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Serenity at Sea
The USS Utah, Latitude 38'40" N, Longitude 126'37" W, December 6, 1941
The Utah and the three ships that ploughed through the gentle swell in her wake constituted what was sometimes called the "D. D. Ricketts navy." When Admiral Ricketts, now long retired, had set out to convert World War I battleships to carriers, he followed two different strategies.
On the one hand, he chose the two best of the old ships, the Idaho and the New Mexico, for conversion to general purpose carriers with a full complement of fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. These ships could do over 21 knots, easily enough for the 15 knot fleet, and had their superstructures and guns entirely removed, to be replaced by a flight deck and a hangar deck underneath it. Other navies had converted battleships and battle cruisers to carriers, as had the American with the Lexington and Saratoga. These last were big beautiful ships, more than ten knots faster, but the Idaho and New Mexico were useful additions to the fleet, and could also carry air groups of 72 aircraft each. Each conversion had cost about a third as much as a new carrier would have, and, of course, a new carrier might be sunk on its first war patrol.
More radical was the conversion of the frankly obsolete Utah and Florida. As part of the defensive strategy that was behind it all, it was judged that large numbers of fighter aircraft would be needed to first defeat the enemy air foce before going over on to the offensive. The "fighter carriers" could be much simpler. It was necessary only to land the fighters, refuel them, and catapult them off. Re-arming them amounted to nothing more than putting new ammunition belts in the wings. Instead of undertaking extensive repairs, damaged fighters would be pushed overboard. Little equipment was needed, and there needn't be any guns. Surrounding ships would supply the anti-aircraft protection. Since the pilots would all be ones trained in Haiti, the simplest living accomodations would suffice.
Ricketts had chosen these oldest battleships partly becuase they had uncluttered decks. Once the four big turrets
and a little tripod mast were lifted out, there remained a big empty parking lot for fighters from the funnel to the stern. A rectangular flight deck some 300 feet long was erected over it. The fighters came in, had their tail hooks snared, and were taken below. Some were taken along taxi-ways to the big empty foredeck, which was another parking lot equipped with six catapults along the perimeter. There were other catapults on the main deck aft, just below the flight deck (really a "landing deck"), and the whole force of 84 fighters could be launched very quickly in an emergency. With the removal of their armament, the old ships floated ten feet higher in the water. In addition to making them less likely to be hit with a torpedo, there was less strain on the engines. Ricketts had them re-boilered, and the result was that they could do a breakneck 19 knots. That wasn't so bad for ships that had been virtually rescued from the ship-breaker's yard, and whose conversion had been extremely cheap.
The Utah and Florida, now pouring immense quantities of oily black smoke out of their single stacks, were extremely queer-looking ships. In particular, the battleship bridge structures, without the guns, looked rather like the control tower of an airport. Despite this appearance, the Utah was the flagship of a carrier force which contained the much faster and more glamorous Lexington and Saratoga.
In the secret opinion of the chief of staff, Captain James Murphy, this choice of flagship reflected something less than damn-the-torpedoes heroism on the part of his commander, Vice Admiral Thomas Snelling. The big full-service carriers carried over a thousand bombs and torpedoes, any number of which could be touched off by enemy attack. On the Utah, aviation fuel was still a danger, but most of it was well down in the former magazines underneath a layer of inert gas. At any rate, burning fuel wouldn't be spread over the ship by the induced explosion of a bomb or torpedo.
Captain Murphy, brought by one of his former chiefs to the latter's new seagoing command, had himself raised no objections to serving on a ship that would probably sink sedately without burning, thus giving everyone an opportunity to step comfortably into a lifeboat. Having spent an arduous week at his diplomatic best, he now thought that he deserved a little present comfort, even while the ship was still afloat. It was a lovely Saturday afternoon on the big blue Pacific, with a light breeze carrying the smoke away from his position on the port wing of the bridge.
The air groups trained in Haiti had long since been incorporated into the navy. Accustomed to landing on an old converted freighter, they had learned to land on the big carriers with an ease and lack of ceremony that had rather alarmed long-time naval aviators. But there had been personnel problems.
