July 26, 1942
“I’m really not sure that this is a good idea, Mike,” said Ted Williams.
“Oh, it is, it really is,” said Mike Whitten. The two of them were on the Waikiki beachfront veranda of some high-end hotel, sipping mai-tais.
“I’d thought that we’d left our pay with our wives, just keeping allowances,” said Ted Williams.
“We did,” agreed Mike Whitten.
“But, if we spend our money here, don’t we have to pay it back?”
“Nope,” said Mike Whitten, taking a long draw from his straw. The surf was beautiful.
“I don’t understand,” commented Ted Williams. “And this is too fruity,” he added, making a face at his glass full of rum, tropical juices, and pineapple chunks.
Lieutenant Whitten raised his hand. The bar-area waiter was there in two seconds. “Sir?” he asked. The uniform commanded respect and attention, even if the community did not yet know who the two of them were.
“Jack Daniels, double, rocks, for my friend, please. Faster would be better, all things considered. We’re ace fighter pilots, and tomorrow may be too late.”
“Of course,” said the waiter, racing away.
“Jack Daniels? In Oahu? We can’t afford this.”
“Remember I told you to shut up in the pay office?” asked Mike Whitten.
“Overpayments are the responsibility of the Disbursing Officer, not the service member, and in cases such as ours, easily waived. We’re on double pay plus allowances. Ted, after what we’ve done and what we’ve been through, we deserve double pay. We probably deserve more. But let’s just take advantage of the loss of our pay records. We’re sitting here in paradise with a guy bringing liquor. Can’t we just enjoy that?”
Ted Williams looked out at the waves crashing upon Waikiki Beach. “Mike, I’m not a happy guy.”
“Would you be happy getting back to baseball after the war?”
“What baseball? Most of the teams were in the United States.”
“Something will have to bring us back together after the war.”
“You always look on the bright side, Mike.”
“Jack Daniels, Sir,” said the bar waiter, placing the precious rocks glass of whiskey from an inaccessible continent upon a tidy bar napkin.
“Thank you,” said Ted Williams.
Mike Whitten, unashamed, combined the remnants of Ted Williams’s Mai-Tai into his own. “Don’t mention it. We only get this moment once. Ted, it is an honor to be your wingman. Thank you for being my friend.”
Ted Williams raised his double Jack. Mike Whitten clinked the glass with his more-or-less double Mai-Tai. The surf crashed upon Waikiki Beach not more than fifty feet away. They enjoyed the moment of life.
July 27, 1942
“John, this place is a mess,” said Admiral Vaughn.
“It’s been prettier,” said Vice Admiral Alden. Every window in both his inner and outer offices had been boarded shut. The damage in the hallway from the previous attack had never been repaired. Outside the Simulation Room, a full grease gun magazine had ripped apart the hallway and its ceiling. The staircase on the other end of the building was completely ruined, not least by the quarts of blood that had poured across the floorboards.
“We need to move you. I have a few ideas.”
“We’re not moving, Admiral. This is the War College.”
“John, I know your pride, but the building is ruined. That’s why there are ‘Condemned’ signs posted outside in bright yellow and black. You need to move.”
“I disagree, Sir. We have electricity, we have gas for the stove, and we have water.”
“John, this building took over two hundred bullets yesterday.”
“Nineteenth Century New England architecture. Built to last. Gotta love it!”
“We can reposition you in Worcester with the Army, at the Boston Navy Yard near the King, or off in Halifax near the Prince. But you have to move. Where would you choose to go?”
“I would choose to stay.”
“But that’s not an option, John.”
“No, it is an option, Sir. You pay me to find options. I’ve found one. We’re not moving. We’re staying here.”
“I can order you to move.”
“And I can refuse. You can convict me for dereliction at court martial, but you’d lose me in this role. I hold the team together. You know that. I’m not moving.”
Admiral Vaughn smiled. “John, I’d rather you followed my orders, but I’m glad that we have a man of your attitude planning our defense.”
“Thank you. So, we can stay?”
“No. You wouldn’t be safe.”
“We’ll be safe. The building is ruined and condemned. Nobody would expect us to still be here. It’s the perfect hiding place.”
“Why would you want to stay here?”
“Why? You ask that, Admiral?” replied Vice Admiral Alden, incredulous.
