he Midnight Watch by TJ Perkins
A warm ocean breeze washed over me as I stood gazing out at the waves. Tiny lights from distant fishing boats danced on the dark horizon and it was my job to keep track of them and report any new appearances to the communications department located far below decks of the huge aircraft carrier I served on.
Being a young woman in the Navy was challenging and tough. From bootcamp, to your special training school, to the first station you’re assigned to, it’s one hurdle after another: physical, emotional and mental. But nothing can beat the nervous and excited emotions that well up when you report to your new assignment and first step on board a real Navy ship. Feeling out your new surroundings, and the people entwined within your new life, takes time and the military makes sure you get adequate time in whatever job you’re assigned to. Being a new person, you’re first assigned to the mess hall, then you go to the deck crew, after that you can start working in whatever job you’ve trained for.
I had only been on board this ancient vessel for six months and was still serving my time with the deck crew. Much of that time was spent on watch or implementing cleaning and repair duties in various parts of the ship. Every inch of this vessel had a story to tell and little by little I was still learning about its history and mysterious past. Much of what I had heard was just basic lore: the ship had been in many wars, barely surviving each one, but always managed to limp back to port. Once it was fixed up, which included welding many compartments permanently closed due to flooding, the aircraft carrier went out to sea again and again. It was a constant survivor, that’s how it earned the name The White Ghost.
After it was decommissioned, the ship was used in the training of jet pilots and was the only vessel that allowed men and women to serve together while out to sea two weeks out of every month. That’s how I got here, serving my time and performing my duties which, at the moment, pertained to standing watch
While being on watch, I always had a chance to hear bits and pieces of interesting conversation about spooks and spectrals that were still believed to be wandering around the seventeen levels of this old ship. Whether that was the honest truth, or if it was just something to make a first-timer, such as myself, nervous, I didn’t know, nor did I care. If the guys who shared time on my watch tonight were trying to pluck my nerves, or scare me into tears, I had news for them – it wasn’t going to work, for they had one gutsy female to deal with this time. Unlike poor Johnston who whined and cried like a baby while standing watch on deck six. The more experienced guys had her so convinced there was a spook up there that she started screaming and swore that someone was tapping her on the shoulder every time she went to look through the binoculars, while checking for fishing boats.
Finally, after laughing their asses off and keeping her up there in a panic for over thirty minutes, the officer of the deck allowed her to be relieved. Of course you can guess who her relief was – me, seaman watch, high up on deck six of this very ancient aircraft carrier. The very one that had a past of death and destruction, and a history of strange things that happened. Was I convinced? Nah!
I haughtily took my place at the forward watch on deck six, which was a main part of the giant tower that housed the radar antennas. I donned my headset, which had an attached mouth piece and that linked me with the deck officer and communications, and began the tedious job of scanning the horizon for fishing boat lights, or any other obstacle that we could possibly hit. Once I spotted an obstacle, my job was to report the coordinates to the bridge and the comm center so we could avoid a collision.
“Hey, Gray,” Came the crackling voice of the aft watchman, Murray. Murray, as was his last name, was stationed at the back, or aft end of deck six. The long, tall and very oblong shape of the radar tower made it difficult for those on watch to see each other, especially in the dark and the headsets were the only way to assure that someone else was up there with you.
“What’s up?” I answered into my mouth piece, “You need some conversation stimulation?” I knew Murray was getting bored back there, after all it was one o’clock in the morning now, mostly everyone was asleep and the warm summer breeze from the ocean, combined with the gentle rocking of the ship, was enough to put anyone to sleep.
“Man, do I. I’m really tired, but being up here makes me nervous.”
“Don’t start that crap with me, Mur. And here I thought you were my friend,” I spouted out sarcastically.
“Aw, come on Gray, I’m not trying to get you edgy…”
“Good, ’cause it ain’t happening,” I said very matter-of-factly.
“I’m the one that’s edgy!” He practically yelled through the headset.
