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The Sea Witchby Stephen Coonts
“Im looking,” the skipper said, flipping through my logbook, “but I cant find any seaplane time.” The skipper was Commander Martin Jones. His face was greasy from perspiration and he looked exhausted.
“Ive had four or five rides in a PBY,” I told him, “but always as a passenger.” In fact, a PBY had just brought me here from Guadalcanal. It departed after delivering me, some mail, and a couple of tons of spare parts.
The Old Man gave me The Look.
“Youre a dive-bomber pilot. What in hell are you doing in a Black Cat squadron?”
“Its a long story.” Boy, was that ever the truth!
“I havent got time for a long story,” Jones said as he tossed the logbook on the wardroom table and reached for my service record. “Gimme the punch line.” Aboard this small seaplane tender, the wardroom doubled as the ships office.
“They said I was crazy.”
That comment hung in the air like a wet fart. I leaned against the edge of the table to steady myself.
Hanging on her anchor, the tender was rolling a bit in the swell coming up the river from Namoia Bay, on the southwestern tip of New Guinea where the Owen Stanley Mountains ran into the sea. The only human habitation within two hundred miles was a village, Samarai, across the bay on an island. The sailors on the tender never went over there, nor was there any reason they should. If Namoia Bay wasnt the end of the earth, believe me, you could see it from here.
The commander flipped through my service record, scanning the entries. “Are you crazy?”
“No more than most,” I replied. Proclaiming your sanity was a bit like proclaiming your virtue—highly suspect.
“This tender can support three PBYs,” Commander Jones said, not looking at me. “We launch them late in the afternoon, and they hunt Jap ships at night, return sometime after dawn. Three days ago one of our birds didnt come back.” He looked up, straight into my eyes. “The crew is somewhere out there,” he swept his hand from left to right, “dead or alive. Well look for them, of course, but the South Pacific is a big place, and there is a war on.”
“Until we get another plane from Australia, well only have two birds to carry the load.”
“One of our copilots is sick with malaria, too bad to fly. You will fly in his place unless youve really flipped out or something.”
“Im fine, sir.”
“Why did they get rid of you?”
“The Japs shot three SBDs out from under me, killed two of my gunners. The skipper said he couldnt afford me. So here I am.”
The Old Man lit a cigarette and blew the smoke out through his nose.
“Tell me about it.”
So I told it. We launched off the carrier one morning on a routine search mission and found a Jap destroyer in the slot, running north at flank speed. When the lookouts spotted us the destroyer captain cranked the helm full over, threw that can into as tight a circle as it would turn while every gun let loose at us. There were four of us in SBDs; I was flying as number three. As I rolled into my dive I put out the dive brakes, as usual, and dropped the landing gear.
With the dive brakes out the Dauntless goes down in an eighty-degree dive at about 250 knots. Takes a couple thousand feet to pull out. With the dive brakes and gear out, prop in flat pitch, she goes down at 150, vibrating like a banjo string. Still, you have all day to dope the wind and sweeten your aim, and you can pickle the bomb at a thousand feet, put the damn thing right down the smokestack before you have to pull out. Of course, while you are coming down like the angel of doom the Japs are blazing away with everything they have, and when you pull out of the dive you have no speed, so you are something of a sitting duck. You also run the risk of overcooling the engine, which is liable to stall when you pour the coal to it. Still, when you really want a hit …
I got that destroyer—the other three guys in my flight missed. I put my thousand-pounder right between the smokestacks and blew that can clean in half. It was a hell of a fine sight. Only the Japs had holed my engine, and it quit on the pullout, stopped dead. Oil was blowing all over the windshield, and I couldnt see anything dead ahead. Didnt matter—all that was out there was ocean.
My gunner and I rode the plane into the water. He hit his head or something and didnt get out of the plane, which sank before I could get him unstrapped.
I floated in the water, watched the front half of the destroyer quickly sink and the ass end burn. None of the Japs came after me. I rode my little life raft for a couple days before a PBY landed in the open sea and dragged me in through a waist-gun blister. With all the swells I didnt think he could get airborne again, but he did, somehow.
