I wrote this story just a few days before December 7, Pearl Harbor Day, and that day always makes me think of my father. Dad was a sailor but was not stationed at Pearl on that infamous day. I don’t recall that he ever told me where he was on December 7, 1941, but I heard a lot about what happened to him soon after. Dad was on a battleship for a couple of years and then on a repair ship for the last year or two of the war. He told me many stories of those years.
Dad was a good storyteller in a time when people appreciated a good story. I remember scruntching up next to him on our sofa and listening to the grownups talk when company would come over. “Company” would usually mean men and women of similar age and experience as my parents, so the conversations and stories would carry a mix of the familiar and the exotic. Topics ranged from the mundane events of the day to places and events far removed from the tiny living room of our stucco house in San Diego.
Dad was a storyteller alright, but above all things he was a yarn-spinner. When my brother Brad and I were alone with Dad and there was free time on an evening in the back yard or at a campground in the mountains east of the city Dad could whip up a story out of thin air that would have both of us silent and spellbound until the final “…and that’s how it really happened” was pronounced. Of course, Dad’s range was a bit narrow. He was after all a Georgia farm boy who joined the Navy to escape the Great Depression, and not a novelist with an extensive education from a great university. He did study at a fine institution for the art of the yarn however. Nobody tells a better story than a military man, and no branch of the military produces more or better storytellers and yarn-spinners than the U.S. Navy.
Some of my favorite stories were told to me while we were in the bathtub. When Dad was stationed in San Diego and not at sea he would take a bath with me. I was small enough that we could fit quite nicely in the big iron tub. When Dad was young they also had a tub which was filled with water drawn by hand and heated on a big black wood burning stove, so multiple parties enjoying a bath together was considered a very common and practical thing to do. Anyway, we would draw a tubful of hot water and ease into it, with Dad leaning against the sloping end and me with my back up against the straight wall at the drain end of the tub. It was at these times that Dad would tell me about Squggle.
Squggle was a sea creature. Dad never did tell me the exact nature and physiognomy of Squggle, preferring that I use my own imagination to fill in the details I suppose, but enough details came out during the stories to permit me to craft the image of something like an octopus. Squggle had a particular affinity for the U.S. Navy and a decided antipathy for the navy of the Japanese Empire. Dad never explained why that should be so, and it never occurred to me that this was anything other than perfectly normal. And so we would literally spend hours in the bathtub, Dad spinning tales of Squggle like a master weaver making a Navajo rug or a Belgian lace and me soaking them in like some kind of sponge with an endless capacity. Sometimes we would pull the rubber stopper and drain out half of the water which had cooled off while Squggle assisted the Navy in this battle or that, which always ended in defeat for the Japanese and another victory for the American Navy. We would run another half-tub of hot water and Dad, if he had his game on, would launch into another tale, perhaps another story of Squggle.
I wish that I had a memory of Dad’s stories exact enough to do them justice, or perhaps the skill to weave such tales of my own. Sadly, I have neither. But as I sit here thinking of Dad and the hours of wonder that he blessed me with so long ago I feel compelled to try my best to capture even an echo of the beauty of his stories. I hope that there are at least a few small parts of this story that you find entertaining, and I assure you that they are but a thin pale shadow of the tales told to me by the Master.
This story takes place at the beginning of World War II. The forces of the Japanese Empire have celebrated one victory after another over all foes and are poised to establish unopposed dominance in Asia. The only force which stands between Japan and it’s goal is a band of American and Filipino soldiers who are stoutly resisting the Japanese Army in The Philippines. General McArthur is holding on by his fingernails and badly needs supplies in order to continue the fight. Admiral Nimitz knows the danger faced by any American fleet that steams into the battle zone in order to resupply McArthur and his joint force, and has to weigh carefully whether he dares to risk it with such limited ships and men as are available after the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor.
“Send us in” growls Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey. “We can’t let those brave men be starved into surrender when there’s still fight left in ’em!” “But think of the risk” replied Nimitz. “If you go down to the bottom there will be nothing left between Japan and Hawaii, or the West Coast of America for that matter.” “I know it looks chancy” says Halsey. “But I’m giving you ten-to-one that we can push through and sink a few Japanese ships in the bargain”.
Admiral Nimitz was not entirely convinced, but there was somewhat of an assurance in Admiral Halsey’s voice and manner that gave him the courage to go ahead with the plan.
In a few days a small force under the command of Bull Halsey had been scraped together from what was left at Pearl and was steaming west, straight into the battle zone. The sailors all knew that an important battle was coming, one that they may not come back from. Their courage was bolstered however by the calm assurance that Halsey seemed to show. The sailors saw Halsey stroll about the deck, smoking and chatting with the sailors and staring fixedly toward the west, toward the battle that waited. Halsey seemed calm as he scaned the horizon, and also seemed to study the ripples which appeared in the evening just as the red sun began to extinguish itself in the western waters. The men noticed those ripples shortly after putting out from Pearl and at first thought that they might be enemy submarines, but the admiral gazed at those ripples and showed no sign of concern. Soon some of the men decided that they were American submarines which only surfaced at night, while others ceased to think of them at all. On and on they steamed, growing ever closer to The Philippines and ever closer to danger.
