Sorry No Ice Cream

The following appeared in the 30 May 1953 edition of The New Yorker magazine

  SORRY, NO ICE CREAMBy: Nathaniel G. Benchley

There is something unnatural about an explosion at sea. In a land explosion, the surrounding area becomes a part of a pattern; at sea, everything outside the explosion area remains calm and serene and just as it was before, with the result that beauty and terror are mixed in sharp and, for the moment, unbelievable contrast. The pictures of the atomic-bomb tests at Eniwetok and, more recently, off Australia will illustrate this point for anyone who cares to look at them long enough to analyze them. I prefer not to look at them.

In the early summer of 1945, my ship was part of a convoy that was going from Okinawa to the Philippines. It was a strange kind of convoy, because, possibly for the first time in naval history, the escorts outnumbered the ships being convoyed; there was so much protection that everybody felt vaguely self-conscious. In our league, there were usually about three PCs- submarine chasers- to guard a dozen or more ships; this time, we had eight ships and a screen of nine escorts, most of which were PCs and the smaller SCs, and the escort commander was the destroyer-escort Underhill, a larger and more powerful ship than any we had worked with for a long time. All this was not because the convoy was particularly important; it was simply because the ships that were going to the Philippines had been held in Okinawa until there were enough of them to make up a convoy, and by sheer chance there were more escort vessels than anything else. At any rate, this unbalance, plus the fact that we were leaving the combat zone for the rear area, made us all feel a little silly, and as we filed out of Okinawa one sunny afternoon, we behaved like schoolboys going home for vacation. On my ship, the PC 1251, most of the crew were reading their newly arrived mail, the executive officer and the communications officer were playing cribbage, and the gunnery officer was making peanut-butter fudge.

The Underhill, our immediate superior, was a well-run and, in Navy parlance, a happy ship. A few days before, we had gone alongside to deliver some charts to her and had noticed not only that she was cleanly and efficiently handled but also that there was a good deal of lighthearted clowning among the nonworking members of the crew, and that there was none of the sullen weariness that distinguishes a badly run ship. She had just come from the Atlantic, where she had been working in much faster company than that in which she now found herself, and it was clear that the morale on board was high because the men were good, and knew they were good. Strangely enough, you can tell a thing like that without ever setting foot on a ship or talking to any of the men. It stands out, as though spelled in lights, and on the Underhill it stood out as clearly as on any ship I’ve ever seen.

It was evident, in the first few days of the trip, that the Underhill was going to run an efficient screen. We had drills, and we zigzagged, and we even had gunnery practice, with the Underhill throwing up anti-aircraft shells and letting us fire at the black smoke puffs. One PC was stationed way out in front, as a scout, and another was stationed in the rear, as a rescue ship, and in every detail the convoy was run like an instructor’s dream. The contagion of efficiency spread from the Underhill to the other ships, and we felt that we could take on any Japanese who might be so rash as to try to intercept us. The mere sight of all the escorts made us laugh, although our laughter was undoubtedly also stimulated partly by the fact that we were by now out of the forward combat zone.

One morning, when we had been out a week, the Underhill picked up an unidentified aircraft on her radar, and all the escorts closed smartly in to their anti-aircraft stations, but the aircraft stayed more than seven miles away and after a while it disappeared, and we went back to our normal screening stations, slightly let down at not having had a chance to prove our efficiency. It was a brilliant, fire-hot day, and the glassy sea sparkled in the sun, and after getting the ship back on station I turned it over to the officer of the deck and went down to the comparative coolness of the wardroom. Howard Tampke, a chunky blond from Texas, who was the gunnery officer, was playing solitaire at the wardroom table, while Wallace Roth, the executive officer, was manicuring his nails with a hunting knife.

"Who’s winning the war?" Roth asked me as I came in.
"Search me," I said, and sat down.

"I heard that in Guam the birdmen have a pool on it," Tampke said. "They got a million-dollar pool that says the war will be over by October. You can dip into it for any money you want."

"Did they say October what year?" I asked.
"I don’t know," Tampke replied. "I just heard October."

Roth yawned, stretched, and put the hunting knife back in his sheath. "Well, I’m going to take a nap," he said, and got up. "Let me know if it’s over before lunch." He went into the radio room, then clattered down the ladder to the officer’s quarters.

Tampke finished his solitaire, and he an I started a game of cribbage. We played quietly, lulled by the vibration of the engines and the gentle, almost imperceptible rocking of the ship. After a while, there was a knock at the door and the signalman came in. He handed me a message, and waited while I read it. It was from the Underhill, and it read, in part, "It occurs to me that you people might like some ice cream. I will give you five gallons of ice cream to three ships a day in the following order of rotation," and listed the order in which the ships were to come alongside the Underhill. We were the second on the list. I initialed the message and passed it to Tampke, who read it and gave it back to the signalman. The signalman left, smiling.

"That’s pretty damned nice," I said. I reached up and flicked the switch on the intercom radio, and asked to have the cook sent up to the wardroom. "He didn’t have to do a thing like that," I said to Tampke.

Tampke shrugged. "I guess he’s just a good guy," he said, and shuffled the cards. "Last ship I was on, we had chickens."

"To eat?" I asked.
"Well, they were supposed to be for eggs," Tampke said. "We kept them in a coop on the fantail, but somehow they just kept disappearing. I guess somebody ate them."

"You should have kept them locked up," I said.
"Don’t be a dreamer, Captain," Tampke said. "Your deal." He put the cards in front of me.

The cook knocked at the wardroom door and came in, holding his hat in his hands. "You wanted me, sir?" he said.
Yes," I said. It seems that the Underhill-the DE-is going to give us five gallons of ice cream, if we came alongside with a container to take it in."

