July 22, 1942
“Admiral,” said Chief McGuire from the door to the inner office.
“Roberta,” answered John Alden, knowing that they were alone. “My goodness, what time is it?”
“It’s late, Sir. Captain Christopher is still awake in case you need a briefing. The other men have been asleep for three hours, and the ladies retired about a half-hour ago. It’s almost midnight.”
“Oh, goodness. I was just trying to work my way through the briefing book. I haven’t finished it yet.”
“Nobody could have, Sir.”
“Wayne could have.”
“Yes, Admiral, but we all know Wayne is Superman. The rest of us read one word at a time, and it’s slower that way.”
“Petty Officer Chiang reads faster than I do.”
“He cooks faster than you do, too, Admiral. But you’re the only man who can keep this place together in the long term. Don’t you forget that.”
“Thank you. But you didn’t come in here to tell me that.”
“No, Sir. We just got an immediate-priority message by runner from Radio Central. Ted Williams and Mike Whitten are safe in Juneau. Commander Crandlemire sends.”
“Yes,” said Vice Admiral Alden, leaning back in the big chair, shutting his eyes, and exhaling.
“Are you happy?”
“As close as I’ve been since I saw you again,” said the admiral, his eyes still closed. “Ready or not to be here, it was good to see all of you, and you take better care of me than I deserve, Roberta.”
“I’m good at my job, but you deserve the best from all of us, Sir.”
“Am I interrupting?” asked Captain Christopher.
“No, come in. Both of you come in. Have your seats. Samson, thank you for staying up. Why did you need to see me?”
“The ladies asked me to brief you on what we’d…”
“Yes, Sir, Edna and Channah.”
“But not Chief McGuire?”
“I’m a Chief Petty Officer. I’m not a lady,” said Roberta, winking for her first time in Newport.
“Look, George and I do our best, but the ladies run the simulation room.”
“As I intend it, and we’ve always been grateful to have you here, Samson. You and Captain O’Brien are essential to our mission. You do great work. But what’s the message from…the ladies?”
“First, the Bismarck and the Gotland took a hard left turn…”
“Turn to port,” corrected Vice Admiral Alden, softly.
“Yes, Admiral. They took a hard turn to port north of Scotland. We believe that they’re headed for Ireland.”
“Yes. The Gotland is a coastal cruiser, and Bismarck can always use more fuel. They can stop once in each neutral nation each month. Ireland has no empire. Using Ireland keeps other options open. And stopping in Ireland allows full tanks before moving into the Atlantic.”
John Alden nodded. “Makes sense. But you didn’t stay up to tell me that.”
“No, Admiral. We have a problem. We’re thinking that Bismarck is headed for our troop convoy because the Germans have intel that it’s coming. That makes sense. There’s a large German-heritage group in La Plata. And if the Germans know the troop convoy is coming, they could be after it, and our two old battleships aren’t a guarantee of victory. But there’s a worse problem.”
“What if the Bismarck intercepts our newly-purchased aircraft carriers? Their decks will be too full to launch. They’ll be helpless.”
“But the Bismarck will be gone by then.”
“We’ve assumed interception of the troop convoy. What if Bismarck lurks off Ireland? We won’t know she’s there. With Gotland, she’d easily intercept the carriers.”
“Damn,” whispered Vice Admiral Alden.
“The ladies suggested getting our Connecticut underway despite damage and asking the Confederates to sortie the Shenandoah and the Tennessee despite their need for refit. That would offer support for the carriers on two axes.”
“Does Connecticut have either its optical or radar fire control repaired?”
“No, Admiral. It would be on local turret control if engaged.”
“Very well. Have the Confederate cruisers enjoyed any sort of post-deployment overhaul on their engineering plants since returning from Java?”
“And the ladies knew this and briefed you to tell me that?”
“Yes, Sir, Admiral Alden.”
“Very well. What is their plan?”
“They wanted me to brief you so that you would be ready for discussion tomorrow morning.”
“Excellent. We don’t have time for that, though. Superb job, Samson. I’ll take it from here. Dismissed.”