Admiral Yamamoto knew that they were coming. Spies and other intelligence, plus his knowledge of America and Americans, told him that this patchwork fleet would be coming to bring supplies to the embattled fighters on The Philippines sooner or later, and he was ready for them. One mighty battleship, three cruisers and fifteen destroyers were waiting in the islands, looking for any sign of the Americans. They did not know which route the Americans would take, but they stationed themselves so that they could move quickly to intercept no matter which final approach Halsey chose. The Japanese were alert, well trained, and ready for a fight.
Halsey checked his maps and charts and chose a path between two islands. The clouds that stacked up against the peak of the mountain on the island to the right would give him cover from attacking Japanese planes and the narrow, shallow channel between the two islands would give the Japanese little room to maneuver if they chose to engage in that spot. General McArthur and his army was just a hundred miles further west, and if they could sneak through this gap between the islands they would be at their destination by morning and could say “mission accomplished”, for the moment at least.
Admiral Yamamoto knew their plan however. Submarines had reported the Americans’ course and seaplanes had dipped into and out of those cloud banks and confirmed the Americans’ position and heading. Yamamoto had placed the battleship and cruisers with their huge naval guns on the right and destroyers with their deadly torpedos on the left. Halsey was steaming right into a trap.
The bright sun began to glow a softer red as the day slipped into evening and Halsey steered straight into that channel between the islands. All the while he stared intently into the west and also into the water. All of the sailors on deck went about their duties with one eye on their work and the other on Halsey, but one sailor near the bow who was mopping near the anchor chain hole look instead out to sea. The sailor wasn’t sure, but he thought that he saw what looked lie a large, gray tube of something with a blunt end, glistening in the dancing waves and deepening shadows of late afternoon, and pointing to the far side of the island, towards the left. That was the smaller island of the two and it had no high peak. As a consequence there were no clouds banked up against a mountain to obscure the view, which made it strategically insane to steam in that direction. Admiral Halsey noted this phenomenon too, and ordered the fleet to change course to the left and swing around the backside of that island anyway. As he did so he ordered all of his sailors to get ready for battle. The little fleet began to swing around behind the island and come in from the south. As it did so Admiral Halsey noticed two things; the rear of the Japanese destroyer group began to come into view and the ripples which had accompanied the fleet all the way from Pearl were now gone. Halsey allowed himself a small smile before he set his famous battle frown, with lower jaw jutting forward as if daring defeat to take a swing at him.
The transport ships fled on towards the hungry troops to the west as the small fleet of cruisers and destroyers opened fire on the unsuspecting Japanese destroyers. Near misses were soon followed by devastating hits and huge explosions began to rock the enemy ships while fires began to gnaw at their vitals. Quickly there were eleven destroyers sinking or burning beyond control while the remaining four fled towards the presumed safety of the Japanese battleship and cruisers. Halsey pressed on, as if ignorant of or indifferent to the massive guns of the Japanese ships that were even at that moment being trained on his fleet.
Yamamoto could not believe that the American ships would sail straight into his guns, and he gave orders to fire at will. The mammoth turrets of the battleship swung towards the Americans and the barrels raised up to train their lethal aim on the advancing prey. The Japanese fire control officer barked his orders and shells the size of cars were rammed into the the guns with a huge charge of powder behind it to propel those lethal packages against the American ships.
Just as the officer prepared to scream “fire” a huge tentacle rose out of the water which was coiled around a boulder brought up from the bottom of the sea. With a quick movement that tentacle stuffed the boulder into one of the gun barrels while other tentacles pushed the ship ever so slightly out of alignment with the American ships. The officer in charge cried “fire” and all of the powder charges were ignited. Eight of the gigantic shells were hurled through the pacific Ocean sky to splash down harmlessly into the water well away from the American ships. The ninth gun however, the one into which the boulder had been stuffed, blew up igniting the rest of the powder charges in the turret, destroying the turret and taking with it most of the bow of the doomed battleship. As the ship began to take on water the crew became much more interested in beaching the damaged vessel on the nearby island shore than continuing a fight with the Americans.
The Japanese cruisers continued to blaze away and succeeded in sinking one and damaging a few other American ships, but the Japanese sailors soon saw that huge tentacles had begun to pluck their shipmates off of the decks and some destroyers were being pulled towards nearby rocks. All the while the American ships drove into their midst with guns blazing and torpedos churning through the water and in a very short time the two surviving Japanese cruisers and one of the destroyers were speeding north as fast as their engines could propel them, carrying Admiral Yamamoto away to lick his wounds and plan to fight another day.
The American ships were busy the rest of the evening putting out their fires and pulling survivors from both navies out of the water. As the last glow of the day barely illuminated the waters of that now-silent battleground Admiral Halsey gazed intently into the waters. Then, just before the Pacific sky slipped from the dim light of evening into the pitch dark of night, the waters foamed and bubbled as a giant gray shape rose slightly above the surface. A great eye, alien but somehow friendly, blinked a salute to Admiral Halsey. The Admiral, in his turn, lifted his cap and made a small bow to that great shape, and it slipped back below the surface to rest and wait for the next time that it’s help was needed.
At this time I would beg for another story, but even my father would eventually tire and declare that it must end for the night. After completing our baths he would climb out to towel off and prepare for bed. I would always pull the rubber drain stopper and loved to watch as the water would whirlpool down the drain. Lower, lower, lower it would go until at last the final inch of water would begin it’s exit and the whirlpool would give way to a sucking sound, a sound that I never connected to my father’s stories, a sound only pointed out to me decades later by my brother after Dad had passed away. A sound that was a lot like “squggle, squggle, squggle”.