The Commodore by P. T. Deutermann is an epic story of courage, disaster, survival, and triumph that culminates in the pivotal battle of Vela Gulf in WWII (Available August 2, 2016).
The Navy in 1942-1943 is fighting a losing battle against Japan for control of the Solomon Islands. Vice Admiral William “Bull” Halsey is tasked to change the course of the war. Halsey, a maverick, goes on the offensive and appoints a host of new destroyer commanders, including a wild-card named Harmon Wolf. An American Indian from a Minnesota reservation, Wolf has never fit in with the traditional Navy officer corps. But under Halsey, Wolf's aggressive tactics and gambling nature bring immediate results, and he is swiftly promoted to Commodore of an entire destroyer squadron.
What happens next will change Wolf's life, career, and the fate of his ships forever.
USS John B. King, Guadalcanal
The sound-powered phone mounted above his rack squeaked.
No-o-o, he moaned. Too early. His eyelids felt like they were glued together.
A second squeak, slightly more emphatic. With his eyes still closed, he groped for the handset, pressed the button, and said, “Captain.” Croaked was more like it.
“Good morning, Captain, Ensign Belay, junior officer of the deck, here,” said an annoyingly bright voice. “The Frisco’s coming in.”
Frisco, he thought, ordering his right eye to open. It refused. The heavy cruiser San Francisco. She’d been the flagship during the big dustup last night. Everyone was wondering how the cruisers had fared this time. Hopefully better than the first time they had gone up against Jap cruisers out in the waters around Savo Island.
“How’s she look?”
“Beat up, sir,” the JOOD said. “Especially up in the pilothouse, flag bridge area. Somebody worked ’em over pretty good.”
“Somebody,” he thought, would be the Japanese cruiser formation known as the Tokyo Express.
He sighed. The damned Japs were still the masters of the night fight, them and their horrendous Long Lance torpedoes.
“She under her own power?” he asked.
“Yes, sir, but there’s no waterline showing, and her forwardmost turret doesn’t look right. Pointed over the side instead of centerlined. It also looks like they’re doing a water washdown topside, for some strange reason.”
“They’re probably washing debris, blood, and human body parts over the side, Mister Belay.”
He could actually hear the JOOD gulp at that. Ensign Brian Belay, God love him. The jokes had been endless. He reminded himself once again to stop picking on the ensigns. “I’ll be up,” he said. “But I need some coffee, please.”
“Right away, Cap’n.”
He hung up the Bakelite handset and finally convinced his right eye to open. His cabin didn’t look any different. Sixteen feet long, seven feet wide, a gray steel bureau with drawers, a tiny closet for hanger gear, and a built-in desk. The bed folded back into the bulkhead and became a couch. One desk chair. One porthole, dogged shut. A tiny head forward with a shower, steel sink, and steel commode. The cabin had been carpeted when the ship was first commissioned, but the carpeting had been ripped out back in Pearl when they took off all the nonessential combustibles.
He’d hit the sack well after midnight still in his uniform, which hadn’t done its military bearing any good. He had managed to get his sea boots off. Well, mostly off. They were both still on the end of the bed. With two eyes open now he looked at his watch. Zero five thirty. Reveille in a half hour. He tried to shake the cobwebs out of his brain. He’d once entertained the quaint notion that once he became the captain, he might get to sleep in from time to time. Fat chance, especially these days.
The ship, USS John B. King—his ship, he reminded himself—was supposed to chop to the Guadalcanal cruiser group at noon today, which meant he’d probably be taking a boat ride once the flagship anchored. If he was going to see the admiral, he needed a shower and a clean, pressed set of khakis. He wondered if there was fresh water available. Even his brand-new destroyer barely distilled enough fresh water for a day’s consumption by a crew of 330, and that was only after the boiler feed-water tanks had been topped off.
He swung out of the bed, pushed it back up into the bulkhead, and headed for the shower, recalling the sweet-mannered Marine captain back during plebe summer yelling “Aw-right, maggots, off your dead asses and on your dying feet!” at every reveille. And then blowing a trumpet over the amplified announcing system. Sixteen years ago. No—that’s when he’d graduated. Twenty years ago, when he’d been a brand-new plebe.
