The Old Girl's New Tricks, Part V

More things fall down, go boom.

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Chapter 21

“Damage
report!” Blythe barked. “Where did they hit us?”

Foster quickly
answered. “One in the bow, sir. Looks like right on the deck. My
guess is, no damage below the waterline.”

“Probably the
anchor chain locker. No big problem right now. What about the rest?”

Foster paused.
“Another on the belt, no real harm. Final one… oh,
no.”

Blythe gripped the arms of his seat. “Out with
it, Foster.”

“One of the 5-inch guns. Number 1,
forward portside. We’ve got casualties, and the mount is down.
Probably destroyed.”

Blythe
pushed the casualties out of his mind for now. There would be time
for mourning later. And, in the big picture, the loss of that mount
wouldn’t be a major issue — the
Arkansas
was turning her starboard side to the enemy, so the mount would have
been obscured anyway. “Any fires?”

“No, sir. Not
at the moment.”

“OK.
We’re still in fighting trim.” He felt the
Arkansas
heel to port as the screws and rudders bit into the waters, swinging
the ship as quickly and sharply — but still too slow for his taste
— to starboard. “Order turrets 1 through 4 to cease fire and
begin rotating to maximum starboard train. Turrets 5 and 6, continue
firing on Baker. As soon as they are unmasked, they are to resume
firing on Baker.”

The next roar of
the main guns was considerably softer, as the only guns firing were
the two aftmost. And Foster saw the splashes of the next round of
Japanese shells all fall short, to port — the turn had caught them
by surprise.

Just
then the
Arkansas
shuddered from a fresh hit — but this one felt different than the
earlier hits. The shuddering was stronger, but the sound muffled.

Blythe forced his
voice to remain calm. “Gentlemen, unless I’m mistaken, we just
took a torpedo. Details?”

Foster quickly got
his report. “Amidships, port side, around Frame 260. Moderate
leaks.”

Blythe
let out a sigh of relief. He knew he’d been cutting it close on
ordering the course reversal, but it turned out he’d been just a
little bit too late. Fortunately, thanks to the
Arkansas
turning so sharply, she’d heeled considerably to port — driving the
armored belt deeper into the water. Between the belt and the bulges
she’d been fitted with back in the 1920’s, they held off most of the
explosive force from the Jap fish.

But they
should have been outside torpedo range from the Japs, and the damage
was a bit more than a single fish should have accounted for. There
might just be something to Tripp’s theory of a Jap “super-torpedo”
after all.

“Keep me
posted if we need to slow down. I’d rather not lose what little speed
we have, but I’d also rather not end up being sunk by a single Jap
fish.”

“Aye-aye,
sir.”

As
the
Arkansas
swung around, Rose suddenly shouted. “Sir! The Jap destroyers —
they just got taken out!”

Blythe
smiled. “Ah, the
Hamm
has decided to make her presence felt. Details, Mr. Rose?”

“It looks
like they both just took torpedoes from their starboard — our port,
sir. One of ’em just blew up, and the other’s dead in the
water.”

“Commander Aspin probably should have left
those cans for us, and focused on the convoy. But I think I can find
it in myself to forgive him.”

“Mr. Rose,
just before the turn, I believe we scored several hits on Baker.
Status report?”

“Lookouts say she’s slowing down and
have at least one fire going. More than that is hard to tell — we’re
almost directly off her bow. But I’d say we took a good chunk out of
her.”

“Superb. Time to reshuffle the directors.
Director 1, lock on Able. Director 2, take Director 3’s solution for
Baker and take over the main battery as soon as they have the
solution confirmed. Director 3, get a solution on Dog. And each
turret is to open fire on Baker as soon as they are
unmasked.”

Foster interrupted. “Sir, it’s damage
control. The flooding’s getting worse. Chief Engineer recommends
slowing to 15 knots — if not more. And the helm reports the ship
wants to drift to port — they think the hole in the bulge is acting
like a scoop.”

“I believe I
can also feel the beginnings of a list as well, Mr. Foster. Tell the
Chief to shift fuel and water around as necessary to fight the list,
authorize damage control to order counterflooding as necessary, and
reduce turns to 13 knots. Speed isn’t going to help us much in this
fight anyway, and the reduction just might mess with the Japs’ aim a
little.”

