The Iceman: New Excerpt

The Iceman

P. T. Deutermann

August 21, 2018

The Iceman by P. T. Deutermann is an action-packed World War II military thriller featuring a daring United States Navy submarine commander during the Pacific war in 1942-43. 

In 1942, off the port city of St. Nazaire in occupied France, a United States Navy S-class submarine assigned to the Royal Navy lurks just outside the borders of the minefield protecting a German U-boat base. Lieutenant Commander Malachi Stormes, the boat’s skipper, patrols dangerously close to the minefield entrance and manages to trap and sink three outbound U-boats in one spectacular attack. Britain decorates him, the U.S. Navy promotes him and then gives him command of a brand new class of submarine, a fleet boat called Firefish. Based in Perth, Australia, having been driven out of the Philippines by the Japanese juggernaut, the Perth boats are the only American forces capable of hitting the Japanese in the western Pacific.

Stormes, with his cold, steely-eyed focus on killing Japanese ships, is an enigma to his officers and crew, especially when it becomes clear that he is willing to take huge chances to achieve results. Firefish sinks more ships than any Perth boat on her first war patrol, but Stormes’ unconventional tactics literally frighten his crew. Driven by a past steeped in the whiskey-haunted violence of the Kentucky coal fields, whose psychological scars torment his sleep and close him off from personal relationships, Stormes is nicknamed The Iceman. His crew is proud of their boat’s accomplishments, but wonder if their iron-willed skipper will bring them home alive.


Malachi Stormes took one last cheek-flattening drag on his cigarette and then extinguished it in a butt kit. He exhaled through his nose and then depressed the talk button on the bitchbox. “Depth beneath the keel?” he called out.

“One hundred ten feet, Captain,” the sonar operator reported from the sound room, one deck below. “Mud bottom.”

“Can you hear that pilot boat yet?”

“No, sir. No prop sounds.”

The submarine, an American S-class, was hovering at periscope depth eight miles offshore from St. Nazaire, and, theoretically, 2,000 yards west of the entrance to the new German minefield. The Germans had mined the Loire River approaches following the British raid on the Normandie dry dock and the nearby U-boat pens two months ago. The seaward entrance to the swept channel was marked by two black buoys, 150 feet apart. The safe channel course past those buoys and into the harbor was known only to the Germans. Malachi assumed it was probably a zigzag pattern of some kind.

“First light is when?” he asked.

“First light in forty-two minutes, Captain,” the navigator, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Dick Harris, answered.

“Very well,” Malachi responded. He lit up another cigarette and peered down at the chart table in the middle of the conning tower. The space was crowded, damp, and cold, with only a hint of warm air coming up through the hatch from the control room immediately below. The frigid waters of the Bay of Biscay kept the temperature inside their steel cocoon at no more than fifty degrees, even with eight men crammed into the tiny space. The conning tower was under red-light condition in deference to Malachi’s night vision in case he had to use the periscope.

They’d been hanging out in the outer Loire estuary off St. Nazaire for five days, submerging and then resting on the muddy bottom during daylight hours. After dark they’d come back up to charge the batteries and reconnoiter the harbor approaches. Daylight was too dangerous for lurking submarines in the shallow waters off the French coast. A scouting German bomber could actually see a submerged submarine if it lingered at periscope depth during the day.

Twice at night they’d followed small coastal freighters right up to the minefield entrance, where they’d been met by a pilot boat. The pilot would then turn around and lead the freighter between the buoys and into the swept channel of the minefield, using only its stern light as a visual reference. They’d watched carefully as the freighter went deeper and deeper into the field, staying right behind that dim stern light. Then the light disappeared, which meant that the pilot boat had made a turn. Moments later, each of the freighters had turned right, but to which exact course and at what distance into the field they could not measure. By watching two ships start the trip, they’d calculated the initial course into the field and guesstimated the distance to that first turn, but that was all they knew for sure.

