Guadalcanal, August 1942
“Mister Marshall Vincent, I’m ready to relieve you, sir.”
“Mister John O’Connor. I’m so very glad you’re here, sir.”
“I’ll bet you are,” Jack said. “Still, the midwatch is no lovely prospect, either. What’ve we got?”
They were standing on the port side of the pilothouse, turning over the Officer of the Deck watch of the heavy cruiser USS Winston. Two more officers were doing the same thing a few feet away, turning over the junior OOD watch. Across the darkened pilothouse, the captain was dozing in his chair, which meant that all the watch standers were keeping their voices down. You didn’t wake sleeping dogs, and you sure as hell didn’t wake Captain Archibald Corley McClain III, not if you could help it.
Marsh recited the tactical situation. “Steaming in column formation, with Vincennes ahead and Astoria astern, two thousand yards interval. Darkened ship, battle condition II, modified material condition Zebra. Course three one zero, speed ten. Quincy is guide, and OTC is CO Chicago.”
“Chicago?” Jack said. “I thought the officer in tactical command was the Brit admiral in HMS Australia.”
“He and Australia apparently went to Tulagi for some kind of conference. That left Chicago as senior ship. There’s another group of cruisers south of us, but nobody’s told us where or who’s in charge.”
“Wonderful,” Jack said. “Any night orders from Chicago?”
“Nope,” Marsh said. “We haven’t heard a word from them.”
“Hearing from anybody?”
“Hourly radio checks, but just routine. We’ve got troops on the beach at Tulagi and over on Guadalcanal proper. That’s all we know right now.”
“Okay,” Jack said, shaking his head. “What else you got for me?”
Marsh knew it was a pretty thin turnover, but the troops had just gone in a few days before, and it looked to them that the top brass were playing it by ear until the Japs responded in force to the landings. They’d sent one air strike already the previous afternoon, and one of the big transports was still burning to the south, the fire reflecting off the low overcast hugging the sound.
“The nearest hazard to navigation is Savo Island, bearing two five zero, eight miles. Visibility is darker than a well-digger’s ass, and, so far, no Japs.”
“That we know of,” Jack said.
“That we know of,” Marsh agreed. “And if they come, let us pray that they come in daylight.”
They’d been briefed at an all-officers meeting earlier that a Jap task force had been spotted the day before, headed down from Rabaul toward the Slot, a narrow body of water running the length of the Solomon Islands. That could well put them off Guadalcanal sometime soon. As everyone knew, Jap cruisers tended to go fast.
“If they do come tonight, hopefully our two radar-equipped tin cans will see ’em.”
“Amen to that,” Jack said. “Picket stations?”
“Blue is out there somewhere to the northwest, above Savo. Ralph Talbot is northeast of Savo. They both have radar. We had one TBS check with Blue an hour ago. Lousy comms, but nothing to report.”
They then reviewed the status of the main battery guns and the engineering plant. Nothing had changed since supper. “Okay, Beauty,” he said. “I’ve got it. See you in six.”
“I stand relieved,” Marsh said and handed over the heavy 7 × 50 Bausch & Lomb binoculars. Then he turned toward the dark figures behind the helm and lee helm consoles. “Attention in the pilothouse: Mister O’Connor has the deck,” he announced as quietly as he could.
There was a chorus of equally quiet aye-aye-sirs from the rest of the bridge watch. Marsh checked to make sure the captain was still asleep and then made his way aft to the door leading into the charthouse. The night was warm and muggy, and the darkness was absolute, with only the dimmed red lights from the companionway below showing as he went through the door. He hadn’t been kidding about a night encounter with Jap cruisers. As assistant gunnery officer, he knew Winston’s gun director optics were no match for the comparable Japanese equipment, not to mention that their cruisers were faster and better armed than the Americans.
He smiled as he went below. Jack had called him Beauty. He’d acquired that nickname during plebe year at the Naval Academy, back in 1928. Marsh was not a handsome man. In fact, “homely” would probably be the kindest description of his facial features. He was not quite six feet tall and had large ears and a long face with a bit of a lantern jaw, topped by an unruly shock of black hair that ended in a widow’s peak between friendly farm-boy blue eyes. The day the brigade of upperclassmen returned to Bancroft Hall after their summer cruise, a firstie slammed into their plebe room, looked the fresh meat over while they stood at rigid, sweaty attention, focused on Marsh, and said, “Aren’t you a regular beauty.” There it was, forever and ever.
