A short story
Darkness settled around the silent tin can as it cruised through the water like a stalking cat. Inside 44 souls worked at the task of keeping it running and silent.
“We are now inside U.S. waters, mein Kapitan,” the oberleutnant reported.
“Silent running,” the captain commanded, and the word was passed. “If this mission succeeds, the path will be set in stone and we can proceed with the taming of the Americans.”
The Amerikaner: The word lingered in his mind like stale eggs – soft, rotten. Good people at the core, no doubt, but sorely in need of discipline, the firmness the Reich could offer. On the shore ahead, nestled in their cozy homes, surrounded by comfort purchased at the expense of others, others like the German people, humiliated and looted after the Great War. This sortie would be the first step toward evening that score and restoring the Fatherland to its rightful place of world leadership.
“Ready torpedoes?” asked the oberleutnant.
“Have the crew ready,” the Kapitan replied, “but we are not to fire except in the unlikely event our lives are in danger. Our mission is not to be seen.”
“Do you understand why it is so important we escape detection?”
“The Americans believe their shores are unassailable,” the captain said. “That makes them susceptible to a surprise attack. Imagine these soft fools living their lives, going to the movies, listening to their silly radio programs, playing baseball, never suspecting that they could be assaulted at any time. This mission is to prove they are asleep. Our job tonight is not to be seen.”
“Understand that if we are detected, if we are forced to defend ourselves, we have failed. The crew must understand.”
“Silent running, sir. Silent running.”
“Sehr gut.” Very good.
The Atlantic Ocean swelled gently in the dark as the U-Boat crept closer to shore. So far, so good.
“Full stop. Up periscope,” whispered the captain. “I want to see where we are.”
Lights twinkled all along his range of sight. As hoped, they were in range of a populated coastal town. There were no signs of alarm.
“Sehr gut,” whispered the captain. “Live your little lives, my sheep, and pay no attention to the wolf watching you from nearby.”
+ + + + +
People drive for hours to sit on the beach in Seaside Heights, New Jersey, but if you live two blocks from the ocean, it’s just another place to grow old and bored. Frank Hobbs was not yet old, but he certainly was bored.
“There’s nothing to do in this town on a Sunday night,” Frank said. “And it’s too cold to do anything fun outside.”
“Don’t be a stick in the mud,” his dad said. “It’s Halloween tomorrow, what are you going as?”
“You kidding? I’m too old to beg for candy door to door.”
“Come on, dress up. Your little sister’s going as a cowgirl. I have an idea – you could be her horse.”
“Ha, ha.” That’s right, Frank was supposed to escort Ruthie through the neighborhood the next night. Great.
“You planning to see your friends tonight? Remember it’s a school night. Homework done?”
“Yes, Dad, for crying out loud. I wouldn’t be going to see Kenny if I had homework left. Why are you out here anyway?”
“Your mother’s listening to some ballroom dancing show. I’m not in the mood.”
The call from inside the house carried shock and fear and maybe the end of life as we know it.
“What has that damn cat done now?” Dad grumbled, hurling open the door and plunging into the house. Frank followed, curious.
Mother was standing in the middle of the living room facing the Philco radio. A wine glass was tipped on the coffee table next to her chair, a red stain on the carpet.
“Did Whiskers do that? Where is that little beast?” Dad said, mildly irritated.
“No, not the cat, I did that, I’m sorry,” Mother said, her face white with – terror? Is that what Mother looks like when she’s terrified? “It’s Martians!”
The word hung in the air like a yellow balloon.
“Martians? What are you talking about?”
“They landed in Grovers Mill. They just killed a bunch of soldiers and I think maybe the reporter, too – the broadcast cut off just as they attacked with their death rays.”
“Grovers Mill? That’s, what, 45 miles from here. Come on, Maude, it’s some kind of radio play.”
“No, no, there was a music show from New York and they broke in with a bulletin. There were some strange puffs on Mars and then the news man was reporting from Grovers Mill where they landed. Oh, it was so horrible, Horace, what are we going to do?”
“Ladies and gentlemen, here is a bulletin from Trenton,” said the voice in the radio. “It is a brief statement informing us that the charred body of Carl Phillips has been identified in a Trenton hospital.”
“Carl Phillips, that was the reporter in Grovers Mill,” Mother moaned.
“Oh, Lordy,” Dad said. “Frank? Let’s get the rifles out.”
“We’re not going to Grovers Mill, are you crazy?”
“Of course not, son,” Dad said. “But we should make sure they’re not making a sea landing. Maude – did the radio say what their spaceships look like?”
“The one that landed in Grovers Mill was long and cylindrical.” Mother shuddered. “They came out, and the reporter said they were terribly ugly, and then the shooting started.”
“Here you go, Dad,” Frank said, handing his father one of the rifles.
“All right, let’s check down by the shore,” Dad said. “I didn’t fight off the krauts in Ypres just to have some Martians invade Seaside Heights.”
