OK, here are the next five parts of my story. See the introduction here.
Captain Tormolen somehow managed to keep himself from either shouting down the chief, or bursting out in laughter. “Um… Chief, I take it you’ve had some problems with the… er… stern mounts?”
Yeah, two of ’em. The first one was pretty bad – when shooting at some angles, the casings from the high mounts dump right on top of the guys in the lower tubs. We fixed that with some sheet metal and rivets.”
“I’d like to see that setup. It’s certainly something we didn’t foresee, and I know my old colleagues back east would want to hear about it, maybe see some pictures.”
Chief Cobb smiled. “Sure, no problem. Me and the boys will show you just what we did. Now the other problem – we ain’t figured out any way around it, and I don’t think we can.”
“What’s the trouble?”
“Any time we’re moving faster than about 25 knots – or in anything over moderate seas – the stern is bouncing and rolling too much to aim worth a damn. We end up spraying ammo all over the sky.”
“Hmm. That does sound like a problem. I’ll make a point of coming down there if we get into that sort of condition. Thank you, chief. Do you have anything else to add?”
“No, sir. Me and the boys talked it all over before we came here, and those were the only two real b1tches we had.”
“I appreciate that, and I promise you I will make sure the Bureau of Ships knows about your problem. Now, if you don’t mind, Chief, I have a question for you. When we were designing the Manchester, we called the fantail mounts ‘the stinger.’ Just how did it get the name ‘the flaming @$$hole?'”
The chief carefully studied his feet. “Well, sir, we were having a target practice session. Afterwards, the pilot who’d been towing the target said that when all five mounts opened up, it looked like the whole stern was on fire. Then some joker said that the ship’s deadliest weapon was its ‘flaming @$$hole,’ and it just kind of stuck.”
“I can see why. It’s certainly… um… a vivid image.” Tormolen thought about writing the down on his notepad, then realized that it – and the accompanying visualizations – would never leave his memory, no matter how much he might wish they would. “Are there any more questions?”
A Lieutenant – Tormolen thought he recognized him from Damage Control – wanted to know why the Manchester had such thin armor. Her belt was only 2″ thick, the same thickness as the decks.
“The Manchester is never expected to face a surface combatant. She’s designed to be part of a task force, and the rest of the ships will be there to fight off any surface ships. Just like she’s there to help them fight off aircraft. But we kept the deck armor up, because she just might catch a bomb or two.”
“But what about torpedoes?” the ensign – Washburne, Tormolen suddenly remembered – insisted.
“Well, torpedoes don’t launch themselves. They come from one of three sources – an airplane, a surface ship, or a submarine. You’re already well equipped to take out the planes before they drop. We talked about surface ships – you trust in the battleships and cruisers with you to handle them. And for subs, you trust your destroyers.”
Another lieutenant – Book, from Fire Control – wanted to know why the ship had three gun directors. “Because we couldn’t find a space for a fourth.” Things break at sea, Tormolen remembered, and having backup for such a key piece of equpment.
Washburne wasn’t letting go of the torpedo question, though. “But sir? What if a torpedo does get through? We’d be lucky to survive one single hit.”
Tormolen sighed. The guy wasn’t going to give up. “That’s when you trust your speed to get out of the way in time. But you also have to remember that the Manchester is designed to protect other ships, to keep the big guns of the fleet safe so they can keep hitting the Japs. If there’s a torpedo coming and you can dodge it, but it will end up hitting the carrier you’re protecting, then you don’t really have a choice:
“You have to eat the fish.”
Captain Tormolen was about halfway through his third “bull session” with the crew when a subtle, peculiar shudder ran through the ship. He didn’t think anything of it, but some of the older hands exchanged concerned glances, then got up and left. He glanced at Ensign Frye, but his temporary aide was busy taking notes and didn’t even glance up.
A moment later, the intercom sounded.
“Attention all hands, this is the captain. Some of you may have noticed that our speed is dropping. We are not – I repeat NOT – under attack. We appear to have suffered some sort of mechanical casualty. Engineering is on the problem, and we will resume normal ship’s movement as soon as possible. That is all.”
