Sentinels of Fire: A Novel

Sentinels of Fire: A Novel

by P. T. Deutermann


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Wednesday, April 21


P.T. Deutermann's World War II navy series began with the award-winning Pacific Glory, followed by the brilliantly reviewed Ghosts of Bungo Suido. His new novel Sentinels of Fire tells the tale of a lone destroyer, the USS Malloy, part of the Allied invasion forces attacking the island of Okinawa and the Japanese home islands.

By the spring of 1945, the once mighty Japanese fleet has been virtually destroyed, leaving Japan open to invasion. The Japanese react by dispatching hundreds of suicide bombers against the Allied fleet surrounding Okinawa. By mid-May, the Allied fleet is losing a major ship a day to murderous swarms of kamikazes streaming out of Formosa and southern Japan. The radar picket line is the first defense and early warning against these hellish formations, but the Japanese direct special attention to these lone destroyers stationed north and west of Okinawa.

One destroyer, the USS Malloy, faces an even more pressing issue when her Executive Officer Connie Miles begins to realize that the ship's much-admired Captain Pudge Tallmadge is losing his mind under the relentless pressure of the attacks. Set against the blazing gun battles created by the last desperate offensive of the Japanese, Executive Officer Miles and the ship's officers grapple with the consequences of losing their skipper's guidance—and perhaps the ship itself and everyone on board.

Vividly authentic, historically accurate, and emotionally compelling, Sentinels of Fire is military adventure at its best, by an author whose career as a Navy captain informs every page.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250041180
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Series: P. T. Deutermann WWII Novels Series
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 491,252
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

P. T. DEUTERMANN is the author of sixteen previous novels, including Ghosts of Bungo Suido and Pacific Glory, which won the W. Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction. Deutermann spent twenty-six years in military and government service, which included a Pearl Harbor tour of duty; his father was a Vice Admiral in the WWII Pacific theater, and his uncle and older brother were submariners. He lives with his wife in North Carolina.

Read an Excerpt


On my very first day aboard USS Malloy, a Jap fighter plane came within fifteen feet of taking my head right off before it exploded just above the water on the opposite side of the ship. The captain looked down at me from the bridge wing once all the shooting stopped, shot me a lopsided grin, and said, “Welcome aboard, XO. How do you like your coffee?”

An hour later I thought of a truly smartass reply, but at that very moment, I was speechless and a bit deaf, too. I had literally just come aboard. The bridge messenger, a young seaman who looked to be no more than twelve years old, led me forward along the starboard side through all the guntubs to ascend the weather-deck ladders up to the bridge. We’d gotten halfway up the first ladder when that kamikaze came in out of nowhere, its screaming engine audible above the sudden burst of fire from the midships forties, joined immediately by all the twenty-millimeter mounts. I had been standing underneath a four-barreled forty-millimeter gun mount when the gunners first spotted him. Every gun on that side opened fire. The messenger and I dropped back down to the main deck and huddled under the ladder to avoid the shower of brass cartridges raining down on our heads. The muzzle blasts were so powerful that I couldn’t catch my breath, but that was nothing compared to seeing that Jap plane diving right at us, right at me, with that big, ugly bomb slung under its fuselage, even as pieces of its wings, tail, and undercarriage were being torn off by the gunfire from Malloy’s massed batteries. At the last moment, the pilot lost either his nerve or his head, because the plane pitched up, rolled, and then kited right over the ship before crashing down into the sea, pursued by a sheet of flaming gasoline. A moment later there was a stupendous blast when its bomb went off just a few feet underwater, giving what was left of its pilot one last flight experience and raising a waterspout a hundred feet into the air.

Only thirty minutes earlier, Malloy had finished taking on fuel and transferring personnel by midships highline alongside the fleet oiler, Monongahela. Once I landed on Malloy’s main deck, shed my life jacket, and collected my seabags, I headed forward as the bosun’s mates retrieved the highline rig and the ship pulled away from the oiler, accelerating to 27 knots to get clear of the cumbersome and vulnerable underway replenishment formation. It had been a gray, drizzly day, with enough wind to bat the tops off of the waves as Malloy threaded her way through all the carriers, battleships, and cruisers of Admiral Raymond Spruance’s Fifth Fleet. Spruance had been conducting air strikes against Formosa and the Japanese home islands for the past three days, trying to reduce what was left of the Jap air forces before the invasion of Okinawa began. The Japs had reacted by throwing kamikazes at the fleet formations, with some success, unfortunately. I’d transferred over to the oiler from the aircraft carrier Franklin—the Big Ben, as she was known—where I’d been the gunnery officer, on my way to take over as executive officer in the destroyer Malloy. Career-wise, it was a pretty big step. Two days after I’d transferred to the oiler, the Big Ben lost over eight hundred men in a kamikaze bombing attack and was so badly damaged that she had to retire to Pearl and, ultimately, to retirement status in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet.