“You, edgy, I find that very hard to believe.” It was true. Murray was a big, burly guy with a heart of gold. Just the size of him would make anyone think twice before getting into a fight with him. He was a loyal friend that would stand against all odds for someone he liked, or something that he believed in, and for anything to make him edgy was, well, quiet unheard of.
“Hey, Gray,” He said after a brief pause from his last outburst.
“Yeah?” I responded, just to let him know I was still there.
“I was talking to this guy last night, you know. He wandered up here while I was on watch and we started talking. He filled me in on some more of the history about this ship.” As he talked, his voice trembled and I could picture his face going pale while nervous beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
“Wait a minute,” I cut in, “Why would someone come all the way up here, really late at night, just to talk about this ship?” My question wasn’t meant to be sarcastic, just very blunt. It did seem strange that a fellow crew member would go out of his way to spread stories he had heard about this very old aircraft carrier, then again, I had heard things as well and did pass them along during meals as casual conversation, but I wouldn’t wander around looking for an audience.
“It wasn’t like that was the first thing he blurted out,” Murray said defensively, “Besides, I just figured he was one of the guys from down under, you know, down in the boiler room. When they get off of watch they like to come up for air, you know, so I didn’t question the visit.”
“Oh. So, anyway, what did he tell you?” I asked.
“A bunch of things, but the one thing that stood out in my mind was about a war this ship was in.” He paused at this point, lowering his voice to almost a whisper, “A kamikaze rammed his plane into the tower above us to knock out the communications. Unfortunately, the poor guy didn’t die immediately. He fell from the wreckage down to this deck, the very one we’re standing on — deck six. Before he died, he cursed the ship and the crew, saying that they would never live to see another day.”
“Creepy. But obviously the curse didn’t take. This old tub is like the ever-ready-bunny. It’s been years and this ship is still running.”
“True. But you know what’s really creepy? The guy said that the ghost of the pilot has been seen roaming around up here,” Murray added, his voice still holding a shaky tone.
“Oh, Mur,” I said gently while releasing a sigh of defeat, “I’ve been standing watch up here for three months now and I haven’t seen anything.”
“Me neither, but that doesn’t mean…..”
“All right, you two, cut the chatter. The Captain wants it more professional,” Came the voice of the communications officer.
Murray and I immediately fell silent and resumed looking for fishing boats on the horizon. I raised the binoculars to my eyes and balanced my petite frame high up on the toes of my work boots so I could get a better look around. I scanned the water’s surface from east to west; same old fishing boats, nothing new to report. I tried to keep my mind on what I was suppose to be doing, but I couldn’t help allowing stray thoughts of my conversation with Murray to linger in my mind. It was one thing to hear a few rumors about a certain place or object, but it was quite another when entirely too many people bombarded you with similar stories about one certain thing. Then again, this was the Navy and too many experienced sailors got their rocks off by making a new-timer believe a bunch of bull, and then sit back and laugh at you later.
I continued to gaze out over the ocean, loosing myself in deep thought and enjoying the subtle rocking of the ship, totally oblivious to my immediate surroundings, when I suddenly felt a sharp tug on the cord of my headset. It didn’t hurt, but it did slide the ear pieces off of my ears a bit and surprised the crap out of me. I wheeled around sharply, thinking I’d find one of the guys on my watch team up early to relieve me, or trying to play a joke on me after everyone heard my conversation with Murray, but what I found was — no one. No one was there. But someone had to have been there in order to yank my cord. It wasn’t like the cord was 20 feet long and someone could yank it from an unseen distance, it was only five feet long and plugged into a wall socket very close to me.
The story about the kamikaze pilot instantly flooded my mind, but I quickly put that thought aside. There was no way I was going to be made a fool over some stupid story! There had to be a reasonable explanation and just because it was extremely dark didn’t mean that someone wasn’t close by. I cleared my mind of assumptions and peered into the darkness, searching for a tell tale sign of a human form or shadow — still nothing.
