” The words had barely escaped
his lips when a shrieking whistle creased past the cabin, followed by a
volcanic explosion that erupted in the water off the port beam,
showering the trawler in a downpour of seawater.
Schauer stood stunned for a moment, his mind unable to comprehend what
his eyes and ears had just absorbed. It took the sight of a second
orange flash to jolt him into action.
“Get down!” he shouted at the two men in the cabin as he spun the
ship's wheel hard to port. The laden trawler was slow to respond, but
it was enough to avoid the second shell from the I-403's 5.5-inch deck
gun, which screamed into the water just astern of the boat. This time,
the force of the explosion lifted the entire trawler out of the water
and slammed it back down again hard, shearing the rudder off in the
Wiping blood out of his eyes from a gash to the temple, Schauer groped
for the radio microphone.
“Doug, there's a Jap sub. It's blasting the hell out of us. No joke.
Keep to the north, and get help.”
He was still talking when the third shell found its mark, piercing the
forward hold of the fishing boat before detonating. A furious
explosion of splinters, glass, and mangled halibut blasted into the
cabin, throwing the three men viciously to the back wall. Struggling
to his feet, Schauer peered out a gaping hole in the front of the cabin
and saw the entire bow of the trawler disintegrate into the sea before
him. Instinctively grabbing the wheel for support, he looked on in
disbelief as the remains of the boat began to sink rapidly beneath his
Peering through binoculars, Ogawa watched with grim satisfaction as the
trawler slipped beneath the waves amid a scattering of flotsam.
Rescuing survivors was out of the question, so he wasted no time in
looking for bodies in the water.
“Motoshita, have there been any additional sound recordings?” he asked
“Negative, sir. The sound operator reported a possible secondary
target before we initiated firing but the reading faded. It was either
background noise, or a small vessel at best.”
“Have him keep sweeping. With this visibility, we will hear a vessel
well before seeing her. And have the chief aircraft mechanic report to
me. We've got to get those planes launched.”
As Motoshita scurried off, Ogawa stared toward the hidden coastline of
Washington. Perhaps we'll get lucky, he thought. The trawler was
likely a lone fishing boat and wouldn't have a radio. The guns could
have been heard ashore, but, at this distance, would sound like an
innocuous muffle. The charts showed few inhabitants residing along
that stretch of coast as well. Perhaps-just perhaps-they could still
pull off the mission undetected.
The hairs on the back of Radioman First Class Gene Hampton's neck stood
up like a grove of ponderosa pine. The voice ringing through his
earphones had an air of urgency and authenticity that could not help
but be believed. After confirming the message twice, Hampton popped
out of his chair like a jack-in-the-box and bounded to the center of
“Captain, I just picked up a civilian Mayday message,” he blurted
excitedly. “A fisherman says there's a Jap sub offshore shelling his
“Did he sound coherent?” replied the ship's bearded, heavyset
commander in a skeptical tone.
“Yes, sir. Said he didn't see the sub because of the fog but got a
radio call from his brother on another fishing boat. He heard a couple
of shots fired from a big gun, then lost contact with his brother. I
received a call from another boat confirming the sound of gunfire.”
“Did they provide a fix on the location?”
“Yes, sir. Nine miles southwest of Cape Flattery.”
“Very well. Contact the Madison and tell her we are headed out of the
strait to investigate a reported enemy contact, then provide a location
fix to Navigation. Mr. Baker,” he continued, turning to a tall
lieutenant standing at his side, “let's go to General Quarters.”
As an alarm bell rang throughout the ship, the crew of the USS Theodore
Knight scrambled to their battle stations, adorning helmets and kapoks
as they ran. It wasn't the first time the Farragut-class destroyer had
seen action. Launched in 1931 at the Bath Iron Works shipyard in
Maine, the Theodore Knight had an active service duty garnering North
Atlantic convoy duty in the early stages of the war. After dodging
several U-boat attacks while escorting the merchant fleets, the
341-foot-long destroyer was sent back for patrol and escort duty off
the West Coast, sailing the waters from San Diego to Alaska.
