Target Practice
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Target Practice

Sometimes we shot real torpedoes at each other. They didn’t have warheads, of course, but in all other respects they were regular torpedoes. Two submarines went out and practiced on each other, taking turns portraying the surface target. We set the running depth on the torpedoes, or fish, to pass well below the target ship, and we added special oil to the torpedo engine to make it leave a smoke trail coming up out of the water.

The exercise torpedoes arrived from the torpedo shop with a phony warhead. It made the torpedo lighter than water, so it floated at the end of its run. Each submarine took pains to recover each exercise torpedo that it shot, and to bring it back aboard.

To hoist the torpedo back aboard the submarine, we surfaced and headed for where the torpedo should have stopped when it ran out of fuel. Somehow, we always managed to find the ones that we shot. We sent the Weapons Officer and several "deck apes" out onto the forward deck, and they installed a davit, which is a small curved mast or boom. Each of these sailors was attached to the boat with a strong leash that was connected to a track running the length of the deck. They wore parachute harnesses connected to the leashes.

One sailor with a life jacket went into the water and attached a line to the torpedo. Other sailors ran the line through a sheave at the end of the davit, and put the line around the capstan. They installed the skid that guided torpedoes to the special torpedo loading hatch. Then they hoisted the torpedo out of the water using the hydraulically powered capstan.

Once the 3,000-pound torpedo was swinging from the davit, the sailors had to manually rotate the davit so that the torpedo was over the skid, and then manually align the torpedo with the skid. The boat usually took an especially large roll just as the torpedo was swinging freely among the sailors on the deck.

The torpedo was lowered onto the skid, and the sailors guided it through the hatch and down into the torpedo room. Tons of water sometimes slid down through the hatch with the torpedo, but that was expected. The hatch was shut as soon as possible, and the davit, skid, and capstan head were all stowed. The wet sailors then went below, to the torpedo room, to continue wrestling with the fish.

Once the ton and a half of stubborn steel was in the torpedo room, all the handling was done manually. Chainfalls and come-alongs were important tools for wrestling with the slippery wet fish. There was very little elbow room available for handling torpedoes below decks, so the effort required a lot of teamwork.

The torpedoes were originally designed to be fired only once, so they were in bad shape after even one practice firing. Sometimes we just returned them to the torpedo shop ashore, but other times our torpedomen overhauled them aboard the boat and kept them in our inventory. One time we fired the same torpedo on three consecutive days.

One thing I learned during my stint as weapons officer was that the fish seemed to have personalities. I could never tell them apart, but the torpedomen apparently could, because they took pains to yell at them and call them lots of insulting names whenever they had to wrestle with a loose fish. The entire process seemed to require lots of yelling, even when an outsider could not see a need for it.

When the weapons gang had successfully fired, recovered, fired, and recovered a torpedo, they grinned, slapped each other on the back, and said to each other, "You're a real torpeckerman!"

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