August 8, 1942 4:00 PM
Lost. There are many ways of being lost. You can be lost when you don’t know what to say or do. You can be lost when you can’t control your impulses but they control you. You can be lost when you lose your best friend. You can be lost in the middle of nowhere. Lost is a lonely Voyage into hopeless dilemma. Lost is what you’re one sentence away from truly knowing and becoming.
Everything was going just fine right up until the bad news.
“I can’t see anything. Can you?” called Marco over the roar of their boat’s twin diesel engines while peering through his binoculars.
“Not a thing, sir!” answered 1st Seaman De Angelo from the starboard watch, searching ahead through his own glasses. “Any idea where we are?”
Lieutenant Commander Marco Aita lowered his lenses and studied the thick fog surrounding them from atop of their submarine’s conning tower with the absolute certainty that something was wrong. They should never have encountered fog in this warm latitude.
They had just finished their second Caribbean war patrol and were on their way back to their base in Bordeaux, France with their submarine, the Morosini. They had been running on the surface now for several hours in this unrelenting soup, the black waters flat calm as their twin screws propelled them ahead at their designed cruising speed of twelve knots. Yet they still had not come out of this perpetual mist which, by all science, should not even be here at all.
“Does being lost frighten you?” Marco asked De Angelo back with a hint of a brooding smile. For they were, indeed, lost.
“Fog is fog,” said the sailor.
Any other time, Marco would have agreed with him. Yet he had never seen fog this thick before. It was not only unexpected to find in August, but unwelcomely timed when on their way home.
“If we can’t see, we might as well submerge,” the seaman offered. “We have no business being on the surface out here in this.”
“Wherever here is.”
Comradery was important as there was zero room in the confines of a submarine for grudges or other personal issues. As a result, commanders were strict disciplinarians on anything to the contrary. Marco should have confronted him, but he didn't. The sailor wasn’t questioning orders. He knew their orders. They were to run submerged. He was questioning Marco’s decision not to obey that order.
Three hours ago, they had suddenly lost the helmsman’s compass and the engine room compass. Both were each mysteriously spinning uselessly. They had surfaced in order to get a fix on the sun, only to find themselves surrounded by this dense fog and unable to do so.
“What about your hand compass?” Angelo asked.
The cool-eyed Marco had joined seaman Angelo on the topside watch, for they were, indeed, in a dangerous spot. Not being able to see was already challenging, but the last three days of a patrol are always the most crucial as the enemy would anticipate their return to the home base. So they will lie in wait in its approaches to intercept them with planes, destroyers, and even other submarines. Thirty days, sixty days, or even ninety days out, they must eventually return to France to refuel and refit. The enemy knew this and would simply wait outside Bordeaux for them to show.
This is a submariner’s greatest vulnerability. The closer one comes to returning home, the closer one comes to death. It is why they were to approach Bordeaux submerged just as the sailor said—to avoid being caught on the surface. Yet without a compass, both Marco and his skipper had agreed they should run on the surface to get a fix on the sun and Marco had volunteered for the watch.
“Do you really think it’s safe to run surfaced?” the sailor raised the subject again as Marco had not answered him before.
He was being doubted and rightfully so. The other man obviously disagreed with his, and their skipper’s, decision. Angelo held the waist high upward bulwark's steel sides so tight his knuckles showed white with premonition. Despite his earlier “fog is fog” comment, having to experience being blind to everything about them wore on his nerves.
And—no. It wasn’t safe to run on the surface. At any moment, a freighter could come out of the mist and cut them in half or an enemy destroyer locate them by radar and sink them. But unable to navigate, they had only two choices. They could either run surfaced or submerged. Submerged was safer, like the other sailor wanted. Underwater, they couldn’t be rammed or found by radar. Yet Marco would not change his mind. Submerged, they wouldn’t know when the fog cleared and, until it did clear, they wouldn’t know where they were.
The enemy had to be smiling at their helpless plight. One couldn’t tell where the sky ended and the sea began in this dense fog. Even the bow of their own boat disappeared into that ghostly, grim gloom. The other man’s uneasiness came as no surprise to Marco. No one wants to sail blindly ahead into God knows what.
Yet he still did not answer De Angelo’s question. Although the man intended to ask about it casually enough, something clearly bordered on apprehension in his voice. One could feel it; a nervous tension that came perilously close to fear. And it wasn’t just fear of the enemy, but of the fog itself.
Privately, Marco shared his unease, though he outwardly showed none of it. Instead, he looked away. Whatever he felt, he would never show fear in front of a subordinate. To the other man’s watchful eye the fog meant nothing to him but a temporary inconvenience. But what he felt inwardly? That he kept to himself.
For Marco well knew the other man’s conviction of certain dread. The son of an Italian school teacher and a man of science who had served three years in the Navy, Marco had seen fog before, but nothing like this. This fog had an edge to it; that creepy, crawly sensation of not knowing what’s ahead or even what’s behind. It’s a feeling that you’re all alone but not alone. One knows there’s something out there. You can feel it. You just can’t see it. So you wait for it and you imagine the worst. You wait for that freighter or destroyer to come out of the fog and see Death in the face.
The oppression of their situation seemed undeniable. A vast blanket of whiteness hung over them, wanting to suffocate them both. Even the green and white flag of Italy at their stern showed only as a gray specter, a mere silhouette of itself against the empty oblivion beyond. They were being swallowed, erased, and eradicated by this endless nothingness. Marco held out his hand and watched it, wondering if it too would disappear into the mist.
Angelo was still watching him, waiting for an answer to his question about submerging, an answer he wouldn’t get.
For three hours, they had been in this fog, each minute worse than the last, but now was the worst of all. They could deny it no more. They had no idea what direction they were steering in the middle of the Atlantic or for how long. He kept thinking they’d come out of this murky white air that seemed bent on choking them and yet they didn’t. It only grew worse.
Marco gazed down again at the useless compass in his hand, wondering why none aboard worked. He might as well throw it away. One might fail, but all of them?
No matter how he held it, the needle never turned at all or simply wandered aimlessly back and forth. Usually, when a compass gets off, it points to something magnetic aboard the boat. Yet this pointed to nothing at all. He’d never seen that before.
And even though he wasn’t cold, he felt himself shiver with some unexplained chill as he pocketed the useless piece. Even his binoculars were worthless now in this impenetrable whiteness surrounding them.
Turning away from Angelo, who still watched him, Marco said nothing as he resumed his watch. They would take the risk, God help them, remain surfaced, and accept the consequences.
With their last known position somewhere between Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, without a compass, that was worthless information now as it would change by the hour. They could be steering in circles without knowing it and probably were. Everything looked the same. With every knot of speed the boat took forward, she seemed to have moved nowhere at all. He gave the order.
“Shut down all engines,” he called below.
Then he listened closely for what he felt certain was out there.