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By P. T. Deutermann
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 P. T. Deutermann
All rights reserved.
Guadalcanal, August 1942
"Mister Marshall Vincent, I'm ready to relieve you, sir."
"Mister John O'Connor. I'm so very glad you're here, sir."
"I'll bet you are," Jack said. "Still, the midwatch is no lovely prospect, either. What've we got?"
They were standing on the port side of the pilothouse, turning over the Officer of the Deck watch of the heavy cruiser USS Winston. Two more officers were doing the same thing a few feet away, turning over the junior OOD watch. Across the darkened pilothouse, the captain was dozing in his chair, which meant that all the watch standers were keeping their voices down. You didn't wake sleeping dogs, and you sure as hell didn't wake Captain Archibald Corley McClain III, not if you could help it.
Marsh recited the tactical situation. "Steaming in column formation, with Vincennes ahead and Astoria astern, two thousand yards interval. Darkened ship, battle condition II, modified material condition Zebra. Course three one zero, speed ten. Quincy is guide, and OTC is CO Chicago."
"Chicago?" Jack said. "I thought the officer in tactical command was the Brit admiral in HMS Australia."
"He and Australia apparently went to Tulagi for some kind of conference. That left Chicago as senior ship. There's another group of cruisers south of us, but nobody's told us where or who's in charge."
"Wonderful," Jack said. "Any night orders from Chicago?"
"Nope," Marsh said. "We haven't heard a word from them."
"Hearing from anybody?"
"Hourly radio checks, but just routine. We've got troops on the beach at Tulagi and over on Guadalcanal proper. That's all we know right now."
"Okay," Jack said, shaking his head. "What else you got for me?"
Marsh knew it was a pretty thin turnover, but the troops had just gone in a few days before, and it looked to them that the top brass were playing it by ear until the Japs responded in force to the landings. They'd sent one air strike already the previous afternoon, and one of the big transports was still burning to the south, the fire reflecting off the low overcast hugging the sound.
"The nearest hazard to navigation is Savo Island, bearing two five zero, eight miles. Visibility is darker than a well-digger's ass, and, so far, no Japs."
"That we know of," Jack said.
"That we know of," Marsh agreed. "And if they come, let us pray that they come in daylight."
They'd been briefed at an all-officers meeting earlier that a Jap task force had been spotted the day before, headed down from Rabaul toward the Slot, a narrow body of water running the length of the Solomon Islands. That could well put them off Guadalcanal sometime soon. As everyone knew, Jap cruisers tended to go fast.
"If they do come tonight, hopefully our two radar-equipped tin cans will see 'em."
"Amen to that," Jack said. "Picket stations?"
"Blue is out there somewhere to the northwest, above Savo. Ralph Talbot is northeast of Savo. They both have radar. We had one TBS check with Blue an hour ago. Lousy comms, but nothing to report."
They then reviewed the status of the main battery guns and the engineering plant. Nothing had changed since supper. "Okay, Beauty," he said. "I've got it. See you in six."
"I stand relieved," Marsh said and handed over the heavy 7 × 50 Bausch & Lomb binoculars. Then he turned toward the dark figures behind the helm and lee helm consoles. "Attention in the pilothouse: Mister O'Connor has the deck," he announced as quietly as he could.
There was a chorus of equally quiet aye-aye-sirs from the rest of the bridge watch. Marsh checked to make sure the captain was still asleep and then made his way aft to the door leading into the charthouse. The night was warm and muggy, and the darkness was absolute, with only the dimmed red lights from the companionway below showing as he went through the door. He hadn't been kidding about a night encounter with Jap cruisers. As assistant gunnery officer, he knew Winston's gun director optics were no match for the comparable Japanese equipment, not to mention that their cruisers were faster and better armed than the Americans.
He smiled as he went below. Jack had called him Beauty. He'd acquired that nickname during plebe year at the Naval Academy, back in 1928. Marsh was not a handsome man. In fact, "homely" would probably be the kindest description of his facial features. He was not quite six feet tall and had large ears and a long face with a bit of a lantern jaw, topped by an unruly shock of black hair that ended in a widow's peak between friendly farm-boy blue eyes. The day the brigade of upperclassmen returned to Bancroft Hall after their summer cruise, a firstie slammed into their plebe room, looked the fresh meat over while they stood at rigid, sweaty attention, focused on Marsh, and said, "Aren't you a regular beauty." There it was, forever and ever.
He got down to the main interior passageway and slipped awkwardly through the scuttle in the armored hatch. His eyes were heavy, and he made his way to his stateroom like a zombie. See you in six, Jack had said. With the ship at battle condition II, everyone aboard was standing port and starboard watches now, six hours on, six off. That routine had Marsh dragging his ass. Right now he had the slightly better deal, with the 0600 to noon watch in the morning, six hours off, then the eighteen to midnight. That sequence roughly lined up with his normal circadian rhythms. Jack had the noon to eighteen and then the dreaded midwatch, midnight to six in the morning, extended until the ship stood down from dawn general quarters. Still, they both had it better than the poor bastard Marines who were clinging to Henderson Field as hordes of insane Jap infantry gathered to probe their strength.