A couple days later the ship sent a half dozen planes to Henderson Field to operate from there. I figured Henderson could not be tougher to land on than a carrier and was reasonably dry land, so I volunteered. About a week later I tangled with some Zeros at fifteen thousand feet during a raid. I got one and others got me. Killed my new gunner, too. I bailed out and landed in the water right off the beach.
Jones was reading a note in my record while I talked. “Your commanding officer said you shot down a Zero on your first pass,” Jones commented, “then disobeyed standing orders and turned to reengage. Four Zeros shot your Dauntless to pieces.”
“He says you like combat, like it a lot.”
I didnt say anything to that.
“He said you love it.”
“He says he pulled you out of SBDs to save your sorry ass.”
“I read it, sir.”
“So tell me the rest of it.”
I took a deep breath, then began. “Six days ago another Zero shot me down after I dive-bombed a little freighter near Bougainville. I got the Maru all right, but as I pulled out and sucked up the gear a Zero swarmed all over me and shot the hell out of the plane, punched a bunch of holes in the gas tanks. There wasnt much I could do about it at 150 knots. My gunner got him, finally, but about fifty miles from Henderson Field we used the last of our gas. I put it in the water and we floated for a day and a half before a PT boat found us.”
“Leaking fuel like that, were you worried about catching fire?” Commander Jones asked, watching me to see how I answered that.
“Yes, sir. We were match-head close.”
He dropped his eyes. “Go on,” he said.
“Kenny Ross, the skipper, was pissed. Said if I couldnt dive-bomb like everyone else and get hits, he didnt want me.
“I told him everyone else was missing—I was getting the hits, and Id do whatever it took to keep getting them, which I guess wasnt exactly the answer he wanted to hear. He canned me.”
The Black Cat squadron commander stubbed out his cigarette and lit another.
He rubbed his eyes, sucked a bit on the weed, then said, “I dont have anyone else, so youre our new copilot. Youll fly with Lieutenant Modahl. Hes probably working on his plane. He wanted to go out this morning and look for our missing crew, but I wouldnt let him go without a copilot.” The skipper glanced at his watch. “Go find him and send him in to see me.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Around here everybody does it my way,” he added pointedly, staring into my face. “If I dont like the cut of your jib, bucko, youll be the permanent night anchor-watch officer aboard this tender until the war is over or you die of old age, whichever happens first. Got that?”
* * *
The tender was about the size of a Panamanian banana boat, which it might have been at one time. It certainly wasnt new, and it wasnt a Navy design. It had a big crane amidships for hoisting planes from the water. That day they were using the crane to lower bombs onto a float.
A plane was moored alongside, covered with a swarm of men. They had portable work stands in place around each engine and tarps rigged underneath to keep tools and parts from falling in the water.
Five-hundred-pound bombs were being loaded on racks under the big Catalinas wings. Standing there watching, I was amazed at the size of the bird—darn near as big as the tender, it seemed. The wingspan, I knew, was 104 feet, longer than a B-17.
The plane was painted black; not a glossy, shiny, ravens-feather black, but a dull, flat, light-absorbing black. I had never seen anything uglier. On the nose was a white outline of a witch riding a broomstick, and under the art, the name Sea Witch.
The air reeked, a mixture of the aromas of the rotting vegetation and dead fish that were floating amid the roots of the mangrove trees growing almost on the waters edge. The freshwater coming down the river kept the mangroves going, apparently, although the fish had been unable to withstand the avgas, oil, and grease that were regularly spilled in the water.
At least there was a bit of a breeze to keep the bugs at bay. The place must be a hellhole when the wind didnt blow!
None of the sailors working on the Cat wore a shirt, and many had cut off the legs of their dungarees. They were brown as nuts.
One of the men standing on the float winching the bombs up was wearing a swimsuit and tennis shoes—nothing else. I figured he was the officer, and after a minute or so of watching I was sure. He was helping with the job, but he was also directing the others.
He turned to look at me.
“Im your new copilot.”
After he got the second bomb on that wing, he clambered up the rope net that was hung over the side of the ship. When he was on deck he shook my hand. I told him my name, where I was from.
He asked a few questions about my experience, and I told him Id never flown seaplanes—been flying the SBD Dauntless.
