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The Old Girl's New Tricks, Part III

Things start getting tenser... but we're still not even halfway through the story.

Chapter 11


Blythe burst on to the bridge, Foster at his heels. "Report, Mr. Rose!"


Rose spun around. "Sir, one of the merchies reported a periscope off the starboard bow. As per your standing orders, the destroyers are rushing to attack, the Manchester's leading the merchies to the south, and we're continuing on our present course, but increasing speed to 15 knots."


Blythe had worked it out well in advance. The Manchester was useless against subs, so she would lead the merchants away from the sighting -- ready to confront any other raiders that might use the sub attack as a diversion. The destroyers would go after the sub, hoping to sink it -- or, at least, drive it off or keep it down long enough for the merchants to escape. And the Arkansas herself would present herself as a very tempting target for the subs, as a Japanese sub driver who passed up a battleship for a civilian ship would almost guarantee himself a mutiny.


"Excellent. I have the conn." Blythe took his seat, and Rose -- relieved in several senses of the word -- stepped off to the side. Blythe then closed his eyes. Years ago, he'd discovered that he could construct a far more accurate plotting board in his mind than his crew could keep. Sometimes, when some war games had gotten most intense, he'd even blindfolded himself to keep his own chart intact. That had troubled some of his staff, but they learned that the less he saw with his eyes, the keener his vision was.


"Mr. Rose, double the lookouts on the port side, have them all look for periscopes or torpedo tracks. Engine room, give me turns for 18 knots -- I want to keep just a little in reserve. Helm, come port ten degrees -- I want to give them just a little more of a target. Report when all starboard secondary mounts are ready. Any word from the Manchester?"

"Yes, sir. All clear to the south."

"At least we got that going for us. Now, the destroyers - anything?"

"They report nothing as yet, but they're still looking."

Long minutes passed. Blythe ordered a slow starboard turn, sweeping the
Arkansas around back towards the scene of the sighting. The merchants poured on the power, getting to their maximum speed -- which the Manchester tried to not find too boring. And the destroyers churned big holes in the ocean, looking for the elusive sub.


Finally, word came in. "Sir, it's the Bates. They report a pod of whales in the target area. Her captain thinks the merchie spotted one of them breaching and spouting, and took that for a sub."


Blythe sighed. It was half a sigh of frustration, half of relief. "Well, at least it was a good exercise. Secure from general quarters, and pass the word to the rest of the ships. Resume prior speed and heading, and have the convoy reform in the previous formation on us." The crew visibly relaxed, and began the long, tedious process of reforming their convoy.


Just then, a seaman stepped on to the bridge. Sweat beaded his brow. "Begging the captain's pardon, sir..."

Blythe turned to the man -- hell, more boy than man -- and fixed him with a gaze that Blythe had spent years developing. It was one that convinced its subject that Blythe was staring right into his soul -- and was mostly bored, but slightly annoyed, at what he found. Blythe found it far more disorienting than any signs of rage or even cold, almost reptilian menace. "Speak, Seaman." By neither stating or asking for the sailor's name, Blythe continued the facade of indifferent irritation.


"His Majesty... er..." he pulled a sheet of paper out of his pocket and read it, almost hiding behind it before the captain. "His Watery Majesty has ordered me to inform you he intends to resume the ceremonies with the first group of Dateline pollywogs, and would appreciate your best efforts to avoid any more disruptions of these sacred rites." Only then did he look up, almost cringing in anticipation of Blythe's response.


Blythe held the sailor's gaze for a very long moment, not letting a hint of emotion -- or any other kind of response -- show. He didn't even blink. (Another skill Blythe had spent years developing. He went for any kind of an edge he could find.) Then, after the sailor quailed and looked away, he spoke.

"You may extend to his Watery Majesty our sincerest apologies for any inconvenience we may have caused him and his court, but we had to fulfill our obligation to keep him from the far greater inconvenience and insult that would come from having our ship sunk out from under him. We will redouble our efforts to keep any further incidents from inconveniencing him and interrupting the initiations, but we are, after all, only mortals."


Color slowly creeped back into the seaman's face. Caught in a potential struggle between two authority figures, he had resigned himself to being subjected to the wrath of at least one -- if not both. But it seems that he'd somehow sailed safeway between Sea God Scylla and Captain Charydis unharmed. Snapping off a hasty salute, he fled the bridge.

Blythe stood stock still for a long moment, then finally spoke. "Gentlemen, go ahead and indulge yourselves at Seaman Kelly's expense -- but briefly."

