The Hooligans by P. T. Deutermann: New Excerpt

The Hooligans by P. T. Deutermann is the fictionalized account of the little-known but remarkable exploits of “The Hooligan Navy” that fought in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

Read on for an excerpt from this military adventure novel!

Guadalcanal Island, The Solomons

August 1942

Rain. Pounding, tropical rain. Not comforting; more like scary. Sounding like a waterfall on my steel shipping-box home. My brain telling me: It’s just rain. Go back to sleep. But it wasn’t just rain: someone or thing was also pounding on the side of the box.

Go away! I don’t know if I said it, but God! I was so tired.

“Doc,” a voice shouted over the roar of the rain. “We need you. Now. Unlock the hatch.”

Can’t make me, my evil, sleep-deprived brain whispered. I looked at the radium dial of my watch: 0330. I’d gone down for a quick nap at 2300. Almost four hours. An extravagantly long time, and a whole lot more than the perimeter snuffies were getting.

“Okay, okay, keep your shirt on,” I shouted back. The banging on the door stopped.

The Marines had taken steel shipping containers, formerly filled with 75 and 105 mm artillery rounds for shipment across the Pacific, and made one-man sleeping quarters for each of the docs. The box was ten by six by six feet, with a hatch at one end. There were screened holes on the top sides for air, a makeshift bamboo rack for clothes, clean surgical gowns, and a Springfield rifle. There was a crude interior lock bar to keep any sleepers safe from infiltrating Japs intent on murder. The boxes lay just outside the maze of ropes and cables supporting the main hospital tent, like a row of olive-drab beehives.

Typical of tropical rain, it stopped when I finally unlocked the hatch and stumbled out into the sauna-like atmosphere of Henderson Field. I was wearing a relatively clean set of “Johnnies,” or surgical gown tops and bottoms, and G.I.-issue combat boots. I also carried a government-issue 1911 M1 .45 semiautomatic on my right hip in a very non-sterile holster. As a Navy doctor, I was a commissioned officer with the rank of lieutenant (junior grade), US Naval Reserve, in the Navy Medical Corps. The Marine general commanding at Guadalcanal had issued standing orders: all officers will carry a sidearm, even doctors. We’d dispose of our hand-cannons when we got inside the main hospital tent, nicknamed the Big Top, but they were never very far away. Just like the Japs.

A Navy hospitalman was standing outside, holding a red-lens flashlight and looking like a drowned rat. I couldn’t remember his name, but I knew he was a new guy. Together we slogged through the red mud toward the cluster of medical tents, accompanied by the sounds of muted thunder, intermittent rifle fire, and the occasional thump of an illumination mortar. The tents containing the surgical unit were about fifty feet away from the sleeping containers, partially concealed in a stand of bedraggled coconut trees. I could see them each time an illumination round lit up the sky in a blaze of magnesium, which unfortunately lasted only fifteen seconds or so. Once it burned out the resulting darkness seemed even more intense. I’d caught a glimpse of several litter-jeeps parked around the Big Top, which meant more casualties. Nothing new there.

Another flare went off, behind us this time, and in a single horrifying instant a Jap soldier stepped out of the darkness and bayoneted my hospitalman in the stomach. The youngster went down with a mortal scream, which continued each time the Jap pulled the bayonet out and then stabbed him again. I’d seen lots of dead Japanese in various stages of deconstruction. I’d never actually seen a live one, and this little man was shorter than his rifle but making up for his lack of stature with his zeal for homicide. I stumbled backwards to get away from him just as another flare popped over our heads. I completely forgot to draw my .45, but by then the Marines standing around the casualty jeeps were running toward us, firing as they came. My brain finally engaged and I hit the dirt to avoid the rounds coming in “our” direction. By the time I gathered my wits the Jap was dead and three Marines were pulling me up from the mud.

“Sorry, Doc,” one of them said. “Don’t know how that bastard got by us.”

Nobody spoke the obvious—you with the .45: why didn’t you do something? Then I realized they knew that my .45 was mostly for show, and as a doctor, I couldn’t be expected to be much of a soldier and most certainly not a Marine. Still, I was embarrassed. I bent briefly to examine the hospitalman, but it was pretty obvious he’d bled out. There was a flare of yellow light as someone in the surgical tent opened a flap and yelled something at the cluster of Marines helping me toward my tent. I assumed that meant: hurry the hell up.

