«Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, December 10, 1948Unknown Waters THE WAVES TURNED VICIOUS AND WORSENED ...»
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December 10, 1948Unknown
THE WAVES TURNED VICIOUS AND WORSENED WITH EVERY rush of wind. The calm
weather of the morning transformed from Dr. Jekyll into a vehement Mr. Hyde by late evening.
Whitecaps on the crests of towering waves were lashed into sheets of spray. The violent water and black
clouds merged under the onslaught of a driving snowstorm. It was impossible to tell where water ended
and sky began. As the passenger liner Princess Dou Wan fought through waves that rose like mountains before spilling over the ship, the men on board were unaware of the imminent disaster that was only minutes away. The crazed waters were driven by northeast and northwest gales that simultaneously caused ferocious currents to smash against the ship from two sides. Winds soon reached a hundred miles an hour with waves that crested at thirty feet or more. Caught in the maelstrom, the Princess Dou Wan had no place to hide. Her bow pitched and drove under waves that swept over her open decks and flowed aft and then forward when her stern rose, throwing her wildly spinning propellers free of the water. Struck from all directions, she rolled thirty degrees, her starboard rail along the promenade deck disappearing in a torrent of water. Slowly, too slowly, she sluggishly righted herself and plunged on, steaming through the worst storm in recent history.
Freezing and unable to see through the blinding snowstorm, Second Mate Li Po, who stood watch, ducked back inside the wheelhouse and slammed the door. In all his days of sailing the China Sea, he had never seen swirling snow in the middle of a violent storm. Po did not think the gods were fair to hurl such devastating winds at the Princess after a voyage halfway around the world with less than two hundred miles to go before reaching port. In the past sixteen hours, she had only made forty miles.
Except for Captain Leigh Hunt and his chief engineer down below in the engine room, the entire crew were Nationalist Chinese. An old salt with twelve years in the Royal Navy and eighteen as an officer for three different shipping-company fleets, Hunt had served fifteen of those years as captain. As a boy he went fishing with his father out of Bridlington, a small city on the east coast of England, before shipping out as an ordinary seaman on a freighter to South Africa. A thin man with graying hair and sad, vacant eyes, he was deeply pessimistic about his ship's ability to weather the storm.
Two days earlier, one of the crewmen had called his attention to a crack in the starboard outer hull aft of the single smoke-stack. He would have given a month's pay to inspect the crack now that his ship was enduring incredible stress. He reluctantly brushed the thought aside. It would have been suicide to attempt an inspection under hundred-mile-an-hour winds and the raging water that spilled across the decks. He felt in his bones the Princess was in mortal danger, and accepted the fact that her fate was out of his hands.
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html Hunt stared into the blanket of snow that pelted the wheel-house windows and spoke to his second mate without turning. "How bad is the ice, Mr. Po?
Building rapidly, Captain." "Do you believe we're in danger of capsizing?" Li Po shook his head slowly.
"Not yet, sir, but by morning the load on the superstructure and decks could prove critical if we take on a heavy list."
Hunt thought for a moment, then spoke to the helmsman. "Slay on course, Mr. Tsung. Keep our bow into the wind and waves."
"Aye, sir," the Chinese helmsman replied, feet braced wide apart, hands tightly gripping the brass wheel.
Hunt's thoughts returned to the crack in the hull. He couldn't remember when the Princess Dou Wan had a proper marine inspection in dry dock. Strangely, the crew's uneasiness about leaks, badly rusted hull plates, and weakened and missing rivets was totally lacking. They appeared to ignore the corrosion and the constantly running bilge pumps that strained to carry off the heavy leakage during the voyage. If the Princess had an Achilles' heel, it was her tired and worn hull. A ship that sails the oceans is considered old after twenty years. She had traveled hundreds of thousands of miles scathed by rough seas and typhoons during her thirty-five years since leaving the shipyards. It was little short of a miracle that she was still afloat.