Trailing three miles behind, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, was the
Liberty Ship Madison, bound for San Francisco with a cargo of lumber
and tinned salmon. Leaving the assigned cargo ship in its wake, the
Theodore Knight broached the mouth of the Pacific as its captain,
Lieutenant Commander Roy Baxter, ordered flank speed. The ship's twin
diesel turbines churned the sleek gray ship through the water like a
hound chasing a rabbit. The crew, accustomed to quiet, routine
patrols, was at an unusually heightened sense of readiness at the
prospect of facing the enemy.
Even Baxter felt his heart beat a little faster. A twenty-year Navy
man, he had seen action in the Atlantic but had grown bored with his
recent assignment on the home shores. He relished the thought of
tasting battle again, though remained skeptical about the radio report.
Japanese subs had not been seen off the coast for over a year, he knew,
and the Imperial Navy was now clearly on the defensive. “Radar?” he
“Sir, I have three small vessels approaching the channel, two from the
north and one from the west,” replied the radarman without taking his
eyes off his monitor. “I have another indefinite target that appears
to be stationary lying to the southwest.”
“Take us to the southern mark,” Baxter barked. “And have the forward
batteries stand by for action.” The commander had to suppress a grin
of excitement as he issued the orders. Maybe we'll earn our pay today,
he thought while strapping on his helmet.
Unlike their American counterparts, most Japanese submarines in World
War II were not equipped with radar. The early-warning technology was
only first deployed on Imperial submarines in mid-1944, and then
installed only on selected vessels. Most Japanese submarines instead
relied upon sound-detection equipment to reveal a distant enemy.
Although more limited in range than radar, sound detection could be
utilized underwater, and aided many a sub in avoiding a fatal
rendezvous with depth charges.
Absent a radar unit, it was the I-403^ sound operator who first became
aware of the destroyer bearing down on them.
“Vessel approaching ahead ... sound intensity one,” he reported at the
first registering on his equipment.
On deck, both of the aircraft had been moved out of their hangars,
where the wings and pontoons were affixed, while repairs continued. It
was the situation Ogawa feared most. With both planes assembled but
neither ready for flight, they would have to be sacrificed should the
submarine have to make an emergency dive.
“Deck gun at the ready,” he ordered, hoping the unwelcome intruder was
yet another fishing boat.
“Sound intensity two and increasing,” the sound operator relayed
calmly. “It's a ship,” he added, to no one's surprise.
“Secure all aircraft and clear the aviation deck,” Ogawa ordered an
ensign, who sprinted down the large deck shouting at the mechanics and
pilots as he ran. Tying down the two airplanes, the aviation crew
quickly grabbed their work tools and scurried to the hangar. The
watertight doors of the hangar were closed and sealed; then the men
dropped down another hatch into the secure body of the submarine.
“Sound intensity three, off our bow. May be a destroyer,” the operator
reported, correctly identifying the churning sound of the tin can's
As if on cue, the gray ship materialized out of the fog a half mile
away, the apparition of a steel wraith charging across the moor. White
foam burst off the bow in angry torrents while wisps of dark smoke
billowed from the funnel. The lean ship drove straight at the sub, an
attacking lancer not to be denied.
In an instant, the I-403's deck gun boomed as the submarine's
experienced gun crew attempted to halt the oncoming dervish. The slim,
head-on profile of the destroyer made for a difficult target, however,
and the shell passed harmlessly to one side. Hurriedly, the gun crew
took aim and fired again.
Once identifying the ship as a destroyer, Ogawa recognized the futility
of a surface duel with a superior vessel and immediately ordered a
crash dive. The mission would have to be sacrificed for the safety of
the ship and crew, he reasoned, if it wasn't already too late.