The Big Top was square, forty feet on a side, and made of dark green canvas. Several small portable generators were rattling away along the sides. There was a web of guy wires and ropes holding the thing upright and, inside, three large metal poles supported the ridgeline canvas. The “floor” inside was made up of large tarpaulin sections, which undulated when you walked across the interior of the tent. The sanitary condition of the floor did not bear examination, even though two hospitalmen were assigned to constantly sweep, mop, bag, and remove all the bloody medical litter that emergency surgery in an active combat zone produces.

There were four operating tables, each with its own surgical light and the usual clutter of IV stands, instrument trays, a stool for the hospitalman anesthetist and his helper, and the operating table itself. All of this had come ashore from the supply ships once the initial invasion fleet returned to Guadalcanal after the sea fight they were calling Savo Island, and the big bosses regained their nerve. There was a fan in each corner of the tent running on low to keep down cross-contamination of the four tables. The fans offered the surgical teams a smidgen of relief from the ninety-degree heat, and that was at night. During the day they’d spray water on the tent in an attempt at evaporation cooling. All of the surgical team members wore masks with Vicks VapoRub smeared on them to deal with the charnel house smell inside the tent.

Attached to the Big Top were smaller versions, which housed pre-op, triage, and post-op teams. The triage tent had yet another tent attached, where casualties deemed unfit for further medical treatment were laid out on cots and given as much morphine as it took to stop the screaming. When they finally died, the orderlies zipped each one into a rubber body bag. Then the remains were taken out to a truck and ferried over to the temporary burial site, where a bulldozer worked constantly to create and then cover long trenches. The assumption was that the graves registration detail would map whose bag went where in the trench. If we won the battle for Guadalcanal, they’d eventually be exhumed and sent home in a proper casket. If we lost, well . . .

I had to find a new set of operating clothes. I changed right there in the surgery area, and then scrubbed in at the single scrubbing station in the tent while the surgeon I was relieving watched anxiously. I felt his anxiety. We surgeons worked until we began dropping instruments or went into a prolonged pause while our brains tried to deal with the fatigue. The chief surgeon had finally figured out that we needed one doctor who would float through the surgical area and just watch the other cutters. When a hospitalman raised his hand it usually meant that the doc he was helping was all done for the moment. The floater would step in as the tottering surgeon would be taken over to a dark side of the tent and ordered to lie down on one of the cots there. They’d give him two hours of sleep and then rouse him to go back to a table, where the anesthetist would slap an oxygen mask on him for fifteen seconds. That cycle was repeated twice before we finally got to stagger out to our beloved shipping box and get some real sleep. Day and night had merged into a tapestry of horribly torn bodies, flashing steel, frantic chest massages, overloaded suction tubes, and that awful feeling when your patient’s nether orifices opened unexpectedly, telling you he’d just died despite your best efforts. The constant crack and rumble of gunfire and tank engines outside kept us company.

I worked until dawn, although the only indication that daylight had returned was the smell of fresh coffee. It was our one luxury, appropriated by some Marines who’d snuck aboard one of the Navy cargo transports and traded “genu-wine” Jap souvenirs for five-pound cans of Navy coffee. A Jap sword could actually produce canned hams. The fighting entered something of a lull that morning, probably because of the weather, so the emergency casualties diminished. Breakfast was available in the “new” mess tent, the old one, thankfully empty at the time, having absorbed a mortar round. Scrambled eggs made from a yellow powder, precooked bacon strips from cans, and rice. Always rice, all of which had been salvaged from the ration pouches of dead Japs when the fleet withdrew temporarily after Savo. No bread or biscuits because loose flour grew brilliant strains of mold in this wet heat and there was simply no way to store it. Maybe someday. If you wanted starch, you ate rice, and smothered the whole lot in hot sauce. It was food and it was welcome. In the first days after the initial invasion, there hadn’t been any food when our distant theater commander, Admiral Ghormley, a thousand miles away in Nouméa, had decided to withdraw the partially unloaded invasion support ships the day after almost all our big-gun cruisers were sunk near Savo Island.

