unter Rohlenheim untangled himself from the jumble of his crewmates’ arms
and legs after the bone-chilling impact that jarred the Hunley. He scrambled
back to his assigned position at crank station five against the violent but
clearly downward pitch of the vessel. He leaned against the slippery film of
condensation beading up and streaking sideways across the
vessel’s hull, then opened his eyes as wide as he could.
The candles, both fore and aft, remained unlit. The phosphorus lamps were
extinguished as well. In the absolute darkness, he saw nothing but blackness.
He listened carefully for any sound that might indicate a breach.
Heel plates on shoes clinked against the cool hull, which in turn creaked from
the outside pressure as the Hunley headed toward the ocean floor. Crewmates
groaned as they wormed out of their entanglement. No sound of gushing water.
No sound of water pissing out from behind a split rivet. For now, the Hunley’s
integrity was sound.
He swallowed hard, holding back surges of vomit coaxed up by the vessel's
violent rocking. He closed his eyes tightly and swallowed hard with his mouth
open, a habit from years of diving, partly to preserve his eardrums from splitting
under rapidly changing pressure, and partly to quell his nausea.
Even if they went to the bottom, it could not be that deep, he thought. But he
was just hoping. He had no clue where they were, but he sensed a slow descent.
How long and how far were only guesses.
“Five fathoms!” the Captain, Lieutenant George Dixon, called from the
absolute darkness. The Hunley’s pitching steadied, but the plunge continued at a
sickening angle. Gunter wondered how Dixon could tell how deep they had
gone. It was pitch black. He certainly could not see the crude manometer he
used as a depth gauge. Maybe just Dixon’s chutzpah. Gunter didn’t know, but the
lie would at least quell any panic.
“Becker, take the pump and keep pumping!” Dixon ordered. Gunter sensed Dixon
was struggling with the dive plane lever. It was the logical thing to do.
“Brace yourselves!” he heard Dixon call out. Gunter struggled to keep
balance. Flailing arms punched him as his crewmates struggled to comply with
the Captain’s order. No questions or debate. At this point, orders were simply
Gunter pushed hard against the hull with his back, hard enough to feel the
rounded hull rivets dig into his thin coat. His clasped hands turned clammy and
cold as he tightly clenched his cloth-wrapped crank handle in a death grip. He
was sure everyone else did the same.
At an agonizing pace, the Hunley’s angle shallowed. A jolt shuddered
through the hull’s metal plates. The spar stabbed the sandy bottom, Gunter
reckoned. The same spar that they skewered into the Housatonic with a charge
so powerful the Federal blockader plunged to a watery grave in minutes. Dixon
had said nothing—he did not have time after he looked, but Gunter was sure the
Housatonic was nothing more than center masts poking through the
Bodies jerked forward again, just enough to squeeze their bony shoulders.
The Hunley stood suspended for a few precarious seconds until the aft section
began a gentle drift downward. It settled to the sandy bottom. The same sandy,
murky bottom he scoured the times the Hunley sank in the bay. He wished he were
still in that cold leather dive suit, sucking stale air through
the life tube connecting him to the surface.
Thirty seconds, Gunter thought. Thirty, maybe forty degrees down. A knot,
maybe two, he thought, then started a calculation. Math always settled his
mind. It was an easy calculation. They were ten fathoms deep, at the most.
He heard the raspy breaths of the five other exhausted crank men. Like him, they
were physically spent from horsing the vessel four miles out and a mile back.
No other sounds now from the dark silence. No panic in the Hunley. No one
clamored toward the hatchways for escape. No one screamed in fear of the
possible death sentence they faced, ten fathoms under water in a fragile tube.
Silently, they obeyed the code of valor.
He leaned forward on his crank handle and rested for a moment. A sweat-
laden, mixed odor of whiskey and acorn-shell, coffee-tainted stench oozed
from every man’s pores, then hovered like a thick soupy haze, like the sweltering
summer night haze he remembered from Mobile. As much as he
hated those suffocating nights, he longed for them now.
The forward area of the vessel flashed to life. Dixon’s face glowed, ghostly
but alive, next to the freshly lit candle he held in his hand. He set it in the
wooden hold near his hatchway, then began rifling through the compartment
at his station at the front of the vessel. The flickering candlelight illuminated
each face. Ghoulish yet comforting shadows moved, confirming that, in fact,
they had survived. Gunter knew he was not alone in fixing his gaze toward Dixon,
who had pulled a watch from his jacket and was comparing it to
“Two hours when the candle goes out,” Frank Collins whispered, leaning
over to J. F. Carlsen, his peg-like teeth beaming as he spoke.