Great God, he thought, he was truly getting old. But: in command, and in command of USS John B. King, DD-711, a brand-new, 2,100-ton, Fletcher-class destroyer, no less. He was one of only six commanders from his class in command in this year of our Lord 1942. He smiled at the thought of what his superior brethren back at the Boat School would have thought of that. Sluff Wolf? In command? No way in hell, that’s what they would have thought. Showed them.
His real name was Harmon Wolf. He was a Naval Academy graduate from the class of 1926. His parents were both from the Iron Range territory of Minnesota. His father had been a full-blooded Red Lake Chippewa who drove the giant ore trucks from the taconite open-pit mines to the railhead. His mother was the daughter of an Irish family who’d emigrated to the United States from Canada. Since the little town he’d grown up in was adjacent to the Red Lake reservation, his father had insisted that he spend time on the reservation learning about his Indian heritage. His mother tried equally hard to enmesh young Harmon in the clutches of the Roman Catholic Church. When he’d finally submitted to the coming-of-age ceremony on the reservation, he’d been given the Indian name of Wolf Who Walks in Smoke. Neither of his parents could quite figure that one out, and young Harmon had later come to believe that it had been his paternal uncle’s idea of a joke, the smoke an oblique reference to the Catholic High Mass tradition of the priest walking down the main aisle swinging a censer. His uncle was the tribe’s Mide, which loosely translated to Medicine Man, although he was also a fourth-degree member of the tribe’s Midewiwin and thus one of the most powerful mystical councillors.
The young Wolf did well in school, excelling in mathematics and becoming something of a star on the school’s football team as a kicker. His success at school was the result of his mother’s Irish heritage and her conviction that education was the best and probably the only way to keep her son out of the taconite pits of the Mesabi Range. That notion was strongly reinforced when Harmon’s father overturned an ore truck crossing a river bridge during a rainstorm. They eventually found the truck, but not the driver. Without his father’s income, Harmon and his mother moved onto the reservation as wards of the tribe, and in particular his uncle, the Mide. Having been to the white man’s school for several years, Harmon was more than a little skeptical of all the mysterious ceremonies and secret signs surrounding his uncle. His mother, ever practical, told him to be politely respectful and to keep his mouth shut.
The contrast between Harmon’s academic achievements and those of the rest of the reservation children led to a scholarship to Saint John’s University, northwest of the Twin Cities. During his first year there the country went into a sharp depression and he began to wonder what he would do after college. When two military recruiters showed up on campus extolling the good deal offered by the two service academies—four years of college for free—he jumped at it and went after an appointment to both the Naval Academy and West Point. He made the cut for both, but gained only a third alternate appointment. Since all he knew about West Point was that there was a mountain nearby called Storm King, and since he’d had enough of cold dark mountains, he concentrated on the Navy appointment. When the principal appointee and the first two alternates to Annapolis failed their physical exams, Harmon got the nod.
He had no problem passing the physical. He wasn’t very tall, only five-eight, but he was built like a steel fire hydrant, all chest and shoulders, and somewhat bandy-legged, like his father. He was undoubtedly the homeliest candidate the entrance examining board had ever seen, with deeply tanned skin, spiky black hair, a huge nose, piercing black eyes, pronounced cheekbones, and a downturned, almost scowling mouth. He didn’t know he was scowling—that was just his face. He was very strong, having worked as a choker setter for a logging firm in the north woods every summer during high school. Thanks to his mother he’d been an avid reader since childhood and thus had an exceptional vocabulary, but his physical appearance made him stand out from the almost homogeneous stream of young, white, middle-class men flowing through the physical exam center.
His prospective classmates didn’t know quite what to make of him, and there were certainly racial underpinnings to how they looked at him. Harmon knew all about that, having taken quite a bit of racial crap from white kids in the town. His uncle had taught him how to fold into himself when the taunts came. He would hunker down, settle his face into a cold mask, condense his body into a posture that hinted at explosive rage, and then lock those obsidian eyes on the biggest and noisiest of his tormentors. Just as his uncle had predicted, that pose made anyone picking on him suddenly uneasy. The admission docs passed him, but without much enthusiasm. The full admissions board noted his math score on the academy entrance exam plus his record of athletic ability, and he was in.