Modahl was taller than me by a bunch, over six feet. He must have weighed at least two hundred, and none of it looked like fat. He about broke my hand shaking it. I thought maybe he had played college football. He had black eyes and black hair, filthy hands with ground-in grease and broken fingernails. Only after he shook my hand did it occur to him to wipe the grease off his hands, which he did with a rag that had been lying nearby on the deck. He didnt smile, not once.
I figured if he could fly and fight, it didnt matter whether he smiled or not. Anyone in the South Pacific who was making friends just then didnt understand the situation.
The ensign was the sorriest specimen I had laid eyes on in a long time. About five feet four inches tall, he had poorly cut, flaming red hair, freckles, jug ears, and buckteeth. He looked maybe sixteen. His khakis didnt fit, were sweat-stained and rumpled—hell, they were just plain dirty.
He mumbled his words, didnt have much to say, kept glancing at the Cat, didnt look me in the eyes.
Joe Snyder and his crew were missing, Harvey Deets was lying in his bunk shivering himself to death with malaria, and I wound up with this kid as a copilot, one who had never even flown a seaplane! Why didnt they just put one of the storekeepers in the right seat? Hell, why didnt we just leave the damn seat empty?
No wonder the goddamn Japs were kicking our butts all over the Pacific.
The kid mumbled something about Jones wanting to see me. If the Old Man thought I was going to wet-nurse this kid, he was going to find out different before he got very much older.
I told the kid where to put his gear, then headed for the wardroom to find Commander Jones.
After Modahl went below, I climbed down the net to look over the Black Cat. The high wing sported two engines. The wing was raised well over the fuselage by a pedestal, which had been the key innovation of the design. The mechanic or flight engineer, I knew, had his station in the pedestal. The Cat had side blisters with a fifty-caliber on a swivel-mount in each, a thirty-caliber which fired aft through a tunnel, and a flexible thirty in a nose turret.
This Cat, however, had something I had never seen before. Four blast tubes covered with condoms protruded from the nose under the bow turret. I entered the Cat through one of the open blisters and went forward for a look. The bunk compartment was where passengers always rode; I had never been forward of that.
I went through a small watertight hatch—open now, of course—into the compartment used by the radio operator and the navigator. The radio gear took up all the space on the starboard side of the compartment, while the navigator had a table with a large compass mounted on the aft end. He had boxes for stowage of charts and a light mounted right over the table. The rear bulkhead was covered with a power distribution panel.
Three steps led up to the mechanics seat on the wing support pylon. The mech had a bunch of levers and switches up there to control the engines and cowl flaps in flight.
On forward was the cockpit, with raised seats for the pilot and copilot. The yokes were joined together on a cross-cockpit boom, so when one moved, the other did also. On the yoke was a set of light switches that told the mechanic what the pilot wanted him to do. They were labeled with things like, “Raise floats” and “Lower floats,” which meant the wingtip floats, and directions for controlling the fuel mixture to the engines. The throttle and prop controls were mounted on the overhead.
The cockpit had windows on both sides and in the roof, all of which were open, but still, it was stifling in there with the heat and stink of rotting fish. The Catalina was also rocking a bit in the swell, which didnt help either.
The door to the bow compartment was between the pilot and copilot, below the instrument panel. One of the sailors was there installing ammo in the bow gun feed trays. He explained the setup.
Four fifty-caliber machine guns were mounted as tightly as possible in the bow compartment—the bombsight had been removed to make room and the bombardiers window plated over with sheet metal. Most of the space the guns didnt occupy was taken up by ammo feed trays. The trigger for the guns was on the pilots yoke. The remainder of the space, and there wasnt much, was for the bow gunner, who had to straddle the fifties to fire the flexible thirty-caliber in the bow turret. Burlap bags were laid over the fixed fifties to protect the gunner from burns.
The sailor showing me the installation was pretty proud of it. His name was Hoffman. He was the bow gunner and bombardier, he said, and had just finished loading ammo in the trays. Through the gaps in the trays I could see the gleam of brass. Hoffman straddled the guns and opened the hatch in the top of the turret to let in some air and light.
“That hatch is open when you make an attack?” I asked.
“Yes, sir. Little drafty, but the visibility is great.”
The Cat bobbing against the float and the heat in that closed space made me about half-seasick. I figured I was good for about one more minute.
