Trial by Fire by P. T. Deutermann: New Excerpt

Based on a true story—P. T. Deutermann's Trial by Fire is a dramatic WWII novel of attack, survival, and triumph on board an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Read an excerpt below!



MARCH 1945

It was pleasantly cold at a makeshift airstrip ten miles out of the port city of Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu, Japan. There was a high overcast and the nearby mountains had a dusting of Spring snow on their flanks. Six Yokosuka D4Y carrier dive bombers were lined up in front of the hangars, which had been disguised to look like a row of farm storage sheds. Their engines were turning over, almost reluctantly, with individual cylinders popping and banging in the clear morning air. A small team of maintenance men clustered around one of the bombers, trying to fix some problem with its engine, while the pilots stood around, smoking cigarettes and trying to look bored.

Arakatsu Kitigama, a commander in the Imperial Japanese Navy, stood waiting outside of his plane’s rustic “hangar.” He hoped that whatever was wrong with that plane could be fixed with a work-around that would not require parts. There were no repair parts here; there weren’t many at the regular airfields, either. Arakatsu stood alone and aloof from the cluster of waiting pilots, who were clearly wary of him. By naval aviation standards he was an old man at thirty-three. Old and grizzled, in the eyes of the absurdly young pilots waiting to clamber up into their planes. He’d apprenticed as an aviation gunner in China and Manchuria in the late thirties, gone to flight school, then flown in the battles of Midway, the Coral Sea, the Solomons, and the Philippine Sea. And now he was here, suited up to launch one more time, not from a mighty aircraft carrier of the Kido Butai, but from a dirt road that lay between two fields stinking of night-soil, fetid paddy water, and buffalo dung. For one weak moment he could visualize the faces of his many fellow naval aviators, now asleep in the icy caverns of the deep Pacific. After years of war. And for what, he asked himself.

He knew that he was now destined to witness the utterly dishonorable end to the Army’s Great Folly—starting a war with America. Sheepishly, he remembered celebrating Admiral Isoruko Yamamoto’s brilliant and supposedly decisive strike against the sleeping American battle fleet in Hawaii, right along with the rest of the nation. Little did any of them know what kind of sleeping dragon that attack had awakened. His last fleet assignment had been as a carrier dive-bomber squadron commander flying from the carrier Shokaku, which now lay four miles down in the Philippine Sea, along with 1,200 of his shipmates, the victim of an American submarine.

Like all too many of Japan’s surviving naval air warriors, Arakatsu had nothing left to go home to. He still hadn’t totally recovered from the news that his wife and three teenaged children had been incinerated in the firestorm that followed a massive B-29 air raid on Tokio days ago. He’d also lost all of his venerable relatives as well as the family compound. An officer who’d seen the aftermath said there was nothing left but block after block of ashes. The hundreds of small drainage canals, which threaded through many of the city’s neighborhoods, were now filled with so many black lumps—people who’d fled to the nearest water and then died once the firestorm had consumed the houses and then boiled the water in the canals—that one could no longer see the water.

His heart was filled with a leaden sadness. The rumors were that 83,000 Tokio residents had perished, although the official news outlets were glossing over the scale of the attack. As usual. The ashes of his entire family were now dust particles in the wind over Tokio Bay. Soon he, too, would be just a memory. Death in battle was inevitable as it was acceptable. His only regret was that there would be no one to remember him now. Otherwise his mind was devoid of emotion. Dai Nippon was doomed. When it was finally over, however and whenever that came to pass, life in Japan would not be worth living. The shame alone would demand the self-immolation of any man with even an ounce of pride. So: if ever there had been a day to die, today was the day. If nothing else, he might soon be reunited with his family, whom he hadn’t seen for over a year. For one sad moment he wondered what they would all look like, drifting in the afterlife. If there even was one.

“Arakatsu san,” a young voice called. “It is time.”

“Assemble the flight,” he ordered.

The young sailor bowed and ran to get the other pilots, who trotted over, lined up, and bowed simultaneously. Arakatsu nodded imperiously at them, noting that it was going to be a five-plane flight, not six, after all. Not a one of them appeared to be over sixteen years old.

“Pay attention,” he barked. “The mission today is to bomb carriers. Not battleships, not cruisers, not destroyers, or anything else. Carriers. You have each been armed with a single two-hundred-and-fifty-kilo semi-armor-piercing bomb. If the carrier is moving, you must aim for where she will be when the bomb arrives, not where she is when you begin your dive.