Tormolen knew he didn’t have any place he ought to be in a situation like this. He didn’t even have any engineering expertise to offer; the finer details of designing the Manchester’s machinery had been handled by specialists. He’d just told them how fast he wanted her to move and how far he wanted her to travel, and gave them all the space belowdecks that they said they needed.
Just the same, not knowing what was going on was maddening. He sped through the remainder of his (now almost memorized) lecture, asked for questions in a tone that indicated they wouldn’t be overly welcome, and then left for the bridge.
Captain Stark, however, wasn’t on the bridge. It was being run by the Executive Officer, Commander Alan Washburne. “Commander Washburne, may I ask what the problem is?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, sir. The whole ship shook, Engineering called up for the captain, and he went down there. He’s been gone about 20 minutes. We still have some power, but we’re at 12 knots and slowing. I’ve been talking with Admiral Spruance’s staff. They want to be kept updated, but they can’t slow down for us. And the rest of the task force is pulling away.”
“That’s probably the right thing to do. There could be Jap subs around. Not that that does us any good…”
Washburne grimaced. “I thought about asking if they could spare a can or two, but if this fight is half as bad as I heard, they’ll need every ship they have. As it is, losing us would put a big hole in their defenses.”
Just then Captain Stark returned to the bridge. His hands and uniform were smeared with grease, and he had a fierce scowl on his face. “Sparks, get me the flagship.”
From his position, Tormolen couldn’t hear the precise words of the conversation, but he could pick up on the tone: Stark was angry, apologetic, and embarrassed as he spoke.
After a few minutes, he switched off the TBS and turned on the 1MC. “Attention all hands, this is the captain. As I told you earlier, we have a problem with the engines. The Chief Engineer and his crew are trying to find and fix the problem, but as of this moment they are still baffled.
“We still have some power, though. Commander Book assures me we can make at least 10 knots while they work. And we have our orders: we are to continue on course while we attempt repairs. If we can get back to full power within the next few hours, we are to sprint and catch up to the rest of the Task Force. If it takes longer than four hours, then we are to join up with the Yorktown’s Task Force and escort her. And if the Yorktown passes us and we’re still crippled, we’re to turn back to Pearl.
“One thing must be made clear: we are on our own out here. The Task Forces can spare no ships to assist us, escort us, or take us under tow. And we dare not reveal our presence by calling back to Pearl for any help – at least not until after the battle. So if we do have to go back home, it’s going to be a slow trip – and there could be Jap subs anywhere.”
Stark switched off the intercom and turned towards Tormolen. “Captain Tormolen, I knew coming in to this command that this ship was a test bed for all kinds of new weapons and equipment and systems and ideas. I knew that a good chunk of our time would be devoted to finding and fixing all kinds of screwups. But do you have any notion of what sorts of bright ideas your boys might have come up with for the engines that would be giving Commander Book and his boys such fits?”
It had been a long 24 hours. The Manchester’s black gang was slaving away belowdecks, trying to find and fix the problem that had hobbled their proud (but untested) ship. They had watched the rest of their Task Force sail away, leaving them to plod along at less than a third of their full speed. Toss in the expectation that the Japanese submarines were expected at any minute to set up their picket line between Pearl Harbor and Midway, and it was a very tense, very unpleasant time.
Joe Tormolen had been so worked up that he’d volunteered to stand a torpedo watch. He found himself high on the superstructure for four hours, alongside several other crew members who couldn’t stand being belowdecks while off duty. He didn’t even have a pair of binoculars; they’d all been claimed by those who’d gotten there first. So he, along with dozens of the crew, found themselves looking out to sea for the telltale wake of an incoming torpedo.
But the fear and frustration that drove them all to the rails couldn’t sustain it. None of them had been ordered out, just told by the Officer of the Deck that “if you want to, go ahead” and a station was suggested. (One man made such a nuisance of himself that the OOD “suggested” the man lash himself to the radar antenna and look in all directions as it spun around.) Gradually, one by one and in small groups, most of them quietly abandoned their “posts” within a few hours. They were replaced by other crew members seeking something to do that at least seem productive.