His name at the academy was simply Harmon Wolf, the mystical Indian name having been set aside by the academy’s entrance examination board with much rolling of eyes. Some of his classmates joked that Wolf must have been the inspiration for the so-called buffalo nickel, and even he had to admit the resemblance. In those days, as now, it was important that every midshipman eventually acquire his academy nickname. There were, of course, complicated and deeply traditional rules about that. If a midshipman named William dated or eventually became engaged to a woman named Mary, for instance, then her nickname became Billy and his nickname became Mary. All Gibsons became Hoot. Anyone with an obviously German name was called Dutch.
Harmon Wolf posed something of a problem in this regard, and he didn’t acquire his academy handle until he first went out for varsity football as a walk-on in the beginning of his second year.
Two seniors from the varsity team dressed out in workout gear took one look at the short stack walking into the locker room and burst out laughing. One asked the young Harmon Wolf what his name was.
“Sluff Wolf,” he said.
“Sluff?” the biggest guy said. He was probably six-three in height and just as wide. “What kinda name is that?”
“It’s easier than saying short little ugly fat fucker,” Harmon replied as he began to change out of his class uniform and into sweats.
That produced more laughter, but one of them still wanted to know what a guy his size was doing here trying out for Navy varsity football. “So,” he continued, a lineman trying for wit, “Sluff. You here to play football or be the football?”
More laughter. Sluff finished changing and went to the footlocker to find some cleats. “I’m here to kick the football,” he said. “Don’t have to be cow-sized to kick a football.”
“Who you calling a cow, there, half-pint,” the monster said, getting a little angry now. Sluff turned around.
“Can you catch a football?” he asked quietly.
The lineman said of course he could.
“Okay, then,” Sluff said. “See you at the tryout.”
“We’re already varsity, dumb-ass,” another guy said, looking around at his buddies. “We’re not here to try out. We’re here to show you what the front line looks like when you try to get past us.”
“I’m a kicker,” Sluff said. “I don’t mess with front lines. Front lines are there to keep me safe until I get that kick away. Anyway, how’s about I boot one to you and see if you can hold on to it?”
“Is that some kinda challenge, there, shrimp?”
“It’s Sluff, not shrimp. But if you’re afraid, well…”
The big guy hooted and said he’d see him out there. “You kick one to me,” he said. “Then I’ll throw a tackle to you, how ’bout it?”
Sluff smiled and strolled out to the field. He joined about two dozen other sophomores who were there to try out. An assistant coach put them all into a calisthenics drill, followed by some sideline sprints, which were the quickest way to weed out the absolutely hopeless ones. Then they divided up into their purported specialties. Sluff was the only candidate for kicker. The main reason that he was trying out was that he’d found out the varsity kicker had failed two of his end-of-term exams in May and had been sent home. The Naval Academy took good care of its football team, but every one of them still had to take eighteen credit hours of an engineering curriculum and pass every course, every semester. The vacancy was a matter of some concern to the coaching staff.
Another of the assistant coaches came over, introduced himself, and asked if Sluff had ever played ball before. He said yes, high school, but he hadn’t had time during his plebe year for any sports other than the required extracurricular stuff. The coach took him out to the thirty-yard line, handed him a football, and asked him to punt one through the goalposts. Harmon rolled the ball around in his hands for a moment, nodded, and then began to walk away in the opposite direction, toward midfield.
“Hey, sport,” the coach called after him. “Where you goin’?”
“Need more room,” Harmon said over his shoulder.
He stopped when he got to the fifty-yard line, and then did some stretching exercises for a couple of minutes. The guys who’d been harassing him were over on the sideline now, and his new best friend was making sarcastic comments about ratey youngsters, “youngster” being the academy term for a sophomore. The assistant coach was still down on the thirty, looking pointedly at his watch. Sluff did a couple of jumping jacks; then, cradling the ball between his two hands, he kicked it high over the goalposts and all the way into the end-zone stands, where it bounced back down to the field. He kicked it so hard that the sound caught the attention of the other coaches and most of the varsity team members, all of whom turned to look as that ball sailed over the goalposts. When the ball finally landed, there was a momentary hush on the practice field. The assistant coach looked at the ball and then back up field at Sluff Wolf.
