December 8, 1941
Lieutenant Commander Maguire and Lieutenant Commander Haig were waiting at the door of Captain Alden’s cabin by the time he stepped back from the bridge. “Come in,” he said, opening the door and stepping in first. “It sounds as if you and your men did well.”
“Arnie did well,” said Lieutenant Commander Haig, call sign Mystic Two. “I couldn’t even tell the difference between a cruiser and a carrier.”
“I got lucky,” said Lieutenant Commander Maguire. “The Enterprise was the first big ship I saw. It was so dark that I couldn’t have told the difference, either. Captain, we never practiced on a night this bad. We would’ve cancelled the exercise due to the risks.”
“I know,” said Captain Alden, sitting down. He gestured for the two pilots to do the same, but they had already availed themselves of the chance. “We needed the storms to hide in on the way down, so we knew that the launch would be rough, but we didn’t expect the Americans to be so close to the North Wall, too. But you both found the carriers that you were trying to find, even if you dropped your flares on the wrong ship, Dick. Lots of times pilots don’t find the right targets in broad daylight, at least based on our exercises. But Arnie, we heard you report a probable hit on Enterprise and a hit on a cruiser. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure on both. The cruiser was burning, so the torpedo must’ve hit a fuel tank that caught fire. I saw the hit on the Enterprise, but I didn’t see a fire. It might’ve been a dud, I suppose, but I wasn’t far away and I’m positive that it had to have hit.”
“Where did it hit?”
“It’s tough saying, Sir…they got to their guns pretty fast, and the American gunners were better than we’d expected that they’d be at night. I had to concentrate on evasive action right about the time of the hit.”
“Did it hit forward?”
“I think so. It could have. It didn’t hit aft.”
“It could’ve hit so far forward that it missed the fuel tanks and just flooded voids. It could’ve been a dud. Let’s hope that it slowed the carrier down. What about the cruiser?”
“I was busy getting the squadron to go after the Enterprise right then, given that we had her all lit up, instead of going for the nearer cruiser. I saw the fire, though: we got her good.”
“Who got her good?”
“I…umm, Sir, I don’t know. Heck of a fire, though!”
“Were the forward turrets or after turrets better lit by the fire?”
“Forward turrets. The smoke was right at the edge of the third forward turret.”
“That sounds as if it hit an engineering space, probably a boiler room. That might leave it dead in the water. If it’s not making way, the Americans won’t stay with it in these seas.”
“Let’s hope that they don’t! The Brooklyns are good cruisers, and we don’t need to be facing any more of them than we have to.”
“Let’s hope that they do, Arnie. If they sail away from the burning cruiser, how is Rear Admiral Van Auken going to find them?”
“Oh. Sorry, Sir,” said Lieutenant Commander Maguire.
“Don’t be sorry for sinking ships! You did well to find the Enterprise for a night attack, let alone to score a couple of torpedo hits. And Dick, you did well, too. Which one of your men got the torpedo hit on the Hornet?”
“We didn’t get a torpedo hit on the Hornet, Captain. We couldn’t. The flak was too bad.” Lieutenant Commander Haig was looking at the deck, not at Captain Alden.
“But you left it burning…” began Captain Alden. Then, realizing, he said, “Mystic Twelve.”
“Yes, Sir. Lieutenant Bolduc. He tried to abort his run when he lost oil pressure, but he couldn’t get rid of his torpedo. He must’ve known that he couldn’t keep his Cooncat in the air. He took the bird right into the stack, and luckily the torpedo blew. There was AVGAS and torpedo fuel blown everywhere, and I can’t imagine that the stack draft was right after that.”
“Nor can I,” commented Captain Alden pensively. It had been only five years since he had taught Lee Bolduc to fly. Bolduc had been good, a quick thinker. He had been one of the pilots that Captain Alden had especially wanted to get back home to Quonset Point. Now he was gone. One pilot, one hit. Wargames at Newport had suggested that one-for-one Cooncats-for-hits was a pretty good tradeoff. It didn’t feel good.
It was quiet for several seconds. “Anything else, Captain?” asked Lieutenant Commander Maguire.