The captain was back inside the pilothouse by the time I got to the bridge, talking to the ship’s Combat Information Center, known as the CIC or Combat, on the tactical intercom, or the bitch-box. He acknowledged my presence with a casual wave, finished his conversation, and then got out of his chair to come shake hands. I introduced myself.

“I’m Connie Miles, Captain,” I said. “Reporting aboard for duty, sir.”

“Pudge Tallmadge,” he said as we shook hands. “Welcome aboard. I’m sorry your predecessor isn’t here to do a proper turnover, but he was yanked off to go to command, and that does take precedence.”

“Amen to that,” I said. “I’ll try to hit the deck running.”

The captain’s nickname, Pudge, must have been strictly an academy thing, because he was anything but pudgy now. Gaunt would have been a better description, with gray hair, light blue eyes with dark pouches underneath, medium height, and a face that looked ten years older than his forty-one years of age. His real name was Commander Carson R. R. Tallmadge III, USN, and he was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and the Annapolis class of 1929. He’d been in command of Malloy, one of the new Gearing-class destroyers, since taking over from her commissioning CO right after that officer had suffered a heart attack in mid-1944.

“Let’s go below,” he said. He told the OOD—officer of the deck—that we’d be in his inport cabin and to keep the ship at modified GQ, or general quarters, until we got back out to our assigned station, escorting a three-carrier formation. The captain’s cabin was just on the other side of the wardroom. Once there he buzzed the duty wardroom steward for some coffee, lit up a cigarette, and then asked me to give him my background.

“Class of ’thirty-five,” I recited. “Served in the West Virginia for my makee-learn tour, then in Chester as main propulsion assistant. Postgrad school back in Annapolis, then back to sea in Houston out of Norfolk as the assistant gunnery officer. A year and a half of shore duty at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, where the EDOs tried to convert me to engineering duty officer. That looked pretty boring to me, so I turned ’em down, which apparently hurt their feelings, because I was sent back to sea midtour to the Big E, again as assistant gunnery officer, right after Pearl.”

“You were aboard for Midway, then?”

“Yes, sir. Actually, I was supposed to have gone to Yorktown, but that got changed at the last minute.”

“That was lucky,” he said.

“Yes, sir, I thought so, especially after she went down. Went to Franklin from Enterprise, this time as the gunnery officer. Got off her to come here only days before the Japs got her.”

“Lucky again,” he said. “That’s good. I firmly subscribe to what Napoleon said when he was asked if he preferred brilliant generals or lucky ones. Lucky, every time, he said. Are you married?”

“No, sir, I am not. Almost, once, but then she got cold feet after one of the wives at a wardroom dinner party told her what married life with a naval officer was like: the constant separations; a lot of responsibility but really low pay; the stagnant promotion system; and then some more about the endless separations. She was a bit tipsy, but she was pretty convincing. My fiancée asked me later if that was all true, and I had to admit that it was. That, as they say, was that.”

“Sorry to hear it,” the captain said. “All of those things are true, or were, I guess. My wife’s one of those special women who can live their own lives when I’m gone, and yet make mine worth living when I’m home. About the only thing that’s changed is the promotion opportunity: You know, enough people die, the survivors get promoted. You’re lucky you and she explored the truth before you got hitched.”

“I suppose so,” I said. “She was a lovely young lady, but she was pretty clear on what she wanted out of marriage: kids, a nice home, a nice car, and an expanding horizon. This was about the time we were all taking a fifteen percent pay cut if we wanted to stay on active duty.”

“Remember it well,” he said, nodding. “And we were glad to hand it over, as I remember. It beat going on the bread lines or shoveling dirt for the WPA.”

“I wavered,” I said. “Almost got out. Madge, that was her name, Madge Warrren, got her father into it. He tried to convince me that a career in banking was a whole lot better than a naval career. Having watched most of the banks fail when I was still at the academy, I wasn’t convinced.”

“What happened to her, may I ask?”

“She married a banker and became an alcoholic. I guess I was lucky to have dodged a bullet. In a manner of speaking.”

“Wow,” he said. “Well, speaking of luck, we’re going to need as much of that as we can get, and all because we have one of the newer air-search radars.”

That was interesting—we’d had two air-search radars on Big Ben, but he was talking as if Malloy’s having one was unusual. “Sir?” I said.

“L-day for the Okinawa campaign has been set of the first of April. Operation Iceberg, they’re calling it. Gonna be a really big deal, Connie. Upwards of fifteen hundred ships and amphibious craft. A four-division assault, two Army, two Marine, almost 120,000 men, with the entire Big Blue Fleet in support. That’s where we and our air-search radar come in. Spruance has ordered up a radar picket line, north and west of the main island of Okinawa. Six destroyers, augmented with some modified landing craft for additional close-in gun support, stationed in a big arc across the top of the island chain.”

“I don’t remember hearing anything about a picket line for Iwo.”