I was sitting on an ammo box outside the mess tent in my blood-stained Johnnies, eyes closed, stomach full if a bit nervous, oblivious to the light rain falling all around while listening to the distant pop-pop of pistol fire as the Marines dispatched enemy wounded. That might sound barbarous, but none of them wanted medical help or any help at all other than an honorable death on the battlefield. According to the Marines, they’d make a “gun” out of their thumb and fingers, point it at their head and beseech any passing Marine to please do the honors. No problem, you Jap bastard, you. Pow. I think some of the guys felt bad about doing that sort of thing, but then we learned the Japs beheaded any American wounded they came across, so in a way, it was just business. I was so exhausted by then that anyone wanting to take issue with me about what was going on up in the hills and ridges around the airfield would be told to go down to Graves Registration and tell that small mountain of dead Marines all about his moral concerns.

“Doc Andersen?” a young but weary voice asked. I opened my eyes. A Marine who looked like he’d just crawled out of a mud puddle was standing there. His hands were bandaged in what looked like burn dressings, probably from grabbing the barrel of a heavy machine gun to steady it. His eyes were a reddish color. I recognized him as one of the sentries assigned to the Big Top. I asked him what he needed.

“Doc Garr sent me, sir. Said you’re needed over on Tulagi after the big bombing raid last night. Said to tell you to grab your stuff and get down to the landing beach by ten-hundred. Tulagi’s sending over a PT boat to pick up you and two hospitalmen, Greer and Miller, down on the landing beach.”

“Okay, got it,” I said. “Now: can you do me a favor? I need you to go back to the big surgical tent, find HM1 Greer, and ask him to pack up as much medical supplies as he can beg, borrow, or steal.”

“Yes, sir, will do.”

He seemed to be weaving a little bit as he stood there, so I offered him my canteen cup, half filled with coffee. He gulped it down, burped, said, “Thanks, Doc,” and then took off. I launched my weary bones in the direction of my box. My “stuff” didn’t amount to much more than a partially filled seabag, but then I wanted to go over to the Big Top and see what I could scrounge in the way of surgical equipment. Garr wouldn’t be much help in that regard. He didn’t like me, nor, truth be told, was there that much equipment to spare. If I was really lucky Greer might think big and snare an entire surgical equipment trunk. Then we’d have to figure out how we were going to get it down to the beach.

The airfield had come alive now that it was daylight. The gravelly rumble of deuce-and-a-half trucks going and coming, dozers moving dirt, a six-pack of tanks trying to move through all that sticky mud, and the roar of some Marine F4F Wildcats running up their engines filled the air. The operational code name for the island was Cactus, so the Wildcats were part of the Cactus Air Force. Occasionally there’d be gunfire, but it didn’t sound serious. Whenever the Japs made one of their nighttime attacks, they’d leave snipers behind, perched like monkeys up in coconut trees. Three Marine rifle teams made it their business to begin each day scouring the trees for two-legged coconuts and then shooting them off their perches. Once discovered, the snipers weren’t shy about firing back, so it was a risky assignment. The Marines, of course, thought it was fun.

My team and I made it down to the landing beach just after ten, courtesy of a Marine major who rated a jeep. My helpers were Hospitalman First Class surgical assistant Greer and a much younger hospitalman apprentice, named Miller, who looked like he should still have been in 7th grade. Doctor Garr had caught us trying to awkwardly “liberate” a 250-pound surgical equipment trunk, one of only three spares. This had led to a noisy argument, which I’d finally won by pointing out that if I was going over to Tulagi Island as a surgeon and not just a general medical officer, what was the point if I had no equipment? Supposedly they had at least one doc over there, but no surgeons. Garr relented only when there was a sudden emergency back in the Big Top and he simply had to break it off, but not without repeating his standard complaint that I wasn’t a real surgeon and thus shouldn’t even be here on Guadalcanal, much less over on Tulagi, without adult supervision.

