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Vows to the Fallen: O'Toole
By Larry Laswell

The Marathon Watch continues with "Terror" O'Toole
Patrick O’Toole's unspoken oath to his fallen comrades could lead him to the perilous brink of deception and mutiny—
and in the chaos and fire of naval conflict he will be forced to confront hard truths about honor, duty, survival,
And the staggering cost of victory.


Vows to the Fallen

By Larry Laswerll

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the US Navy was ill prepared for war. The senior ranks in the navy were lax, smug, and bureaucratic.
The navy had allowed the senior officer ranks to become bloated and stagnant, thus denying worthy young officers promotion because the senior ranks were overstaffed. Administrators, not warriors, lead the US Navy. Admiral Turner assessed our defeat at Pearl Harbor this way:
The navy was still obsessed with a strong feeling of technical and mental superiority over the enemy. In spite of ample evidence as to enemy capabilities, most of our officers and men despised the enemy and felt themselves sure victors in all encounters under any circumstances. The net result of all this was a fatal lethargy of mind, which induced a confidence without readiness, and a routine acceptance of outworn peacetime standards of conduct. I believe that this psychological factor, as a cause of our defeat, was even more important than the element of surprise.
The navy continued to operate under sloppy peacetime standards until August 9, 1942, when the psychological factors brought on the disastrous defeat at Salvo Island. Admiral Nimitz recognized the problem, fired admirals, and began a relentless campaign to find warriors to lead the navy.
Still, the admirals viewed aircraft carriers as a defensive weapon to protect the battleships and cruisers. With the protection of eight- to sixteen-inch armor plate, these capital ships were viewed as too valuable to stand in harm’s way, so the destroyers became the tip of the naval spear. Destroyers represented eighty-one percent of the US Navy’s ship losses in World War II. After the Pearl Harbor attack, not a single battleship was lost.
Historians refer to the Battle of Leyte Gulf as “The Navy’s Finest Hour” and “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailor.” In that battle, the largest sea battle in history, a handful of destroyers took a stand to protect MacArthur’s Philippine invasion fleet against overwhelming odds. Many destroyers were lost, but they turned back the massive three-pronged Japanese attack. Carrier and land-based aircraft finished the battle by attacking the retreating Japanese fleets. Without the courage, audacity, and sacrifice of those destroyer men, the Japanese would have cut off, killed, or captured thousands of US soldiers and marines on Leyte Island.

Note to the reader

I based the events depicted in this novel on naval archives, eyewitness statements, and personal interviews with survivors.

I reformatted naval messages from the historical record to improve readability and added explanations of code words parenthetically for the reader’s convenience.


