The Commodore - P. T. Deutermann




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