“Can you do that again?” he called.
“All day, coach,” Sluff called back. “But I need a football.”
To his surprise the big lineman came trotting out onto the field with a couple of footballs. He handed one to Sluff and then said, “Welcome to varsity ball, there, Sluff Wolf.” Then he grinned and offered a paw.
Sluff played for three years and made the difference in enough games to become something of a sports celebrity in the Brigade of Midshipmen. When the team was in a tight spot and this short fella with the birth-control face ambled out onto the field, the Brigade would start chanting, “Sluff, Sluff, Sluff,” getting a little louder with each chant. The Navy side would go silent when the ball was finally snapped, and then, when it sailed through the goalposts and up into the stands, they’d roar one last “Sluff!” In unison. For the rest of his Navy career, Sluff it was.
Sluff Wolf did well academically at the academy, finishing up eleventh in his class of the 424 midshipmen who were actually commissioned. During the winter athletic season he liked to box, and he helped take the Navy intercollegiate boxing team to a divisional championship in his senior year. After graduation he served in the typical career pattern of shipboard assignments in battleships and cruisers. At one point in the early thirties he’d tried out for the nascent naval aviation program, but failed out for what the instructors called “inappropriate temperament.” One of his instructors had sneeringly called him a jumped-up woods nigger. Sluff had picked him up and thrown him through a window—from the second story of the hangar building, where the classrooms were. The instructor fell on a biplane wing and thus survived the fall, but Sluff’s aviation career was over.
That incident also ended his traditional career path in the spit-and-polish battleship navy. He was subsequently detailed to the wild and woolly destroyer force. There he found his niche. Destroyers were small, fast, heavily armed for their size, and hard-riding fighting ships, manned by men who liked to fight. Everyone knew everyone in the destroyer force, and Wolf’s personality and even his fierce appearance became a perfect fit. Now, after sixteen years of commissioned service, Sluff Wolf had made it to his own destroyer command. He was not entirely sure how that had happened, because he’d always had the feeling that he’d never quite achieved full acceptance into the all white, all-academy, and still very formal Navy officer corps.
At the beginning of the Pacific war, the Navy could accurately be described as a thoroughly hidebound, white-gloved, tradition-jacketed bureaucratic institution ruled by aging officers who stayed in at their current rank until someone senior to them retired—or died. Then and only then could they move up in the Navy’s glacially slow promotion system, especially during the Great Depression. Change, especially any technological advance, was viewed with deep suspicion, sometimes to the point of absurdity: on the Day of Infamy, as Franklin Roosevelt labeled the Pearl Harbor attack, the call to battle stations on every one of the doomed battleships moored at Ford Island had been sounded by a bugler stationed in the “top hampers” of those cage masts. Horatio Lord Nelson would have recognized that bugle call.
And now, Sluff thought, we’re finally here, the ship patrolling two miles off bloody Guadalcanal, where the sounds of desultory artillery fire were audible over the noise of the ship’s vent fans. They’d pulled in at 0130, having safely escorted four transports from the port of Nouméa in New Caledonia up to Guadalcanal to bring desperately needed supplies to the Marines, who were apparently clinging to their dusty airfield by their tobacco-stained fingernails. The transports had gone to their anchorages and begun unloading in the dark, trying to get as much stuff as possible off-loaded before Jap torpedo bombers showed up at midmorning. A second tin can prowled the coastline, shooting back at the occasional Jap shore battery trying its luck in the transport anchorage area. J. B. King had set up a patrol box to the south of the transports, guarding against Jap subs sneaking in from the Sealark Channel.
During the early hours of the morning he’d received voice radio reports that the American cruiser force was returning to Lunga Point, right off Henderson Field. Between the rainsqualls and the overcast, it had been so dark that none of King’s people could make out what kind of shape the cruisers were in, but the radar had shown at least four big ships entering the area. That meant they were still afloat, which was an improvement over the first engagement with the Tokyo Express.
Emerging from the head after his badly needed shower, he found his steward, a gray-headed black man whom the entire crew called Old Mose, laying out a clean uniform. There was a tiny silver tray on his desk with a mug of fresh coffee and a sweet roll nestled in a white linen napkin. Mose knew his captain’s fondness for fresh-baked cinnamon rolls.
