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Chapter 1

CV Ticonderoga -Flag- TF.38.3

Ziggy Sprague signed off and place the handset in its overhead cradle. So it wasn’t over yet, he thought. Some son-of-a-bitch wanted to carry on the fight. First Babe Brown gets mixed up in a surface action and loses ships without ever setting eyes on the enemy. Now this. I send five Hellcats up to have a look around and not one comes back. Sprague turned to the ship’s Captain, William Sinton, where he was standing by the flag plot.

“Looks like we hit the bottle a little early,” said Sprague. The celebration on the news of Japan’s unconditional surrender the previous evening was apparently premature.

“Admiral?” Captain Sinton had just returned to the bridge and was checking the positions and status of other units in the task group as TF.38.3 steamed north off Hokkaido. He had been with the ship six months after relieving Captain Dixie Kiefer, who had been seriously wounded by a Japanese kamikaze attack in January. Two planes hit the ship and caused serious harm, one on the flight deck and a second right on the superstructure of the island. Ticonderoga had to steam all the way home to Puget Sound after that and, when the repair job was finished, the lines of her “measure 33 dazzle scheme” camouflage had been painted over with new slate gray. Yet even without her old war paint or skipper, “Big T” was still a hard fighting ship.

Captain Sinton worked into his new position well enough, bright, competent, and eager to please. But with an Admiral on board you never quite warm the seat in a command position. Sprague was an old salt, with as much raw experience as any man in the fleet, and Sinton admired him greatly, though he did tend to feel he was always walking in his shadow.

“We lost Redeye One,” Sprague said flatly.
“The whole flight?”
“Sounds that way. I was just on the TBS with Mulholland on the Benner.” He was referring to the “Talk Between Ship” radio system in use late in the war. “Five planes, five missing. That’s lousy math any way we look at it, Captain. So now we put some real iron in the sky and get up there and see about this business.”

“You figure the Japs are still fighting, Admiral?”
“Someone is, and on this watch I do the fighting.”
“Scuttlebutt says the Russians might be involved.”
“Yeah, I heard that too. Well, I don’t care if it’s the Russians or the Japanese. We’re going north in force and if we have to knock a few heads together, so be it. Would you get down to Flight One and Brief Ingalls and Kanaga on this?”
“Of course, sir….But what are we looking for, Admiral?”

“Anything with a rising sun painted on it. You see any meatballs—they get the deep six, no questions asked. As for the Russians, that’s a different matter. Word is they’re involved in amphibious operations up in the Kuriles, but Halsey thinks they’re getting pushy over Hokkaido. We don’t want Russian troops of any sort on the main Japanese islands. That’s official, so that’s the line on this one, Captain. If we see evidence the Russians are planning such a landing we let them know, in no uncertain terms, that it will be opposed by the United States Navy.”

Sinton raised an eyebrow at that. “I hear Patton was spitting tacks and ready to go after the Russians in Germany a while back,” he said. “Now here we are facing them down over Japan. It seems to me we could send this message via radio.”

Sprague nodded. “Something tells me we’re going to be holding the line in both places for a good long while, Mister Sinton, and it starts right here. This is my watch, and I intend to lay down the law. If we can do it on the radio, well and good. If not, I want Helldivers and Avengers in the air, and well escorted. Coordinate this operation with Wasp as well. No fooling around this time. Have the flight crews ready in thirty minutes.”

“I understand, sir, but what exactly are the rules of engagement here?”

“Get up there and find out who put five of my planes and airmen in the deep blue sea. Cover any search and rescue operation being mounted by Benner and Sutherland. If we find as much as a Japanese fishing boat out there, it goes down. If we find Russians, then here’s your rules of engagement—just one—they either back off or we come in shooting. We order them to do a 360 and stay 20 miles off the coast of Hokkaido at all times. Any ship that crosses the line will be presumed hostile and engaged. End of story.”

The Fighting 87th was the air wing assigned to Ticonderoga, comprised of four squadrons: two fighter squadrons, one dive bomber and one torpedo squadron, eighty-six planes in all. Lt. Commander Chuck Ingalls was already hopping mad after the news that he had lost five planes and airmen before noon that day. All the planes were from VF-87, F-6F5 Hellcats on a simple recon operation up north. That left him with 24 more planes, and 12 reserve in VBF-87. He was told to have 18 ready to go within the hour, half his total fighter force. Ingalls men would be escorting Helldivers, the business end of Ticonderoga’s air wing that day, with all of thirty two dive bombers reporting ready for action. There would also be a dozen TBM-3 Avengers from VT-87.