“Not for now,” said Captain Alden. A moment later he stood up suddenly and resolutely. “Get your men ready. If we’re lucky enough to dodge the Americans all night, things will still be pretty hot come sunrise. We need to get you and your boys back to Quonset Point. Grab a bite, get drop tanks on all of the planes, brief your men, and let’s fly you off.”
“All of the planes? The four fighters, Sir?” asked Lieutenant Commander Maguire.
“All of the planes. Four fighters won’t do much to help if the Americans send out their Flying Fortresses and their ‘Boston Bombers’ to get us in the morning, or if we’re spotted by an American carrier that can still launch and recover. You figure out how to get your men home. All of them. I’ll try to figure out how to get my men home. Dismissed.”
December 8, 1941
Captain Jack Rhinebolt was the Commanding Officer of the heavy cruiser Minuteman. He now had formation lead for the four Minuteman-class cruisers. Those four cruisers were headed on course three-three-zero at a speed of twenty knots. They were on track to pass the burning ship, presumed to be a Brooklyn-class cruiser, at a range of two thousand yards. If it opened fire on the four heavy cruisers, their rifles were ready to return fire. If it didn’t open fire, the four cruisers would each fire four torpedoes—half of their remaining torpedoes—at point-blank range. Even if only a quarter of the torpedoes hit, such a salvo would be fatal to any cruiser in the world.
Three miles to port from the bridge of the Minuteman, Rear Admiral Van Auken watched his cruisers approach the burning American ship from the starboard bridge wing. He could barely make out the silhouettes of his cruisers using field glasses, and that was only because of the reflected back light from the burning American ship on the mist behind the New English cruisers. If he had not known that they were there, he would not have seen them.
If the American cruisers were just beyond his own, he would not be able to see them. It frustrated him to be so helpless. He could not fight an enemy he could not see.
“Jack knows his stuff, Sir. Right now it looks as if he’ll sink a cruiser with torpedoes, nothing more. He can do that.”
“I know, Doc,” said Rear Admiral Van Auken, lowering the glasses from his eyes and blinking. “I wish that I knew where the Americans are.”
“Where would you be, Sir?” asked Captain Clark.
It was a simple question, but he had not had time to consider it. They had planned on how to approach the cruiser without knowing the exact location of the screen around the cruiser, and they hadn’t had much time to consider options. The four older, more expendable cruisers were moving in for the kill. If the Minuteman-class cruisers drew American fire, the three Cape-class cruisers could maneuver to best advantage from beyond easy visibility, choosing their moment to enter the fray. The starboard torpedo tubes of both cruiser formations were in position to fire at targets around the burning cruiser.
But that all assumed screening ships or no ships around the cruiser. As they approached the burning ship, and as its relative motion suggesting that it was very close to dead in the water, it seemed likely that, if any ships were nearby, that they would be destroyers. The other cruisers, and, more importantly, the Enterprise, were missing.
“If I had a PhD, maybe I could answer that question. Where would you be, Doc?”
“I don’t know that having a PhD helps, but used to play on a playground as a kid. When a little boy got beat up, he always ran for his big brothers.”
Rear Admiral Van Auken dropped his glasses from his eyes and looked at Captain Clark. He could barely make out the form of his Flag Captain five feet away in the dim red light from the bridge, the night was so dark. “The Standards,” he said.
“They didn’t teach me this stuff at Brown, but I spent my summer in Rhode Island with Noah Watson in Newport. The Americans screen their battle line with their carriers. They were heading east, probably to intercept our troop convoy. The battleships should be off to the west, I don’t know how far. I’ll bet that the Enterprise is headed for the battleships.”
“The Enterprise was north of the Hornet.”
“So instead of heading west, maybe the Enterprise and her screen are moving west-southwest. I still say that they’re retiring on the battleships.”
“And I think that you’re right. Jack Rhinebolt should be firing torpedoes right now. His cruisers are passing their target. Let’s take two or three minutes to think, and let’s see if they score a hit or two.”
Captain Clark almost said “Very well,” but he bit his tongue. Instead, he left the starboard bridge wing. Coming onto the main bridge again, he found Lieutenant Pierce bracing himself with his left hand up on the wire. “Course and speed?” asked Captain Clark.
“Speed twenty knots, course three-three-zero. Sir. This isn’t easy. The Helm and the Lee Helm are doing one heck of a job, Captain.”
