A few people have grumbled about not being able to find my ongoing work of fiction over at the Naval Fiction message board, and wondered if I had considered putting it all into a more readily-accessible place.
Well, I have. Right here.
Over the next day or so, I’m going to post the first fifteen parts of the story of the USS Manchester, an experimental light cruiser of my own design. She was built just before World War II, and is a one-of-a-kind ship intended to test the idea of a ship designed primarily to fight aircraft. By a few quirks of fate (OK, a smidgen of deus ex machina), the ship’s lead designer finds himself aboard her as a guest as she goes into her first test of fire — at the Battle of Midway.
Now, a few words of caution:
1) The language will get a bit salty in at least one instance. These are sailors, and sometimes sailors cuss.
2) The language will also be less than PC at times. The characters will often refer to the enemy as “Japs.” While considered a vile racial epithet today, its use is entirely historically accurate. In fact, to not use it would be to betray historical fact.
3) This story is NOT about politics. Indeed, it might be argued that I am writing it as a way to get away from politics. If any of the regular trolls decide to use this as an opportunity to take some cheap shots at me, I will come down on them like the proverbial ton of bricks.
4) That being said, I am very interested in sincere feedback. This is a story in progress (although I’ve already written the epilogue and afterward, and have most of the story plotted out in my head). Already, I’ve taken comments from readers and integrated them into the story. For example, one commenter noted that the Manchester would, logically, have been assigned to a certain Task Force, and I didn’t want her there. That led directly to Parts VII and VIII, where I pried the Manchester away from that Task Force and attached her to where I wanted her in the first place.
5) A familiarity with the Battle of Midway, and certain consequent events of 1942 in the Pacific, would be helpful in understanding the story, but not overly necessary. I started writing this story for the people at the Naval Fiction board, and they are a bit more savvy on such matters (indeed, on several occasions I’ve had to resort to deliberate vagueness to avoid getting tripped up by the experts over there — they do NOT suffer fools gladly!), but I did put some effort into making it more accessible to people besides navy buffs like me.
If you’re the least bit curious, feel free to read the extended section, and the following pieces as they go up. And if you’re so moved, please leave any comments/criticisms/complaints you like. I’m still writing this, and I have no problems either going back and fixing things, or including others’ ideas into future segments. (And I give credit, too.)
I haven’t written long fiction in a long time, and I’d forgotten how tough it can be. And how fun.
Captain Joe Tormolen looked around his bridge and sighed.
It really wasn’t “his” bridge. He felt like the father of the bride at the couple’s anniversary party. A year ago, he’d been the man who walked his little girl down the aisle and gave her away; now he was the father-in-law.
The U.S.S. Manchester had been his, once. He’d helped conceive her, watched her go through her birthing and growing pains until she was christened as a warship in the United States Navy. And then he’d watched as another man became her first captain.
Why was he here? He was a captain, but he wasn’t THE Captain. He held the same rank as the man in the center chair, and had seniority over the man. But there’s only room for one Captain on a ship, and this ship — HIS ship — was under the command of Captain John Stark, five years his younger and two years less time in rank.
Tormolen’s presence here was as an indulgence. He was there simply as a favor from Captain Stark, and everyone knew it.
Tormolen had spent years serving in the Bureau of Construction and Repair, helping design the ships that would fight America’s wars. Then, when it was merged with the Bureau of Engineering into the Bureau of Ships, he’d suddenly found himself without an assignment. He’d put in for a tour at sea, but instead ended up on the staff of Admiral William Halsey.
He’d done his duty, though. He’d been a loyal and efficient subordinate, helping The Old Man however was needed, never asking for anything for himself.
Then the Manchester had come under Halsey’s command.
Tormolen had worked on a lot of ship designs, but the Manchester was special. She’d been his idea from the outset, his concept. He’d led the team that took her from scrawled notes on some scrap paper to 10,000 tons of fighting steel. A lot of compromises and revisions and improvements had been made on the way, but she was still more of “his” baby than anyone else’s. He’d fought a lot of hard fights to bring her into existence, but now here she was. They were together again, both fulfilling their destinies. He might not be aboard her, but he’d be fighting alongside her — aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, both under the command of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey. And with Halsey in command, everyone knew that the fighting was guaranteed.
Until suddenly Halsey wasn’t in command any more.
“The Old Man’s WHERE?”
Captain Jim Reynolds repeated what he’d just told his colleague. “In the hospital, Joe. He’s laid up with shingles. He’s picked Ray Spruance to head up the Task Force.”
“I don’t believe it! This is shaping up to be the biggest battle of the war, our first chance to take on the Japs and start paying ’em back for Pearl, and the Old Man’s gonna be in a hospital bed at Pearl? The docs better strap him down if they want to keep him out of the fight.”