“We didn’t, because Iwo is six hundred and fifty miles away from the home islands. Okinawa, on the other hand, is only two hundred and twenty miles. Okinawa is considered by the Japs to be Japanese home island territory. They’ve got the entire Jap 32nd Army on that island, and the intel people are predicting a bloodbath.” He sipped some of his coffee. I noticed his hand was trembling.

“If you were on the Franklin,” he continued, “then you know that the Japs are on the ropes. For all intents and purposes, their fleet’s been destroyed. They’ve resorted to kamikaze tactics pretty much because that’s all they’ve got. Fleet intel estimates that they don’t have all that many airplanes and pilots left, either, especially pilots, so they’re making them count.”

Well I knew. We’d been the target of all too many kamikazes recently in Franklin, and, being the gunnery officer, I knew all about the horror show they could produce. Fortunately Franklin had been surrounded by a screen of antiaircraft light cruisers and destroyers, together with the side batteries of two battleships, so it was pretty rare that one got through. “Will this picket line be a formation, Captain?”

“I don’t think so, Connie. It looks like we’re going to be on our own, stationed maybe ten, twenty miles apart, to create the biggest possible radar coverage.”

“One ship on its own? That’s a recipe for disaster.”

“Do tell. It’s one thing to defend against a plane trying to bomb or torpedo a moving ship. Quite another when the plane is the bomb. Fleet intel says they’ll soon run out of planes. I’m not so sure. I think they’re holding back until we actually attack Okinawa. Remember, Okinawa Shima is Japan in their evil little minds.”

I nodded. I’d heard much the same scuttlebutt on board the Big Ben. The carriers were the queen bees of the fleet and often carried flag officers, which meant that officers stationed aboard a carrier knew more about what was happening in the big picture than, say, officers in a destroyer. Since I was the new guy here, however, it wouldn’t do for me to come across as some know-it-all, even if I was to be the second in command.

“Can you tell me about the department heads, Captain?”

“Absolutely, and we’re lucky to have four good ones. The whole wardroom is actually way above average. Let’s see. The senior one is Lieutenant Jimmy Enright, the navigation officer, sometimes called the ops officer. UCSD grad, headed for law school but came in after Midway. Did one tour on a light cruiser, then showed up for the precommissioning detail for Malloy. He’s bright, a thinker, loves his electronic toys and knows more about them than some of his people. Married, two little kids. Ask him a complicated question and he’ll think about it first, then come up with an answer you didn’t expect.

“The gun boss is Marty Randolph. Southerner, another lieutenant, academy, ’forty-two, commissioned right after Pearl, pretends to be a good ol’ boy but actually stood tenth in his class. Championship diver back at the boat school. Loves his guns and his gunners, and they worship him. Also loves to fight Japs, and his men know that and respond accordingly. He can absorb a tactical situation and split out the main battery on the fly. Not married, but I’m told there is a Southern belle somewhere back home, dutifully pining away amongst the magnolias.

“Chief engineer is Mario Campofino, not an engineer by trade or nature but a very demanding and precise young officer. OCS out of NYU, did one tour in the Indianapolis as a makee-learn and then, like you, fleeted up to main propulsion assistant, which, on a heavy cruiser, says a lot. Again, he was part of the precomm detail for Malloy. Has a great rapport with his chiefs, whom he trusts, as well he should. But when it comes to running the main engineering plant, he’s by the book, all the way. Calm, cool, never loses his temper, unlike the gun boss. Confirmed bachelor, or so he says.

“Finally, Peter Fontana, lieutenant jay-gee, the supply officer. I forget his college, some Podunk U in the Midwest. Supply School, of course, then OCS. Everything tends to amaze Peter, so he’s very careful. Going to be an accountant one day if we survive this fight. He’s a natural born bean counter. Didn’t understand what his real mission was when he first came aboard, but he does now, and he’s become really good at it. He oversees the handiest collection of midnight-requisition artists I’ve ever seen. We go alongside a tender and they will rob that ship blind of all the stuff we’re not authorized to have. When they get caught, Peter puts on such a good act of ninety-day-wonder innocence that it is truly amazing to behold. The tender’s people know we’re guilty, but they’re so impressed with this amazingly gullible LTJG Fontana act that they forget to come get their stuff back.”

“The goat locker?”

“The chiefs’ mess is strong. There are a couple of chiefs whom I would not have promoted, but that’s just your fleet average situation. Your right-hand man is going to be the chief master at arms, Chief Wallace Lamont, a Scottish-descent bantam rooster with the unlikely nickname of Pinky. Red hair, ruddy face, faintly pink eyes. Even so, he’s one of those guys you recognize immediately as someone you don’t want to piss off. He’s half the size of most of the crew, and yet no one crosses that man under any circumstances. Your predecessor depended on him absolutely. He told me more than once that nothing goes on in this ship that Lamont doesn’t already know about, and if it’s a problem, he’s usually already taken care of it.”

