Over the last few days, I managed to polish off my little work of historical fiction. I published them first over at the Naval Fiction message board, but I’m reprinting them here — in bigger chunks — for the convenience of people who can’t navigate that board (and they’re a bit cumbersome).
Here are the first three pieces:
Below the fold are the next five parts. And later today, I’ll publish the final three.
I have already started working on the followup — the first part is written, and I’ve had the last two written for a couple of weeks. If there’s sufficient interest, I’ll be publishing those, too — first over there, then here.
My thanks for the comments so far. They’ve not only made me feel better, they’ve actually helped shape and improve the story as I write it.
Tormolen looked out the window, amazed. The Yorktown, a helpless derelict a mere hour ago, was now steaming along at a brisk 20 knots. She’d launched her fighters to keep the Japanese at bay. And there was hardly a sign of the damage that had crippled her.
“She’s one tough old broad,” he said softly.
Not softly enough. Captain Stark had heard him. “Yes, she is, Mr. Tormolen. In the past month, she’s taken enough damage to put any three ships on the bottom, and look at her – hardly a sign she’s suffered a scratch. But she’s an eggshell. They’ve patched her up as best they can, but underneath she’s held together with tape and baling wire and wishes. It’s the combined prayers of a couple thousand sailors keeping her afloat right now, and not much else. She needs a couple of months of TLC in a shipyard to get her back to full fighting trim, and I don’t think even Pearl can do the job. After this, it’s back to the west coast for her – Bremerton, I’d bet.”
“Has Admiral Fletcher shifted his flag back aboard?”
“No, and I don’t think he’s going to. For good or ill, he’s passed the torch to Spruance. The rest of this fight is his.”
The radio operator interrupted. “Sir, it’s the Yorktown! They report over a dozen enemy planes coming in. They’re about 30 miles out, and low. They think it’s torpedo bombers this time.”
Stark flicked the intercom and addressed the crew. “Attention all hands, secure from condition ‘Easy’ and resume general quarters. Prepare for another air attack – this one likely to be torpedo bombers.”
He turned back to Captain Tormolen and smiled. It wasn’t a happy expression, but that of a predator. “Well, Mr. Tormolen. Would you care to stay inside for round two?”
“Sir, the Jap planes are splitting up into two groups!”
“Helm, move us about a thousand yards ahead of the Yorktown, and about a hundred yards to her port. Sparks, notify the Yorktown we’re moving. If this is going to be a torpedo attack, that’s where we’ll need to be.”
The officers jumped at Captain Stark’s orders. Captain Tormolen could feel the engines surge through the deck.
Stark leaned over to Tormolen. “I’ve been expecting this. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and studying up on torpedo bomber attacks. The best tactic seems to be to split into two groups, then attack the bow from both sides. The torpedoes set up a cross-fire situation – if you turn to comb one group of fish, you turn your full broadside to the other group. It’s how the Japs got the Lexington at the Coral Sea.”
Tormolen nodded. He had a passing familiarity with the tactic. “So, how do you defeat it?”
Stark grimaced. “We’re still working on that. Obviously, the best way is to knock down the planes before they drop. And we’re going to try that. But if they do drop…
“One theory is you go full speed and try to outrun the crossfire, trusting your speed and maneuverability to keep safe. That’s not an option for the Yorktown in her current state.
“Another is to turn into one of the groups, minimizing your profile towards them, while shooting the hell out of the other group. Again, it depends on your ship’s speed and maneuverability, two things the Yorktown’s lacking right now. And when you consider that the Jap planes can move at about 10 times as fast as she can, it’s a temporary fix at best.
“But I’ve been working up a twist on that. We’re going to throw everything we have at the portside group. We’re going to knock down, scare off, or at least distract as many of those Japs as we can. Then we can turn into the starboard group and try to dodge their fish.”
Tormolen considered it. It wasn’t a great plan, depending a lot on hope and luck, but he didn’t see any better alternatives.
“OK, I want the forward, portside, and aft main guns all engaging the portside Japs. The starboard battery can go after them, but I want every single gun that can be brought to bear to focus on the Japs off to port. And all mounts are free to engage as soon as the enemy is in range.”
Stark glared out at the still-invisible enemy and frowned. “You know, Tormolen, we just might get to use the Flaming… er, stinger in this fight.”
“That’s what it was intended for, sir.”
“Well, here’s another note for your buddies back at the Bureau of Ships. Most of the time, those guns are dead weight. At high enough speed or in rough enough seas, they bounce around too much to be stable platforms.
“Now, with us shackled to the Yorktown, we’re moving slowly enough and the sea is calm enough to keep that station relatively stable. But the enemy will be coming in in the fore quadrants, not off the stern.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking with our pilots. They say that the last angle they want to come in from is astern. Not only does it give them the smallest target to hit, but they also have to subtract the target’s speed from their own – which means they spend the most time in the sights of the target. I’ve tested it, and they’re right – they make nice, big, juicy targets that don’t even seem to move, just get bigger and bigger. They prefer to come in off the bow or on the beam. So it might be a good idea to move those guns to somewhere they could do a bit more good – even if it means on another ship.”