After one look at its new pilots, some of them eighteen years old only according to their falsified documents, the navy had refused them the commissions which its other pilots had. Since the Hayties, as they were called, considered themselves much better fighter pilots than the regulars, they resented eating at the petty officers' mess while the others lorded it over them.
To make matters worse, the petty officers, headed by their middle-aged chiefs, weren't exactly a welcoming group. Timmy and Sandy, the wing and group commanders, were made Chief Petty Officers, a rank it normally took decades to attain. On seeing them at the chiefs' table, Murphy had had to laugh. The initial hostility and suspicion, equally marked on both sides, had given way to a bantering relationship. The men who virtually ran the navy had recognized that these boys, younger than their sons, were there to stay.
In the air, however, the rank and command situation was no laughing matter. In theory, the navy's newest and least experienced pilot, as a commissioned officer, could give orders to Timmy, commanding a wing of 168 fighters. Whether Timmy would obey such an order was problematical, but it nevertheless rankled.
At length, Murphy had worked out a compromise whereby no one, in fact, gave orders to Timmy and his pilots but the captains of the ships, the admiral commanding the force, and his senior staff. That made Timmy, in effect, a commander, Sandy a lieutenant commander, and the squadron leaders full lieutenants. Murphy had also promised to do what he could to obtain some promotions after the war had actually begun.
As he now watched the crews lining up fighters on the foredeck below him, it struck him that the navy's poison had quickly done its work. These boys, who had never even thought about rank before, were now even more obsessed than the regulars with prerogatives, privileges, and the tables at which they messed. He hoped that they weren't getting rusty in the air. They weren't flying nearly as much as they had in Haiti. Still, young veterans who had spent a good many years in real, or nearly real, combat couldn't be taken lightly by even the Japanese naval air arm.
Before long, a squadron of old converted destroyers was given the signal to close into mock battle formation. They came racing in from their anti-submarine screen, only to slow to 15 knots to take up station. The gaps between the destroyers were no greater than the lengths of the ships, and therein lay a series of problems.
If, in an attack, a destroyer's lookouts saw a torpedo coming, which was likely, there would be time to close up a gap for which it might be headed. However, could one really expect a destroyer captain to put himself in the way of a torpedo which would probably blow his ship in two and kill most of his men? Some, no doubt, would do just that. But, again, how would the crews feel if they were convinced that their captains had that intention? Most particularly, how would the engine-room crews feel, the ones with virtually no chance of escape? However brave American seaman might be, they didn't have the Japanese love of sacrificial death for its own sake.
When the converted destroyer concept had first been put forward, there had been the quite real possibility that a Japanese torpedo could be set deep enough to run under a destroyer, but shallow enough to hit a heavy ship behind it. This possibility at least gave the destroyer crews some hope and amounted to a sharing of the risk.
But, of course, the navy cared more deeply for its carriers than for its destroyer crews. Long narrow fin keels had been fitted to the destroyers, making them two feet deeper and less quick to turn, but without the loss of hardly any speed. That extra two feet might make all the difference, and catch the torpedo which would otherwise pass underneath. On the other hand, the crews of the destroyers had eventually seen through the twaddle about improved seaworthiness that they have been given, and had figured out the true motivation for the fin keels. At that point, Murphy had proposed that the destroyers stream torpedo nets to protect both themselves and the ships beheind them. He watched now as the nets were dropped.
The only trouble was that these weren't the full nets used in harbor. The destroyers couldn't have carried the cranes needed to deploy anything of the sort. These were light-weight nets carried on booms that slid out fore and aft, and they had weights and little angled fins to keep the bottoms down, several feet below the keels amidships. They were meant, not to stop a torpedo, but to deflect it as it ripped through, perhaps entangling its propellor and steering mechanism.
Some of the nets seemed to be working, but others merely formed snarls on the suface of the water. And then, no one really knew what would happen if one of the extra-large Japanese torpedoes hit one. Murphy, the inventor of the nets, thought it most likely that the torpedo would punch through the net to sink the destroyer. But, if it did encounter the net below the destroyer's keel, the torpedo might then run crazily and go almost anywhere.
According to Mrs. Tanaka, the tactic of shielding carriers with sacrificial destroyers seemed not to have gotten through to the Japanese navy. It was the sort of thing they'd do if they had thought of it. Hence, the fact that they seemed to practise no such maneuvers suggested that they wouldn't expect such tactics from an enemy.