“Sounds damned useful,” I said. “How do I play him?”

The captain sat back in his chair with an amused look. He closed his eyes for a moment. Then he surprised me. “What do you think your job is here, as XO?”

“Run the ship the way you want it run so that you look good.”

He chuckled. “Who told you that?”

“Commander Randy Marshal, XO in the Franklin. Unfortunately, I understand he died in the big fire.”

“Okay,” he said. “That’s the traditional approach, but these days, out here, it bears no relation to reality, Connie, especially on a destroyer. Let me tell you what’s real. In the old days, four-stripers got command by staying healthy long enough to outlive their seniors while not getting caught consorting with goats. That took some time, which meant many skippers were graybeards by the time the war started. I was on one of the cruisers sunk at Savo. Our captain was nearly fifty-five years old. We were utterly ignorant of what we should have been doing that night. The Japs had trained and trained for night engagements with torpedoes, star shells, and some of their cruisers carried up to twelve eight-inch guns. We, on the other hand, were past masters at shining brightwork, responding to bugle calls, holystoning teak decks, rigging a taut quarterdeck awning, and steaming in precise formation on any given sunny day. When we got sent to Guadalcanal we stayed up all night, waiting for something to happen. After three nights of that, we were all zombies, and that’s when the Japs came. They tore us to pieces. They sailed by one of our picket destroyers at a range of less than two miles, but everyone on that ship apparently was sound asleep—at their GQ stations.

“We lost Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria, and the Aussie flagship, Canberra, all shot to pieces in two quick engagements. I was on Quincy, where I learned about swimming at night when the sea itself was on fire. Then I transferred to Juneau, where I learned about the Jap Long Lance torpedo. I’m alive today because I was blown over the side when she got hit the second time and the magazines went. Spent the night and the next thirty-six hours in the waters off Savo.”

His face reflected some of the horror of those engagements and the trauma he’d experienced. I didn’t know what to say. My war had been on carriers. Even when we had been attacked, it had never seemed quite so personal as what the captain was describing.

“Your main job here as XO is to run the ship on a day-to-day basis to the standards I demand. You will conduct daily messing and berthing inspections so that the ship stays clean. You will supervise all the paperwork, the training of the officers, chiefs, and enlisted. You will execute the standard Navy daily routine. You will see to it that someone, including you from time to time, takes stars once a day to confirm our position, even if we can see the nearest island. You and Lamont will police the lower decks for minor infractions of naval discipline. You will supervise the department heads in the administration of their departments. You will draft fitness reports for all the officers in the wardroom and ensure the department heads get enlisted evals in on time. And you will spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with all the my-wife-she, my-dog-it personnel problems that three hundred twenty enlisted people can conjure up even when we’re eight thousand miles away from said wives and dogs. And that’s just your day job.

“In addition to all that, you will be absorbing the art of command. The ship, you, and I will face tactical decisions. I’ll make the actual decisions and give the orders. You will also make decisions, but you will formulate mental orders. The ship will execute my decisions, and you’ll get to see how that comes out, and whether or not your mental decisions might have been better—or worse. I must see to your education for eventual command, because that’s the new Navy. We don’t get command anymore by outliving our contemporaries. Nowadays, we get command because commanding officers who live to tell the tale evaluate us and then make recommendations. Admittedly, sometimes we get command because people die in combat and we’re the only ones available, but the powers that be are determined to get the system a lot more professional than it was before Pearl Harbor.”

I still didn’t know what to say, but it all sounded pretty good to me. Even better, the captain was taking the time to explain all this. I nodded.

“Now this is important,” he continued, as if what he’d been saying earlier had not been important. “I am afraid. Every day that we press closer to Japan, and they react in their ungodly, barbaric fashion, I am even more afraid. I must not show that, because the crew of this ship, most of whom are under the age of twenty-one, are already scared shitless each time one of those kamis comes out of the sky to kill us all. I have to pretend that I’m shrugging it all off, but when I come down here after an air raid and sit on the steel throne, crapping my insides out, all the pretense goes right out of it. I’m telling you this because you’re going to experience it. Malloy isn’t a forty-five-thousand-ton aircraft carrier, surrounded by two dozen or more heavily armed escorts. When and if, but probably when, they get through and hit us, actually hit us, a lot of people around you are going to die. You might die. The ship might die.”

He held up his two hands. The shaking was clearly visible now. “I didn’t use to do this,” he said. “In times past, I was more afraid of screwing up as a brand-new skipper than of anything the Japs could throw at us. Not anymore, XO. I’m sorry if I’m scaring you, but you need to understand this: From here on out, you need to put aside any thought about your career or your professional success as an XO. Where we’re going, those things mean nothing. Your job is to get up each morning pretending that you’re the owner here, of everything that’s going on in this ship, and to act accordingly. Between us, we’ll try to stay alive.”

I stared down at the deck and took a deep breath.

“Well?” he asked.

“What could possibly go wrong?” I asked.