“You’re all doing one Hell of a job, Navigator. It takes a couple hundred men to move Cape Cod at battle stations. Everybody is doing their part. You are doing your part. Well done, Lieutenant Pierce.”
“Thank you, Sir. I haven’t touched the wheel.”
“Nor have I, but I’m taking full credit for all of this with that guy loitering on our starboard bridge wing.”
With that the bridge team chuckled. There were American ships hidden in the night waiting to strike, but the friction between Captain Clark and Rear Admiral Van Auken endured.
Captain Clark walked out onto the port bridge wing. The spray was worse on the port side than it had been on the starboard side. He recognized Seaman Lufkin at the port big eyes from his awkward, almost hunchbacked posture. The poor kid was drenched. His uniform rain slicker had been wholly inadequate for the weather, and now he was shivering visibly in the dark of night. His eyes remained pressed to the large glasses.
“Seaman Lufkin, how are you doing, son?” he asked, putting his left arm around the teenager’s shivering shoulders.
“Doing well, Sir!” spoke Seaman Lufkin clearly and sharply, just the way he had been taught since Basic Training.
“I think that you’re bullshitting me, son. You’re soaking wet, you’re shivering, and the seas are so rough that most of my men on this ship would be vomiting over the rail instead of watching for Americans.”
“Yes, Sir!” answered Seaman Lufkin. “This is terrible. But I’m doing well for you, Sir!”
“Very well,” said Captain Clark, a reaffirming laugh beneath the tone of his voice. “If you’re doing well, I need you to find something for me on the horizon.”
“Yes, Sir! What?”
“You’re looking forward and to the port bow. I need you to look directly to port, around two-seven-zero relative, and find me a spark of light. It won’t be much, just a cigarette five miles away or whatever. You won’t even be sure of what you’ve seen. I just need you to look for that, find the best point of light that you can, and mark the relative bearing. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Can you do that for me?”
“Yes, Sir!” said Seaman Lufkin.
“Good. Pardon my going around the Officer of the Deck, but he’s busy. I’ll make it up to him later. Understood?”
“Yes, Sir!” said Seaman Lufkin, the teeth of his smile visible momentarily in the dark. He hunched his back and put his forehead back into the big eyes. He swiveled them to port.
Captain Clark walked back across the bridge. “Officer of the Deck, I have directed your port lookout to shift his field of vision from the port bow to directly port. Acknowledge.”
“Sir, my port lookout has shifted his field of vision from the port bow to directly port.”
“Very well. Pardon my going around you on that order, Lieutenant Pierce. I needed to be sure that Seaman Lufkin understood what I needed. Keep half an eye cocked to port, even if all of the action is off to starboard. I’d hate to ram an American destroyer by accident.”
“Yes, Sir,” answered Lieutenant Pierce, smiling at the thought. The likelihood of missing an American warship so long that it resulted in collision was a humorous exaggeration, but the message was clear. While the port lookout was scanning the horizon for distant contacts, he himself would have to be alert for enemy ships on the port bow.
Captain Clark stepped out onto the starboard bridge wing. “You missed the excitement!” said rear Admiral Van Auken.
“What was that?”
“Four hits on the burning American cruiser. You could see the flashes clearly from here. She’ll be sinking fast.”
“Just four hits at 2,000 yards? That’s not very good shooting, Admiral.”
“We don’t know that all of the cruisers fired torpedoes. We’ll know more in the morning. But it looks as if we’ve sunk an American cruiser!”
“Admiral Van Auken,” said Lieutenant Borden, who was suddenly right there as if from nowhere, “We have a radio message from the Housatonic. They’ve encountered the Americans.”
“Excellent! As soon as we’re done here I’ll review it in my Flag Cabin.”
“I think that you need to see it now, Sir,” said Lieutenant Borden.
December 8, 1941
“The message of which I spoke, Sir,” said Rear Admiral Jewell.
Admiral Vaughn opened the folder.
MOST SECRET MOST SECRET MOST SECRET
0049 GREENWICH TIME 09DEC41
FROM: HNEMS HOUSATONIC
TO: COMMANDER FLEET
COMMANDER ATLANTIC FLEET
HNEMS CAPE BRETON
HNEMS CASCO BAY
HNEMS BUZZARDS BAY
HNEMS BAY OF FUNDY
INFO: HNEMS CONNECTICUT
SUBJECT: CONTACT REPORT (MOST SECRET)
1. (MOST SECRET) AT 1923 LOCAL TIME ENCOUNTERED AND ENGAGED ENEMY TASK FORCE.
