I still think this is perhaps the best horror story I ever wrote, and in it I introduced a character who would carry over into several more stories - Admiral James Thompson, USN, the Navy's unofficial "ghost buster." As always, check this story out and feel free to leave your comments. May you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Lewis B. Smith
Adapted from the memoirs of
VADM James Thompson, USN
For most men, the supernatural is something they read about in a story by Stephen King or Charles L. Grant. They put the book down with a welcome shiver, knowing the whole thing is, after all, just a story. For a few, the supernatural is a cold draft in a closed house, a face at a deserted window, a flash of precognition – but even these do not usually dwell on the isolated incident that occurs. They tend to look the other way, as if it were a mangled animal carcass by the side of the road.
But there are a few men who seem to draw the supernatural to themselves as if their bodies possessed some strange magnetism. They live with things like telekinesis, ghost sightings, and precognitive dreams in the same way that we live with taxes, politics, and inflation. These blessed (or cursed) few adapt their lives to the unknown in different ways. Some go mad; others turn their gift to profitable or beneficial uses. A very rare few of these special men and women take what bizarre events they encounter with the same calm they apply to everything else, and learn to live with knowledge that would send many over the slim edge of sanity. For all their hair-raising experiences, they manage to live as normal people, perhaps a little wiser than most of us, but still rational, functioning human beings.
Captain James Thompson, USN, commanding officer of the USS Hawkins, was such a man. In his twenty-one year naval career, he had killed a bizarre and deadly monster in a remote province of the Philippines, searched out an unspeakable horror at a remote Antarctic weather station, and faced down and helped defeat the hideous incarnation of an inhuman Elder God. He had solved the brutal murder of one of his officers by a revenge-bent young crewman only a few months before the events I am about to describe occurred. Having risen from Seaman Recruit to full Captain, he was a likely candidate for promotion to Rear Admiral as soon as he filled his time-in-grade requirements.
For all his experiences, though, Jim Thompson remained a competent, down-to-earth, professional warrior. His crew was loyal to the point of fanaticism, his officers looked up to him as an example of what they could aspire to, and women found him to be a compassionate but romantic figure, stepped straight off the deck of one of Nelson’s tall ships and into the twentieth century.
At this moment, however, Thompson felt the guiding emotion in his life to be boredom. The Hawkins had been assigned to the Northern Pacific to track an elusive Soviet sub, and to make a close swing by Vladivostok on the way back down to Japan, both for intelligence collection, and also to let Ivan know that the watchful eye of democracy was on him. Such missions tended to be long, tedious, and invariably plagued by nasty seas, although so far this time the weather had been calm. The best he could hope for when this was all over was a nice port visit, maybe Beppu or Sapporo in Northern Japan. That was two weeks off at the least, though, and at the moment the ship was blundering through a heavy fog a hundred miles south of the Aleutians, blowing her mournful whistle to warn any stray fishing vessels of her presence. In conditions like these, the ship’s radar and sonar functions became critical – and one’s knowledge of electronics was no comfort when it only served to make one aware of how easily these vital systems could break down.
Thompson turned to his executive officer, Command Tom Branch, as the deep tones of the foghorn sounded again.
“That’s got to be the loneliest sound in the world,” he said. “It reminds me of that story by Ray Bradbury, about the lighthouse in the middle of nowhere, and the great sea beast that answered its call once a year. Did you ever read it?”
“Yes, it was a favorite of mine in college,” replied Branch.
He and Thompson were a perfect team, running the ship so well that they had both been allowed to extend their tours a year beyond the usual CO/XO two year rotation. They had also both been promoted the last time around, and were relishing their last few months together. Thompson was up for shore duty, and might conceivable gain command of a carrier or a destroyer squadron in a few years. Branch was headed for staff duty, and then command of a ship of his own. Thompson found himself envying his XO’s prospects. He had never felt any desire to be anywhere other than his current billet – CO of one of the fastest, most modern destroyers in the fleet, with a good, solid crew, ports to visit, and seas to sail.
But, here they were in what Jim had always considered the most desolate stretch of water in the world. Not even the fury of the frozen North Atlantic could match the storms that seemed to spring up in this part of the Pacific at a moment’s notice.