He grinned. “There you go,” he said approvingly. “Welcome aboard. Now, go meet the department heads. I apologize again that you’re not getting a proper turnover, but it really doesn’t matter. Malloy’s a good ship and a happy ship. They’ll call you XO from day one. That’s about all it takes to assume the job. Get each department head to give you a complete tour of his spaces—Malloy is no cruiser or carrier, so it doesn’t take that long. Get your battle gear together and know where it is at all times. These home-island Japs don’t keep gentlemen’s business hours.”

At that moment, the ship’s announcing system broke in to announce that a raid was inbound, many bogeys, and that all hands needed to man their battle stations. Bong, bong, bong, bong.

“Like I was saying,” the captain said, reaching for his helmet. I reached for mine, but it wasn’t there. Lesson number one.

*   *   *

The next week passed quickly. The ship went to GQ twice daily as a matter of routine, just before sunrise and just before sunset, favorite times for suiciders to make an appearance. I’d moved into the previous XO’s stateroom, a tiny cabin with room for a desk, a bunk, and a chair. The only thing I didn’t have was a roommate, unlike all the rest of the officers except, of course, the captain. My predecessor had been a heavy smoker, so I asked to have the cabin repainted, turning it from sticky amber to white and smelling now of fresh floor wax instead of stale tobacco smoke. I spent a lot of time touring the ship with the department heads as they showed me their assigned spaces and introduced me to their people. I had lunch in the chiefs’ mess, where we mostly talked about morale and the problems of housekeeping endemic to housing, feeding, and cleaning the 320 enlisted and twenty officers embarked, in a ship that was not quite four hundred feet long.

I met Chief Petty Officer Wallace Lamont early on. He was the ship’s chief master at arms, which was a collateral duty. His professional CPO rating was gunner’s mate. When he found out I’d had two tours in gunnery departments, he positively beamed. Strangely enough, he probably spent more time as the CMAA than as a gunner’s mate chief petty officer. Malloy had two gunner’s mate chiefs, and the junior one, Chief Mabry, took care of the day-to-day duties of being Second Division’s CPO. Lamont spent his time adjudicating minor discipline problems, accompanying me on my daily inspections, and generally walking the decks throughout the day and sometimes the night, keeping an experienced thumb on the pulse of the crew.

Chief Lamont turned out to be just the right-hand man the captain had described. Short, feisty, and abrupt, he spoke with a trace of a Scottish burr, an affectation I think he’d developed after making chief eight years ago, to add to his personal mystique. He had come up through the ranks as a gunner’s mate and, of course, still was one. The fact that I had been gunnery officer in two previous ships somewhat offset the fact that Malloy was my first destroyer. Destroyermen were a proud if a somewhat inbred bunch, and I knew there’d been some comment on the fact that I’d only served in much bigger ships, and yet here I was, sent in as XO. Everyone immediately assumed I had pull somewhere.

I didn’t, but there had been some strings pulled to get me into the Naval Academy, courtesy of my parents. Navy people talked of their kids as Navy brats; I’d been a State Department brat. I didn’t find out what my folks had really been doing all those years in a seemingly endless stream of embassies until their retirement party in ’thirty-eight. My father, now deceased after his lungs succumbed to years of heavy smoking, never seemed to get promoted. He was always an assistant attaché of some kind—cultural, financial, agricultural—something vague and not very important. My mother worked as a senior secretary in each of the postings, sometimes as the ambassador’s personal secretary or executive assistant. I was finishing up my senior year at Western High School in Washington on the day they were given their despedida, as it was called, from the U.S. Foreign Service, and I got the day off from school. Instead of going to the State Department headquarters in Foggy Bottom as I expected, we went to the Main Navy Building on B Street, not too far from the White House. There I found out that my parents had been working for the Office of Naval Intelligence the whole time I’d been growing up and, even more surprising, that my dear, sweet mother was the actual intelligence officer, and my father, the guy who never seemed to get promoted, her cover and controller within all those embassies. The director himself awarded each of them a medal for distinguished careers and reminded them that they must never speak about that service, and then we all partook of coffee and cake.

My parents retired to a nice house up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, just outside the District line. I tried once to ask them about what they’d been doing all those years, and all my mother would say was “Typing, Connie, lots and lots of typing.” My father just puffed on his pipe and nodded sagely. That was that, and I didn’t figure out that they were the principal means by which I got my appointment to the Naval Academy in 1931 until well after I’d graduated. I, of course, thought it was because I was so damned handsome, smart, and, well … you know.

