I turned towards the back bulkhead of the wheelhouse. The paint was flaking with age and streaked with rust. Above, the clock reminded me it was nearly noon and the aromas from the galley below slowly permeated through the ship. The Commander sat by the wireless on a cane chair - lashed to a shackle so he didn't slide around in heavy seas. The engine was a faint pulse echoed by barely perceptible vibrations through the deck.
'Our heroic forces have thrown back the enemy, ' the studiously correct voice of Tokyo Radio asserted.
'So many victories, ' I remembered thinking. 'Why are we still fighting? Why isn't our army now marching on the White House?' The answer had been obvious to me for over 2 years now. Nevertheless, the Commander grinned alcoholically at each report of a crushing victory. He drained the last few dregs in the whisky bottle and sighed with satisfaction.
"Tell me about the Admiral?" the Commander slurred in a voice made rough by booze and tobacco.
I turned back in irritation. The man was persistent and I knew I had little option but to tell him a tale. "He was small," I said, "and impeccably dressed, always."
The Commander made no sign he'd recognised the irony in the remark. The Commander's shirt was open to the waist - stained with sweat and whisky. On his head he wore a coolie hat he'd hastily exchange for an officer's cap each time an enlisted man came to see him. His shorts had faded to a dirty tan and vainly tried to support his belly - bloated and made soft with drink. He was barefoot, but for a pair of wooden slippers he was fond of wearing.
"Ah!" The Commander sighed in wonder. "All great men are short. Napoleon, he was a small man - genius!"
"He was a General, not an Admiral!" I replied, stiffly.
"And what of the battle?" the Commander persisted. This was a tortuous routine and I waited patiently for the moment he would pass out - still sitting, shackled to the bulkhead.
"I remember little. My post was the aft, main, powder magazine. The refrigeration equipment made a lot of noise and I heard little of the outside. Of course, I couldn't see any of it."
"Each time the guns went off above, there was a sound like a clap of thunder. Like a god hitting an immense metal drum."
"Ah! And what of the Admiral?"
"I did not see him during the battle. His post was the wing bridge. He stood there throughout as messengers ran to and fro with his orders. A piece of shrapnel gashed his leg. He did not flinch, so they say. The medics bound it up while he stood, unconcerned."
"Ah! That is why we will succeed. The Westerners cannot understand such spirit."
I shook my head in frustration. Already, the mental energy needed in dealing with the Commander at these times was exhausting me. "In those days, we picked a fight with one enemy at a time. The Russians were fighting far away from home. A fleet is not like an army. The Russian Tsar had the mind of General, not an Admiral - the same as Napoleon. The Army dictates strategy, today. That's why we're in this mess."
"Japan will be victorious!" the Commander shouted, while transfixing me with watery eyes. He fingered the hilt of his sword, as if he was about to charge at me like a samurai warrior.
"Togo san stood like a rock atop the after turret..." I continued. The Commander subsided into his cane chair. "We were all grouped on the quarterdeck - officers in front and we enlisted behind..."
"Ah!" the Commander smiled.
"The Mikasa still had her battle flags hoisted. The paint was blistered on the barrels of the guns. Smoke curled up from a Russian shell that'd hit us amidships. We were all grimy from smoke and the smell of our fear and excitement still clung to our bodies. My friend Kanji looked to the rising sun and told me the new day was displaying the passing of an old empire and the dawning of a new. I told him not to be silly - the sun has risen in the morning the same way since the dawn of time. 'Silence!' bellowed Sub Lieutenant Tachikawa, and pointed at us with his stick.
Togo san read a speech to us. 'Sons of the Imperial Japanese Navy, ' he began. 'May you be as magnanimous in your victory as you have been tenacious in achieving it.'"
"They are the words of a hero!" the Commander nodded, vainly drawing on the now empty bottle.
"He then turned and descended the ladder placed there by his staff. He showed no sign of the wound inflicted during the battle. He must've been in pain, but no-one dared assist him. Rear Admiral Kamimura was there, smiling, grinning and clapping each senior officer on the back."
