Sunday, November 8, 2015


Karl Gunther left the submarine at the end of his shift. The crew usually slept in the base crew's quarters rather than in the submarine itself. In spite of the comfortable accommodations in the boat, they preferred the fresh air of the outside to the machine-purified air of the submarine. Even meals were taken in the base mess hall. The boat was large, to be sure, but nobody wanted to stay inside any longer than necessary.

Gunther crossed the gangplank to the pier and encountered his roommate, Erich Naumann, talking with another crewmember. They were having a discussion about the new sub commander but broke up when Gunther arrived.

"What was that about," Gunther asked. "Already in trouble with the new captain, are we?" Gunther smiled at the thought.

Naumann shook his head. "That new captain seems tough. Did you hear what he said? We could be ordered to do other work if he thinks it's necessary. Kohl thinks it's a bad development. I think it's a reasonable idea. That's what we were discussing." Gunther and Naumann continued their conversation as they started walking toward their quarters.

"I don't like it," Gunther said. "We're not real submarine people. We're technicians and our job is to take care of the reactor. No one else knows our job so that makes us special. If we injure ourselves while scrubbing the deck plates, for example, we'll be short-handed. No, I think Meyer had better straighten out the captain before he starts assigning us to other jobs."

Naumann shook his head again. "Kohl thought the same thing but I don't think that's what the captain meant. As long as things are peaceful, I think we'll be left alone. It's when there's an emergency that we may be called upon to do other work, like helping the wounded or something. If the boat is damaged, we may be ordered to help with repairs. Of course, the reactor's our responsibility so only off duty technicians can be pulled off to help. I think it's only logical."

"I hope you're right my friend," said Gunther as they entered their quarters. "I hope you're right."

The accommodations in the crew's quarters were similar to the boat's except that it was ashore. Four crewmembers were assigned to a room, each with his own bed, table, and locker. In the case of Gunther and Naumann, however, they were the only occupants of the room since the total number of crewmen were two less than the total number of beds. Naumann laid down on his bed while Gunther climbed up on his table, lifted a portion of the ceiling and took out a small cage.

"I still think you'd better get rid of that pet of yours, Gunther. One of these days, you're going to be found out and I'm going to be in trouble for not reporting you."

The small cage in Gunther's hands contained a small mouse. He whispered to the little animal and took out a piece of meat from his pocket. This he fed to the mouse before putting it back into the ceiling.

"Don't worry too much, Erich. Meyer doesn't do inspections and the only officer that we really have to watch out for is Fischer. The cage's small enough to hide behind the table in case he suddenly tries to surprise us. I don't know why you worry. He's never found little Adolf in the two months that I've had him."

"I'm just saying that we'd be in real trouble if he finds it and it's not just because it's a pet, it's because it's a mouse. If that thing escapes and gets into our food stores, we might be eating mouse droppings and drinking mouse urine and never know it."

Gunther laughed and laid down on his bed and closed his eyes. "Go to sleep Erich. You worry too much."

At another part of the building, a mechanic, Josef Knöbel, was hiding behind some trash bins and crates puffing on a cigarette. Smoking was not prohibited but allowed only during their off-shifts and only in the mess hall. Knöbel was often hiding somewhere trying to sneak a smoke in during his shift. The trash bin area was particularly handy since it was near the machine shop where he was working and someone would have to make the extra effort of going around the crates to get to the trash bins. Even then, Knöbel was lying down on some cartons and old cloths and was hidden from view.

A guard on duty was patrolling the area around the crates when he suddenly paused and sniffed the air. He began following the scent and went around the crates. Spying a wisp of smoke from behind the trash bins, he came upon Knöbel with his eyes closed, cigarette poised above his lips.

"Having a little smoke, are we?" Knöbel was jolted out of his revelry and lost hold of his cigarette and jumped to his feet.

"Just taking a little rest, Rolf, I only need a couple of minutes." Knöbel looked nervously at Rolf and wiped his hands off his pants. "I was just finishing the cigarette when you found me."

Rolf looked at the scattered remnants of about five cigarettes and looked sternly at Josef. 
"Yes, I can see that you've just finished about five cigarettes in, how long? Two minutes?"
Knöbel tried to reason with the guard. "C'mon, Rolf. It's only for a few minutes. I couldn't wait for the end of the shift. I just had to have a smoke."

"Your shift's only started, fool! I should report you to the captain!" Rolf leaned in close to Knöbel's face. "Get out of here!"

Knöbel didn't need any more prodding. He hurriedly left and went back to the machine shop. Rolf gazed at his retreating figure for a few seconds, smiled, and continued his patrol. Behind him, the smoke from Knöbel's cigarette hung in the air.

Most of the men who had gone off shift gathered in the mess hall, some eating, some smoking, and some just talking. A number of them talked about their new captain and all sorts of speculation came up. Some thought the captain was a hard man, while the others thought he was a soft one. A number of them decided to wait and see how the Captain would run the project and whether Meyer, the project engineer, would handle him. Most thought the lieutenant-commander was a nice guy who wasn't much of a disciplinarian. Karl Schmitt had a higher rank but he was more concerned about the submarine than he was about the men. Fischer was the most feared but most respected officer among the lot. The men were a mixed lot, with most of them inexperienced and a few with a few years of service though not in submarines. Only the officers had any time in the iron tubes that brought them to the depths of the sea.

Knöbel's cigarette had landed among a pile of paper. These began to smolder and finally caught but there was no fire as yet. That would come soon. The smoldering began to spread until it reached a pile of gasoline soaked rags, carelessly thrown by the shop mechanics. The fumes on the rags suddenly ignited and the flames began to eat into the rest of the flammable materials in the trash bin area. In just a few minutes, the fire had risen to a height of ten feet and began to heat up the wooden walls of the crew's quarters. By the time someone had seen the fire, the building had also begun to burn.

People were galvanized into action, the mess hall emptying in record time. People ran for the firefighting hoses and began setting them up while someone ran to start the fire pump. Unfortunately, the pump wouldn't start. It had been lying unused for several months and the motor had stuck.

Men watched helplessly as the fire started to eat into the crew's quarters. It was out of control now, the rooms closest to the fire now belching flames out the windows. In Gunther's and Erich's room, the smoke had started to fill the room. Erich suddenly woke up to such thick smoke that he couldn't see Gunther's bed. He stumbled out of bed, finding the air just above the floor to be clear, and crawled for the door calling for Gunther to follow him. He opened the door and ran towards the entrance. Behind him the smoke-filled room suddenly burst into flames.

Several engineers took the hoses and ran for another pump farther along the pier. They connected several hoses together so they could reach the fire. The fire had been raging for about fifteen minutes by the time they got the hoses spraying water. The smoke in the cave was building up but the ventilators were up to the task. The sentries outside the granite rock reported that the seemingly solid rock was producing smoke like a battleship at full speed. Werner told his men that they had to put the fire out before someone noticed a solid lump of rock that seemed to be on fire.

Forty minutes after the fire was first spotted, the flames were at last extinguished. The damage to the crew's quarters was extensive, with about half the rooms unusable. There were several injuries but no fatalities. Karl Gunther had come out of the burning building just as the flames reached his room. His hair was a little singed but he was otherwise alright. Erich put an arm around his friend, relieved that they were both alive. Karl, however, was still despondent.

"My pet mouse is dead."

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