Chapter 22

The
Arkansas
lumbered around, gradually coming to her new heading. The turning
masked the battered port side from the enemy, but still some scars of
battle showed. The mangled bow and remnants of the catapult once atop
Turret Three showed where the enemy shells had found vulnerabilities.
Further evidence was the gutted casemate that once held a 5″
gun. And two dented and scorched marks on the ship’s 11″-thick
armored belt had more than served its purpose. Barely visible was
the gouge torn in her side roughly amidships from a torpedo the US
Navy officially said didn’t exist.

The main guns had
finished their rotations, and were dialing in on the directions given
them by Director Three. Halfway through the turn, Captain Blythe had
changed his mind and ordered them to focus on “Dog,” the
starboardmost of the three. “Baker” was slowing down, with
a fire burning amidships, so she wasn’t the same immediate threat.
Able and Dog, though, were still fully capable, undamaged, and
looking to avenge their destroyed sister.

As
she turned, numerous splashes erupted around her, but none found the
old girl. The changes in course and speed had thrown off their aim,
possibly even more than Blythe had hoped. Further, the Japanese
weren’t coordinating their fire, leading to confusion over which
splashes came from which ship, which made correcting the misses even
more of a challenge. Blythe hoped they stayed furious at the
Arkansas

angry men didn’t make wise decisions.

“Mr.
Foster, express our gratitude to the
Hamm
and
remind them that if this is to be considered any kind of a victory,
they should go after the transports and leave the cruisers to us.”

“Aye-aye,
sir.” Foster was reluctant to leave the bridge at this point,
but orders were orders.

“Mr. Rose, make certain that
Director Three knows they are to order all guns to fire as soon as
they have a solution…”

* * * * *

Foster
stepped into the radio room. “Sparks, call the
Hamm.
Tell
them thank you, and order them to leave the cruisers to us — they
need to go after the transports.”

“No problem, sir.”
The radio man quickly sent out the signal, and got his response. But
as he decoded it, he grew puzzled.

“Here
it is, sir. I don’t quite understand it, but it looks like they
understood.” He handed the slip to Foster, who was even more
confused — but took it back to the bridge. Foster knew Aspin had
served under Blythe for over a year, and suspected it was a private
code between the two, to further complicate any interceptions. As he
turned to return to the bridge, he felt the
Arkansas
shudder from at least one more hit.

* * * * *

“Sir,
I think the
Hamm
included a private message to you.”

Blythe still
refused to open his eyes. He was maintaining his “situation
board” inside his head. “Read it to me, Mr. Foster.”

Foster struggled
to verbalize the odd code.

“Sir, it says
‘TNX X APA,’ there’s a line, and then “II SODOMY.”

Blythe
chuckled. Aspin was in rare form. “Foster, the first half is our
message — the first three letters are the word ‘thanks.” The X
is a sentence break, and APA is the Navy designation for an ‘attack
transport,’ like we’re a BB and the
Hamm
is a DD. And the second part — well, Aspin is apparently still a
student of the Royal Navy during the age of sail. He intends to copy
the old tactic of firing on the enemy from dead astern. It’s a good
tactic — any shells that don’t damage their steering or engines will
raise holy hell with their cargo.”

Rose interrupted
the history lesson. “Sir, Dog’s hit!”

Blythe paused
for a moment. “Details, Mr. Rose?”

“Um…”
Rose stammered as he got the particulars. “One hit on the
fantail, possibly another amidships.”

“Good. Mr.
Rose, Mr. Foster has returned and will once again take over external
concerns. Get me an update from damage control.”

“Yes,
sir.” The
Arkansas
shook
again as her main guns roared once more.

“Sir, damage
control says the anchor locker’s wrecked, but no immediate danger.
Five-inch mount one is gutted — seven dead, ten wounded. One boiler
room’s leaking, but it’s manageable. The stack has some splinter
damage, the catapult on Turret Three is wrecked, and that last hit
gouged the hell out of the deck by Turret Five — more splinter
damage, nothing significant.”

“Very good,
gentlemen. Now, for the enemy. Damage reports?”

“Able still
undamaged, Baker current speed 22 knots and slowing with fire
amidships, Dog small fire astern.”

“Have any of
the enemy changed their bearings to unmask their torpedoes?”

“No, sir,
still charging in on intercept courses.”

“They’re
overdue to try that. Especially Baker — if she’s in any kind of
trouble, she might try firing them off before they can detonate.”

Foster was
interrupted by a report from Director Three. “Sir, at least two
more solid hits on Dog. One aft, one on her bridge.”