“What’s the movie tonight, Tom?” he asked, breaking out of his reverie.
“They’re showing that Charles Bronson flick again in the wardroom, and the sci-fi number to the crew. I imagine the chiefs are going to be watching a porn movie on their VHS,” the XO replied.
“Do we have anything that everyone onboard hasn’t seen at least three times?” the captain asked irritably.
“No, sir, we left port on such short notice, and we aren’t due to rendezvous with a tender for at least three more days,” Branch informed him.
“I know, Tom, it’s not your fault,” Thompson said. “We need to organize something to keep the men occupied when they are off watch, though, or they’ll start to lose their edge. How about a chess tournament? Two bucks to enter, first prize a hundred bucks and forty-eight hours special liberty in our next port?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Branch. “I’ll enter for sure!”
“Why bother?” Thompson said. “You haven’t beaten me in a month.”
“Do I detect a note of challenge?” asked the Executive Officer.
“Indeed,” said Thompson, and together they headed for the hatch that led off the bridge. “Officer of the Deck, you have the conn,” he said as they left.
“Aye, Captain,” replied Lieutenant Commander Bob Hendricks, the Operations Officer. “May I play the winner when I get off watch?”
“If I’m still up, Bob,” said Thompson with an easy grin.
“Cocky tonight, aren’t we?” asked Branch as they left the bridge and moved down the dimly lit passageway.
“Just confident,” replied the Captain.
They were just opening the game, testing each other’s defenses, when Hendricks’ voice came echoing down the tube that led from the bridge to the Captain’s cabin.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir, but we have a radar contact at about thirty mile’s range. Looks like a good-sized vessel.”
“So what’s the emergency?” Thompson asked.
“Just this, sir: he’s not radiating on any radar or radio frequency, and sonar reports no screw rotation or noise of any kind coming from the hull. She must be dead in the water and under total emission control,” Hendricks explained.
“Are you sure it’s not just a glitch in the radar, or something of that nature?” Thompson asked.
“Yes, sir, the readings are too consistent on all our systems for that. It could be Ivan playing tricks on us, or it could be a bona fide derelict. Shall we investigate?” the OOD asked.
Thompson thought for a minute. They had not gotten a contact on that blasted sub for two days, and there might be mariners in distress aboard that vessel. If nothing else, it was a break in the monotony.
“Bring us on an interception course, Bob,” he finally said. “I’ll be up in a minute.”
He looked at the chessboard and gave Branch an apologetic glance.
“Sorry, Tom, duty calls,” he said.
“That’s OK,” the exec replied. “You would have won anyway,” he added after Thompson had closed the door behind himself.
Hendricks’ face was impassive as he bent over the radar scope on the bridge. He yielded his place to Thompson when the Captain arrived in the pilot house. Thompson studied the blip for several minutes, seeing that it was indeed too solid and well-defined to be some sort of electronic ghost. He pressed the button that activated the ship’s interior communications circuit with the Combat Information Center.
“Combat, bridge,” he said.
“Combat aye,” replied the CIC watch officer, Lieutenant Crispin.
“Got a course and speed on our new contact?” he asked.
“Negative, sir. She appears to be drifting with the current on a north-northwesterly heading. We’re still getting no radar or radio emissions of any sort and not a bit of engine noise on passive sonar. Think she’s Russian?” asked the young officer.
“I don’t know, Tim,” replied Thompson. “But we are going to find out. I’m laying in a parallel interception course.”
“Roger that, Captain. I’ll let you know if anything new comes up on the scope,” replied Crispin.
Thompson slid into his seat and waited, occasionally checking the scopes as they drew steadily closer to the unknown vessel . . . if vessel it was. If anyone aboard was aware of the Hawkins’ approach, they did not react in any way that could be detected by radar or sonar. An hour and a half later, the Operations Officer broke the pervasive silence that had settled over the bridge.
“She should be coming into view off of our starboard bow,” he said. “We’re at five hundred yards and closing.”
“Careful at the helm,” cautioned the Captain. “In this soup we won’t see her until we’re right on top of her.”
