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The Old Girl's New Tricks, Part II

OK, here are the next five chapters in my story of the USS Arkansas. Again, this was published on another forum, one chapter at a time, as it was written. If all goes as planned, the final portion should be published Saturday.

And no, I wasn't being evasive in not linking to that forum before; I was just neglectful.

Chapter 6

"Welcome to Hawaii, Captain Blythe. I've heard quite a few stories about your trip here. Rather eventful, I would say." Admiral Tucker stood and offered his hand. "I... take it you heard some stories about my little training exercise, sir?"

"Sit down, Captain." They both took their chairs. "Yes, I've had half a dozen skippers in here already, making sure I know every detail of your little scare tactics. The've called it reckless, dangerous, foolhardy, and a few other things I'd rather not repeat. And I have to admit, Captain, they have a few points." Blythe was suddenly nervous. "Sir, it was my best judgment that it was a necessary exercise to properly demonstrate the importance of the escort role. And yes, there were risks involved, but it was my best judgment that those were reasonable risks - as shown by that there were no injuries or damage."

"Nonetheless, Captain, it was a highly unorthodox and unauthorized and dangerous plan, and I would say that it was more luck than planning that nothing went wrong. That kind of conduct has been officially brought to my attention, and I have no choice but to take formal action." Bill felt his stomach knot. He'd known that his "surprise attack" would ruffle some feathers, but he didn't think it would merit a court martial. "Sir... should I consider getting a civilian lawyer, or..."

Admiral Tucker laughed. "For your commendation?" "Commendation, sir?" "Captain, it might have escaped your notice, but we're at war. And in war, we need men who are willing to take chances, to break the rules, to do what needs to be done regardless of what the regs say. I said I had half a dozen skippers in here talking about how crazy you are, and now I have a half a dozen skippers who I know are not the kind of men we need to win this war. I also had a dozen other skippers I've talked to who told me that your little cruise here was exactly what they needed to impress their crews with just how serious this war is, and sang your praises to the rafters. So - you're getting a nice note for your file."

Bill didn't know what to say, so he just went on automatic. "Yes, sir."

"Now, that you're here, and we've got that out of the way, let's get down to business. You and your crew have been on the move, non-stop, from port to port to port for a couple of months, ending up almost halfway around the world. Do you think they'd like a week's liberty?" "I think they'd enjoy that tremendously." Tucker's smile faded. "It's coming with a price, though. I figured we'd turn you around and send you right back to the mainland, but something's come up."

This was sounding disturbingly familiar to Bill. "Where do you need us to go?" "Are you familiar with an island called Guadalcanal?"

Chapter 7

Bill frowned. "Guadalcanal? Can't say I have." Admiral Tucker leaned back in his chair. "Well, it's obvious that you've been in the Atlantic Fleet. Guadalcanal is the center of the Pacific, as far as the war is concerned." He pointed to a map. "The Solomon Islands - I presume you've heard of them?" Bill nodded. "They sit disturbingly close to the main sea lanes between the US and Australia, and the Japs could use it to threaten our lines of communication. And they are the site of our first true offensive against the Japs. Recently, we invaded the biggest island - Guadalcanal - and took the airfield from the Japs. Since then, each side has been pouring more men, more ships, more planes into the fight. It's like a high-stakes poker game, with each side raising and raising."

"Damn. I had no idea."

"In one week, I'm going to have a whole harborful of ships heading to Guadalcanal. Transports, cargo ships, tankers, even a couple of aircraft transports. With luck, it could be enough to clinch the battle. But then again, we've thought that before." "And you want us to shepherd them there?" "Yeah, I heard the stories about the Japs taking up commerce raiding, and I think it's a load of crap, too. It's just not in their character. But if they did it, just once, and hit these ships, it could cost us our foothold on Guadalcanal, and put us back on the defensive. So I ran it past Old Man Nimitz, and he ran it up to Washington, and they all agreed - they want you to put together an escorting force and make damned certain those ships get their cargo delivered."

Bill considered it for a moment. Halfway to Hawaii, he'd had a dream that there was a giant hand nudging his ship on its way, steering it further and further away from the all-too-familiar waters of the Atlantic to places she had no business being, almost as if at the whim of some invisible power for some inscrutable purpose. Now, with his course set for almost literally the opposite side of the world, he wondered if that dream had somehow been prophetic. "The Arkansas will be ready in one week, sir. And we'll do our duty. Those ships will arrive safe and sound."

Chapter 8

Captain Blythe stepped into the chart room and "suggested" that the crew assigned there take a break. He had to double-check some details regarding his orders, and he didn't want to put his geographic ignorance on display for his crew.

Once he had the compartment to himself, he removed his orders from his pocket and re-read them. He was in command of eighteen merchants and four escorts - the light cruiser Manchester, and their old friends, the destroyers Fleming, Bates, and Alfonso Hamm again. They were leaving tomorrow, with a destination of New Caledonia, which was the staging area for the US forces in the Solomons campaign.

