Apr 19 2012 12:00pm
An excerpt from The Sea Witch by Stephen Coonts, a collection of three military thrillers: two historical and one contemporary (available May 8, 2012).
This novella collection gathers three evocative tales from New York Times best-selling author Stephen Coonts into one cohesive volume. Here is Coonts doing what he does best—writing about men and women at war.
The Sea Witch . . .
When a young Dauntless dive-bomber pilot is sacked for reckless behavior, he’s reassigned to a Black Cat squadron as the copilot of a giant Catalina seaplane, The Sea Witch. He’s thrown into a whole new world, where a Catalina carries five tons of bombs, a half-dozen machine guns, and a crew that walks a fine line between valor and a death wish.
A daring night bombing mission against Rabaul forces the crew of The Sea Witch to band together as never before. Each man will soon find out what he’s made of . . . and not everyone will make it back alive.
“I’m looking,” the skipper said, flipping through my logbook, “but I can’t find any seaplane time.” The skipper was Commander Martin Jones. His face was greasy from perspiration and he looked exhausted.
“I’ve 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.
“You’re a dive-bomber pilot. What in hell are you doing in a Black Cat squadron?”
“It’s a long story.” Boy, was that ever the truth!
“I haven’t 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 ship’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. We’ll 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, we’ll 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 you’ve really flipped out or something.”
“I’m 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 couldn’t 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 couldn’t see anything dead ahead. Didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t dive-bomb like everyone else and get hits, he didn’t want me.
“I told him everyone else was missing—I was getting the hits, and I’d do whatever it took to keep getting them, which I guess wasn’t 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 don’t have anyone else, so you’re our new copilot. You’ll fly with Lieutenant Modahl. He’s probably working on his plane. He wanted to go out this morning and look for our missing crew, but I wouldn’t 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 don’t like the cut of your jib, bucko, you’ll 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 wasn’t new, and it wasn’t 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 Catalina’s 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, raven’s-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 water’s 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 didn’t 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.
“Lieutenant Modahl?” He turned to look at me. “I’m 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 I’d 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 didn’t smile, not once.
I figured if he could fly and fight, it didn’t matter whether he smiled or not. Anyone in the South Pacific who was making friends just then didn’t 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 didn’t fit, were sweat-stained and rumpled—hell, they were just plain dirty.
He mumbled his words, didn’t have much to say, kept glancing at the Cat, didn’t 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 didn’t they just put one of the storekeepers in the right seat? Hell, why didn’t 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 mechanic’s 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 didn’t 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 bombardier’s window plated over with sheet metal. Most of the space the guns didn’t occupy was taken up by ammo feed trays. The trigger for the guns was on the pilot’s yoke. The remainder of the space, and there wasn’t 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. “They’re the Cat’s nuts, sir. They really pour out the lead. They’ll cut a hole in a ship’s 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, I’d rather be sitting in the drugstore at Pismo Beach drinking sodas with my girl while someone else does the heavy lifting, but it isn’t working out that way.”
“I guess not.”
“In fact, when we dive for those Jap ships, and I’m sitting on those guns, I’d rather be somewhere else, anywhere at all. I haven’t peed my pants yet, but it’s been close.”
“Guess everybody feels that way.”
“Hard to get used to.”
“Are you going to be flying with us?”
“I’m flying copilot for a while. They told me Deets has malaria.”
“You know Cats, huh?”
“I don’t know a damn thing about flying boats. I figure I can learn, though.”
Hoffman wasn’t 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 wasn’t like we were going to have to land this thing on a carrier deck.
This ensign wasn’t 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 wasn’t me you heard laughin’, not by a damn sight. It wasn’t very funny. This ensign must be what’s 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 who’s 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 wasn’t 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 pilot’s 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 tender’s 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 didn’t 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 we’re ready. When the guys are finished fueling and arming the plane, I think I’ll have them fed, then we’ll go.”
“Yes, sir. Where to?”
“Jones and I thought we might as well run up to Buka and Rabaul and see what’s in the harbor. Moon’s 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 don’t.”
“No one knows. The harbor might contain a fleet, or it might be empty.”