“Murray?” I said into my mouth piece.
“Yeah?” The sound of his voice did make me feel a little more a ease.
“Did someone come up here recently?” I asked.
“Are you sure? I mean, I didn’t hear the tower door screech open, but that doesn’t mean someone didn’t come up. I did have my back to the door,” I said, trying to make excuses.
“Honestly Gray, I haven’t seen or heard anyone. Why?”
“Because I just felt a tug on my headset cord. It was hard enough to pull my ear pieces around a bit so I know it wasn’t my imagination,” I came back with a shaky voice.
“Roger that, forward watch,” Came a voice from someone on the bridge, “Someone will be up to check out your situation shortly.”
The deck officer and communications had a constant vigil on all watch posts, twenty-four hours a day. They heard every conversation and always reacted to a situation that may have the potential to be dangerous or serious. I didn’t feel that my situation was either, but it did put me at ease knowing that someone was coming up to visit Murray and me and make sure there wasn’t a practical joker running around on deck six.
I released several deep breaths to calm myself down. It had to have been my imagination. Murray filled my head with that creepy tale about the kamikaze pilot and it was taking its toll. Plus, and I didn’t tell him this, but earlier today I had heard a story from another male friend of mine. Sanders was a fireman and worked far below decks in the engine and boiler rooms. He showed me several compartments that had been welded shut and proceeded to explain why.
Even though this ship had been involved in many wars, one war in particular was where it had sustained the most damage; limping back to port with major holes gaped open in its sides and underbelly. Many sailors died below decks as a result of the constant barrage of attacks to the ship’s hull, and then there were those who were just hurt and not a casualty. Those were the ones that could’ve been saved. Unfortunately, the power was out all over the ship and to try and go below, far, far below, into the guts of the ship to save those still alive, was almost suicide. It was pitch black, the holds were quickly filling with dark, murky, shark-infested water and the only guidance available was the constant moaning and crying of those men left to their fate. The captain wouldn’t allow anyone else to risk their lives trying to save those who may not live anyway, so he ordered the compartments that were connected to the damaged ones, but not yet flooded, welded shut; sealing the sailors in and leaving them to be eaten, to bleed to death, or to drown.
A chill ran up my spine as I pictured the gruesome scene — being sealed into a watery tomb while you were still alive, hurt badly, but still alive. Sanders also said that whenHe was down in the boiler room on watch late at night, sometimes he could hear sounds that reminded him of men moaning or crying for help, accompanied by a light tapping of metal upon metal. I had wanted to tell Murray that story, but to do so now would only add to the situation.
The tower door, the only entrance and exit to deck six, suddenly flew open, screeching and slamming against the tower wall. It was good timing for a suspense film and the whole scene, mixed with my mental pictures, was enough to make me jump out of my skin. My heart was beating so hard it felt like it would explode through my chest!
Calm down, I told myself, just clam down. It must’ve came loose from the motion of the ship, or maybe someone is coming out of the tower stairwell.
I strained my eyes in the darkness, trying to make out a figure. The bridge said that someone was on their way up, what’s keeping them anyway? No one emerged from the tower, but someone was definitely coming toward me. I wasn’t sure how, maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me again, but it really didn’t look as if this person emerged from the tower stairwell. It looked as if he just appeared from the darkness. Maybe he had visited Murray first and was now on his way to see me? I wasn’t sure, nor did I care. The bottom line was, my report was being checked out, or so I thought, and that was all that mattered. But just in case, I better make sure someone did, in fact, visit Murray.
“Murray?” I said into my mouth piece as the dark figure came closer.
Still no response.
“Forward watch, on deck six, to comm station,” I said loudly into my mouth piece, never taking my eyes off of the approaching figure.
