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 Chapter 31

A Last Attempt

Kaga, 1400

The dive bombers converted to fighters, despite their archaic-looking fixed undercarriages, had worked at least as well as Commander Genda had expected. Concentrating on the half-dozen torpedo bombers attacking the Kaga, they had shot one down and damaged others. Best of all, the ship, by turning sharply into the attack, had dodged the torpedoes. It had been a remarkable turn, timed exactly right and violent enough to throw them all off their feet. The Kaga's captain was much more adept than Captain Kaku of the Akagi had been.

On the other hand, the wastage of fighters had continued. There were now only 7 Zeroes left, and 19 Aichis acting as fighters. There was one silver lining, if it could be called that. Only the Kaga could now land aircraft, but the numbers were so reduced that she could accomodate them all.

Still, Admiral Kusaka had agreed with Genda that the Kaga was living on strictly borrowed time. With many hours of daylight left, and hardly anything but anti-aircraft guns with which to oppose the enemy attacks, they had become the target in a shooting gallery. Genda was fast running out of ideas, but he did have one last suggestion.

As he put it to Kusaka, they could hide Murata's force even if they weren't allowed to hide the Kaga. The torpedo bombers would be launched immediately, but would cruise slowly to the north. If the Kaga went down in the next few hours, and Murata had nowhere to land, he would attack the enemy. However, if either the Kaga or Hiryu was operational late in the afternoon, he would jettison his torpedoes and land. It would take some forty five minutes to rearm and refuel him, but the enemy probably wouldn't launch a strike unless it could be recovered in daylight.

Thus, after a limited period of limited risk, the men on either the Kaga or the Hiryu could prepare the night torpedo attack at their leisure. Kusaka agreed that it materially increased their chances of launching a successful strike.

The tricky part came next. Genda didn't want yet another reasonable plan vetoed by the Combined Fleet staff, particularly since it involved only aircraft, not the ship movements which fell into overlapping spheres of authority. As he put it to Kusaka,

"We launch anti-submarine patrols on our own authority all the time without asking permission. We could call this an anti-submarine patrol."

Kusaka actually laughed as he replied.

"Torpedoes aren't much use against surfaced submarines, much less submerged ones. I suppose you'll say that they have the secondary mission of sinking the enemy fleet if they can't find a submarine to attack."

Genda knew it was all right then. Whenever Kusaka made fun of a plan, it meant that he had accepted it.

It was now time to talk with Commander Murata. Murata had become a peculiar man with whom Genda didn't feel entirely comfortable. He realized now that, most often, he had talked with Sendai. Sendai had then, in turn, briefed Murata. He could now only hope that Sendai was out there somewhere bobbing along in the waves.

Back before the war, they had all been dashing young men, Genda a bit older than the others. They had flown for fun, played hard on the ground, and believed themselves to be immortal. Murata, even more than the others, had been a success with the ladies. Half a year of war had changed them greatly, and changed them in different ways.

Genda himself had become a naval intellectual, the man people looked to for ideas. Sendai had become the good- natured and genial leader, the one who always had a pat on the shoulder for the greenest pilot in his group.

Murata, by contrast, had turned inward, and had become less and less communicative. It was hard now to imagine him laughing with a car full of girls. He had, with each battle, become more intense and determined, a leader who led only in the air, but who there inspired awe on the part of his pilots. By this time, he seemed hardly to care what plan he was sent to execute. There were never any questions or comments, and never any suggested revisions. He only got that queer light in his eyes which, combined with his extremely emaciated aspect, made him look like a man risen from the grave.

The present plan was simple enough, and the mode of attack, if there had to be a daylight one, was left entirely to Murata. He gave no hint of his intentions in that eventuality. Genda had the impression that, as long as he got his chance to attack, he hardly cared whether there was a carrier to come back to. It was a little like talking with a firebug, except that this one was obsessed, not with flames, but with detonation. If he should, against all odds, survive the war, he would probably end up, at best, in charge of the Tokyo municipal fireworks. At worst, he might find joy in blowing up railway bridges under passenger trains.

Yamato, 1430.

