Captain Jake Rogers’ decrepit cargo ship pitched and rolled in a brutal North Sea storm, its engines straining against the churning sea in the middle of a war zone. Mountainous waves crashed into and over the bow in an unrelenting fury.
Rogers had seen plenty of trouble in his years commanding the Peggy C, an outdated but usually reliable ship. A three-island tramp steamer, she sailed without a set schedule, the captain going port to port and begging for cargo, and not asking too many questions about what it was or where it was from, only where it was going and how much would he be paid.
Another wave rattled the ship. The Peggy C had been through a lot over the years, but the old girl had never let Rogers down.
This time felt different.
Its rusty hull shuddered and moaned every time it plunged from towering crest to trough. The wire rope-stays screeched like violin strings fighting to hold the towering masts aloft. Far too often, the Peggy C’s propeller raced and whined when a wave thrust the stern out of the water. The North Sea could be treacherous, especially in late autumn when the freezing north winds came howling in from Iceland, chopping up the shallow waters and mudflats around the small islands dotting the Dutch coast. These waters were already troubled by dangerous tides caused when the Atlantic Ocean smashed north through the English Channel into currents rushing south from the Norwegian Sea.
With one hand, Rogers, for balance, clutched the icy railing on the bridge deck outside the three-story high wheelhouse. With the other hand, he struggled to focus his rain-splattered binoculars on something in the murky distance. From his charts, he knew dangerous shoals and shallows were out there somewhere; in his gut, he suspected they were way too close. And his ship couldn’t seem to muster enough power to avert the looming disaster.
American flags flapping on the masts and the spotlit ones painted on the hull showed the Peggy C to be from a neutral country. But Rogers worried there was little chance a passing warship, in the dreary fog of war, would be able to see the flags before blasting away at another victim. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, there were rumors of rogue mines floating into these sea lanes and sinking cargo ships.
For two years since the war started in 1939, the Peggy C and her ragtag crew had dodged the mines and torpedoes and random naval duels from Africa to the North Sea, managing to eke out a living while the competition dwindled. Outside the protection of a convoy, fewer and fewer commercial ships dared ply these waters. Though Germany’s focus had shifted to the Russian and Mediterranean fronts, too many trigger-happy U-boat captains still lurked about in search of trophies from sunken tonnage.
The situation was truly dire and desperate. Rogers loved every minute of it.
A ghost of a smile crossed his windburned face, etched with tiny crow’s feet around hazel eyes—eyes hardened by years of squinting at threatening storms on the horizon, of staring down edgy sailors with balled-up fists and bad ideas, of calculating the odds in life-or-death situations on an unforgiving sea. All that made Rogers appear older than his thirty-eight years. For captains, sea years were more like dog years.
He was tall and gaunt, with the easy grace of an athlete who’d spent lots of summers on dusty baseball fields, growing strong, quick, and singularly focused on one thing—winning. That penchant had earned him a scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy, a lucky break for a poor kid from a broken Baltimore family who dreamt and read voraciously about life at sea.
In a raging storm like this, with mast-high spumes of water lashing his ship, the adrenaline, the pounding heartbeat in his ears, the rapid breathing all exhilarated rather than terrified him. Calm seas were the enemy of the mind, leaving way too much time to dwell on the past, on what-ifs, on terrible things that could never be changed. And nothing so focused the mind as a nearly hopeless challenge.
Rogers glanced over his shoulder at the helmsman in the wheelhouse, a bug-eyed kid standing erect. Though outwardly trying to show fearlessness, he was clasping the large wooden wheel’s peg handles so tightly that his fingers had turned white.
“Chief says we’ve got some power back, but not enough to steer us safely into Amsterdam!” First Mate Ali Nidal shouted into Rogers’ ear. “We have to wait out the storm!”
Without taking his attention off the horizon, Rogers handed Nidal the binoculars and pointed off the starboard bow.
“What’s that look like?” Rogers asked, hunching forward against the biting ocean spray, holding tight to his white captain’s hat.
Nidal pressed the binoculars to his eyes, moving his head left to right and back again before spotting flashing lights. Rogers knew the swarthy Tunisian’s pockmarked face, coal-black eyes, and perpetual frown made overworked crew members worry about whether he was staring at them calmly, or menacingly—a quality Rogers actually found useful.
“S-O-S,” Nidal said in a slight French accent that sometimes made him hard to understand. But it also was useful for Rogers to have a second-in-command who spoke Arabic, French, Spanish, and English and could more easily deal with a polyglot crew.
“That’s what I thought.”
“We will pray for their souls,” said Nidal, handing back the binoculars, emotionless as always. “Further away from shore.”
