Rigged for red. Ready to surface in all respects. The surfacing alarm sounding.
The S-55 gently broke the surface of Savo Sound, the ocean inlet the men of the beleaguered Pacific Fleet were calling Iron Bottom Sound after numerous sharp naval battles.
Ready for the first night watch of the day, Charlie held the ladder tightly as the hatch partly opened. A heavy blast of sour air roared past him.
After the air pressure equalized and the tempest subsided, he climbed up and looked around. It was a routine to which he’d already become accustomed, but he felt a special urgency about it now.
They were in the Slot, and they’d received a message to expect a Japanese naval force passing through the area later tonight. After days of seeing no enemy ships, it was exciting news.
He took his time and scanned the area thoroughly. Aided by the budding moon, his night-adapted eyes picked out Savo Island to the east, Guadalcanal to the south.
“All clear,” he called down. “Lookouts to the bridge.”
Steam drifted out of the open hatch. His men emerged and took their stations.
Charlie took a deep breath of the clean air and inhaled the vital scent of jungle wafting from the nearby islands. After a day in the people tank, it smelled sweeter than Evie’s perfume. The temperature was considerably cooler topside at seventy-five degrees.
The main induction opened to suck the cool night air into the boat for both the crew and the engines. The diesels fired up to charge the battery while the boat stood-to facing north by west. By the end of Charlie’s watch, the battery had fully charged, and both diesels were assigned to the propellers. The old sea wolf was ready to hunt.
Rusty entered the bridge. “Permission to relieve you and your squires, noble sir. As incentive for that permission, I can tell you a sumptuous meal awaits you in the wardroom.”
“In that case, permission granted,” Charlie said. “What’s the cook serving up for dinner?”
“Pot roast and cock, and he’s all out of pot roast.”
Charlie laughed. Ever since the S-55 entered the Solomons, the men had stopped their shirking and horsing around and went to work with silent efficiency. But not Rusty. Not even the tension of imminent combat could keep the able lieutenant from his wisecracks.
Kidding aside, despite the hardships of service, submariners ate better than anybody else in the Navy, at least while the fresh provisions lasted. Right now, pot roast sounded fantastic.
“All sectors clear,” he told Rusty. “A dozen lighted planes, far off and coming across the stern, were reported. Navy fighters landing at Henderson Field.”
“Hopefully, they bombed those tin cans headed our way.”
“We should be so lucky,” Charlie agreed, though he was itching for a fight.
As the new watch manned their stations, he descended the stairs to the cigarette deck and then the main deck. He tied a metal bucket to a manila rope, tossed it over the side, and pulled up cool seawater. Then he started a quick sponge bath.
For a war zone, the scene struck him as peaceful. The slim moon’s light glimmered on the water, which lapped gently against the boat’s hull. His romantic Evie would have loved it.
He heard a distant droning and perked up. Charlie hustled back to the bridge while the watch scanned the skies.
A burst of light flared in the distance and died out. Then another. Moments later, he heard the first boom. Red tracers streamed into the night.
“Ho-lee shit,” one of the watchmen said.
More bright flashes, an entire cluster of them, brightened the horizon. The air filled with thunder and the distant wail of an air raid siren. Searchlights swept the sky.
The Japanese were bombing the airfield on Guadalcanal.
“Lookouts, get below,” somebody shouted up the shaft. “Clear the bridge!”
Bodies poured down the hatch. Charlie dropped to the deck and hustled out of the way. One by one, the rest of the men came down after him, talking excitedly.
“Hatch secured!” Rusty called from above.
The captain said, “Dive!”
The diving alarm sounded. The main induction clanged shut.
“Pressure in the boat, green board,” Reynolds reported. The boat was sealed up tight.
The S-55 rapidly slid into the black waters and achieved a good trim at periscope depth. The engines cut out. The electric motors engaged the propellers.
“Planes, forty-five feet.”
“What’s going on?” Charlie asked Rusty.
The lieutenant shrugged. “The captain pulled the plug.”
“Silence!” Kane roared, quieting them all.
The men stared at the captain. The captain stared at the soundman.
“I’ve got a turn count of three twenty-five RPM,” Marsh said. “Now I’m hearing multiple sets of screws. Light screws. Speed estimated twenty-five knots.”
Charlie grinned. That sounded like destroyers!
Marsh added, “Estimated range, eight thousand yards.”
The captain put on his sou’wester hat and oilskins. “Up scope.”
He peered into the dark, whistling a pop tune while water splashed on his shoulders. “Give me a bearing, Marsh.”
“Targets, bearing 115º True.” Plus or minus a few degrees.
The submarine’s Great War-vintage hydrophones weren’t perfectly accurate, but one thing was certain: The Japanese war party was coming straight at them. They intended to round Savo Island. Charlie guessed their mission was to give Henderson a good shelling tonight.
The captain smiled as he looked into the scope. “I think I see them. Come to papa. Down scope. Harrison, start plotting. Marsh, keep those bearings coming.”
Charlie dumped graph paper, pencils, and a ruler onto the plotting table. He marked the contacts’ estimated position.
“Bearing still on 115º True.”
Based on the war party’s bearing and estimated speed, he marked its likely new position on the plotting paper. He checked the boat’s gyrocompass and started plotting the S-55’s own position with a pencil and ruler.
“Left full rudder,” the captain said. “All ahead full. Come left to 275º True.” After the heavy sub completed her ponderous turn and found her new course, he added, “All ahead one-third. Up scope.” After another look at the approaching ships: “Down scope.”
Deep in thought, Captain Kane stepped away from the falling periscope.
He had a choice. He could take a shot at the destroyers as they passed and then radio their presence to warn American forces at Guadalcanal they were coming. Or he could let them pass, sound the alarm, and try to hit them on their way back.
Both carried risks. The former approach put them directly in a hornet’s nest. The latter was safer, but the Japanese might take another route home, and Frankie would miss her chance to take a crack at them.
Knowing the captain, Charlie believed he’d take the latter, more cautious approach.
Kane rubbed his stubbled jaw. The men stared at him, awaiting his command.
“Battle stations,” he said. “Torpedo attack.”
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