He got down to the main interior passageway and slipped awkwardly through the scuttle in the armored hatch. His eyes were heavy, and he made his way to his stateroom like a zombie. See you in six, Jack had said. With the ship at battle condition II, everyone aboard was standing port and starboard watches now, six hours on, six off. That routine had Marsh dragging his ass. Right now he had the slightly better deal, with the 0600 to noon watch in the morning, six hours off, then the eighteen to midnight. That sequence roughly lined up with his normal circadian rhythms. Jack had the noon to eighteen and then the dreaded midwatch, midnight to six in the morning, extended until the ship stood down from dawn general quarters. Still, they both had it better than the poor bastard Marines who were clinging to Henderson Field as hordes of insane Jap infantry gathered to probe their strength.
Winston’s main battery of eight-inchers was manned up, with the gun crews permitted to “rest” on station in the gun turrets, handling rooms, and magazines. The ship was mostly buttoned up, with only certain scuttles open in the otherwise dogged-down armored hatches belowdecks. It was like an oven down below in officers’ country with all the big hatches locked down, especially since their ventilators were running on low speed so that the big enlisted berthing compartments farther forward got more air.
Marsh made a pit stop at the forward officers’ head to off-load six hours’ worth of coffee and then went to his so-called stateroom. He kicked off his sea boots and dropped into the lower rack fully clothed. He and Jack O’Connor were roommates. The stateroom, which was eight feet long and five feet wide down on the second deck, was just aft and starboard of turret two’s barbette. It actually had a porthole, but that, too, was dogged down. Marsh thought about opening it anyway to relieve the awful, sweaty South Pacific heat but settled for locking back the stateroom door and pulling the privacy curtain across. Then he fell back into his rack.
He was a long way from San Diego, both in time and distance. His mother still lived there; his father had passed on after a heart attack three years ago. Marsh had been born and raised there in the north county, in the village of Escondido, and had gone off to the academy in 1928, courtesy of an appointment from his father’s law partner, now a congressman. Since graduation in ’32 he’d been at sea on various ships in the Pacific Fleet, keeping his head down from the ravages of what they were calling the Great Depression. Many of his classmates had been forced out of the service because of the Navy’s budget problems, and those who’d been retained had had their pay cut. He felt that it was fortunate he hadn’t married, and often wondered how the guys who did get married made ends meet.
He’d only been in Winston for three months when the battle fleet was moved to Pearl. They’d just finished a shipyard overhaul and didn’t come out until right after the attack on December 7. Now they were boring holes in the ocean in the steaming darkness around the island of Guadalcanal, a word none of them had even heard until a few months ago. Marsh didn’t know which Navy headquarters genius had picked this hellhole to make a stand, but he fervently wished whoever it was could be sent out here to enjoy some six on, six off watches with the rest of them.
He could smell the sweat that had his khaki uniform stuck to 90 percent of his body. One of the ship’s two freshwater evaporators was on the blink, so the whole crew was on water-hours, which meant one shower was allowed every three days. That was a Navy shower : Water on, water off. Soap down. Water on, water off. Out you get. He thought about sneaking down to the head to get a quick rinse and then was instantly asleep.
He dreamed that he was flying and then woke up with the sudden pain of crashing onto the steel deck next to his bed, the echoes of a huge explosion compressing his eardrums while the ship heeled over to starboard and then rolled back upright, covering him in personal gear, loose paperwork, and upset chairs. A fine acrid and oily mist suffused the air. As he tried to get up from under all the clutter, the ship was hit again. At that instant he was on all fours, and the steel deck tried hard to break both his wrists and knees. He yelled with the shock of it and flopped over on his side. This time the ship didn’t heel over very much. He sensed that there was something significant about that, but his sleep-doped brain was too confused to focus. Then he heard men shouting out in the passageway, followed by a sudden roar of escaping steam coming from somewhere back aft. He thought he could hear the general quarters bugle alarm sounding above that thundering steam leak.
He couldn’t use his hands, and both his kneecaps crackled in pain. He had to pry himself upright with his elbows. He grabbed for his kapok life jacket and battle helmet and dropped both of them when his hands turned to hot rubber. He felt the forward eight-inchers let go up above, their familiar rippling thumps almost drowned out by the steam eruption amidships. More men were yelling out in the main passageway, and he had to hang on to an overturned chair just to stand up. He felt a wave of bowel-liquefying fear sweep through him as he realized Winston wasn’t coming back upright. Instead she seemed to be slowing in the seaway and listing ominously to port, her main hull girders groaning and grinding beneath him.
