December 9, 1941
“Enemy ships firing, starboard side!” announced the starboard lookout.
Every man on the bridge of the Cape Cod had seen the sky light up as if from heat lightning before the lookout had spoken a word. The guns were not at point-blank range, but those ships had seen the three New England cruisers long enough to be firing without having yet been detected.
“Signal ‘Hold fire,’” ordered Rear Admiral Van Auken, stepping out onto the starboard bridge wing.
“Officer of the Deck, signal ‘Hold fire,’” ordered Captain Clark, following Rear Admiral Van Auken.
“Signaling ‘Hold fire,’ aye. Port talker, tell the SignalBridge to signal ‘Hold fire.’ Messenger, relay the order to the SignalBridge to signal “Hold fire.’ Acknowledge.”
“Telling SignalBridge to signal ‘Hold fire,’ Sir!”
“Relaying order to SignalBridge to signal, ‘Hold fire,’ Sir!”
The Messenger ran off the bridge. The Port Talker leaned into his sound-powered phones. Captain Clark said, “Order relayed, Sir. Just curious, why aren’t we firing back? I don’t think that they like us very much.”
“Because I’ve decided to listen to you, Doc. I think that these are the same ships that got away from us earlier, but I don’t know that, and I don’t know how far away the American battleships are right now. I’d rather not get into a gunfight with battleships…”
Shell splashes rose from the sea between the three cruisers and the flashes of light. None of the splashes were very close.
“I don’t think that those are the splashes of fourteen-inch shells, Sir. It’s dark and it’s hard to tell, and I’ve tried to stay away from the receiving end of fourteen-inch shells for most of my career, so I’m really not sure, but those seem a whole lot smaller,” said Captain Clark.
“I agree,” said Rear Admiral Van Auken, “But I don’t know if those are cruiser shells or destroyer shells, and I don’t know how far away the battleships are or what they are doing. Let’s get a range and a relative motion solution from the flashes, let’s fire torpedoes, and let’s leave.”
“I sure can support the idea of our leaving here, Sir, and we’ll do whatever you want to get us gone. Let me step inside and pass those orders. You stay out here and enjoy the view.” Captain Clark stepped inboard to relay the plan carefully.
Rear Admiral Van Auken watched as the guns flashed again, with a ship now visible on the horizon. It had to be a cruiser, he thought. The American battle line would be firing as a unit. A destroyer, if it chose to fire at all, would hold fire for point-blank range. If it were a cruiser, in a moment star shells from the secondary battery would be bursting overhead, illuminating the seascape just enough to give the Americans a chance to range upon the splashes.
Two star shells burst high in the sky, slowly falling short of the Cape Cod. A pattern of splashes rose from the water a few hundred yards to starboard. A battleship could barely have reloaded that fast. The foe was almost certainly a heavy cruiser. With seven heavy cruisers at his disposal, Rear Admiral Van Auken could crush a single heavy cruiser. He could probably handle four or five American cruisers handily, he figured. The Americans would have destroyers, and he had lost his, and that could make a difference at night.
But at night he knew not what was lurking in the darkness. He did not regard himself as a conservative or cautious leader, but he dared not discover the battleships at close range. Seven battleships could overwhelm seven cruisers in minutes. He wanted to fire torpedoes, but he had to withdraw. His cruisers were illuminated. There was no time left.
Shell splashes fell as close as a hundred yards to starboard.
“We need to get out of here!” barked Rear Admiral Van
Auken. “Captain Clark, do we have a
torpedo firing solution?”
“We have a solution, Sir. It’s tentative. Do you wish to launch?”
“Launch torpedoes. Following launch, left full rudder, coming to course zero-four-five. All ships lay smoke.”
“Yes, Sir. First, we’ll launch torpedoes. Bear with me. I want to run away, but I don’t want to waste torpedoes. Do we have that many seconds?”
Rear Admiral Van Auken said, “I’m not sure, Doc.”
At the same time Captain Clark turned his back on his admiral and ordered decisively, “Cape Cod, launch torpedoes! Order formation, launch torpedoes!”
Two more star shells lit the sky directly overhead.
“Captain Clark!” shouted Rear Admiral Van Auken over the roar of a straddling salvo.
“Yes, Sir! We’re firing torpedoes!”
“I know! For God’s sake, get us out of here! Order left full rudder!”