“Yes, why, John. You’re a Vice Admiral. You deserve a luxury office with hardwood fittings, not a room with the broken-out windows boarded over in a building torn to splinters by bullets and grenades.”
John Alden stood. He leaned upon his desk. “This is the ‘Big Desk,’ Admiral Vaughn. This is the desk where Noah Watson planned that amazing first month of our war. This is his map of the world. This is his modest bookshelf. Behind me is his hand-drawn map of the Housatonic Line. And here, Admiral, here,” said Vice Admiral Alden, sitting down, “Is the ‘Big Chair.’ This is where I sit. This is where Noah sat. Your chair, Admiral, is the locus of power for our nation’s navy. But this chair has always been the focus of decision.”
“Admiral Vaughn, tradition has value—tradition is essential for the military. I remember the day that you ordered me to sit in the ‘Big Chair.’ I was scared, but not for long. Admiral, I belong here. I don’t belong in Worcester, or Boston, or Halifax. I belong right here. And I plan to stay here, every window boarded up, the signs outside saying ‘Condemned,’ and with no guards at the doorways. We can fool the Americans. And I am staying here.”
“I see,” said Admiral Vaughn. “Have you considered flexibility, as in enough to follow orders?”
“No, Sir. Captain Watson killed himself. I’m known to be suicidal. Care to repeat an error, Admiral?”
Admiral Vaughn looked across the desk. If John Alden lacked Noah Watson’s eidetic memory, he had far superior leadership skills, including the ability to threaten suicide rather than committing it.
For a moment he wondered if the Big Chair drove men mad. He quickly chose not to try it himself.
Admiral Vaughn stood. “The War College remains here. Tell me what you need. But this is classified Most Secret, and you and your entire staff are absolutely, without exception, restricted to this building.”
“Yes, John. Per your choice. Rescinded if you choose to move.”
“Can we, at least, visit Samson?” he asked. Captain Christopher was clinging to life, unconscious, in the Naval Hospital. He had taken sixteen bullets, but none to the heart or lungs. Two had pierced his arm to hit his skull, but they had not reached his brain. He had lost his gall bladder and spleen, but both organs were expendable. No known man had survived sixteen bullets, but Samson was Samson, and the War College was supporting him.
“No. You stay here, you stay here. Make a choice.”
“We stay here,” said John Alden.
That told Admiral Vaughn everything. More than willingness to face discipline or worse, John Alden’s willingness to sacrifice visitation rights demonstrated his determination to remain in the wrecked Navy War College building.
“Very well, John,” said Admiral Vaughn. “Have Commander Adams work out details of support with my staff. I apologize, in advance, for your lack of sunlight. Godspeed, John. I have to be going.”
John Alden stood. Before he could say more, Admiral Vaughn was gone.
July 28, 1942
They had seen the first seaplane not long after dawn. Rear Admiral Clark had positioned his flagship, Merrimack, and her sister ship, Housatonic, on what he had perceived to be the threat axis for Bismarck, given that she was approaching from Ireland. He was not disappointed. Smoke appeared to starboard just after 1000, and minutes later masts emerged above the eastern horizon.
The two New England Merrimack-class battleships were chronological peers of the British “R”-class battleships, but they reflected a different design philosophy. In silhouette, they were easily mistaken for the British Iron Duke-class battleships, with which they shared a similar ten-gun 13.5-inch main battery in five dual turrets, albeit with higher gun elevation to permit fire at almost 30,000 yards. Despite the similarity, the Merrimacks were significantly superior to the Iron Dukes. With oil-fired burners, the Merrimacks had the speed of the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships. Furthermore, the Merrimacks had three inches more turret armor, four inches more belt armor, and a bit more deck armor than the Iron Dukes, and they were far more effective in heavy seas, a common feature of New England naval engineering.
“Signal for Housatonic to execute ninety-degree turn to starboard, line abreast, upon my command. Merrimack will turn in line abreast. Order both Merrimack and Housatonic to commence ranging salvoes with forward turrets,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
The enlisted men scurried away to relay his orders. Rear Admiral Clark looked out at the horizon through his glasses. He could see the Gotland peeling away and the larger Bismarck closing, even if the hulls of both were still obscured by the curve of the earth. The Bismarck alone was almost equal to the two old New England battleships in displacement, and displacement was a tried and tested metric of combat power among ships of similar age and technology. The Bismarck was far newer. The two New England battleships had twenty heavy guns to Bismarck’s eight, and their combined weight of broadside was around double Bismarck’s, but there were subtle ways tonnage and technology were used to increase combat power. The Bismarck, doubtlessly knowing the proximity of the troop convoy, had chosen to accept combat. Her admiral—probably Admiral Ciliax—had made a net assessment the same as his. Bismarck versus two Merrimacks, with a spare Axis cruiser, was a battle worth risking the last German battleship.