There was a good deal of consternation when the Kaga turned slightly to starboard and began launching torpedo bombers. A message was blinkered across demanding an explanation. When the reply came back, there was a little grumbling, but even Ugaki seemed reasonably content, admitting that Murata's force was probably safer in the air.

It was, in fact, not very long before the next attack was spotted coming in, this time with more torpedo bombers. Hiroshi was standing next to Miwa. The latter was noticeably cooler to him since his rapprochement with Ugaki, but still deigned, as an airman, to point out to him some 30 low-flying Devastators which were approaching slowly from the east.

The combat air patrol of Zeroes and Aichis attempted to intercept, but, as far as Hiroshi could see, they were all shot down by an immense enemy fighter force before they even got close. Then came a report of dive bombers overhead. This was to be, at last, a coordinated attack. Also an unopposed one. The torpedo attack on the Kaga came from both bows. Since the Yamato was on her starboard bow, one of the enemy planes flew right over A turret, through an incredible barrage of fire. Hiroshi could actually see one of the guns tattoo the plane's tail, but it seemed to make no difference. Almost as soon as the bomber had cleared their deck, it launched its torpedo and banked sharply away.

The Kaga again turned to starboard, but, as she was heeled away, one of the torpeoes got her well forward. There was a tremendous explosion, and a whole anti-aircraft mount, with its crew, was pitched into the sea.

Hiroshi then felt the rail under his hand leap a few inches. Looking aft, he saw water landing on deck beyond the massive funnel. They had taken a second torpedo. It was very possibly one aimed at the Kaga, now only a few hundred meters distant. Returning his attention to the other ship, he was in time to see bombers come zooming over her deck from the other side, their torpedoes already launched. The anti- aircraft fire seemed to be having little or no effect.

Having already turned to starboard, the Kaga was practically broadside to the attack from port. There were two hits, the columns of water both coming from forward of amidships and collapsing on her empty flight deck.

The dive bombers had evidently been assigned to the Hiryu, which was about a kilometer in their wake. While there were many columns of water around her, Hiroshi wasn't sure that he saw any hits. After all, she had been smoking to begin with.

The attack ended quickly, and left the fleet without much evident damage. The Kaga was still there, steaming fast and belching smoke from her deformed funnels. The engines obviously hadn't been affected.

Miura, as assistant gunnery officer for the main battery, had nothing to do yet. He had therefore been standing beside Hiroshi throughout the attack. Pointing to the Kaga, he now said,

"They must have many flooded compartments, and I'm surprised they're steaming that fast. They may be trying to keep the bow up with speed while they seal off and pump."

It was obvious that Kaga wasn't steering a straight course, and Hiroshi remarked on it. Miura replied,

"They must have a lot of twisted metal under water."

Even as he spoke, the Kaga veered off to port, more sharply this time, and recovered only slowly from the resulting heel. When she finally got back on course, the bow was visibly lower, enough so that it was pushing up a big flat wave like a barge. Miura shook his head.

"She probably won't sink, but she won't be recovering or launching any aircraft."

Seeing Captain Kuroshima off to the side, Hiroshi went over to speak with him. The other, evidently not aware of Ugaki's conditional pardon, was seething. Unfortunately, his anger was mixed with elements of jubilation.

"You see, we're all going to be sunk. They should have listened to me."

Kuroshima went into a fit of violent laughter that caused the rest of the staff to stare at them. The looks weren't kindly, and Hiroshi slunk away. He then joined a circle around Captain Miwa, who had the latest information.

"The forward third of the Kaga is flooding. They hope to be able to maintain steerage way."

Someone asked,

"How's the Hiryu?"

"They took three more bomb hits, and they're fighting fires. They still hope to be able to rearm and refuel Murata. I doubt that they can."

"So that leaves it up to us. That last hit didn't do much damage did it?"

"Haven't you noticed the difference in vibaration? It sprang the starboard outboard propellor shaft very slightly. It still turns, but not at full speed. We're down to about 25 knots."

Hiroshi did a quick calculation and said,

"We'll still reach them before dawn. According to the prisoner, they've never even attempted a night attack in practice.