While we waited on the landing beach under a palm tree, HM1 Greer asked me what was behind the big beef between me and Doc Garr. The beach was down on Lunga Point, where the First Marine Division had first come ashore on the initial invasion day. It was still littered with abandoned gear and the hulks of overturned landing craft, while at the same time abuzz with the diesel noises of small, flat-faced landing craft bringing in desperately needed food, ammunition, medical supplies, and all the other impedimenta that a full Marine division consumed in great quantities every day and night. There was a Navy amphibious ship anchored just offshore, surrounded by hungry boats. The ship was an LST, which stood for Landing Ship, Tank. A second cargo ship lay on its side nearby, the hulk burned out after a Jap bombing attack. If there was a PT boat out there somewhere, we hadn’t spotted it, so we’d gone to the beachmaster up in his wooden tower so he’d alert us when it showed up. Then we just moved into the trees to stay out of the way.

“Here’s the problem,” I told Greer. “When the Japs hit Pearl, I was just finishing up my third year of surgical residency. That’s year three out of six, sometimes seven. I left school and signed up like everyone else after Pearl Harbor, and ended up out here with the First Marine Division. Garr was the senior medical officer of the medical team who came ashore right after D-day. He asked me what my credentials were and I told him. Finished medical school and had just finished my third year of a surgical residency at Duke University. He said that meant I wasn’t yet qualified to do independent surgery and that I would be restricted to assisting “real” surgeons, as he put it. He also said he’d ship me back to Nouméa as soon as possible, where’d I be assigned to the field hospital there. For further training.”

“Ouch,” Greer said.

“Well, actually, I couldn’t really argue. In your third year of a surgical residency, you’re just beginning to realize that learning the procedures is one thing. It’s learning how to handle all the things that can go wrong during a particular procedure that takes the all those later years. But for me, everything changed when the Japs first counterattacked.”

“Remember that night well,” Greer said. He was about my age, prematurely gray, solidly built, a man of few words, and utterly competent at the table. He was known around the main tent as a reliable third hand: one of those indispensable and unflappable surgical assistants who could anticipate which instrument was needed next, or who’d go after a bleeder without prompting from the surgeon. Back at Duke the assistants had all been women, registered nurses with additional surgical training. I didn’t know there even were male surgical assistants until I’d joined the Navy.

“Yeah, well, when the avalanche hit, they’d just completed the second big top. All the “real” surgeons were overwhelmed so I was sent over to the new tent to see what I could do. By the end of the first two weeks of heavy fighting, I’d probably done more surgical procedures than I would have during all my years back at Duke. Never looked back. Garr was furious when he heard, but then the other docs told him to back off, that I might not have been qualified when the shit hit the fan, but that I was, by God, qualified now, or something along those lines. I wasn’t there.”

“I was there when Garr found out,” Greer said. “He did his usual outrage number, got red in the face and loud, until Doc Hennessy said that your work was better than his, due probably to the fact that you were coming fresh from a top flight medical school and that he, Holland Fraser Whitman Garr, probably hadn’t cracked a book in twenty years. Admittedly, everybody was pretty tired.”

“Wow,” I said. “How’d that go over?”

“Never really found out,” Greer said. “Garr’s face went from red to purple, but then six trucks showed up with wounded from one our cruisers, and we were off to the races again.” He peered into the hazy distance over the strait. “That our coach and six?”

He was pointing out into the Sealark Channel, the strait that separated Guadalcanal and Tulagi, where I could now see a white V approaching. We gathered our stuff, asked a couple of the beachmaster’s crew to help with the trunk, and went down the short hill to the pontoon landing. All of us were sweating profusely; the morning sun was out and baking the place already. The PT boat rumbled into the makeshift “harbor,” backed down, and then came alongside the pontoon and put over two mooring lines. It looked as if the entire crew was at general quarters, wearing helmets and stifling in gray kapok life jackets. There appeared to be only one officer, a lieutenant (junior grade) who wore a fore-and-aft cap, khakis, a set of oversize binoculars on a neck-strap, and a .45 in a holster. He gave us a brief glance and then resumed a sky search. He definitely looked like a man expecting trouble.

