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The Old Girl's New Tricks, Part VIII

Are there two prettier words in the English language than "The End?"

Chapter 36

As the two destroyers seemed to crawl through the waves towards the Arkansas and the remains of the Atago, Captain Blythe found himself wondering if he should have ordered the main guns fired on the cruiser anyway. As Tripp had noted, time was of the essence -- and a few rounds of 12" shells might have hastened the sinking of the hulk.

No, he'd made the right choice. His crews were exhausted, and the Arkansas was battered enough. No sense in shaking her up even more unless absolutely necessary. Only if the Bates' torpedoes proved insufficient would he order the guns fired.

He was still troubled by the lack of any sign of survivors on the wrecked cruiser. Even the Bismarck had had some survivors, and he'd been wrecked about as badly before being put down by torpedoes. But here, there was absolutely no sign of life -- not even of the men his lookouts had reported going over the side earlier, while the fight was still raging on.

Maybe they'd deliberately drowned themselves. Maybe they were all huddled on the cruiser's port side, away from the American ships. He'd heard some Japanese propaganda; the sailors were told that being captured was the ultimate dishonor, that they should be honored to die for their Emperor, and that Americans tortured and killed their prisoners.

He shrugged. If they were on the port side, he wasn't going to go looking for them; the cruiser's portside torpedoes were unaccounted for, and therefore presumed to still be loaded and ready. He wasn't taking any more chances. Plus, the Japanese pennant was still flying from her stern. If any men aboard or near the ship wanted to surrender, they could strike the colors or indicate their intent some other way. Otherwise, Blythe would carry out his duty and send the wreck to the bottom.

Commander Foster stepped out to the bridge wing alongside his captain. "Sir, Captain Aspin says he intends to pass 500 yards down our starboard side, the Bates in tow. Once abeam of the Atago, Captain Cohen will fire his five remaining torpedoes at point-blank range."

Blythe nodded. "If she isn't sinking by the time the destroyers are clear, we'll open fire. Have Mr. Rose make certain the guns are aimed close to the waterline -- I'm not interested in making more of a mess of that ship than is necessary, I just want her sunk."

"Aye-aye, sir." He turned to go back inside.

"Oh, and Mr. Foster?" Foster stopped and turned back. "Check with Mr. Tripp and see how damage control is doing."

"Got it."

Blythe turned back towards the wreck. The fires were fading aboard the enemy ship. He suspected they were running out of fuel, not that they were being fought by any hands. He wanted to turn away from this evidence of his handiwork. He knew that, in one sense, he should take some pride in doing his duty, and doing it so effectively and efficiently. But on this day, at his direct order, many men had died.

He tried to avoid doing the math, but couldn't stop himself. Call it 3,000 on the four cruisers. Another 800 or so on the four destroyers. Who knew how many on the merchant ships. And several hundred Americans, the majority from the sunken Fleming. Call it 5,000 men.

Five thousand sons who'd never go home again. And some of them might still be alive right now, huddled on or beside the battered cruiser he was about to send to the bottom. They were as dead as the others, they just hadn't realized it.

It wasn't too late. He could still order the Bates to hold her fire, to simply move on and leave the Atago to her fate, along with her hypothetical survivors. The battle was won, the ship was a complete loss.

Blythe made his decision. He strode through the bridge and went directly to the radio shack. "Get me Captain Aspin on the Bates."

"Aye-aye, sir." The radioman quickly made the arrangements, then handed the microphone to the captain.

"Captain Aspin? This is Captain Blythe. Do you read me?"

"Yes, sir. Loud and clear."

"You are to fire when ready. Put that ship on the bottom, Captain."

"Aye-aye, sir."


Chapter 37


The Hamm was just pulling even with the Arkansas when the word was passed -- the Bates had fired her torpedoes. Instead of waiting for a dead-on broadside at such short range, Captain Aspin had chosen to use a slightly oblique angle to better spread the torpedoes along the Atago's hull. Captain Blythe found himself looking over and around the destroyers as the fish sped their way to deliver the coup de grace on the Japanese wreck.

A column of water erupted against the Japanese hull, just ahead of the fourth turret. A moment later, another struck just forward of amidships. Blythe waited, but there were no more.

"Mr. Tripp, note that for the log. I don't see how they could have missed at that range, but a full 60% of the torpedoes apparently failed. There seems to be something wrong with our bloody torps today."

"Aye-aye, sir." Tripp would definitely bring up the failure with Admiral Halsey. This was as close to a perfect test for the torpedoes, and the failure was downright unexplainable -- and inexcusable.