The captain had been right—I was addressed as XO right from the start, and there was a subtle but palpable shift in how the enlisted people in this ship interacted with me. As the gunnery officer in the Big Ben I’d been a department head, but not a very important department head, as compared to the air operations officer or the chief engineer. Aircraft carriers had two complements: the ship’s company, which ran the actual ship, and the carrier air wing, made up of many squadrons and almost a hundred airplanes that did the business of an aircraft carrier: air strikes, reconnaissance missions, close support of troops ashore, and formation defense. My job had been to manage twelve five-inch caliber guns, sixty of the smaller but still lethal four-barreled forty-millimeter Bofors guns, and 76 Oerlikon twenty-millimeter electric machine guns, most of which were arrayed in guntubs stretching up and down both sides of the 860-foot-long flight deck.

If the pilots did their job, my people stood idle, watching the air show as dozens of our fighters pursued and splashed attacking Jap bombers and suiciders all over the formation, while our escorts, ranging from sixty-thousand-ton battleships to twenty-five-hundred-ton destroyers, filled the sky with black spots of ack-ack and, we hoped, flaming Jap planes. When one did get through all that and head directly for us, my guys could put up a pretty good curtain of ack-ack themselves, and, although it was unnerving to watch one of those planes get bigger and bigger, sometimes already on fire or streaming gasoline vapor from punctured wing tanks, the Big Ben was 860 feet long. If they hit us, supposedly we could take it.

Being the exec in a destroyer, however, meant that things were very different. The executive officer of a warship was next in line for command of the ship if something happened to the captain. The exec went around the ship wearing the mantle of command, all the while knowing that if he ran into a situation that baffled him, he could slip topside for a quiet word with the captain. As a department head, I’d been one of many. As the exec, I was one of two, with the other guy being the commanding officer, as close to a god as was still possible in the twentieth century. Luckily for me, Captain Tallmadge was special. The department heads told me of the first time the captain had, right after the change of command, watched a shiphandling evolution go off the tracks, with the officer in charge of the maneuver royally screwing things up. Malloy’s previous skipper would have had a flaming temper tantrum right there on the bridge. Tallmadge had watched things go to hell with obvious but silent dismay. As everyone waited for the explosion, the captain had taken off his hat and thrown it down on the deck in the pilothouse. Then, to everyone’s amazement, he got out of his chair and began to chew out—the hat. Called it names, told it how disappointed he was in it, how it had to do better the next time, that this maneuver wasn’t that hard, and that there’d be no liberty for that hat until things improved. Then he’d gotten back into his captain’s chair, visibly shunning the thoroughly shamed hat, and announced that they were going to try that maneuver again.

It had been theater, and everyone on the bridge recognized that, but it had been most effective. This guy wasn’t going to call you an idiot—he was going to address the problem, not on the basis of whose fault it was but rather by figuring out how to fix it. As they later learned, the new captain’s reaction to any kind of screwup was to tie the incident to insufficient training. Any time he did lose his temper, it was the hat that caught hell. People relaxed and began to pay attention to the training, now that no one was chewing their asses as if they’d done something wrong on purpose. It became standard procedure for the junior officers to reveal that they’d made a hash out of something by saying, “I lit off a Hat Dance this morning, all by myself.” When I heard that story, I recognized there was a certain genius to it and took aboard the underlying message: Blame the problem, not the people. With rare exceptions, the officers, chiefs, and crew were always trying to do their best.

My second week aboard produced my first lesson in command. The carrier formations were operating to the north and west of Okinawa, sending softening-up missions in against the Japs’ aboveground installations on the island. While this was going on, a large air raid appeared midmorning out of densely clouded skies. The CAP fighters—Combat Air Patrol—had been up for an hour, flaming as many of the incoming bombers as they could find, but one of the carriers had been hit and was dealing with a spectacularly big flight-deck fire. We’d shot at some of the raiders, but for some reason our two carriers were not targets that morning. While the raid was still in progress, one of our carrier’s Corsairs came past the ship at low altitude trailing a deadly white cloud of leaking avgas. I’d come out to the bridge from my GQ station in Combat when the lookouts first spotted him.

“He’s gonna bail out or ditch,” the captain said, tracking the wobbly airplane though his binoculars. Combat reported they had no comms with him. Our gunners had recognized the distinctive gull-wing silhouette and held their fire, but everyone was still pretty nervous and scanning the skies for Japs.

The Corsair banked left and then came back toward the ship in a wide circle. He put his flaps down and leveled off ahead of the ship, going away from us as he settled down close to the sea surface.

“Shall I call away the pilot rescue detail?” I asked.

“No,” the captain said. “We’re not stopping with an air raid going on. Any kami who sees a ship with no wake will head right for it. Combat will mark and report his position. The carrier who owns him will send some covering planes. Then one of the destroyers will come, but no one is stopping now, XO. Not right now.”

At that moment the Corsair hit the water, throwing up a large sheet of white spray, dipping its nose and then settling back on an even keel. Seconds later the weight of that enormous engine tipped it forward again and the plane began to sink. We were perhaps five hundred yards away and closing in on him at 25 knots. I was still dealing with what the Captain had said. Were we just going to drive by and do nothing? Then I saw some of mount fifty-one’s gun crew pop out of their mount, wrestling some kind of package over to the port bow.

