May 10, 1942
“Coffee, Sir,” said James Donegan, Flag Lieutenant. “How are you this Sunday morning, Admiral Shaw?”
“Wishing I were hung over and that you’d brought me a Bloody Mary. You really did bring me a Bloody Mary this time, right?”
“No, Sir, coffee, Admiral. But I waited until the last minute. We’re going to General Quarters in fifteen minutes, Sir. Your choker whites are ready. We need to prepare for battle.”
“Then set up my khakis. I’m not going to battle in choker whites.”
“No, Sir. Choker whites. You are New England. You represent the Allies. This is another diplomatic invasion. Get up. You’re not hung over, Sir, you just want to be.”
“Damn straight,” said Rear Admiral Shaw, rolling out of bed stark naked. “Coffee!” he demanded.
“Here, Sir,” said Lieutenant Donegan, not looking down.
“Thank you,” said Rear Admiral Shaw, taking his first sip of coffee as the warm air of the morning surrounded his body.
“Triomphant is leading the formation into the harbor. St. John is second in formation. Sir, you’re needed on the Flag Bridge. If we go to battle, you need to see what’s happening.”
“If they start shooting at us, every captain knows what to do. I haven’t been topside. The guns are all aimed at Dakar already, right?”
“See, good men. I’m not needed up there.”
“Get topside, Sir. It’s your job.”
“I need more coffee first. I’m just not a morning guy.”
“I’ll have the stewards keep the coffee coming. Get dressed, Admiral.”
“I’m not ready yet,” replied Rear Admiral Shaw, the cabin air drying the night sweat from his crotch.
“Do I have to suggest or imply that you have a venereal disease to inspire you to dress, Sir?” asked Lieutenant Donegan.
“Fool me once, shame on…”
“It strikes me that you’re naked in front of me, Admiral, and that it has not figured into your calculation of shame. Taste your coffee. There’s an ounce of bourbon in it. That’ll get you started. Today is a big day. But get dressed, Admiral. Technically, we’re invading Dakar, and you need to be ready for battle.”
“We both know that that’s not going to happen.”
“I know. Finish your coffee. More bourbon in the next one. I need you ready for diplomacy. Get going.”
“You’re getting better at your job with time,” commented Rear Admiral Shaw.
“I know. Get dressed.”
May 10, 1942
From behind the turret of the lead Valentine tank, Brigadier General Little led the three mile-per-hour charge of the counterattack.
The smoky sunset twilight glow of the early morning battle somehow amplified the gunfire’s disharmony to the symphony of the battle. The Valentine tanks were loud. The embarked men could hear little else but the noise of the engines, the grind of the road wheels on the tracks, and the buffet of the ill-muffled exhaust. But not far away rifle bullets caromed off concrete and asphalt and tank rifles ricocheted off steel, and the pings and whangs of near-misses were coupled with the shrieks and screams of the wounded. The last reserve of the Negro Brigade rode to the ring of fire now surrounding Little Rock, the orchestra of battle performing a work worthy of Wagner in his prime.
The lead Valentine turned onto the street on the axis of the American salient. The fire was behind the lead American tanks, and they and their infantry escorts were silhouetted by the smoky radiance.
“Stop!” ordered General Little.
“Stop!” relayed the tank commander, by voice to his men and by radio to the formation.
The crawling formation decelerated peacefully to rest. Ahead was war.
“You might take cover. You’re in line of fire now,” said Master Sergeant Washington.
“That would set…the wrong…example,” replied Brigadier General Washington.
“As you choose, General,” said Master Sergeant Washington.
Malcolm Little turned back to his troops. “Men!” he called in his ringing, distinctive command voice.
In the crimson darkness, black faces turned to listen.
“This is our hour! The line is broken! But we are here, we have tanks, we have mortars, and we have you! This is the moment we turn this battle to victory! This is the story you shall tell to your grandchildren! This is our hour…as heroes!”
Master Sergeant Washington gazed, as best he could in the darkness, at the teenager. His men were cheering him loudly enough to alert the Americans advancing not so very far away. Although still standing behind the turret, all of his vital organs were exposed to gunfire. Random bullets were bouncing their way down the street, and any moment that trickle would become a torrent of lead. Malcolm Little was completely unconcerned. All that mattered to him was victory.