Marsh’s general quarters station was Sky One, which was a forward five-inch gun director located high up on the superstructure above the bridge. Still hanging on with one elbow, he struggled into his life jacket and tied off the straps, using his better hand and his teeth. His battle helmet had disappeared, so he gave up on that and pushed back through the curtain into the passageway, only to be bowled over by a crowd of damage control repair-party men hustling aft, already masked up and unrolling fire hose in sodden canvas loops. He realized he was still in his socks and ducked back into the stateroom to stuff his feet into his sea boots. He thought he could hear the crack and banging of the five-inch secondary battery guns between salvos of the eight-inchers. Goddamned Japs must be pretty close, he thought. He knew he had to get topside on the double, but getting to his GQ station would require climbing some exterior ladders. There was no way in hell he’d be able to do that: His hands didn’t work, and his kneecaps were grinding as he tried to walk across the slanting deck.
He followed the repair-party crowd back toward the main watertight hatch leading topside, realizing as he went that he seemed to be climbing. Then he was shocked to find that they were all sloshing through seawater. That meant she was settling by the bow as well as listing over to port. He actually didn’t believe it until he saw a loose battle lantern lying on the deck, its light shimmering through the water.
Great God, he thought: If the second deck is flooding, she’s done for.
“Now all hands, abandon ship, abandon ship,” came over the ship’s announcing system. The words were barely audible above the roar of escaping steam and the rising pandemonium around the forward hatch. The repair-party men dropped all their firefighting gear and began to bunch up at the top of the ladder, where only one man at a time could pass through the round scuttle. Marsh felt the water tugging at his shins and filling his sea boots. He had to jam a forearm into another cableway to keep from falling over. Everyone froze for an instant when the sound of incoming shells screamed through the air topside, followed by the crash of several hits on the armor belt and one huge explosion that rattled the big ladder in front of them on its latch pins. Then everybody was heaving and pushing to get to the scuttle, and there were even more men clawing their way back from the bow to get to that hatch.
“Undog the goddamned hatch,” Marsh heard himself shout. “Next guy through, undog the hatch!”
The man at the top of the ladder turned to stare at him for an instant, then nodded and lifted himself through. Another brace of explosions rocked the ship, and they could hear the sound of steel shards whining through the compartments above them, starting a horrible chorus of screams topside. All the red passageway lights blinked out, leaving only two battle lanterns switched on near the ladder. Two more men made it through the scuttle. Marsh decided to just stand aside and let the panicking sailors fight their way up the ladder, everyone yelling at the man ahead of him to move it, move it. His hands were going numb, and it took everything he could do just to stand upright. Then the hatch lifted, and suddenly the men could go up two and three abreast. The water was thigh deep now on the second deck, and the ship was over at least ten degrees to port. He wondered if she would capsize before he got his turn on the ladder. There was light now that the big hatch was open, but it was the searing orange light of a gasoline fire, not battle lanterns.
He finally joined the diminishing stream of men clawing their way up the canting ladder, letting them push him along rather than trying to climb it. The moment he stumbled out into the main passageway from the hatch alcove, he was knocked flat on his stomach by a huge sailor who was running for his life with his eyes squeezed shut. An instant later, a half-dozen more incoming shells hit the superstructure, which was starting to hang over the water like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. One shell went off in the ship’s post office, thirty feet forward of where Marsh lay on the deck. Shrapnel flailed the passageway in both directions, cutting men down everywhere, followed by a noxious cloud of smoke and burning paper. He tried to get up but was flattened again by another sailor who landed on top of him, screaming in his ear and bleeding all over him. Without the use of his hands and forearms, Marsh couldn’t move. Another salvo of incoming shells hit along the port side, and he was suddenly grateful for the human cover when once again a hail of steel shards ricocheted all along the main passageway. He actually felt the man on top of him get hit and go limp.
Can’t stay here, he thought. Have to get outside.