“That
ought to complicate matters substantially for them, gentlemen.
Maintain fire on Dog, but order Directors One and Two to confirm
their solutions on Able and Baker. Once we’re confident Dog is
impaired, we’ll switch to Able and work her over for a…”

WHANG!!!!

A massive
explosion rocked the bridge.

Chapter 23

Captain Blythe
struggled to his feet in an odd, muffled quiet. Around him, the rest
of the bridge crew also began to pick themselves off the deck. “All
hands, report!” he shouted, but even his own words sounded
smothered. He realized he’d been partly deafened by the blast — but
where had it hit?

Commander Rose
shouted into a sound-powered phone, then shook the receiver
uselessly. He, too, was too deafened to hear the tinny voice coming
through. He staggered to the fore of the bridge and looked out, and
froze. Blythe saw him mouth “oh, my God,” and then he waved
to Blythe. “Captain, come look!”

Blythe, using
various points and people as braces, made his way next to Rose and
looked out over the foredeck — and was struck dumb. In all his
studies of naval warfare, he couldn’t recall anything like what he
saw before him ever happening.

Turret Two was
just below the bridge, and turned starboard to near the end of its
limits of its travel. The port gun was elevated at least ten degrees,
as expected, but the starboard gun…

Blythe blinked,
but it didn’t change. The end of the gun was peeled back much like a
banana, vaguely resembling how a jammed rifle might explode. It was
also depressed to almost level with the ocean, and the base of the
barrel — where it entered the turret — looked buckled.

Blythe knew it
wasn’t a jammed gun — the explosion happened while the guns were
checking fire from the turn. Turret One was just about to become
unmasked, and he wasn’t certain the director had even sent out its
solution.

No, the only thing
that made any sense was that the Japs had scored a one-in-a-billion
hit — and sent an 8″ shell right into the muzzle of the gun. It
had exploded at the end of the barrel, splitting the ends and driving
the entire barrel backwards into the turret. And since the gun was
elevated and turned to its limits, the blast had happened very near
the starboard side of the bridge.

And there was most
certainly a live round in that barrel.

Blythe spun Rose
by the shoulder and shouted in his face. “Order Turret Two
secured and evacuated immediately! Stand by to flood it if
necessary!”

“Aye-aye,
sir!” He repeated the order into the phone, even though he
couldn’t hear the response.

Gradually, their
hearing began to return. Foster was the first to be able to hear the
incoming messages to the bridge. “Sir, Director 3 reports
solution on Dog, and five turrets ready. They’re opening fire.”

The
report was punctuated by the roar of ten guns firing at the cruiser.
They had no way to tell if they were avenging their wounded brother,
but it didn’t matter. One of those cruisers had silenced Turret Two,
and all would pay the price.

Blythe found
himself fixated on the shattered gun just below the bridge. He
couldn’t get the thought that there was an unfired 12″ shell
lodged in there, along with several bags of powder. Normally, one
would empty the barrel by simply firing off the gun — but there was
almost no way the shell would make it out the mangled barrel. Opening
and removing the powder and shell from the breech had its own
tremendous dangers, especially since the equipment wasn’t designed to
work in reverse. Further, the gun was right under the bridge.
Ideally, he’d prefer the gun to be facing dead ahead, putting as much
air around the gun (and as little ship, to be more precise) and over
Turret One, where the armor would be more resistant to any blast. But
he’d ordered the turret evacuated, and he wasn’t even certain the
turret could be turned from outside.

And then he
watched, astonished, as the turret — seeming in response to his
wishes — slowly began to turn to port. “Mr. Rose, what’s going
on with that turret?”

Rose reluctantly answered. “Sir,
the turret captain says he will evacuate his turret once he secures
it in train. He also reports a few casualties — including one loader
crushed when the gun was shoved back into the turret. Three dead,
four wounded. And he confirms that there’s a live shell and powder in
the breech.”

The turret finally
reached dead ahead and stopped. Blythe shook his head. He’d always
been exceptionally proud of his crew, but this was unheard of. “Mr.
Rose, get that turret captain’s name. I’m putting him in for a
reprimand for disobeying a direct order. Then I’m putting him and his
entire crew in for medals.”

While
Blythe and Rose had tended to the wounded
Arkansas,
Foster
had taken over the battle. Several more salvoes had been fired from
the remaining turrets, further battering the Japanese cruiser Blythe
had designated Dog. “Sir, with your permission, I’d like to
shift fire to Able. I think Dog’s about had it.”