“Mornin’ Cap’n,” Mose intoned with a bright smile. Nothing fazed Old Mose. Not yet, anyway. Not for the first time Sluff reflected that the ship and her eager but green crew had not yet “faced the elephant,” as they used to say during the Civil War. And neither have I, he had to admit.
“Mose, how are you?” he said, as if nothing was bothering him, either. “What’s the weather topside?”
“Hit gonna rain, sure as anythin’,” Mose said, nodding wisely. “Already done did. Like a damn cow pissin’ on a flat rock, too. Man alive, it was pone down.”
Sluff told Mose that he expected to be summoned to the flagship sometime that morning, assuming there was no air raid.
“Lemme give them dress shoes a lick and a polish, then,” Mose said, handing over a clean and pressed khaki shirt and trousers, the shirt sporting two bright silver oak leaves on the collars. Still getting used to being a three-striper, Sluff gave them a proud glance. Then the sound-powered phone squeaked again.
“We’re getting a flashing light from the Helena, Captain,” Ensign Belay reported.
“What are they saying, Mister Belay?” Sluff asked. Mose, eavesdropping as always, grinned. Everyone knew that there wasn’t an ensign in the entire fleet who could read flashing light.
“I’ll find out, sir,” Belay answered promptly. “Oh, and we’ve also IDed Atlanta and Juneau in the area.”
“How do they look?”
“Juneau, well, XO says she’s sagging amidships. He thinks her keel’s broken. And Atlanta has a big port list on her and she’s black from stem to stern. She looks pretty bad, Cap’n. XO thinks he can see Mike boats alongside, like maybe they’re taking people off.”
Oh, shit, not again, Sluff thought as a chill gripped his bowels. “Very well,” he sighed. “What’s the air picture look like?”
“Combat reports nothing on our air search, but Cactus says they’ll be launching strikes at first light. They’re going after a Jap convoy northwest of Savo Island. Also, there’s radio scuttlebutt that there’s a Jap battlewagon still out there, just north of Savo.”
Savo Island wasn’t that far away, Sluff thought. If there was a wounded Jap battleship out there, nobody here was safe. “Lemme talk to XO,” he said.
Lieutenant Commander Bob Frey, his executive officer and second-in-command, picked up. A Steady Eddy if there ever was one, he’d been three years behind Sluff at Annapolis.
“Another bloodletting, XO?”
“Sure looks like it, Cap’n. One of the signalmen’s been shooting the breeze with Frisco, and they’re saying there were two Jap battlewagons out there, and that both of our admirals were killed. Skipper of Helena has assumed command.”
Sluff felt another cold shock. Admirals didn’t get killed. Did they? Please God, not again, he thought. We don’t have any more heavy cruisers.
“And what’s this about a Jap BB still out there?”
“That’s what Combat’s hearing over the Cactus control nets. Some of their strikes are going after a troop convoy up the Slot; others are going to finish off a Jap battlewagon who’s out there going in circles.”
“All right,” Sluff said. “I think we better get to GQ, then. All those Japs on Guadalcanal will see and report the cripples, and then Rabaul’s gonna send a bunch of Bettys down here to finish it.”
“If I may suggest, I recommend sounding reveille first,” Frey said. “Then tell everyone what’s going on. Give ’em fifteen minutes to hit the head and get some coffee, then go to GQ. We should be safe as long as there’s no bogeys actually inbound.”
“Make it so,” Sluff said. “I’ll be right up.”
He reflected that this was one of his exec’s strengths: consideration for the crew. It wasn’t as if they weren’t trained. Sound GQ, they’d all be on station with the ship buttoned up in under three minutes. If an attack was actually inbound, that’s what they’d be doing. But this way the crew would be able to wake up, learn what was going on, have time to do their morning necessaries, and then hustle to their GQ stations.
The radio messenger knocked and came in, bearing a sheaf of naval messages bound onto a steel medical clipboard. Outside, the announcing-system speaker in the wardroom passageway cut loose with the shrill whistle of the bosun’s call, sounding reveille. This was followed by the exec, explaining what was going on and urging all hands to be ready to answer the GQ alarm in fifteen minutes.
