May 9, 1942
Squadron Leader A. C. Stewart stood in an open spot of the hangar in front of his pilots. Flight Officer Ted Williams could tell that the man was in pain. He was nominally in charge of the RAF unit, and he took his role seriously, but he never flew in combat for obvious reasons. His job, along with his staff, was to keep the squadron working as a unit. Prince Bernhard was the leader of the pilots, but he had no idea of how to run a military unit. The other pilots obviously respected Squadron Leader Stewart.
Ted Williams chose to pay attention. That was an exception to his standing rule of not giving a damn.
“Gentlemen,” said Squadron Leader Stewart, “This is war, and not all news is good. But I have good news and bad news, and I shall start with the good.”
“The best news is that we are all here this evening. It was a busy day on the front lines, and all of our flight crew made it out here to Stuttgart safely. Even better, all of our equipment, spare parts, tools, and ammunition made it out with us.”
A cheer sounded from the pilots, excepting Ted Williams. Escape from enemy action was part of the job. He waited to see if there was better news.
“A part of that best news is that you are here. The after-action reports from your debriefs are impressive. Most of you flew two combat sorties, and we had no losses. Every Spitfire will be ready for action again by morning. For a situation such as this, that is excellent news.”
The pilots cheered again. Ted Williams clapped politely.
“We must give credit where credit is due. Many of you had a kill confirmed, but half of our kills today belong to our New English pilots. Flight Officer Williams, Flight Officer Whitten, thank you. Well done.”
At that, the other pilots shouted and applauded. Ted Williams and Mike Whitten nodded politely at the recognition.
“But a tiny bit of bad news, gents. We only got out all of our equipment by leaving behind all of your personal items. You have what you’re wearing. I’ll take care of it as best I can, but I don’t know of a military tailor nearby, I’m afraid.”
The pilots were clearly disappointed, but that bit of news was not unexpected.
“And, of course, this airfield wasn’t quite ready for a squadron to arrive. I’m afraid that your berthing tonight is the floor of this hangar below your seats, unless you choose to sleep in your seats. At least it’s not too chilly, gents, and we’re sharing what our flight crews are enduring.”
Mike Whitten raised his hand and asked, “Sir, might we see if there are any young ladies in town willing to share their beds with us tonight? Seeing as we’re fighting for them and all, they might want to help us to get a good night’s sleep.”
The Dutch pilots laughed and cheered. Ted Williams actually smiled.
“You, young man, are restricted to base for one night,” admonished Squadron Leader Stewart. The laughter continued. “But seriously,” he continued, waiting for the merriment to die down, “We have a busy day tomorrow. Prince Bernhard, continue the briefing, please,” said the unit commander, stepping aside.
“Thank you, Sir,” said Flight Lieutenant
Lippe-Biesterfeld, coming to the front of the group. There was no podium, lectern, platform, or
stage. The dynamic, however,
changed. Ted Williams caught how the
Dutch reacted. He’d flown with the
Prince. He knew that the man was a
middling pilot at best. But the Prince
didn’t have to be there, and they all knew it.
That choice gave him respect. He
knew not enough to run the squadron, and he flew less well than many of his
pilots, but his bravery was unquestioned.
And thus men listened.
“Pardon the bare-bones briefing, my companions,” said Prince Bernhard. “I have no maps nor other aids. But I can tell you what we need to do.”
“The city of Little Rock is burning tonight. The Negro Brigade, supported by a few tanks, are facing the wrath of what seems to be two American Corps, including two or more armored divisions. A lesser band of warriors would have collapsed before sundown. These soldiers are brave. The last I knew, the fighting is still in the outskirts of the city.”
“At sunrise the United States Army Air Force will be there with Airacobras and Mitchell bombers, coming in low. We need to be there, ready. We take off before dawn, all but four planes low. My group, led by Flight Officer Williams, will go high to intercept fighters that would interfere with your work near the ground. Questions?”