Blythe reluctantly
turned away from Turret Two. The maimed gun was like a scab on his
consciousness; he couldn’t keep himself from looking at it, dwelling
on it, worrying about it. He forced himself to give Foster his full
attention. “What shape is she in, Mr. Foster?”

“We’ve
scored several more hits on her, sir. Her bridge is a wreck, two of
her main turrets are silent, major fires on the bow and amidships,
and she’s slowing. Further, she hasn’t changed course in about ten
minutes. Before that, she was on a slow curve to intercept. I think
we wrecked her steering.”

“Good call,
Mr. Foster. But I think it’s time to split our fire. Keep Turrets
Five and Six on Dog until further notice, but shift Turrets One,
Three, and Four to Able. She’s gotten off unscathed so far, and it’s
time we did something about that.”

Chapter 24

The immediate
crisis apparently averted, Captain Blythe once again took his seat
and closed his eyes. “Mr. Foster, give me range, bearing,
course, and speed of Able, Baker, and Dog.” Foster quickly
collected the numbers and fed them to the captain’s internal range
table. “Now, status on all three enemy ships.”

“Able still
undamaged, coming on strong. Baker slow and afire, firing forward
guns. And Dog’s still locked on course, with fire on the fantail and
amidships, bridge wrecked but no flame. Any minute now, her torpedo
tubes are going to be unmasked. And all are firing with all available
guns.”

“Well, we’ve
certainly held our current course and speed long enough for them to
find the range,” Blyhe announced. As if to punctuate his
declaration, several large splashes surrounded the ship — but,
apparently, no hits. “Let’s throw them off a little. Mr. Rose,
come left fifteen degrees and increase speed to 15 knots — I believe
that’s the limit Engineering set on us earlier?”

“Aye-aye,
sir. Left standard rudder, coming about fifteen degrees, setting
turns for fifteen knots.”

The
Arkansas slowly
swung to port, the standard rudder setting keeping the old girl from
heeling too obviously in hopes of not alerting the Japanese to the
course change. In the Directors, the men took into account the
changes and adjusted their solutions accordingly.

“While
we have a moment, I’d like a status report from the
Hamm.How
goes the skeet-shooting?”

Foster
checked with the radio room. “Sir,
Hamm
reports the convoy is scattering and in full retreat. Two are dead in
the water, two more are retreating while on fire. Captain Aspin
wishes to know if we would like him to withdraw and come back to
support us.”

“Tell Captain Aspin that we are quite
content being his diversion while he accomplishes our real mission,
and to focus on disabling or damaging as many as possible — I have
complete faith in the Navy and Marine flyers to pick up any of our
leftovers.”

The
Arkansas’
main guns roared once more, and the shells soared off towards their
targets. Foster nearly shouted with glee. “Hits, sir! One hit on
Able, right on the bow, and two on Dog — one amidships, one on her
bow!”

“Damage
assessments, Mr. Foster?”

“Nothing on Able yet, sir,
she might shrug it off. Dog’s bow is pretty chewed up right down to
the waterline, and the fire amidships just got lot bigger. I think
she’s in real trouble, sir. In fact, they ought to be worried
about…” his voice trailed off.

“Please continue,
Mr. Foster. What should they be worried about?”

“Sir,
I was going to say they ought to be worried about their torpedoes
cooking off, but not any more. One of ’em apparently just went up.
The whole middle of the ship is either on fire or just plain gone. I
think we can write her off.”

“Excellent, gentlemen.
That’s the right half of the Jap cruiser force done for. Mr. Rose,
have Director Two take over Turrets Five and Six and have them open
fire on Baker. Director One, keep Turrets One, Three, and Four firing
on Able. I don’t think the Japs are going to be surrendering or
retreating any time soon. Oh, and Mr. Rose? I’d like an update from
Damage Control.”

After shuffling
the guns around again, Rose collected his reports. “Sir, I have
good news and bad news. The hits to the 5″ casemate and anchor
locker have been secured. Engineering reports the flooding is still
controllable from the torpedo hit. But Damage Control reports there’s
smoke coming out of the broken gun in Turret Two.”

Turret Two. The
gun that had taken a direct hit from an enemy shell. The gun that
still had four bags of gunpowder and a high-explosive shell jammed in
it. And the turret that — by Blythe’s orders — was evacuated and
sealed.