We were escorted to the boat’s stern where we could clamber aboard from the pontoon. Our seabags and the all-important trunk followed, plus some other boxes of medical supplies that Greer had managed to commandeer from Big Top Number One. The boat didn’t linger. We were hustled down into the interior by one of the crewmen, along with our gear, and then off we went, slowly at first as we cleared the pontoon landing and went past the ship, whose sides were aswarm with small boats offloading stuff. Then the engines revved up into a mechanical howl, throwing all three of us back into our chairs. The noise coming from the engine room behind us was overwhelming, so there was no possibility of talking. We could feel that sleek eighty-foot mahogany hull begin to plane through the tops of a light chop out in the strait, bumping rhythmically over the small wave tops and occasionally hitting something bigger, causing the engines to scream momentarily as the props came out of the water. As water taxis went, this one was a humdinger. The surgical trunk was sliding around, so Greer grabbed some kapok life jackets and strapped them to the trunk to absorb the bumps.

Tulagi Island was supposedly twelve miles from Lunga Point. The engines began to slow after just ten minutes, so this boat had to be capable of at least fifty miles per hour. Gasoline exhaust fumes began to blow back into the interior as she slowed down and came off the plane, along with a wave of noxious hot air. The engine noise then subsided as they idled two of her three 2500 HP Packards. I decided to climb the ladder to the weather deck to escape the engine fumes. A squall of 50-caliber machine gun fire greeted me as my head popped up out of the hatch, along with the sound of the boat’s 20 mm cannon firing back aft. We had apparently arrived at the same time that a six-pack of Jap “Betty” bombers came out of the midday sun and began blowing up everything in and around the harbor.

The boat made a violent maneuver to starboard, and I ended up sliding back down the ladder without touching a single rung. I landed on the deck, where my two hospitalmen were trying to pick themselves up from that sudden turn. For one galvanizing instant, all three of us stared at each other with open mouths, and then came an explosion that lifted the front end of the boat right out of the water and back down again, causing all three of us to smack our foreheads on the deck.

Two seconds later the centerline engine went to full power and the boat accelerated, but not at all like she’d done over on the Guadalcanal side of the strait. A wave of seawater entered our compartment from the direction of the bow, turning us into human flotsam and jetsam whirling around in the rapidly flooding compartment. The engine strained to build RPMs but the boat was losing the battle as her forward spaces flooded. There was a sudden, powerful jolt just as we started to grab the lower rungs of the ladder, once again throwing the three of us back into the roiling seawater, which was now halfway up the bulkhead. The remaining engine choked and then died, but the guns topside did not. A small avalanche of 50-caliber shell casings rained down through the hatch, and, with the engine silenced, we could now hear the roar of aircraft engines flashing overhead, followed by the truly scary sound of large-caliber bullets tearing into the hull behind us. All three of us submerged into the four feet of water in the compartment. We were then treated to the sting and tugs of rounds coming through the compartment and expending their energy, thanks be to God, in the water.

And then it was over. The three of us crouched on the submerged deck with only our heads exposed. The boat was motionless but the water in our compartment continued to rise. We could hear feet banging around on the deck above and then a face appeared in the hatch.

“Out,” the face yelled. “Right now!”

No problem, I thought. Greer was the closest to the ladder so he went up first. Miller, whose eyes were out on stalks, appeared to be frozen in terror. He didn’t move, so I pushed his head underwater. He came back up, spluttering and babbling, and then I pushed him toward the ladder. He froze up again. I shouted at him to go up, and, miraculously, he did, but then he hesitated again, with his head halfway out of the hatch. I put both hands on his backside and elevated him through the hatch with strength I didn’t know I had, generated by the fact that the boat was obviously sinking. I didn’t need to climb the ladder: the rising water pushed me up and out of the hatch in a wave of gasoline-tainted foam. Greer was nowhere to be seen. Miller was down on the sloping deck, lying on his back like an overturned turtle, sobbing. I looked around.

Fires, everywhere. We were close to the shore. Ahead of us was a scene of total disaster. I caught a quick glimpse of two dungaree-clad bodies bobbing nearby, their heads and lower extremities submerged. Then the boat began to slide backwards. As it gathered speed, Miller and I rolled off the deck, just in time for the smashed bow to swerve sideways and push me down. I panicked and started kicking to get out from under the boat but it was gone in just a few seconds and I popped up to the surface. The boat was out of sight, but the disaster on the shore was in full swing: buildings burning, palm trees blasted into kindling, another LST aflame from stem to stern alongside the large pontoon pier about a quarter mile away, and a small clutch of natives wandering aimlessly in the dirt streets, the women wailing and the dark-skinned men stupefied.