The plan was simple. The need was clear. Ted Williams saw something in the Dutch, an understanding of overwhelming defeat, a memory of how their own land had been overrun in days. He had heard only stories, not briefings, but he had perceived that the Luftwaffe had killed men on the ground without opposition. It seemed that the Dutch were not willing to allow that again.
“Very well. Men, let’s get to sleep. We awake before dawn. Godspeed, and good night.”
Ted Williams caught Prince Bernhard’s eyes. He nodded. The Prince returned the gesture. The mutual respect was now clear.
May 9, 1942
“Permission to enter?”
Vice Admiral Alden looked up from the big desk. “Paul! You’re here late. What brings you up here?”
“I needed to talk, Admiral, and you seemed like the right guy to talk to.”
Vice Admiral Alden was intrigued. It was almost midnight. Never since he had been a Division Officer in the 1920’s had a man so junior chosen a moment so private, late at night, to speak.
“Well, then, Paul, come in. Have a seat. What’s up?”
Warrant Officer Bernier sat down. “George O’Brien is going to die, Sir. He knows it.”
Vice Admiral Alden looked at Warrant Officer Bernier. The survival of the slow near-destruction of the Mystic paled beside surviving the loss of the Woonsocket and, especially, the Mississippi. He understood the fear of death and the too-painful memories of the loss of others. He saw that in Paul’s eyes.
“It’s not certain, Paul.”
“It is. He believes it. When you believe you’re going to die, you die. That’s it. It’s over. And you were there this morning, and you know more about the plan than I do. There’s no way out. They’re all going there to die.”
Vice Admiral Alden exhaled. He leaned back in the big chair. “Why are you here so late, Paul?” he asked.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even go back to my quarters to go to bed, Admiral.”
“I couldn’t either, Paul. Everybody else is gone, though. They may be wiser than we are.”
“I never aimed to be wise in my life, Sir. This hurts. George is a good guy, and he shouldn’t have to be doing this.”
“He didn’t have to do it. He volunteered. He almost created the mission.”
“Do you know what he went through, Admiral? We talked on the way to Cadillac Mountain and back. Do you know what he did?”
“I have an idea,” said Vice Admiral Alden candidly. “He saw a lot of men die.”
“Yes, he did. How many men did you kill, Admiral, personally?”
John Alden thought for a moment on that one. “None, personally, although I gave orders here and on Mystic that killed men.”
“None. Nobody at all. Neither have I, Sir.”
“Remember the Battle of Rutland?”
“He knocked out the lead tanks with Molotovs and called in the artillery. Personally.”
John Alden had known that the Battle of Rutland had been decided by the combination of Molotov Cocktails and artillery dropping indirect fire on tanks. He had not known that Captain O’Brien had, essentially, won the battle himself. “That must have been difficult.”
“Do you know the Battle of Newport?”
“Of course! I was almost there!” He did not mention what Paul Bernier did not know, that he had discovered Noah Watson’s corpse.
“George gave the order to kill survivors. There were thousands of men coming ashore from the sinking ferries, most without any weapons. He had his men shoot them dead from the top of the Newport cliffs. The soldiers were starting to disobey, and he went up to them, man by man, ordering them to continue the massacre. He didn’t have enough men to take them prisoner, so he had to kill them. But he gave that order, and he killed more Americans than he could count himself.”
“I had heard the story of Newport, but I had not heard it quite that way.”
“Do you know what George O’Brien did in Utah?”
“Not really, no. I know that he helped the Navajo.”
“He killed who knows how many as a sniper in his early actions with the Indians. But they were almost out of fuel, and he ran a mission to Grand Junction to get loaded fuel trucks, and that was the first time he killed civilians point-blank to accomplish an operation.”
John Alden’s jaw dropped. A second later, he uttered, “I didn’t know that.”
“It gets worse. You know he went with Patton’s forces to Indianapolis, right?”