Winston's main battery of eight-inchers was manned up, with the gun crews permitted to "rest" on station in the gun turrets, handling rooms, and magazines. The ship was mostly buttoned up, with only certain scuttles open in the otherwise dogged-down armored hatches belowdecks. It was like an oven down below in officers' country with all the big hatches locked down, especially since their ventilators were running on low speed so that the big enlisted berthing compartments farther forward got more air.
Marsh made a pit stop at the forward officers' head to off-load six hours' worth of coffee and then went to his so-called stateroom. He kicked off his sea boots and dropped into the lower rack fully clothed. He and Jack O'Connor were roommates. The stateroom, which was eight feet long and five feet wide down on the second deck, was just aft and starboard of turret two's barbette. It actually had a porthole, but that, too, was dogged down. Marsh thought about opening it anyway to relieve the awful, sweaty South Pacific heat but settled for locking back the stateroom door and pulling the privacy curtain across. Then he fell back into his rack.
He was a long way from San Diego, both in time and distance. His mother still lived there; his father had passed on after a heart attack three years ago. Marsh had been born and raised there in the north county, in the village of Escondido, and had gone off to the academy in 1928, courtesy of an appointment from his father's law partner, now a congressman. Since graduation in '32 he'd been at sea on various ships in the Pacific Fleet, keeping his head down from the ravages of what they were calling the Great Depression. Many of his classmates had been forced out of the service because of the Navy's budget problems, and those who'd been retained had had their pay cut. He felt that it was fortunate he hadn't married, and often wondered how the guys who did get married made ends meet.
He'd only been in Winston for three months when the battle fleet was moved to Pearl. They'd just finished a shipyard overhaul and didn't come out until right after the attack on December 7. Now they were boring holes in the ocean in the steaming darkness around the island of Guadalcanal, a word none of them had even heard until a few months ago. Marsh didn't know which Navy headquarters genius had picked this hellhole to make a stand, but he fervently wished whoever it was could be sent out here to enjoy some six on, six off watches with the rest of them.
He could smell the sweat that had his khaki uniform stuck to 90 percent of his body. One of the ship's two freshwater evaporators was on the blink, so the whole crew was on water-hours, which meant one shower was allowed every three days. That was a Navy shower : Water on, water off. Soap down. Water on, water off. Out you get. He thought about sneaking down to the head to get a quick rinse and then was instantly asleep.
He dreamed that he was flying and then woke up with the sudden pain of crashing onto the steel deck next to his bed, the echoes of a huge explosion compressing his eardrums while the ship heeled over to starboard and then rolled back upright, covering him in personal gear, loose paperwork, and upset chairs. A fine acrid and oily mist suffused the air. As he tried to get up from under all the clutter, the ship was hit again. At that instant he was on all fours, and the steel deck tried hard to break both his wrists and knees. He yelled with the shock of it and flopped over on his side. This time the ship didn't heel over very much. He sensed that there was something significant about that, but his sleep-doped brain was too confused to focus. Then he heard men shouting out in the passageway, followed by a sudden roar of escaping steam coming from somewhere back aft. He thought he could hear the general quarters bugle alarm sounding above that thundering steam leak.
He couldn't use his hands, and both his kneecaps crackled in pain. He had to pry himself upright with his elbows. He grabbed for his kapok life jacket and battle helmet and dropped both of them when his hands turned to hot rubber. He felt the forward eight-inchers let go up above, their familiar rippling thumps almost drowned out by the steam eruption amidships. More men were yelling out in the main passageway, and he had to hang on to an overturned chair just to stand up. He felt a wave of bowel-liquefying fear sweep through him as he realized Winston wasn't coming back upright. Instead she seemed to be slowing in the seaway and listing ominously to port, her main hull girders groaning and grinding beneath him.
Marsh's general quarters station was Sky One, which was a forward five-inch gun director located high up on the superstructure above the bridge. Still hanging on with one elbow, he struggled into his life jacket and tied off the straps, using his better hand and his teeth. His battle helmet had disappeared, so he gave up on that and pushed back through the curtain into the passageway, only to be bowled over by a crowd of damage control repair-party men hustling aft, already masked up and unrolling fire hose in sodden canvas loops. He realized he was still in his socks and ducked back into the stateroom to stuff his feet into his sea boots. He thought he could hear the crack and banging of the five-inch secondary battery guns between salvos of the eight-inchers. Goddamned Japs must be pretty close, he thought. He knew he had to get topside on the double, but getting to his GQ station would require climbing some exterior ladders. There was no way in hell he'd be able to do that: His hands didn't work, and his kneecaps were grinding as he tried to walk across the slanting deck.