He humped his back to dislodge the wounded man on top of him. Then he started crawling on his belly over the bodies, now all piled up on the port side of the passageway as the ship leaned into her death roll. He was clambering as much on the bulkhead as the deck because of her list, and his teeth were chattering in fear. He could feel his hands splashing through a stream of blood and worse things as he slithered like a snake toward the nearest main deck hatch. Another barrage of howling shells slammed into the ship. He could hear the thunder of shell-splash water landing on the deck outside the hatch from the near misses. Each hit felt like a punch into his own guts, and he almost vomited in sheer terror.
A dead man was draped across the hatch operating handle, and the hatch itself was perforated with dozens of holes, through which bright white light now blazed into the smoke-shrouded passageway. Marsh nudged the corpse aside and lifted the handle with his shoulder. The hatch swung out by gravity, and, because of the extreme list, he fell through it and slid across the teak deck into the lower part of the lifelines.
He was blinded as the blue-white light from the sixty-inch carbon-arc searchlight of a Jap cruiser lit them up like some kind of baleful ogre eye. The steam escaping from ruptured lines in the engineering spaces drowned out every other sound, including the screams of the wounded littering the deck, their faces contorted in that harsh white light. There was a big gasoline fire amidships where the scout planes were stored, and another one forward, probably from the avgas storage tanks. The water was enveloping the bow by now, and the fire was turning into a cloud of orange-tinged steam. A wave came out of nowhere and buried him, which was when he realized that the portside main deck edge was fully awash. She’ll roll at any second now, he thought. Go. Go now.
He took a deep breath, pushed his head and life jacket through the lifelines, and slipped gratefully into the sea. He sensed that there were others doing the same thing. Then he saw one man helping a wounded shipmate through the lifelines. A part of his brain scolded him: As an officer, he should have been doing that, but he was just too damned scared. When his head popped up above the water, he felt the full weight of Winston’s gutted forward superstructure hanging over him. There was an avalanche of things falling into the sea from where the bridge had been: signal books, battle lanterns, coffee mugs, binoculars, bodies and body parts, all accompanied by a small blizzard of paper. The roar of steam from amidships suddenly cut off, just as a severed head popped to the surface right in front of him, revealing Jack’s chalky face. Marsh cried out in horror, inhaling a mouthful of oily seawater in the process.
The Jap cruiser closed in abeam. They’d turned the targeting searchlight off, and now she looked like a long black dragon, so close that her bridge windows reflected the orange glow from Winston’s fires. Marsh could see their topside antiaircraft gun crews staring over at the wreck of the Winston. Her towering pagoda masts were clearly illuminated as her gun turrets flashed red and yellow again, fore and aft, followed by the thumping pressure of her muzzle blasts. This time all of the rounds went shrieking over their heads and into the darkness beyond as the bulk of Winston’s hull settled out of reach of any more hits. The Jap cruiser steered away and left the scene in search of more prey. She was close enough that he could hear her forced-draft blowers whining across the water as she accelerated into the night. Moments later her wake rebuked the Winston’s swimming survivors as they struggled to get away from what was coming next.
Marsh pushed through the warm water, fighting his life jacket as he tried to make progress away from the sinking ship. He remembered practicing the same thing in the natatorium at the academy during seamanship training. He couldn’t kick properly because his knees had stiffened into acute angles. He did a crude dog paddle with his equally useless wrists, determined to get away from the ship before she rolled all the way over and took him with her. Still, after a few minutes of painful effort, he couldn’t help but turn around to watch. One of the ship’s scout planes was fully engulfed in fire to his right, the flames boiling off in bright orange balls as the avgas tanks spilled liquid fire onto the waiting sea. A huge cloud of steam and smoke was rising just aft of amidships, where the tangled steel wreckage of the after superstructure and the stack glowed red and orange. In a few minutes, he thought, he would just about be able to see down her stacks when she settled onto her beam ends. Winston hung there, filling with water, as he caught his breath. He could hear the sounds of collapsing bulkheads deep inside the ship banging into the night air. By this time he had drifted forward and was abeam of the bow, which was just about submerged. With the steam leak quelled, the night filled with other terrible sounds: men screaming and shouting, the crackle of fires fore and aft, and, beneath the water, a gathering rumble as Winstonprepared to die.
Above all the noise, he suddenly heard rapid-fire hammering, steel on steel. A wave slopped over his face, and he had to wipe the stinging saltwater from his eyes. He listened again.
Banging. Someone was pounding on steel back on board. Pounding desperately.