Directly in front of me was the beach, if you could call that narrow band of black sand a beach. There were five sailors stretched out on the sand in various states of disrepair. The air was filled with the wail of sirens, crackling fires, and the sounds of aircraft buzzing around nearby. Ours, I prayed, and they were. Four Wildcats from Henderson Field were overhead, looking for revenge, but the Jap bombers were long gone on their 500-plus–mile flight back to Rabaul.

Greer. Where was Greer? A shout from behind me answered my question. Greer was fifty feet off the shoreline, trying to tow the surgical trunk as he did a sidestroke. It was barely afloat but those kapoks had done their job. I swam out to meet him and help him with the trunk. The harbor on Tulagi was on the backside of the island with respect to Guadalcanal across the strait, so the waters here were flat calm.

“Miller make it?” he asked as we huffed and puffed our way onto the black beach.

“I don’t know,” I said. “He clutched up and I had to push him out of that compartment. If he could swim, he should be okay.”

Two jeeps slammed to a stop at the shore. One of them produced a Navy captain in wet, sun-bleached khakis who was wearing a pith helmet. He was a big guy, round-faced, redheaded, and with an impressive beard. As Greer and I struggled to pull the trunk up onto the steeply sloping sand, he asked if one of us was the doctor. I raised my hand.

“Thank God,” he said. “I’m Dutch VanPiet, CO Tulagi. We need you now. You hurt?”

“No, sir,” I replied. “I’m wet, scared, shocked, and pissed off, but no, I’m not hurt.”

He grinned. “Join the crowd,” he said, but then his face sobered. “We had a medical tent, red crosses and all, but the pig-fucking Goddamned Japs machine gunned it. I—”

He was interrupted by a thunderous blast as that burning LST over in the harbor blew up. The ship virtually disappeared in a 300-foot-wide churning column of fire, smoke, and things. To my astonishment, the captain and the people who’d come with him all sprinted past me and into the water. VanPiet grabbed my shoulder as he went by and pulled me in with him, as one of the white hats grabbed Greer and pushed him underwater.

“Down, down!” VanPiet shouted before submerging. “Deep as you can go!”

After grabbing a deep breath, I did what he said, clawing for the bottom and wondering why. Then large, heavy objects began landing in the water, some of them smacking the surface with a sound like a lash, others slicing down into the clear water like glittering butcher knives and burying themselves in the bottom muck. This seemed to go on for an hour but it was probably more like thirty seconds. I finally popped to the surface, gasping along with the others. The shore was littered with various debris: gray pieces of the ship’s hull, unexploded artillery shells, the carcasses of vehicles still in their shipment wraps, and lots of body parts. Captain VanPiet dog-paddled over to me.

“Welcome to beautiful downtown Tulagi,” he said. “It’s usually not this noisy on a Sunday.”

I just stared at him. He grinned back at me, but it was the savage, hollow-eyed grin of a man who was on the edge of losing it. I knew just how he felt.

 

Copyright © 2020 P. T. Deutermann.

 

See Also: Excerpt of The Iceman by P. T. Deutermann


About The Hooligans by P. T. Deutermann:

The Hooligans fictionalizes the little-known but remarkable exploits of “The Hooligan Navy” that fought in the Pacific theatre of World War II. Loosely-organized in fast-moving squadrons, PT (patrol torpedo) boats were the pesky nemesis of the formidable Japanese navy, dubbed “the mosquito fleet” and “devil boats” for their daring raids against warships, tankers, and transport ships.

After the Pearl Harbor raid plunges America into war, young surgical resident Lincoln Anderson enlists in the Navy medical corps. His first deployment comes in August 1942 at Guadalcanal, when after a brutal sea battle and the landing of Marines on the island, Anderson finds himself triaging hundreds of casualties under relentless Japanese air and land attacks.

But with the navy short of doctors, soon Anderson is transferred to serve aboard a PT boat. From Guadalcanal to the Solomon Islands to the climactic, tide-turning battle of Leyte Gulf, Anderson and the crew members of his boat confront submarines and surface ships, are attacked from air by the dreaded Kawanishi flying boats, and hunted by destroyers. In the end, Anderson must lead a division of boats in a seemingly-impossible mission against a Japanese battleship formation—and learn the true nature of his character.

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