Parts 11-15 of my story in progress. See the introduction here.
“Planes! Many aircraft, coming in, 20 degrees off the port bow!”
The cry of the lookout snapped Captain Tormolen out of his reverie. He’d been musing about what it would be like to see the Manchester fighting off a determined air attack, and now it seemed to be coming true.
The ship’s claxon sounded General Quarters, and the intercom blared. “All hands, stand by for air attack!”
Tormolen stepped back into a recess on the superstructure, then waited for the crew to find its way to battle stations. As a guest aboard, he had no assigned station; he figured the best he could do was to stay out of the way. Now that he was fairly comfortable that everyone was at their post, he could make his way up to the bridge.
The bridge was a scene of quiet intensity. Captain Stark was speaking in a normal volume, but the tension came through clearly. “I want all guns at the ready to fire at my command – but NO ONE is to fire until I say so.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
“And I won’t be giving the word until we’re damned certain who we’re shooting at. There are a lot of our boys up there, and I heard all about what happened at Pearl. It’ll be a cold day in hell that this ship fires on another American.”
“Sparks, let me know the instant the Yorktown identifies those birds. And tell our lookouts that if they ID those planes before we get the word, I’ll personally buy the first round back in Pearl for all of them.”
Tormolen leaned back into “his” corner – the dark, out-of-the-way part he’d quietly claimed as his own station. He’d gotten quite good at watching without intruding, observing without interfering, seeing without being seen.
The radio operator suddenly spun his head around – “Sir, the Yorktown says to stand down, they’re ours!”
The wave of relief swept through the bridge. While all of them were eager to prove their ship’s worth, they still weren’t overly enthusiastic about being the target of an enemy attack any sooner than absolutely necessary.
Captain Stark let the crew savor the moment, then spoke. “Tell the crew to stand down, but remain at General Quarters. If our boys found the Japs, there’s a chance the Japs might have followed ’em home. And tell the lookouts to pay close attention to any planes that seem to be stragglers – I wouldn’t put it past them to try to sneak in right behind our boys.”
The radio operator pressed his headphone to his ear, listening intently. Then he spun around, a huge grin splitting his face. “Captain, word from the Yorktown. The air crews report heavy losses, especially the torpedo bombers, but they report at least three Jap carriers sunk!”
The bridge exploded in cheers. Captain Stark tolerated it for a moment, then shouted it down. “That’s enough, boys. Let’s hold the celebrations until those reports are confirmed. Those flyboys have a pretty hefty tendency to exaggerate.
“But I think we can safely say that they found the Jap fleet, and did some damage. That means the Japs will be looking for some payback – and we’ve seen that they can hit pretty damned hard.”
Tormolen eased out of his corner and went out on to the bridge’s port wing. He hadn’t kept a careful count on the departing planes this morning, but it seemed that there were indeed a lot fewer coming back.
That was a mixed sign. It meant that the pilots had been in a tough fight. That means that there was a sizable Japanese fleet out there, to do that kind of damage. It meant there were probably carriers, because anti-aircraft guns could only do so much – the kind of casualties the wings had suffered implied fighters, and fighters meant carriers. It meant that the Americans had found the Japanese first, and that was a serious advantage.
An advantage, though, did not mean a guaranteed win. Even if the Americans had sunk three carriers, the Japanese still had a sizable advantage of numbers. And the Japanese had proven themselves time and again to be very, very fierce enemies.
“Captain! Message from the Yorktown! They say about two dozen Jap planes coming in, bearing 340 relative!”
Captain Stark grabbed the 1MC while his eyes darted out off the port bow. “All hands, stand by for air attack. Set Condition ‘Easy.'”
Tormolen also squinted off in the indicated direction, but couldn’t see anything. He presumed the Yorktown’s fighters had spotted the incoming attackers.
“Tormolen, come over here.”
He stepped up to the captain. “Yes, sir?”
“You might find this educational. Condition ‘Easy’ is a battle tactic we cooked up. The helmsman has full control of the ship’s speed and course, and he has one job: to keep our charge – in this case, that beast over there – ” he pointed at the Yorktown, to starboard and a little aft, “right where she is, out that window. We have a single lookout whose whole job is to watch her every move and watch for any signal that she’s changing course or speed, and he relays that directly to the helmsman. Ideally, we hold our relative position as if we were welded to the end of a giant steel rod. That’s where our speed and maneuverability advantage really come into play.
“It’s kind of how they used to describe battlecruisers – ‘they can outfight anything they can’t outrun, and outrun anything they can’t outfight.’ In our case, we are faster and more maneuverable than any ship we might be assigned to escort, and anything faster or more maneuverable doesn’t need us as an escort.
“The other part of Condition ‘Easy’ is doubling the lookouts. Every lookout post now has two men assigned. One of them watches the air, the other the sea. Since we’re following the Yorktown’s lead, we don’t have the full maneuvering discretion other ships have. So the sea lookout watches for other ships, to make sure we don’t run into any of them. They also watch for torpedoes – you never know when a sub might show up and ruin your whole day.”
“Sounds like a good strategy, Captain. How well does it work?”