This is insane, Harris thought, as he looked down at the chart. Nuts. Crazy. The navigation plot in front of him was based purely on a series of assumptions. Their current “position” was a dead-reckoning one, meaning they had assumed a known starting point on the chart out in the bay, and then drawn estimated position marks based only on the ordered courses and speeds into the harbor approach area, making no allowances for tidal and river currents. Harris knew there’d been no real fixes since yesterday at noon. The only physical points of reference right now were those two dimly lit buoys, and their position on the approaches chart was based on French resistance reports.

Crazy, he told himself again. We’re flying blind and we’re going to die here. He refused to look at the other men in the conning tower, not wanting them to see his own mounting fear every time he looked down at the chart. He was the navigator. If he didn’t know where they were …

The approaches chart showed the assumed sea frontier of the minefield, with the putative swept channel laid out for a distance of a thousand yards into the field before that first turn. The rest of the field was drawn onto the chart with diagonal lines indicating simply dangerous ground. Malachi had positioned the submarine so that it could straight-line fire torpedoes down that initial leg of the safe channel. He was not interested in itinerant coastal freighters. He was waiting for a U-boat to come out to begin her patrol.

That’s what this insanity is all about, Harris thought. Cozying up to the seaward edge of a minefield because the captain wants a U-boat. The red light on the face of the bitchbox lit up.

“Conn, Sound: I have faint screwbeats, bearing one three zero.”

Malachi quashed his cigarette. “Conn: aye,” he replied. “Open all outer doors forward. Make ready tubes one through four.”

The fire-control officer, LTJG Mickey Houser, acknowledged the command and sent orders through sound-powered phones to the torpedo room, where torpedomen actuated the hydraulic outer doors and began charging the four firing-flasks with 3,000 psi air.

“Up scope,” Malachi ordered.

The fire-control team tensed at their stations as the scope hydraulics began whining down below the control room deck plates. Malachi had briefed his plan daily for the past five days. They would let the pilot boat come into view. She would be visible by the white-over-red lights on her mast. Those lights would be dimmed in deference to wartime conditions, but the French harbor pilots knew that no one would attack a 30-foot pilot boat—they were small, insignificant targets. The soundmen had been trained extensively to recognize the sound of U-boat diesels. Steam-powered ships made waterborne noise, too, but the underwater acoustic signature of a German submarine’s diesel engine running on the surface was quite distinctive. If that’s what they heard, Malachi would wait for the pilot boat to turn off from the channel entry course to get out of the way of whatever was coming out, and then he’d fire four fish down the center of that channel. A logical plan, Harris had to admit. Except we don’t really know where we are in relation to that swept channel. We’re depending on those two buoys. What if the Krauts moved them from time to time? What if the buoys marked the first string of mines instead of just the entrance to the clear channel?

“Conn, Sound: it’s that pilot boat. Same antique up-and-down steam engine. Can’t hear anything behind him yet.”

“Conn: aye. If he’s coming to meet someone we’ll stand down. Scan west as well as east.”

“Sound: aye.” The sonarman sounded a bit put out at being told to check both directions. Get used to it, Harris thought. Lieutenant Commander Malachi Stormes has zero empathy for the professional qualities of his people. He issues orders. We do as we’re told. Right now if you please, Mister Christian.

Malachi walked the periscope handles around in a slow sweep, forcing Harris and the other men to move back out of his way in the cramped space. It was still pretty dark on the surface, but the captain always wanted a look. One night they’d crept in submerged to the edge of the field and he’d put the scope up only to find a German PT boat tied up to one of the buoys. The wooden-hulled PT boats weren’t worth a submarine’s torpedo, but they all carried some depth charges and bristled with cannon big enough to punch holes in the elderly S-boat’s pressure hull. That’s why I always look before coming up, he’d told them. Always. Especially when Sound says there’s nothing up there.

He steadied the scope on the bearing reported by the sonar gang.

