“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.”
Mark Twain, (Samuel Clemens) (1835 – 1910)
Macie Vance assumed she was being challenged by the Shore Patrol but then recognized the deep baritone voice of Derek Edson. She was surprised and strangely delighted as she turned to face him.
“It is you,” he smiled broadly. “I’m so glad to see you here.” She reached to shake hands but instead of shaking hands, Derek held out his left hand and simply held her hand motionless. She automatically glanced down toward his right hand hanging by his side and was disturbed by what she saw. Derek didn’t notice. He was avoiding her eyes, still that shy boy she met at the boarding house a few weeks ago.
“Hi, Derek,” she answered weakly. “What a surprise to see you, too.” She stumbled for words. “I came to check out the place so I could find my way tomorrow.” She looked up and around and swept her arm in an arc. “It’s huge.”
“It certainly is, “ he replied.
“I was just on my way back.”
“So was I. I’ll walk with you.”
“What are you doing here?” Macie asked. “I thought you were out recruiting.”
“All done with that,” he answered. “Back to my regular day job now.”
They walked toward the gate together. She sensed by his silence that he was also nervous. After a long minute he spoke. “So, you were looking at the carriers?”
“They’re amazing,” she answered. “I wandered over to the docks and saw those great big ships being built. It’s so fantastic and exciting.”
“We need those carriers badly,” he volunteered. “We lost one in the Coral Sea last month and another at Midway just a few weeks ago,” he whispered.
“Really? How do you know that?”
The newsreels were just showing accounts of the Battle of the Coral Sea but not that America lost an aircraft carrier and the censored accounts of the Battle of Midway, while claiming a great victory, were still shrouded in the utmost secrecy.
“Scuttlebutt,” he answered.
She responded with a confused look on her face.
“I still have friends in the navy and they pass along the rumors to me. That’s what they call rumors in the navy,” he answered.
Macie nodded. She understood the concept of gossip all too well. “Is the… uh…scuttlebutt accurate?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he answered. “We lost the Lexington at Coral Sea and the Yorktown at Midway. They need to be replaced. These ships behind us are pretty far along in construction. One of them will be launched next month. They’re desperately needed to replace those losses.”
Macie nodded again. “So we have our work cut out for us. Right?”
Macie seemed genuinely interested so he just kept explaining. “These are all Essex-class fast-carriers, the most modern in the fleet. They displace twenty-seven thousand tons, can carry almost ninety planes and get up to nearly thirty-three knots.”
“Displace? Knots?” she smiled back at him. “I’m sorry?”
“No, I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I can get a bit carried away. These are terms you’ll learn in time. But for now, just know they are big and fast and powerful.” She nodded at the explanation and Derek continued. “The one almost done is named Essex, CV-9. That keel was laid down…uh…she was started…last April. She’ll be launched next month, like I said.”
“Then off to war?” Macie asked. She hoped she was not asking stupid questions.
“Not right away,” he answered. “There’s some more work to do once she’s afloat to complete the construction. Then there are sea trials to make sure everything is ship-shape and some training cruises to work up the crew. Hopefully, she’ll be commissioned by the end of the year. Then off to war.”
“What about the other two?” she asked.
“The Intrepid and the Bon Homme Richard,” he answered. “They were both laid down this past December. Hopefully we can get them launched in something between a year and fifteen months.” Derek shook his head slightly as if in contemplation. “The problem is labor. Not just here but all over and not just numbers but skills. With most of the able bodied young men going into the services, we’re left with older men, military rejects and women. And they all have to be trained.”
“Well, thank the good Lord for the women,” Macie quipped good-naturedly.
“I didn’t mean it that way, Macie,” Derek stammered. “It’s just that it used to take three years to build an aircraft carrier and now we have to figure out how to do it in a year. It won’t be easy but we just can’t take three years to build a carrier any longer.” He paused. “I’m afraid I’m boring you with all this ship talk,” he finally said.
“Not at all,” she sighed. “I have a lot to learn. It’s my job now, too.”
“Well okay,” he smiled nervously. “My team is working on the Bon Homme Richard but I doubt she’ll keep that name.”