“I can’t hear you. The shells. What did you say?”
“Doc, you bastard, get us out of here! Now!”
“Did you order left full rudder?”
From the starboard torpedo tubes a dozen tin fish slipped into the sea.
“Yes, Goddammit! Left full rudder! Come to course zero-four-five!”
“Officer of the Deck! Left full rudder! Come to course zero-four-five! Acknowledge!”
“Sir, ordering left full rudder! Coming to course zero-four-five!”
“Very well,” said Captain Clark. He turned to Rear Admiral Van Auken. “I’m sorry, Sir. I just couldn’t hear you.”
Another salvo straddled the Cape Cod. “You need to learn how to hear better and faster, Doc. Pass the order to the formation. Lay some smoke.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Captain Clark. “Reporting torpedoes launched, Sir!”
“I know that you launched torpedoes!”
“Yes, Sir. So do I,” said Captain Clark, winking as he went inboard to coordinate the formation turn. The Cape Cod heeled to starboard as its bow swung around. The next salvo of shells missed the heavy cruiser to starboard by a couple hundred yards.
The New England cruisers turned away to the northeast in two divisions, their path covered by smoke, mist, and fog in the overcast night. After three more salvoes, the shells stopped, despite the Americans’ opportunity to have concentrated fire at the turning point for the formation. The Cape Cod sailed away for three more minutes. Rear Admiral Van Auken moved over to the port bridge wing. Captain Clark joined him. The two men were silent.
A single, distant flash lit the horizon. Captain Clark turned to Rear Admiral Van Auken. “Boom,” he said.
“Lucky bastard,” said Rear Admiral Van Auken.
“We got a hit.”
“You should have turned away faster.”
“We got a hit.”
“You got lucky.”
“We got a hit. We waited to fire torpedoes, and we got a hit.”
“I thought that you were the guy who wanted to get out of here.”
“We did get out of here. We just waited a minute for a solution.”
“You ignored my orders.”
“I couldn’t hear. It was loud. Shells and all.”
“You could hear me.”
“Almost, Sir. I
wanted to be sure. Is that a fire on the
The two men looked as closely as they could through the big eyes, but they could not be sure if it was a fire in the smoky distance or only their imaginations.
December 9, 1941
Ham biscuits were surprisingly dry, thought Captain Watson.
Earlier in the evening Admiral Semmes had had sweet tea and cookies sent to the FlagBridge. The cookies had been delicious, almost as good as Angel’s. The sweet tea had been cloyingly syrupy, though, and not a good contrast to the cookies. Now, for midnight rations, the Confederates had provided the men more sweet tea with ham biscuits. The ham was different from the ham to which Captain Watson had become accustomed in New England. Dry-cured to endure summer heat without refrigeration, the meat was excessively salty, even after rehydration. It was reminiscent of prosciutto, but nowhere near as good. It was, in fact, not good at all. Captain Watson supposed that he could eat it to stay alive in the wilderness, if there were neither fresh game nor fish, and he supposed that he could eat it now out of etiquette and diplomatic courtesy. It was, however, among the worst foods he had ever tasted.
“Mmmm-mmmm! Ah do declayah, these ahr the best ham biscuits Ah’ve evah tasted!” proclaimed Admiral Semmes. “We ahr lucky souls tonight!”
The rest of the Flag Staff agreed with Admiral Semmes. It was good to agree with the Admiral, but Captain Watson discerned that they all appeared to be sincere in their praise of the cuisine. He found himself wondering if men could actually acquire taste so bad through a lifetime of cultural deprivation, or if these Southerners had actually somehow evolved over little more than three centuries into a people adapted to a diet based heavily upon salt and pork fat. Darwin had written, “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health,” and these Southerners seemed both savage and accustomed to, at the least, startlingly bad food. He had also written, “A republic cannot succeed till it contains a certain body of men imbued with the principles of justice and honour,” and surely these Confederates, for all of their odd customs, understood and upheld both justice and honor, if perhaps by terms less generous of error or failure than those of New England or of Great Britain. In Darwin’s words, “…the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Perhaps the harsh summer climate of the Confederate States lowlands, with the sweltering sunshine that turned the humid air into a toxic miasma that propagated debilitating diseases both chronic and acute had bred a nation of men sturdy enough to relish ham biscuits.