It occurred to Rear Admiral Clark that he knew the name of nobody on his very own flag bridge. His Chief of Staff and Flag Lieutenant had been left in Halifax in the rush to get two battleships underway to meet the convoy, to finish taking care of staff work related to overhaul schedules for Atlantic Fleet battleships, St John in particular. This had been seen as just a contingency. Now the contingency was real. Rear Admiral Clark wondered at himself, that he had chosen to stay so distant. As a PhD, he knew that it probably meant more about his unwillingness to form close ties in the circumstance than any lack of memory.
“I’m headed for the Navigation Bridge,” said Rear Admiral Clark, opening the hatch and leaving the Flag Bridge. His fragment of a staff would do better below decks. He needed to be at the scene of the action.
“Admiral off the bridge!” said a voice he failed to recognize.
He closed the hatch behind him. The Navigation Bridge was just a ladder away. The thunder of the 13.5-inch guns shook the superstructure. Rear Admiral Clark climbed the ladder and opened the quick-acting hatch.
“Admiral on the Bridge!” announced the Quartermaster of the Watch.
“Captain Jackson-Sims, may I join you?” asked Rear Admiral Clark.
“I was wondering when you’d get here,” replied the rather young, but silver-haired officer. “My pleasure. Have you seen Housatonic?”
“The Housatonic turned starboard without waiting for our signal to execute. It seems that she has a head start.”
Rear Admiral Clark went out to the starboard bridge wing. Housatonic had already made her turn. Whether that had been a misunderstanding in signals or whether Captain Pelletier had just wanted to reach a better range faster was unknown. The Merrimack and Housatonic were lethal adversaries at around 15,000 yards, by design, with their ultra-heavy belt and turret armor. Sometimes the failure to wait a minute or two for coordination could be excused.
Two ranging shells splashed around the Housatonic. Bismarck’s first guess was a straddle.
“Execute turn to starboard!”
“Execute turn to starboard, aye,” said Captain Donald Jackson-Sims. He relayed the command to his Navigator, the Battle Stations Officer of the Deck. The Navigator spoke to the Helmsman and the Lee Helm. The orders were acknowledged. The Merrimack turned to starboard.
Compensating for course change as best they could, the two forward turrets barked hellfire, still trying to ascertain the range to Bismarck.
Off to the port bow, Housatonic firing another ranging salvo. Merrimack’s shell dye was green. Housatonic’s shell dye was, and always been, red. The salvoes were easy to discern in daylight.
Bismarck turned to starboard, bringing her aft turrets to bear. The red splashes were still short of the target. The green splashes were close, but long. Bismarck’s shells straddled Housatonic, again. By turning first, she had appeared to be the flagship. That had attracted Bismarck’s fire.
“Forty-five degree turn to port, line abreast, on our signal. We’ve got to close the range. Acknowledge.”
“Forty-five-degree formation turn to port, line abreast, acknowledged,” said Captain Jackson-Sims, holding a finger aloft.
“Very well,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
“Make it so,” said Captain Jackson-Sims, lowering his finger. A young, very handsome seaman sprinted off the bridge.
“Messenger?” asked Rear Admiral Clark.
“Flag messenger, battle stations only, for flag orders to formation.”
“That’s not standard.”
“No. I’d thought that we were supposed to innovate. Seaman Messina and I have practiced relaying flag orders for nine months, in case this day came.”
“I am impressed,” admitted Rear Admiral Clark.
“Thank you. I’ll let him know,” said Captain Jackson-Sims.
Daylight turned, for a single moment, triple brilliant. Forward and starboard of the Merrimack, the Housatonic broke cleanly into three pieces, her bow and stern falling away as two fifteen-inch shells hit her fore and aft magazines through the thin deck armor almost simultaneously. The center of the ship rose from the Atlantic waters. Absent the support of the sea water, the amidships keel broke. The fireball entered it through the broken bottom, and the “Q” turret magazine ignited and detonated above the wave tops, ripping the center of the lost battleship into large, lethal chunks of shrapnel.
