The Old Girl's New Tricks, Part VIII

Are there two prettier words in the English language than "The End?" < ![CDATA[

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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