2. (MOST SECRET) CONFIRMED ENEMY LOSSES INCLUDE ONE AIRCRAFT CARRIER, BELIEVED TO BE USS WASP; THREE HEAVY CRUISERS, AT LEAST ONE BELIEVED TO BE MINNEAPOLIS-CLASS; ONE BROOKLYN-CLASS LIGHT CRUISER; AND TWO AMERICAN DESTROYERS. ALL SHIPS REPORTED IN SINKING CONDITION AND BURNING AT RANGES OF UNDER ONE MILE.
3. (MOST SECRET) HNEMS CONNECTICUT HEAVILY DAMAGED TOPSIDE. CONNECTICUT WAS FIRST IN COLUMN PASSING AMERICAN FORMATION AT 1,500 YARDS. ALL TOPSIDE RADAR, RADIO, AND RANGE FINDING SETS DESTROYED. STACKS DAMAGED. ALL STARBOARD SECONDARY AND ANTI-AIRCRAFT MOUNTS DESTROYED. BRIDGE AND FLAGBRIDGE DESTROYED. FIRES NOT YET UNDER CONTROL. VICE ADMIRAL DECKER IS DEAD.
4. (MOST SECRET) HNEMS MERRIMACK HEAVILY DAMAGED TOPSIDE. ALL TOPSIDE RADIO AND RANGE FINDING SETS DESTROYED. SEVERAL STARBOARD SECONDARY GUNS AND ANTI-AIRCRAFT MOUNTS DESTROYED. FIRES UNDER CONTROL BUT STILL BURNING.
5. (MOST SECRET) HNEMS HOUSATONIC SUSTAINED AT LEAST SEVEN SIGNIFICANT SHELL HITS. MAIN RANGE FINDER DESTROYED. TWO STARBOARD SECONDARY GUNS LOST.
6. (MOST SECRET) NO DAMAGE REPORTED TO OTHER SHIPS IN FORMATION.
7. (MOST SECRET) ASSUMING COMMAND OF SHIPS IN COMPANY. RETIRING TO THE EAST AT 18 KNOTS. WILL SET COURSE FOR HALIFAX ONCE CLEAR OF AMERICAN SHIPS. DAMAGE CONTROL EFFORTS CONTINUE ON CONNECTICUT AND HOUSATONIC. NO DAMAGE TO EITHER SHIP BELOW THE WATERLINE OR INSIDE THE CITADEL. EXPECT BOTH SHIPS TO REACHHARBOR IF FURTHER ENGAGEMENT AVOIDED.
Admiral Vaughn set the folder down and closed it. “Bud Decker gave his life sinking an entire American carrier task force. Well done.”
Rear Admiral Jewell gave Admiral Vaughn a puzzled look. “Sir?” he asked.
“The carrier. The Americans have only four carriers in the Atlantic, and he traded his life for one. If he sank the Wasp, and if Rik Van Auken and John Alden can get either the Hornet or the Enterprise, then we only have the Saratoga and one other carrier to worry about.”
“Sir, we haven’t yet sighted the American battleships. We don’t know where they are. Our three battleships are retiring from action, covered by a third of our cruisers. All of our battleships are out of action. They all lost their fire control directors. It’s going to take time to replace those optics. We don’t have spares. The Merrimack and, especially, the Connecticut have far more extensive damage from point-blank eight-inch and six-inch fire. We can’t know how many months they’ll be out of action until they reach port, but it will be months, probably many months. The American battle line is intact.”
“Yes, and we’ll deal with that in time. For now, let’s remember Bud Decker. He gave his life to earn us an important victory. We’ve sunk an American carrier. We know from our study at Newport how important those carriers are. Focus on what we’ve achieved here, a carrier and four cruisers sunk. We’ll get back our battleships in time.”
“Time,” thought Rear Admiral Jewell. The first American attack had been repulsed in Southern Vermont yesterday. The Americans had failed to provide their armor with enough infantry cover, and the combination of preregistered artillery, anti-tank mines, and Molotov Cocktails had worked to turn back the first attack. The Americans, though, still had at least a six-to-one advantage. Time for New England might well be measured in weeks, not months.