“Anything hot, Rogers?” Sluff asked, still trying to digest what the exec had told him. It was then that he noticed that Radioman Third Class Rogers looked positively pale as he handed over the clipboard. “The op report from last night, sir,” he said, shaking his head. “They got creamed, sir. They ran into fuc—uh, battleships.”
Rogers left the cabin without another word. That was unusual. The crew depended on gossip from the radio gang to find out what was going on. The radio messengers would usually linger in the captain’s cabin to find out what the ship was going to do next. As if the captain knew, Sluff thought. Destroyers were the workhorses of the fleet, and any given day’s plans usually changed hourly as admirals or commodores made snap decisions. A day on a destroyer where everything went by the plan for that day usually meant that the ship had missed a message.
He finished dressing, sat down at his desk, and opened the metal clipboard, while Mose perched on the couch and gave Sluff’s uniform shoes a quick polish. His heart sank as he read the short but sad report, sent out by the skipper of the Helena. While John B. King had been making the milk run from the U.S. base at Nouméa, six hundred miles away, the cruiser force had gone out into the waters north of Guadalcanal looking for trouble. Trouble, in the form of a Jap surface-action task group containing not one but two battleships, had more than obliged. For some odd reason there had been two admirals in the task group last night, Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan, embarked in heavy cruiser San Francisco, in charge, and Rear Admiral Norman Scott, embarked in light cruiser Atlanta, apparently just along for the ride. The report confirmed that both flag officers had been killed in the ensuing gunfight.
That was stark enough news. The senior officer left alive in San Francisco, the flagship, was a lieutenant commander. Four American destroyers had been sunk outright. The other two, although damaged, were out there now searching for survivors. The antiaircraft light cruiser Atlanta, anchored now somewhere nearby and barely afloat, was so badly damaged that the Marines were indeed shuttling landing craft out to her to take her crew to safety ashore. Given the Marines’ situation, surrounded by Jap army units, “safety” was a relative term, so Atlanta must be in imminent danger of sinking.
The antiaircraft light cruiser Juneau had been torpedoed and was also barely afloat, apparently with a broken keel. The heavy cruiser Portland was going around in circles out in the sound after being torpedoed in the stern. The skipper of the heavy cruiser Helena, which had also been damaged, had assumed command of what was left of the cruiser force. Amazingly, the report was claiming that one of the Japanese battleships had been knocked out of the fight. Who the hell managed that, Sluff wondered.
He downed his coffee and then decided he’d better get topside right now. As dawn broke, there’d almost certainly be Jap air raids from the airfields up in the Shortlands, or even Rabaul itself. As he opened his cabin door he almost collided with the chief signalman, Chief Hawkins, who had a visual signal pad on a clipboard, which he handed to the captain. The chief had that “stand by, everything’s changed again” expression on his face.
“What now, Chief?” Sluff asked as he scanned the brief message, knowing that the chief would have read it on his way down from the signal bridge. Like the radio gang, the signalmen were a prime source for the hot scoop.
“Gonna go find the Washington and the South Dakota and report for duty,” Hawkins answered crisply. He was a short but muscular man, mid-thirties, with a permanently sun- and wind-burned face and startling white eyebrows, the product of hours spent topside supervising the guys who worked the signal lights and the flag bags.
“Right,” Sluff said, initialing the message form. “Take this to XO on the bridge and tell him I said to get the navi-guesser to lay out a track. Make sure they see this in Combat, too.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” the chief said, and took the ladder up to the bridge two steps at a time. Sluff followed, trying to ignore the growing pit in his stomach. Last night our cruiser force got mauled by Jap battleships. Apparently Admiral Halsey, in command of everything but back in Nouméa, had decided to up the ante.
You wanted to see some action, he told himself. Here it comes.
Copyright © 2016 P. T. Deutermann.
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P. T. Deutermann is the author of more than fifteen novels, including Pacific Glory, which won the W. Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction, as well as two other World War II-era sea adventures, Ghosts of Bungo Suido and Sentinels of Fire. Deutermann spent twenty-six years in military and government service, as a captain in the Navy and in the Joint Chiefs of Staff as an arms-control specialist. He lives with his wife in North Carolina.