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."
"True, but what else can we do but find out? If we are shot at, we turn around and run." I turned and looked at the Commander, still slumbering on his chair at the back of the wheel house. I decided to leave him and go down to the holds myself.
Some of the boys in the Naval Infantry squad were trying to fish with long, sharpened, bamboo sticks. An old man was directing two boys barely out of their teens. The rising ground below the keel had brought the fish shoals to the surface, but we hadn't any line to make decent fishing rods. The rest of the fishermen's fellows were huddled under an awning in the aft hold. They refused to mix with the boys from the Naval Construction Company grouped in the forward hold because they were Korean.
The young infantrymen averted my eyes as I passed. Although I was but a reserve officer, and in the auxiliary service at that, a captain of any Japanese vessel was still the lord. It was impolite to talk to a captain unless asking permission first. Respect must always be shown with a bow of the head.
The Naval Infantry companies at this time of dusk in the Pacific war were a mixture of young boys sprinkled with a few old hands - mainly seamen who had lost their ships. They were once a proud service - raised at Kure and Sasebo - but attrition had sapped their vitality. Just as the army, now, were taking the scrapings of the Tokyo streets, these men and boys had the look of defeat in their eyes, the look of too many battles and comrades slaughtered.
There were only two dozen infantry clustered in the aft hold. By contrast, the Naval Construction boys, nearly fifty of them, were crammed into the smaller forward hold where a canvass awning ineffectually struggled to keep out the sea spray washing over the forecastle. They had been evacuated from Truk before the main Combined Fleet base was abandoned. They, too, reflected the horrors of too many bombings, too many comrades blown to pieces before their eyes.
'So this is it?' I thought, looking towards the distant island - Japan's latest aircraft carrier made out of an island too remote to be of any use. The Navy had not the planes to complement it nor the wherewithal to keep it supplied. It was a useless gesture born out of empty defiance of an enemy too numerous and powerful to be defeated.
'So the battleship Yamato had been defeated' - the largest battleship in the world and said to be invincible - sunk by a mere portion of an enemy fleet, but in itself, far larger than the Japanese Combined fleet in 1941. All six of the carriers that had sailed forth so confidently against Hawaii were now sunk - Akagi, Soryu, Kaga, Shokaku, Zuikaku, Hiryu. The remnants of the fleet were now chased around the seas or littered the harbours - bottomed, broken. Yamato - shuttle bombed into submission by planes from 15 American attack carriers - 5 more than the entire Japanese Navy possessed when we started this foolish war.
"Captain?" I turned and a young Korean stood before me - head bowed with respect. "I wish to speak with you," he said.
"Your name, soldier?" I asked.
"Kim," he replied. I nodded for him to ask his question. "Captain. We understand you are from Korea - that you have a Korean wife and family?"
"I do." I wondered where this was going. I looked the young man up and down. There was an intelligence about him that set him apart from most of his fellows. His clothes were bedraggled and full of holes like the rest. None of them had had a uniform issue for over a year. They were all too thin, these boys, having survived on short rations for most of that time. "What of it?"
"The Commander doesn't give us proper food. The Infantry, they can fish, but they give nothing to us. Our rice is mouldy and fit only for pigs," he told me.
"The Commander is the proper person to take your complaints," I replied.
"Of course, Captain, but he doesn't listen to us. We cannot speak to him as we are doing to you. He gets angry and beats us with a stick. All we ask for is proper food so we can work hard."
I peered at him suspiciously. "You are asking for more food only so you can work harder?" I asked, skeptically. "That seems a noble attitude? The Commander would be impressed if you talked in that way to him."
"Yes, Captain, but he doesn't speak Korean."
"Then how does he convey orders?" I asked him, surprised.
"By shouting, Captain, and with his stick. He told us we are his picks and shovels and picks and shovels do not need to be told what to do."
"How do you know that is what he is saying if you cannot understand his words?"
"Captain, I worked for a Japanese family as a gardener back in Seoul. Please don't tell the Commander or he will be angry."
"So he doesn't know you speak Japanese?" I asked, rubbing my jaw.
"It is not a good thing to show too much knowledge."
"Aye," I laughed. "That's true. I will convey your feelings back to the Commander. But, you should know, although I have responsibility for this vessel, I have only limited authority over the passengers."
"But, Captain, they say you are a hero. They say you were on the flagship Mikasa with the great Admiral Togo when he defeated the Russians at the battle of Tsushima."
"True, but that was 40 years ago. As you can see, I am very much older, although, alas, very little wiser."
"The Captain does himself a disservice," the young Korean replied.
"You think so?" I laughed. I dismissed him and continued to the bow. A crewman was preparing the lead line to take soundings, once the ship had slowed sufficiently for the task. I looked into the water washing around the bow to determine its colour. It had the sure signs of shallow water. "Be diligent, crewman," I said. "It would not be a good thing to run aground this far out." He nodded in agreement. "Ahead of us is a lagoon formed by the crater of a long dead volcano. There is a break - sufficient for a channel - wide enough for the ship to pass through. However, it is hard rock, so if we ground it will rip out our bottom. The lagoon is very deep and we can anchor close to the beach. The jungle comes very close and we must moor as close to it as possible. In such a way, we might avoid detection should any enemy ships come close."
"Why would any enemy ships be out here?" he asked. "Why are we?"
"Good questions," I told the man and left it at that.