Laughter rocked the bridge -- largely fueled by the false alarm of the submarine scare, but still most sincere. They knew their captain, and they knew there was a part of him that genuinely enjoyed these chances to briefly torment the youngest of the crew -- before letting them off the hook.


"OK, that's enough. Navigator, how long until we reach Noumea?"


"I'd say four days, sir -- presuming no major problems reassembling the convoy, and no more incidents."

"Excellent. Mr. Rose, you have the con again. Mr. Foster, resume your previous station and duties. I'll be in my cabin."


He started to leave, then paused. "Oh, and pass the word to the ship, and the whole convoy. Tell them well done -- even if the threat wasn't real, their response was most satisfactory."


As he left, he muttered to himself. "At least this time, none of the merchants charged right at the enemy..."


Chapter 12


"...and drop anchor." Captain Blythe finally relaxed; his ship was safe, in harbor, after a rather tense trip through the South Pacific. "Give me all hands."

"Attention all hands, this is the captain. Welcome to Noumea. As this isn't a a regular base but a staging area for a major campaign, I do not know about the possibilities of shore leave. I will be going ashore to report to Admiral Halsey's staff, and that will be one of my first questions, but we're well into a war zone here, and we can't forget it. In the meantime, there will be plenty of work to do. All department heads report to the ward room in 20 minutes."


Blythe put down the microphone. "I figure the meeting shouldn't take more than ten minutes, so have my gig ready in half an hour." With that, he headed for the ward room to start working on his notes.


* * * * *

Blythe was just finishing his assignments when his department heads started filing in. He waved them to their seats while he finalized his notes. When the last officer sat down, he looked up.

"Gentlemen, I meant what I said. This is a war zone, we could be attacked at any time, and as a battleship we will be a prime target -- remember Pearl Harbor. I want at least minimal combat readiness at all times -- that means securing all watertight doors unless absolutely necessary, lookouts and anti-aircraft weapons manned, and at least two boilers online at all times. And anything else you can think of that will keep us safe -- run any ideas you have past the exec."

They all nodded. Blythe continued. "And I have some specific instructions for some of you. Engineering -- check with the harbormaster and see if we can top off our fuel tanks. We have enough to get back to Pearl, but not with enough of a margin for me -- and I think we all have our doubts if we're heading backwards -- we haven't so far, so why start now?" There were a few wry chuckles. "Guns, call the
Diamond Huckster alongside and top off our magazines. We fired off a few shells in those training exercises, and this seems as good a time as any to get aboard all the ammo we can." Another nod. "Exec, get with the quartermaster and see what we can use for food and other supplies. Again, we've got a good-sized port facility here; might as well make the most of it." More nods. "Doc, same to you. I want sick bay stuffed with anything you think we might even remotely need. We're closer now to the front lines than we have ever been, and I don't want to run out of anything if at all possible."


Blythe then paused and looked each officer in the eye, fixing them with his intensity -- he wanted there to be no misunderstandings about how seriously he considered their situation. "Again, if you have any other ideas you can do to make us as combat ready as possible, feel free to indulge yourself -- and if you are uncomfortable with that kind of freedom, run it past the exec. Anything else?"

With the murmured denials, Blythe then stood. "Then get back to your departments, and spread the word -- there will be no relaxing until further notice. I'm going ashore now, but I'll be back as soon as I can."


Chapter 13


Captain Blythe, his cap tucked securely under his arm, strode into Admiral Halsey's offices -- and stopped cold. He was expecting one of Halsey's aides, but the old man himself was standing there, a big grin splitting his craggy face and arm outstretched. "Will! Good to see you again!"


It took only a second for Blythe to get over his surprise. "Good to see you again, sir. I wasn't certain you'd remember me."

Halsey shook his hand rigorously, then gestured to a chair. "Forget one of the most promising officers ever to serve under me? Especially one with a name I gave to him myself? Never! Congratulations on your own ship -- a battleship, even one as much of an antique as the Arkansas, is quite an achievement."

Blythe recalled their service. Upon their first introduction, Halsey had informed him that there was only one Bill on his staff, and since it was Halsey's staff, he was keeping the nickname. Blythe would have his choice of "Will" or "Billy Jeff" or "Little Bill." He'd taken "Will" as the least of the three evils. "Don't underestimate the Arky, sir. Yes, she's old, and she's slow, and she doesn't have the punch of newer battlewagons, and she's not as well armored as they are, but... " he paused. "Where was I going with that?"


Halsey laughed and poured two drinks. "You can't fool me, Will. You're damned proud of your ship and your crew -- and well you ought to be. When I heard you were coming here, I did a little reading up -- and you and your boys have done some damned fine work. Especially that little training exercise on the way to Pearl -- you made me damned proud to say you'd once been one of my boys."