“Anything else?” asked Admiral Vaughn.
“Well, Sir, I’m ready with the rest of the briefing from earlier. We were discussing the Iroquois when other priorities arose. I have the briefing folders, and I’m ready to continue now, if it’s convenient.”
“No, Abe, I’ve got other things going right now. It’s going to be a long night for both of us. Maybe later, but probably tomorrow.”
Rear Admiral Jewell sized up Admiral Vaughn’s response carefully before countering, “Yes, Sir, we are busy. Perhaps Wednesday morning, 0900, would be better. That would give you tomorrow for the after-action reports, and I could update the strategic issues for you in light of the current battle by then.”
“Outstanding! I’ll see you the day after tomorrow, 0900, for the complete briefing. We’ll probably see each other a few times before that, too.”
“I’m sure, Admiral Vaughn. Anything else for now?”
“No, thank you. Dismissed.”
Rear Admiral Jewell departed the office. The Americans had eight battleships either in Philadelphia or in the Atlantic waters south of New England. New England had no battleships left ready for action in the Atlantic Ocean. Except for the training carrier Mystic, there were no friendly carriers at all east of Pearl Harbor, and the Americans still had, at last report, three fleet carriers remaining in the Atlantic. Cruisers could only do so much. Discounting the oddball Confederate ships, unless help were coming from Scapa Flow, things looked exceedingly grim.
December 8, 1941
“Does it seem colder to you, Doc?” asked Rear Admiral Van Auken.
“It seems that way, yes. It isn’t, though. The temperature hasn’t gone down much since right after sunset.”
“I got cold right around the time I read that message. How about you?”
“So did I,” said Captain Clark. The sinking of the Wasp was, without question, good news. But the fast battleship Connecticut had been designed to be worth two, or maybe three, Standard battleships in a daylight surface engagement, and now it was out of action, along with the two old battleships Housatonic and Merrimack. It was uncertain whether or not the Connecticut would even make it back to Halifax given the chance of further contact. The balance of sea power in the Atlantic had seemingly shifted to the Axis.
Now the three Cape-class cruisers were steaming all ahead flank on a pursuit course defined by what was probably a flicker of light in Seaman Lufkin’s imagination. The four Minuteman-class cruisers were five miles back and falling further behind. Nothing came into sight. Nobody spoke.
“How long has it been since you saw a show on Broadway, Admiral?” asked Captain Clark after several minutes of silence.
“You know, Doc, I never made it to Broadway. I caught a couple of shows at the Shubert that made it to Broadway, but I haven’t been to the theater since I was a junior officer.”
“Since you got married?”
“Well, yes, I suppose.”
“So you went to the theater just because your dates liked it?”
“Hey, I don’t have a PhD or anything. A Fenway Frank, a cold beer, and a Teddy Samuel home run are as close to heaven as I get. I can’t appreciate the theater.”
“That’s fine. I just wondered.”
“Why did you wonder if I liked the theater?”
“Well, as best I can tell, we’re headed at flank speed for New YorkHarbor, and sometime tomorrow we’re going to get there if we don’t turn around. That is, if the bombers or the minefields don’t get us. Or the submarines. Or maybe the battleships.”
Rear Admiral Van Auken paused for a moment. It was getting closer to midnight, and his cruisers were still headed at flank speed for New York. The “Boston Bombers” based near the Hamptons might not be a real threat to Boston, but they were, he knew, trained in low-level bombing of ships at sea.
“We’re due south of Cape Cod,” offered Rear Admiral Van Auken. “Off-season rates. We can get a discount if we arrive on this ship. Should we turn north?”
“The Americans aren’t headed for Cape Cod. They’re headed for New York or Philadelphia, and they’re falling back on the battleships.”
“They’re not headed for New York. They can’t be, Brooklyn Navy Yard is in range of our bombers and right over the border. The Enterprise was hit. It has to be heading for Philadelphia.”
“Then we’re on the wrong course. What speed did we reckon for the Enterprise, based on those flashes Seaman Lufkin saw?”
“Sixteen knots. You know that, Doc.”