“Disembark! Mortar teams, assemble with Master Sergeant Washington! Third tank platoon, one block right! Second tank platoon, one block left! First tank platoon, this street, and ready for action! Infantry, with me! Advance!”
The men cheered. The six tanks in the rear moved up on the sidewalks and away to the right and left. The mortar teams readied their pieces and staged their shells. The young Negroes assigned as infantry clustered around Malcolm Little, ready to go forward and die.
“Master Sergeant Washington, I don’t know where we’ll need the mortars! Make it right!”
“Yes, Sir, General. Godspeed.”
“Godspeed.” Malcolm Little extended his hand. Master Sergeant Washington, older than his father, grasped it. The two different men looked each other in the eye in a moment that both knew was goodbye.
May 10, 1942
“What are you doing here?” asked Lieutenant Commander Crandlemire.
“I couldn’t sleep. Coffee?”
“Thanks, Paul,” said Wayne Crandlemire. “Why couldn’t you sleep?”
“I’m worried about George.”
“We’re all worried about the mission.”
“It’s not that. I’m worried about George. What is he going to do?”
“I expect that he’ll try to destroy the Fischer-Tropsch plant.”
“And I think that he’ll succeed. So then what? Where does he go? We don’t have a plan for that.”
“That was his choice, Paul. By the way, good coffee. Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. See what an old enlisted guy can do?”
“You’re not that old.”
“Still good coffee.”
“Yes, it is. Better than I can do. Are you going to get some sleep tonight? There’s still time.”
“I don’t think so. Hey, Wayne, how many messages have you got there?”
Lieutenant Commander Crandlemire looked at his canvas satchel from the communications center. “I don’t know. Maybe five hundred.”
“Five hundred? How can you read that many?”
“Because I have to, I guess,” said Wayne Crandlemire. “I’ll have them done by sunrise.”
“When I see you able to do that, I wonder why I’m here.”
“Nobody else does, Paul. We know why you’re Get some sleep. I’ll do what I do. You rest up to do what you do. And thank you for the coffee.”
“Welcome. I don’t know if I can sleep.”
“I’d thought Bos’n Mates could always catch a nap?”
“I used to be able to do that. This officer stuff is tough.”
Wayne Crandlemire paused. “Paul, I’m happy that you see yourself as an officer now. You’re right, though. If you do it right, it’s not easy.”
“I always said it was easy, for years,”
“I know. Go. Get some sleep. I’ll explain why you’re late. I think that I’m technically your boss.”
“Yeah. There’s a command chart somewhere. I recommended Vice Admiral Alden approve it. He did. You technically work for me. I never told you because you wouldn’t listen.”
“You were right.”
“Until now. Get some sleep, Paul. That’s an order. And you know I’m right this time.”
“Do I have to admit that?”
“No. Just get some sleep. I’ll cover for you. Deal?”
“Deal.” With that, finally, Paul Bernier went off to go to bed.
Wayne Crandlemire watched his warrant officer leave. He took a deep sip of his coffee. It was, certainly, better than he could brew for himself.
Then he laid the deep stack of message traffic before him. He exhaled. He concentrated.
Then he started to read, absorb, and annotate faster than any other officer in the New England Royal Navy could approach.
May 10, 1942
“Report,” said Major Westmoreland.
“Did you get any sleep?” asked Captain Copen.
“About an hour.”
“About the same. But a Coonhound is more comfortable.”
“Not by much. Are we ready?”
“Every vehicle has a full load. The Mammies are filled with ammo for the Snappers and Razorbacks in lieu of infantry. We have Eggbeaters instead of infantry, but we’re trying to destroy vehicles, not hold ground. We’re ready.”
“Very well. I’ll get back to my Razorback. You’ve got the better line of sight from your Coonhound. Take charge if necessary.”
“I’ll do that, Sir.”
“Good. Let’s get ready to roll. It’s almost sunrise.”
May 10, 1942
“We’re out of ammo for the machine gun. Men, we’re going to die. But here’s how we’re going to do it.”
