May 2, 1955 to June 13, 1955
Dead, flat out calm.
Diesel smoke coming from the funnel left a long, unbroken trail of black fume against the dull, cloudless sky.
The ship’s forward motion bringing the only movement of air onto the three sweating, bare-chested men working on a scaffold lowered mid-way between the main deck and the surface of the water, sweating profusely, wearing neckerchiefs about their foreheads to keep sweat from stinging their eyes—Mitchell thinking he knew how a slice of toast must feel—the sun burnt their backs and, reflected heat radiating off the steel hull, their front-sides, too.
Always a sun worshiper, by this time Mitchell Lipensky well knew that lying on a beach was just a bit different then standing for hours at a time chipping paint and scraping rust under the commanding, demanding eyes of Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Myron Linton.
The men worked with three tools: a sharp-edged chipping hammer; a double-sided, steel scrapper; and a wire-bristled brush.
By Mitchell’s reckoning, the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean must be littered with these three hated tools, dropped by accident or, more likely, on purpose.
The water below the scaffold moved slowly and, oh, so invitingly, but, due to sharks, swimming in these southern waters was strictly prohibited.
Tapping the hammer, he chipped away a patch of corroded paint. Using the scrapper and wire brush, he removed all trace of paint and the rust inhibitor “red-lead” for two inches around. Later in the day, either he or one of the others would repaint the down-to-steel spots with red-lead. The next day, when the red-lead was dry, this entire section of hull would be repainted Coast Guard white.
Work through for the day, work parties secured, the men took tepid showers in processed seawater, then, while awaiting chow—because below deck the temperature of the steel-hulled ship stood at near eighty degrees—those men not having other duties lounged on the shady side of the ship.
Standing on the fantail with ten or twelve crewmen, Mitchell watched as Machinist Mate Third Class John Spagnola and Yeoman’s Mate Second Class Don Wilson fished for shark.
Because the Halfmoon already had a yeoman striker, Mitchell had been denied permission to strike for yeoman, but he and Don Wilson—whom he jokingly referred to as “Don Wilson of the Coast Guard,” in parody of the comic strip and old time movie serial “Don Winslow of the Navy”—had become friends. It was with Wilson’s permission that Mitchell had been allowed into the ship’s office to practice typing, of which he was improving, slightly, and to study his yeoman’s correspondence course, with which—as his studies in the past—he found hard to concentrate on and, after almost ten months, was becoming bored with and losing interest in.
Using the machine shop equipment, Spagnola had fashioned an evil looking fishhook out of a two-foot long, half-inch thick steel rod. Attached through the eye of the hook, there was a three-foot leader of light chain. Tied to the end of the chain was a length of half-inch line. A large chunk of bacon rind, triply speared through the hook’s barbed point, was used as bait. The standing end of the line was wound once about the capstan, while about forty feet of line trolled behind the slowly moving ship. A bobber made of an empty, sealed five-gallon milk can bounced on the wake approximately thirty feet off the stern.
As evening approached, a welcome, cooling breeze blew across the Halfmoon, and the men, dressed in denims, fully appreciated it.
“Fuckin’ hot today, eh, Lippy?”
Voluntarily activated from the Coast Guard Reserve, Seaman First Class Stuart Baker had come aboard the Halfmoon one week prior to sailing. Spotting Baker as a “Jewish guy,” Mitchell had asked Boatswain’s Mate Third Class Myron Linton, “Hey, how’s ’bout I teach this guy the ropes?” As reservists were often given’ to regulars to break in, “Yeah,” Linton had readily replied.
So on this patrol, Seaman First Class Stuart Baker, with the knowledgeable assistance of Seaman First Class Mitchell Lipensky, was in the process of learning the finer points of cleaning a toilet… Or, if you will, a head.
Forcing his eyes from the hypnotic, bubbling wake, “Yeah, Stu, it sure is.” Reaching into his shirt pocket, pinching two cigarettes out of the package, “But this breeze feel good, though.” Handing one to Stuart, Mitchell lit both with his Zippo.
“Hey!” Wilson yelled. “I think we got something here!”
Focusing their attention on the milk can, the men on the deck watched as…
Bouncing on the wake, the can sunk beneath the surface of the water until, buoyancy forcing it up, the can jostled against the seething wake for a number of yards before, pulled under again, popping up again…
“Yeah,” one of the men said, “they got somethin’ all right!”