Rogers peered through the binoculars. “Yeah, that’d be the smart move.”
Rogers, Nidal, and three other sailors in oil-skin jackets and rain hats hung over the Peggy C’s starboard bulwark on the main deck as they tossed roped life rings to six men in a lifeboat bouncing in the angry sea below. Their crippled cargo ship was nearby, giving off its last flickering burst of light and steam before being sucked under the water. The men in the lifeboat stretched out their hands as far as they could for the rings, but the gale-force winds kept blowing salvation out of reach. Out of nowhere, a rogue wave crashed over their lifeboat, swallowing it whole like Jonah’s whale. One second it was there with its six forlorn passengers; the next, it wasn’t.
“Oh my God! Where the hell did they go?” Rogers asked in horror. He shined a hand-held Aldis message lamp on the foaming gray water and moved it in a circle, checking for any sign of movement, any sign of life, hoping against hope that the hungry sea would relent for just a moment and spit out her quarry. Was that a hand? Hands? Rogers focused the light on the apparitions he thought he saw. Three heads popped up. Three men flailed about in the freezing water, shouting in vain to be heard over the crashing waves and howling wind. “There! There!” Rogers shouted, pointing with the lamp. “Throw the rings over there!”
Nidal and the others hurled the roped life rings into the wind; they kept blowing back short of the fading survivors, who eventually managed somehow to fight the current and grab the rings, holding on for dear life as they were dragged through the frigid water toward the ship. Pulling them aboard was an arduous task for Nidal and his men. The survivors, in their soaked winter coats and boots, felt like 300-pound halibuts thrashing and fighting every inch of the way. As the rescuers fought to haul their catch onboard, the slippery rope tore the skin off their frozen hands. One by one, though, they reeled in the three survivors, stretching them out on the deck and pumping their chests to clear their lungs of the saltwater. The men coughed and choked up whatever they had eaten that day, at the same time fighting for breath.
Rogers kept circling the area with his lamp, searching for the other three men, leaning further and further over the rail to get a better angle. Without warning, the Peggy C plunged into a trough, and a wave crashed over the bulwark. Rogers, whose hands were on the binoculars and spotlight, was propelled upward. Looking down at his watery grave and cursing his losing hand, he had no smart move to get out of another mess, no way to fix things, and he almost felt regret as his body was being flung overboard.
The plunge stopped with a sharp jerk, shooting pain from Rogers’ right ankle up his spine and then to his neck. His head banged on the steel hull, scraping his face as he was dragged up and over the railing and back onto the heaving deck. A brawny African flipped Rogers onto his back, inspecting him for what damage needed repair, and nodded when it was clear his captain was only bruised.
“Thanks, Obasi!” Rogers shouted, gulping in cold saltwater air to catch his breath. “Again!”
Obasi lifted Rogers to his feet as easily as if he were a doll and patted him on the back, grinning. They both rushed over to help the others tend to the drenched survivors huddled on the deck. A crackling bolt of lightning reminded everyone of an ominous threat: the still smoldering cargo ship had not, after all, entirely disappeared beneath the surface. Its jagged bow lurked just yards away, the equivalent of a steel iceberg waiting to shear the Peggy C apart.
Through the pouring rain, Rogers glanced up at the wheelhouse for a hopeful sign, but Able Seaman J.J. McAllister, the helmsman, kept spinning the wheel and raising his hands high, indicating there was nothing he could do without more power. The Peggy C would drift wherever the heartless sea damn well wanted to send her.
Below deck, in the dimly lit engine room, Chief Engineer Giovanni Turani took a slippery wrench and turned a bolt on a piston. Sweat pouring down his reddened face, he interspersed whispered Italian curses with louder prayers to the Virgin Mary. The problem was that the boilers were only able to engage one of the engine’s three pistons that powered the single shaft and screw. Turani should have been frantic, but that wasn’t in his nature. A methodical engineer, he always worked step by step to solve a problem, knowing that haste created even more problems.
“Move, damn you!” he finally shouted in frustration. “Give me a larger wrench.” Assistant Engineer Nathan Dunawa, a mulatto from St. Vincent, dug through a toolbox and handed what he figured Turani wanted. Clank! Turani smashed the wrench on the bolt and pistons. Clank. The piston moved ever so slightly. Turani did a short jump for joy, wiped his face with a dirty rag, and, with Dunawa’s help, turned the bolt until the frozen pistons started pumping again. Picking up speed after a moment, the three pistons rumbled to a glorious roar of metal on metal. Dunawa stepped over to the circular engine order telegraph and jerked the handles left and right, to ring the wheelhouse above with the news. He stopped only when the arrow pointed to “full speed ahead.”