At a word from Admiral Snelling to the captain, the Utah put her helm down and began a ponderous turn into the wind. Looking back, Murphy saw the Florida follow, listing a little as her lightened hull reacted to the turn. As soon as the ships steadied, they began to launch fighters in all directions. The Wildcats weren't as good as Japanese Zeros or German Messerschmidts, but the Hayties wouldn't be giving away as much superiority as they had in Spain.
Two squadrons comprising 28 fighters were up and in position almost immediately. The flight of army bombers that had been sent out to "attack" them wouldn't have a chance.
Lacking though he was in attractiveness of personality, Timmy made no mistakes in the air. Watching the fighters maneuver, Murphy decided that he had a continual tendency to underestimate Timmy. It was easy for a self-made man to feel some contempt for someone who, despite all Angel's attempts, had remained unable to read ordinary written memoranda. But, of course, that didn't really matter. The orders that counted would be verbal.
Murphy walked to the other side of the bridge before the rather garrulous captain had a chance to engage him in conversation. He then articulated to himself some more of the thoughts he had accumulated during the week. It wasn't just a matter of illiteracy. Despite all of Murphy's own attempts, he had never managed to hold a sustained conversation with Timmy. There were only demands, greivances, and complaints. Indeed, he couldn't recall Timmy's ever having expressed positive feelings at all on any subject. Moreover, one felt that, where Moses Whitby would have punched one in the face, little Timmy would have a knife concealed somewhere.
On the other hand. Timmy might be an even better combat leader than Whitby had been. Certainly better than Whitby would be now if he were still alive. It didn't always take an exciting or attractive personality to lead. Persistence and consistency could be more important.
But, then, you never knew. There might be no war in the Pacific after all. Despite what he heard from Filson, Captain Murphy found it easy to imagine that the future would bring nothing much in particular. Just endless searches of empty horizons.
Pearl Harbor, Saturday, December 6, 1941.
Cynthia Harding, now thirty six, had thought herself too old to interest an interesting man. Hawaii had changed that. As one of her less tactful friends put it to her,
"Try a sailor. They'll sleep with anyone."
She had tried one or two before realizing that she could still command something far more exciting. She, in turn, had said to her friend, Mitsy,
"With the place practically an armed camp, all you need is a little putty for the wrinkles. You can then have a flyer, a subhmariner, or even a paymaster."
Mitsy laughed, but was naking no attempt to follow Cynthia's lead. She instead spoke of Cynthia's latest acquisition.
"Did you say James would be here at eight? It's seven now. I'll be ..."
"Stay and help me get dressed. If he has trouble getting away from his wife, it may be a long time before he gets here. Besides, he's always pleased to see you. Come out to dinner with us."
"I couldn't think of doing that. I'm sure he wants to be alone with you."
"He doesn't really, except at the end. He told me that you fascinate him, and I'm hardly the jealous type."
"You don't need to be."
Mitsy then looked down and touched her skirt before continuing.
"But this is just a cotton dress, and .."
"It looks very nice. Anyhow, pick one of mine to wear if you feel uncomfortable."
"Speaking of being uncomfortable, how's James doing these days?"
"Very much concerned. And that's an understatement."
Lt. James Tabor, USN, was a graduate of Groton, Annapolis, and Pensacola. A fully qualified torpedo pilot, he was normally assigned to the Lexington's torpedo squadron. A couple of weeks previously, he had fallen from a ladder and had hurt his back. He was now recuperating at Pearl Harbor.
Ten years younger than Cynthia, Lt. Tabor seemed to prefer her company to that of his wife. When he and Cynthia went to dinner, Mitsy often accompanied them. While she wasn't anyone's idea of a chaperon, the lieutenant thought it less compromising to be seen with two women than with one. Mitsy remarked,
"I know how dangerous it is to be a flyer in wartime. It's too bad James is in that position."
"Yes. I suppose flying seemed fun at first. I don't think he ever pictured what it would lead to."
Mitsy smiled a little wistfully.
"That's a type of man that isn't possible in Japan. When they take up anything military, they know exactly what it will lead to. Even most of the American pilots I've met seem ready to trade shots with the enemy. I've never met one at all like James."