“They don’t need straps. Nimitz himself ordered him to bed, and told him not to come back until the docs said he was fit for duty.”
Tormolen shook his head in disbelief. “Man, that’s terrible. Makes you wonder which is chafing his ass more – the shingles, or that order.”
“Either way, he’s itching for a fight.”
“No surprise there. So, Halsey’s out of action for now. Where does that leave us?”
“Largely high and dry. Spruance is taking some of the staff with him, but the rest of us get shore leave, I guess.”
“There are worse things than an unexpected vacation in Hawaii… but I don’t want to miss out on this fight.”
“Me neither, but what can we do? Halsey offered all of us to Spruance, but he only took those he needed. And Joe, you and me weren’t picked.”
Tormolen frowned, then got an idea. “Yeah, but the Enterprise isn’t sailing alone. I think I’m gonna go talk to the Old Man, see about calling in a favor or two. I want to be a part of this fight, not just read the reports after the fact.”
“Admiral! You’re looking fine today!”
Halsey glared at the platitude. “Don’t bullshit me, son. I look like patchwork hell, and I know it. Everybody knows it. What brings you here anyway, Tormolen? Don’t you have any place better to go on leave than the hospital?”
“As a matter of fact, sir, I do. I’d like to take some time off and go on a cruise. Somewhere northwest of here sounds like it might be interesting.”
“Is that it? Joe, when I said I wanted Ray Spruance to take my place, I meant it. He’s the man, not me. And I will not undercut his authority in any way, not even in his staffing selections. I told him he had the pick of my people, and he picked. I’m sorry you weren’t one of them, but that was his call and his call entirely.”
“Sir, I understand that, and I accept that. I know I’m off Enterprise for this one. But she won’t be sailing alone.”
That got the old man’s attention. “So, you want to tag along another of the ships? Hornet or Yorktown? I gotta tell ya, after the beating she took at the Coral Sea, old Walzting Matilda won’t have much in guest quarters. You’d be better off at some hotel out on Waikiki.”
“No, sir. With your permission, I’d like to go out on the Manchester.”
Halsey’s craggy face twisted into a frown. “The Manchester? That pumped-up tin can? Why the hell would you want to go out on her?”
“Before I joined your staff, sir, I was with the Bureau of Ships – and before that, the Bureau of Construction and Repair. I worked on a lot of ship designs – but the Manchester was my ship. I came up with the original idea, I led the team that designed her, I oversaw most of her construction and fitting out. She’s about to take part in her first battle, and I’d very much like to see how she fights.”
Halsey considered Tormolen’s words. “I gotta tell ya, Joe, when I first saw her, all I could see was three or four destroyers’ worth of steel rolled into one big package – and I think we could use those four tin cans more than one overpowered, undergunned, thin-skinned cruiser. And somebody must have agreed with me, because they didn’t build any more.”
“That’s because she hasn’t been tested yet, sir. She hasn’t had a chance to show her stuff.”
“And you want to be there to see it happen, is that it? Well, I can understand that. But I’m gonna have to tell you no, Joe. I won’t do this for you.”
“I understand, sir.” Tormolen turned towards the door. “With your leave, I’ll be going back on my vacation…”
“Hold it right there!” Swathed in medicated bandages, Halsey still had the roar of a grizzly. “I haven’t dismissed you yet, Captain Tormolen!”
Joe spun around, snapping involuntarily to attention.
“I said I won’t do it for you, and I won’t. And I’m going to tell you why, and you’re going to listen.
“Stark is brand-new to this task group, fresh here from the Atlantic. I don’t know him, but his reputation is that he’s a damned fine officer, but a touch prickly. If I were to call him up and ask him to take on board – even as an observer – one of my staff, he’d be wondering what I was up to. And when you showed up, a man who knows his own ship better than he does AND with seniority over him, he’d be thinking that I was putting you there with an eye towards replacing him. And he’d be right to think so, because that’s exactly how it would look. And not just to him, but his entire crew – and I don’t think there’s anything I could do that would undermine his authority more and wreck the discipline and morale of what I hear is a pretty damned good crew.”
“You’re right, sir. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“That’s why I have that flag, son. I have to think of it that way. And if you want one of your own some day, you’d better learn to think that way, too.”
“Yes, sir. Will that be all?”
“Not by a long shot. Now I can understand why you want to go out there, and I have no problem with it – as long as you do it right. Having me call up Captain Stark is exactly the wrong way about it. YOU call him up and ask to meet with him. You tell him precisely what you want and why. You convince him that you’re not after his seat. And if he has any question for me,” Halsey rooted around in the drawer next to his bed, then turned back to Joe, “you give him this dime and tell him to call me. I’ll be glad to tell him I think it’s a damned fool notion you’ve got in your head, but if you’d rather be spare baggage on his ship than lying around on the beach, that’s fine with me – as long as you’re back by the time I get out of this hellhole.”