“The American fleet is huge. There are many carriers. There are dozens of escorts. They are all only about one hundred sixty kilometers away. They have established a circular air defense, a series of concentric rings around their fleet, with fighters stationed in the rings at all times. All their ships have radar; even some of their fighters have radar, so they can see us, even at night. Therefore we must approach them at just above sea level, not from the usual attack altitude. If there are low clouds, we must stay in them until the last moment.

“This is not a kamikaze mission. This is a bombing mission. Once you drop your bomb, flee. Your airplane is the fastest warplane in the Pacific. Get back up into the low clouds, head west, and go fast. And stay low. We need you to get back. Do you know why?”

There were polite if nervous looks from the four remaining pilots.

“Because,” he said with a frosty smile. “If you get back, you will have the great honor to go out again tomorrow.”

He let that grim news sink in, then continued. “Once we take off, follow me to the enemy. I will tell you when to break the formation, and then you will be on your own. Drop from the cloud, see an aircraft carrier, and bomb it. It could not be simpler. Do you understand?”

Four emphatic nods.

“Man your planes. Good hunting.”

Forty-five minutes after launching, the five planes, tucked into a tight line formation at 1,200 feet, crossed beneath the American fleet’s outer defensive combat air patrol ring. It was early morning and the low gray clouds offshore offered perfect cover for what they were trying to do. There were occasional breaks through which they could see the cold Pacific below, where a formation of perfectly parallel white wavetops marched soundlessly across the sea. They’d flown southeast on a dead-reckoning magnetic course and now should be within ten or twenty miles of the enemy’s carriers.

Arakatsu had decided to disperse the formation and break out of the clouds when the first American anti-aircraft shells began to pop up around them. Even at their low altitude, that many ships with radars meant that at least one if not more of the escorts would soon detect the raid and start shooting. It also would mean that they were very near their as yet invisible targets. Normally he would have had a gunner in the backseat to keep lookout, but there were no longer enough backseat gunners to go around. Just as well; he knew he wasn’t coming back today.

A loud clanging noise compressed his ears as a five-inch round exploded nearby, followed closely by three more. Fragments from the shells pinged off his fuselage. He never saw the airbursts, just like the ships shooting at him never saw him—so this had to be radar-directed fire. It was time.

“Get in on them,” he yelled over the radio. “Get in, get in, get in!”

Then he pulled back on his stick to clear their little formation, not wanting to collide with his inexperienced little division as they scattered and went down, seeking glory. He banked hard right and then dove down to get clear of the cloud bank, bursting into a slate-gray sky—which was filled with an astonishing number of airplanes. They were everywhere, swirling in seeming chaos above at least five carriers.

Hai!” he shouted with joy. The carriers were launching. He’d caught them in the middle of a launch cycle! Confined to a straight course directly into the wind as they cast their venomous progeny into the cold air, they were sitting ducks. He picked one out, an Essex-class by the look of her, ploughing ahead at full speed, spitting bombers and fighters, one after another. More bangs erupted as he swooped lower and made his turn. Bow on. Something hot bit through his canopy windscreen and grazed his right ear. He grinned. You see me now, but I also see you. Prepare to die.

Wait, he thought. I’m not aligned. He shoved his descending bomber into a ninety-degree bank to the left, pulled back on the stick just a bit, and then swiftly leveled back off. His target was now coming straight on, her white centerline perfectly aligned with his bombsight. He reached down and armed his bomb. He heard his bomb-bay doors grinding open.

Lower, but not too low, he told himself as he came in on the carrier, whose image was growing bigger and bigger in his canopy screen. He climbed a few hundred feet to make sure the bomb would hit at a more acute angle and penetrate, not skip across her flight deck. He’d been out on IJN Kaga’s flight deck that terrible day near Midway Island back in 1942, watching their fighters make fish food out of an entire American torpedo bomber squadron when he’d heard the lookouts scream. He’d whirled around, saw the terrified sailors looking up, and raised his gaze just in time to see a 1,000-pound armor-piercing bomb coming down on them. He’d only had time to begin his own scream when that black bomb crunched right through Kaga’s flight deck and exploded down in the hangar deck, tearing her guts out and throwing him into a nearby catwalk.

But now? Now it was time for some imperial revenge, and better yet, an honorable death in battle while killing an entire carrier. There was no better way to go. There was no honor more supreme. He closed his gloved fist around the drop switch and began chanting his funeral dirge, even as he saw the first Corsairs turning his way, their wings ablaze with machine-gun fire. Too late, gaijin bastards, he thought, with an icy grin. This one’s all mine.


Copyright © 2021 by P. T. Deutermann. All rights reserved.

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