The dive bombers of VB-87 were the first to get the word whenever the ship wanted to flex some muscle. The squadron had been busy in recent days, and was ready for action. In previous weeks they had flown strikes against the surviving Imperial Japanese Fleet units at Kure on July 24 and 28, and then bombed factories near Tokyo. When “Big T” led the task force north in August the squadron hit targets at Aomori and Ominato, their final strike being mounted just a few days ago against the Yokohama docks on the 13th.

One lucky pilot, Lt. JG Everett Wheeler, received the Navy Cross for gallantry in the face of intense anti-aircraft fire, holding steady to put a 1000 pound bomb right smack on the forward deck of the Japanese heavy cruiser Tone, another ship with lines of fate deeply entangled in this strange new twist of history’s rope. The dour Captain Iwabuchi was not present when Tone was finally put out of action. He had already slit his belly open in the last awful hours of the massacre in Manila, refusing to surrender to the bitter end.

After a taste of the bubbly, the pilots of the 87th thought they would be on Easy Street for a while until word came down to assemble in the briefing room for yet another mission. Lt. Vern Higman was already seated and ready for the briefing as a number of other pilots reported in. His wing mate, Wendell Stevens spied him in his old favorite chair and was quick to his side.

“What do you make of this one Higgs,” said Stevens. “Word is the Russkies are mixed up in this brawl now.”
“Russians? They’re a little late to the party, I’d say.”

“Me too, but that’s what I heard in the radio room. That recon flight thought they were overflying three Russian ships in the Kuriles up north. They made one pass, then came round a second time for the photo run and bam, one of those bastards lit up Billy Watts and he went right into the drink. Flight leader was so pissed he swung round for a strafing run, but that was the last they heard from any of them.”

Higman didn’t like the sound of that. The Hellcat was a fast, reliable and sturdy workhorse that could take a good deal of punishment and still come home in one piece. To lose five like that was reason for raised eyebrows, but he said nothing, arms folded on his chest as he watched the other pilots finding seats. He still remembered that harrowing day when a Japanese ship put a 4 inch shell right through his wing and fuselage near the canopy. His baby, “Round Trip Ticket” had a hard ride home after that, but the plane lived up to its name and brought him safely back to his carrier.

Now Stevens had more to say.
“Heard something else, Higgs,” he always called Higman that, and the other man instinctively leaned his head to one side as Stevens lowered his voice.
“More scuttlebutt, or was this from the radio room intercepts?”
“This stuff was right in the clear! The pilots on those Hellcats said something about rockets before they went down.”
“Damn right. How you figure it? I mean, we use ‘em ourselves. Old Holy Moses packs quite a punch.” He was referring to the HVAR, or High Velocity Aircraft Rocket, a 5 inch (127mm) weapon that was unguided, but could penetrate four feet of reinforced concrete.
“Yeah, but I’ve never heard much about ships using the damn things,” said Higman.
“Brits use ‘em. They’ve got a thing they call the Three Stooges, or something like that. I hear they named ‘em Curley, Larry and Moe.”

“They call it the Stooge,” Higman corrected him. “Probably because you have to be stupid to use the damn things. I saw one once on one of their carriers a while back when I had to land there. The Brits tried those out on the Kamikazes, but they only had six, or so I heard. You can’t do a whole hell of a lot with six rockets, and good luck hitting anything with those anyway. Ask me and I’d just as soon stick with my MGs and a good 1000 pound bomb.”

“Tried and true,” said Stevens, yet he was still thinking about those rockets, and wondering what it would be like to get a couple Tiny Tims under his wings. They were much bigger than the HVAR rockets, and hit much harder. Before he could say anything else Lt. Commander Ingalls called the briefing to order and laid it out, plain and simple.

“Alright, listen up,” he began. “Somebody took down Billy Watts and Tom Haley’s group. Bushwhacked the whole bunch on a photo run. You find me a Jap ship still floating and I’ll believe it was Tojo trying to paddle his way north out of harm’s way. So we think this might have been a group of Russian ships. The damn commies are getting a little too big for their britches, so we’re going up to say hello and let them know who’s running the show around here.”