Brigadier General Little heard those words as he burst into the ground floor corner room of the brownstone. “None of you are going to die. Sergeant Brown, I’m here. Report.”
“General! You know me?”
“Of course I know you, Sergeant Brown. You carry a machine gun despite asthma. Report.”
“General, we’re out of ammo. We can’t fight these tanks. Our only chance is grenades point-blank.”
“Negative. First, order the men of your crew to fall back with your gun to find ammunition. You’re with me. Clear?”
“Yes, Sir,” answered Sergeant Brown. “Men, take the gun and run. I’m here with the General.”
“Yes, Sarge!” answered one of the two Negroes. The young soldiers picked up the gun, together, and ran out the door from which the general had entered.
“Men, you have two Roman Candles and two Molotov Cocktails,” said General Little.
“Yes, Sir,” said one of the remaining privates.
“Give us your weapons. You two retire to Master Sergeant Washington for further assignment. The rest of you use your rifles to defend the ground floor as long as you can. Sergeant Brown and I will take care of the tanks.”
“Yes, General,” said the other private addressed. They happily transferred their anti-tank weapons.
“General, do you have a lighter?” asked Sergeant Brown.
“Of course!” said Brigadier General Little. “You’re with me! Up the stairs! You men, get out! Find Master Sergeant Washington down the street! The rest of you, find windows and start shooting!”
“Yes, Sir!” said the privates. Sergeant Brown followed General Little to the stairs.
“Why did you send the rest of them away?” asked Sergeant Brown.
“This isn’t going to be easy,” said General Little. “I needed a man I could count on.”
“If you say so. I’ve got the Roman Candles. You get the Molotovs, Sir, and lead the way.”
“Got ‘em,” said Brigadier General Little, running for the stairs.
The old brick building was four stories high. There was, as expected, a narrow stairway near the fourth floor landing going all the way to the roof. General Little threw open the door. The air was heavy with cordite smoke and exhaust fumes. Three blocks away a conflagration blazed at a ruined gas station, but the billowing smoke rose too fast to make a difference for the two Negroes, except to illuminate the streets with the flashes that came and went with the clouds.
“Stay down!” ordered General Little. Sergeant Brown ducked down. “We’re silhouetted up here!”
“Just stay safe. Have you ever fired a Roman Candle?”
“Can you throw a Molotov?”
“Of course. My arm’s good.”
“Then we’ll trade. Let me take a look, first,” said Brigadier General Little. He looked almost like Groucho Marx as he duck-walked to the corner of the roof. As he had expected, the American tanks had reached the building. He glanced to his left. What he had not expected was that the American armor had already reached both sides of the block. He lowered himself out of sight from the ground. For a moment he pondered the situation.
“Sergeant!” he called, motioning the huge soldier to come forward. Sergeant Brown crawled up on hands and knees, somehow still clutching both Roman Candles. “Peek up. Can you hit that third tank?”
Sergeant Brown looked over the edge for just a moment. “Yes. Yes, Sir. Easy.”
“I need you to light your Molotov, stand up, and throw it on the third tank. You run to the other side, and take out the second or third tank there. I’ll fire my Roman Candles on each side after you do at tanks farther back. After you throw your second Molotov, get down off the roof.”
“Here’s my lighter. Make it good.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Sergeant Brown. Malcolm Little handed him a cigarette lighter. Sergeant Brown, still on his knees, picked up one of the two Molotovs. The rag was damp. He tested the bottle’s weight.
Finally, standing, Sergeant Brown lit the Molotov. The burning rag ignited his sleeve. Ignoring that, Sergeant Brown stood, took aim, and threw the bomb in a spiral as if it were a football, not end-over-end haphazardly. The Molotov Cocktail, slowed by its burning rag, decelerated in a parabolic arc to drop exactly upon the rim of the open commander’s hatch of the third American medium tank in line.
Neither Sergeant Brown nor General Little saw it. Sergeant Brown was crawling across to the other side of the roof, after pounding his flaming sleeve against his chest until the fire was mostly extinguished. General Little was waiting for the chaos on the ground to build before firing. He knew that his next moves were likely to be fatal. He wondered, in an existential moment, whether to pray to Allah or Jesus for the best chance of salvation. He chose Jesus Christ.