August 8, 1942, 2346 hours
USS Green; 45 nautical miles northwest of Red Beach, Guadalcanal
The bare beige steel bulkheads in the Green’s spartan wardroom glowed a milky red from the dim red lighting designed to protect a man’s night vision. Sipping his second cup of coffee, Lieutenant Patrick O’Toole sat alone at the head of the long, narrow table that doubled as a surgical table. In the last forty-two hours he had managed a mere four hours sleep, so the second cup of coffee was not an indulgence; it was a necessity. He chided himself for allowing his pre-invasion nerves to keep him awake last night.
The shore bombardment began at sunrise. The marines hit Red Beach at 0800 hours, and by lunchtime the Jap battalion had fled into the jungle. He had been on tougher training exercises.
Nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, this was his first action, and all he could do was watch from the Green’s bombardment station three miles offshore. If he wanted to make admiral someday, he needed real battle experience, and so far Guadalcanal didn’t rate a Boy Scout merit badge let alone a battle ribbon. He wanted to get in the fight and do his part. He hoped to see action soon, but he feared he wouldn’t measure up—wouldn’t be an adequate officer—when the time came.
O’Toole finished his coffee, wiped the sweat off his face with a napkin, and headed toward the watertight door to the main deck. He made his way through the black canvas curtains that formed the blackout light baffles. He walked twenty feet aft and began his climb to the wheelhouse deck to assume the bridge midwatch. He would soon get what he hoped for, but he would never feel adequate because his best was never good enough when the lives of his men hung in the balance.
The second steel ladder rattled as he clambered to the wheelhouse deck. The port fifty-caliber gunner immediately caught his attention. Slouched with his back to the sea, he chatted with the lookout on the flying bridge one level above. The helmsman faced the starboard bridge wing and had but one hand on the wheel. Dim red lights above the chart table and from the polished brass compass binnacle added little illumination to the wheelhouse, and the men, gray smudges in the dark, seemed unconcerned. O’Toole had seen this before. Captain Levitte ran a relaxed ship, but this wasn’t peacetime. They were at war in enemy waters. He located Lieutenant Karl, the officer of the deck on the port bridge wing. Karl’s life jacket vest was open, revealing a sweat-soaked khaki shirt. Sweat beaded on his brow.
“What’s your status?” O’Toole asked.
Karl rubbed the stubble on his chin. “At Condition III. Fire in all four boilers. Superheat lit, and the plant is cross-connected. Starboard steering motor, port steering engine,” Karl droned as he went through the standard litany of the watch change. “On course zero-seven-zero at ten knots. Straight line patrol between points Able and Baker on the chart as per the captain. You have about ten minutes before you turn around and head back to point Baker. Received a report of Japanese ships headed south five hours ago. Told the captain, and he said Intel couldn’t tell the difference between a cruiser and a sampan. Besides, nothing will happen before dawn. Aircraft overhead, told the captain, he says they’re from our carriers. That, and the captain said to cut the crew some slack; they’re tired. I just ordered the cooks to make a fresh batch of coffee; you’re gonna need it. That’s about it.”
“Why aren’t we zigzagging?”      
“Captain’s orders. Straight line patrol between points Able and Baker is what he wanted.”
“With an enemy force headed south we should be at Condition II at least.”
“I don’t know about that, but the captain wants to give the crew some rest.”
“Do we have star shells loaded or at the ready?”
“Which gun mounts are manned?”
“Mounts 51 and 55.”
“Only two?”
“Yes, and before you ask, one-third of the anti-aircraft batteries are manned, and I told those gun crews they could sleep at their stations.”
“Are the crews in Mounts 51 and 55 asleep?”
Out of professional courtesy, O’Toole didn’t challenge Karl, even though he would be justified in refusing to relieve Karl of the watch until Karl corrected the battle readiness of the ship.
O’Toole saluted Lieutenant Karl and said, “I relieve you, sir.”
Karl handed O’Toole his life jacket, helmet, and gun belt and walked to the small chart table in the forward port section of the wheelhouse to complete his log entries. O’Toole brushed back his flaming red hair and put on the helmet, life jacket, and gun.
“Boats, over here,” O’Toole said to the boatswain mate of the watch as he headed to the starboard bridge wing. It was a hot lazy night: clear sky, high overhead clouds, calm sea, a slight breeze, and the ship plodding forward at ten knots. A night like this could dull the senses of the best of men. He couldn’t let that happen.
“Boats, square your watch away. We are in enemy waters, and there are reports of a column of Jap cruisers headed our way. I want everyone on their toes.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Messenger, over here,” O’Toole said, beckoning the watch messenger.