“I know I know that. I needed to know that you know that. Look, sixteen knots is a perfectly reasonable speed for a carrier with bow damage. Suppose that she wasn’t falling back to New York, because we would have caught her by now. Suppose that she had been headed for the mouth of the Delaware River from the moment the boys on the Mystic managed to hit her. Where would she be now?”
“Southwest of us. South-southwest of us.”
“And what should we expect to be coming from the southwest of us, given what neither Decker’s force nor our force has fought yet?”
Rear Admiral Van Auken sighed. “I guess that it’s a matter of perspective, Doc. You see a threat of battleships. I see a chance to kill a carrier.”
“The carrier will be behind the battleships by now, Sir. Even if they’re not trying to find us this moment, they’ll be screening the Enterprise from us by now. We’ve taken too long to find her. She’s gotten away.”
“No,” said Rear Admiral Van Auken. “We may not get another chance, and I’m not giving up that easily. Set course two-two-five. Maintain flank speed. Signal Captain Rhinebolt to follow.”
December 8, 1941
“I gather that you were able to talk with Mike Whitten,” said Commander Irwin.
“It wasn’t easy,” commented Captain Alden. “Ensign Whitten was pretty shaken. Did you know that his back seater had been his battalion chief at the Academy?”
Commander Irwin grimaced. “No, Sir. First salute and all?”
“First salute. He mentioned that, too.”
“Of course. Can he get over blaming himself?”
Captain Alden remembered the image of Mystic Five going over the side. Four men had died and seven had been crippled just getting the night strike off the deck. The decisions of command always had a price.
“No, Number One, I don’t think that he’ll stop blaming himself. I hope that he can hold himself together enough to fly home, and I hope that he will someday come to deal with the guilt. He’ll never forget.”
With all of the other planes airborne, it was Mystic Nine’s turn to launch. Only the largest holes in the wings and fuselage had been patched. The rear seat was empty. Ensign Whitten would have to navigate back to Quonset Point alone in the dark, but he could do that. Only three of the instructor pilots on the Mystic were not yet promoted from ensign, and each had been chosen for superlative skills both as a pilot and as a communicator. Ensign Whitten could find an airfield at night if its landing lights were lit, especially with the weather so much better around Narragansett Bay than it was near the North Wall. A lesser pilot might struggle, but he had the skills for the task.
The question was whether he was emotionally ready for the challenge. Had the situation been different, Captain Alden would have grounded him. But this was war, and there was no time for Ensign Whitten. Come morning the Americans would be looking for the Mystic. The boy’s best chance to get home was to leave now.
The Air Officer gave Mystic Nine the launch sign. Ensign Whitten hesitated. He waited longer. Three heartbeats, maybe, had passed.
The wheels started to roll.
The Cooncat raced down the flight deck as the bow dropped into a trough. Then, too early, the bow threw itself up and into the night sky. Mystic Nine had too little airspeed to launch. It struggled its way uphill across the forward half of the flight deck, unable at such an incline to get the velocity and lift it needed to rise from the ship.
The bow suddenly dropped. Mystic Nine dropped with it, its attack angle dropping forty degrees in the moments before it launched. It vanished off the bow.
A second later, the Cooncat reappeared, skimming barely over the foam churning at the top of the swells. The men on deck cheered. In seconds the plane, at least fifty feet high, vanished from sight.
Captain Alden picked up the microphone for the Flight Deck General Address Circuit. “Men,” he began, “Well done! Now that we’ve gotten the aircrews safely on their way home, let’s start steering that way ourselves. Secure flight deck lighting. All hands prepare for heel to port.”
The first torpedo caught the Mystic on the forward starboard boiler room. It jarred the converted battle cruiser as if a giant sledge hammer had been driven into her side. The old ship had a torpedo defense system better than that of newer, lighter carriers, but it was proof against, at best, aerial torpedoes and the torpedoes of the Great War. Seawater poured into the boiler room. Men raced for the ladders, but no man outraced the lethal steam that filled the space in less than three seconds.
“On Mystic! Torpedo hit starboard! Secure all watertight scuttles…” spoke Captain Alden, still on the Flight Deck circuit.
The force of the second torpedo hit on the forward engine room was joined by the shattering blow of the forward boilers rupturing. The Mystic went dark.