Chapter 25

There was no time.
A fire in that gun could set off the powder, firing the shell up the
maimed barrel. And there was almost no chance it would safely emerge
from the splintered end. It would either jam or detonate — right
atop Turret One. “Rose, order Turret One to stand down, turn to
dead ahead, and then evacuate! Then get a Damage Control team out on
the foredeck, portside, with hoses! I want them up on top of Turret
One, pouring water down that busted gun!”

Rose found himself
snapping to attention. “Aye-aye, sir!” He quickly gave the
orders, then dared to question Blythe’s orders. “Portside, sir?
It’s the starboard gun that’s in trouble.”

“Yes,
Rose, portside. I want them to muster and work from the side of the
ship away from the enemy. They’re going to be exposed enough up on
the turret — no sense in having them all in the line of fire.”

“I see, sir.
My apologies.”

“No need. It
was a good question — and you relayed the order first before you
questioned me. That’s how it should be done, Mr. Rose. Remember,
you’re an officer, not a parrot. I want you to ask questions when
things don’t make sense to you.”

Blythe then turned
to Foster. “Mr. Foster, we’re now down to eight guns for the
fight, all aft. Our enemies are off the port bow and port beam. Any
recommendations?”

Foster was
used to Blythe putting him on the spot like this. “We should
come more left, to unmask the guns more and keep the range advantage.
Further, we should focus all the guns on a single enemy.”

“Excellent,
Mr. Foster. Make it so — another 25 degrees to port. And which Jap
should we pay our respects to?”

Foster squirmed. Able was
the greater threat, with only minimal damage, but Baker was closer
and could be taken out of the fight more easily. And with two turrets
already firing on each ship, there was no inherent advantage there —
either way, two turrets would have to shift aim. “I’d say Able,
sir. She’s the least beat up, and therefore the bigger threat.”

“Not
quite, Mr. Foster. Order Director Two to take Turrets Three through
Six and open fire on Baker.” Foster shrugged. It was always a
crap shoot, trying to outguess Blythe — half the time, he figured
the captain took the opposite tack just to be contrary. “That
torpedo we took came from either Able or Dog, as the other two never
had a good angle on us for firing. And as Able’s always presented her
port side to us, that means that there’s a 25% chance that Able has
no torpedoes, and 25% that she only has one mount still loaded — but
there’s a 100% chance that Baker still has all her fish, and she’s
closer. I want her out of the fight before she has a chance to
smarten up and unload those fish right into our belly.”

He then lifted his
head slightly. “Mr. Tripp, front and center!”

Lieutenant Tripp
had been quietly standing in the corner, glad to simply be present
and witness events, relieved that he hadn’t any responsibilities. It
seemed that was coming to an end. He strode to face the captain.
“Sir!”

“Mr. Tripp,
it is my custom to have Commander Foster handle all external matters
during battle or drill, while Mr. Rose handle internal matters. This
situation has gotten too much to ask of Mr. Rose, so I am hereby
appointing you damage control officer. You will coordinate the damage
control teams, collect reports regularly on ship’s status, and update
me when situations change. Are you prepared to accept that duty, Mr.
Tripp?”

Lieutenant
Tripp felt his gut clench, and suddenly needed to visit the head. He
was generally familiar with the
Arkansas,
but
the damage control officer would need an almost intimate knowledge of
the ship. Also, he would need to exercise tremendous judgment in what
was worth interrupting the captain over, and what was not. He felt in
no way qualified to take on the assignment.

Just
then, he felt a faint tap on his hand. He turned to see Commander
Rose beside him, staring intently at him. Rose made sure he had
Tripp’s full attention, then gave a faint, reassuring nod.

Tripp
spoke with far more confidence than he truly felt. “Sir, I would
be honored to serve you and the
Arkansas
in
that capacity, or any other you believe I’m worthy to hold.”

“And I’m sure
that Mr. Rose will be glad to assist you as needed, as I am sure he
just indicated.”

Rose and Foster
exchanged a familiar look. Nope, nothing much got past the captain,
even when he had his eyes closed to run a battle.

Just
then, the
Arkansas
shuddered as at least two more Japanese shells slammed into her.
Blythe gripped the arms of his seat slightly more tightly, and the
rest of the crew steadied themselves. “Mr. Tripp, I believe that
is your cue to get to work.”

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