He was maybe fifty feet away, up alongside the bow, but the sound was clear as a bell. Winston’s main deck was now hanging over at a forty-degree if not steeper angle. Every piece of loose gear topside was rattling down into the sea. One of the forward eight-inch turrets swung lazily on its roller path with a great squealing noise to point all three barrels directly into the air.
There it was again. Bang, bang, bang. It was coming from the main forecastle hatch. The portside aviation fuel tank that had been burning was now underwater, but he could see that hatch from the light of the scout-plane fire farther aft.
Banging on a hatch. There were men trapped in there.
He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry as a bone despite the constant dunkings.
You’re an officer. You know what you have to do.
He did know, but he couldn’t make himself do it. As he scanned the expanse of the forecastle deck, which seemed to be getting closer, his limbs felt paralyzed. To his right the remains of the superstructure leaned out over the water, and a small gun director tore loose in a screech of steel. He knew she was moments from capsizing, and that he was much too close.
You know what you have to do.
The hell with that.
You know what you have to do.
The port anchor chain rattled as the stoppers let go and the anchor, already submerged, took off for the bottom, three thousand feet below. The sudden noise shook Marsh out of his stupor. He took a deep breath, then began paddling back toward the ship, dimly aware that there were dozens of men behind him, thrashing hard in the opposite direction. Some of them looked at him as if he were nuts.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Clear as a damn bell, the closer he got.
The bullnose was level with the sea by the time he got alongside. The banging continued as he heaved himself over the lifelines up onto the tilted deck, his wrists alight with pain. He had to use his elbows and feet to scrabble like an injured crab across the two-thirds of the deck remaining above water until he reached that hatch. He coiled one leg around the base of a ventilator cowling to keep from sliding back across the slick teak decking.
The hatch was dogged down and dogged hard. The dogging wrench was jammed down into its bracket, its keeper wire intact, but his hands still wouldn’t work. He could feel a thrumming through the deck as more shell-holed bulkheads down below gave way, relinquishing more interior compartments to the hungry sea. He tried not to think about what would happen if she rolled now.
He turned on his side, extracted the wrench and set it as best his rubber hands would allow, then straightened out his free leg and kicked at it until the nut loosened and the hinged dogging bolt fell away. He thought he felt his kneecap come off with that first kick. The pain took his breath away. Then on to the next one, and the one after that. He had to hang on to a davit socket with one elbow to get enough leverage, even as the deck slanted over at an ever steeper angle.
Any moment now, he thought, perspiring in the wet air. She’s gonna roll.
He went after each dog until, finally, finally, the eighth one fell away. The hatch popped up with the force of ten men pushing on it. They erupted out of that hatch like the proverbial bats out of hell, pursued by a whoosh of hot, oily air that was being pressurized by the rising water below decks. More than a dozen white-faced men scrambled out, maintaining discipline, albeit just barely. Marsh lay there, exhausted, as he watched those guys escaping the glowing hell below and roll into the sea like lemmings. Finally, his elbow gave out and he slid feetfirst back across the now near-vertical deck, snagging in the submerged lifelines for a moment but then dropping back into the sea, where he joined the rush to get away. He paddled hard, doing a broken-handed breaststroke, kicking for his life despite the damage in his knees. Just in time, he thought, as he heard an enormous rumbling sound behind him.
No more than a minute later, she went all the way over with a ship-sized exhalation of escaping air, capsizing to port as a few desperate men aft scrambled like log-rollers up the now vertical surfaces of the main deck and then pitched backward, one by one, into the sea, where the ship came all the way over to smother every one of them in an eight-thousand-ton blanket of steel and crashing debris. For one horrifying instant, a hot white cone of steam blowing out of number two stack was pointed right at him, billowing across the orange-tipped waves. He imagined that he could feel its heat even though he was at least a hundred yards away by now. The remains of the gasoline fires aft briefly illuminated Winston’s bronze propellers, which were, amazingly, still rotating slowly as she turned turtle and went completely upside down. The red-leaded hull rolled briefly back and forth, probably as the eight-inch gun turrets fell off, and then the bulk of her sagged backward into the waiting sea. Her bow came up for an instant as she twisted, her starboard anchor hanging incongruously up against the lifelines.
Then, accompanied by another howl of compressed air and sheets of water-spray framed by a tumult of shiny black fuel oil, she was gone.