Belowdecks the engineers, in a paroxysm of methodical desperation, tore into the engines and drive train to find the problem that hobbled their ship. Something had cut their top speed to a bare ten knots, and they were bound and determined to find and fix it. Not one man had left engineering willingly; after 12 hours, the chief engineer had ordered a third of his crew to go away for at least four hours. And when they came back, the captain had come down and ordered the chief engineer to his own bunk for four hours.
28 and a half hours after he made his first announcement, Captain Stark spoke on the 1MC. Tormolen was in his cabin, trying to sum up all the things that the Manchester’s crew had told him about their experiences. He paused to listen.
“Attention all hands, this is the captain. It took a lot of time and a lot of work, but the engineers have found the problem with the engines. They say they can’t do a real fix without at least a few weeks in port, preferably in a drydock, but they have come up with a workaround that will give us full performance. They can’t guarantee it will hold for more than a week, and it could make the eventual repair work even more difficult, but it ought to get us through this battle.
“We won’t be rejoining Task Force 16, though. They’ve gotten too far ahead of us, and we can’t catch up to them. However, Task Force 17 will be passing by here in about 10 hours, and we’ll be joining up with them. For the duration of this battle, we will be part of Admiral Fletcher’s group, assigned to escort and protect the USS Yorktown.
“And lord knows she’ll need us. Some of you may have heard that she took a real pounding at the Coral Sea. What you may not have heard is that the initial damage estimates said she’d be laid up for three months. But when it came out that we didn’t have three months, the yard crew got her in and out in three days. She’s seaworthy and ready for a fight, but underneath I know she’s still hurting.
“This is what this ship was made for, men. We’re sailing into what is shaping up to be a major battle between aircraft carriers. We have three big flattops going into harm’s way, facing the Japs. And we know that the Japs have at least that many ships, most likely more. The Japs are going to want to put our flattops on the bottom, and will throw everything they have at them.
“That’s where we come in. This ship was built for the express purpose of turning Jap planes into Jap subs. To take Tojo’s finest birds and blow them to pieces. To keep the Jap planes from getting anywhere near us.
“We’ve got the best guns, the best equipment, and the best crew the Navy could find. Yes, we’re untested, and yes, we’ve uncovered some bugs that need fixing. But those are problems we will overcome.
“We will not be seeking out the enemy. We will not be challenging them and putting their ships on the bottom.
“We are not the sword arm of the fleet. We are the shield arm. We protect the swords, we make them free to strike down the enemy. We keep the enemy swords at bay. We blunt their attacks, we fend off their assaults.
“We can expect an attack that could very easily in the hundreds of planes. We can expect to be attacked with bombs and torpedoes. And these will be fired by many of the same men who put a lot of battleships on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. They are very determined, very skilled, flying very good planes, and doing their level best to send us to the bottom.
“Instead, we’ll be sending them there. By the dozens, by the hundreds if need be.
“That is all.”
Tormolen put his pad aside and rushed to the bridge. Even he could feel the vibrations as the Manchester picked up speed.
“Captain Stark! I’m relieved that the engines are back up to full power. Can I ask what happened?”
Tormolen turned towards his guest with a frown. “Well, Tormolen, it looks like the yard monkeys that put the engines together got a few things wrong. The freshwater frammis was hooked up backwards, and it finally gave up the ghost. We’ve had to bypass it and hook up the squibby manifold directly to the portside widget. It’s not designed for that kind of stress, but it ought to hold up for a week or so.”
“Um… what? I didn’t understand one word you said, Captain.”
“That’s because what I said was absolute nonsense. It took Commander Book half an hour to explain it so I could get a bit of a grasp on just what was wrong, and another fifteen minutes to get me to understand the fix. I’d tell you to go down there and ask him for your own crash course in power plants, but he’s busy keeping it all from flying apart and I don’t want you interrupting him.”