No response. What was going on? Doesn’t anyone hear me? I waited and stared into the dimness of the evening. The figure continued to approach with a slow, steady, almost threatening pace. I blinked several times, trying to make my eyes adjust. Even though he wasn’t very far away, his silhouette was still hazy and very fuzzy around the edges. Just like Murray said, this guy was probably one of the firemen coming up for air after being down below on watch for hours. I rudely continued to stare at him, looking for some sign of recognition — facial features, his body shape, his voice, but the darkness was playing tricks on my eyes, or so I thought, and it was hard to make out who he was
“Bridge, come in bridge. Forward watch to bridge,” I tried once more before my visitor came too close. I didn’t want to look like a panic-stricken fool, even though I was quickly going in that direction anyway.
I still didn’t receive any response from the bridge or communications. It was like I was all alone, suspended in time with no way out and pinned in place by the duty of not leaving my post. I felt like running, dropping the headset and bolting right past this person no matter what the penalty, but I didn’t, I held my ground and waited to see what was going to happen. Remarkably, nothing happened. He smiled as he walked past me and stopped at the railing, leaning on it with his forearms and looking out over the water.
He was Asian and very cute, and didn’t look like anyone I knew. Of course, there were so many people on our ship that I couldn’t possibly know all of them. His working uniform was different, not like the regular Navy blues everyone else wore. The story of the kamikaze suddenly filled my mind again. Murray said some guy came up to visit and started talking about this ship, but he didn’t say what the visitor looked like. For all I knew this could be him, or maybe not. Maybe I was just being drawn into the delusions of the scary stories and history of this ship — I couldn’t tell, but there was one way to find out.
“Hi,” I said to my visitor, flashing him a winning smile and batting my long lashes. He just ignored me and continued to stare out over the ocean. Hump! Typical male! Here I was trying to break the ice, and possibly win a date, and this guy has the nerve to be rude and play hard-to-get. Okay, let’s try a different approach.
“Have you come to tell me a story, too?” I asked very matter of factly.
That did it. I finally got a response out of him. He turned his head slowly to the right and looked into my eyes. A wry smile spread across his lips as he took two steps toward me. Placing his hands on his hips, he just shook his head as if laughing at me and said, in a very heavy accent, “You already know them all.”
“Excuse me?” I quickly blurted out, completely shocked by his comment.
Without further explanation, he waved me off and resumed looking out over the ocean. A blow off, okay, I can live with that. It’s not like I was ugly or anything. Maybe he had a girlfriend, or just wasn’t interested. I wasn’t going to let it bother me and I’ll let him know it by ignoring him, too.
I turned back to the horizon, raised my binoculars and scanned for any new appearances of fishing boats, then I decided to say something else to my odd visitor. I was going to let him know that he didn’t hurt my feelings, but he could at least be a little nicer — not that being blown off bothered me, you see, but I just wanted to let him know anyway. I had only turned away from him for a minute or two and when I turned back to give him a piece of my mind, he was gone. Vanished. How? Deck six wasn’t very big and there weren’t many places someone could hide, especially in such a short period of time, I mean, I only took my eyes off of him for a minute. There was only one door to enter, or exit, deck six and it was far enough away that I would still be able to see him walking towards it, but he was nowhere.
That was enough for me. I was convinced. I wanted to be moved to another watch area, I wanted a relief and I wanted it now. Even though I was becoming unglued, I still wanted to make sure I wasn’t just over-reacting and continued to peer into the darkness for the man, while lightly fingering the mouthpiece of my headset with shaky hands. I had to contact someone, it was against regulations not to respond, and where was that person who was suppose to be up here checking out the cord tugging incident!
“M-Murray, are you t-there?” I stammered, trying to moisten my suddenly overly dry mouth.
“Yeah, I’m still here. Why?” He answered casually and sounding very bored.
I wave of relief washed over me the instant I heard his voice. “I tried calling you just a few minutes ago and you didn’t answer.”
“I’m sorry, Gray. I guess I didn’t hear you,” Murray stated apologetically.
“I called the bridge too, several times, and the comm station. No one answered me!”
“Sorry forward watch,” came a voice from communications, “No one down here heard you.”