In the wheelhouse, McAllister, a young Scot, swung the wheel around and, his ruddy face covered in beads of sweat, focused out the windows. This was his first time alone at the helm, a rare duty for someone so young—he had just turned twenty—and who didn’t have many voyages under his belt. Rogers had taken a liking to him. What with his sunny disposition and willingness to learn, McAllister reminded him of himself at the same age.
The fired-up pistons vibrated the deck as Rogers wrapped blankets around the three survivors, all staring in horror at the remains of their ship drawing closer by the second. Looking to the wheelhouse above, Rogers saw McAllister give a thumbs up as he steered the Peggy C just clear of the wreck. Rogers caught Nidal’s attention and winked. The first mate’s blank face made it clear he was not amused.
The trembling survivors were moved to the crew’s mess, where they were greeted by Cookie, a portly Brit with molted jowls, tuffs of white hair dotting his bald head, and the twinkling eyes of everyone’s favorite grandfather. Amiable and a bit daffy, he told everyone he hated his nickname but had learned to live with it because he was, in fact, the ship’s cook. He would hasten to add, when introduced, that he was also the ship’s chief medical officer, a title he gave himself because he was the only one on board who knew anything about setting broken bones and patching wounds. By necessity, he was self-taught, having learned anatomy from carcasses, deboning chickens and, for the most part, trial and error.
“Put him on the table and grab him tight,” Cookie said, hobbling over on his bad hip. Nidal and Seamus, a timorous red-headed Irishman who always wore both suspenders and a belt, placed one of the survivors on a table and held him down as he moaned and twisted in agony. Cookie leaned over and inspected him from head to toe. “Hold still, mate,” Cookie said, nodding for Nidal and Seamus to tighten their grips. “This won’t hurt a bit.” With a loud snap, Cookie yanked the delirious sailor’s right shoulder bone back into its socket. The poor man screamed, then passed out. Nidal did his best to cover him with a ragged blanket.
To the other two survivors, Rogers carried steaming cups of coffee, tins of biscuits, and a slab of butter. Their lips blue, the three survivors sat dazed and shivering at a separate table, clutching blankets.
“Fifteen? For what? I ask you,” the larger and younger of the two asked of no one, his face contorted in anguish. “The Old Man said not to worry—”
“Are they all really gone?” the older one interrupted, rising and staggering toward the door. “Let’s have a look.”
Rogers steered him back to his seat with a gentle arm around his shoulder. “Sorry, old-timer.”
“Target practice they made of us,” the old timer said. With a wild look in his eye, he snatched Rogers’ arm off of him. “We tried to surrender,” he said in a shaky voice. “White flag and all. The boarding party said nary a word.”
“Bloody Brauer’s crew, it was!” his young companion yelled hysterically.
Rogers eyed Nidal and the rest of his crew in the room, grown silent and paying close attention. “Brauer doesn’t exist,” Rogers said a little too loudly for the benefit of his crew and added: “British propaganda. You need to rest.”
“No!” the old-timer screeched, trying to elbow Rogers out of the way. “We have to be ready! U-boats don’t care about neutrals no more!” Tears poured down his face. Rogers held onto him, letting him sob while guiding him to sit and drink his coffee. The captain buttered one of the biscuits and offered it to the old timer, but he pushed it away.
“Fifteen mates. All of ’em gone,” the younger survivor repeated over and over, unable to grasp the enormity of the loss. Pulling a blanket over his head, he slipped to the floor and curled up into a quivering ball.
Rogers had cargo to drop off in Amsterdam and hopes of picking up another load there, but his heart sank as he watched the survivors and realized life had changed. The war, once remote and avoidable, more often than not, was now all too real, and things were heating up. The sinking of the SS Robin Moor off the coast of Sierra Leone by a U-boat in May had been the first reported attack on an American merchant ship, but there had been two others since, the SS Steel Seafarer in September in the Gulf of Suez, and the SS Leigh off the coast of Africa in October. So far, no U.S. merchant ship had been attacked in the North Atlantic or the North Sea. But, within the last month, U-boat wolfpacks had fired on two American destroyers, sinking one and sparking an international incident that nearly drew America into the war.
Maybe, Rogers thought, he should dock the Peggy C for good, but then what? The sea was all he knew. The thirty-year-old ship was well past its life expectancy but had been his home for years. And what about the crew? Was it fair to expose them to the horrors these poor survivors had gone through? Sure, they knew the risks, and they needed the money. Still, Rogers believed their safety was his responsibility. He had always warned his men never to gamble for more than they could afford to lose. Now, despite his concern for his crew, despite all the setbacks, and even despite the war, he decided he still liked his chances.