“Tomorrow morning we’ll 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.
While the other guys were doing all the work, I went to my stateroom and threw my stuff in the top bunk. Another officer was there, stripped to his skivvies in the jungle heat. He was seated at the only desk writing a long letter—he already had four or five pages of dense handwriting lying in front of him.
“I’m the new guy,” I told him, “going to be Modahl’s copilot.”
He looked me over like I was a steer he was going to bid upon. “I’m Modahl’s navigator, Rufus Pottinger.”
“We’re flying together, I guess.”
I couldn’t think of a thing to say. I wondered if that letter was to a girl or his mother. I guessed his mother—Pottinger didn’t strike me as the romantic type, but you can never tell. There is someone for everyone, they say.
That thought got me thinking about my family. I didn’t have a solitary soul to write to. I guess I was jealous of Pottinger. I stripped to my skivvies and asked him where the head was.
He looked at his watch. “You’re in luck. The water will be on in fifteen minutes. For fifteen minutes. The skipper of this scow is miserly with the water.”
I took a cake of soap, a towel, and a toothbrush and went to to visit the facilities.
I’d heard of this guy. They had thrown him out of SBDs, sent him to PBYs. I guess that was an indicator of where we stood on the naval aviation totem pole.
The scuttlebutt was this ensign was some kind of suicidal maniac. You’d never know it to look at him. With flaming red hair, splotchy skin, and buckteeth, he was the kind of guy nobody ever paid much attention to.
He also had an annoying habit of failing to meet your gaze when he spoke to you—I noticed that right off. Not a guy with a great future in the Navy. The man had no presence.
I threw my pen on the desk and stretched. I got to thinking about Modahl and couldn’t go on with my letter, so I folded it and put in in the drawer.
Modahl was a warrior to his fingertips. He also took crazy chances. Sure, you gotta go for it—that’s combat. Still, you must use good sense. Stay alive to fight again tomorrow. I tried to tell him that dead men don’t win wars, and he just laughed.
Now the ensign had been added to the mix. I confess, I was worried. At least Harvey Deets had curbed some of Modahl’s wilder instincts. This ensign was a screwball with no brains, according to the rumor, which came straight from the yeoman in the captain’s office who saw the message traffic.
In truth I wasn’t cut out for this life. I was certainly no warrior—not like Modahl, or even this crazy redheaded ensign. Didn’t have the nerves for it.
I wasn’t sleeping much those days, couldn’t eat, couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. It sounds crazy, but I knew there was a bullet out there waiting for me. I knew I wasn’t going to survive the war. The Japs were going to kill me.
And I didn’t know if they would do it tonight, or tomorrow night, or some night after. But they would do it. I felt like a man on death row, waiting for the warden to come for me.
I couldn’t say that in my letters home, of course. Mom would worry herself silly. But Jesus, I didn’t know if I could screw up the courage to keep on going.
I hoped I wouldn’t crack, wouldn’t lose my manhood in front of Modahl and the others.
I guess I’d rather be dead than humiliate myself that way.
Modahl knew how I felt. I think he sensed it when I tried to talk some sense into him.
Oh, God, be with us tonight.
I sat through the brief and kept my ensign’s mouth firmly shut. The others asked questions, especially Modahl, while I sort of half listened and thought about that great big ocean out there.
The distances involved were enormous. Buka on the northern tip of Bougainville was about 400 nautical miles away, Rabaul on the eastern tip of New Britain, about 450. This was the first time I would be flying the ocean without my plotting board, which felt strange. No way around it though—Catalinas carried a navigator, who was supposed to get you there and back. Modahl apparently thought Pottinger could handle it—and I guess he had so far.
Standing on the tender’s deck, I surveyed the sky. The usual noon shower had dissipated, and now there was only the late-afternoon cumulus building over the ocean.
Behind me I could hear the crew whispering—of course they weren’t thrilled at having a copilot without experience, but I wasn’t either. I would have given anything right then to be manning a Dauntless on the deck of Enterprise rather than climbing into this heaving, stinking, ugly flying boat moored in the mouth of this jungle river.