“Geez! I could be dying up here and no one heard me!” I spat into the mouthpiece, thoroughly frustrated by the whole situation. “Is it time for our watch to be over?” I added, after a brief pause.
“What’s the problem, forward watch?” the officer of the bridge asked.
“I was trying to call you guys, no one heard me for at least ten minutes, it was like I was all alone on this tub. Then an Asian guy showed up, materializing out of thin air. He wouldn’t talk to me, he wasn’t very friendly, and when I turned my back for a minute, he disappeared!” Of course I knew that the more I talked, the more damage I was doing to myself, but I really wanted to share this experience with all those practical jokers hanging out on the bridge.
“Hey, Gray, calm down. I for one will back you by saying that no one entered or exited deck six by the door. It flew open and banged around a bit, but no one came through that door, and that’s the God’s honest truth,” Murray stated.
His testimony was comforting, but what would make me feel even better would be to come off of watch and go get some sleep. I nervously waited for the officer of the bridge to contact me with news of a relief.
“Your crew’s watch cycle is over, everyone is being relieved. Unfortunately, none of the guys want to come up there now,” the officer said.
“With all due respect, Sir, if I don’t get a relief at this time, I’m walking. You can put me in the brig, degrade me, I don’t care. I don’t want to be up here anymore,” I came back very authoritatively.
Needless to say, my relief came up within a matter of minutes and I was taken to the cozy hallway outside the bridge to be questioned by the officer of the deck. Thank goodness I didn’t get in trouble for my brashness.
Murray met me on the flight deck as I was going below to get some sleep. He tagged along after me, chattering endlessly and spilling out all sorts of questions of concern and intrigue, but I was too tired to go into detail. Once we had reached the women’s compartment, two decks below the jet hangar, I had to blow him off and say good night with a promise to meet him for breakfast and fill him in on the details of my encounter.
After freshening up a bit, I climbed into my bunk and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. I tossed and turned, laying first on my side, then on my stomach, then on my other side. It was two in the morning and I was beat, despite the little eye-opening shake up I had earlier. The sleeping compartment that I shared with floors below the hangar bay, in fact it was right on the water line of the ship. If you were very quiet you could hear the rushing of the water against the metal hull and the humming of the engines. Lucky for me it was very quiet at this time of night and I reveled in the peace, the calming sound of the water brushing past, the low hum from the engines and the moaning. The moaning!
What the hell was that? I wasn’t sure, but it had my attention. I was fully awake once again, but this time I was within the dark comfort of my bunk, in my compartment, and with several sleeping females around me. No one was moving around so I was sure none of them were playing a joke on me, then again, no one else knew about what happened on my watch just yet. I strained my ears to hear the sound. It started off soft and built to a point where I could barely make it out. Honestly, I really didn’t want to hear it, I wanted to ignore it, shut my mind to it, but it was there, distinctly recognizable and just loud enough that I couldn’t deny it. Moaning; low, sorrowful moaning accompanied by weak banging sounds, metal against metal, like a Morris code, obviously from the spirits of those who had been left to die in the welded shut compartments far below decks, just like Sanders said.
My heart began to pound fiercely against my chest as ice water shot through my veins. I wanted it to go away, to not hear it, to not know about it and pretend it never happened. I smooshed my pillow up around my ears, rolled onto my belly and closed my eyes tight to drown out the ever growing sounds of the moaning. It was so loud in my head that I was sure all the other girls would hear it, but no one stirred, no one made any comments. Then it was for me, just me, to hear this horrible, gut twisting sound. I released my pillow and in one swift motion pulled the blankets over my head, trying to hide from the spirits that had seeked me out.
Suddenly…all was quiet. I pulled the blankets down past my eyes and peered into the darkness of my berthing compartment — everything was fine. Not another sound was omitted and all I heard for the rest of the night was the humming of the engines and the rushing of the water against the hull.
TJ Perkins retains the sole copyright © 2001 for this article.