“Oh… I’m sorry, sir. I was just curious.”
“After we get back to Pearl, Tormolen, you can grill Book all you want about what your designers and builders screwed up. But for right now, we need him right where he is, doing what only he can do.”
“Thank you, sir. May I ask about our immediate plans?”
“As I said over the intercom, we’ll be joining up with the Yorktown’s group in about six hours. When the two groups roundezvous, we might switch back to the Enterprise or Hornet, but I suspect we’ll stay with the Yorktown.”
It was dusk when the Manchester slipped into the Yorktown’s formation. As befitting her anti-aircraft firepower, she took up station off Waltzing Matilda’s port bow. However, in recognition of her recent mechanical problems, she was kept at a respectful distance – no one wanted to run her down should she suddenly lose power again.
On the bridge, Captain Stark was using the TBS radio to coordinate with Admiral Fletcher’s staff. They had worked up a decent plan for defending the Yorktown, and now had a new element to consider.
It took some doing, but it was the sort of complication that commanders enjoy – having more resources than expected. In the end, it was decided that the Manchester would stay off the Yorktown’s bow, about 1500 yards, generally along the axis towards the Japanese.
Oddly enough, the closer battle drew, the calmer Captain Stark seemed to grow. It was as if he was anxious to be commanding an untested, experimental warship, and wanted – if not needed – to prove the worth of both himself and his ship.
The two task forces met and finalized their battle plans. According to what the intelligence guys back at Pearl said, the Japanese should be in position to strike at Midway very soon.
Captain Joe Tormolen stood on the wing of the bridge, gazing off to starboard at the Yorktown. Plane after plane roared off her deck, rising into the dawn air to seek out and strike at the Japanese. Off in the distance, he could imagine much the same happening with Yorktown’s sisters, Enterprise and Hornet.
This was the most frustrating part, the part he’d never taken into consideration. Being aboard a purely defensive ship was a rough assignment. You spent most of your time bored out of your skull, waiting for something exciting to happen. And then when it did – most likely an enemy attack – you kicked yourself for wishing for just this circumstance.
He resolved to relish these quiet times, the endless waits for enemy attacks that may or may never come. He would embrace the boredom, revel in the quiet, savor the tension of preparing for events that might come.
He failed miserably.
As the final Dauntlesses, Wildcats, and Devastators soared off to fight, Tormolen returned to his borrowed cabin. He had more notes to jot down, the latest being the continued concerns the crew voiced about torpedoes. The Japanese torpedo bombers had taken their toll at Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea. The Yorktown had barely evaded numerous torpedoes at the latter, but the Lexington had not been so lucky. Two torpedoes had struck her to port, and helped send her to the bottom.
Back in Washington, the thoughts of defending against torpedo attacks seemed ridiculous. The Manchester was not intended to operate alone, but near the center of a task force, most likely built around an aircraft carrier or a battleship. And what type of enemy would pass on a chance to put a torpedo or three in a capital ship and go after a souped-up destroyer like Manchester?
But now that he was out on the Manchester, in the heart of a task force, barely a hundred miles (probably) from a whole Japanese fleet, Tormolen found himself deeply missing the security of a bulge or a torpedo bulkhead or something that would offer the ship even just a little protection from torpedoes.
A wise old officer had once told Joe one of the secrets of winning battles at sea: “You don’t sink ships by putting holes in them that let in air. You sink them by putting holes in them that let in water.”
There was no better weapon for getting water into a ship than a torpedo, and the Japanese torpedoes were rumored to be the best in the world.
Tormolen looked down at the page in front of him. Perfectly blank. He had the ideas he wanted to convey, but just couldn’t seem to get them into words on paper. Every time he started putting a sentence together, his mind was drawn to the planes he’d seen take off barely an hour ago.
Finally, he gave up. He put his pen and paper back in the drawer, then headed back to the bridge. If he was lucky, Captain Stark would permit him to loiter there for a while, awaiting word on how the air strike had gone.
As he left his cabin, he glanced at his clock. It was 9:45.