The evening was hot, humid, with only an occasional puff of wind. The tender had so little freshwater it came out of the tap in a trickle, hardly enough to wet a washrag. I had taken a sponge bath, which was a wasted effort. I was already sodden. At least in the plane we would be free of the bugs that swarmed over us in the muggy air.
I was wearing khakis; Modahl was togged out in a pair of Aussie shorts and a khaki shirt with the sleeves rolled up—the only reason he wore that shirt instead of a tee shirt was to have a pocket for pens and cigarettes. Both of us wore pistols on web belts around our waists.
As I went down the net I overheard the word “crazy.” That steamed me, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
If they wanted to think I was nuts, let ’em. As long as they did their jobs it really didn’t matter what they thought. Even if it did piss me off.
I got strapped into the right seat without help, but I was of little use to Modahl. I shouldn’t have worried. The copilot was merely there to flip switches the pilot couldn’t reach, provide extra muscle on the unboosted controls, and talk to the pilot to keep him awake in the middle of the night. I didn’t figure Modahl would leave the plane to me and the autopilot on this first flight. Tonight, the bunks where members of the crew normally took turns napping were covered with a dozen flares and a dozen hundred-pound bombs, to be dumped out the tunnel hole aft.
The mechanic helped start the engines, Pratt & Whitney 1830s of twelve hundred horsepower each. That sounded like a lot, but the Cat was a huge plane, carrying four five-hundred-pound bombs on the racks, the hundred-pounders on the bunks, several hundred pounds of flares, God knows how much machine gun ammo, and fifteen hundred gallons of gasoline, which weighed nine thousand pounds. The plane could have carried more gas, but this load was plenty, enough to keep us airborne for over twenty hours.
I had no idea what the Cat weighed with all this stuff, and I suspect Modahl didn’t either. I said something to the mechanic, Dutch Amme, as we stood on the float waiting our turn to board, and he said the weight didn’t matter. “As long as the thing’ll float, it’ll fly.”
With Amme ready to start the engines, Modahl yelled to Hoffman to release the bowlines. Hoffman was standing on the chine on the left side of the bow. He flipped the line off the cleat, crawled across the nose to the other chine, got rid of that line, then climbed into the nose turret through the open hatch.
A dozen or so of the tender sailors pushed us away from the float. As soon as the bow began to swing, Amme began cranking the engine closest to the tender. It caught and blew a cloud of white smoke, and kept the nose swinging. Modahl pushed the rudder full over and pulled the yoke back into his lap as Amme cranked the second engine.
In less time than it takes to tell, we were taxiing away from the tender.
“You guys did that well,” I remarked.
“Practice,” Modahl said.
Everyone checked in on the intercom, and there was a lot of chatter as they checked systems, all while we were taxiing toward the river’s mouth.
Finally, Modahl used the rudder and starboard engine to initiate a turn to kill time while the engines came up to temperature. The mechanic talked about the engines—temps and so on; Modahl listened and said little.
After two complete turns, the pilot closed the window on his side and told me to do the same. He flipped the signal light to tell Amme to set the mixtures to Auto Rich. While I was trying to get my window to latch, he straightened the rudder and matched the throttles. Props full forward, he pulled the yoke back into his lap and began adding power.
The engines began to sing.
The Witch accelerated slowly as Modahl steadily advanced the throttles while the flight engineer called out the manifold pressures and RPMs. He had the throttles full forward when the nose of the big Cat rose, and she began planing the smooth water in the lee of the point. Modahl centered the yoke with both hands to keep us on the step.
I glanced at the airspeed from time to time. We were so heavy I began to wonder if we could ever get off. We passed fifty miles per hour still planing, worked slowly to fifty-five, then sixty, the engines howling at full power.
It took almost a minute to get to sixty-five with that heavy load, but when we did Modahl pulled the yoke back into his lap and the Cat broke free of the water. He eased the yoke forward, held her just a few feet over the water in ground effect as our airspeed increased. When we had eighty on the dial Modahl inched the yoke back slightly, and the Witch swam upward in the warm air.
“When the water is a little rougher or there is a breeze, she’ll come off easier,” he told me. He flipped the switch to tell Amme to raise the wingtip floats.