And Blythe had only the vaguest notion where New Caledonia was.

A quick consultation of the index showed it was east of Australia, and that made it easy to pull up the appropriate charts. It would be a long trip, made longer by the need to swing well south of the Solomons and the conflict there. Blythe was utterly unafraid of taking his ship into the battle zone, but that wasn't his mission - it was to get his charges to New Caledonia safely, and preferably without incident. So a healthy bit of discretion was advised -- but not really necessary, it turned out. The Solomons weren't really that close to the line between Hawaii and New Caledonia.

But there was one detail that he was hoping he was wrong about, but the charts made it clear: the Arkansas would be crossing not only the Equator, but the International Date Line. And that meant that his ship -- as well as the others in his escorting force -- would have to hold two distinct Line ceremonies, where the Shellbacks would have free rein to torment the poor, beknighted Pollywogs (those who had crossed those lines before vs. those who had not) and initiate them into their brotherhood.

Blythe wasn't too concerned for himself -- he was a veteran of both crossings, and had been smart enough to keep documentation of his status -- but he knew that he had quite a few Pollywogs aboard. And he'd seen how some of his Shellbacks had handled previous Line crossings; it was not going to be pretty.

He checked his watch; the five minutes he'd "given" the crew was just about up. He opened the door as a cue that they should feel free to re-enter, leaving the charts on the table.

The open door wasn't enough; Lieutenant Rogers, the navigator, still paused and rapped on the doorframe. "Permission to enter, sir?"

"Come on in, Mr. Rogers. You've got some work ahead of you. Tomorrow morning, we weigh anchor to lead about two dozen ships -- eighteen of them merchies -- to Noumea, on New Caledonia. Figure an average speed of ten knots. When you've worked it up, pass it along to the exec."

"No problem, sir." He glanced at the charts laid out. "That will save me some time. I should have it ready before dinner. Any special requirements or conditions I should take into account, sir?"

Blythe considered the question. He'd been worried about getting too close to the Solomons on the way, but that wasn't too much of a concern. Even on a straight line, they'd not get within five hundred miles of San Cristobal, the southernmost island -- and on a Great Circle course, it'd be even further. "Just double-check with Fleet Intelligence and see if the Japs have any bases we might pass near, or if they've had any reports of Jap units in the area. When you're done, give it to the exec for review."

"Aye-aye, sir."

With that, Blythe left the young lieutenant (and, he noted, his nervous staff, waiting in the hallway for the captain's departure) to their work and went looking for his exec. The two of them would plot their own strategy for another battle, then go to confront that foe:

The Chief of the Boat, who would be in charge of the Line ceremonies.

Blythe had great respect for tradition, but he was still the commanding officer of a United States Navy warship sailing in hostile waters. And keeping his ship and his crew safe was far greater a priority.

Chapter 9

Captain Blythe leaned out over the wing of the bridge. It was a beautiful night. The moon was the slightest crescent, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The waters surged along the hull of the Arkansas as she cleaved the waves. Ten knots wasn't much of a stretch for the old gal, but it was about the best the merchies in her care could manage without straining themselves.

"Mind if I join you, Captain?"

Blythe didn't need to turn; he recognized the voice of his exec. "Feel free, Mr. Foster. Are things all set for the royal visit?"

Foster chuckled. "The chief and I just finally came to an agreement. There were times, though, I thought he was going to cry."

"I don't think I've ever met a saltier old salt. It's like he feels obligated to live up to all the myths of the Navy Chiefs that have come before him. So, what's the plan?"

"Well, in recognition of the exigencies of war, His Watery Majesty and His Royal Court have agreed to certain concessions. They will be boarding the fantail from a speeding whale, so we won't have to even slow down. They won't be piped aboard, but simply be announced. Once aboard, they'll hold two sessions of each line-crossing ceremony, letting us do it "port and starboard" for the pollywogs, so we'll never have too many hands away from their stations. And the ceremonies will be limited to one hour per session."

Captain Blythe winced. "The chief must have been heartbroken."

"He didn't take it well, but he understands that there's a war on. I got a hunch that once the war's over, though, there will be a lot of grumbling how a lot of wartime shellbacks got off easy."

"They'll get over it, Mr. Foster. They always do." With that, he started to walk back on to the bridge. "And with that settled, maybe now I can get some sleep. I have a hunch I'll need to be as alert as possible tomorrow to keep things from getting out of hand in the morning."

Chapter 10

Captain Blythe looked down to the fantail. The second session of the equator-crossing ceremony was well under way. The Chief was in all his glory, dressed in his finest regalia. One young ensign who had cultivated a reputation as a bit of a know-it-all was before the Royal Court, suffering a thorough grilling from them all. And over along the port side, a gauntlet was being run. Each man on the gauntlet was armed with a wet towel, and there was one enlisted man -- Blythe thought he was a baker -- had an absolutely beautiful backhand that resounded with an amazing thwack.