He stepped out on the bridge wing and strained his eyes through the fog. At first he could see nothing at all, but then his eyes made out a patch of dark solidity in the swirling mist. As the Hawkins drew closer, the shape gained substance and he could plainly see the sleek outline of a medium-sized ship. Then a cool gust of wind blew the last of the intervening fog out of the way, and Thompson gave a gasp of shock.
Two hundred yards off their starboard bow loomed the ghostly shape of a rotting destroyer. Her hull was rusted solid, and one stack had crumpled with age and erosion. No antenna or rigging remained; indeed, her lifelines were even gone. She drifted calmly along, slime and seaweed dripping from her superstructure, dead in the water – in every sense of the term.
“A friggin’ ghost ship!” said the lookout beside him, shuddering.
“Looks like an old Hudson-class destroyer,” said Thompson as his exec stepped out on the bridge wing next to him.
“The last one of those was commissioned in 1945,” remarked Branch.
“This one looks like it may have been afloat that long,” Thompson mused. “Can you make out the hull number?”
Branch peered through the OOD’s telescope.
“It’s almost rusted over,” he said. “But it looks like it was a 641 . . . no, 647. That’s it.”
“DD-647,” murmured Thompson. “I know I have read about that somewhere – and not too long ago. Let’s go check one of my books. Officer of the Deck, maintain a parallel course and have the rescue and assistance team standing by.”
“Aye, Captain,” replied Hendricks. “Steady as she goes, helmsman.”
Once in his cabin, Thompson began digging through his bookshelf for a volume he had been thumbing through a little over a week ago. He finally found it wedged between a Louis L’Amour Western and a collection of Lovecraft’s short stories. It was a handsome hardbound volume, several years old, with the title in gold leaf on the cover: “U.S. NAVAL CASUALTIES OF WORLD WAR II,” by Vice Admiral J. T. Sellers. With a practiced hand, Thompson began flipping through the index until he came to the page he was looking for, and then turned to the appropriate page and began reading aloud.
“Commissioned in 1941, the USS Lawton (DD-647) fought at the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, engaged in naval gunfire support at Guadalcanal . . . ah, here we are. Pursued by a superior force of Japanese ships, she sailed into the teeth of a fierce tropical cyclone. The next day a brief, fragmented message was received indicating that the screw had been bent by the force of the storm.” He paused and looked up from the book. “That was the last time she was ever heard from. Officially she is listed as missing and presumed sunk. Incredible – she’s been adrift all this time. The storm must have broken off all her antennas so she couldn’t communicate. I’m sending an immediate message to CINCPAC and then we’ll move in to salvage her. Go to the bridge and tell the rescue and assistance team what supplies they’ll be needing – I’ll be up as soon as I’m done in the radio shack.”
“Aye, sir,” replied Branch, exiting.
Thompson drafted a short message to the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Admiral Collins, and to the commander of his task force, then dropped it by the radio shack on his way to the bridge. It gave the position and course of the derelict and the Hawkins, declared the CO’s intent to attempt salvage, and asked for further instructions and advice.
When he arrived on the bridge, the rescue and assistance detail was standing by. Lieutenant Commander Robbins, the Chief Engineer, was the assigned leader of the party, but Thompson took him aside before he briefed the men.
“I’m itching to find out what happened to that ship,” he told Robbins. “I’d like to take the boarding party over, if you have no objections.”
“No problem, sir, but I would like to go along also. You’ll need an engineer to stress-test the hull if you are thinking of towing her,” replied Robbins.
“Very well,” responded Thompson. “Mr. Branch, I shall be accompanying the rescue and assistance detail. You have the ship till I return.”
“Aye, captain,” said the XO. “The motor whaleboat is being lowered into the water right now.”
As the detail made its way aft, Thompson heard the loud sound of an argument in progress. It took him a moment to make out the voice of the senior Boatswain’s Mate, Chief Lorenzo.
“Now listen, Corbin, you are the duty coxswain, and you are taking the boat over to that ship, and that’s final!” the Chief snapped.
“I’m sorry, Chief, but there is no way I am going to that ship. It’s dead, just like – I can’t even say it. The Captain knows the story.” At this moment the young bosun’s mate spied Thompson. “Sir, please tell the Chief I can’t go onto that dead ship. You know why!”