“We’re about to find out.” And with that, Stark turned back to the brewing battle.
Captain Tormolen watched as the bridge crew prepared for the fight.
The radio operator relayed the word from the Yorktown. “Sir, the fighter CAP is engaging the enemy. They identify the enemy as 18 Val dive-bombers, escorted by six Zeros. They say we’re not to engage until they get within 8,000 yards.”
“Is that when the Wildcats will break off their attack?”
There was a brief pause. “Sir, that’s when they will order the Wildcats to break off. But they think the pilots might not listen, and risk chasing the Japs right into our fire.”
Captain Stark grimaced. “Brave men. But we can’t let that sway us. Fire control, don’t wait for my order – the instant those planes get within 8,000 yards, all main guns able to be brought to bear are to open fire. The 40’s and the 20’s are also free to fire as soon as the Japs are in range.”
Tormolen could just barely make out the incoming aircraft. They were coming in high, and he could see a few smoky trails where some planes had already been sent plummeting to the sea. His curiosity got the better of him, and he quietly made his way out on to the bridge’s port wing. He wanted to see the battle as clearly as possible.
“Pardon me, sir?”
It was Ensign Frye, the aide Captain Stark had assigned to Tormolen. “Yes, Mr. Frye?”
“The captain suggests you come back inside the bridge before the fight starts.”
“Were those the captain’s precise words?”
“Yes, sir. He made it very clear that he thought you should come in, but said he was not making it an order.”
Tormolen considered the matter. It was odd that the captain made such a point of not making it an order.
He glanced around the wing, realizing just then how exposed he was. Should the Japs choose to attack the Manchester directly, he would be completely vulnerable to them.
“Tell the captain I appreciate his concern, and will come back in before the Japs get too close.”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Frye went back into the bridge.
Tormolen glanced off to his right. The three bow turrets were trained on the incoming planes, their guns turning and rising minutely as they drew nearer. Off to his left, the three broadside mounts were doing the same. And to the stern, out of his sight, he presumed the three turrets were doing the same.
He looked once again at the incoming attackers. He was no judge of distance, but it seemed that they had to be close enough to fire upon. Any minute now, the Manchester would finally be doing what she had been born to do – defend a United States Navy capital ship against an air attack. This was the moment he had imagined years ago, when he looked at the plans for the Atlanta-class cruisers and had a vision of a beefed-up version, with roughly twice the firepower, sweeping the skies of enemies. This was the culmination of years of his work. He couldn’t miss this for anything. Nothing could pry him away from this very spot.
Captain Joe Tormolen gazed stupidly at his feet. What the hell were they doing there against the bulkhead? They ought to be down on the deck. Instead, that was where his back was.
He shook his head, but it didn’t help the ringing. He slowly climbed back to his feet, then was nearly knocked back down again. He staggered his way back to the bridge. As he reached the hatch, it swung open and Ensign Frye grabbed him and hauled him inside.
“Mr. Tormolen! So glad you could join us in here. By the way, in your notes to the design staff, you might want to mention that some quirk in the superstructure’s layout tends to focus the blast effects of a full broadside on the bridge wing positions.”
Tormolen was getting more and more annoyed with that smirk of Captain Stark’s. “I’ll be sure to include that, Captain. And once the fighting is over, I’ll be glad to go back out on the wing and pick up the pieces of my skull I left behind.”
“Excellent. In the meantime, though, Mr. Frye will escort you down to sick bay.”
“That’s all right, I’ll just lie down in my cabin for a while.”
“That wasn’t a suggestion, Mr. Tormolen. Unlike my request that you not stay out on this wing, that was an order. You might have a concussion. If Doc says you can rest up in your cabin, then Mr. Frye will take you there. But you WILL be checked out before then.”
This was the first time Tormolen could remember Captain Stark giving him an order since he came aboard. Of course, his memory and thoughts weren’t the sharpest at the moment. If nothing else, he could use some aspirin. He allowed Ensign Frye to lead him by the arm off the bridge as he felt a fresh shaking beneath his feet.
The 40mm and 20mm cannons had just opened up. Apparently the Japanese were getting closer.
“Attention all hands: secure from General Quarters. Damage control teams, stand by to lend assistance to the Yorktown.”
The 1MC roused Captain Tormolen from his rest. His headache was down to a manageable dull throbbing. And now that the fighting seemed to be over for now, he was desperate to find out what he had missed.
Captain Stark was on the bridge, talking on the radio. Out to port, Tormolen could see the Yorktown. She didn’t look good. Smoke rose from at least two points, and she was not moving.
“What happened?” he blurted out.
Stark glanced at Tormolen, then finished his conversation. Handing the microphone back to the radio operator, he resumed his center position.
“On the plus side, we shot down seven Jap bombers. Possibly more. On the other hand, two bombs hit the Yorktown. The one that hit aft of the island started a rather nasty fire, but they got it under control quickly enough. But the other one went right into the stack. It exploded right in the uptakes and took out all the engines. Admiral Fletcher is considering transferring his flag to the Astoria, because they can’t even guess when they’ll get the Yorktown moving again.