Blythe studied the wreck as the destroyers passed out of the way. She was definitely settling in the water, and appeared to be starting to list strongly to her starboard. He still found it challenging to recognize the scale of the ship -- although the Arkansas seriously outweighed and outclassed the Atago, the Japanese ship was still almost a hundred feet longer. He smiled to himself. Tough things also sometimes came in small packages.

It was almost guaranteed that the Japanese cruiser was going down, but Blythe didn't feel like taking any chances. "Mr. Rose, I presume all main guns are loaded and ready?"

"Ten guns report green, sir."

"I pronounce the battle over. We should unload the guns as soon as possible, to avoid any potential accidents or incidents."

"Agreed, sir."

"And the approved method of unloading guns is to fire them, I believe?"

Rose allowed himself to smile slightly. "Yes sir."

"And are they still trained on the
Atago?"

Rose's smile grew wider. "Yes, sir."

"Then proceed with gun unloading, Mr. Rose."

"Aye-aye, sir!" He stepped to the handset. "All hands, prepare for main battery fire. All main guns, fire on my command."

The word was given, and the Arkansas shook as she fired the final shots of what would later be known as the Battle Of Santa Isabel.

There was a massive burst of water alongside the Atago as the ten shells all hit around the waterline. Some fell short and struck below the waterline, some went high and blasted through the thin armor belt. The effect was to essentially open up the entire side of the cruiser, and she started to roll to starboard as tons and tons of seawater poured in. For a brief moment, she lay on her side on the ocean, then slowly continued to roll as she sunk beneath the waves.

Captain Blythe forced himself to watch as the cruiser finally died. "Mr. Rose, secure all main mounts. Then let's get the hell out of here. Set course 270 degrees, speed twelve knots. Hold that course until dawn, then we'll start swinging back towards Noumea. Mr. Tripp, I believe we ought to get you back to your regular duties."

He paused for a moment, then issued one final order. "Mr. Foster, send a message to Admiral Halsey. 'Mission accomplished.'"

As the old girl shuddered ahead, Captain Blythe kept watching the sinking cruiser. She barely visible in the twilight as the sun set over Santa Isabel Island.

For a brief moment, the massive bronze screws sparkled in the setting sun. They gleamed brightly, then slipped beneath the waves.


Epilogue


It took almost two days for the Arkansas and her two surviving destroyers to return to Noumea. They'd had time for a more complete report, and it was received with a curt acknowledgement. But when they limped into the harbor almost 48 hours exactly after the first shots were fired, they were given a heroes' welcome. And all noted the broom tied to the top of her mast.

In the two days of sailing, a full accounting was made of the American casualties. 167 confirmed dead, 140 wounded, and 321 "missing" but presumed dead -- the lion's share assumed to have gone down with the Fleming. And the Japanese estimates were guessed to be around 4,000 to 5,000.

Repair crews spent a week patching up the Arkansas.They had limited time and resources, so they focused on the critical areas -- the holes and the shattered gun in Turret Two. The tensest moments were when an immense crane lifted the roof off the turret, then carried off the gun. It gently lowered it into the water above the deepest part of the harbor, then released it.

By a happy surprise, tucked away with the spare barrel liners aboard the Diamond Huckster were two complete guns, scavenged from the Wyoming when she had been partially disarmed in her conversion to a training ship. They didn't have the time or expertise to fully install it, but they did put it in place before replacing the roof.

At twelve knots, it took them two weeks to make it back. Once in Pearl, the Bates was taken immediately into one of the smaller drydocks for repair. There was an urgent need for destroyers on the front lines.

On the other hand, the demand for 30-year-old battleships was considerably less. The Arkansas spent almost three weeks moored in a corner of one of Pearl's lochs until they found time to get her into a drydock. Most of her crew found they didn't object to the prolonged shore leave.

When she finally went in, it turned out that some bright young engineers had figured out a way to not only hasten her return to the West Coast, but speed her up as well. Instead of trying to patch the huge holes in the bulges from the Japanese torpedoes (the guys at Noumea had done a passable job, but they barely held well enough to make it to Pearl, and in the process weakened the surviving portions of the bulges they'd attached to), they simply cut off the entire bulges and returned the old girl to her original, somewhat less Reubenesque beam. In three weeks, she was back in the water and on her way home.

Once in the water, she made a brisk 20 knots (the fastest she'd traveled in almost 20 years) all the way to San Francisco. At Mare Island, assessments were made, and harsh truths were faced: there really was no great need to return the Arkansas to fighting trim. She was patched up cosmetically, but the only damaged area returned to full service was the bakery. The official plans were to only align and loosely fasten down the replacement gun; it took the threat of a near-mutiny by the Arkansas' officers and men to have it properly installed. Even so, the inspectors refused to sign off and certify it fully fit for use.