I turned back towards the Commander. He'd nodded off, snoring loudly and dribbling onto his bare legs. Relieved, I went outside, down the ladder to the engine hatchway. The smell of hot steam caught in my nostrils. The pulsing grow louder and was punctuated with hisses and clanks. Chief looked up as I opened the hatch and motioned for me to come down.
"Tea?" he asked. Chief always offered me tea. He'd poor it into a china cup, wiping the grime off it with his sleeve. He'd then carefully skim the coal dust of the surface with a spoon. With a smile and a slight nod of the head, he considered the liquid fit for the Captain.
"Not far now," I told him.
"Ah. This coal is shit," he told me. "It cokes up the boiler tubes. We will need to scrape the fire boxes."
"Two days?" I asked. He shut one eye, looked upwards and nodded. "Hmm, I think we'll need to wait for the next tide. The chart indicates less than a fathom over the reef."
"Tell me Captain," he said, gravely, sitting on a low workbench. "What do you think of this shit? 'Unsinkable aircraft carrier?' Are they serious?"
I couldn't help but grin ironically. "You know the Combined Fleet," I said. "They must turn every disaster into an achievement. It probably occurred to some young officer the Americans cannot sink an island. Therefore, airfields on islands are to be now classified, 'unsinkable aircraft carriers.' The truth is, Admiral Ozawa has lost the last of our fleet carriers north of the Philippines. Even so, where are the planes to come from and pilots to fly them? They say Ozawa had only 100 planes and few of the pilots had been taught how land back on deck. They were mostly students. None of the old hands were left."
"Tch!" Chief clicked his tongue. "So we make another unsinkable aircraft carrier way out here and hope the Americans sail within range?"
"As you say," I nodded. "Or, in our case, let's hope they have bigger fish elsewhere. We have nothing except rifles. Our unsinkable aircraft carrier has nothing to stop being boarded, nor any speed to run away."
"Nor have we," Chief shuddered. "We have had luck to get so far without being spotted - torpedo, bomb, poof!"
"As I said, the Americans are occupied elsewhere. We are probably too small to waste a torpedo on."
"What happens after? Are we still going home?"
"Yes. Not Sasebo, nor Kure, though. Yokohama is blown to pieces and they say there are so many wrecks in the Inland Sea you can walk from one side to the other and not get your feet wet. We should try and slip up the East coast and find a small port somewhere that hasn't been bombed."
"They say the Yamato is gone?" Chief asked, gravely.
"Yes, and Yahagi, Captain Hara's ship. They were sailing against the American landings on Okinawa. Never got within sight. They say the Americans launched 1000 planes against her. She went down in 2 hours. I heard it all on American Armed Forces Radio."
"You believe it?"
"Above Tokyo Radio," I grinned. "Our broadcasts tell us we have the Americans just where we want them. It was all a well planned move, apparently, to draw their vast fleets within range of our bombers. And just where were all these planes when the Yamato sailed?"
"Kids with hardly any hair on their balls crashing into American ships." Chief shook his head.
"Aye," I agreed. "I always said the Americans would keep coming at us. You remember I said we would need to sink 100 Americans for every one of ours?"
"I remember. I guess we didn't," he shrugged.
"Tell me," Chief looked up, his eyes moist. "What do you think is going to happen after? Will the Americans let me go back home to my nut trees?"
"Why shouldn't they? They will want us to make money for them or else what is the point? Why conquer a country if you can't make any money out of it? It's always been so."
"And you? Will they let you go home to Korea?"
"I don't know," I confessed. "I have lived most of my life in Wonsan. My children consider themselves Korean first, Japanese second. I have never wanted this war. It's unfair we must pay for the military's mistakes, but, I guess, the victors will do whatever they want."
Just then, there was a shrill whistle from the voice tube. The watchman informed me land had been sighted. I hurried back to the bridge. Ahead, I could see a thin, blueish streak. I checked the chart, then scanned the island with my binoculars. "That is the North side," I told the helmsman. "Keep on this bearing until we are three kilometres out. We will need to find the channel and sound it. What is our speed?"
"11 knots, Captain."
"Ring for half ahead in 30 minutes."
"Yes, Captain, ah, Captain?" he asked. "Do you suppose the Americans are there before us?"
"Do you see any shell splashes?"
"Uh, no, but they could be waiting for a better shot."
.... There is more of this story ...