Earlier, Blythe had noted a lieutenant with a reputation for a mean streak had been swinging a bit early -- he'd been nailing his victims from the front, in a rather sensitive place. Blythe had dispatched a messenger to His Watery Majesty, and the gauntlet had been stopped. The lieutenant had been called before the Court and sentenced. He was stripped to his skivvies and given ten lashes to his own groin. And they were administered by the baker.

And then, remarkably, he was put back in the gauntlet -- with a member of the Royal Court standing right behind him. And the Court had refused him permssion to re-dress.

Captain Blythe realized that there were a few things he could stand to learn from the wily old Chief.

"Things going well, sir?"

It was Foster again. "I thought I left you at the conn, Mr. Foster."

"I got curious. I left Mr. Rose in charge. Considering that he's going to be up for his own exec slot in a couple of months, I figured it was safe enough. Besides, he could use a bit more daylight conn time for his jacket."

Blythe considered for a moment. It was a fair call, and Foster was right. Rose had pulled plenty of night watches, but running the ship during the day had entirely different demands. He was a good officer, plenty of potential, but could stand a bit more seasoning. All in all, it was a solid decision.

"Agreed. And you decided to take your time off back here, with me? I'm flattered."

Foster shrugged. "You know the ship better than anyone, sir. If there was a single place aboard to let you watch the ceremonies without intruding or seeming like you were checking up on things, I knew you'd find it. And," he smiled slyly, "should you decide that I need some additional 'seasoning,' you might entrust me with the supervising and grab some rack time."

Blythe shook his head. Foster was practically an ideal exec. "Foster, I thought my mother did a pretty good job taking care of me as a kid, but you seem bound and determined to continue where she left off. Did she send you here?"

"No, sir. Just doing what I can for a fellow Arkansan."

Blythe blinked. "I thought you were from New Hampshire?"

"That's home now, sir, but I was born in Arkansas, just like you. I think someone at Personnel had a bit of a sense of humor; I've noticed that we have quite a few Arkansans aboard -- certainly a lot more than one in 48."

Blythe paused. He'd noted he'd run into quite a few people from home, but never really thought about it. He'd figured that some had requested serving on the old gal out of sentiment, but even that didn't seem to account for it. Maybe Foster was right. "I'm from a little town called Hope, if you can believe it. Where were you born?"

"Oh, I can believe it, sir. I'm from an even smaller town down towards the Louisiana state line, with a far more interesting history than it deserves. Believe me, I was glad to get away."

Blythe was intrigued. "Really?"

Foster leaned on the rail, assuming a natural storyteller's pose as they watched the festivities below. Now the pollywogs were being fed on "Royal Grog." Blythe vowed to never find out what was mixed into that witch's brew. "Back during the Revolutionary War, there were a group of families in South Carolina who were quite staunch Tories. When they saw which way the war was going, they decided to head out and get while the getting was good. Canada was too far and too cold, so they headed out for New Orleans. They couldn't stand the French, though, so they moved north. They ended up setting up a town on the fringes of the swampland. They'd been pretty close to the British -- one of them even had several dealings with General Howe and been very impressed with him, so they named the town in his honor. Then, later, they found themselves sold back to the Americans, and when the state lines were drawn up, in good old Arkansas. Luckily, by that time the pro-British sentiments had largely passed, and things worked out pretty well."

"So, you're from Howe, Arkansas? Can't say I've heard of it."

"Not quite. Remember, it was right on the edge of the swamps. They called it 'Howe's Bayou.'"

"Howe's Bayou?"

"Pretty good, sir. How's by you?"

Blythe groaned. He'd known that Foster was a punster, but even for him this was extreme. "Mr. Foster, give me three good reasons why I shouldn't throw you overboard for that one."

Unsurprisingly, Foster was ready. "First up, Mr. Rose isn't ready for my job. Second, we're too far inboard to reach the water. Third, you don't want to interrupt the ceremonies on the stern. Fourth, what would you do without my natural charm and brilliance?"

"I said three reasons, Mr. Foster. And that last one really doesn't help your case -- there are times I wouldn't mind finding out."

"Yes, sir. That's why I gave you three valid ones first."

Blythe decided to surrender to the inevitable. Foster was going to continue to annoy him until he agreed to let him take over supervising the ceremonies. "Well, this spot isn't big enough for the two of us. And if you're not going to be oblinging enough to throw yourself overboard, I might as well be in my cabin."

Foster snapped off an incredibly sloppy salute. "I relieve you, sir."

"I stand relieved. This hunk of railing is yours, Mr. Foster."

As Captain Blythe started down the superstructure to find his way to his cabin, the general quarters alarm sounded. "General quarters! General Quarters! This is no drill! All hands, stand by for submarine attack! Captain to the bridge!"


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Comments (1)

Jay,great stuff<br /... (Below threshold)
rain of lead:

great stuff
keep it up
(the goal of any story teller is to make the reader want to know more.....I WANT MORE!)






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