As the dive alarm sounded, the gun crew fired off a last desperate shot
before scrambling belowdecks to safety. The gunner's accuracy was
nearly dead-on, but he overcompensated the approaching speed of the
destroyer. The shell splashed into the water fifty feet directly ahead
of the American ship's bow, blasting a spray of water onto its deck but
causing no damage.
The two forward batteries of the Theodore Knight ax last came to life,
lobbing five-inch shells in succession toward the Japanese sub. The
inexperienced and adrenaline-fortified gun crew fired high, however,
placing the destroyer's shells harmlessly beyond the now-accelerating
On the exterior bridge of the I-403, Ogawa hesitated momentarily before
dropping down the hatch, taking a final glance at his approaching
stalker. Movement caught his eye on the forward deck, where he was
surprised to see a crewman striding toward one of the
airplanes. It was a pilot, ignoring the dive command and climbing into
his plane. In the spirit of the kamikaze, the pilot could not bear the
thought of losing his aircraft and was willing to die with it instead.
Ogawa cursed his foolish bravery, then ducked down into the bridge
The ballast tanks were opened and a rush of seawater began flooding in
to weigh the submarine down. The huge hull of the I-403 was a
liability in this situation, requiring a notoriously long time to
submerge. As Ogawa waited for the sub to make its agonizingly slow
descent, he played one more card.
“Prepare to fire torpedoes!” he commanded.
It was a gamble, but a calculated one at that. With the destroyer
directly ahead, Ogawa could let go a shot in the face of the ship and
make the hunter fall prey to the victim.
“Tubes loaded,” the torpedo officer reported.
“Stand by tubes number one and number two,” Ogawa ordered.
The destroyer was barely two hundred yards away and still belching fire
from its five-inch guns. Amazingly, the destroyer's guns continued to
miss their mark. The point-blank target of the sub slowly began to
diminish as the nose of the undersea craft dipped beneath the waves and
a wash of seawater gradually flooded over the forward deck.
“Fire one!” Ogawa shouted. Counting off three seconds silently, he
paused, then ordered, “Fire two!”
With a blast of compressed air, the two torpedoes burst out of the
forward tubes on a deadly streak toward the advancing destroyer. Each
packing an 890-pound lethal warhead, the twenty-three-foot-long,
oxygen-powered torpedoes accelerated quickly, racing toward the
Theodore Knight at better than 45 knots.
An ensign standing on the bridge wing of the destroyer noticed a seam
of white trails under the water's surface burrowing toward the ship.
“Torpedoes off the port and starboard bow!” he shouted, though his
body remained frozen in rapt fascination as he watched the speeding
In an instant, the torpedoes were on them. But either by
miscalculation, divine intervention, or just plain luck, the two deadly
fish somehow missed their target. The immobile ensign watched in
amazement as the two torpedoes skimmed past both sides of the
destroyer's bow, then raced down the length of the ship no more than
ten feet from either side of the hull before disappearing beyond the
“She's diving, sir,” noted the destroyer's helmsman as he watched the
waves slosh over the bow of the sub.
“Steer for the conning tower,” Baxter commanded. “Let's go right down
Firing from the forward batteries had ceased, as the guns could no
longer be trained on a target so low to the ship's bow. The bat de
became a race, the destroyer boring in like a charging ram in an
attempt to batter the I-403. But the submarine was gaining depth and,
for a moment, appeared like it would successfully slip beneath the
stalking ship. The Theodore Knight had crossed over the bowline of the
sub, its keel missing the top deck of the descending sub by a matter of
feet. But the destroyer drove forward, intent on crushing the
The aircraft were the first to feel the sharp wedge of the destroyer's
prow. Partially submerged on the receding deck, the randomly aligned
airplanes just caught the surging bow of the ship at mid height and
were instantly dissected into large sections of mangled metal, fabric,
and debris. The defiant pilot, who had climbed into the cockpit of the
first airplane, received little time for impudence before realizing his
wish to die with his plane in a crushing blow.