“How do they work?” I asked, patting the guns.
“Theyre the Cats nuts, sir. They really pour out the lead. Theyll cut a hole in a ships side in seconds. I hose the thirty around to keep their heads down while Mr. Modahl guts em.”
“He goes after the Japs, does he?”
“Yes, sir. He says we gotta do it or somebody else will have to. Now me, Id rather be sitting in the drugstore at Pismo Beach drinking sodas with my girl while someone else does the heavy lifting, but it isnt working out that way.”
“I guess not.”
“In fact, when we dive for those Jap ships, and Im sitting on those guns, Id rather be somewhere else, anywhere at all. I havent peed my pants yet, but its been close.”
“Guess everybody feels that way.”
“Hard to get used to.”
“Are you going to be flying with us?”
“Im flying copilot for a while. They told me Deets has malaria.”
“You know Cats, huh?”
“I dont know a damn thing about flying boats. I figure I can learn, though.”
Hoffman wasnt thrilled, I could see that. If I were him, I would have wanted experienced people in the cockpit, too.
Oh well, how tough could it be? It wasnt like we were going to have to land this thing on a carrier deck.
This ensign wasnt just wet behind the ears—he was dripping all over the deck. Our new copilot? He looked like he just got out of the eighth grade. What in hell were the Zeros thinking?
That wasnt me you heard laughin, not by a damn sight. It wasnt very funny. This ensign must be whats on the bottom of the barrel.
It was like we had already lost the war; we were risking our butts with an idiot pilot who thought he could win the war all by himself, and if it went bad, we had a copilot whos never flown a seaplane—hell, a copilot who oughta be in junior high—to get our sorry asses home.
I patted those fifties, then crawled aft, out of the bow compartment, before I embarrassed myself by losing my breakfast. There seemed to be a tiny breeze through the cockpit, and that helped. That and the sunlight and the feeling I wasnt closed up in a tight place.
There were lots of discolored places on the left side of the fuselage. I asked Hoffman about that. He looked vaguely surprised. “Patches, sir. Japs shot up the Witch pretty bad. Killed the radioman and left waist gunner. Mr. Modahl got us home, but it was a close thing.”
Hoffman went aft to get out of the airplane, leaving me in the cockpit. I climbed into the right seat and looked things over, fingered all the switches and levers, studied everything. The more I could learn now, the easier the first flight would be.
Everything looked straightforward … no surprises, really. But it was a big, complicated plane. The lighting and intercom panels were on the bulkhead behind the pilots seats. There were no landing gear or flap handles, of course. Constant speed props, throttles, RPM and manifold pressure gauges … I thought I could handle it. All I needed would be a little coaching on the takeoff and landing.
The button on the pilots yoke that fired the fifties was an add-on, merely clamped to the yoke. A wire from the button disappeared into the bow compartment.
I gingerly moved the controls, just a tad, while I kept my right hand on the throttles. Yeah, I could handle it. She would be slow and ponderous, nothing like a Dauntless, but hell, flying is flying.
I climbed out and stood on the float watching the guys finish loading and fusing the bombs. Three men were also sitting on the wing completing the fueling. I climbed up the net to the tenders deck and leaned on the rail, looking her over.
Modahl came walking down the deck, saw me, and came over. He had sort of a funny look on his face. “Okay,” he said, and didnt say anything else.
He leaned on the rail, too, stood surveying the airplane.
“Nice plane,” I remarked, trying to be funny.
“Yeah. Commander Jones says we can leave as soon as were ready. When the guys are finished fueling and arming the plane, I think Ill have them fed, then well go.”
“Yes, sir. Where to?”
“Jones and I thought we might as well run up to Buka and Rabaul and see whats in the harbor. Moons almost full tonight—be a shame to waste it. Intelligence thinks there are about a dozen Jap ships at Rabaul, which is fairly well defended. We ought to send at least two Cats. Would if we had them, but we dont.”
“No one knows. The harbor might contain a fleet, or it might be empty.”
“Tomorrow morning well see if we can find Joe Snyder.”
“Where was Snyder going the night he disappeared?”
“Buka and Rabaul,” Modahl replied, and climbed down the net to check the fuses on the weapons.
Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Coonts
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