Malcolm Little stood at the rooftop corner of the besieged brick building. The Roman Candle felt friendly and familiar. He looked down upon the street and saw the sixth tank as an easy shot. He fired. The rocket sailed too far, exploding just beyond the tank on the sidewalk. Many men screamed as they were hit by fragments of the rocket and splinters of concrete.
General Little dropped out of sight. Rifle bullets cracked above his head. He had underestimated the threat. The Americans were there in company strength a hundred feet away. Breaking both tank columns would not be enough.
And now they each had just one weapon left.
On the other corner of the roof, Sergeant Brown stood, threw his last Molotov, and ducked for cover. The “whoosh” of the Molotov was discernable through the din of battle. The secondary explosion a second later shook the building.
Malcolm Little stood, again, aiming for the same tank. He could not afford to miss. He knew where he had aimed the last time. He dropped the tube of the rocket launcher a couple of degrees to compensate.
The dense smoke over the gas station ignited, turning night to day.
A rifle bullet zipped nastily past Malcolm Little’s head.
He pulled the trigger of the Roman Candle. The rocket left the tube.
A bullet hit his left shoulder. He flinched. Another hit his right thigh. He fell.
The destruction of another American tank again quaked the structure. General Little looked over at the egress from the roof. Per orders, Sergeant Brown was already heading down the stairs. He had to get up to live.
The gasoline flare went out. The night went from bright yellow to deep crimson.
Malcolm Little stood. He realized that both rifle bullets had left nothing but flesh wounds. With pain, he could still move. Disregarding cover in return for what speed he could manage, he limped for the stairs. He made it to the entrance safely, and he fell inside.
“General!” shouted Sergeant Brown, just a floor down. Malcolm Little collapsed into the stairwell.
A shell burst on the roof ripped shrapnel through the enclosure atop the stairs. Wood splinters rained upon the two Negroes.
“I’m fine,” said General Little.
“You’re covered in blood! I’ve got you,” said Sergeant Brown, tossing the slender teenager over his shoulder as if he were a scarf.
Another shell went off on the roof. Dust and wood fell down the staircase faster than Sergeant Brown could run.
General Little tried to protest. He couldn’t speak. The dash down turning stairs and loss of blood had left him too queasy. He vomited across Sergeant Brown’s back. The huge enlisted man slipped, caught himself, and kept running down.
Sergeant Brown reached the ground floor. Soldiers were firing point-blank out the windows. Somebody tossed out a grenade and ducked. Blast and fragments returned through the window.
“The General’s hit! I’m running him back! Cover me! Cover me! Then save yourselves!”
“Yes, Sergeant!” said somebody.
Malcolm Little felt himself carried away, impossibly fast. The Sergeant who had been driven to exhaustion by Captain O’Brien while carrying a gun now had an infinitely more vital load. He did not jog or run. He sprinted, fast, despite asthma, ignoring the growing oxygen deficit, just fleeing the front lines for safety. Sergeant Brown had never known that he had been training for this moment. Malcolm Little wondered, his head bouncing, if Captain O’Brien had actually foreseen this.
Tens of seconds later, Sergeant Brown approached the six mortars. “Medic!” he screamed, taking General Little from his shoulder and gently putting him against a building out of line of fire. A soldier with a medical bag ran over. “It’s General Little! He’s hit!”
“Let me see,” said the medic.
“Two flesh wounds…shoulder…thigh…” said General Little.
“He’s lost a lot of blood!” screamed Sergeant Brown in a deep voice.
“I know. We can save him. Get out of the way. Let me look.”
Still conscious, Brigadier General Little saw Master Sergeant Washington coming to see him.
The American counterbattery fire dwarfed the Negro mortars as if they were firecrackers challenged by dynamite. The first salvo, inaccurate on the whole, rained forty shells of death over an area the size of two sports fields. One shell landed twelve feet from Master Sergeant Washington. It riddled his body with steel before throwing it into the corner of a marble-faced building. The edge of the structure caught the back of his neck. His corpse fell and bled out swiftly, the head bent forward sharper than ninety degrees, its face buried in the body’s ruined chest.