"Neither have I. Except for Bob Conway, sort of."
"He's the one who was killed in Haiti wasn't he?"
"Yes. He challenged Timmy to a duel in the air. I don't even know what the argument was about."
Mitsy nodded sympathetically.
"How awful! James wouldn't do anything like that, would he?"
"No. Certainly not. He doesn't have wild impulses. As for the others in Haiti, ..."
Mitsy threw up both hands.
"Those awful children! I've seen them in McGillicuddy's. I'm afraid they're better suited than James for this sort of thing."
"He's absolutely convinced that he's going to be killed. Probably burned alive in his plane. He's terrified."
"I don't blame him. Isn't there any way out?"
"We thought the attack might come last week, and I helped him make the most of his bad back. But that's wearing thin now. The doctor was rather unpleasant."
"Can't he just resign from the navy?"
"They wouldn't let him. Even if they did, it wouldn't be honorable."
"If it were me, I'd arrange to get injured in whatever way was necessary."
"I think he fell off that ladder accidentally on purpose. But it'd take something like losing his hand, or an eye, to really get him out of flying immediately."
"As much as that?"
"Well, it's better than being shot down in flames. We haven't been able to figure out how to do it plausibly, though."
"How does his wife feel about it?"
"She comes from the same kind of people he does. He can't even tell her that he's afraid."
"You come from the southern version of that kind of family don't you?"
"Yes. He likes me because I understand what he's up against, but also because I'm far enough removed to understand him."
"Of course, someone's got to do it, but it would be better to leave it to the Hayties. Do they ever worry about being killed?"
"Not that I know of. Whether it's insensitivity or brutality or what I don't know. But they can do the job. We really don't need James at all."
"It's a tragedy, really. He's so charming, and I'm sure he'd be good at so many other things."
"I can see that I'll have to use all the pull I can muster. When Murph gets back, I'll try to get him transferred to the CincPac staff."
When Lt. Tabor arrived, no one would have guessed that he had a care in the world. He insisted that Mitsy accompany them to dinner, and Cynthia felt sure that he was sincere in doing so. In many ways Mitsy had more in common with James than she did, but she would also have been much more uncomfortable about having an affair with a married man. So it all worked out well. When they went out as a threesome, Mitsy went home by about eleven. James often remained with Cynthia until two or so. It seemed to her that his wife must know something, but there was apparently a tacit understanding of some sort.
None of the them were entranced with the tourist- Hawaiian style of restaurant, and they ended up in the dining room of an old fashioned hotel which catered to commercial travellers. Only slightly seedy, the service was stolidly adequate, and the food ran to quite good roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. James had come upon it by accident, and now explained,
"There's a surprisingly large Scots community in Hawaii. One of their number set up this hotel. The prints on the wall depict scenes in the Inverness area."
Cynthia was always ready for a diverting new image.
"You know, the offspring of a Scots-Hawaiian match might be interesting. I'd love to see one wearing a kilt."
"I could confuse the issue still further by wearing a kilt myself. Do Scottish ladies ever wear kilts, James?"
"They'd probably be stoned to death for even thinking about it. But it could easily become a women's style here. You could be the first."
"If my husband ever comes back, I could greet him in one."
Cynthia had a vision of the Tanakas, dressed in "his" and "her" kilts going along Waikiki Beach. More important, she wondered if Mitsy was having second thoughts about separating from her husband. Before she caught herself, she asked,
"You're still hoping he doesn't come back, aren't you?"
"Yes. Although I do miss him at times. You simply get used to people after a while even if you don't communicate much with them."
James nodded decisively.
"I'm like that with my wife. When we got married, and were close, we used to talk about the possibility of divorce. Now that we've drifted apart, and divorce is more of a possibility, we never talk about it. On the other hand, if we did divorce, we'd miss each other."
Mitsy sounded incredulous,
"You mean, you talked of divorce on your honeymoon?"
"Yes. Both sets of parents had been divorced, so it seemed to be a normal hazard of marriage. We got very earnest and made declarations about not letting it happen to us."
"I suppose you didn't have in mind quiet dinners like this with two friends?"