…Once, twice, three times. On the fourth repetition the line went slack and the five-gallon can sank from sight for four, five, six seconds before, surfacing, hurdling several feet out of the water, the bronze colored can, violently jerked beneath the waters surface again, disappeared… Till, with an audible twang, the slack line suddenly pulled out of the water and, running at a straight angle from the fantail to the water’s surface, snapped taut.
Word spreading throughout the ship, the men not on duty, crowding the rear quarter of the Halfmoon, stood still as all eyes were riveted to the beads of water that dripped off the straining line, and at the point where it disappeared into the water.
Fortunately for his hands the line was wound around the capstan at least once, but yet, “Christ!” Spagnola shouted as he’d almost been jerked overboard. “Hey, some’a you guys gi’me a hand!”
Already there, Wilson hung on behind Spagnola and Mitchell and Stuart grabbed hold immediately behind Wilson.
“Lippy! Baker!” Wilson shouted over his shoulder. “Soon’s we get some slack throw another hitch on the capstan! … Now! Do it!”
As the two threw another loop over the capstan Wilson kicked the switch and the iron wheel began to turn, and as layers of rope wound around the winch, the length of rope in the water shortened.
No longer needed, Stuart and Mitchell were once again standing to the side with their eyes glued to the quivering line.
A black, triangular fin breaking the water, “There’s the fucker!” someone called.
At least fifteen feet in length, “Jesus H. fuckin’ Christ!” another man said. “Will ya look’a the size’a that fucker!”
Swallowing the chunk of bacon rind whole, the hook was deeply embedded within the creature’s stomach. Blood from the tear in the beast’s stomach now mixed with air and came through its gills in a red froth. Thrashing savagely, the water turned to bloody foam as the shark fought against the forward pull of the line as… Aboard the ship, the capstan hesitated, allowing the line to play in reverse, but before anyone realized and could grab on behind Spagnola, biting, the cogs in the winch began pulling forward again and a trace of smoke, caused by the strong opposing friction, rose from the tightly winding line.
As a precaution—in case they did catch a shark—Spagnola had propped an M2 carbine against the winch housing. Grabbing it, throwing the stock to his shoulder, sighting at the thrashing form, he fired… and missed. Another round chambering automatically, he fired again. A stream of blood trickling into the bloody froth, this time hitting the shark high on its back. The movement of the ship and the thrashing of the shark making it a difficult target, Spagnola’s third, fourth and fifth shots missed also. The sixth round, though, striking just above the snout, a geyser of blood erupted. The seventh bullet missed, but the eighth shattered the beast’s brain and all thrashing stopped… for a moment.
“Hey, here come more!”
The onlookers had been so intent with the capture and killing of the shark, they hadn’t noticed the six other triangular fins that had silently closed in on the bleeding, dying beast.
“Hey, we got fuckin’ company!”
Whipped into a blood-feast frenzy, violently jerking from side to side, the dead shark was being bitten into by the hoard of cannibalistic carnivores.
Handing the carbine to Wilson, Spagnola turned the winch off.
Inserting a fresh clip of .30 caliber ammunition into the rifle, firing indiscriminately into the pack, causing more blood, attracting more sharks, popping the spent clip, “Lippy,” Wilson said, jamming a fresh clip into the carbine, handing it to him, “take a shot!”
Not really wanting to, but accepting the rifle, holding it to his shoulder, sighting through the two sights, Mitchell squeezed the trigger…
As the piece was on automatic—the rapid recoil jerking the rifle upward—not wanting to appear too inept to his shipmates, instinctively forcing the barrel of the rifle downward, the entire clip of eight bullets fired. Five shots shooting harmlessly into the water, three ripped into the gray side of a baby shark that immediately turned belly up exposing its soft underside that—spewing a fountain of blood and intestines—was instantly ripped into by two other sharks.
Not intending to hit anything, this being the first time he’d killed anything, his face turning from gray to green, “Here.” handing the M2 back to Wilson, walking from the fantail, leaning against a bulkhead, slumping to the deck, Mitchell sat in the shade with his head hanging between his cocked knees.
The Boatswain’s whistle then, “Now hear this! Chow time! Chow time!” Again, the Boatswain’s whistle.
Mitchell Lipensky never, never, missed a meal. As a matter of fact, he was usually one of the first dozen or so men in the line. But on this evening he still sat with his head hanging between his propped knees.