Launched in 1913 as the Lanai by shipbuilders Harland and Wolff for Singapore Pacific Steamship Lines, her tonnage grossed out at 10,758. Her overall length was 497 feet from straight-up-and-down stem to champagne glass-shaped stern with a sixty-foot beam. Her triple-expansion steam engines put out five thousand horsepower and turned twin screws. In her prime she could cut the waves at a respectable seventeen knots. She went into service between Singapore and Honolulu until 1931, when she was sold to the Canton Lines and renamed Princess Dou Wan. After a refit, she was employed running passengers and cargo throughout Southeast Asian ports.
During World War II, she was taken over and fitted out by the Australian government as a troop transport. Heavily damaged after surviving attacks by Japanese aircraft during convoy duty, she was returned to the Canton Lines after the war and served briefly on short runs from Shanghai to Hong Kong, until the spring of 1948, when she was to be sold to the scrappers in Singapore.
Her accommodations were designed to carry fifty-five first-class passengers, eighty-five second-class, and 370 third-class. Normally she carried a crew of 190, but on what was to be her final voyage, she was manned by only thirty-eight.
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html Hunt thought of his ancient command as a tiny island on a turbulent sea engulfed in a drama without an audience. His attitude was fatalistic. He was ready for the beach and the Princess was ready for the scrap yard. Hunt felt compassion for his battle-scarred ship as she wrestled with the full brunt of the storm. She twisted and groaned when inundated by the titanic waves, but she always broke free and punched her bow into the next one. Hunt's only consolation was that her worn-out engines never missed a beat.
Down in the engine room the creaking and groaning of the hull were uncommonly clamorous. Rust danced and flaked off the bulkheads as water began to rise through the walkway gratings. Rivets holding the steel plates were shearing off. They popped out of the plates and shot through the air like missiles.
Usually, the crew was apathetic. It was a common occurrence on ships built before the days of welding.
But there was one man who was touched by the tentacles of fear.
Chief Engineer Ian "Hong Kong" Gallagher was an ox-shouldered, red-faced, hard-drinking, heavily mustached Irish-man who knew a ship in the throes of breaking up when he saw and heard one. Yet fear was pushed from his mind as he calmly turned his thoughts to survival.
An orphan at the age of eleven, lan Gallagher ran away from the slums of Belfast and went to sea as a cabin boy. Nurturing a natural talent for maintaining steam engines, he became a wiper and then a third assistant engineer. By the time he was twenty-seven, he had his papers as chief engineer and served on tramp freighters plying the waters between the islands of the South Pacific. The name Hong Kong was given to him after he fought an epic battle in one of the port city's saloons against eight Chinese dockworkers who tried to roll him. When he turned thirty, he signed on board the Princess Dou Wan in the summer of 1945.
Grim-faced, Gallagher turned to his second engineer, Chu Wen. "Get topside, put on a life vest and be ready to abandon ship when the captain gives the order."
The Chinese engineer pulled the stub of a cigar from his mouth and stared at Gallagher appraisingly.
"You think we're going down?" "I know we're going down," Gallagher replied firmly. "This old rust bucket won't last another hour." "Did you tell the captain?" "He'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to figure it out himself."
"You coming?" asked Chu Wen.
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html "I'll be right behind you," answered Gallagher.
Chu Wen wiped his oily hands on a rag, nodded at the chief engineer and made his way up a ladder to a hatch leading to the upper decks.
Gallagher took one final look at his beloved engines, certain they would soon be lying in the deep. He stiffened as an unusually loud screech echoed throughout the hull. The aged Princess Dou Wan was tormented by metal fatigue, a scourge suffered by aircraft as well as ships. Extremely difficult to distinguish in calm waters, it only becomes evident in a vessel pounded by vicious seas. Even when new, the Princess would have been hard-pressed to bear up under the onslaught of the waves that pounded her hull with a force of twenty thousand pounds per square inch.
Gallagher's heart froze when he saw a crack appear in a bulkhead that spread downward and then sideways across the hull plates. Starting on the port side, it widened as it progressed to starboard. He snatched up the ship's phone and rang the bridge.
Li Po answered. "Bridge."
"Put the captain on!" Gallagher snapped.
A second's pause, and then, "This is the captain."