Tormolen sighed. “Yes, Captain.”
Stark noticed the reaction. “Tormolen, I’ve given you a lot of grief for the problems we’ve had with the Manchester. But don’t get me wrong. She’s one hell of a good ship. Most of the problems are the kinds that come with any new design, and we’ve fixed a lot of them. The biggest problem we had was that breakdown with the engines, and that wasn’t a design issue at all.
“You and your boys did a damned fine job coming up with this ship, and so far she’s performed better than we could have hoped. And I got a hunch that in the next half hour or so, we’re going to impress the hell out of a bunch of Jap flyers.”
Stark’s final words were punctuated with a shudder. The Japanese had just entered the range of the Manchester’s main guns.
Captain Tormolen watched as the sky, previously a soft blue accented by puffy white clouds, was blackened by anti-aircraft fire. The Yorktown and her consorts, most notably the Manchester, were hurling up two massive walls of steel against the oncoming Japanese torpedo bombers.
The American fighters had been outnumbered by the Kates’ escorting Zeroes, but managed to shoot down one of the torpedo bombers. That still left four sweeping in on the Yorktown from the starboard bow, five from the port.
“There goes one!” the excitable Ensign Frye shouted, pointing off to starboard. Tormolen saw where he was pointing – a long, thin trail of flame and smoke was curving down into the sea. “And that’s two!” This time there was no trail, just a splash and a brief glimpse of fire on the water.
Shooting down two in such quick succession was a remarkable feat, but there were still seven more coming in.
The rhythmic KRAK! of the five-inch guns was supplemented by the faster thrumming of the 40-mm guns as the enemy drew closer. Tormolen found himself imagining the view from the Yorktown’s gun gallery; it must look like the Manchester was afire. He recalled reading the accounts of the Battle of Jutland, and the stories of HMS Agincourt. The “turret farm” had carried seven turrets, each mounting 2 12-inch guns, and when she fired a full broadside, some witnesses feared she had blown up. With 18 5-inch guns all firing in rough sync, along with the 40-mm Bofors and now the 20-mm Oerlikon cannons, it must have had a similar appearance.
“We got a third one!” Frye shouted. It was like listening to a baseball game on the radio, but Tormolen could see for himself. He wondered if Captain Stark was going to tell Frye to knock it off, but he ignored the young ensign and focused on fighting his ship.
And that was the perfect term for Stark. He constantly shifted his attention from one aspect of the battle to another, never losing track of the big picture or getting distracted with extraneous details. He glanced at the incoming planes on both sides, he checked the course and speed readouts, and occasionally verified that the Yorktown was still where she was supposed to be.
“One down to port!”
Tormolen forced himself to look out to port. The flak was lighter than off to starboard, where the Manchester was focusing most of her fire. But every gun that couldn’t come to bear to port was throwing everything they had at the incoming Japanese bombers, along with the portside guns of the Yorktown and her other escorts. The efforts had finally drawn blood, as one of the five bombers approaching lost a wing and went cartwheeling into the sea.
Then there was a sudden burst of light and flame from the port, an explosion bigger than any seen so far in midair.
“Holy crap! One of the shells must have hit the torpedo head-on! He just vaporized!”
Captain Stark smiled. “That was a one-in-a-million shot, but I guess if you shoot enough shots, you’ll get that kind of a lucky break. We’ll take it.”
“There he goes! Last starboard bomber has been splashed!”
Stark barked out the new orders. “Fore and aft guns, switch targets to the portside planes! Helm, stand by for emergency maneuvers!”
Tormolen looked out the front windows of the bridge as the main guns began to swivel and bring their guns to bear to port. He cursed to himself – they were too damned slow.
“Sir, they’re dropping their fish! One in the water! Now two… got him! And there goes the third bomber – I don’t think he dropped in time! And there goes number four!”
“Confirm that report, mister!”
“Confirmed, sir! Two planes to port splashed, three fish in the water, coming in!”
“Helm, full ahead and come port! Sparks, make sure the Yorktown knows they’ve got three fish coming in from port!”
As the Manchester began to swing to port, Tormolen found himself wondering what Stark’s intentions were. Did he want to avoid the incoming torpedoes, or intercept them before they could reach the Yorktown?
As the ship steadied, he realized it was a moot point. The Manchester had been traveling at 20 knots, the best the Yorktown could manage in her battered state. And as fast as she could turn and accelerate, there was no getting around basic physics – no matter how hard they tried, the Manchester could never hope to intercept the torpedoes.
Meanwhile, the forward guns kept hammering out their shells. Bomber number eight suddenly lost a wing and went spinning into the sea. It was too late, as she’d already dropped her torpedo, but she’d never drop another.
The surviving Zeroes, tired of playing tag with the few Wildcats, formed up on the sole bomber left and headed back to their carrier.
Tormolen looked back at the Yorktown. She was swinging to port, hoping to avoid the incoming torpedoes. But it was a lumbering turn, not even two-thirds of her normal top speed. He grimaced as the phrase “sitting duck” came to mind – followed by “dead duck.”
A huge spout of water erupted on the Yorktown’s port side, roughly amidships. A moment later, another burst near the bow. He waited and watched, his heart in his throat, but the there was no third detonation. The last torpedo either missed, or was a dud.