Blythe was a touch embarrassed at the effusive praise. "It just seemed like a good idea at the time."


"Damned right it was. Anyway, welcome to Noumea. It ain't much, but it's what we got -- and we ain't gonna let the Japs take it from us. I bet you're just brimming with questions, so let's hear 'em."

Blythe found himself relaxing. He'd forgotten what it was like to deal with Halsey -- when he was in a good mood, and you hadn't screwed something up. "First up, sir, we'd all like to know what's next for us. We've come halfway around the world, one stop at a time, and each time we stop we get shoved further along the way. Half my crew's betting we'll go through the Suez into the Med, and the other half has us going around Africa -- but ending up back in England for more convoy duty."


"That's a fair question, and here's your fair answer -- I don't know. I asked Pearl to let me keep you here for at least a week or two, in case something comes up, and they agreed. So you're temporarily attached to my command for that long. At this point, I don't have any plans for you, but I like having you in my back pocket."

Blythe considered that. From what he had heard about the Solomons campaign, he couldn't blame Halsey for wanting to keep any warship -- even the Arky -- around for as long as he could. She might not be up for a toe-to-toe fight in the Slot, but she could guard the port pretty much better than anyone, and she could also guard the transports running men and materiel up to Guadalcanal, and evacuating the wounded. It wasn't exactly what he wanted, but it was certainly fair.

"Fine, sir. Proud to be under your flag again. Next up, how are the rec facilities here? I got a shipful of men itching for some South Pacific fun and games."

"Not too bad. Run it past my staff, but I don't think that putting your men ashore one-quarter at a time will cause too many problems."

Blythe considered bringing up his orders to his department heads, but decided against it. He'd told them to take care of it; any attempts to "grease the skids" for them could be taken as a sign that they lacked his confidence. If they had any problems, they'd take it to Foster or bring it to Blythe directly. "That should do it, sir. Now, can I ask you about the situation here?"

Halsey leaned back and grimaced. "The situation, Will, in a word, stinks. We're throwing everything we have into taking and holding Guadalcanal, and the Japs are fighting back with everything they have. Both sides have lost so many ships in there that some people are calling the area between Guadalcanal and Savo Island 'Iron Bottom Sound.' We even lost two Admirals just last night -- Callaghan and Scott. Fine men." He sighed.

Blythe was stunned. He'd known it was bad, but he hadn't known how bad. The thought of two admirals dying in a single battle was virtually unthinkable. (Pearl Harbor didn't count.) "Sir, if there's anything the Arkansas can do..."

Halsey waved him off. "No offense, son, but no. Tonight I'm sending in the
Washington and the South Dakota. And if they get worked over like last night's force, you might be taking me back to Pearl. And to be perfectly blunt, son, you'd only slow them down and put them at greater risk."

Blythe found himself biting back a rebuttal, but had to admit to himself that Halsey was right. From what he'd heard, the new fast battleships could get close to 30 knots, while the Arky had to struggle to hit 19. "...Understood, sir."


"But I still think you can do some good down here. That's why I'm keeping you around, instead of sending you back to Pearl... or," he winked, "sending you on to Australia. It's just a matter of finding out where you can do the most good."


"Thank you, sir. Is there anything else?"

"Dismissed, Will. Now get back to your ship and get her ready for anything."


Chapter 14

It was bright and early when Captain Blythe was summoned back to Admiral Halsey's office. Apparently the "anything" Blythe was supposed to get ready for had come.


Halsey seemed grim. "Morning, Will. Glad you could make it so quickly."

"At your disposal, as always, sir. May I ask what this is about?"

Halsey reached for a bottle, paused for a moment, then took it anyway. But he only put a splash of whiskey in each. "Hell of a night off Guadalcanal, Will. The
Washington and the South Dakota led the Manchester and some cans up around Savo Island to intercept the Jap's nightly bombardment force. Our 'wagons tore a big-sized hunk out of one of their Kongos, but the South Dakota got pretty worked over. We also lost two of the cans, and the other two still might go down." He paused. "And we lost your old friend, the Manchester."

Blythe sat back, stunned. "I barely knew the men, but Captain Stark seemed like a good officer. Were there survivors?"

Halsey looked puzzled for a moment, then realized Blythe hadn't heard. "Stark's here, in the hospital. He came down with appendicitis.
Manchester was under the command of one of my staff, Joe Tormolen last night."

Blythe knew how much Halsey cared for his men. "I'm sorry, sir. I hope he's all right."

