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Excerpt from The Hemingway Patrols

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The Enemy in the Machine, by Terry Mort (continued)

Hemingway’s bravado served as a creative force throughout his life.

Ernest Hemingway

How did he intend to do it? Pilar had no armament aside from some Thompson submachine guns—handheld weapons that were useful at close range. These were antipersonnel weapons that could do little if any serious damage to the U-boat itself. Hemingway had originally considered mounting twin fifty-caliber machine guns on Pilar, but that plan was impractical—the wooden vessel could not support such heavy equipment nor withstand the recoil. What’s more, the U.S. government agencies in Cuba were reluctant to provide the guns. And finally, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to disguise the gun mounts on the relatively small Pilar, which would mean that, as an armed vessel, Pilar would be a legitimate target of war to any U-boat commander. Having heavy machine guns installed would actually make Hemingway’s mission more dangerous, for they would give a U-boat captain more than enough justification to sink Pilar and so add “an armed patrol boat” to his score.

Without installed armament of any kind, Hemingway reasoned that his only option, once he had reeled a U-boat to the surface, was to get alongside close enough to throw hand grenades up and into the U-boat’s conning tower—as well as an explosive charge packed in a fire extinguisher—a device Hemingway designed. Ideally, these would tumble down the open hatch and explode in the control area of the sub, possibly killing the captain and various officers along the way. Perhaps the explosions would not only ruin some of the controls but also damage the hatch between the exterior bridge of the conning tower and the control room below and thereby prevent it from closing and sealing the interior, so that the boat would not be able to submerge until after it had made some time-consuming repairs. Meanwhile, Hemingway and his crew would use their Thompson submachine guns to discourage the Germans from using their own deck guns against Pilar as she fled the scene.

Could this work? In theory, maybe. Certainly grenades exploding in the confined spaces of the control room would do fearsome damage to men and equipment as well.

But Hemingway’s plan of attack assumed that the German captain would allow Pilar to come alongside, whereas a naturally wary U-boat commander would in all probability heave to maybe fifty yards away, man his deck guns, then send an armed boarding party in an inflatable boat to relieve the “fishing boat” of its catch. After all, U-boat commanders were in the business of stealthy attacks; they were especially cautious when surfaced in enemy waters during daylight, and they would have enough imagination to consider any vessel a potential threat. Hemingway would not be allowed to get close enough to throw grenades, let alone a fire extinguisher; nor would the Thompson submachine guns be a match for the German deck guns.

Further, Hemingway must have known that no matter how many officers he killed in his initial attack, someone would still be left in the chain of command, and once Pilar turned to flee the area, the German sailors would use their deck guns and destroy her with ease. Their heavy-caliber machine guns would turn the boat into splinters, to say nothing of what a four-inch-caliber gun with an explosive shell would do. In an instant Pilar would simply cease to be. And Pilar was nothing like a PT boat, which could scurry away at forty knots, zigzagging to avoid the fall of shot. At best Pilar would do maybe sixteen knots, with both engines straining. Running away at top speed, Pilar would still be in range for a good half an hour. German gunners could take their time before opening fire and still reduce Pilar to so much flotsam with a single shot. Not that they would bother to wait.

Perhaps Hemingway intended to heave to while the Germans were preparing to send over their boarding party, at which point he would suddenly push Pilar’s throttle to full speed ahead so that he could rush alongside the U-boat, throw his grenades, then escape while the Germans tried to recover from the shock of sudden attack. But this could hardly succeed, for the Germans were old hands at this business. They would see Pilar suddenly getting under way; they would have her covered with deck guns, and when she made her turn to attack the U-boat, they would open fire on her, and that would be the end of Pilar and her crew. Nor did it make sense to try to use the boarding party as hostages in some way, for they would be well armed and well trained to deal with any such foolhardiness.

So, looking at the plan objectively, Hemingway must have known that it was a forlorn hope. He might be able to do some damage to the U-boat and thereby delay its escape, but with little chance that he and his crew would survive the encounter. But given the difficulties inherent in Pilar’s pose as a fishing boat, there seemed to be few alternatives available to him.

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