Darwin had also written, he remembered, “I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” Captain Watson had always admired the work of Darwin, but he had never understood him as well as he did upon the FlagBridge of the Virginia, trying to wash down the last bits of his ham biscuit with unbearably sweet tea.
Off the port bow of the Virginia, two flashes lit the horizon. “Gunfire!” shouted an enlisted man.
Captain Noah Watson knew that ranges were deceptive at night, but that bearings were almost as exact as they were in daylight. “Two flashes!” he called out. “Two flashes, two cruisers. Those are the Austin and the Dallas!”
“Ah don’t know, son. What do y’all think they might be firin’ at?” asked Admiral Semmes.
Star shells burst across the sky further east than the relative bearing of the flashes. Beneath the eerie light, silhouettes could be discerned across the stormy seas.
Captain Watson chose not to answer that question. “Admiral, recommend that you order the battleships to course three-one-five. Recommend that you order the light cruisers to a torpedo attack.”
“Oahdah a toahpedo attack on those ships we just saw.”
“Torpedo attack, aye!” spoke the FlagBridge starboard talker. He bent into his sound-powered phones to relay the order.
“Very well. Now, son, y’all recommended ah coahse ahv three-one-five. Now, why would y’all say thaht?”
“Because we want to cross their ‘T.’ If those are American ships, and I expect that they are, they’re headed back for Philadelphia. We couldn’t overtake an American task force at these speeds. If they’re headed west, we need to head northwest to have a chance of crossing their ‘T.’ If those are cruisers or a carrier group, we still won’t cross their ‘T,’ but we can engage cruisers broadside-to-broadside. If those are Standard battleships, I want to be crossing their ‘T’ before they see us.”
“Oahdah left stahndhahd ruddah, coahse three-one-fahve!” yelled Admiral Semmes.
“Left standard rudder, course three-one-five, I’ll relay that to the bridge to be sure, Sir, Admiral,” said Lieutenant Brown. The port talker was already relaying the order, but Lieutenant Brown wanted to be certain that nothing was confused on such an unusual order.
Admiral Semmes shook his head. “Ah love thaht young mahn. Ah could noht ask foah moah. Ah know what he is goin’ to do befoah he does it, ahnd he is ahlways theyah foah me.”
While Admiral Semmes had expected Captain Watson to respond, the New English officer was more concerned with the scene on the horizon off the starboard bow. Gun flashes shone through the mist once again from the bearing of the two Confederate heavy cruisers. Flickering light revealed the silhouettes, barely more than dots, of at least five ships. The course of the Virginia was still constant, and its approach to the silhouettes was negligible. If he could know the range and the relative bearing, he knew he would know the speed. If he could know the speed, he might know if these were battleships or cruisers. The apparent line ahead formation suggested that the ships were not a carrier task force, but American carrier task forces chose line ahead formation in heavy seas. The relative motion was slight. From the size of the silhouettes, the relative motion was so slow as to suggest that they had to be battleships.
The bow of the Virginia began to swing around from the northeast to the northwest. Now both the two Confederate cruisers and the entire row of American ships were illuminated by star shells. An explosion on the leading American ship showed that the Confederates had the range.
“Do we have anything from the cruisers on their identification of the ships with which they’re engaged?” asked Captain Watson in command voice.
“These look like Standard battleships,” answered the Port Lookout one deck up on the bridge wing, unaware that the question had been asked on the FlagBridge given the clarity of the sound of the voice.
“No, Sir, Captain Watson,” said Lieutenant Brown, returning to the FlagBridge.
“If those are Standard battleships, you want to engage at over 12,000 yards. I don’t know how your armor tests against their guns, but fourteen-inch guns can pierce eighteen-inch armor at roughly 12,000 yards. If one of those ships is Colorado, it can pierce your armor at roughly 17,000 yards. I recommend that we assume that the flagship is Colorado, and that we make sure that we have the range right before we fire our first salvo. If we cross their ‘T,’ it’ll be four guns on the Colorado against eighteen of ours. I think that we can score first. If we cross their ‘T’ and Colorado isn’t the flagship, every other ship ahead of Colorado will be masking its fire. We need to get ahead of these ships at a range well over 12,000 yards.”
“How do y’all think so fast, son?” asked Admiral Semmes.
“I…I don’t know, Sir,” said Captain Watson. “I’ve always done it.”