“Yes, Sir!” answered Captain Christopher, standing and leaving with his always-present mace.
Vice Admiral Alden waited while he left. In the late-night silence, he could hear the heavy man’s footsteps as he went down the double flight of stairs, first to the office level, then to the level that had largely been converted to bedrooms.
“Roberta,” he said, once the sounds were no longer audible.
“Take dictation for two messages, both Immediate precedence, both Most Secret. Are you ready?”
“Yes, Sir, of course.”
July 23, 1942
Admiral Rik Van Auken slept at his desk more often than not. He had chosen to use nothing stronger than aspirin after a few weeks, and aspirin could quell the pain of neither his missing left foot nor his ruined right eye. He dozed a few hours each night from exhaustion, and he usually napped after lunch. Each morning he underwent therapy, and they took him outside in clear weather. Except for that, and except for changing his clothes and washing each morning before sunrise, he lived at his desk. He spent most of his time struggling to keep up with message traffic with one eye and a heavily-corrective gold-rimmed monocle. He read so slowly that Atlantic Fleet went on without him, for the most part. He had delegated authority for most decisions. But he had not been relieved, and his orders were lawful orders. Where he still chose to say what to do, his words were law in his Fleet.
A radioman crept into the inner office, just after three in the morning, a heavy manila folder in his hand. He tried to set it into the in box silently.
“Immediate precedence?” asked Admiral Van Auken, either suddenly awake or ceasing to pretend that he was asleep.
“Yes, Sir!” snapped back the petty officer.
“You’re supposed to awaken me,” commented Admiral Van Auken.
“Your staff has the message, Admiral. That satisfies the requirement. You need…”
“I need your loyalty! Do you understand!”
“Yes, Admiral! Are you in pain?”
“Are you in pain?” was the question everybody close to Admiral Van Auken had been taught to ask. He was always in pain, in terrible pain. It affected his temper. And that question had always, thus far, corrected the moment.
“Yes…yes, I am. I apologize. Thank you. The message, please.”
“Yes, Admiral,” said the radioman, handing him the folder.
MOST SECRET MOST SECRET MOST SECRET
0612 GREENWICH TIME 23JUL42
FROM: NAVAL WAR COLLEGE
TO: COMMANDER FLEET
COMMANDER ATLANTIC FLEET
COMMANDER CONFEDERATE STATES NAVY
SUBJECT: CURRENT MODELING (MOST SECRET)
1. (MOST SECRET) WITH RESPECT TO CURRENT MODELING WITH RESPECT TO BISMARCK SORTIE, IT APPEARS THAT BISMARCK COULD POSE A SIGNIFICANT, POSSIBLY GREATER, THREAT BY REFUELING AND THEN LOITERING NEAR IRELAND. FAST BATTLESHIP INTERCEPTION MAY BE REQUIRED. IF NECESSARY, DETAILS TO FOLLOW SEPCOR.
2. (MOST SECRET) REQUEST ATLANTIC FLEET CONSIDER IMMEDIATE SORTIE OF HNEMS CONNECTICUT. REQUEST CSA CONSIDER IMMEDIATE SORTIE OF CSS SHENANDOAH AND CSS TENNESSEE. REQUEST BOTH TASK FORCES MAKE BEST SPEED FOR IRELAND, FUEL PERMITTING.
3. (MOST SECRET) RATIONALE FOR REQUEST AND TACTICAL GUIDANCE TO FOLLOW. MUST, NONETHELESS, REQUEST IMMEDIATE SORTIE. MATERIAL CONDITION OF ALL SHIPS UNDERSTOOD AND CONSIDERED.
4. (SECRET) THANKS AND PRAYERS. VICE ADMIRAL ALDEN SENDS.
MOST SECRET MOST SECRET MOST SECRET
“Damn,” whispered Admiral Van Auken.
“Yes, Sir, Admiral,” agreed the radioman. “Excuse me, by your leave…”
“You’re not going anyplace! Take a message!”