The night was clear and eerily quiet, the calm broken only by the sound of the waves breaking on the beach two blocks ahead. In a couple of homes, they heard Charlie McCarthy’s voice and the sound of an audience laughing.
“That’s odd,” Dad said warily.
“Maybe not every station knows about the invasion yet,” Frank said.
Not far away, a woman shrieked, “I don’t want to live like that!” and a man yelled, “For God’s sake, Mildred, give me that gun!”
“I saw this in France,” Dad said. “Civilization breaks down in a hurry when evil invades. And the women are brutalized first, you can’t blame them for – Be alert, son.”
They stepped onto the sandy beach and tread cautiously toward the water.
A car roared up behind them.
“Hello, Horace,” came a voice from the vehicle. The passenger door opened and a young man jumped out with another rifle. It was Frank’s friend Kenny and his dad.
“Hello, Bob – did you hear the radio, too?”
“Yeah. I figured maybe we could spot some Martians landing from the ocean with the car lights.”
“Not a bad idea. But kill the engine.”
“Hey, Kenny, I was coming over in a little while anyway.”
“That sure sounded nasty, didn’t it?” Kenny said. “Jeez, the soldiers screaming and all –”
“My mother heard that part, Dad and I were outside.”
“I’m not sure what good guns are going to be against stuff from Mars.”
“We gotta try something, I guess.”
“Wait!” Dad said, a lot more nervously than Frank had ever heard him. “Do you hear that?”
Out over the water, a humming sound, like an engine.
“Oh my god,” someone whispered.
And just then, passing through the car lights not far from shore, a long, cylindrical machine crossed their view.
“I have this,” Kenny’s dad said, aiming his rifle not where the lights were but into the darkness where the large cylinder seemed to be heading.
Seconds later, a clear and unmistakable, metallic “PING!” rang through the night.
“Good shot, Bob!”
Bob fired again, and so did Dad and Frank and Kenny. And again.
The engine noise increased from a quiet purr to a roar, as if the alien monsters inside had throttled up.
The gunmen paused and listened.
“Is it coming toward us?”
“No! The sound is fading! They’re running away!”
The two men and their sons cheered, and listened to the Martian craft flee back into the sea.
“Horace! Frank!” It was Mother again, calling from the street. “Who are you shooting at?”
“Martians, Mom!” Frank shouted back. “They were here! We saw them! Scared them off!”
“There were no Martians,” Mother said, padding over the sand. “Put your guns down.”
“What are you talking about, woman?” Dad said. “We heard them, we saw their ship in the water.”
“It was a radio show,” she said. “The announcer came on at the end and said the whole thing was a Halloween prank.”
“What? A prank!? Then what were we just shooting at?”
“Maybe the Martians did land, and the government doesn’t want us to panic, so they’re trying to say it’s not true,” Kenny said.
“Come on, the government wouldn’t do that,” Frank scoffed.
“Something was out there,” Bob insisted. “We hit it at least three times, too. It didn’t stop them, but it scared them off.”
“The Martian invasion was a Halloween show?” Dad said. “It sounded so real. Who thought that was a good idea?”
“I hope they fire all of them,” Mother said. “That was a horrible trick to play. I was scared to death.”
“It must have been somebody’s boat we hit, then,” said Kenny’s dad ruefully. “I hope we didn’t do too much damage.”
+ + + + +
The captain glared at his oberleutnant, whose brow betrayed a thin layer of sweat.
“It wasn’t anything we did, sir,” the younger man said. “No one broke protocol, we were as quiet as we could be. You would have to have been listening for our motors to hear us.”
“Some sort of shore patrol, then?”
“It has to be. There’s no other explanation.”
“Hmph. The Americans are more vigilant than we suspected. This is a good thing to know,” said the captain. “I hope we are believed.”
“We’re back in international waters,” called the watch officer. “We’re free to radio a report now, sir.”
The captain thought a moment. “I will wait. This will have to be phrased properly so the mission will not be seen as a failure.”
“But, I beg your pardon, sir, but we were detected,” said the oberleutnant.
“You are saying we failed? You are saying I failed?” the captain demanded, stepping close to his second in command.
Everyone held his breath for a few seconds.
“No, sir, of course not,” the oberleutnant said.
“Good. Return to your stations, men. Heil Hitler.”
“Heil Hitler,” the crewmen muttered, and went back to work.
The captain stood looking over the cramped control room, listening to the thrumming of the quietest submarine motors German engineering could produce, which made them the quietest in the world.
“Verdammt Amerikaner,” he whispered. Apparently they would be just as hard to defeat this time around. He recalled the bitter days of the Great War and his heart sank as he began to understand what was ahead. This setback would delay any plans to draw the United States into war, and perhaps that would be a good thing for the Fatherland.
The cold steel cylinder cut through the Atlantic quietly, three small dents bearing witness to American determination in the face of an enemy from far away.
“How could they have known,” he said under his breath. “How could they have known?”