“Well, Son, y’all just keep doin’ it a lil’ bit longah. Now, Lieutenant Brown, y’all bring Captain Watson on up to the bridge and show him the moboahd. Captain Watson, y’all take as long a look at the moboahd as y’all need, an’ y’all come back an’ tell me what to do. Captain Watson, if Captain Bosahrge doesn’t take kindly to your bein’ on his bridge, y’all give me a cahll. Ah don’t foahsee any trouble.”
The silhouettes on the horizon lit with gunfire.
“I’ll do that, Sir. Thank you. Excuse me,” said Captain Watson.
A shell burst lit the horizon. One of the Confederate cruisers was hit.
“Think fast, son. If those ahr battleships, ahr cruisahs ahrn’t doin’ so well.”
“Yes, Sir,” said Captain Watson, racing to follow the younger, fitter Lieutenant Brown around and up the ladder. The heel of the ship began to correct while Captain Watson was still on the ladder. The Virginia was reaching course three-one-five.
Lieutenant Brown, of course, reached the bridge first. As he stepped through the hatch, he spoke the words, “Captain Watson on deck!”
Noah Watson stepped onto the bridge of the Confederate battleship. For the first time in his life, he had an inkling of the depth of his international reputation. Despite the action in progress, every man on the bridge of the Virginia, Captain Bosarge and Lieutenant Brown included, was ramrod-straight at attention.
“Carry on,” said Captain Watson quickly. “Captain Bosarge,” he continued, striding quickly to the Captain’s Chair, “Request permission to borrow your maneuvering board. I need to see the relative motion plots in the rough.”
“Pahmission granted. Offisah of the Deck, extend to Captain Watson the use of ahr moboahd.”
“Yes, Sir,” said the Officer of the Deck, clearly the Navigator of the Virginia. “Captain Watson, stand wheahevah you wish.”
“Thank you,” said Captain Watson. He slid around behind the petty officer actually recording bearings in grease pencil on the dimly lit glass board. Lieutenant Clinton Brown slipped in quietly behind him. He looked out at the action on the horizon. Star shells still lit the distant action, and he knew that their glimmering light hid the three Confederate battleships from the American lookouts’ eyes. A shell hit the second ship in formation. He looked to his right. He could see the latter half of the column of light cruisers, racing off to torpedo range. The Confederate light cruisers were all rated at thirty-three knots, faster than the Atlantic Fleet New England cruisers by a full three knots. Relative to the Confederate battleships, they were greyhounds unleashed by portly hunters to the chase.
Captain Watson realized that he had not discussed torpedo attack doctrine in detail with Admiral Semmes. He regretted his oversight.
The petty officer was plotting relative bearings, cursing under his breath the change of course. Captain Watson watched the only markings that made a difference, the relative bearing to the first ship in the American formation. The pattern was challenging, and not only because of the change of course. The petty officer and the quartermaster chief were working a new solution after the change of course. That would take time.
Another bearing came in from the starboard lookout. Another bearing was plotted on the maneuvering board.
Captain Watson said nothing, but he did a hard left-face and departed. “Captain Watson off the bridge!” called Lieutenant Brown, trailing him back to the FlagBridge, but falling behind despite his superior fitness.
“Admiral Semmes!” said Captain Watson, returning to the FlagBridge just out of breath.
“Yes?” asked Admiral Semmes.
“Maintain course and speed! These are the American battleships. I believe that they have increased speed from fifteen knots to nineteen knots and shifted course from two-nine-zero to two-four-zero while we shifted course. We won’t know for sure for several more minutes, but it fits. If they’re headed two-four-zero, we need to maintain three-one-five.”
“How do y’all do thaht? Ah cahnnot comprehehnd how y’all can think of things so fast.”
“I…I don’t know, Admiral Semmes,” said Captain Watson self-consciously. “I just tried to imagine what the Americans would do if they were the battle line, and I combined that with our change of course and perspective, and I saw if the numbers worked.”
“Ah cahnnot see numbahs, son, ahnd ah do not think that any of mah men cahn, eithah. You ahr ahn exceptionahl mahn.”
“I was speaking figuratively, Sir,” said Captain Watson, but the light on the horizon interrupted his words. One of the Confederate cruisers exploded into a fireball. It was too far away to immediately discern which one it was, but one of the heavy cruisers had blown up.