He climbed all the way to a thousand feet before he lowered the nose and pulled the throttles back to cruise manifold pressure, then the props back to cruise RPM. Of course, he had to readjust the throttles and sync the props. Finally he got the props perfectly in sync, and the engine noise became a smooth, loud hum.
After Modahl trimmed he hand-flew the Witch awhile. We went out past the point, where he turned and set a course for the tip of the island that lay to the northeast. “Landing this thing is a piece of cake. It’s a power-on landing into smooth water: Just set up the attitude and a bit of a sink rate and ease her down and on. In the open sea we full-stall her in. After you watch me do a few I’ll let you try it. Maybe tomorrow evening if we aren’t going out again.”
“Yeah,” I said. The fact that Modahl was making plans for tomorrow was comforting somehow, as I’m sure it was to the rest of the crew, who were listening on the intercom. As if we were a road repair gang on the way to fill a pothole.
When we got to the island northeast of Samarai, we flew along the water’s edge for twenty minutes, looking for people or a crashed airplane or a signal—anything—hoping our lost Catalina crew had made it this far.
We had been in the air over an hour when Modahl turned northeast for Bougainville. He engaged the autopilot and sat for a while watching it fly the plane. We were indicating 115 miles per hour, about a hundred knots. The wind was out of the west. Pottinger, the navigator, was watching the surface of the sea to establish our drift before sunset.
“Keep your eyes peeled, gang, for Joe Snyder and his guys. Sing out if you see anything.”
The land was out of sight behind and the sun was sinking into the sea haze when Modahl finally put his feet up on the instrument panel and lit a cigarette. The sun on our left stern quarter illuminated the clouds, which covered about half the sky. The cloud bases were at least a thousand feet above us, the tops several thousand feet above that. The visibility was about twenty miles, I thought, as I studied the sun-dappled surface of the sea with binoculars.
Standing in the space behind us, between the seats, the radioman also studied the sea’s surface. His name was something Varitek . . . I hadn’t caught his first name. Everyone called him Varitek, even the other sailors.
The noise level in the plane was high; the headsets made it tolerable. Barely. Still, the drone of the engines and the clouds flamed by the setting sun and the changing patterns on the sea were very pleasant. We had cracked our side windows so there was a decent breeze flowing into the plane.
One of the sailors brought us coffee, hot and black. As Modahl smoked cigarettes, one after another, we sat there watching the colors of the clouds change and the sea grow dark. A sliver of the sun was still above the horizon when I got my first glimpse of the moon, round and golden, climbing the sky.
The other members of the crew were disappointed that they didn’t see any trace of Snyder’s plane. I hadn’t thought they would, nor, apparently, did Modahl. He said little, merely smoked in silence as the clouds above us lost their evening glow.
“Watch the moonpath,” Modahl told me after a while. “Anything we see up this way is Japanese, and fair game.” He adjusted the cockpit lighting for night flying and asked the radioman for more coffee.
I couldn’t get Joe Snyder and his crew out of my mind. A fellow shouldn’t go forth to slay dragons preoccupied with other things, but I liked Joe, liked him a lot. And whatever happened to him could happen to me and mine.
The Japs were staging ships and supplies through Buka and Rabaul as they tried to kick us off Guadalcanal. They were working up to taking Port Moresby, then invading Australia, when our invasion of Guadal threw a monkey wrench in their plans. Now they were trying to reinforce their forces on Guadalcanal. A steady stream of troop transports and cargo ships had been in and out of those harbors, not to mention destroyers and cruisers, enough to put the fear in everybody. Then there are Jap planes—they had a nice airfield on Rabaul and a little strip near Buka. The legs on the Zeros were so long you just never knew where or when you would encounter them, though they stayed on the ground at night.
If they could have flown at night, the Cats couldn’t. The guns in the side blisters were poor defense against enemy fighters. When attacked, the best defense was to get as close to the sea as possible so the Zeros couldn’t make shooting passes without the danger of flying into the water. If a Japanese pilot ever slowed down and lined up behind a Cat a few feet over the water, he’d be meat on the table for the blister gunners—the Japs had yet to make that mistake and probably never would.