"You think they won't do anything further in the remaining six hours of daylight?"

Kaga, 1445

The buffeting had been worse than on the Akagi, but, providentially, there was no fire. With the forward end of the flight deck almost in the water, and the propellors almost lifted out of it, the ship had become virtually unnavigable. Ignominiously enough, they could only steam astern at a couple of knots speed, and, even then, had little control over direction. There was, ironically, little danger. The ship was now perfectly stable with all water- tight bulkheads holding, and the Americans were unlikely to bother with a carrier in that condition. At least for the moment.

After the battle the Americans might conceivably tow the kaga stern-first to Hawaii. There appeared momentarily to Genda an image of himself, Kusaka, and Nagumo, helpless captives, standing on the bridge as they were towed backwards past the wrecks of the American battleships at Pearl Harbor.

Kaga, 1500

The question now was whether the staff of the First Mobile Striking Force should transfer to another ship, and, if so, which one. The fleet was now drawing away and the Yukikaze was standing by. A decision would have to be made soon.

Genda, who now considered the situation nearly hopeless, would have liked to stay on the Kaga, but such a decision would be indefensible. Indeed, since she would now be more likely to end up in Hawaii than Japan, they should probably scuttle her.

The correct thing would be to go to Hiryu. She was still to be seen trailing smoke, but she carried the commander of the third carrier division, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, and he was never willing to give up. Genda gave his opinion to Kusaka.

"We should get to Hiryu as soon as we can and see if Yamaguchi is just indulging in bravado. If he has any chance at all of landing and launching Murata and his men, we ought to try it. They might even be able to operate from a burning carrier if the fire is contained. If it's hopeless, Murata should set out on his attack now."

Kusaka nodded and went to speak to Admiral Nagumo, who had been standing, almost motionless, ever since they had boarded the Kaga. He seemed to be in a state of shock. It occurred to Genda's rather ironic sense of humor to write a letter to the Journal of the Imperial Naval Institute. In it he would recommend a treatment for senior officers who, in the stress of action, found themselves unable to move: Find a burning carrier and transfer them aboard, by sling if necessary. If, when the flames reached them, they still didn't move, they could be listed as "unwilling to abandon their commands."

The transfer to the Yukikaze was quite easy. With almost no swell, she was able to put her main deck under the forward corner of Kaga's flight deck. Genda and most of the others went down a rope. Admiral Nagumo, shuffling along wordlessly, was lowered carefully. He was then taken to the destroyer captain's cabin. Genda, wondering how long it would be before they would have to abandon their third carrier, went up to the destroyer's bridge.

They were still a kilometer from the Hiryu when a strange thing happened. Everyone agreed afterward that it looked exactly like a flash of lightning, but striking upward in the wrong direction. It reminded Genda of a toy he had gotten his nephew. It was a crude wooden ship model with a round metal target on its side. The "torpedo" was actually a ball propelled by a spring device. If you hit the target, springs inside the ship went off, shooting the decks and funnels up in the air, and also splitting the hull in two. The boy had been fascinated by the toy, and Genda had reassembled the ship so many times, cursing the mousetrap- like springs, that his fingers had been sore for days. The only trouble was that the Hiryu didn't have springs. Or, for that matter, anything at all left above water.

Kusaka, standing beside him, looked rather sad, but not terribly surprised. He said only,

"I suppose we'd better go back to the Nagara."

Genda nodded and replied,

"Can the radio officer here get Murata? We have to tell him there's nothing to come back to. I don't want to order him to attack, but I'm sure he will."

"You'd better go see what you can do."

Yamato, 1530

Oddly enough, the armada looked more impressive than it had an hour before. Then, running at 27 knots, they had left behind all the battleships but the Yamato. The latter had experienced increasing difficulty with the sprung shaft, and, having lost another two knots, it was decided to wait for the other battleships. The Haruna, Kirisima, Mutu, and Nagato came up majestically, bones in their teeth, to form a line astern behind the Yamato. In addition, the six big cruisers, the best in the world, formed two lines on either side. The light cruiser Nagara was astern, with the staff of the First Mobile Striking Force embarked. In a circle around them were 14 destroyers, led by another light cruiser.