“Sir, I don’t have any…”
“Use your brain! You’re not stupid! Or are you stupid?”
“No…no, Admiral,” said the radioman, obviously wondering if he’d picked the right answer.
“From: me. To: Connecticut. Info: everybody else on this message, me included, so my staff sees it. Got it so far?”
“Good. Subject: immediate sortie. Paragraph one: Prepare for sortie at 0800, just after colors. Await my arrival before departure. Paragraph two: Admiral Van Auken sends. All Most Secret, use immediate precedence. Got it?”
“Yes, Sir, Admiral!”
“Then go! I’ve got to get packed!” The radioman scurried off. Admiral Van Auken picked up the telephone to call his flag lieutenant.
July 23, 1942
Steam rose over Havana Harbor. The sunrise caught the Spanish architecture in brutal relief, the blinding rays announcing the new day casting bleak, long, misty black shadows across the harborside. Admiral Spruance looked out his window, seeing how the rising sun cast the façade of Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña in vivid earthen hues over the smoky fog still clinging to the lapping channel waves below it.
“You called, Admiral?” asked Lieutenant Nimitz from the door.
“Chet, come in, and take a seat. I need some advice,” said Admiral Spruance.
“I’ll try, Sir,” said Lieutenant Nimitz, walking in and seating himself, professionally, as ordered.
“Good. You read the traffic?”
“Look out there. That’s what we have. What do we do?”
“Well, Admiral, we have three competing priorities. First, every major ship except the Virginia needs time to refit, and most of them really need time in Halifax with a drydock.”
“Concur. Go on.”
“Second, New England just asked for help with the Bismarck. Third, we need to do something to help New Orleans.”
“Agreed fully. But what do we do?”
“First, we give New England exactly what they asked for, Shenandoah and Tennessee. But we need to send along Memphis and Louisville.”
“May I come back to that, Admiral? It’s easier to explain.”
“Very well, but, Chet, if you’re not ready to explain it, don’t present it to a flag officer.”
“Pardon me, Admiral. You and John Alden are forgiving.”
“Agreed. Don’t forget it. Go on.”
“Yes, Admiral. Second, we need to send the Virginia to New Orleans. Sending the other two battleships would be suicidal, but Virginia has her new dual-purpose-secondary and the new fire control to use it. I don’t expect that she would ever come back from New Orleans, but I think that she might survive long enough to make a difference in combat, and I know that her arrival would make a difference for morale.”
“But Houston and San Antonio need to go to New Orleans with Virginia.”
“Cruisers? Heavy Cruisers? Why?”
“First, because Virginia will need the anti-aircraft support. Both cruisers offer more than half of what Virginia offers, including modern fire control.”
“Second, because eight-inch guns are almost as overwhelmingly devastating in ground combat as eighteen-inch guns. No, the holes aren’t as big. But on a battlefield where everybody is carrying thirty-caliber rifles, more or less, and where the artillery is three-inch howitzers, eight-inch guns strike fear. That’s what we need, Admiral.”
“Maybe. Anything else?”
“Yes, Sir. Right now, neither heavy cruiser can exceed twenty-five knots thanks to cumulative damage and wear. Admiral, we still have cruisers. These ships are too slow for that role, and they will be for the rest of this war. We don’t have time for the overhaul either ship needs. Send them both up the river with Virginia, all of their magazines full of high explosive shells, not armor-piercing shells. We can do that at our ammo pier right here. It’ll deplete our magazines for eight-inch high-explosive, but we have the inventory. Let’s use these ships this war, instead of trying to save them for some future that might never be.”
“Agreed. Who taught you to think this way, Chet? John Alden?”
“No, Sir. My father. His grounding cost him his career, but he truly loved the Navy. I knew about the Dreadnought before I could read.”
“He raised you well. Now, why send the two light cruisers after Bismarck?”
“Because you have to go to New Orleans, Admiral. We need somebody who can stand up to President Long and General Little regarding the use and independence of our fleet assets. That leaves Vice Admiral Jeffcoat to command the large cruisers, and he’s never seen combat. Best to send along Commodore Dickerson, and the way to do that is to send along a pair of light cruisers.”