He followed the repair-party crowd back toward the main watertight hatch leading topside, realizing as he went that he seemed to be climbing. Then he was shocked to find that they were all sloshing through seawater. That meant she was settling by the bow as well as listing over to port. He actually didn't believe it until he saw a loose battle lantern lying on the deck, its light shimmering through the water.
Great God, he thought: If the second deck is flooding, she's done for.
"Now all hands, abandon ship, abandon ship," came over the ship's announcing system. The words were barely audible above the roar of escaping steam and the rising pandemonium around the forward hatch. The repair-party men dropped all their firefighting gear and began to bunch up at the top of the ladder, where only one man at a time could pass through the round scuttle. Marsh felt the water tugging at his shins and filling his sea boots. He had to jam a forearm into another cableway to keep from falling over. Everyone froze for an instant when the sound of incoming shells screamed through the air topside, followed by the crash of several hits on the armor belt and one huge explosion that rattled the big ladder in front of them on its latch pins. Then everybody was heaving and pushing to get to the scuttle, and there were even more men clawing their way back from the bow to get to that hatch.
"Undog the goddamned hatch," Marsh heard himself shout. "Next guy through, undog the hatch!"
The man at the top of the ladder turned to stare at him for an instant, then nodded and lifted himself through. Another brace of explosions rocked the ship, and they could hear the sound of steel shards whining through the compartments above them, starting a horrible chorus of screams topside. All the red passageway lights blinked out, leaving only two battle lanterns switched on near the ladder. Two more men made it through the scuttle. Marsh decided to just stand aside and let the panicking sailors fight their way up the ladder, everyone yelling at the man ahead of him to move it, move it. His hands were going numb, and it took everything he could do just to stand upright. Then the hatch lifted, and suddenly the men could go up two and three abreast. The water was thigh deep now on the second deck, and the ship was over at least ten degrees to port. He wondered if she would capsize before he got his turn on the ladder. There was light now that the big hatch was open, but it was the searing orange light of a gasoline fire, not battle lanterns.
He finally joined the diminishing stream of men clawing their way up the canting ladder, letting them push him along rather than trying to climb it. The moment he stumbled out into the main passageway from the hatch alcove, he was knocked flat on his stomach by a huge sailor who was running for his life with his eyes squeezed shut. An instant later, a half-dozen more incoming shells hit the superstructure, which was starting to hang over the water like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One shell went off in the ship's post office, thirty feet forward of where Marsh lay on the deck. Shrapnel flailed the passageway in both directions, cutting men down everywhere, followed by a noxious cloud of smoke and burning paper. He tried to get up but was flattened again by another sailor who landed on top of him, screaming in his ear and bleeding all over him. Without the use of his hands and forearms, Marsh couldn't move. Another salvo of incoming shells hit along the port side, and he was suddenly grateful for the human cover when once again a hail of steel shards ricocheted all along the main passageway. He actually felt the man on top of him get hit and go limp.
Can't stay here, he thought. Have to get outside.
He humped his back to dislodge the wounded man on top of him. Then he started crawling on his belly over the bodies, now all piled up on the port side of the passageway as the ship leaned into her death roll. He was clambering as much on the bulkhead as the deck because of her list, and his teeth were chattering in fear. He could feel his hands splashing through a stream of blood and worse things as he slithered like a snake toward the nearest main deck hatch. Another barrage of howling shells slammed into the ship. He could hear the thunder of shell-splash water landing on the deck outside the hatch from the near misses. Each hit felt like a punch into his own guts, and he almost vomited in sheer terror.
A dead man was draped across the hatch operating handle, and the hatch itself was perforated with dozens of holes, through which bright white light now blazed into the smoke-shrouded passageway. Marsh nudged the corpse aside and lifted the handle with his shoulder. The hatch swung out by gravity, and, because of the extreme list, he fell through it and slid across the teak deck into the lower part of the lifelines.
He was blinded as the blue-white light from the sixty-inch carbon-arc searchlight of a Jap cruiser lit them up like some kind of baleful ogre eye. The steam escaping from ruptured lines in the engineering spaces drowned out every other sound, including the screams of the wounded littering the deck, their faces contorted in that harsh white light. There was a big gasoline fire amidships where the scout planes were stored, and another one forward, probably from the avgas storage tanks. The water was enveloping the bow by now, and the fire was turning into a cloud of orange-tinged steam. A wave came out of nowhere and buried him, which was when he realized that the portside main deck edge was fully awash. She'll roll at any second now, he thought. Go. Go now.
Excerpted from Pacific Glory by P. T. Deutermann. Copyright © 2011 P. T. Deutermann. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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