As promised, here’s the conclusion of the adventures of the USS Manchester. And I’m already at work on the followup…
It was a good thing the Manchester was a ship, and not a land vessel, Captain Tormolen thought. She’d been carving the same stretch of water for about seven hours. On dry land, she’d have worn a trench for herself. At sea, the water parted before her and reformed behind her, leaving only the slightest traces that she had ever passed.
Off to port, Tormolen could see the Yorktown. She was still listing, but not quite so low in the water. The salvage crews had tossed literally tons of dead weight overboard in preparation for the long, slow tow back to Pearl Harbor. The tug Vireo was ahead of the Yorktown, pulling with all her heart.Tucked up against the crippled carrier was one destroyer, the Hammann, apparently supplying electric power to the hulk. Five more destroyers milled around, watching fretfully for submarines. And the cruiser Astoria sat off the bow, with Admiral Fletcher aboard supervising the group.
Tormolen had watched some of the jettisoning, fascinated. He’d seen the “bucket brigade” of men tossing five-inch shells overboard, followed by at least one of the big anti-aircraft guns. He’d winced at seeing the valuable materiel consigned to the deep, but consoled himself with the thought that if they couldn’t save the Yorktown, they would be lost anyway.
As a guest aboard the Manchester, Tormolen had no assigned duties or stations aboard. And as had become his wont, he had moved discreetly from the bridge to the bridge wings, alternately watching the bridge crew and joining the lookouts.
He still smarted from the dressing-down Captain Stark had given him hours ago. It had been a long time since he’d been so publicly chastised, and he didn’t like it.
Worse, he’d deserved it. It was one thing to entertain the kinds of thoughts he’d had; it was another thing entirely to speak them aloud, within earshot of the crew. Toss in that he’d been an admiral’s aide speculating about the motivations of an admiral, and it had been even worse. He hoped Captain Stark truly accepted his apology.
Tormolen glanced at the Yorktown’s mast. She was still flying her battle pennants, although they were hanging almost limp. It was largely the list of the ship – he estimated she was still leaning at least 20 degrees to port – that kept them from wrapping themselves around the staff.
The Manchester was on the back side of her figure-eight course, running opposite the direction the Yorktown was facing. That meant that Tormolen was on the starboard wing, facing the carrier. The cry came from the opposite side. He raced back into the bridge.
Captain Stark was at the conn. “All engines ahead emergency! Hard left rudder! Sound general quarters! Guns, stand ready for surface action!”
The crew raced to answer his commands. Tormolen could feel the vibrations below his feet as the engines sped up, then felt the ship slowly list to starboard as the rudders bit into the sea and the Manchester started – slowly – swinging to port.
Slowly. Too slowly. She’d only been making eight knots, and that was barely above steerage.
Out the front windows, Tormolen could see the forward guns begin to pivot to port. They had no target as yet, but should one appear, they would be ready to smother it in steel. The five-inch guns might not pack much of a punch against a modern warship, but what they lacked in throw-weight they made up for in volume. A full broadside of the Manchester could send almost a ton of steel at an enemy – and she could do that about every three seconds, when everything worked right.
Off to port, though, Tormolen couldn’t see anything. Not even the tracks of the incoming torpedoes the lookout had posted.
Finally, the Manchester swung around. Unlike the attack by the torpedo bombers, this time Captain Stark had put the ship’s beam to the attack. It looked like this time he was going to try to save the Yorktown at the expense of the Manchester.
“Lookouts! Any sign of the enemy?”
“No, sir! The fish must have been fired from a submerged sub!”
“Dammit! Get those cans out there! If those fish don’t finish off the Yorktown, that Jap sub will just reload and try again. Give me a count and bearing on those torpedoes.” He grimaced. “Belay that – I’m going to go look for myself.” With that, Captain Stark stepped out on the starboard bridge wing and commandeered a pair of binoculars.
Tormolen quietly moved behind the captain, eager to follow the events, yet careful to not get in anyone’s way.
Stark, gazing through the binoculars, started giving orders to the helm. “I count four fish coming in. They’re spread out enough that at least two of ’em will hit the Yorktown. Tell the Hammann to warn the salvage crews.
Tormolen barely got out of the way as Stark stepped back on to the bridge, the binoculars still around his neck. He started looking back and forth, between the torpedoes and the bridge instruments.
“Helm, come starboard three degrees. Keep the engines going full out until I tell you otherwise. And order all hands belowdecks except engineering to come to the weather deck, portside.”
Tormolen felt the chill shoot up his spine. There was only one reason Captain Stark would want no one left within the ship – and it did not bode well.
Stark kept up his rapid changes of focus – the torpedoes, back to the instruments, then back to the torpedoes. He made several more minor corrections to the helm, as the Manchester’s speed steadily increased and the fish came closer and closer.
“It looks like we’re only going to be able to block one of those fish. Another one looks like it’ll miss the Yorktown entirely. That means that two of them are going to get past us. Here’s hoping my math’s bad, or they’re duds.”
Stark turned to Tormolen and smiled. There was no humor in the smile, though, only grim cynicism. “Looks like we’re going to have to eat the fish, Mr. Stark.”
Stark didn’t particularly enjoy hearing his glib phrase tossed back in his face, but he couldn’t argue with the circumstances. This was the Manchester’s role, boiled down to the purest essence: to protect her charge, the Yorktown, at any cost.
“All hands brace for torpedo on the starboard bow!”
The Japanese torpedoes’ wakes were now close enough to see with the naked eye – at least three of them. Two were obviously going to get past the Manchester. The third, Tormolen calculated, would be close, but they ought to just catch it with the tip of the bow.