"Sir, we've got a hell of a crack in the engine room, and it's getting worse by the minute."
Hunt was stunned. He had hoped against hope that they could make port before the damage turned critical. "Are we taking on water?" "The pumps are fighting a losing battle."
"Thank you, Mr. Gallagher. Can you keep the engines turning until we reach land?" "What time frame do you have in mind?" "Another hour should put us in calmer waters."
"Doubtful," said Gallagher. "I give her ten minutes, no more."
"Thank you, Chief," Hunt said heavily. "You'd better leave the engine room while you still can."
Hunt wearily replaced the receiver, turned and looked out the aft wheelhouse windows. The ship had taken on a noticeable list and was rolling heavily. Two of her boats had already been smashed and swept overboard. Making for the nearest shore and running the ship safely aground was now out of the question. To reach the smoother waters, he would have to make a turn to starboard. The Princess would Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html never survive if she was caught broadside in the maddened waves. She could easily be plunged into a trough without any hope of getting out. Whatever the circumstance, breaking up or the ice building on her superstructure and capsizing her, the ship was doomed.
His mind briefly traveled back sixty days in time and ten thousand miles in distance to the dock on the Yangtze River at Shanghai, where the furnishings from the Princess Dou Wan's staterooms were being stripped in preparation for her final voyage to the scrap yard in Singapore. The departure had been interrupted when General Kung Hui of the Nationalist Chinese Army arrived on the dock in a Packard limousine and ordered Captain Hunt to converse with him inside the car.
"Please excuse my intrusion, Captain, but I am acting under the personal directive of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek." General Kung Hui, skin and hands as smooth and white as a sheet of paper, sat fastidious and immaculate in a tailored uniform that showed no sign of a crease. He took up the entire rear seat in the passengers' compartment as he spoke, while Captain Hunt was forced to sit uncomfortably twisted sideways on a jump seat. "You are hearby ordered to place your ship and crew in a state of readiness for a long voyage."
"I believe there has been a mistake," said Hunt. "The Princess is not in a state of readiness for an extended cruise. She is about to depart with barely enough men, fuel and supplies to make the scrap yard in Singapore."
"You can forget about Singapore," said Hui with an airy wave of one hand. "Ample fuel and food will be provided along with twenty men from our Nationalist Navy. Once your cargo is on board..." Hui paused to insert a cigarette in a long holder and light it. "... I should say in about ten days, you will be given your sailing orders."
"I must clear this with my company directors," argued Hunt. "The directors of Canton Lines have been notified the Princess Dou Wan will be temporarily appropriated by the government."
"They agreed to it?" Hui nodded. "Considering they were generously offered payment in gold by the generalissimo, they were most happy to cooperate."
"After we reach our, or should I say, your destination, what then?" "Once the cargo is safely delivered ashore, you may continue on to Singapore."
"May I ask where we're bound for?" "You may not."
"And the cargo?" "Secrecy will dominate the entire mission. From this minute on, you and your crew will remain on board your ship. No one steps ashore. You will have no contact with friends or family. My men will guard the ship day and night to guarantee strict security."
Generated by ABC Amber LIT Converter, http://www.processtext.com/abclit.html "I see," said Hunt, but obviously he didn't. He could not recall seeing such shifty eyes.
"As we speak," Hui continued, "all your communications equipment is being either removed or destroyed."
Hunt was stunned. "Surely you can't expect me to attempt a voyage at sea without a radio. What if we encounter difficulties and have to send out a call for assistance?" Hui idly held up his cigarette holder and studied it. "I foresee no difficulties."
"You are an optimist, General," said Hunt slowly. "The Princess is a tired ship far beyond her prime. She is ill-prepared to cope with heavy seas and violent storms."
"I cannot impress upon you the importance and great rewards if this mission is carried out successfully.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek will generously compensate you and your crew in gold after you successfully reach port."
Hunt stared out the window of the limousine at the rusting hull of his ship. "A fortune in gold won't do me much good when I'm lying on the bottom of the sea."
"Then we will rest together for eternity." General Hui smiled without humor. "I will be coming along as your passenger."