“Why?” Macie asked.
Derek glanced around to make sure no one was within earshot before he answered. “We just lost two carriers. The scuttlebutt is the carrier about to be launched from the Bethlehem Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts, will be renamed the Lexington, as sort of a memorial. I have it on good authority and also a strong feeling that my ship will be renamed the Yorktown.”
“Maybe I’ll get to work on the… Yorktown, too,” she smiled.
“You never know,” he smiled back hopefully.
The thoroughfare was lightly traveled between shift changes and only a few workers were walking to and from the gate. Macie grabbed for her arms as a crisp breeze blew by and sent a chill through her body. Derek noticed and immediately took off his jacket. She fought off the impulse to touch his hand as he placed his jacket over her shoulders. He saw her eyes focus quickly on his right hand and then look away.
“I’m one of those military rejects I spoke of.” He held up his right arm so she could more clearly see the prosthesis on his hand. It was actually more of a flesh-colored glove. The thumb and first two fingers were his but the ring and pinky fingers belonged to the prosthesis. The apparatus was both awkward and ugly. “Compliments of the Japanese Imperial Navy.”
“You were at Pearl Harbor?” she asked, astonished.
“Yes, I was.”
“What happened to you?”
Derek hesitated. He hadn’t spoken about what happened to him to anyone since he left the navy. Macie appeared to be a good listener and he was still trying to impress her, so he answered.
“I was a Machinist Mate aboard the seaplane tender USS Tangier. We were docked on the northwest side of Ford Island, the Pearl City side, at berth F-10. The target ship Utah was moored stern-to-stern with us. She was a big one, used to be a battleship but at the time she was a training ship. The newer battleships on Battleship Row were anchored on the other side of Ford Island. I was on my way to the mess hall for Sunday breakfast when General quarters sounded. I went right to my battle station, a fifty caliber anti-aircraft machine gun on the port quarter. If it wasn’t for our captain…God bless him.” Derek paused to gather his thoughts. The memories gripped him for a moment. Macie was captivated; afraid he would stop telling the story.
“What about the captain?”
“Well, the word came down that an Admiral’s Inspection of all ships was to start on Monday. Captains were ordered to stow all the ammo from the ready boxes on all the deck guns, to below decks, in order to keep the gun tubs as neat as possible. They were also ordered to open up all bulkheads and watertight doors to air out the watertight compartments.” Derek shook his head in disgust. “Imagine that? How many lives did we lose for a stupid inspection?” It was a rhetorical question. He continued. “Anyhow, our captain didn’t buy any of that crap. He was a salty, tough son-of-a-gun and he ordered the gunners mates to keep our ammo with the guns. Because of that, and only because of that, we were the first ship in the fleet to open fire at the enemy planes.”
“It must have been terrible,” she prompted him again.
“It truly was. The Tangier is not a fighting ship but she fought like a lion that day. The Japanese sent three torpedoes into the Utah and she turned turtle. They bombed and torpedoed the ships on Battleship Row at will. They strafed and bombed the airplane hangars on Ford Island. They pretty much attacked wherever they wanted. Our ship was covered in smoke for most of the morning because other ships and the oil on the water were burning. The Tangier was undamaged, never took a hit. We were like a kid in a dark closet, peeking out but no one could see in. All of our guns were blazing away. The lowly seaplane tender taking on all those damned Jap planes. They never found us and they never hurt us. Then, after about forty-five minutes their planes just flew away.”
“Was it over?” she asked.