“Go below and wake up the chiefs and tell them there are enemy ships in the area. I want them to make sure their watches are alert and ready. Tell the gunnery chief I want him on the bridge.”
“Yes, sir,” the messenger said and headed for the ladder.
A few minutes later, the gunnery chief appeared barefooted and in a white T-shirt. “Yes, sir, you wanted to see me?”
“Jap ships are headed our way. Check your gun crews; I want them alert with their eyes to the sea. Bring six star shells to the ready with one round in the mount. If we come under fire, I want Mount 51 to fire three star shells in a 180-degree spread without orders from the bridge.”
“What’s up, sir?”
“Not sure, chief, except we are in dangerous waters and the crew is asleep.”
“Will do, sir. Should I stay with the gun crews?”
“Wouldn’t be a bad idea, chief. Do what you think is best, but be aware things might get worse at dawn.”
“Yes, sir.” The chief trotted to the ladder and disappeared.
Lieutenant Karl had finished his log entries and left the bridge, making room for O’Toole at the chart table next to the quartermaster. O’Toole retrieved the sighting report. Five Japanese cruisers and four destroyers headed south at thirty knots. O’Toole plotted the ten-hour-old sighting location on the chart and walked the dividers across the chart to estimate the current location of Japanese forces. They would have passed the Green an hour ago and would now be on top of the northern defense line around Red Beach.
The drone of an aircraft off the port bow caught his ear. They were too far from the Japanese airbase at Rabaul for them to have planes this far south at night. It didn’t make sense: he didn’t think the carrier aircraft could operate at night, but spotter planes from a cruiser could.
Nothing had happened. Maybe the Japanese column had slowed or diverted. Naval doctrine taught officers to avoid night attacks since it complicated the battle, and everyone knew you couldn’t shoot at an enemy hiding in the darkness. Still, everything added up to a night counterattack against the Guadalcanal invasion force.
“Get the captain up here on the double. I’ll be on the flying bridge,” O’Toole said the watch messenger.
He felt better on the flying bridge where he had an unobstructed view of the sea and sky. He swept the horizon with his binoculars: nothing. The shirtless bodies of a hundred sleeping men escaping the oppressive heat and humidity of their berthing spaces lay on the dark main deck. Not regular navy, O’Toole thought, but he couldn’t object because the crew needed the sleep.
“What’s up, Pat?” Captain Levitte asked as soon as his head popped above the flying bridge deck level.
“I think we have trouble, Captain. The Japanese column sighted in the intelligence report should be on top of the northern defense line right about now. We should be at general quarters or at least Condition II and be zigzagging. There could be subs in the area.”
Levitte rubbed the back of his neck, then put his hands in his pockets, and walked in a tight circle with his eyes on the deck. “Look, the Japs aren’t that smart, and you should know not even the Japs are dumb enough to attack at night. Nothing will happen until the sun comes up. In the meantime, cut the crew some slack; they’re tired and need their sleep.”
“I’m sorry, Captain, but that doesn’t make sense. The sighting said the Japs were at thirty knots. They wouldn’t do that and then slow down to wait for the sun to come up.”
“No matter what happens we’ll kick their ass,” Levitte began. “We kicked their ass in the Coral Sea and Midway. Now we’re kicking their ass off Guadalcanal. The marines ran the Jap garrison into the jungle before lunch. They can’t stand up to us no matter what, so there’s no reason to get worked up about it.”
“To be safe, let me take the ship to Condition II and zigzag. It won’t hurt anything.”
“No, lieutenant. My night orders said to cut the crew some slack, and there is no need to waste fuel zigzagging. You read my night orders, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Good. Follow them, and let me get some sleep.”
The shirtless lookout stiffened. “Sir, light flashes, port beam.”
Both men turned. Staccato bursts of light above the southern horizon illuminated the sky.
Another voice called out, “Flares off the port beam.”
The night erupted. White-golden flashes close to port blinded O’Toole. Captain Levitte’s chest exploded into a mist of blood. Shells exploded against the mast, and men dove to the deck.
On his stomach, O’Toole fought his life jacket as he rolled to starboard to the edge of the deck. Crawling under the railing, he let himself over the side. He was about to let himself drop the last three feet when a jolt catapulted him to the deck below. His head hit the deck, and despite his cinched helmet, the blow stunned him to the precipice of unconsciousness. O’Toole fought to bring himself back to the present as he wobbled to a crouched position.
Concussions from explosions aft the wheelhouse punched at his chest and abdomen. He had to go through the wheelhouse to the port side to see the enemy ship. In the wheelhouse, only one man was up. He was in the corner by the chart table. Sparks and flashes of incoming fire covered the aft bulkhead and enveloped the wheelhouse in smoke, shrapnel, and debris. Broken, screaming bodies littered the deck.