Thompson paused. BM3 Corbin was a competent young sailor, but showed a remarkable fear of small boats, which had caused a considerable amount of conflict with his job requirements. Finally, he had requested to see the Captain, and told Thompson how, as a boy on a deep-sea fishing trip, he had encountered a ghostly trawler whose undead inhabitants had attempted to drag him to a watery grave. Corbin obviously believed the tale, and Thompson had seen enough in his life to prevent him from doubting much of anything where the supernatural was concerned. Turning to the chief, he spoke quickly.
“We’ve discussed this before, Boats,” he said. “He has a genuine fear of small boats and water, and for good reason. Get us another coxswain. Corbin, I have approved your transfer to another rating that will not involve you in small boat operations. Now let’s get this show on the road.”
Moments later, the eight men were loaded into the motor whaleboat and ready to go. Thompson got a radio check with the bridge on the large portable radio, and then with the smaller handheld radios he and Robinson carried. Then the lines were cast off and the boats engine roared as it cut through the gentle swells that separated them from the derelict. A light breeze carried the nauseating odor of decay to them. The chief wrinkled his nose in disgust.
“I got the feeling this ain’t going to be a pretty sight,” he said.
“Death never is,” Thompson spoke softly. “I learned that in Nam.”
The chief laughed humorlessly. “I was in swiftboats too, Captain,” he said. “We left too many good men in those damned rivers.”
The captain studied the looming derelict as they drew alongside of it. “And the whole time we were there, this old ship was drifting somewhere in the northern Pacific. Since 1943 . . . waiting for someone to find her.”
All the men grew silent as they circled the ship, looking for an easy place to board her. An accommodation ladder had been lowered on the starboard fantail, and though it was rusty, the Hull Technician who accompanied the party pronounced it still sturdy enough to bear a man’s weight. One by one, the eight men climbed the ladder and stood together on the slimy wooden deck.
“Be very careful where you put your weight down,” said the HT. “These old wooden decks have seen better days.”
“So has he,” said Lieutenant Robbins, indicating what looked like a pile of rags and sticks lying on the deck a few feet away. Closer examination showed it to be a rotting skeleton, its mouth stretched open in what might have been an expression of terror once - or insane laughter. Another body lay a few feet away, sprawled over a coil of rotten mooring line. A worn scrap of paper was tucked into an old Coca-Cola bottle which the grim figure still clutched in one skeletal hand. Thompson stepped forward and carefully pried the bottle loose. Pulling the note out, he read it out loud.
“Feb. 6, 1943 (as near as we can reckon it). Two months adrift now. All water gone, no rain in two weeks. Forty of us still alive. Five are hopelessly mad from what he has done. I will try to crawl topside and throw this note over the side, but I am weak from hunger. I pray the ship sinks before anyone tries to salvage it, for there are worse things in this world than starvation and madness. He is one. The days seem to make him stronger instead of weaker as he absorbs strength from our hunger. Let it be known to the world that we are lost. God save us from the captain’s hunger. I go now to make the attempt . . . signed James McGarth, Ship’s Chaplain, USS Lawton.”
Thompson hesitated, feeling the stares of the boarding party upon him.
“Poor men,” he said. “Obviously mad from hunger and thirst. It’s no wonder they started imagining horrible things.”
HMC McCallister, the ship’s chief corpsman, said calmly; “He may not have been imagining things, sir.”
“Why would you say that, Chief?” asked Thompson.
“This man’s throat was torn out, as nearly as I can tell,” replied the corpsman, as he bent over the long-dead cleric.
Thompson looked, and sure enough, the leathery skin that still clung to the dead man’s neck showed evidence of having been mauled.
“Still, that could have been done by rats and gulls,” he said. “No need to jump to conclusions, although murder and cannibalism have been reported in cases like this before. Let’s make our way forward.”
They slowly made their way towards the bridge, finding bodies scattered here and there on the deck. Some seem to have fallen naturally, overcome by hunger and exhaustion, but others were frozen in an attitude of struggle, fighting to the last against invisible foes. Thompson kept up a quiet, terse commentary over the radio to the bridge of the Hawkins.