The sudden silence was just as frightening as the sinking. Marsh knew there were other men close by, but he was still somewhat night-blind from those searchlights. Then he smelled the bright stink of advancing fuel oil and began to do an awkward sidestroke to get away from it. There was still some gasoline burning in great flat lakes of fire. He felt an enormous thump from deep beneath him, followed by another and another. There go the boilers, he thought; she’s well and truly gone. He wondered if she’d land upright or upside down when she hit the bottom.
The sulfurous smell of bunker fuel oil grew stronger. Then he realized that the gasoline fires had ignited some of the fuel that was still streaming up from the wreck. There were men screaming in the distance as two racing flame fronts caught up with them, and Marsh pushed even harder to get away from the growing conflagration.
He yelped when the black thing erupted out of the sea twenty feet away. Then he recognized what it was: one of the ship’s many wood-and-canvas life rafts had torn away from the sinking hulk and popped back up to the surface.
Pushing his body through the light swells, awkwardly because of the bulky drag of the kapok life jacket, he caught up to the raft, quickly pushing one useless hand through one of the rope handholds. With the last of his strength, he hauled himself up partway into the raft. Almost immediately, the low-hanging smoke from nearby burning oil enveloped him, and he had to put his head down flat against the bottom of the raft to get some air. He felt one of the paddles that was still stowed against the bottom and pushed it out of its straps with his right foot. Taking one last deep breath of clean air, he sat back up to start rowing the raft away from the fire, only to feel a searing blast of heat against his face. The raft had drifted into the lake of burning fuel oil and was itself now on fire. He yelled with the pain of it and went back over the side, desperately trying to get away from the flames.
Basic training kicked in. Go deep, come back up slowly, open your eyes; if you see fire, push the water away from your face as you surface; grab a breath of air, go back down. It worked, sort of, except there wasn’t much air because the fire was consuming most of the oxygen and his damned hands just sort of flopped around. Down again, even as the life jacket perversely tugged him back up to the fire, repeating the maneuver until he could no longer see flickering light above. He surfaced and lay back in the life jacket, truly exhausted. The raft was still visible in the distance, but it was ablaze from end to end.
So much for that, he thought. For the first time he wondered if he was going to survive all this.
Almost unconsciously he kept paddling backward, keeping a wary eye on where the flames were headed, aware now that his life jacket was getting heavier as it inevitably began to soak up water. They said that a kapok life jacket was good for twenty-four hours max before it became totally waterlogged. The fire on the water suddenly blew sideways as a breeze came up, and the air became breathable again.
Where was everybody? There had to be more survivors—he had seen dozens of men abandoning the ship just before she rolled over. He tried a shout but produced a barely audible croak. The right side of his face felt like it had been badly sunburned. He tried again, and this time he heard another voice yelling, “Over here.” He turned around in the water and saw another, larger raft about fifty feet away, low in the water from the weight of a couple of dozen men hanging on to its sides. He struck out for the raft with renewed energy and was soon able to stick his forearm through one of the free ropes.
Every other handhold was taken, and there were a dozen men actually in the raft itself, most of them badly injured. He heard someone identify him by name—“It’s Mister Vincent”—but everyone else was strangely silent. They were probably as exhausted as he was and were literally saving their breath. The back of his head stung, and he touched it to see if he was bleeding. He felt a flap of skin come off in his fingers. One of the men in the raft suddenly sat up, swore, and pointed. He turned to look, just in time to see a black shape looming out of the darkness, casting a bright white bow wave as she came on.
“She’s gonna hit us!” one of the men croaked.
No, she’s not, Marsh thought, but it’s going to be close—and she’s not one of ours.
“Japs!” cried another man. “It’s the fuckin’ Japs!”
The black cruiser loomed over them in the darkness, close enough to create a powerful pulse of underwater pressure as her thirteen-thousand-ton hull pushed by at twenty-plus knots. Marsh braced for the bow wave he knew was coming and was surprised how good the warm water felt as the wave foamed over the raft. Then a searchlight switched on, followed by a second one. These weren’t their big targeting searchlights but close-in devices, signal lamps, throwing off a yellowish glow as they swept the surface before settling on the raft. Instinctively, Marsh knew what would happen next. He yelled for the men to bail out, took a deep breath, let go of the handhold, and pushed himself underwater as deep as he could get with his kapok on. He could feel the twenty-five-millimeter shells tearing into the life raft and hear the rounds buzzing by his ears as they spent themselves in the sea.