“Ask Sound if he’s got any Doppler.”

One of the team queried the sound-shack via sound-powered phone. “Slight up-Doppler on that steam engine,” he reported. “Definitely coming out. No contacts to seaward.”

Malachi glanced down at the bearing ring. The sub’s head was 100, not the 130 he’d ordered. He bent over to the bitchbox. “Control, Conn: get her back on ordered heading and keep her so,” he snapped icily.

A moment later they could feel the electric motors back aft opposing each other to twist her head back onto 130. There were uncomfortable looks exchanged in the conning tower. Somebody in the control room below had a red face about now. The problem was that at bare steerageway, the boat’s rudder had little effect. Stormes had to know that, Harris thought.

“Conn, Sound: harmonics on a bearing of one three two. There’s something behind the pilot boat. Possibly two contacts.”

Malachi returned to the optics on the periscope. Nothing. He ordered the scope up to full navigation height, which gave him another two feet above the surface. That finally allowed him to see the dimmed lights of the oncoming pilot boat, but the optics were fuzzy.

“Stand by to mark bearing.” A one-second pause. “Mark!”

“Bearing is one three five.”

“Can’t get a range,” Malachi said. “Steer one three five. Speed three. Down scope.”

Harris cleared his throat. “Sir, that’s toward the minefield. We—”

“Steer one three five, speed three. As soon as that pilot boat turns I will fire all four. Confirm settings. Torpedo speed: slow. Torpedo depth: ten feet. Spread is one degree.”

The fire-control leader read the settings aloud back to him, then transmitted them electrically to the forward torpedo room. Then they waited. Up forward in the torpedo room, each torpedo guidance system was receiving running orders.

“Sir, torpedoes set as ordered.”

“Very well.”

Harris tried again. “Captain, we are closing the edge of the minefield. I have no nav data other than DR. Recommend slowing back down to bare steerageway.”

“No,” Malachi said. “Up scope.”

Faces tightened in the conning tower. The navigation plotter, whose job it was to record the boat’s position and track on the plotting table, put his pencil down. Prior to this the boat had been simply hovering in place, but now … he had no data other than a dead-reckoning calculation. “No fix,” Harris reported dutifully.

“I understand and I have the pilot boat’s lights showing target angle of two seven zero. He’s turning around. I can see the buoy lights now. We’re at least five hundred yards away from the buoys. New bearing: standby—mark!”

Harris read the index markings on the opposite side of the periscope. “New bearing is one four zero.”

Malachi swore quietly. The boat’s heading was ten degrees off the swept channel’s heading. And the damned periscope was fogging up again.

“Surface the boat,” he ordered. “Decks awash. I need to see.”

There was silent consternation in the conning tower. Surface in the face of oncoming enemy ships? But there was discipline aboard the boat and Control immediately brought her up from 60 feet to the surface and then adjusted the ballast tanks to let her ride with just the sail exposed, a delicate balancing maneuver between diving and surfacing but which raised the periscope far enough into the air to clear the lenses.

He took one more bearing and then decided to split the difference. “Firing bearing will be one three five. All other settings: no change. Prepare to fire.”

The fire-control talker confirmed the new firing bearing, which was the course the torpedoes would take once launched. He read back the other settings just to make sure.

“Torpedoes one through four, ready,” he announced.

“Fire one,” Malachi ordered, followed by the remaining three in fifteen-second intervals. Once the fourth fish had thumped out of its tube, Malachi ordered the boat back down to 150 feet and made a course change to 270, due west, and away from the minefield at a speed of 5 knots. The relief in the conning tower was palpable.

Again, they waited. Malachi had selected a slow speed—21 knots—for the Mark 10 torpedoes because that gave them longer range—almost 4 miles, double the high-speed range. Without knowing how far back in the swept channel his targets were, he wanted a long reach. He ordered the torpedo room to begin reloading.

“Steady on two seven zero,” the quartermaster reported. The boat drove west for a minute and then Malachi surprised them again.

