July 24, 1942
Captain Egan stood up. “Gentlemen, welcome aboard!” he said, genuine in his joy.
“Thank you, Sir! It’s a pleasure to meet you!” said Lieutenant Mike Whitten, stepping into the Captain’s Cabin to shake Captain Egan’s hand.
“And Captain Williams! Your reputation precedes you.”
“Yeah, Sir. Hello,” said Ted Williams, gazing away to avoid eye contact while extending his right hand.
Captain Egan overlooked the slight, shaking Ted Williams’ hand vigorously. “The two of you are legends in this war, especially you, Ted. I cannot say how happy I am to have you here on the Starling Burgess. Without you, I don’t know if our new concept of operations could have been implemented.”
“New concept?” asked Mike Whitten.
“Admiral Danforth has decided to use our seaplane tender as the combat air patrol platform for his battle group. The importance of air power at sea has become clear. We have no carriers left here in Pearl Harbor, and the Americans still have, at least, the Langley. We need a response at that level. You are the core of that response.”
Mike Whitten and Ted Williams looked at each other. “Explain this ‘concept’ and this ‘response’ further, Sir,” said Ted Williams.
“Of course! We’re splitting the air wing of Starling Burgess into three squadrons. We’re dropping back to one undersized squadron of Tern reconnaissance aircraft, and we’re going to carry two squadrons of Ponies. Each of you will command a squadron.”
“How many catapults do you have?” asked Mike Whitten.
“Just two, but more seaplanes can launch from the water.”
“At a significant fuel cost.”
“Well, yes, but fighters in the air make a difference.”
“Are these experienced pilots?” continued Mike Whitten.
“Yes! They’ve been Pony pilots since before the war. We collected them from across Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii.”
“So a few of them saw action on one day and that’s it?” asked Ted Williams.
“No, Ted, none of these pilots were actually engaged in the Japanese strike on Oahu. Those pilots died. These men were on the outlying islands.”
“Right, Sir. Let’s try a different idea. How about one squadron. Lieutenant Whitten and I serve together. He’s senior, so he gets command. Give us a few other aircraft to use after our first Ponies are shot up. Send a few other pilots if you want. Bring more Terns. But for God’s sake, Captain, do not split us up.”
“Captain Williams, I…”
“Captain Egan, Sir, do you know what you’re asking us to do? You want two Pony fighters to defend you and your battleships from God knows how many Wildcats and Warhawks and Airacobras. That’s a %#+@*@% death sentence, Sir. All right. It’s an order. I’ll do it. We’ll do it. But use us as a %#+@*@% team in one %#+@*@% squadron, don’t split us up. Together, maybe, we can do anything. Split us up and we both die. Split us up and I refuse to fly. I’m not trying to be insubordinate. I’m trying to do the right thing. Captain. Sir.”
Mike Whitten exhaled. “Ted is right, Sir. I’m with him. Split us up and I refuse to fly.”
Captain Egan looked at the two of them. “Look, men,” he began, “I’m barely aviation qualified. I had a plan. I can change it. You can fly together, if it’s that important. We’ll work it out—I’ll work out—the differences. But welcome aboard. You’re the core of the combat air patrol for our battle line. It’s not perfect. We don’t have everything we need. This is war.”
Mike Whitten nodded. “Sounds good,” he said.
“If he likes it, I’ll accept it,” said Ted Williams. “Where do I stash my stuff and sleep, and when do I start killing for you, Sir?”
July 25, 1942
“Good morning, Admiral,” said Chief McGuire.
“Good morning, Chief. You look very professional, as always.”
“Thank you, Sir. Commander Adams is waiting for you.”
“Very well. Anything critical?”
“Nothing too surprising. As close as a routine day as we’ve seen in a while.”
“Good. Bring me some coffee, please. Thank you for the talk last night. It helped.”
“You’re welcome. It’s…not easy losing loved ones.”
“No. But I slept well, and I’m ready to get going here. Thank you.”
“Just my job, Admiral.”
John Alden smiled. He stepped into his inner office. “Pardon if I don’t stand,” said Thomas B. Adams. “Good morning, Admiral.”
“Good morning, Thomas. I trust that you slept well?”
“Of course not, but thank you. None of us will ever sleep well again.”
“It’s good to have a staff I can trust to be frank and honest,” said John Alden, taking his seat.
“I shall always offer you that service, Sir.”
“And I know that those words come from your heart. By the way, how’s your heart?”
“I think that it’s recovering from the issues of a few months ago. It feels stronger…as long as I can stay off the morphine.”
“Can I help?”
“You already are, thank you. Highlights from the morning traffic?”
“Admiral Vaughn replied in concurrence to the operations plan submitted by Pacific Fleet for invasion of Nicaragua, and he’s directed immediate liaison between Atlantic Fleet and ourselves for a complementary plan. Should we take lead?”
“Of course. Good job by Wayne, but there’s nobody on Admiral Van Auken’s staff with that same skill.”
“Yes, Sir, Admiral. What should the priority be?”
“Where is Bismarck this morning?”
“Gone. Both crews spent quite a bit of money, and there were no incidents worse than a couple of fights outside pubs. Gotland got the fuel she needed. She and Bismarck have vanished.”
“And the Irish are happy.”
“It was a remarkably good port visit, Admiral.”
“Figures. Where are our ships?”
“The Confederate task force is north of Puerto Rico. It’s already in position to interdict any attack on the convoy.”
“Did they bring a seaplane tender?”