Hundreds of yards away from that horrifying fireball, a rather large chunk of steel from some ambiguous place in the Housatonic’s hull hit the skull of the Merrimack’s Navigator, the General Quarters Officer of the Deck. His body was pulled into the port railing, where it came to rest and bled out horribly at the point of the dismembered neck. The steel, followed by the bones of the skull and the trailing foam of brains and blood, flew across the bridge and out through the gray port bulkhead. The steel punched a jagged hole the size of an oblong softball. The brains squashed hard against the steel, but none penetrated. The blood mixed with that of the Quartermaster of the Watch as his face was torn off, not by the steel, but by the hyper-accelerated bone fragments. The Chief, tragically, did not instantly die, instead screaming blood where he stood, destroying the maneuvering board plot chart with the blood and sputum expelled by his last breath blending with the humor draining from his ruptured eyeballs upon his careful pencil marks from moments before.
He collapsed to his knees, then to his side, and he coughed terribly at first as he passed away.
Of all of the men on the bridge of the Merrimack, only one had seen such carnage before. Rear Admiral Clark, one of the five survivors from the bridge of the Connecticut in her victory over three modern German battleships, took one step forward. “Captain Jackson-Sims, take the deck!” he ordered.
Captain Jackson-Sims turned, nodded, his jaw quivering, and turned back to his bridge team. “On the battleship Merrimack, this is Captain Jackson-Sims. I have the deck. I have the conn.”
“Lee Helm, aye.”
There were three seconds of silence.
“Port messenger, go to the Signal Bridge to get relief for the Quartermaster of the Watch.”
“Aye-aye, Sir!” said the Seaman. He ran aft, off the Bridge.
The four forward guns spewed fire.
“Order fire for effect,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
“Yes, Sir! Starboard talker, pass order to fire for effect.”
“Aye-aye, Sir!” answered the Starboard Talker. He leaned into his sound-powered phones to pass the order.
“Steady on course zero-seven-five!” announced the Helm.
“Very well,” answered Captain Jackson-Sims.
“Order maximum speed, all ahead flank,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
“Lee Helm, all ahead flank.”
“Aye, Captain, all ahead flank,” answered the Lee Helm. He rang the Engine Order Telegraph.
“Advise Engineering to disengage safeties. Maximum speed.”
“Advise Engineering to disengage safeties. Maximum speed,” repeated Captain Jackson-Sims. Rear Admiral Clark nodded concurrence.
“Aye, Sir! Advising Engineering to disengage safeties! Maximum speed!”
“Very well,” answered Captain Jackson-Sims.
“Engineering!” called the Lee Helm down the speaking tube, “Disengage all safeties! All ahead flank!”
There was a moment’s silence. “Say what?” came the voice up the tube.
“Disengage all safeties! All ahead flank!”
“Disengage all safeties! All ahead flank, aye!” came the response.
The four forward guns roared again. To the right, the ruined pieces of the Housatonic still afloat burned in a mud puddle of black oil. At such close range, usually the screams of survivors could be heard. This time, there were none, literally none. The airborne magazine explosion had lethally flash-burned every man topside who might have gotten away. The wave crests and debris were silent.
Two ranging shots fell behind the Merrimack.
The boilers and engines of the Merrimack came alive as they never had before in the battleship’s history, not even on trials. Unusually, for a dreadnought already at speed, the acceleration was palpable.
The forward turrets fired. Several seconds later, two ranging shells fell, in the Merrimack’s wake, farther behind than the first two.
“Showing turns for twenty-six knots,” announced the Lee Helm.
Two junior enlisted gasped. “Very well,” answered Captain Jackson-Sims. The battleship had never reached twenty-four knots since trials. Engineering had, indeed, disengaged safeties.
The hatch to the bridge opened. “Petty Officer Earl McInnis here, Sir, to assume the position of Quartermaster of the Watch!”
“Very well,” said Captain Jackson-Sims.
Petty Officer McInnis looked at his blood-drenched watch station, and then he glanced left to see the corpse of his leading chief, clotted fluids, broken teeth, and mangled bones an inch back from where his face should have been, lying beside the headless corpse of the Navigator.