Halsey nodded his acknowledgment, then moved on. "But that's not why you're here, Will. I have an assignment for you."

"The
Arkansas is at your disposal, sir. What can we do?"

"Last night we gave the Japs a bloody nose. We took our hits, too, but I still think we can seize the opportunity to capitalize on events. I've got a harbor full of reinforcements and equipment for the Marines on Guadalcanal, and it could be just enough to take the island. I want you and your cans to make sure they get there safely."

"You can count on us, sir."

"I know, Will. And once they've started unloading, I have a special task for you. The Marines report the Japs have some hardened positions on the north end of the island, and I think the
Arkansas is just the lady to bust them wide open. Have you had much experience or training with shore bombardment?"

"Experience? No. Not much call for it in the Atlantic. But practice? Plenty. Last time we cruised by Vieques, we made a whole bunch of toothpicks."

"Well, you're going to get a chance to put that to the test. I'd like you to weigh anchor at 0400 tomorrow."

Blythe was surprised at the early hour. "Why then, sir?"

"Thanks to our taking Henderson Field, we have air superiority over and around Guadalcanal. Superiority, but not supremacy -- the Japs still get through far too often. But it's only during the daylight hours. We can't fly at night. So we tend to send in our ships during the day, when we can give them fighter cover, and the Japs send theirs in at night, when we can't hit them." Just then his phone rang. "One minute, Will. I told them not to interrupt me unless it was critical." He took the call.

"Halsey. What? Are you sure? Well, damn! Pass on my congratulations to Willis Lee!" Halsey hung up. "Our recon boys just confirmed we sank that Kongo last night. That's two of the big bastards we've put down in three days. Yamamoto must be furious."

Blythe found himself smiling too. "I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed. I wouldn't mind seeing how my old gal could do against a
Kongo."

Halsey got serious again. "Be careful what you wish for, Will. I think that would be a pretty even match. I don't think either ship could stand up to the other's guns. And while you've got more guns, they're faster. No, in cases like this I don't believe in giving the other guy a fair fight -- last night I sent in two modern fast battleships against a souped-up old battlecruiser. On paper, it should have been a slaughter, but the South Dakota still took a hell of a pounding."

Blythe quickly assented. "You're right, sir. No sense borrowing trouble, especially since we aren't even the most important part of this trip -- the ships carrying the men and weapons are. We'll get them there safely, sir -- you can count on us."

Halsey stood, picked up the bottle again, and reluctantly put it away. A small shot was one thing, but this long before noon? Any more would be totally unacceptable. "I know I can, Will. If there is any man I can count on to keep the Marines on that island first and foremost in mind, it's you. Now go get your ship and crew ready."

Chapter 15

The mission was not going well for the Arkansas. Traveling halfway around the world without serious dock time had finally caught up with her. Something had gone terribly wrong in the radar shack, and she was back to using plain old optics and relying on her destroyers. A gunner's mate had tripped going down a ladder, and broken his leg in three places. There had been a fire alarm (false, thank heavens) in the forward magazine. And quite possibly the most critical one, the gedunk machine was down and there was no ice cream.

Fortunately, the dangers had all been internal. Lookouts had spotted several aircraft, but they had all been friendly -- the Americans truly did own the daylight skies around Guadalcanal. His lookouts had recognized Catalinas, Dauntlesses, and Wildcats making certain the Japs didn't sneak through. Likewise, there had been not even a hint of a submarine sighting, friendly or hostile.

Captain Blythe forced back a snort. Despite the use he'd put the Goldfish to earlier, he still didn't recognize the idea of a "friendly" sub.

Regardless, the escort trip was winding down. They were about 90 minutes out from the beaches of Guadalcanal, and while his charges unloaded, the Arkansas would be doing some unloading of her own -- 740-lb. packages, a dozen at a time. He'd spent a good chunk of the trip up from Noumea going over charts of Guadalcanal, figuring out where the Japs were and what strong points would best be served by a few dozen or so broadsides of the brand-new high-explosive rounds they'd taken on from the Diamond Huckster.

This would be the first time the Arkansas would fire her guns in anger. And Captain Blythe was more than ready for the challenge -- especially against a foe that wouldn't shoot back. He shared Halsey's philosophy -- in war, there was never a call for a "fair fight."

Just then, as if summoned by the thought of Halsey, the radio man came to the bridge. "Sir! Flash traffic from Admiral Halsey!" He handed the freshly-decoded message to the captain.