This received an enthusiastic murmur in response, and Ingalls nodded his considered approval. “Alright,” he continued. “These ships were flying a white naval ensign with a blue letter X across the whole field. Someone says that could be Russian Navy, at least on the colors, but we’ll see soon enough.”

“Yeah, soon enough, LTC,” Stevens piped up. “We get rockets this time out, or do we just sink ‘em like Higgs says here and use the old dead lead.”

“Use whatever they put on your plane, Stevens, but nobody drops an egg on these ships unless I give the say so. We’re to find them, and then I’ll do the talking from that point on.”
“What if they give you some lip, LTC? Russkies speak English these days?”
“If I can’t raise them on radio we’ll show them the whole damn formation and see if they feel like taking any more sucker punches like that. If they get stupid, I’ve got authorization to plaster them.”

More murmurs, all happily raring to go. “And one other thing,” said Ingalls. “Benner and Sutherland are heading north to look for our downed pilots, which is another reason nobody needs to get trigger happy unless I give the word. They’re watching these ships on radar, and we’ll handle the rest. Now, suit up and be up on the flight deck in twenty flat. Dismissed.”

Stevens was excited and ready to go. After all, he thought, this may be the last chance he would get to plaster somebody with anything. But he was about to learn more about rockets than he ever wanted to know.

* * *

Far to the north US destroyer pickets Benner and Sutherland had joined up and were steaming together towards the site of the action. It was their intention to get in and rescue their downed pilots in the water before the sharks or the cold finished them off. If need be they could also find and shadow the ships the US Navy wanted to hold responsible for the incident. Each destroyer was fast at 35 knots, and packed six 5 inch guns along with a set of five torpedo tubes on one side of the ship with 533mm fish. The other five tube mount had been removed for electronic and radar equipment to give Benner and Sutherland better eyes. Commander John Mulholland, the squadron leader on Benner, figured he still had enough punch to move in close and get the contact in his field glasses for a good long look. He had heard the order from Ziggy Sprague, “steady as you go,” and he knew the whole of TF.38.3 was right behind him.
Sprague was as tough a fighting Admiral as anyone, he thought. He knew that the four carriers in the main body would most likely have planes up within the hour, riding his locator beacon signal north. A man like Ziggy Sprague at your back did a lot to bolster confidence. And behind Sprague there was another fighting admiral out there in Bull Halsey. He commanded Vice Admiral McCain’s TF 38.1, Ballentine’s 38.2, and Radford’s 38.4, all mustering for the surrender ceremony being planned in Sagami Bay off Tokyo. In all there were four fast carrier task forces in theater, and the British would throw in another with their TF.37. It was more naval power than the world would ever see amassed in one location like this, and intended to make the strongest possible show of force when the fleet anchored off Tokyo.

This is what we have left after we put your whole damn navy on the bottom of the sea, thought Mulholland as he spoke inwardly to the Japanese. So if the Russians want to play now, they had better realize just what they’re dealing with.

* * *

The problem was—neither Mulholland, nor Sprague, nor Halsey himself had any real idea what they were dealing with. One man had a strong suspicion that day, and he was already on a plane heading for the USS Independence, steaming just a few hundred yards off the starboard bow of “Mighty Mo,” the Fleet Flagship, BB Missouri.

His name was Admiral Bruce Fraser, and he had made an urgent call to see Halsey right away. As soon as the plane landed Fraser was piped aboard with all due ceremony, but he waved off the welcoming committee and wasted no time getting into a launch to take the short ride over to Missouri.

Halsey was watching him come across from the weather deck off the bridge, and had a welcoming committee of his own down on the lower deck in dress whites to receive him. Fraser had been there just a few days ago to deliver the thanks of his grateful nation to Halsey in the form of an official pronouncement admitting the Admiral to a very exclusive order. He was now officially a Knight of the British Empire.

Something tells me that Sir Bruce isn’t here for tea and company with a fellow Knight, thought Halsey as he watched. Fraser was a fighting Admiral too. He had fought in the Med and then went after the Germans again 1943 when he put the battlecruiser Scharnhorst at the bottom of the sea to finally avenge the loss of his old command, HMS Glorious, which met her end under the guns of that same German ship.

So what’s on Fraser’s mind, Halsey wondered? It probably has something to do with the Russians, and he had the distinct feeling that the British Admiral was bringing him bad news.

He was correct.

Ziggy Sprague-2
capt-Wil Sinton-Ticonderoga

Captain, William Sinton, USS Ticonderoga

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