He kept windmilling his arms backward underwater until the lights went out and the shooting stopped. By the time he popped back out of the water, lungs close to bursting, the Jap ship had disappeared into the darkness. So had the raft, torn to pieces by one of the AA crews on the cruiser’s main deck. There were a few heads in the water, but they were all facedown, bobbing lifelessly in the remains of the cruiser’s wake. Another man popped up a few feet away, hacking and coughing as he gulped air. He thrashed around for a minute before taking in the scene in front of them.
“God damn them all to hell,” he said, spitting seawater. “Sonsabitches ain’t human.”
“Just finishing the job,” Marsh said. “Allowing us the privilege of a quick death in battle.”
The man looked over at him with raccoonlike eyes. His face was covered in a sheen of oil with only the whites of his eyes visible. “You gotta be an officer,” he said. Marsh noticed he didn’t have a life jacket.
“Lieutenant Vincent, assistant gun boss.”
“Monkey-mate Second Marty Gorman,” he said. “Wish we had some of them guns of yours.”
“Gone to Davy Jones,” Marsh said. “You need a kapok.”
“They all burned up in two-engine,” Gorman said, wiping some oil off his forehead. “Believe it or not, I went out through the torpedo hole. Big as a damn house, it was. I think everybody else was already killed. I’d been down behind the main reduction gear, taking a lube oil sample. I guess that’s why it didn’t get me, too. Goddamn miracle.”
A piece of the raft floated by, and Marsh grabbed it. Gorman swam over and latched on. He was pretty old for being a second-class petty officer, which told Marsh he’d probably been to captain’s mast a few times in his career.
“So,” Gorman said, “you bein’ a lieutenant and all, I guess you’re in charge. What do we do now, Cap’n?”
“You can start by getting me a cup of that good engine room coffee,” Marsh said, trying for a little levity after the horror of the life raft.
Gorman grinned in the darkness, his big teeth white against the black oil. “Aye, aye, Cap’n,” he said. “Right away. One lump or two?”
Marsh managed a grim laugh. “Let’s see if we can find some more pieces of this raft. And pray for no more Jap cruisers.”
“Fuck them,” Gorman said. “What we’re prayin’ for is no goddamn sharks.”
Marsh looked out at the faceless heads bobbing nearby in their life jackets, undoubtedly leaking blood into the sea. “We better get away from all this bait, then,” he said.
Gorman relieved a dead man of his kapok, and then they pushed off into the darkness, their arms hooked onto the raft fragment, kicking together like a paddle wheeler, searching for more bits of the raft. It occurred to Marsh that he finally had achieved command at sea: one piece of a bullet-riddled life raft with a crew of one feisty Irishman. Good going, Beauty, he thought. It was going to be a long night.
* * *
Dawn brought a wonderful sight: a pair of American destroyers, combing the morning twilight for survivors. By then Gorman had lashed together three pieces of life raft. The two of them were sitting, semisubmerged, on the remains of the float when one of the tin cans came alongside and backed down, her prop wash almost pushing them away from her sides. Marsh saw literally hundreds of men on deck and experienced a pulse of joy: A lot of the crew must have made it off. Then he realized that there were very few faces he recognized. Great God, he thought—what else had happened last night?
Gorman grabbed the cargo net strung out over the side, pulled their makeshift raft up against the steel, and clambered up in his bare feet. Marsh tried to do the same, but his hands simply didn’t work. A bosun’s mate topside saw that he couldn’t climb and tossed him a bowline, which he cinched under his arms so that they could hoist him aboard. He banged his head on the steel plates as they dragged him backward up the side, but at that point, he didn’t mind a bit. American steel felt pretty good right about then. They seemed to be in a hurry, probably because they were afraid of Jap subs that might have been left behind to pick off any rescue ships. There were dozens of waterlogged and bloodstained kapoks trailing in the destroyer’s wake, already being pursued by shark fins or disappearing in a bump and boil of pink water and slashing teeth. The destroyer was not retrieving any bodies.
Once on deck, Marsh flopped down like a netted fish. He felt the ship push ahead handsomely. An ensign in rumpled khakis appeared, stooped down, and asked for his name and ship.
“There’s more than one?” he asked. Marsh’s lips were caked with salt and oil, and it was hard to get his words out.
The young officer’s face was drawn, and there were dark shadows under his eyes. “Quincy, Vincennes, Astoria, Winston,” he recited, probably not for the first time.