"No, but I don't think that was ruled out exactly. Diana and I both associated divorce with awful squalid scenes and uncontrolled emotions. Those were followed by extremely embarrassing attempts to 'explain it all to the children.' Nothing could be less squalid and embarrassing than a little dinner in an old Scots hotel."
Cynthia felt constrained to acknowledge,
"I didn't always avoid those unseemly displays the way I do now. I suppose it's a matter of getting older."
"More likely you've developed your sensibility and powers of imagination. You can generate your excitement in more subtle ways. For example, I find it much more interesting tonight to have Mitsy along than to be off by ourselves. It adds a note of ambiguity and uncertainty. I don't think I would have realized that a few years back."
"If you can find the presence of a chaperon stimulating, I suppose that you've also learned to find excitement at commanding officers' tea parties."
"Yes. Even those. It takes only a little imagination. I only wish now that I'd realized some years back that you don't have to become a carrier pilot to find excitement."
Cynthia touched James affectionately on the arm.
"Before you came tonight we agreed that you're unlike any other combat pilot we've ever known. Particularly the Hayties."
James made a gesture with both hands, almost spilling his soup in the process.
"They're just savages. But even the professional navy pilots are an unusual bunch. I think one thing they lack is imagination."
Mitsy shook her head.
"I've met a number of them, and they remind me of my husband. People think he lacks imagination, too."
"I don't think so, really. Any more than he lacks intelligence, although he can also give that impression. But he's an excellent chess player, for example. Anyone who can think of new strategies and play without a board must be extremely imaginative, at least in a limited area."
James looked impressed, and conceded the point with a gesture.
"These navy pilots are also experts at what they do. They put much more thought into it than I do. But they also obey trivial orders slavishly. We have quite a lot of paperwork to do. Just meaningless boring stuff. I long ago discovered how to avoid most of it without getting into trouble. But they just sit there, hour after hour, filling out forms and writing reports."
Cynthia could imagine some pilots of her acquaintance doing just that.
"They do it because they enjoy it. They're like housewives lovingly polishing every doorknob."
"I've never been that sort of housewife, but most Japanese women are. Even the Japanese-American ones around me now scrub everything and sweep the sidewalk in front of their houses. If there's an attack, they'll pick up every sliver of broken glass."
James was concerned what might happen to Mitsy in the case of an attack. She assured him that the Hawaiian Japanese community wouldn't do anything to provoke hostility, much less violence. James replied,
"Even so, the people here might go more or less crazy. Americans aren't terribly slow to form into lynch mobs, and I don't see how anyone can be sure how they'll react."
Cynthia's fears were aroused, and she insisted that Mitsy come to stay with her. James said,
"Since I've got my car, we can move you tonight, at least enough of your things to manage with for a while. So far as I know, there might be a surprise attack tomorrow morning."
Mitsy protested that they would surely want to be alone together that evening, but Cynthia whispered to her, at which point she agreed.
Dinner finished, they approached the car. Instead of getting in, James leaned in and got some dance music on the radio. He then led Mitsy in a slow dance over the blacktop surface. After that, he danced with Cynthia and Cynthia danced with Mitsy. The latter was done with a mock and exaggerated romance which James seemed particularly to enjoy.
As they approached the apartment building in which Mitsy had been living, she said,
"I'll be glad to get away for another reason. My downstairs neighbor is an older man who's been threatening to perform seppuku almost daily to atone for the behavior of Japan. I've begun to dread even going past his door."
"Isn't that where they disembowel themselves with a sword?"
"Yes. The man who performs it is supposed not to show a flicker of emotion. However, his best friend will be in attendance, and there's a secret sign that the principal can give if it all gets too much."
"What happens then?"
"The friend removes the sword from his stomach and cuts his head off with it."
Cynthia had guessed that something of the sort was coming, and had glanced at James. He winced visibly as Mitsy finished speaking in her matter-of-fact way. He quickly responded,
"Oh Lord! Why do people go to such lengths to make life so much more unpleasant than it need be?"
It took longer than had been anticipated to move Mitsy, so much so that
Lt. Tabor decided that there was no point in going home at all that night.
The women were worried about the reaction of his wife. He replied, seemingly
somewhat irrelevantly, that, since they were now almost on a wartime footing,
nothing else much mattered.
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