“Prepare to surface,” he ordered.

Then the sound shack had a question. “Conn, Sound: what’s the run time?”

“I have no idea,” Malachi said, as if that was the most natural response in the world. “Surface.”

The klaxon alarm sounded and the boat’s thirty-eight-man crew jumped to their valves, wheels, and hatches. The boat tilted up. Just as she broke the surface in a roar of compressed air and bubbles, they all heard a distant boom. Harris would have sworn that, for the briefest instant, the captain seemed to smile, but then his expression settled back into his normal stone face.

“Stable on the surface, main induction is open,” engineering reported. “Lighting off mains.”

“Very well, steer two seven zero, speed fifteen. Set four lookouts.”

The conning team again flattened themselves against the steel sides as the maneuvering bridge watch personnel, one officer and four lookouts, came scrambling up the ladder, and then came the blessed whoosh of fresh air as the upper hatch was spun open. Then they heard a second boom, followed by a third, and then several more in quick succession. The men looked at each other in astonishment. That many hits on a blind-range shot?

“Unbelievable,” one of the fire-control men muttered.

“Maybe,” Malachi observed. “Or maybe all four fish hit mines, and those mines countermined other mines. Or we hit the first boat and the second one instinctively turned into the minefield. We’ll have to wait for HQ intelligence to tell us. Mister Harris, get an attack report out while we’re still on the surface. We’ll run for an hour and then we’ll have to get back down. The Huns will have air up pretty quick.” Then he went below.

“Jee-zus,” one of the other officers, LTJG Ben Hiller, whispered after Malachi was safely out of earshot. “How close did we come to that minefield?”

“I have no fucking idea, Benny,” Harris said. “And that’s the God’s honest truth. I still don’t know where we are, other than we’re headed in the right direction.”

Hiller closed his eyes. “I’ve had it, Dicky,” he said, no longer caring if the enlisted in the conning tower heard him or not. “I want off this fucker. This guy’s nuts.”

That night the boat was ordered back to its base in Scotland. Upon arrival two days later they were met with a hero’s welcome. The British admiral was on the pier, along with the American submarine squadron commander and a small group of staff officers. There was even a band, whose squad of wailing bagpipes against a cold, stiff wind coming across the slate gray loch. The wind turned the landing into a circus of missed heaving lines and much backing and filling. When the gangway finally went over, the admiral came aboard and shook Malachi’s hand enthusiastically.

“Three U-boats, by God, sir. Three! Damn my eyes if you didn’t sink the whole lot! Well done, Captain. Very well done, indeed. There’ll be a mighty gong for sure. Now, come with me, if you please. There’s a press conference on in half an hour. The Admiralty is over the bloody moon.”

Lieutenants Harris and Hiller watched from the navigation bridge as the admiral, Lieutenant Commander Stormes, the squadron commander, and a clutch of aides trotted off to some staff cars on the pier.

“First thing in the morning, Dicky,” Hiller said. “I’m putting in my letter. I won’t sail with that nutcase.”

“They’ll surface you, Benny,” Harris said. “You’ll be finished in submarines, especially after this success.”

“Suits me just fine,” Hiller said, “just fine. I’ll take my chances with the Germans or the Japs.”

Harris wondered if he shouldn’t do the same. Stormes was unlike any other submariner he’d ever met. Quiet but exuding a powerful physical presence. When he was moving through the boat men had to not just get out of the way but flatten themselves against a bulkhead to make room. He wasn’t a screamer or any kind of a ramrod martinet, but when something was going on he was so fully concentrated that no one dared question him. He rarely slept, which meant that his brooding presence was felt throughout the day’s routine.

He decided to have a sit-down with the boat’s exec, but he knew he faced a difficult decision. If asked, he would not have been able to say what he was more scared of: the Nazis or Malachi Stormes.

Copyright © 2018 P. T. Deutermann.

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