I sat there listening to the engines, wondering what happened to Joe, if he were still alive, if he would ever be found.
If you didn’t believe you had a good chance of living through the flight, you would never get aboard the plane. Somebody said that to me once, and it was absolutely true. It took guts to sit through the brief and man up and ride through a takeoff, knowing how big this ocean was, knowing that your life was dependent on the continued function of this cunning contraption of steel and duraluminum. Knowing your continued existence depended on the skill of your pilot.
Modahl. If he made one bad decision, we were all dead.
These other guys, I saw them fingering rosaries or moving their lips in prayer. I didn’t buy any of that sweet-hereafter Living on a Cloud Playing a Harp bullshit.
This is it, baby. This life is all you get. When it’s over, it’s over. And you ain’t coming back as a cow or a dog or a flea on an elephant’s ass.
I tried not to think about it, but the truth was, I was scared. Yeah, I believed in Modahl. He was a good officer and a good pilot. Sort of a holier-than-thou human being, not a regular kind of guy you’d like to drink beer with, but I didn’t care about that. None of these officers were going to be your buddy, and who would want them to? Modahl could fly that winged boat. He was good at that, and that was all that mattered. That and the fact that he could get us home.
He could do that. Modahl could. He could get this plane and his ass and the asses of all of us home again, back to the tender.
These other guys were so calm that afternoon, but I wasn’t. Tell you the truth, I was scared. Waiting, waiting, waiting . . . it was enough to make a guy puke. I tried to eat and managed to get something down, but I upchucked it before we manned up.
I knew the guys on the Snyder crew—went to boot camp with a couple of them and shipped out with them to the South Pacific. Yeah, they were good guys, guys just like me, and they were dead now. Or floating around in the ocean waiting to die. Or marooned on an island somewhere. The folks at home saw the pictures in Life and thought tropical paradise, but these islands were hellholes of jungle, bugs, and snakes, with green shit growing right down to the water’s edge. Everything was alive, and everything would eat you.
And the South Pacific was crawling with Japs. The sons of Nippon didn’t take prisoners, the guys said, just tortured you for information, then whacked off your head with one of those old swords. Gave me the shivers just thinking about it.
If they captured me . . . well, Jesus!
No wonder I was puking like a soldier on a two-week drunk.
I just prayed that Modahl would get us home. One more time.
This evening the wind was only a few knots out of the west-southwest. Our ground speed was, I estimated, 102 knots. We were precisely here on the chart, at this spot I marked with a tiny x. If I had doped the wind right. Beside the x I noted the time.
Later, as we approach Bougainville, Modahl would climb above the clouds and let me shoot the stars for an accurate fix. Of course, once we found the island, I would use it to plot running fixes.
I liked the precision of navigation. The answers were real, clear, and unequivocal, and could be determined with finest mathematical exactness. On the other hand, flying was more like playing a musical instrument. I could determine Modahl’s mood by the way he handled the plane. Most of the time he treated it with the utmost respect, working the plane in the wind and sea like a maestro directing a symphony. When he was preoccupied, like tonight, Modahl just pounded the keys, horsed it around, never got in sync with it.
He was thinking about Joe Snyder’s crew, I figured, wondering, pondering life and death.
Death was out there tonight, on that wide sea or in those enemy harbors.
It was always there, always a possibility when we set out on one of those long flights into the unknown.
The torture was not combat, a few intense minutes of bullets and bombs; torture was the waiting. The hours of waiting. The days. The nights. Waiting, wondering . . . Sometimes the bullets and bombs came as almost a relief after all that waiting.
The Sea Witch was Modahl’s weapon. The rest of us were tiny cogs in his machine, living parts. We would live or die as the fates willed it, and whichever way it came out didn’t matter as long as Modahl struck the blow.
But the men had faith he’ll take them home. Afterward.
I wanted to believe that. The others also. But I knew it wasn’t true. Death was out there—I could feel it.
Modahl was only a man.
A man who wondered about Joe Snyder and probably had little faith in himself.
Was Modahl crazy, or was it us, who believed?