The I-403 itself was now half submerged and had so far avoided damage
from the assault. But the sub's conning tower was too great a
protrusion and could not escape the charging wrath of the ship. With a
crunching shear, the bow of the destroyer tore into the vessel's
console, slicing through it like a scythe. Ogawa and his operations
were killed instantly as the ship crushed into and through the control
center of the sub. The entire structure was ripped away from the body
of the submarine as the destroyer continued its onslaught, carving a
mutilating gash along the rear spine of the I-403. Inside, the doomed
crew heard the screeching grind of metal on metal before the torrents
of seawater burst in and flooded the compartments. Death came quickly
but painfully to the drowning men as the sub lurched, then dropped
rapidly to the seafloor. A smattering of air bubbles and oil boiled to
the surface to mark the gravesite, then all was silent.
Aboard the Theodore Knight, the crew and officers cheered their
destruction of the Japanese submarine as they watched the telltale
slick of black oil and fuel pool on the surface like a death cloud
above the sunken boat. How lucky they were to have found and destroyed
an enemy vessel right on their own home shores, with not so much as a
casualty on their own ship. Though the enemy had fought with valor,
the victory had come easily. The crew would return to port as heroes,
with a great tale to tell their grandchildren. What none of the men on
the destroyer could have suspected or imagined, however, was the
unspeakable horror that would have befallen their countrymen had the
I-403 succeeded in its mission. Nor could they know that the horror
still awaited, silently beckoning from the depths of the shattered
Mystery trawler and NUMA
May 22, 2007 The Aleutian Islands, Alaska
The winds swirled LIGHTLY about the faded yellow tin hut perched on a
small bluff overlooking the sea. A few light snowflakes danced about
the eaves of the structure before falling to the ground and melting
amid the grass and tundra. Despite the nearby hum of a diesel
generator, a wooly Siberian husky lay on a sun-exposed patch of loose
gravel enjoying a deep sleep. A white-feathered arctic tern swooped by
for a look, then stopped momentarily on the small building's roof.
After curiously examining the odd assortment of antenna, beacons, and
satellite dishes adorning the rooftop, the small bird seized a gust of
wind and flew away in search of more edible offerings.
The Coast Guard weather station on Yunaska Island was as tranquil as it
was remote. Situated midway along the Aleutian chain of islands,
Yunaska was one of dozens of volcanic uprisings that curved off the
Alaskan mainland like an arched tentacle. Barely seventeen miles
across, the island was distinguished by two dormant volcano peaks at either end, which were separated by rolling grass hills.
Absent a single tree or high shrub, the green island rose like an
emerald from the surrounding frigid ocean waters in the late spring.
Lying central to the North Pacific currents, Yunaska was an ideal
location for tracking sea and atmospheric conditions that would brew
into full-fledged weather fronts as they moved eastward toward North
America. In addition to collecting weather data, the Coast Guard
station also served as a warning and rescue relay station for troubled
fishermen working the surrounding marine-rich waters.
The site could hardly be considered a paradise for the two men assigned
to man the station. The nearest village was ninety miles away across
open water, while their home base in Anchorage was more than a thousand
miles distant. The isolated inhabitants were on their own for a
three-week stint until the next pair of volunteers was airlifted in.
Five months out of the year, brutal winter weather conditions forced
closure of the station except for minimal remote operations. But from
May to November, the two-man crew was on call around the clock.
Despite the seclusion, meteorologist Ed Stimson and technician Mike
Barnes considered it a plum assignment. Stimson enjoyed being in the
field to practice his science while Barnes relished the time off he
would accrue after working a station shift, which he would spend
prospecting in the Alaskan backcountry.
“I'm telling you, Ed, you're going to have to find a new partner after
our next R&R. I found a fissure of quartz in the Chugach Mountains
that would knock your socks off. I know there's got to be a thick,
juicy gold vein lying right beneath it.”
“Sure, just like that strike you made wild claims about on the McKinley
River,” Stimson chided. Barnes had a naive sense of optimism that
always amused the elder meteorologist.