“We took the only attack, though. The Japs missed Enterprise and Hornet entirely, and it’s been confirmed – it cost us a lot of planes and pilots, but we put three carriers out of action in about fifteen minutes.
“They’ve got a fourth one out there, though, and this fight ain’t over. Not by a long shot.”
Stark glanced over at Yorktown and grimaced. “We have damage control teams ready to head over there and help out, but we’re still waiting to see if they need the help. No other ships took any damage. And you ought to be glad to know that the Manchester performed even better than you could imagine. We shot down seven Vals, and maybe got a piece of a Zero or two. Only one Val got its bomb off on our side, and we took her down about half a second after she dropped. And we got the bomber that dropped the bomb that hit the flight deck – she came in from the starboard quarter, and her pullout path took her right into our guns.”
“That’s pretty good shooting.” Tormolen felt a small thrill of pride, but managed to keep it out of his voice.
Stark nodded slowly. “Not too bad, but I wish we could have taken down that last one a second or two sooner. The bomb she dropped is the one that went right into the stacks.”
“Matilda’s a tough old gal. They said she’d need three months in the shop after the Coral Sea, and she sailed after three days.”
“Tormolen, I took a tour of her during the repairs. They didn’t fix her, they patched her up. Even before those bombs hit, she still needed a couple of months in drydock. They slapped some bandages on her and shoved her back out to sea because they didn’t have any choice. They needed her deck out here in the worst way, and that’s just how they got her.”
“Excuse me, captain?” The radio officer seemed understandably reluctant to interrupt the two captains’ discussion. “The Astoria is closing on the Yorktown. Admiral Fletcher is officially transferring his flag, and he’s turned overall command to Admiral Spruance on the Enterprise.”
Stark turned to Tormolen. “OK, Tormolen, you’re the one who’s been on the staff of an admiral. What does that say to you?”
“Nothing good. It means that Fletcher doesn’t think the Yorktown is going to be fit for combat any time soon, and might even be in danger of sinking, so he’s getting himself and his staff out of the way of the Yorktown’s crew. He also doesn’t think he can effectively command the combined task force from the Astoria, so he’s passing the ball to Admiral Spruance.
“Spruance is a fine man, but he’s not a carrier man. He commanded a cruiser division before this, and I don’t think he ever even served on a carrier before this. He’s got a good staff wth him – most of Admiral Halsey’s staff, in fact, minus me and a few others – and they will serve him well, but Fletcher is the real carrier admiral.
“On the other hand, we’ve scratched three of the enemy’s carriers. On paper, that changes the odds from four to three in their favor to two to one in ours. But there’s also the psychological element at play. They thought they would have the advantage of surprise, and thought we’d be hard-pressed to counter with a single flattop. Instead, we hit them with every carrier we have, and put down three of theirs in a matter of minutes. They’re going to be furious and out for revenge, but they’re also going to be a little spooked.
“They’re angry, they’re surprised, they’re humiliated, and they’re a little bit frightened. That is not a healthy combination. They’re going to want to hurt us even harder than we hurt them, but they’re going to most likely do it in a very brash, very careless way. They’ve made a lot of mistakes so far, and they’re going to keep making them.”
Tormolen suddenly realized he’d been lecturing. He’d come aboard promising to listen, and here we was monopolizing the conversation. “I’m sorry. I slipped back into ‘staff’ mode there.”
Stark shook his head. “No, please continue. This is good stuff, the kind of stuff we don’t usually hear down here. It’s good to get a glimpse at the big picture. So they’re angry and hurting. They want to hit back, but they don’t have much to hit us with. What do you think they’ll do?”
Tormolen considered the matter carefully before continuing. “First up, the attack on Midway gets put on hold until they take care of us. They don’t dare bring up their landing forces until they’re certain we’re no longer a threat.
“Secondly, since we now have the edge in carriers and planes, they need to counter that. They still have a huge surface force with them. In a toe-to-toe slugging match, we don’t have a prayer.
“If they’re smart, they’ll wait a few hours, closer to sunset, and then send their fastest surface ships right at us. If they can get close enough to force a gun fight – especially in the dark – they can still salvage this whole fiasco. It would be worth it to them to trade three of their carriers for our last three – especially if they also capture Midway in the process.
“So the smart thing for us to do would be to keep hitting them as hard as we can right up until sunset, then race off away from them. At full speed, we have a significant advantage over their battlewagons – a good five to seven knots. If I were Spruance, as soon as the last plane is back on deck, I’d set course for about fifteen degrees west of a straight line for Pearl and put some ocean between us and the Japs during the night. Then, towards dawn, turn around and head right back at them for another day of pounding. If we can make a clean sweep of things and put that fourth carrier on the bottom too, it could change the whole course of this war.”
Stark nodded slowly. “Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. But that doesn’t have too much to do with us right now. The Yorktown’s not going anywhere any time soon, so we won’t be pulling back. And we still have a good six or seven hours until sunset for that fourth Jap carrier to throw more attacks at us.”
“Sorry, sir. I’m used to looking at the big picture. It’s kind of hard for me to see the finer details, even when I am one of those finer details.”