Nothing in this life was as black as a night at sea. You can tell people that, and they would nod, but no one could know how mercilessly dark a night could be until he saw the night sea for himself.
After the twilight was completely gone that night there was only the occasional flicker of the moonpath through gaps in the clouds, and now and then a glimpse of the stars. And the red lights on the instrument panel. Nothing else. The universe was as dark as the grave.
Modahl eased his butt in his seat, readjusted his feet on the instrument panel, tried to find a comfortable position, and reached for his cigarettes. The pack was empty; he crumpled it in disgust.
“You married?” he asked me. “No.”
“I am,” he said, and rooted around in his flight bag for another pack of Luckies. He got one out, fired it off, then rearranged himself, settling back in.
He checked the compass, tapped the altimeter, glanced at his watch, and said nothing.
“Can I walk around a little?” I asked. “Sure.”
I got unstrapped and left him there, smoking, his feet on the panel.
The beat of the engines made the ship a living thing. Everything you touched vibrated; even the air seemed to pulsate. The waist and tunnel gunners were watching out the blisters, scratching, smoking, whatever. Pottinger was working on his chart, the radioman and bombardier were playing with the radar, Amme the mechanic was in his tower making entries in his logbooks.
I took a leak, drank a half a cup of coffee while I watched the two guys working with the radar, and asked some questions. The presentation was merely a line on a cathode-ray tube—a ship, they said, would show up as a spike on the line. Maybe. Range was perhaps twenty miles, when the sea conditions were right.
“Have you ever seen a ship on that thing?” I asked. “Oh, yeah,” the radioman said, then realized I was an officer and added a “sir.”
I finished the coffee, then climbed back into the copilot’s seat.
When my headset was plugged in again, I asked Modahl, “Do you ever have trouble staying awake?”
He shook his head no.
A half hour later he got out of his seat, took off his headset, and shouted in my ear: “I’m going to get some coffee, walk around. If the autopilot craps out, I’ll feel it. Just hold course and heading.”
He left, and there I was, all alone in the cockpit of a PBY Catalina over the South Pacific at night, hunting Jap ships.
I put my feet up on the panel like Modahl had and sat watching the instruments, just in case the autopilot did decide that it had done enough work tonight. The clouds were breaking up as we went north, so every few seconds I stole a glance down the moonpath, just in case. It was about seventy degrees to the right of our nose. I knew the guys were watching it from the starboard blister, but I looked anyway.
We had been airborne for a bit over four hours. We had lost time searching the coast of that island, so I figured we had another hour to fly before we reached Buka. Maybe Modahl was talking to Pottinger about that now.
If my old man could only see me in this cockpit. When he lost the farm about eight years ago, five years after Mom died, he took my sister and me to town and turned us over to the sheriff. Said he couldn’t feed us
He kissed us both, then walked out the door. That was the last time I ever saw him.
Life defeated him. Beat him down.
Maybe someday, when the war was over, I’d try to find him. My sister and I weren’t really adopted, just farmed out as foster kids, so legally he was still my dad.
My sister was killed last year in a car wreck, so he was the only one I had left. I didn’t even know if he or Mom had brothers or sisters.
I was sitting there thinking about those days when I heard one sharp, hard word in my ears. “Contact.”
That was the radioman on the intercom. “We have a contact, fifteen miles, ten degrees left.”
In about ten seconds Modahl charged into the cockpit and threw himself into the left seat.
“I’ve got it,” he said, and twisted the autopilot steering. We turned about fifty degrees left before he leveled the wings.
“We’ll go west, look for them on the moonpath, figure out what we’ve got.”
He reached behind him and twisted the volume knob on the intercom panel so everyone could clearly hear his voice. “Wake up, people. We have a contact. We’re maneuvering to put it on the moonpath for a visual.”
“What do you think it is?”
“May just be stray electrons—that radar isn’t anything to bet money on. If it’s a ship, though, it’s Japanese.”
Copyright © 2012 by Stephen Coonts
Stephen Coonts is the author of sixteen New York Times best sellers that have been translated and published around the world. A former naval aviator and Vietnam combat veteran, Coonts is a graduate of West Virginia University and the University of Colorado School of Law.