“Jesus H. Christ,” Marsh murmured. “All gone?”
“All gone,” he said, flipping to a clean page on his little green wheel book. “Now—name, please?”
“Lieutenant Marshall Vincent, assistant gun boss in Winston,” he told him. “All of them?”
“Goddamned massacre,” the ensign said, straightening up. “We’ve been picking up survivors all night. Can you walk?”
“Not really,” Marsh said. “I can crawl, I guess.”
A deckhand helped him back to the fantail, where there was a line of waiting survivors. He could stand as long as the seaman supported him. Two other seamen were going along the line of survivors, wiping oil off faces and offering a dipper of water to the most recently rescued. The ship’s doctor and his two pharmacist’s mates were doing triage. There were over twenty blanket-covered forms laid out back by the depth charge racks. Every available square foot of topside space was occupied. Marsh thought the ship’s inherent stability was probably being compromised by all this topside weight. He hadn’t realized how thirsty he was. The water was wonderful.
He could tell the destroyer’s ship’s company from the survivors—their guys were all wearing dry uniforms. The rest of them were in various states of soggy disrepair and injury. Marsh apparently had two sprained, possibly broken wrists, second-degree burns to his scalp and neck, and a four-inch-long gash on the back of his head, which he hadn’t felt until now. Both his kneecaps were probably cracked, a diagnosis the doc made by flexing his legs and listening to the bones grind with his stethoscope while Marsh tried not to scream. The pharmacist’s mate splinted his wrists, gave him a handful of APCs for the pain and another glass of water, and then told the seaman to take him to a spot topside to sit down and rest.
By the lights of what had happened last night, his injuries were trivial. Four heavy cruisers had been destroyed, a thousand if not more men killed in the battle, one-sided as it had been. Another couple of thousand casualties were still being fished out of the sea. The sun hadn’t even risen yet, and he wondered if those Jap cruisers were still out there, maybe lurking just over the horizon, waiting to come in and finish the job. He felt suddenly sick again with fear, and he struggled to catch his breath. The man sitting next to him, a chief petty officer with both his legs braced in splints and wire netting, nudged his left elbow.
“Easy there, Lieutenant,” he said. Marsh turned to stare at him, only now aware that he had begun to hyperventilate. “You made it. You’re gonna be okay.”
His hands were bandaged, and both of his legs were splinted in clumsy wraps stiffened with copper tubing. The chief noticed Marsh’s splinted wrists.
“Them Jap torpedoes pack a wallop, don’t they,” he said. “One minute, I’m standing on the deckplates in main control, havin’ a ciggy-butt and some java, the next, damn ship’s in two pieces and I’m tryin’ to swim with two busted wheels. One fish, broke us in half like a damn twig.”
“The Skinny Vinny,” he said. “Gone in ten minutes.”
The Vincennes, Marsh thought, recognizing her fleet nickname. He lay back against the bulkhead and closed his eyes. “I was in Winston,” he said. “Two torpedoes, I think. We got some rounds off, but she went dead in the water pretty quick. Then they came in close, punched holes in us with their eight-inch. One came back after the ship sank, shot up the life rafts. Bastards.”
“I just transferred off a tin can,” he said. “Japs been usin’ their destroyers to tow barges fulla Army guys into Guadalcanal. We’d find ’em, sink the destroyer, and then shoot up the barges until they was all chum. I guess we can’t bitch about them shootin’ up a life raft.”
“The hell we can’t,” Marsh said.
He laughed. “Halsey’s got it right: Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs. They started this shit.”
Two sailors came by holding a soup kettle between them and asking if anybody wanted chow. Marsh wasn’t hungry; neither was the chief, but he asked if they had a smoke. They set the kettle down and fished out cigarettes. Marsh wasn’t a smoker, but when they offered him one, he took it. That first drag did more to calm him down than being rescued. He looked down the line of bedraggled men lining the decks and catwalks. Almost everyone, including some of the guys lying in stretchers, had a cigarette going. The smell of good old American tobacco was a pleasant change from the stink of fuel oil, burned flesh, and bloodied uniforms, if only for a minute or so.
The ship was slowing down again. Another raft had been spotted. After a long night, it was going to be a very long day. His third drag on the cigarette reminded him of why he didn’t smoke, so he flicked it over the side, laid his aching head back on a soggy kapok, thought about asking for some soup after all, and then fell asleep.
Copyright 2011 by P. T. Deutermann