“They ran into Boy Scouts used as infantry. He captured an officer and a wounded soldier. To find out what was going on, he shot out the wounded soldier’s knee with an anti-tank rifle to encourage the officer to talk. The officer didn’t talk. He killed them both.”
John Alden said nothing.
“On that same mission, they defeated an American force and captured a small town. A waitress in the town wouldn’t take his order. That technically violated rules of war. He shot her dead through the brain and demanded another waitress.”
“Paul, you say that George is a good guy. Are you sure?”
“Admiral, I’m sure. It killed him to do these things, but he felt he had to. He doesn’t want to hurt people, and he’s sorry he did it.”
“Are you sure?”
“You know what hurts him the most?”
“There was this boy he met down in Texas who took a liking to him. The boy actually did well in combat a couple of times. Then they were retreating from Texas and the boy wanted to stop for ice cream. He pulled over, but he didn’t tell the kid to look both ways. The boy was hit by a truck crossing the street so hard that his body was destroyed.”
John Alden winced.
“The kid had a dog, August. When the kid died, George and August kinda got over it with each other. Then the Texas Rangers arrested him on false charges, and he had to order August to run away to save the dog’s life.”
“Well, at least the dog got away,” said Vice Admiral Alden.
“That dog is the last thing he loves,” said Paul. “George isn’t right, he hasn’t got a chance of getting right without that dog, and he’s driving to Pennsylvania planning to die. And we all accepted it on ‘planning factors.’ Admiral, what are we doing here?”
John Alden looked at Paul Bernier. The war took a toll on men.
“We’re trying to win, Paul. It isn’t fair. It isn’t easy. George isn’t the man he was before America attacked us. I’m glad that you can still see him as a friend.”
“The friend he needs is a dog lost in Texas and probably dead by now,” said Paul. “Not me.”
John Alden looked at his Warrant Officer. Paul needed something himself. “How are you doing with Roberta? I see you out there with her a couple of hours each day.”
Paul chuckled. “I’m doing my best but she’s out of my league. I think she’s waiting for an Admiral. You should try your luck, Sir.”
John Alden laughed. “I’m married, thank you!”
“I know. You’re good at sneaking away to be with your wife. I like that.”
“I don’t consider it ‘sneaking’…”
“Well, I do, Admiral, and if you were enlisted everybody would. But you do your job, and we do ours, and that’s what the Navy is all about.”
John Alden laughed. “Thank you, I guess, Paul.”
“You’re welcome, Admiral. You would have been a good sailor. I don’t say that to most admirals.”
“Have you ever said that to another admiral?”
“Not yet, Sir. But I haven’t met all of you.”
“The way you talk, I think we’d better keep it that way.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Sir. But is there anything we can do for George?”
John Alden exhaled. “He’s probably crossing into Quebec right about now. If he makes it back here, you and I can talk about it. But right now he’s doing what needs to be done. You know something about that.”
“I did, until I got here. I have no idea why I’m on your staff, Admiral. Everybody else here is a genius. Then you have me. I don’t get it.”
“You don’t understand, Paul? Really?”
“You know what needs to be done. You know it in an instant. You see things through enlisted eyes, you can tell what won’t work, and you’re not afraid to tell the rest of us. Paul, you may be the greatest mind here. You know what can’t be taught, except by years of experience we don’t have, and you can act on your knowledge in seconds. And you’re not afraid to speak when you know you’re right.”
“Well, thank you, Admiral.”
“Just telling the truth.”
“So how did you know to drag me back here from Java?”
“That, Paul, appears to be my gift. But don’t tell anybody, or I’ll look narcissistic. Understood?”
“No. What’s ‘narcissistic’?”
Vice Admiral Alden laughed. “Paul, it’s late. George is on his own. You’re in the right place. Good luck with Roberta, maybe she’ll come to see what a great guy you are. There’s a battle going on in Little Rock and we’ll be needed in the morning. Let’s get four hours of sleep.”
“We’re Royal Navy, Admiral. We don’t need sleep.”