Instead, she became the west coast's training ship, as well as a local symbol of pride and patriotism and triumph. And after the war, despite protests and attempts to save her, she served her nation one last time -- as a target ship for nuclear testing.

Her crew fared considerably better. Blythe won his fight and got a posthumous Navy Cross for Master Chief Robert Carbone, but at a price -- he was forced to accept one for himself, along with a promotion and a series of tours selling War Bonds. At the conclusion, he was assigned back to the East Coast, where he was put in charge of planning convoy security measures.

Commanders Foster and Rose each collected Silver Stars, and went on to their own commands of cruisers. After the war, Foster retired as a Captain and took to writing novels. Rose was the captain of the USS Birmingham when she was escorting the Independence-class light carrier Princeton. He took his ship right alongside the carrier when she was dying from a Japanese bomb to help try to save the carrier, or at least as many of her crew as he could. And when the Princeton exploded and raked the Birmingham with shrapnel, Rose was one of the 233 men killed.

Lt. Tripp was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in the battle, and returned to the staff of Admiral Halsey. He lobbied repeatedly for assignment to a warship, but Halsey saw value in having a decorated combat veteran on his staff -- someone who had seen combat firsthand, and knew what it was like "on the pointed end of the spear." Tripp was a constant voice -- and living reminder -- of what the reports and map symbols and little models represented in human lives. After the war, he retired as a full captain and took over the family car dealership -- where veterans were assured of the best deal, and the best service.

Commander O'Leary, who was also given a Bronze Star, was offered a transfer to one of the new battleships, but refused. He'd spent too many years on the Arkansas, and insisted that no one could properly tend her engines except him and those he trained and supervised. The day the orders came down that she was to be sunk an atom bomb, he wept and then went out and got stinking drunk. He was arrested for assaulting an Army Air Force bomber pilot, but charges were dropped. He eventually ended up in Annapolis, teaching future engineers how to run their own engine rooms.

Within the Navy, some of the old "Gun Club" tried to use the fight as an argument for more battleships and other big-gun vessels. But more rational heads prevailed -- they pointed out that the circumstances that led to the battle was utterly unique and wildly improbable, and unlikely to ever happen again. Had there been an aircraft carrier nearby, instead of an obsolete battleship, the fight would likely have ended just as decisively, with fewer American casualties. Ironically, in the end the Arkansas' victory was used as an argument against more battleships, and not for them.

And in Arkansas, November 17 was legally proclaimed "Battle of Santa Isabel Day" and made a state holiday. Within a decade, though, it lost most of its meaning to the people of Arkansas, subsumed in the rush to get things ready for Thanksgiving. By 1960, it was just another day to most folks, except the occasional politician or overly-earnest high school student who needed a subject for an essay or speech for extra credit.

But in the Navy, the tale of the Arkansas and her valiant crew, who took on four Japanese heavy cruisers and won, lived on. Any sailor who could say "I was off Santa Isabel that day" never had to say any more, and never had to pay for his first drink -- especially if there was a Marine present who'd been on Guadalcanal.


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Comments (8)

SEQUEL! SEQUEL!... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

SEQUEL! SEQUEL!

Excellent story... (Below threshold)
Peter:

Excellent story

Um... DJ... thanks, but wha... (Below threshold)

Um... DJ... thanks, but what the hell do I do for a sequel? I kinda tied up all the loose threads in the epilogue, and a "prequel" would be pretty damned boring...

J.

Jay, what? US Navy run out... (Below threshold)
DJ Drummond:

Jay, what? US Navy run out of ships in WW2?

"Sequel" usually means same... (Below threshold)

"Sequel" usually means same characters, DJ... but I dunno if/when the bug will strike me again. I got two stories out of the Flyswatter, one from the Old Girl... who the hell knows?

J.

Bravo Zulu.... (Below threshold)
Jdgjtr:

Bravo Zulu.

Link to the entire piece?</... (Below threshold)
Rick:

Link to the entire piece?

Rick

Hi JT,I finally fo... (Below threshold)
PBunyan:

Hi JT,

I finally found some round tuits and finished reading your story yesterday and I thought it was great! I laughed, I cried, yada yada... Thanks for writing it and publishing it here for free! (I've paid for books I that were far, far worse.)

The only thing I didn't care for was that the main character was William Bylthe from Hope, Arkansas, but the story was interesting enough to made up for that bizarre choice of yours.




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