“Theyah is nothin’ thaht we could’ve done, men,” spoke Admiral Semmes. The sense of loss on the FlagBridge was palpable. Not knowing whether it was the Austin or the Dallas only made it worse. Everybody knew friends on both the Austin and the Dallas. After an explosion like that, in seas this cold, in contested waters, all of the sailors on one of those cruisers were dead.
A small explosion lit the fourth ship in the American battle line. It was dwarfed by the flash of gunfire down the length of the formation. There were at least seven ships firing. They all were firing, now, at one cruiser.
“Admiral Semmes, bridge reports American ships approaching us at a course of two-four-five, speed eighteen knots,” spoke the Port Talker.
“Very well,” said Admiral Semmes. He turned to Captain Watson, and he added, “Not bahd, son.”
“Thank you, Sir. Are we ready to open fire? The range must be below 18,000 yards.”
“Ah wahnt to give mah cruisahs a chahnce, son. They’ll need to fiah toahpedoes, ahnd Ah think Ah’ve given them tahm to do thaht, but Ah need them to hahve a chahnce to fiah again befoah Ah mess up theyah fiahring solutions with gunfire.”
“But there are nine cruisers, Admiral. How long will it take them to turn around?”
“Ah’d say ahbout three minutes.”
“Three minutes? How can they do that?”
“Gefechtskehrtwendung,” said Admiral Semmes, his Southern accent vanishing as he spoke German.
“Your torpedo cruisers attack with a battle turnaround at night!” exclaimed Captain Watson. His jaw dropped open.
“Ah think thaht we’re entitled to ahn ace or two up ouah sleeves.”
“Austin reports Dallas blown up. Austin has lost “A” turret and “X” turret. Severe fires topside,” said the Starboard Talker.
“Very well,” said Admiral Semmes.
The Virginia sailed on, coming in front of the American battle line. The Austin burned in the distance, taking shell hit after shell hit from the American battle line. The flashes of the Americans’ guns were clearly visible, but the star shells now only lit the sky over the Austin.
“The range should be less than 15,000 yards now, Admiral. I recommend that we open fire,” said Captain Watson.
“Ah do believe thaht it’s just about time for that. Lieutenahnt Brown, pahss word to the foahmation to fiah.”
“Aye-aye, Sir,” said Lieutenant Brown. He raced away from the FlagBridge to pass the order in person.
Admiral Semmes turned to Captain Watson. “Ahr you a mahn of the Loahd, son?”
Captain Watson thought, as he often did, of Kipling:
God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine —
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget — lest we forget!
“Is there a man at sea who believes not in the Lord at a moment such as this?” asked Captain Watson.
First the six heavy rifles of the Virginia, and moments later the twelve more of the Texas and the Georgia, spewed steel and flame in measure never before seen in the wars of mortal men.
The roar of the heavy rifles passed. “Nought a mahn in mah Navy, son. What of you?” asked Admiral Semmes.
Captain Watson was lost in thought, knowing that in daylight he could have seen the shells flying away into the Atlantic sky. He remembered, silent seconds later, moments without recognition, the exact sound of Admiral Semmes’ few words. Kipling had written,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we…
Captain Watson turned to come face-to-face with Admiral Semmes. “There are moments, Sir, where I lack for faith.”
The flash of a shell hitting the lead American ship lit the night. Two seconds later came another. The Confederate battleships had chosen the right course and established the range. A ninth of the shells in their first salvo had hit the enemy. At this range, no armor in the American fleet could withstand eighteen-inch fire. Whatever they had struck was almost certainly destroyed.
Down the length of the American battle line came a rapid chain of flashes not unlike the explosions of a string of firecrackers set off too far away for the sound of the explosions to be heard. The nine Confederate light cruisers had launched, in fewer than three minutes, two hundred eighty-eight twenty-four inch torpedoes at excellent tactical range. Now those cruisers were gone into the night. In the minds of both Admiral Semmes and Captain Watson, side by side on the FlagBridge of the Virginia, the world that they had known for a lifetime had changed in a moment. The port waterline of the American battle line had been ripped open, America’s battleships were flooding, and the Confederate ships were across the American ‘T’ and they had the range.
The United States of America was no longer a Great Power at sea. All that was left to be determined in the hours to follow was the magnitude of the Americans’ defeat.