“Well, I’m getting my sleep. If you’re not, have the coffee ready for Wayne when he gets in.”
“I’ll do that, Admiral. Good night, Sir.”
“Good night,” said Vice Admiral Alden, getting up from his desk and leaving Warrant Officer Bernier where he chose to remain.
Paul Bernier sat alone in the inner office. He suddenly realized that he had never before been alone there. Things seemed somehow different alone. The hardwood was deeper on the walls. The map of the world was better-defined, and New England stood out in higher resolution to the eye. The map of the Housatonic Line, never updated or edited to reflect the horrible damage it had sustained in December, loomed larger across the room. The bookshelf on the interior wall had a missing book, and the gap in the volumes was broader than the space between books. The desk and the chair behind it seemed greater, more powerful, than they had seemed in daylight and different company.
For the first time, Paul realized the heritage,
tradition, and responsibility of Vice Admiral Alden’s position. He felt, as he rarely did, intimidated.
Warrant Officer Bernier chose to leave the inner office. He could brew coffee at Chief McGuire’s desk.
May 10, 1942
The damp, cold night air reeked of white pine.
A shadow of a man in a suit that seemed black approached the driver’s side window of the truck. “Drive through,” he said. “Do not stop. Just go through. Again, do not stop.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Captain O’Brien. The man vanished more than he walked away.
Captain O’Brien started the truck, shifted it into gear, and drove it through the Jackman border crossing checkpoint. The guardhouses on the Quebec side were vacant, as best he could tell as he passed.
May 10, 1942
“Ted, it’s past midnight. A bit of bourbon whiskey?”
The old Confederate officer smiled. “It’s already been a long night, and it’s going to get longer here by the bridges. I’m experienced enough to have a hip flask, and I think now is the time. Whiskey?”
Colonel Stalworth looked at the senior Confederate Officer. “I’d be honored to drink with you,” he said.
“Good,” said Paul Hutcheson. He took a long first swig, and then he passed the flask. “Smooth,” he commented.
Ted Stalworth took what seemed to be roughly a shot. “Smooth,” he agreed. He handed the flask back to his shadow officer.
“Lots of fire out there. Too bad we can’t see more. But you know what’s odd?”
“Sorry, Paul, I was an enlisted man not too long ago.”
“Don’t apologize in front of the men. You are fully a Colonel. And not a man has broken ranks and fled. We’re all alone here on the bridge. I didn’t expect that. Your men are fighting to the end.”
May 10, 1942
Saint Andrew’s Cathedral’s tower rose above the quiet, dark center of the city of Little Rock.
An arc of conflagration rose above the building tops around the perimeter of the city. Inside the flames were sparks from the impact of shells on steel. Within the glow were explosions of tanks blowing apart. Molotov Cocktails were no longer bright enough to see. The bullet flashes of earlier were obscured by the light of the burning buildings.
For six hours since sundown the perimeter line had held static. The outer blocks of the city were consumed in fire spread from Molotov Cocktails. The streets were clogged with burning tanks, mostly American, some Confederate. The wind was picking up from the west.
“We have a problem on our left flank,” commented Brigadier General Little.
He was right. Sparks were visible closer to the church than they should have been had the line been holding. Gunflashes paralleled the streets. A Confederate tank burst into flames behind the established line of burning buildings.
“Time to commit the reserves, General,” said Master Sergeant Washington.
“Agreed. Let’s go,” said Brigadier General Little.
“Sir, we had this talk at Galveston. You cannot join the fight.”
“No. I must.”
“General, your life is more important than this battle.”
“No!” Malcolm Little turned in the fireglow to look at his senior enlisted sergeant, a man more than old enough to be his father. “If we lose here, we lose the war! I am going to lead the counterattack! Are you with me?”
“Let’s go,” replied Master Sergeant Washington, using Brigadier General Little’s same words, but with a tone of resignation, not determination.
The two men ran down the staircase from the tower to meet the small reserve for a counterattack.