“Just wait till you see me driving around Anchorage in my new Hummer,
then you'll believe,” replied Barnes somewhat indignantly.
“Fair enough,” Stimson replied. “In the meantime, can you check
the anemometer mounting? The wind readings have stopped recording
“Just don't file a claim on my gold field while I'm up on the roof,”
Barnes grinned while pulling on a heavy coat.
“Not to worry, my friend. Not to worry.”
Two miles to the east, Sarah Matson cursed leaving her gloves back in
the tent. Although the temperature was almost fifty, an offshore
breeze made it feel much cooler. Her hands were wet from crawling over
some sea-washed boulders and the sensitivity was evaporating from her
fingertips. Climbing across a gully, she tried to forget about her icy
hands and concentrate on moving closer to her quarry. Stepping quietly
along a boulder-strewn path, she eased herself slowly to a prime
vantage point beside a shallow rock outcropping.
Barely thirty feet away lay a noisy colony of Steller's sea lions
basking at the water's edge. A dozen or so of the fat-whiskered
mammals sat huddled together like tourists jammed on the beach at Rio
while another four or five could be seen swimming in the surf. Two
young males barked loudly back and forth at each other, vying for the
attention of a nearby female, who showed not the slightest sign of
interest in either mammal. Several pups slept blissfully oblivious to
the rancor, cuddled up close to their mother's belly.
Pulling a small notepad from her jacket pocket, Sarah began jotting
down particulars about each animal, estimating their age, sex, and
apparent health condition. As accurately as she could, she carefully
observed each sea lion for signs of muscle spasms, eye or nasal
secretions, or excessive sneezing. After nearly an hour of
observation, she replaced the notepad in her pocket, hoping that she
would later be able to read the scribbled handwriting created by her
Slowly retracing her steps, Sarah edged away from the colony and
made her way back across the gully. She found that her original
footsteps had left indentations in the short grass and she easily
followed her imprints leading inland and over a gradual rise. The cool
sea breeze felt refreshing to her lungs as she hiked while the sparse
beauty of the island made her feel energized and full of life. Belying
her slender frame and delicate features, the flaxen-haired woman of
thirty actually relished working outdoors. Growing up in rural
Wyoming, Sarah had spent all her summer days hiking and horseback
riding in the Teton Mountains with a pair of rambunctious brothers. A
love of outdoor wildlife led her to study veterinary medicine at
neighboring Colorado State University. After a number of research
positions on the East Coast, she followed a favorite professor to the
federal Centers for Disease Control with the promise that she wouldn't
be stuck in a lab every day. In the role of field epidemiologist for
the CDC, she was able to combine her passion for wildlife and the
outdoors by helping track the spread of communicable diseases among
animals that posed a health threat to humans.
Finding herself in the Aleutian Islands was just the sort of outdoor
adventure she craved, although the reason behind it tugged at her
animal-loving heart. A mysterious number of sea lion deaths had been
reported along the western Alaska Peninsula, although no known
environmental catastrophe or human-induced culprit was suspected. Sarah
and two associates had been sent from Seattle to diagnose the extent of
the die-off and determine its range of dispersement. Starting with the
outward Aleutian island of Attu, the team had begun island-hopping
eastward, searching for signs of the outbreak while working their way
toward the Alaskan mainland. Every three days, a small seaplane would
pick the team up, then ferry them to the next designated island with a
fresh drop of supplies. The second day on Yu-naska had failed to
reveal indications of the ailment in the local sea lion population,
which added a small sense of relief to Sarah.
Blessed with high cheekbones and soft hazel eyes, the pretty scientist
quickly ambled the two miles back to camp, easily spotting the trio
of bright red tents some distance away. A squat, bearded man wearing a
flannel shirt and a worn Seattle Mariners baseball cap was rummaging
through a large cooler when Sarah approached the campsite.