Admiral Ugaki looked quite satisfied with this display of force. It was a fleet of the last war, perfectly drawn up and headed for battle. There were now no carriers to complicate the picture. Admiral Yamamoto, sitting on his bench, looked quite glum, but also very determined. When told that a float plane had again contacted the American fleet, he replied,

"Send out at least two more now, and make sure that the ones that go out later have flares. We musn't lose them again."

A little later, there was more good news of a sort. Another float plane had found the Saratoga. She was now only some 250 kilometers distant. However, the Americans, in addition to their fighter carriers, now had two general-purpose carriers within range to handle most of three groups of bombers. The shuttle of attacks would obviousely continue.

The next attack, to no one's surprise, came in around 1600. The dive bombers attacked the other battleships and cruisers while the dozen torpedo bombers all came for the Yamato. The enemy had apparently decided that she was impervious to bombs.

It seemed to Hiroshi that the enemy pilots must be enjoying themselves. Having previously braved the fighters, they could now line up their targets and show off their skills. The torpedo pilots, in particular, were making classic attacks. Approaching in two rows, they separated and performed intricate manoevers, as if they were part of an aerial parade. Then, finally, they came.

This time there were five jolts of the kind Hiroshi was becoming used to. Five torpedo hits, let alone the earlier ones, would have sunk any other battleship in the world. Hiroshi was beginning to wonder even about this one, and went over to hear as the damage reports came in.

Two hits to port and three to starboard had flooded a number of compartments, mostly forward of the funnel. There was developing a slight list to port which could be corrected by counter-flooding. More importnat, one boiler room was flooding, and it was necessary to blow off steam before the water reached the boilers. Hiroshi could himself hear the escaping steam as it rushed up the funnel, making a noise like an express train. While still capable of bursts of speed, sustained speed was now estimated at nineteen knots, only five knots faster than the fleet they were pursuing.

The rest of the fleet had taken a number of bomb hits, but they had been too scattered to be decisive. A turret out on the cruiser Mikuma, a few fires that could be put out, and so on.

While it was impossible to guess what Admiral Yamamoto was thinking, most of the rest of the staff, led by Ugaki, hardly seemed worried. An exception was Captain Miwa who, in an obviously desperate attempt to find someone other than Kuroshima who agreed with him, approached Hiroshi.

"Tanaka, it may take twenty or more hits to put us under, but there's nothing to keep them from getting them. We're hardly faster than they are now. Another few hits and we'll be slower. This is crazy!"

Hiroshi, whose feelings about Miwa had always been mixed, rubbed a little salt into his wound by replying,

"Admiral Ugaki seems to think we can get through."

Miwa looked across the bridge at Ugaki and muttered,

"I can't understand it. He's always been the most cautious man alive, particularly where Admiral Yamamoto is concerned. Now, he's behaving in the most foolhardy way imaginable. We'll never make it until dark."

Hiroshi didn't say much, but the transformation of Admiral Ugaki puzzled him just as much. There was, he supposed, no way of predicting a man's actions when he comes into contact with the enemy.

Miwa, on the other hand, was trying to get a movement started, one that would advise Admiral Yamamoto to break off the action and go home. Miwa was right, of course. Air power really was proving its mastery over sea power. If Ugaki kept heading for the enemy, they would be picked off, one by one, until there was nothing left.

Under ordinary circumstances, Hiroshi would have joined Miwa's party as a charter member. But it seemed awfully late to start yet another palace intrigue in the staff. Hiroshi's main sensation now was tiredness. He wanted, above all, to go down to his cabin to take a nap. But, of course, he couldn't. He would have happily stretched himself out on the deck, but that was equally out of the question. Even the prospect of further action didn't rouse him. He knew he wouldn't be killed. The Yamato, after a dozen or so more of those little jolts, would slide very slowly under the water. He, Commander Tanaka, would step gracefully into one of the little rafts that were lashed all over the decks. He would then lie on the bottom, cover himself with the blanket so thoughtfully provided, and let the gentle action of the waves lull him to sleep.


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