He retched. He almost fell in his vomitus, but he caught himself on his knee.
“Petty Officer McInnis, do you require relief?” asked Captain Jackson-Sims.
“No…no, Sir,” said the young man. He rose from his knee, grabbed the cloth intended for erasing grease pencil marks from the watch station, and, using the side not yet blood-soaked, he wiped the puke from his lips. The threw the rag aside. “Leading Quartermaster ready for duty, Sir.”
“Very well. Clean up your watch station. This is going to be a long battle.”
“Aye-aye, Sir,” replied Petty Officer McInnis.
Bismarck’s two shells straddled Merrimack.
Seconds later, the four forward turrets fired. “They’re firing faster than we are,” commented Rear Admiral Clark.
“My crew is well-trained, Sir,” replied Captain Jackson-Sims.
“I know. It’s as if the Bismarck is using fixed ammunition, they’re firing so fast. Good shots, too. Let’s hope we close the range. Our turret and belt armor must be better, if we can get close enough for that to matter.”
Eight fifteen-inch shells straddled the Merrimack.
“We’re straddling Bismarck!” announced the Port Talker.
“Four shells to eight, two salvoes for three of theirs. We’re at a three-to-one disadvantage. Ideas?” asked Rear Admiral Clark.
“Admiral, Lieutenant Rick Collins, Junior Officer of the Deck. I have an idea.”
“Good, son, what is it?”
“My father told me that, if it ever seemed that I was going to die at sea, to take a moment to pray. He said that it would remind me that I had a chance to live, and not to give up. He also said that he didn’t know if God listened, but that it never hurt to ask.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Collins,” said Rear Admiral Clark. “I’m not sure…”
“Our Father, who art in Heaven,” began Petty Officer McInnis, quite loudly, clearing the blood and debris from his ruined watch station.
Eight more shells from Bismarck rained down upon the Merrimack. One hit the forecastle, dropping into the chain locker. It failed to detonate.
“Hallowed be thy name,” continued Captain Jackson-Sims.
The two forward turrets roared.
“Bismarck is hit!” announced the Port Lookout.
“Thine Kingdom come,” continued the Commanding Officer.
“Thine will be done,” continued the entire watch team save Admiral Clark, “On earth as it is in Heaven.”
“The Lord God knows we have asked for His help. Damage reports! Do we have damage reports from the hit?” commanded Rear Admiral Clark.
“Sir! I have Forward Damage Control! Wait one!” said the Starboard Talker.
“Bismarck! Have we damaged Bismarck!” demanded Rear Admiral Clark.
“Bismarck turning away, trailing smoke,” spoke the Port Lookout.
“I need to know her speed!” demanded Rear Admiral Clark.
“On it, Sir!” replied the new Quartermaster of the Watch, slapping a new pad of Maneuvering Board paper upon the station he had just cleared of blood.
Eight heavy shells surrounded, but missed, the Merrimack.
“Left standard rudder, coming to course zero-six-zero,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
“Left standard rudder, coming to course zero-six-zero,” echoed Captain Jackson-Sims.
“Left standard rudder, Aye! Coming to course zero-six-zero,” answered the Helm.
“Let’s see if that’s enough to confuse them, trailing smoke. They can’t see us clearly anymore,” commented Rear Admiral Clark.
“Steady on course zero-six-zero, Sir!” announced the Helm.
Merrimack was straddled. One shell fell fewer than fifty yards to starboard, amidships.
“Good call, Admiral,” said Captain Jackson-Sims.
“Thank you. It’s my job,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
“Bismarck estimated speed thirty-one knots!” announced Petty Officer McInnis.
“Very well,” answered Captain Jackson-Sims.
“That was fast,” said Rear Admiral Clark.
“I did my best, Sir!”
“Are you sure that you’re right?”
“Yes, Sir, give or take two knots at this range.”
“Excellent answer, son. Intelligence believes Bismarck’s top speed to be thirty knots.”
“So Bismarck still has full speed,” stated Captain Jackson-Sims.
“Exactly. Switch main battery shell selection to high explosive. Lay smoke. All ahead full, indicating turns for twenty knots. Reset safeties. Right standard rudder, setting course for one-four-five. Bismarck is trying to kill us through our deck armor. We’re not playing that game. Let’s see what Gotland is trying to do behind us.”