Carlsen nodded. Gunter cracked a grin. It was the first time he could
remember Collins had ever saying anything civil to Carlsen.
“Tell Miller. He didn’t do the duration test neither,” he added.
“Wicks told me.” Gunter politely cut off Carlsen, whose boyish, thick red
hair lay pasted by sweat to his forehead. “But thank you.”
Gunter rested his forehead on the handle of his crank station. He did not
feel he had to correct Collins. He was on the duration test. But it didn’t really
“I reckon about two hours before the tide turns,” Dixon announced, then
folded up his tide chart and stored it. He slipped his watch back into his pocket,
fiddled for a moment, then sighed deeply. A renewed confidence slowly but
clearly crossed his face.
It was the coin, Gunter thought. As courageous as Dixon was, he still used
that coin in his pocket, the coin that saved his life at Shiloh, to harden his
mettle whenever it wavered.
“Report on the chains, Mr. Ridgaway?” Dixon called to the rear over the
crew. All heads turned aft, where Joseph Ridgaway and James Wicks had
already lit another candle and were methodically prodding the gears and
chains. Wicks, the only man on the boat who was close to Gunter’s age, had
weaseled his wiry body back to join Ridgaway at the chains that connected
the gears on the cranks to the propeller outside the vessel. Under the light of
their own candle in the rear hatchway, the two men fidgeted as they
inspected the hardware.
“Looking at them now, sir,” Ridgaway replied. Gunter heard a waver in his
usually assured voice.
Wicks turned his head then waved for Gunter to come back to them. Gunter
slipped past Wicks’s abandoned crank station and joined the pair at the chains.
“Yah know these things better than all of us,” Wicks whispered in Gunter’s
ear. “What do yah think?”
All Gunter needed to see was Ridgaway’s puzzled expression. He worked
between his crewmates to the chains and gears, then brushed his hand over the
cold, sweating metal links. Halfway between the drive and reducing gears, the
chain was twisted and kinked. At the reducing gear, he felt the links had jumped
the teeth. If they tried cranking with that contortion, the torque would snap the
chain and leave them helpless.
“Grab this side and hold it steady,” Gunter said and pointed to the start of
the twist. Ridgaway complied. Gunter then wrapped his hands around the greasy
links, and yanked three times as hard as he could. His hands slipped on the last
tug, peeling skin off his palm, but the effort was worth it. The links popped back
into alignment and over the metal teeth on the reducing gear.
“It will work now,” Gunter said to Ridgaway, who offered back a smile.
“No problem now, sir,” Ridgaway called back to Dixon, then smiled another
thank you to Gunter.
“Good. We’ll make our move in two hours then,” Dixon announced. “The tide’
ll be with us. Gentlemen, get some rest. The one more task ‘fore we get back to
Charleston will need to wait just a tad.”
Dixon’s suggestion might just as well have been an order. Gunter slipped
back to his station and turned back toward the front of the vessel. He glanced
through the faces: Carlsen, Collins, Seamus Lumpkin, then Arnold Becker and
Dixon, in the front tower. He had officially been assigned to the crew for only
two months, but he already knew every one of the men who
now shared this fragile pocket ofair.
The knowledge was not mutual. None of his crewmates knew who he really
was. No one knew that he actually came as a foreign spy using an assumed name,
or for that matter, turned his back on spying. As far as they knew, he was just
Miller, a German immigrant detached from the South Carolina German Battery.
Just Miller, a German who had been involved with a different submarine ten
years before the Hunley had even been designed.
He was not even German.
He wondered if he even knew who he had become. He had not been in contact
with anyone who could pass word to Prince Bismarck that he arrived in
Charleston. With all he had done to ensure the Hunley would make its mark on
history, he felt he was now more American than he was Prussian. Now it did not
matter. He was just one of the eight-man crew of the Hunley at the bottom
of Charleston Bay. He was just one of eight sailors wondering if they would be
remembered solely as the third crew of an ill-fated ship who valiantly gave
their lives for their country.
He accepted that judgment. They marked their place in history. They had done
what Gunter had always insisted a submarine could do. Only their fate begged
determination. Gunter lay his head back down on the crank handle in front of
him, as directed by the Captain, his Captain. He rested and let the years before
the here and now ramble aimlessly through his mind. Like the
rest of the crew of the Hunley, he was sure.
|copyright 2005 GGGoncarovs
|17 February 1864
Off Breach Inlet, Charleston,