It was called Cobb Island by the British, who once administered it from Hong Kong. It lay almost exactly midway between the Northern Marianas and the coast of Southern China, which meant as near nowhere as one could get on planet Earth. There had been limited gem mining on the island late last century but the mines had played out. Then there was a little phosphate mining until an eccentric Englishman had tried to create a banana plantation there in the 1920s. That had not lasted and the place had been uninhabited ever since. In the build up to the Pacific war, Navy scout planes had performed a thorough survey of Cobb, but the Combined fleet headquarters had determined there was little of value there for occupation. Since then, it was nothing but a fly spot on the chart set in a vast field of blue.
We duly squeezed through the narrow channel and anchored as close to the beach as we could. There was a small beach, but the sea floor then fell away quite dramatically several metres from the water's edge. The Commander duly appeared, dressed resplendently in his only presentable jacket, khaki shorts and military boots. On his head he wore his officer's cap and around his waist was a sword he carried on a long sash.
He strode emphatically on to the forecastle and stood for a moment surveying his objective. He then turned to the infantry patiently waiting by the aft hold and waved his arm. Two crew then began to winch the long boat into the water and the infantry watched its progress in a line along the rail.
"It is too small," the Commander yelled to me, accusingly.
"It is the only one we have," I told him. "You will need to go ashore ten at a time."
"It is not efficient," he grumbled. "What if the enemy is waiting?"
"What would they be waiting for?" I asked. "We are all sitting ducks already." The Commander harrumphed, clearly insulted by the remark. He turned to his men and began to bully them into some kind of organisation. After deciding who would go first, the infantry piled over the side into the boat, together with their equipment and supplies. Eventually, they put out for the shore, arriving there with a few minutes frantic rowing.
They looked very martial lined up along the beach like targets at a fairground shooting gallery. The Commander strode imperiously up and down waiting for the boat to return with the rest of his troops. A soldier stood out in front carrying the flag - its glaring, red, rising sun on a white field starkly visible for kilometres all around. If the Commander wished a cautious occupation of this island, he hadn't made a prudent start.
Shortly, the rest of the infantry arrived and took their places. The Commander bullied them into some kind of attack formation with threats, waving his sword for emphasis. Eventually, he signaled the charge with an almighty roar and his men immediately attacked the swampy mangroves and thick tropical vines with gusto. There was, though, no easy way inland and they struggled gloriously, hacking away with sword and bayonet like some Kabuki farce, until a way forward could be found. Chief came and stood on the deck alongside.
"You are preparing the boilers?" I asked.
"The boys are dampening the fires. They will be ready for cleaning in 4 hours or so."
"Good," I nodded.
"Can you believe this shit?" Chief said, watching the activity on the beach and shaking his head.
"Don't be too critical. The Commander has his personal problems."
"Has he ever commanded men in battle?" Chief asked.
"No. He is only a Lieutenant Commander, yet has been in the Navy for 30 years," I explained. "He has been passed over for promotion many times. He's watched while his classmates achieved their own commands - some even attained flag rank. The experience must have driven him a little mad."
"Clearly. Is that why he drinks so much whisky?"
"I believe it's likely the source of his disappointment, rather than a symptom of his melancholy. He is from a good family with many connections. Ordinarily, such a man would be discharged from the service, however, his friends salvaged his career by ensuring he had simple administrative responsibilities rather than placing him in a position of command where his inadequacies would be too obvious. I understand he begged his friends for something to do that would allow his family to be proud of him. Either, he would return home with honour, or die a heroic death in the heat of battle."
"And we are all the bit players for this man's glorious moment?"
"Yes. Likely, we weren't expected to reach the island at all. The odds were we would be sunk on the way. The Commander would then be listed as 'killed in action' - an appropriate death for a warrior." I smiled at the irony, which didn't go unnoticed.
I turned and saw the Koreans lining the rail watching the shore. Most wore bemused expressions. The nearest was the fellow called Kim. He was looking at me with an expression of expectation. "Yes?" I nodded for him to speak.
"Captain, do you imagine the Americans will allow us to go home?" he asked.
"Probably," I replied.
"Will they turn us out of our homes? Won't they want the best fields for themselves? Most of us are farmers. We cannot feed our families if they take our fields."
"'Be magnanimous in your victory as you have been tenacious in the achieving of it.' I heard the American President say that on Armed Forces Radio."
"Ah!" he smiled. "That is encouraging."
Chief waited until Kim was out of earshot. Conspiratorially, he leaned in. "Did you really hear the American President say that?"
"He could've done," I smiled.
"And weren't they the words of Admiral Togo? I have often heard you say so."
"He may have said that, too. Truthfully, I was far too drunk to remember what he said - if, indeed, he said anything at all. I woke up as we were laying to the buoy at Kure. My fellows had rolled me under a lifeboat cover to sleep it off."
"Ah! So your friends saved your career as well?" he smiled.
"Let's say, I have some sympathy for the Commander."
After an hour, a soldier came down to the beach to signal the coast was clear for the landing of the Construction Brigade. I watched as the Koreans were ferried to shore and disappeared, one by one, into the interior. At last, I decided to go ashore myself to look over Japan's latest acquisition, and her newest aircraft carrier.
The thick jungle was merely a thin belt of 100 metres or so. Emerging from it, the ground rose steeply to a plateau upon which were growing banana, breadfruit, and some coconut palms. Evidently, they were the remains of the plantation the Englishman had set up. Nestled among these were the ruins of a farmhouse, the roof long since caved in. The Commander had claimed this as his headquarters and the Koreans were hard at work cutting palm leaves to replace the roof.