Tormolen took the dime from the admiral’s swaddled hands. “Thank you sir. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes with Captain Stark.”
“You do that. But first, you better wash that dime in alcohol or boil it. Trust me, son, you don’t want to take any chances on getting this – or giving it to Stark.”
Captain Reynolds activated the 1MC. “Attention all hands, this is the captain. As some of you may have heard, we’re sailing into what could be a major battle. This could be the first chance we have to prove what I’ve known all along – we’ve got the best crew in the fleet, and the best ship to fight this new war.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard the shots people have taken at the Manchester – we’re the mongrel ship, the bastard ship, the half-breed, the waste of steel. We’ve got too much speed and not enough armor, too many guns and all of ’em all too small to amount to spit in a hurricane.
I know it. You know it. And we’re going to show them – especially the Japs. By the time this battle is over, I’m confident we’ll have put more Japs in the drink than any three other ships.”
Reynolds looked over at Captain Tormolen. “Some of you might have also noticed that we have a distinguished guest aboard. Captain Tormolen comes to us as a member of Admiral Halsey’s staff, and he’s choosing to skip a chance to lounge around the beach to sail with us. And before you ask, he’s been checked out by the doctors, and he’s apparently not crazy.
“Before signing on with Admiral Halsey, though, he spent several years designing and building ships. He was the lead designer of the Manchester, and he’s very interested in seeing just how things are working out.
“Over the next couple of days, Captain Tormolen will be holding informal ‘bull sessions’ in the enlisted mess. He’ll be there for at least three hours of each shift, and all hands are invited to stop by and talk things over. Anyone who is curious about why things are the way on this ship, anyone who has any compliments or complaints, Captain Tormolen will be willing to listen to anyone – and will be asking questions of his own.”
Reynolds paused, then gave Tormolen a nasty smirk. “I repeat, anyone who has any complaints about the design of this ship are invited to stop by and give a piece of their mind to the guy who designed it. I am extending a personal invitation to the gunners assigned to the FA station, and granting them my permission to speak freely.”
“That is all.”
Reynolds flipped off the intercom and turned back to Tormolen. “There, that ought to assure you some good turnouts.”
“Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. But that bit at the end – what’s the FA station? We didn’t use that term on the design sheets.”
“That’s the cluster of the 40mm Bofors on the fantail.”
That was one of his prouder touches, Tormolen thought. He’d seen the “hip pocket” buckets on the sterns of the South Dakota-class battleships, and thought it was a grand idea for the Manchester. But he’d done it one better. Since she carried no aircraft, the entire fantail was available for anti-aircraft mounts. So he’d put five Bofors quad 40mm guns on the stern – two on the rear corners, two just a little forward of them, and one right smack dab in the middle of the transom stern. And to give the guns the maximum field of fire, the ones on the corners were raised up on six-foot-high pedestals. “That’s the part we called the ‘stinger.’ From what you said, I take it that it isn’t a very popular post. What does ‘FA’ stand for?”
Reynolds leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head, a condescending smile crossing his face. “That, Captain Tormolen, I’ll let the men who’ve had to work there tell you.”
Captain Tormolen strolled into the mess deck and was instantly taken aback.
He had expected that there’d be some curiosity at his little workshop, plus the novelty of being able to talk to the ship’s lead designer would draw some interest. With the ship at sea, there really wasn’t much else for the off-duty hands to do. But crammed into the room were at least four dozen crew, and several officers.
Tormolen turned to the young ensign Captain Reynolds had assigned as his aide. “Mr. Frye, are there any of the fantail gunners here?” he said softly.
Earlier, Tormolen had pressed Frye on just what the “FA” stood for in reference to the five 40mm quad mounts on the stern of the Manchester. The man had miserably refused. “I’m sorry, sir, but Captain Reynolds gave me explicit orders not to discuss that with you. He said that you ought to hear it from the men who work there.”
Tormolen had found a slight loophole, though. While Frye couldn’t tell him what the term meant, he did agree to indicate if – or, rather, when – some of the gunners were present.
Frye quickly scanned the crowd, then blanched. “Yes, sir. About a dozen of them, including the chief.”
“Well, this ought to be interesting, then. Thanks, Frye.”
Tormolen strode to the front of the mess. “Thank you all for coming, gentlemen. If you don’t mind, we’ll get started.
“I didn’t work up anything formal for this session, but I thought I’d start off with a short version of the briefing I gave when I would introduce the brass to the design of the Manchester, and throw open the floor to any questions or comments. And as Captain Reynolds said, this is supposed to be completely open. You are all granted permission to speak as frankly and honestly as you wish.