When they were amidships, Robbins paused before a hatch leading inside. “If I remember the blueprints of these old tin cans correctly, inside here should be a ladder leading down to the mess decks. I should think that the last survivors may have gathered there.
“Sounds quite possible,” said Thompson. “Let’s check and see.”
They pried open the rusty hatch with the help of Chief Lorenzo’s stout shoulder, and then entered the skin of the dead ship for the first time. On the other side of the hatch, the deck was thick with forty years of accumulated dust. A ladder just inside the hatch led down, and Thompson shone his flashlight into the compartment below. A withered corpse stared back at him, crumpled into a sitting position at the base of the ladder where it had been since two years before Thompson was born. He stepped down the ladder gingerly, not trusting the ancient steel to bear his full body weight. The corpse was better preserved than those topside, having been sealed in an almost airtight chamber. It still wore the faded uniform of a naval lieutenant. In one hand it clutched a silver crucifix, and in the other a pen. On the dusty floor beside it lay several sheets of paper. Thompson scooped them up and then moved aside as the others made their way down the ladder. The combined light of their portable lanterns and flashlights revealed a grim scene. The tables and chairs had been moved to one side and lashed down to give men room to sleep. Most of them still lay there, rotting in their blankets. In one corner, however, several corpses seemed frozen in the act of struggling with an unseen foe. Closer examination showed that a scuttle leading into the compartment had been bashed open from below. The noise must have attracted the sentry, who woke those nearby, for they were the ones who showed signs of a struggle. The rest had been victimized as they lay, too weak from exhaustion, thirst, and hunger to even fight. But victimized they had been, for every corpse in the chamber had been viciously mauled about the throat, with the exception of the lieutenant in the corner by the ladder.
“Oh my God,” breathed Robbins.
“Something killed them all, except the one by the ladder,” said McAllister. “From their throat wounds, I’d say it was the same thing that killed the ones we found up topside.”
“It looks like they tried to barricade themselves in by lashing the doors shut,” said Thompson. “I wonder why they didn’t stack the chairs and tables against the hatches instead of just tying them shut with . . . with . . .” he peered closely at the dusty ties that held the hatch fast. “Rosary beads? This is bizarre!”
“Maybe those papers you picked up will shed a little light on the matter,” said McAllister.
“I imagine they will,” said the Captain. “Let’s get out of this charnel house to read them, though.”
They made their way up topside, where the sun was dipping from beneath the heavy overcast to give one last, reddish glare before diving down into the west and plunging the world into darkness. He held the papers up in the dying light and shuffled through them before beginning to read aloud.
“They are dated at the top of each page,” he said. “I’m reading them in chronological order. The first one is dated 31 December, 1943 – the day after the last radio message from the Lawton was received.”
I have started keeping these notes in the form of a personal journal, so that a clear and unbiased record of the circumstances surrounding this disaster will be available. I trust the Captain’s judgment less and less each day. Three days ago, we ran afoul of a vastly superior force of Japanese ships while giving chase to an I-boat. The Captain, whose hatred for the enemy borders on the fanatical, wanted to attack, but I persuaded him to escape instead by sailing into the teeth of an a fierce cyclone that was brewing to the north of us. Even so, he insisted on turning and firing a salvo of torpedoes at the cruiser and three destroyers that were chasing us. As a result we sustained three severe hits to the stack, with two crewmen killed. Then the raging seas hid us from the enemy, and swept us before them in a northerly direction. This storm is the fiercest I’ve ever seen – I fear it has actually bent the screw and keel so that we cannot proceed under our own power. Two days ago the captain took the wheel from the helmsman and has refused to relinquish it. He threatens us with curses if we come near, and has more than once called on all the forces of darkness to bring him through this storm so that he can strike at the enemy once more. I have never seen hatred run so deep in a human being in my entire life. The seas are beginning to calm now, and I hope that he has also. I will go to the bridge now and see if he will let me relieve him at the helm – I begin to fear for his sanity if he remains there much longer.
Thompson paused and cleared his throat. “The next entry is dated January 1, 1944,” he said.