The Manchester had done her best, and done an incredible job – she and the rest of the Task Force had shot down eight of the nine bombers that got past the fighters. But it hadn’t been enough. The Yorktown had been severely wounded yet again.
“Well, Tormolen, if you didn’t believe in miracles, I’d recommend you start doing so. Look over there – she’s still dead in the water and listing badly, but the Yorktown’s still afloat. And they’re going to re-board her and try to save her.”
Tormolen squinted through the faint light of dawn in the direction of the badly damaged carrier. Unbidden, the words to a song engraved on his heart slipped past his lips:
“Oh, say, can you see/ By the dawn’s early light/ What so proudly we hailed/ At the twilight’s last gleaming?”
Stark cocked an eyebrow at Tormolen. “They never did strike her colors, and there isn’t much wind, but that star-spangled banner does yet wave.”
Tormolen blushed. “I’m sorry, Captain. I don’t know what came over me there.”
“I do, and I respect it. It’s an awesome thing, how she’s survived all she’s been through, and I’d be a bit dismayed if you weren’t moved by it.”
“Do you think they’ll try one last time to save her?”
“By God, they better, Tormolen. After all she’s done for her country, it would be unthinkable to scuttle her. And all the same arguments that got her out of drydock and into this fight still hold – we need her in the worst way. But she deserves a long, thorough break. She’s out of this war for at least six months, and probably closer to a year.”
Tormolen looked again at the battered Yorktown, and needed to change the subject. “So, what was the final tally from yesterday?”
Stark also seemed relieved at the shift. “Four flat-tops sinking, or burning so badly they’ll have to go under. Big ones, too, not like the baby flat-top we put down at Coral Sea. Make no mistake about it, Tormolen, we just broke the back of the Japanese fleet. Four carriers and all their planes – because the ones we didn’t shoot down had no place to land. We still have the Enterprise and Hornet out there, just spoiling for a fight. The Saratoga should be back at Pearl any day now, and I hear the Wasp might be coming here from the Atlantic.”
Tormolen, however, wasn’t so sure. “I don’t think we ‘broke their back,’ Captain, but you’re certainly right that we’ve sure as hell put a major dent in their plans. They might have no choice but to stop their expansion and focus on consolidating what they have already. And if they do, they give up the initiative. That’s when we’ll start our offensive, and we’ll be choosing when and where to fight.”
“And that’ll be a nice change of pace, Mr. Tormolen.”
Dawn broke on June 6, and the Yorktown was still afloat. Even though she had been abandoned and was listing heavily to port, she was still above the waves.
The Manchester, along with her task force (minus one destroyer left on “death watch” at the Yorktown), had joined up with the Enterprise and Hornet flotilla. Now that there was word that the Yorktown might yet be saved, she joined the Astoria and a group of destroyers to shepherd the battered and mauled carrier back to Pearl Harbor.
As the recovery crew reboarded the Yorktown, the Manchester took up a position off her starboard side – once again placing herself between the carrier and the Japanese. There was still the danger of submarines, so Captain Stark had ordered the ship to take a “figure-eight” course, each leg three thousand yards long and the crossing point two thousand yards off the Yorktown’s starboard beam. There was little concern of yet another air attack, as reports were pretty solid that all four of the Japanese flattops that had come to Midway were sunk, but they were taking no chances.
The greater threat was submarines. The Manchester wasn’t set up to do much against submarines – not only did she lack depth charges, but her size made her both less maneuverable and a bigger target than the destroyers.
“I guess this is our punishment for letting those torpedo bombers get through.”
Captain Tormolen didn’t realize he’d spoken just loudly enough for Captain Stark to hear. He was promptly corrected.
“That’s an unworthy thing to say, Mr. Tormolen.”
“I’m sorry, Captain. I didn’t realize I’d said that out loud.”
“You did, mister, and I won’t stand for that kind of talk on my bridge. The Manchester did an exceptional job leading the Yorktown’s air defense, and Admiral Fletcher has expressed his appreciation to me personally.
“The reason we’re out here is to provide more lookouts for submarines, and to use our firepower in case one should happen to surface. The Manchester has more guns than any four destroyers in this group.
“Our job is to protect the Yorktown. Period. In pursuit of that goal, we will do whatever needs to be done.”
Tormolen was properly ashamed. He’d seen the men of the Manchester fight with tremendous skill and daring, placing themselves at great risk, while defending the Yorktown. He’d seen the shame and pain they’d felt when she was hit by planes the Manchester had not been able to stop in time – first by bombs, then by torpedoes. Almost all those planes had not survived very long after they dropped their weapons, but that had been too late – the damage had been done.
“I apologize, sir, to you and the men of the Manchester. And to Admiral Fletcher, for implying that he would place us at risk as a form of punishment.”
“Apology accepted, Mr. Tormolen. I trust you’ll be more respectful in the future.”
Against all odds, it seemed the Yorktown might be saved after all. The salvage crews had been working to lighten the ship and stem the flooding. And best of all, there was word that a seagoing tug was on its way from Pearl Harbor to haul her home.