FROM: HALSEY, ADM. W. CINC SOPAC

TO: BLYTHE, CPT, USS ARKANSAS

PRIORITY: HIGHEST

CANCEL 2ND PART OF PLAN STOP COURIER ON WAY WITH NEW ORDERS STOP PICK UP AT DESTINATION STOP MOST CRITICAL XX

"Send our acknowledgement back immediately." Blythe handed the note to his exec. "Your thoughts, Mr. Foster?"

Foster read it over, three times, frowning more each time. "It's pretty vaguely worded, but the meaning's pretty clear. The bombardment's off; instead, we'll be getting new orders hand-delivered to us. And they're important."

Blythe nodded. "Anything else?"

Foster was used to these little tests, so he read it a fourth time. "No, sir. That's all it says."

Blythe took back the note and turned to Mr. Rose. "You want to take a stab at it?"

Suddenly on the spot, the Lt. Commander was briefly flustered, then took the paper. He, too, read it carefully, then spoke. "Mr. Foster is correct -- that is all that the message says. But..."

"But what, Mr. Rose?"

Rose continued, most hesitantly. "This came through encrypted, but even still it's very vague and cryptic. I mean, it's meaning is clear to us, but to anyone else, they'd have to have more information to make any use out of it. They'd have to know what our destination is, and what our orders are, to know what's going on."

"Very good, Mr. Rose. And what does that tell you?"

Rose was more confident now. "That either Admiral Halsey believes our codes are compromised, or the orders we'll be getting are so sensitive, he wants to take no chances."

"Even better, Mr. Rose. But there are two more possibilities we should consider. First, that both of those could be true. And finally, the 'courier' we're receiving is a very, very important person whose presence should be kept very quiet."

Rose swallowed. "And would 'very, very important person' be a good description of Admiral Halsey himself?"


"It would indeed, Mr. Rose. Or General MacArthur. Or any of several other very high-ranking officers I could think of. Or the courier could be a nobody, just whoever Admiral Halsey had on hand. But there's only one thing we can do at this point, based on the information we have."

Foster chimed in, chagrined at missing the points Rose picked up and needing to redeem himself. "What's that, sir?"

Blythe carefully folded up the message and tucked it in his pocket. "This courier's new orders are, as Admiral Halsey said, 'most critical.' That implies that we won't be sticking around to send him back, and he'll probably be coming along with us. So prepare the Admiral's cabin for our guest -- whoever he might be."


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Comments (2)

Is there going to be an ope... (Below threshold)
LeBron Steinman:

Is there going to be an open book test?

Mr. Tea,I'm follow... (Below threshold)
Brucepall:

Mr. Tea,

I'm following along and gotta say your characters are filling out nicely. So a mea culpa, as I take back my first comment yesterday about your story reading like a script more than a novel.

Having served on a warship from that era (CV-41, which was launched in 1945), I have to remark about her that she was built as a warship designed to go into harms way. Construction priorities in those days were fire power, speed, armor, range, survivability, ammo storage, fuel storage... and I don't think habitability was even on the list, and if it was even considered, it was on the bottom. That ship, CV-41 was built like an armored watch, with redundant systems and (very expensive) brass fittings throughout; she also had more water tight doors than any other naval combatant I have ever served on regardless of tonnage (bar none).

Unlike modern naval combatants (with their modular construction), the USS Midway, was designed from the outset to absorb multiple hits and keep on fighting. Modern combatants, even though their fire suppression systems are comparatively superior (as are their life boat systems BTW), they have no real capacity to absorb battle damage. And if one serves on them, and pays attention, one can recognize that fact. The internal decks, for example, are all covered with laminate tiles and the bulkheads are all painted... and its all flammable, if it the compartments get hot enough (and you don't get more than one shot of halon in the critical ones). Perhaps its been to long since our country has lost a naval combatant at war... and we forget the lessons of yore, or maybe its that new risk assessment thing that the none-warrior,college educated, analyst-geniuses came up with (kinda like buying cloth sided Humvee vehicles for the Army and Marines before the second Gulf War).

Anyways, back in the days of WWII, where the reality of combat really got the US Navy's undivided attention, all internal compartments and passageways were stripped to the bare metal, and anything that was not combat essential or flammable was removed and discarded - least it burn... and I mean anything... rust not being a warship's concern of the time.

So, if you ever decided to massage your story and give it another edition... adding the good Captain's order to his crew to strip his BB (and the other ships in his task force or charge) down to the bare metal internally as they approached the danger zone might be a nice historical touch. I'm sure you could find the brevity of words necessary to convey the seriousness of the event better than I.

I'm enjoying your story - steady as she goes.

Semper Fidelis-
Brucepall





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