“Sarah, there you are. Sandy and I were just making plans for lunch,”
Irv Fowler said with a smile. An easygoing man on the thin side of
fifty, Fowler looked and acted like a man ten years his junior.
A petite redheaded woman crawled out of one of the nearby tents
clutching a pot and ladle. “Irv's always making plans for lunch,”
Sandy Johnson responded with a grin while rolling her eyes.
“How did you two make out this morning?” Sarah inquired as she grabbed
an empty campstool and sat down.
“Sandy's got the stats. We checked a large colony of Steller's on the
eastern beach and they all looked fat and healthy. I found one
cadaver, but by all appearances the fellow looked like he expired from
old age. I took a tissue sample for lab analysis just to be sure.”
While he spoke, Fowler pumped the primer on a propane gas camp stove,
then lit the hissing gas escaping beneath the burner, the blue flame
igniting with a poof.
“That's consistent with what I observed as well. It appears that the
affliction has not spread to the sea lions of charming Yunaska,” Sarah
replied, her eyes sweeping the green landscape around them.
“We can check the colony on the west coast of the island this
afternoon, since our pilot won't be back to pick us up until
“That will be a bit of a hike. But we can stop for a chat at the Coast
Guard station, which I recall our pilot saying was manned this time of
“In the meantime,” Fowler announced, placing the large pot on the
portable stove, “it's time for the specialty of the house.”
“Not that fire-belching-” Sandy tried to declare before being cut
“Yes, indeed. Cajun chili du jour,” Fowler grinned, while scraping the
lumpy brown contents of a large tin can into the heated pot.
“As they say in N'Awlins,” Sarah said with a laugh, “Laisse^ k bon
Ed Stimson peered intently at a weather radar monitor watching a slight
buildup of white electronic clouds fuzz up the upper portion of the
green screen. It was a moderate storm front, some two hundred miles to
the southwest, that Stimson accurately predicted would douse their
island with several days of soggy weather. His concentration was
interrupted by a rapping sound overhead. Barnes was still up on the
tin roof fooling with the anemometer.
Static-filled chatter suddenly blared through the hut from a radio set
mounted on a corner wall. Nearby fishing boats, their captains yakking
about the weather, constituted most of the garbled radio traffic
received on the island. Stimson did his best to tune out the
meaningless chatter and, at first, failed to detect the odd whooshing
sound. It was a low resonance emanating from outside. Then the radio
fell silent for a moment and he could clearly hear a rushing sound in
the distance, something similar to a jet aircraft. For several long
seconds, the odd noise continued, seeming to diminish slightly in
intensity before ending altogether in a loud crack.
Thinking it might be thunder, Stimson adjusted the scale view on his
weather radar to a twenty-mile range. The monitor showed only a light
scattering of clouds in the immediate vicinity, with nothing resembling
thunderheads. Must be the Air Force up to some tricks, he figured,
recalling the heavy air traffic in the Alaskan skies during the days of
the Cold War.
His thoughts were broken by a crying wail outside the door from the pet
husky named Max.
“What is it, Max?” Stimson called out while opening the door to the
The Siberian husky let out a death-shrieking howl as it turned,
shaking, toward his master in the doorway. Stimson was shocked to see
the dog's eyes glazed in a vacant stare while thick white foam oozed
his mouth. The dog stood teetering back and forth for a moment, then
keeled over on its side, hitting the ground with a thud.
“Jesus! Mike, get down here quick,” Stimson yelled to his partner.
Barnes was already climbing down the ladder from the roof but was
having a hard time catching the rungs with his feet. Nearing the
ground, he missed the last rung with his left foot altogether and
lurched to the ground, staying semierect only by a hearty hand grasp on
the ladder's rung.
“Mike, the dog just ... are you okay?” Stimson asked, realizing
something was not right. Running to his partner's side, he found
Barnes in a state of labored breathing, and his eyes were nearly as
glassy as Max's. Throwing his arm around the younger man's shoulder,
Stimson half carried, half dragged Barnes into the shack and set him
down in a chair.