“Slow to ten knots,” the captain ordered. The lee helmsman reset the engine-order telegraph handles, and the ship immediately began to slow down. Destroyers were handy little ships. The Big Ben would have taken a half hour to slow down that much from 25 knots.

The captain walked out to the port bridge wing as we came past the Corsair, whose tail was now sticking up at a sixty-degree angle. The canopy was open and the pilot was sitting astride the after fuselage, waving at us. The gun crew on the bow heaved an inflatable life raft over the side, smacking it down into the water not ten feet from the sinking plane. The captain waved from the bridge wing, and then we drove right on by. I couldn’t quite make out the pilot’s expression, but I could only imagine what he was thinking. Two minutes later, a Jap Zeke took aim at us from about eight thousand feet, and it took every gun we had to knock him down, and none too soon, either. A second Zeke turned back when we started blasting away at the first one and then apparently saw the pilot bobbing around in his raft two miles behind us. He leveled off and strafed the pilot, reducing the raft to bloody shreds.

When our guns went silent, everyone seemed to be avoiding eye contact with everyone else. The captain had returned to his chair and was staring out the front portholes. I went back into CIC.

Half an hour later, the task force commander declared the air raid over, and we resumed our assigned station and reset our modified GQ condition of readiness. I went back out to the bridge to speak to the skipper, but he had disappeared into his sea cabin. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. There was no response. Maybe he’d gone down below? I knocked again and opened the door.

The captain was sitting in his chair with his head in his hands. I excused myself and started to back out, but he told me to come in. There was barely room for both of us in the tiny cubicle.

“I was going to tell you that you got tunnel vision out there,” he said. “That’s understandable, especially since you’ve just come from a bird farm. Pilots are everything on a carrier. But if you’re the skipper, the ship’s everything. You must always ask yourself this: Is what I’m about to do or order going to keep my ship safe or put her in unnecessary danger?” He paused to take a deep breath. His red face and shaking hands mirrored my own emotions about leaving that guy out there. “I’m devastated at what happened to that pilot,” he continued. “Don’t forget, I’ve been that man in the water, all by myself.”

“I understand, sir,” I said. “Besides, you were right. Two kamis did come, and they might have sunk us instead of the pilot. It’s just, I don’t know, a really rotten deal.”

“It is, indeed,” he said patiently. “That’s the difference between being XO and being the CO. You, the exec, get to observe and learn; I, the CO, get to make decisions like that. My head tells me it was the right decision; my heart is sick about it, and not for the first time. I think I’m getting too old for this stuff, XO, so pay attention. You might be in my shoes sooner than you think.”

I had no answer to that, and then he waved me away. He wanted to be alone, and I could well understand that, too. I felt sick.

That night, after we’d secured sundown GQ with no bogeys, I was up in Combat, going over the day’s reports with the navigation officer, Jimmy Enright. The navigation officer was in charge of navigating the ship, and also responsible for all the electronic divisions—the Combat Information Center, Sonar, Radio Central. As the Navy stuffed more and more electronic gear into its ships, the second half of his job was rapidly eclipsing the first part. I made some comment about leaving that pilot in the water.

“He probably understood, XO,” Jimmy said. “He was safer in that life raft than in some tin can that might be blown in two by a kamikaze. Begging your pardon, but your carrier background is showing.”

“I suppose so,” I said. “Still—a guy in the water? And we drive by?”

“This’ll sound like bullshit, XO, but the tin can Navy is at the sharp end of the fleet spear. The Japs have to get through us to get a shot at the heavies, and the heavies expect us to keep that from happening. You’ve read the after-action reports. This carrier was damaged, that carrier was torpedoed, this battleship had two near misses, this cruiser took a kami on the bridge. And, oh, by the way, two destroyers were sunk.”

“Like we don’t count?”

“We count, all right, because when the heavies lose one of their tin cans, they’re just a little more vulnerable than they were before that tin can went down.”

“That’s a little cynical, don’t you think, Jimmy?”

“Maybe, but wait until you see where we’re going next.”

“The captain mentioned something about a picket line, up north and west of Okinawa?”

“Yes, sir, and I’m thinking it’ll take the Japs about one day to figure out who’s sounding the alarm when they head down from Japan to strike the amphibs or the supporting fleet units off Okinawa. You’ve seen what an air raid looks like when the whole carrier fleet is attacked. Now, take that same number of Jap planes and focus it on five or six single-ship picket stations.”

“Sounds like a real party,” I said. “I talked to the captain after what happened today. He’s a lot more upset than he let on out on the bridge.”

“He’s been a great skipper,” Jimmy said, “but there are times I think it’s starting to get to him. We were the first ship on the scene after the Littell broke in half and went down from a two-plane kami strike. We stopped to look for survivors, and the admiral himself got on the radio and ordered us back to our assigned AA (antiaircraft) station immediately. The skipper got a personal-for blast later, pointing out that he had created a hole in the AA screen by stopping, when there was obviously nothing that could be done for Littell. I think they recovered twenty-two out of three-hundred-plus once someone did go back. He was stone-faced for three days after that.”