“For years, the debate about how great a threat the airplane was to the modern surface warship raged on. It came to an abrupt conclusion six months ago. At Pearl Harbor, we saw just how devastating an air attack can be, when the Japs wrecked every battleship we had in the Pacific.
“Defenders of surface ships said that didn’t really count. The battlewagons were sitting ducks, moored in a supposedly safe harbor and not at war, some with all their hatches open for inspection. If the Japs had tried that against fully buttoned-up ships at sea, with all hands at battle stations and plenty of room to maneuver, it’d be a different story.
“Then the Japs took on two British ships – the old battle cruiser Repulse and the brand-new battleship Prince Of Wales. They were at sea, all buttoned up, all hands at battle stations, with plenty of room to maneuver. And they got sent to the bottom.
“At least at Pearl, the water was shallow enough and the shore close enough that a lot of the men were saved, and there’s a good chance most of the ships can be salvaged and rebuilt. The Brits lost everything, and nearly everyone.
“Since then, it’s been proven that the best weapon against an airplane is another airplane. Nothing can stop an incoming bomber better than a fighter.
“But fighters have their limits, too. We need something with longer legs, that can keep up with the fleet independent of an air base or a carrier. Something that can handle the intense anti-aircraft fire the modern fleet can toss up. Something that can engage a whole wave of enemy bombers at once, not just a single Jap.
“In short, we need a surface ship that can sweep the skies of enemy aircraft before they can hit the fleet.
“We started by looking at the Atlanta-class cruisers. Although they were designed as destroyer flotilla leaders, they turned out to be pretty good anti-aircraft platforms. There simply isn’t a better anti-aircraft gun than the 5″/38, and they carry 12 to 16 of them. But we thought we could do better.
“So we took the basic design of a Brooklyn-class cruiser and started from there. First up, we took off all the things we didn’t need. The first to go were the 6” guns. They’re a good weapon, but they aren’t much good against planes. In their place, we dumped in the same gun plan from the Atlantas – the three twin turrets fore and aft.
“That wasn’t enough. We saw how well the midships mounts on the new fast battleships were working, so we stole that idea. We fit three more turrets on each beam, bringing the total main battery to two dozen 5” guns, in a dozen twin turrets – the biggest main battery ever fit on a modern warship.
“Then we thought about armor. The Manchester is not going to be getting into any surface fights. That’s what the other cruisers and destroyers are for. So we cut down the side armor a bit. We left the deck armor pretty much the same, though, because we might catch the occasional bomb.
“At the stern, the Brooklyns carry catapults, float planes, a crane, and a hangar. Well, the Manchester is designed to knock planes out of the air, not put them up. So we took all that out and put some anti-aircraft guns in its place.
That left us quite a bit of weight to play around with – we were still trying to keep it down to 10,000 tons. We figured we could use a little more room to work with, so we stretched the hull out a little, and made her a bit beamier. This made her a little faster, a little more smoother, and gave us more room to pile stuff on.
“We did some souping up in the engine room. We needed a ship that could not only keep up with the fast battleships and the carriers, but if necessary ‘run rings’ around them to fight off attacks. It took some tweaking and cheating, but between the upgraded engines and the hull tweaks, her official top speed is 35 knots. And I understand that the unofficial top speed is a little bit higher.
“So, what did we do with all that extra space and weight? Well, we covered the topside with as many smaller guns as we could. She’s practically littered with 40mm and 20mm guns – anywhere we could fit the guns and feed them ammo, we put ’em there.
“The end product is a truly unique warship – one not designed to face the enemy’s ships, but whose sole purpose is to protect herself and the rest of the fleet from aircraft. To be the strong shield that frees up the sword arms to hit the enemy. And in the next few days, we’ll see just how well she does at that task.
“I’ll now take any questions you may have.”
Tormolen glanced at the group of men Frye had indicated were assigned to the fantail guns. They were quietly nudging each other, each trying to get someone else to go first. Finally, one grizzled chief raised his hand.
The man stood, wringing his hands uncomfortably. “Sir I’m Chief Cobb, and I run one of them gun mounts on the fantail, I wouldn’t normally be so forward, but the Old Man said we was to speak freely here…”
“That’s right, chief. Say whatever you want, however you feel most comfortably. I intend to write a full report on how the ship does in combat for the people back at the Bureau of Ships, and whatever information you can give us will only help us make even better ships in the future. And I won’t be using any names, so whatever you have to say, just spit it out.”
“I appreciate that, sir. I’m not used to speaking so straight to an officer, let alone a captain, but…”
“Spit it out, Cobb. Rank has no place here. I just want the plain, unvarnished truth.”
“Sir, just what the hell were you guys thinking when you designed the Flaming Asshole?”