About the Author
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New Mexico, January 1941.
MY BIG BROTHER JACK AND I walked into the Sprouse Reitz five-and-dime store in Las Vegas, New Mexico and headed straight for the toiletries section. After a quick check of the displayed items, Jack found a clerk and asked for help. "We can't find any white wash cloths."
The young man, probably in his late twenties, turned out to be the store manager. At first his answer was casual: "We don't get many calls for the white ones." Then he turned and fixed us with a knowing look, suddenly interested. "It sounds like somebody's joining the navy."
I spoke up eagerly, pleased that a stranger was interested in our important plans. "We sure are - we're leaving tomorrow for Albuquerque."
"Well, I guess you've already made up your minds. Are you sure you know what you're getting into?"
My brother and I looked at each other uneasily. Did this guy know something we didn't?
Hawaii, May 1941.
I SAW PEARL HARBOR for the first time from the fantail of heavy cruiser U.S.S. Northampton. Before my eyes lay most of the United States Pacific Fleet's battleships, moored two abreast to a line of nested pilings. We steamed slowly past a dense array of eight dreadnoughts, so close I could identify ranks and ratings of crewmembers on their superstructures and weather decks.
Brisbane, Australia, August 1941
THE FRIENDLY PEOPLE Down Under were worried about Japan and its "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." We reassured our hosts with statesmanlike responses: "Don't worry, cobber, if those little bastards mess with Australia, Uncle Sam will just come down here and kick their asses. Here's to you, mate. Down the hatch!"
Pearl Harbor, December 1941
AS THE MOUNTAINS of Oahu came up over the horizon, we could see towering columns of black smoke. Northampton steamed cautiously into Pearl Harbor, passing one calamity after another. Battleship Row was a shambles. Below the pall of smoke, a sticky layer of spilled fuel oil, several inches thick, fouled the basin of Middle Loch. In long patches clinging to sunken ships the oil was still burning. Whaleboats and motor launches probed among the wrecks in a prolonged, futile search for survivors. Seagoing tugs and fireboats pressed in alongside crippled battleships, shooting high-pressure streams of seawater at stubborn pockets of flame.
Pearl Harbor was wrapped in an ungodly quiet. The routine working noises of a huge naval base were silenced. The ugly black membrane which choked the harbor surface muted nearly all the sounds of salvage efforts. I remember hearing only the burbling underwater exhausts of many small craft as they worked at picking up dead sailors.
I stood on the forecastle, next to Wilson, Yeoman 1/c. He turned to me and said hoarsely, "My God. Fitch, do you realize it'll take YEARS to win this war?" My throat was too dry to answer.
Western Pacific, April 1942.
NORTHAMPTON STEAMED INTO ROUGH SEAS at 30 knots, maintaining position about 3,000 yards from Hornet. We gasped with relief as each B-25 gradually gained speed and altitude. They turned onto the course for Tokyo, 624 miles away, disappearing one by one into the rain. At 0916 the last plane cleared the carrier's pitching flight deck and Task Force 16 reversed course.
Santa Cruz, Coral Sea. October 1942.
ON THAT CLOUDLESS MORNING we fired thousands of rounds at the attacking Jap carrier planes, but they kept coming. The combat air patrol shot down a lot of them, we took care of most of the planes that got past the fighters, enemy "Kate" bombers put two torpedoes into Hornet's starboard side. Within a very short time she was listing sharply and pouring thick black smoke from several serious fires, both signs of a critically injured ship.
Suddenly our own engines shut down. Northampton lost way and then stopped. At first I thought we had been hit and had become another crippled target, but within a few seconds the mainmast quivered with a familiar reassuring vibration. Our screws began turning again, but in reverse rotation. The Old Man was backing down, aiming our stern directly toward the bow of the disabled carrier. We were going to Hornet's aid.
Guadalcanal, December 1942.
AS WE LAY SWEATING IN A HOSPITAL TENT on Tulagi, we heard more bad news. Other survivors confirmed a terrible beating suffered by Task Force 67 in the previous night's battle: "Long Lance" torpedoes sheared off the bows of heavy cruisers Minneapolis and New Orleans, blew out Pensacola's after engine room, and gutted Northampton.
Okinawa, June 1945.
WILLARD KEITH WAS A VERY LUCKY SHIP, because the kamikazes spared nothing. One of them crashed into the plainly-marked hospital ship U.S.S. Comfort (AH 6) and killed all hands in both operating rooms, including patients, surgeons, and six young Army nurses who had volunteered for hazardous duty.
Sasebo, Japan, April 1946.
THE CAPTIVE SUBMARINES STOPPED when they reached deep water, a few miles offshore. U.S.S. Chicago and the other escorts circled the condemned warships at slow speed. The American boarding parties set their timers. Small craft quickly took all hands off the submarines and withdrew. At 1230 the demolition charges began exploding. Within a few minutes an entire class of submarines we destroyed that day was I-58, the one which sank our heavy cruiser Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea, 17 days before the end of the war, killing 883 American sailors. For me, Operation Road's End was the exclamation point at the end of a long story. YES! By God, we won the war.
San Francisco, May 1946.
I WAS GLAD our destination was not San Diego, San Pedro or Bremerton. For me and many other sailors of the U.S. Navy, the Golden Gate Bridge was the West Coast's Statue of Liberty - our sentimental symbol for home, the boundary-marker for that idealized place we called Stateside.