I was appalled at that story, mostly because I’d never heard about the Littell. I realized now that my carrier background was showing—every destroyerman out here had heard the Littell story.

*   *   *

The following day I had both Chief Lamont and Chief Bobby Walker, the chief hospital corpsman, accompany me on my daily messing and berthing inspection. This was one of the exec’s principal duties, a daily inspection of all the berthing spaces, where the crew slept, and the messdecks, where the enlisted took all their meals. Each morning, after dawn GQ and morning quarters, each division assigned two men to compartment cleaning; they swept, swabbed, picked up the trash, hauled full laundry bags to the ship’s laundry, polished any brightwork, and generally cleaned up the crowded compartments. My job was to come around at ten thirty in the morning and make sure that that had all been done. Same thing for the crew’s dining area, called the messdecks, the galley, and the scullery, where trays and silverware were washed and sanitized for the next meal. Chief Lamont came along as my enforcer. If I saw problems I’d point them out to Lamont, and he would have a quiet word with the compartment cleaners as I headed for the next berthing space.

Chief Walker, an experienced and senior chief corpsman, or medic, was universally called Doc. Some destroyers had an actual medical officer assigned, but if there was a shortage—and with the upcoming landings, there would be a shortage—the tin cans made do with senior medics like Walker. He was a taciturn individual, tall and ruggedly built, with a razor-sharp flattop haircut, who’d served with Marines during the Guadalcanal campaigns of ’forty-two and ’forty-three. He had one assistant, a hospital corpsman second class, and together they formed the medical department, based in what was known as sick bay. On my daily tours he would pay particular attention to the galley and the scullery, measuring rinse-water temperatures, taking water samples from the ship’s potable water tanks, and making sure the cooks were keeping themselves sanitary while doing food prep. He held sick call every day right after quarters to deal with runny noses, sore throats, minor injuries, and the inevitable slacker who wanted out of the morning’s upcoming evolutions, like refueling detail. He looked at the morning sick call for bad trends: A sudden uptick in sore throats, for instance, meant that the scullery water temperature wasn’t high enough.

With the help of these two chiefs, I covered every nook and cranny in the ship during my first week and every week thereafter. I learned where the problem children lived, which compartments were the hardest to keep clean (the engineers’, whose daily association with black oil, lube oil, grease, rust, and the bilges made for a genuinely black gang), where the nonregulation coffeepots were stashed, or the laundry bags that hadn’t been taken aft, and many other things associated with packing three-hundred-plus men in spaces meant for two hundred. The daily inspections, except on Sundays, were one of the most important things an exec did. Your nose would tell you pretty quick if you were on a ship where the exec did not make daily inspections.

The Malloy was assigned to a carrier screen, meaning we went where the big ship went, maintaining a specified station on the carrier. We were constantly looking for Jap subs with our sonar, and we stood ready to defend against air attacks, which came just about daily. The carrier formations were vast—up to fifteen big-decks of the Essex class and another dozen or so of the smaller escort carriers. The fleet formation itself covered a circular area of just over fifty miles. There were antiaircraft light cruisers, heavy cruisers, and even battleships, which, now that the Jap fleet had been virtually eliminated from the sea, were used principally as massive antiaircraft gun platforms. Every third day we would go alongside either one of the carriers or an oiler to refuel and replenish food and ammo stocks.

When the Japs attacked from the air, the destroyers would close in around their assigned carriers in a tight circle and put up a sky-full of antiaircraft fire, called ack-ack from the sounds made by the smaller guns firing at any Jap plane who showed an interest in our carrier. The carriers, which had long-range air-search radars, would launch fighters into a Combat Air Patrol screen each morning to stations between Japan and the fleet formation. When a raid was detected, the CAP would be vectored to engage as far out from the screen as possible. The closer the Jap planes came, the more CAP they ran into, with the idea being to grind down the attacking formation to onesies and twosies by the time they got in close enough to target our ships.

I met with the captain each day after morning quarters and caught him up on the housekeeping and personnel issues. He in turn brought me up to speed on the operational events in our immediate future. Captain Tallmadge was a genuinely pleasant man, who took an abiding interest in his people. He was very patient with me. I had come from the carrier Navy with no experience in destroyers, so he took a lot of time to explain how things really worked in the world of tin cans. It was a refreshing change in leadership style; for the most part, my bosses had been somewhat distant, ready to give me the chance to sink or swim in whatever new assignment I was taking on. That was especially true on a carrier, where there were nearly three thousand people milling about at any one time. Tallmadge cared, and the whole crew knew it. Serving in Malloy was shaping up to be a pleasure.

Then we went north to the Okinawa picket line.

Copyright © 2014 by P. T. Deutermann

Customer Reviews