He found himself wondering if Stark had planned it that way – to take the torpedo as far forward as possible, to minimize the damage to the ship and maximize her survivability. The torpedo would most likely blow off a good-sized hunk of the ship’s bow, but she was built strong – as long as the break was fairly clean, not too far back, and the damage control teams did their jobs, she could probably limp back to Pearl.
The white line raced through the sea, closing on an intercept course with the Manchester. Tormolen could hear Captain Stark ordering the engine room crew abovedecks, and all hands already on deck to assemble on the stern.
The torpedo was only seconds from the ship. Tormolen studied it carefully, calculating the precise moment when the Manchester would cross its path and the two would intersect in a catastrophic blast. Then, a few seconds before that instant, he closed his eyes and found himself – for the first time in years – praying.
Tormolen waited the long seconds in silence, bracing himself for the blast.
And then he waited longer.
But the blast never came. All he could hear was the normal sounds of the ship.
Then he heard Captain Stark utter the strongest curse he’d ever heard the man utter. He opened his eyes.
“What the hell happened?” Stark demanded.
The helmsman seemed as baffled as Stark. “I don’t know, sir. Portside lookouts report four fish past us, heading straight for the Yorktown!”
“Hard aport! We’re going to chase those fish right up to the Yorktown. We might not have stopped the attack, but by God we can do what we can to clean up the mess!”
Tormolen watched in horror as the torpedoes continued racing straight for the Yorktown. The first struck the Hammann dead amidships, breaking the destroyer in half. Two more torpedoes struck the crippled Yorktown, tearing even more holes in her already-tattered hull.
Captain Stark, too, had been watching the Yorktown through the binoculars. He slowly lowered them, then hung his head.
“That’s it. She’s done for.”
Admiral Halsey leaned forward in his bed. “So, what the hell happened? Why didn’t the Manchester catch that fish?”
Captain Tormolen shrugged. “Nobody knows for sure. The starboard lookouts insist it should have hit us about ten feet back from the bow. The portside lookouts say it came out from us about twenty to thirty feet back from the bow. Careful inspection showed that it never touched us. And considering the normal draft of the Manchester, it should have blown our bow clean off.
“I have my own pet theory. The Manchester was pulling about 19 knots, and at full acceleration. Also, most of the crew was assembled on the stern. The combination of speed, acceleration, and weight shift most likely lifted the bow just enough to let the torpedo pass underneath us.”
“Anyway, we took aboard as many survivors of the Yorktown and the Hammann as we could, then came back to Pearl. It hurt like hell to lose the Yorktown.”
Halsey grimaced. The old man looked a lot better than he had a bit over a week ago, but the skin condition that had hospitalized him was still quite visible. “God knows I hate losing her, but if the total cost of that battle was her and one destroyer, it was worth it. We put four of Tojo’s flattops on the bottom, and they were four of the ones that hit us at Pearl Harbor.”
Halsey paused, then fixed his withering gaze on Tormolen. “Tell me, Joe. What was your opinion of Captain Stark?”
“He’s a fine captain and a good man. The Manchester’s in good hands.”
“He went out there with a single job – to protect the Enterprise. He couldn’t keep up with her, so he was assigned to protect the Yorktown. Two bombs and four fish got past him, and one of our damned few carriers is now sunk. Sounds to me like he didn’t do a very good job.”
“Sir, nearly every single plane that attacked the Yorktown was shot down. It was just bad luck that a couple of them managed to drop their weapons before we got them. And as far as the last two torpedoes… well, I know a lot of people call the Manchester an “oversized tin can,” but she’s not a destroyer. She’s a cruiser, and cruisers just don’t fare very well against subs.”
Halsey let his glare fade, and he smiled. Tormolen knew that smile, and recognized the old man had been using one of his favorite tactics: launching an attack he didn’t really mean to provoke a defense that would give him the most honest answer he could get. Tormolen had seen it hundreds of times, been subject to it dozens, and still fell for it. “I know, son. Jack Fletcher had nothing but great things to say about Stark and the Manchester. But I’m worried if what I just said might be how Stark himself sees things. And if it is, that makes him unfit for command – and I need to know about it.”
“That’s not for me to say, sir.”
“No, it’s not. But you were there. You spent more time with him and his crew than anyone else on my staff. What’s your gut say – will the loss of the Yorktown break Stark, or will it make him more determined than ever to prove himself?”
Tormolen paused to consider the matter.
“No, Joe, don’t think about it. I want what your gut says. Should I leave Stark on the Manchester, or do I need to beach him?”
“Sir, I think the Navy would be best served if Captain Stark stayed right where he is. He’s angry that he couldn’t save the Yorktown, but he knows, in his head, that there wasn’t anything more he could have done. He knows that his ship shot down about two dozen Jap planes – more than any other ship could have. All he has to do is finish convincing his heart that he didn’t fail – sometimes the other side gets lucky.”
“If Stark thinks that our losing one carrier to their four is ‘bad luck,’ then the man’s obviously nuts. But that’s the kind of crazy we might need in this war.
“OK, Tormolen, Stark keeps the Manchester, and we keep them with us. And as soon as the doctors let me out of here, we’re going to see just where things stand.
“The Japs just lost four of their flattops, and every single plane on ’em. They can’t afford to keep on the offensive, they’ll need to consolidate what they have already until they can replace those decks – and those aircrews.
“I don’t intend to give them that time. So far every time we’ve fought them, it’s been when and where they chose. It’s time we we started hitting back.”