“Why not add New Orleans to the task force?”
“It fits in drydock, and we can use the time to get her repaired. She needs it.”
“Concur. And the other two battleships?”
“Keep tack-welding every anti-aircraft gun we can fit onto their decks, and when they’re almost ready to tip over, move them to join the Virginia. Those eighteen-inch guns can make a difference.”
“Agreed. New Orleans into drydock. Virginia, Houston, and San Antonio to New Orleans to support the Negro Army. Shenandoah, Tennessee, Memphis, and Louisville off to fight the Bismarck. Texas and Georgia get more anti-aircraft guns. The five Georgia-class cruisers do light upkeep while maintaining readiness to sortie.”
“Yes, Sir, Admiral.”
“Very well. Communicate my orders. We shall embark Virginia at 1200 for an afternoon departure. Contact the other two flag officers involved personally. Dismissed.”
July 23, 1942
Commander Crandlemire rapped twice on the open door. “Good morning, Admiral,” he said.
“Wayne! Good morning! How are you doing?” asked Vice Admiral Danforth.
“Wonderfully, Sir, thank you. There was nothing significant in the traffic except confirmation that Captain Williams and Lieutenant Whitten made it back to Juneau safely. I expect both of them back here to Oahu tomorrow or the next day.”
“Excellent. What have you got planned for my golf today?”
“The Saco, Admiral.”
“Saco, Captain Albert Diffin. Does he even play golf?”
“No, but he’s challenged you and Lieutenant Tilton to play a match against his two best, his Navigator and his Purser.”
“His Purser is Harvard Business, Admiral, and his Navigator was educated at Princeton before the war. Captain Diffin will carry the beverages with his Filipino steward. He wagers a hundred that his team can beat yours, merely to keep it interesting, of course.”
“Take the bet. It’s close, but you’ll beat them four times out of five. As a gentleman, you may want to offer to have the winner donate to the Molokai Colony. As a warrior, you may want to take his money. If you do, as your Operations Officer I request half of the action.”
Vice Admiral Danforth laughed. “Why should I give you half of the action!”
“No reason. I just wanted to communicate to you my sincerity of my belief that you would win. And, of course, I like to win money, too.”
“Of course. Give me fifty, Ops.”
“Here, Admiral,” said Commander Crandlemire, slipping a tight-folded roll of bills into the Admiral’s right hand. “As all of you are gentlemen, no mercy will be necessary.”
“No quarter. Anything else? We must have a tee time.”
“You do, and you need to be going. I completed the Operations Order for the contingency of amphibious invasion of Nicaragua, and unless you object I’ll just sign it by your direction to be ready in case we need it.”
“Do that. Good thinking. Good planning. Anything else?”
“Go win, Admiral. I have money riding on it.”
“And so do I. Well done, Wayne. Dismissed.”
July 24, 1942
“Admiral Alden, everybody else has gone to bed. What are your plans for the rest of the evening?”
“Oh, God,” said Vice Admiral Alden. “Is it that late again?”
“I told everybody else to go to bed. How are you coming on the briefing book?”
“Almost done,” said Vice Admiral Alden, exhaling. “Thank you. How are you doing?”
“Fine, Admiral,” said Chief McGuire, taking a seat. “I don’t need eight hours of sleep every night, and there’s always filing to catch up on. When things get busy, things pile up, and it takes quiet time to recover.”
Vice Admiral Alden exhaled. “Any passdown from the simulation team?”
“They spent the day running simulations of each of the three task forces against the Bismarck and the Gotland. None of the matchups are easy wins for our side.”
“I’m sure not. Bismarck is a beast. Any insights?”
“Well, Commander Adams did the best with the Confederate task force, winning more often than not, but there’s no easy summary of what he did. He called it ‘ballet,’ dancing around the fifteen-inch guns, and always finding a way to end the battle with torpedoes. But exactly what he did depended upon range of encounter, visibility, approach angle, and time of encounter. There was no simple solution we could offer to fleet units.”