“Crane is coming, but she wasn’t ready and the cruisers sortied without her. She and the four cruisers are both making 24 knots.
“And the Northeaster?”
“Further behind Connecticut, escorted by the Cape-class cruisers, and underway. The task force is making just 22 knots. We don’t know which ship is the issue.”
“Will Connecticut reach Liverpool before Great Britain loads and expels the carriers?”
“Yes. But not Northeaster and her cruiser escorts.”
“Well, that’s something. Admiral Van Auken can fight, given a battleship. Typhoon and St John?”
“The status of work precludes either ship coming out of drydock right now. Except for old cruisers, what we’ve sent is what we have.”
“Very well. Let’s put aside drafting the operations order for now. Have the Fleet staff send a liaison officer to work with us, and give whomever it is a couple of days to get himself ready. Let’s keep our focus on Bismarck.”
“Coffee, Admiral,” announced Chief McGuire.
“Judging from tone, that was an order, Sir,” said Commander Adams.
“I took it as a strong recommendation,” said Vice Admiral Alden.
“The Commander has known me longer,” said Chief McGuire, smiling.
July 25, 1942
Lake Pontchartrain divided the northern approach to New Orleans into two lanes. Because the southern approach was swampland, and the western approach was secure all the way to Texas, the northern approaches were all that mattered. The ground between the western shore of the Pontchartrain and the Mississippi itself was heavily guarded by the white heroes of Little Rock, their Valentine tanks dug in as far and as well as the damp soil and water table would permit.
The northeastern approach across the Rigolets, the channel connecting Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico, had been guarded by just two battalions of newly-recruited troops, with a ten-percent cadre of veterans. They had enjoyed the benefit of ten Valentines near the disabled-closed bridge, as well as twenty Bishop self-propelled guns. Most of the Valentines and Bishops had survived the initial surprise barrage, but some had not, and by the time General Little could travel the twenty-five miles by Coonhound with his immediate staff, many of the Negro infantry were already dead.
Artillery shells were exploding in the background. At least sixty retreating Negro soldiers were jogging down the Chef Menteur Highway toward the Coonhound. “Is there any chance that Admiral Spruance can make it in time to make a difference?” asked Colonel Stalworth.
“No. I left before we could get an answer, but he should still be four hours away,” answered General Little, riding in the back. “I checked a map before we left, and I didn’t wait for an answer to my message.”
“Could the cruisers sprint in?”
“It’s not safe for navigation in most of Lake Borgne. Those cruisers were close offshore at Galveston. We won’t get that support.”
“Suh, what shud Ah do?” asked Master Sergeant Brown. He was about to hit the retreating Negroes.
“Stop the Coonhound,” said General Little.
Master Sergeant Brown did as he was ordered. The command vehicle was stopped in the middle of the Chef Manteur Highway. The retreating troops approached it. General Little stood in the back seat, grasped the gun ring for support, and placed his boots atop the two front seats. He towered eleven feet above the highway. The first row of the retreating men saw him, and they slowed, then stopped. The Negroes behind them crowded ahead, but they did not try to pass. Other soldiers had caught up. The crowd was over a hundred men strong.
“Negroes, halt!” ordered General Little, his hand held high to forbid any further retreat.
His soldiers complied, arranging themselves closer along the narrow highway.
“Men, the retreat stops here! This battle decides our war! We cannot retreat further! Here we stand! Here we turn, and support our armor!”
“But the shells!” came a plaintive cry from the back.
“Damn the shells! Damn the Americans! They cannot kill our dreams!” shouted General Little. “I, too, have lived through a massed artillery barrage! I still live! So do you! Men, this is the moment! We must fight!”
“But we’ll die!” spoke the voice of another terrified man.
“Then we die! We all die someday! But know this, men, we need one hour, just one hour. There are reinforcements coming from New Orleans. We need to hold this narrow road one hour. Just one hour! Men, this is history, and this our future as Negroes. We have a chance for a land of our own! Do not, do not, let that dream die for want of a single hour of time!”
“Men, I am going forward to fight the enemy. Come with me. If we die, we die as heroes. If we live, we live as heroes. But either way, none of us, not you, nor I, shall ever have to answer to our God at the Pearly Gates why we could not fight for just one hour! Men, I am your General. Follow me!”
“Master Sergeant Brown, forward!”
The Negro infantry cheered, turning around to return to battle.
The soggy ground shook. The pavement buckled from the shock waves.
On either side of the Rigolets the damp earth blew apart from the power of precision-delivered eighteen-inch shells. To the south, the three craters and the shrapnel and rock that rose from them killed instantly a third of the Americans who had crossed the Rigolets. To the north, the boat docks loading reinforcements were ruined in a heartbeat.
“Spruance!” said Colonel Stalworth.
“God is on our side!” declared Malcolm Little in a voice so loud and clear it rang the metal of the Coonhound’s hood. “Forward! Forward! Clear the Americans who have crossed!”
The moments-ago-defeated Negros cheered. They beat upon the side of the Coonhound as Master Sergeant Brown slowly accelerated. The counterattack was beginning.
Admiral Spruance had ordered a reverse-walking barrage. The second salvo obliterated both the open bridge and almost all of the boats in the channel, as well as walking back from the north bank piers to the sites of artillery concentration.
The sounds of American screams carried across the swampy waters, as well as the odors of death.
The third salvo of eighteen-inch shells landed.
The rallied Negroes yelled as they raced to slaughter the remaining Americans within their reach.