“No, there was another wave. But we took advantage of the short lull to put some boats into the water to pick up survivors from the Utah. Then an officer, who knew I was a welder, told me there were men trapped in the Utah, which was capsized. That was some sight, that big ship almost upside down in the water. Anyway the captain wanted someone to go help them out so I took my acetylene torch and tanks over there and started banging on the hull. When I heard the banging back, I cut a hole. A couple of guys climbed out. I’ll never forget the looks on their faces; sheer panic and pure happiness. But before I could cut any more holes the second wave hit and a bomb blast knocked me down. I slid off the hull into the water. My own guys from the Tangier pulled me out and I started helping them pull out other guys. I wasn’t hurt that bad but I lost all my gear. Funny what you think of at a time like that.” He paused again with a distant look in his eyes, as if he was able to see it all over again. “It was crazy out there in the water. Our ship was firing our three-inch guns at a Jap midget sub that somehow snuck into the harbor. Huge clouds of thick, black smoke billowed from the burning wrecks. Bullets were flying all over. You can hear them cracking past your ears and splashing in the water. I’m pulling this guy out and his skin comes off in my hands. I almost threw up! Everyone was yelling or screaming. Shrapnel was flying all over, singing through the air. Explosions so loud you could hardly hear yourself think. Then this guy yells ‘look at your hand’. I look down and I’m bleeding like a pig and the last two fingers of my right hand are each dangling by a thread. Shrapnel must have sliced right through them. I didn’t even feel a thing. So I tore my shirt and wrapped my hand to stop the bleeding. When we got back to the ship I was sent to sick bay and they cut off the fingers.” He paused. By one in the afternoon it was all over. The navy doctor’s treated my wounds, bandaged me up, shipped me out and before I knew it they discharged me from the navy and gave me this to wear.” He picked up his right hand.
“I’m sorry,” was all she could manage. His description of the attack left her breathless.
“It’s okay,” he answered. “I’d rather be out there with my shipmates, but right now I have an important job back here. And they didn’t get any of the carriers. We caught a break there.”
They walked along in silence for a few more minutes. She had the urge to comfort him. They passed through the gate and she returned her pass. As they walked across the road toward the bus stop in silence she turned to him and placed her arm on his shoulder.
“Stop for a second, please.” She bent over slightly and with her free hand slipped a shoe on her foot. He instinctively grabbed her by the shoulders while she put the second shoe on. “Thanks,” she smiled as she steadied herself. “I almost forgot I wasn’t wearing them.”
“My pleasure,” he smiled back.
Macie hoped he didn’t notice her blushing. Derek was handsome but there was something else about him that made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Perhaps it was his boyish shyness or maybe because he had seen so much of the world already. Whatever it was, it confused her.
“Where’s Roxanne?” she asked, changing the subject. “Are you still working together?”
“Oh, no. Roxie resigned. Got a better offer.”
“Were you two…?” She let the question hang in the air.
“Involved? Oh no, certainly not,” he answered. “We’re good friends, but not that way.”
They sat on the bench to wait for the bus and Macie asked, “Where did she go?”
“All these questions,” he smiled at her. “Roxie Rawls has a degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Purdue and is a certified licensed pilot with over six hundred hours.”
“I knew she was smart,” Macie interrupted.
“She certainly is.” Derek agreed. “Roxie went north to Washington D.C. to help her good friend and fellow pilot Nancy Harkness Love establish a ferry service using female pilots. They have to convince the Army Transport Command that the Women’s Auxiliary Flying Service, that’s what they call themselves, can fill the need for more ferry pilots to move planes from factories to air bases. She is lining up twenty-eight outstanding female pilots to start up this new unit once it’s approved. Roxie was one of them and after she helps Nancy seal the deal, will be ferrying all kinds of planes, including combat planes.”
“Wow! They’re actually letting women fly military airplanes.” Macie was impressed.
“I don’t see why not,” answered Derek. “The Brits have been doing that for years with their Air Transport Auxiliary. Besides, Amelia Earhart already paid the price to give women pilots credibility.”
“Well, thank the good Lord for the women,” Macie quipped again.
Derek smiled back at her. “I suppose so.”
A GMC Yellow Coach bus turned the corner and he summoned up some courage. “Do you have a steady guy?”
“Yes, he’s in the army.” She stood up and walked toward the bus as it was pulling in.
“Serious?” he called out over the noise of the bus engine.
She wasn’t sure if he heard the answer as she stepped onto the bus. Between the clamor of the motor and the swish of the pneumatic bus doors opening and closing, she could not be sure if he heard her mutter, “I hope so.”