The cook’s eyes widened. "Christ, Captain!" he exclaimed. "What kind ice cream?"

"I don’t know," I said. "Just break out some kind of can, and we’ll find out when we get alongside the DE. It won’t be for a half hour or more, probably."

"Aye, aye, sir," said the cook, and jammed his hat on his head and disappeared. As we ran down the deck, we could hear him shouting, "Ice cream, you bastards!" Ice cream!"

Tampke and I went back to our cribbage, and after a while the intercom opened up with a cackle. "Bridge to wardroom," it said. "Is the captain there?"

I pressed the talking switch. "Go ahead."
"Captain, the DE says hold off on the ice cream deal. He’s spotted a mine and he’s going to sink it."
"O.K.," I replied.
Tampke had picked up his new hand and was arranging the cards. "I get two for cutting the jack," he said. "I took them already."

I had just got my hand arranged when the intercom opened up again. "Captain, the convoy is changing course," it said. "The mine is just ahead of them. They’re coming over this way." By "convoy" he meant all the other ships. Our screening station was about two miles from the main body of the convoy.

"It’ll be right up," I said, and put my hand face down on the table. To Tampke, I said, "No fair peeking," and then went out and up to the flying bridge.

Tampke came up on the bridge, squinting in the sudden glare of the sun. "Hasn’t he sunk it yet?" he asked, looking back at the DE.

The sun was hotter than before, and the bridge railing burned to the touch. The sea and sky were blazing, brilliant blue, and far off, astern of the convoy, was a small cluster of puffy cumulus clouds. The ships had turned and were heading in our direction, all except the Underhill. I could see that she had stopped dead in the water. By using the binoculars, I could also see a small, black dot in the water ahead of her, with little dashes of spray spurting up around it from the DE’s 20-mm. guns. I steered our ship out, to leave more room for the convoy, and then watched the Underhill become smaller as we drew away from her.

Tampke came up on the bridge, squinting in the sudden glare of the sun. "Hasn’t he sunk it yet?" he asked, looking back at the DE.

"I guess not," I replied.

"I was about to call you anyway," the officer of the deck said to me. "We were next in line for the ice cream."

The intercom on the bridge sputtered, and the voice of the radioman came on. "Tell the captain the DE says he’s got a sub contact," it said. "He’s leaving the mine to chase the contact."

Through the glasses, I could see that the Underhill had changed course. She was rapidly becoming smaller.

"Five will get you seven it’s a whale," Tampke remarked. "Last ship I was on, we got two whales, one certain and one probable."

"This guy’s just out of the Atlantic," I replied. "He probably thinks every contact he gets is a sub."

"DE says he’s making a run now," said the intercom.

The Underhill was by this time about three miles astern of the convoy, but I could see the small puffs of smoke as depth charges were launched from the side throwers, and then the fountains of dirty gray water as the charges went off. At that distance, there was no noise, and no perceptible movement.

"DE says he thinks he got it," said the intercom.

"He sure uses his radio a lot," Tampke observed.

"Doctrine," I said. "That what the book says you should do."

"I never knew anyone to follow the book like that, though," Tampke replied. "He must be a trade-school boy. And I still bet he’s just got a whale."

"Probably," I said.

On our ship, the word of the Underhill’s chase had spread quickly, and members of the crew began to appear on the deck in various stages of undress, all looking back at the slowly disappearing speck on the horizon.

"DE says he’s got a sub on the surface," came the radioman’s voice. "He’s chasing it and is going to ram."

I strained my eyes looking through the glasses, but the Underhill was beginning to shimmer in the horizon heat waves, and for a moment I lost sight of her. Then I saw a small burst of smoke, and thought excitedly that she might have exploded the sub, but the smoke turned into a boil of orange flame and started to rise straight upward; it bubbled and boiled and churned in a curdling of orange and black until it got up to about ten thousand feet, and then the smoke flattened out and mushroomed dirtily into the base of the white cumulus clouds. The Underhill disappeared from sight. Around me, I heard the comments of the crew.

"That was the DE that blew up."

"Christ, did she go!"

"That was the DE."

"There ain’t no survivors there."

"Where’s the DE?"

"She blew up."

"Jesus, look at that smoke!"

"There’s nobody getting off that ship."

"That sombitch certainly blew up."

"You can’t see nothing but smoke."

The smoke lifted a bit from the horizon, and underneath it was a tiny spot that seemed to be spurting steam. It disappeared as I watched. A lonely, hollow feeling came over me, and I lowered the glasses and looked at Tampke. His face was without expression, and his eyes were fixed on the horizon. The intercom opened up, and we both jumped.

"PC 804 is going back to look for survivors," it said.

For a long while, nobody said anything. Then the radio began to chatter with reports from several ships, and it appeared that the water astern of the convoy was swarming with small submarines. (We learned that they were actually one-man torpedoes, run by kamikaze pilots. They had been launched from a mother sub guided into our path by the aircraft that had tailed us that morning.)

Then, with almost mechanical precision, the convoy flew apart. The PC 804 asked for another ship to help hunt for survivors; one of the SCs broke down and had to be taken in tow; we got a contact that passes directly beneath us, and when we chased it and tried to drop depth charges, the depth-charge-release bell didn’t work; and within a short time it seemed as though there weren’t three ships in the convoy that were going in the same direction. I remember the rest of the afternoon indistinctly, and it seemed that sunset came upon us quite fast. I do remember, however, that the dark mushroom of smoke from the Underhill hung in the sky until the last pink streaks of afterglow were blotted out by the oncoming night.
 


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