“Understood. Were there any simple solutions?”
“Samson found one.”
“It appears that sending Connecticut against Bismarck and Gotland is a suicide run. There’s no good plan. But Samson found the best one: chasing salvoes on a headlong charge towards the Bismarck, then straightening course inside ten thousand yards to engage point-blank. Connecticut’s radar and primary optical fire control are both still disabled, but at a range where turret control is effective, those seventeen-inch guns rip apart Bismarck.”
Vice Admiral Alden laughed. “That’s exactly how Samson fights now! That’s what he did in the staircase—he can’t see, so he gets close enough that it doesn’t matter. This is why we have a team…well done!”
“I’ll pass that to the team, Admiral.”
“Remind me to do it myself. What about the simulation against the convoy escort?”
“Plunging fire is still the problem, given our assumptions regarding Bismarck’s fire control, Admiral.”
“Have we communicated with Rear Admiral Clark?”
“No, Sir, we still have time.”
“You’re right,” said Vice Admiral Alden, kicking back in his chair. “How is Channah dealing with Wayne’s being gone?”
“Well,” said Chief McGuire, watching both her words and her expressions. “She misses him more than you might know, but she is doing remarkably well.”
“I know that she and Wayne are in love. I’ve done whatever I could to accommodate that, more than regulations would nominally allow.”
“And we all know that, John.”
John Alden caught the change in tone. It was late. They were the only two left awake. She needed to convey the point personally.
And it changed the social structure—it changed, in military terms, the rules of engagement.
“Roberta, may I ask you a personal question? I’ll understand if you decline, or if you choose not to answer…but something intrigues me.”
“Why did you come here? We needed you, although I didn’t realize it yet, and you were here overnight. You had a good job—a great job—in the financial district of Boston. But you left it, and you left your home, to come here. Why?”
Roberta smiled. “Does ‘Service to King and Country not ring true enough?’”
“Ahhhh…almost,” said John Alden.
“Almost,” echoed Roberta. “No, John, I came because once I loved Thomas. We had an affair, if a relationship between two unmarried souls can be called an affair. We had to hide it because of who he was and who I was—it could never have been admitted, our positions were too different. We broke it off early in the war. But when he called me for a favor—and when he told me the truth regarding his injuries—I had to come to help him.”
“The truth regarding his injuries?”
“His…you know, don’t you?”
“I don’t think so. I know that he’s missing a leg and a hand.”
“He lost his ability to love a woman, John. Everything is there, but it doesn’t work. The nerves nearby were severed by splinters at North Wall. He can still urinate. But that’s all.”
John Alden realized that Commander Adams had essentially, told him that many times. Why he had refused to listen, he did not know. But that was between men. “And…he told you that? On the phone?” he asked Roberta.
“So I’d know that he needed my secretarial skill, not my love. Yes. And if he could say that, I knew that he—that you—really needed me. I took the job.”
“Well, thank you. If you hadn’t, I’d be dead.”
Roberta smiled. “You’re right, John. But thank you for remembering.”
“I’ll always remember,” said John Alden. “But beyond that, without you, the entire team wouldn’t have worked. Your choice changed history. I don’t know if we will or won’t win in the end...”
“We shall win,” said Roberta, quietly but firmly.
“How do you know?”
“Because the Americans don’t have us, and, most of all, because they don’t have you, John. We’ll find a way to win.”
“You seem sure.”
“It’s my job to keep you sure. So don’t you forget it.”
“Well, thanks. I won’t forget it. But we need to be getting to bed. Thank you for staying up.”
“We should do this every night. We’re usually among the last ones up, and it’s good to think at the end of the day. You can’t sleep until everything’s done, anyway. Let’s make this a habit.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to do that, Roberta…”
“Of course not. That’s why I asked you. Say, ‘Yes.’”
John Alden smiled. “Yes. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. It’s my job. Now go to bed and get some sleep. Tomorrow you figure out how we’re going to win this war.”