He is mad. I took the helm from him by force with the help of three stout crewmen. He screamed aloud to Satan that he would give every one of our souls for another chance to strike at the enemy. We locked him in his cabin, for his screams were unnerving to the already exhausted and emotionally drained crew. The storm has settled somewhat, but I fear we are far outside the regular shipping lanes. As I had surmised, the storm’s fierce tossing has bent the shaft and the screw so that we are incapable of moving under our own power. It also did tremendous damage to our superstructure, snapping off all the antennae and leaving us without any effective communications. We must drift here and hope that we are discovered by friendly forces – a thousand curses on Captain Hazelwood’s mad impetuousness that brought us into conflict with the Japs in the first place! If he had kept his distance and radioed their location, we could at least be confident of someone answering our call. As it is, I fear for our lives.
Thompson shuffled through the next two pages. “There are some routine entries here, concerning their attempts to raise one of the radio antenna, and beginning to ration food and water. But here is something more relevant.”
January 4th – the Captain is dead. We had been attempting to feed him, but he attacked any who entered his cabin with such ferocity that we had been forced to shove his food through a porthole from the outside. The watch informed me this morning that he appeared to be in a deep sleep on his bunk. I went in and found him unconscious, his pulse extremely weak. He revived sufficiently to give me a horrible smile filled with vindictive satisfaction, and then he passed out again. The ship’s doctor could find nothing to account for his condition and suggested that emotional strain had caused a complete physical breakdown. I went to check on him again this evening and found him with no pulse or respiration, although his countenance was ruddy and rigor mortis had not yet set in. The doctor declared him dead and we have arranged for his burial at sea tomorrow. I hope this is not a prelude to the fate of us all!
January 5 – Two crewmen dead last night –their throats torn out by savage fangs or claws and not a drop of blood anywhere around them. The crew is growing more and more nervous and superstitious. I fear I may have a mutiny on my hands if things do not improve shortly. I have delayed the Captain’s burial a day till things settle down somewhat.
January 6 It is him! Even dead, the vindictive devil is still reaching out to destroy us all. Three more crewmen killed last night by having their throats ripped out, and five killed in a fight today when the others were discovered. I went to the Captain’s cabin to prepare his body for burial, and found him looking sleek and fat, with fresh blood on his lips and a hellish grin on his dead face. Somehow he is feeding off of our hatred and fear – and also from the blood of the crew members who are killed each night. I have read of such creatures before, and I attempted to deal with him in the only manner I could think of – I took the cross which I always carry in my pocket and tried to lay it on his breast. The hellish shriek he let out on being touched by the holy symbol shocked me beyond words, and he took advantage of my paralysis to throw my arm aside and flee down the passageway. I have seen movies and read books about vampires before, but now it appears I shall have to somehow deal with one. God preserve the crew of this poor ship from his hunger!
Thompson shook his head. The members of his crew looked on in utter disbelief. Chief Lorenzo shook his head in disgust.
“He was nuttier than my Division Officer in Nam,” he said. Other members of the crew laughed and made comments of agreement.
“I don’t think so, Chief,” said Thompson. “I have seen enough things in my life to make me a firm believer in the supernatural. There are only a couple more entries left. Listen!” He began to read again:
January 30 We have settled into a routine of sorts. By day, the ship belongs to the living, by night, to the undead. I have not found where the fiend makes his next, but every day we look for him. We have barricaded ourselves inside the mess decks, guarding the hatches with crucifixes and rosary beads. Yet every night, another one of us is claimed somehow – either when we slip out to make a head call, or when someone is too late in returning to the haven we’ve made here. He is capable of roaming during the day, but generally does not. If I remember correctly, by the light of the sun his strength is reduced to that of a normal man. He has claimed five victims during the hours of the day, though, relying on stealth and blows from behind rather than on his brute strength. He attempted to take Chaplain McGarth five days ago, but the man of God possesses great strength, and calling on the name of the Almighty he cowed Captain Hazelwood sufficiently to escape. There are fifty-eight of us left alive now. I only hope he perishes from his unholy hunger once we are all gone!
February 6 – I sent the Chaplain up today with a note in a bottle – perhaps the current will take it to civilized shores. I do not know. He has not returned, and I fear the worst. Forty of us left now, all the rest are victims of his insatiable hunger. No water, no food. The end is near – and he is saving me for last.
TUNE IN NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2!!!!