He fought his way through the wheelhouse across shattered glass that slid like ice across the blood-drenched deck. The Green’s guns hadn’t returned fire. He turned to find the phone talker. A flash memory of the phone talker’s body falling next to the captain made him stop. He was alone; he had no bridge crew, and there was no one left to command. To anyone who could hear, he yelled, “Tell the gun crews to return fire.”
On the port bridge wing, he peered over the railing. A thousand yards away, two searchlights blinded him, and a torrent of tracer fire arched toward the Green. Muzzle flashes from the enemy ship’s heavy guns ripped at the darkness, and spasmodic explosions on the Green followed each flash.
On his stomach looking aft, he tried to understand the hell erupting around him. Black smoke spewed from golden fires, and smoke boiled across the fantail near the depth charge racks. Antiaircraft rounds raked the Green’s main deck, tearing men apart; the lucky ones leapt overboard.
In the forward boiler room, the port bulkhead ruptured three feet below the waterline in a flash of light, wrenching the keel. Shrapnel pierced the two Babcock & Wilcox boilers, which exploded upward, shredding the main deck overhead. A half-second later, a second explosion severed the keel, and a third tore the shattered hull of the Green in two.
Sheets of water vaulted into the air, and the explosions pushed the Green hard to starboard and lifted it upward in a death spasm.
Torpedoes. The word lingered in O’Toole’s mind until he understood, then it vanished. He pulled himself to his feet. Ruptured boilers roared beneath clouds of steam.
The Green hinged aft the deckhouse. The stern rose and began its slide beneath the surface. When the cool seawater reached the aft boilers they blew a ten-foot mound of white water to the surface. The mound collapsed into a steam haze low above the water. As the first wisps of steam dissipated, they dragged O’Toole from his stupor.
The gunfire stopped. The searchlights were gone. Screams, moans, and the sound of rushing water welled up to fill the silence. He strained his eyes for an enemy invisible in the night. They had vanished. The battle was over.
There was no time for thinking or words; the conclusions flashed through his mind fully formed. When the armed depth charges on the sinking fantail detonated, anyone in the water would suffer intestinal hemorrhaging and a slow, excruciating death.
To the men below he yelled, “Stay with the ship! Don’t go in the water; depth charges! Get everyone in the water back aboard!”
O’Toole took inventory. The forward part of the ship, though sinking, seemed stable. The wheelhouse was a confusing mass of shadows cut against golden fires, and the smell of blood and noxious nitrate gasses filled his head.
He entered the wheelhouse and stumbled. His knee landed on something soft. He looked down at the chest of a headless body. O’Toole’s stomach wrenched.
A figure appeared. “Sir, we took three torpedoes. No water pressure to fight the fires, no power, and we are flooding forward.”
One by one the depth charges began to detonate, sending tremors from each concussive blow through the ship. When the explosions stopped, O’Toole took a deep breath, and the acid-laced air burned his lungs. “Get below. Pass the word to abandon ship.”
O’Toole turned his attention to the main deck. Not waiting for orders, shirtless survivors leapt overboard. It seemed to take hours, but soon the decks were empty and the survivors were off the ship. He turned to the quartermaster and said, “Let’s go.”
The quartermaster collected the ship’s logs and joined O’Toole.
As he prepared to jump the last ten feet into the ocean, the quartermaster yelled, “Stop! Your helmet, sir.”
O’Toole had forgotten he was wearing it. Going overboard with a cinched helmet would break your neck. He tore it off, and they jumped together.
There was no past and no future, only the immediate need to survive. O’Toole swam from the sinking bow section, demanding his muscles move faster before her sinking hulk sucked him under. His muscles grew tired from the frenzied effort until a voice yelled, “She’s going down.”
He stopped and turned to what remained of the Green. Out of breath, he bobbed in the one-foot swells and coughed to clear the salt water from his lungs. The Green’s prow swung skyward while the hulk of the remaining bow section backed into the depths under the meager light of the new moon. The sea extinguished the fires as she slid under.
She died a silent death. After the tip of the bow disappeared, his eyes lost focus and he stared at the empty sea for several seconds, unable to grasp the meaning of this moment.
He linked up with a small group of survivors, and they linked up with other groups. They located two floater nets, lashed them together, and placed the injured in them. They found several of the watertight powder canisters used to protect the five-inch brass powder casings while in the magazines. The crew used empty canisters to stow stable dry food and water with the floater nets. He ordered several men to attract scattered survivors by yelling into the night.
At first, groups of four would swim toward them. Now an occasional lone survivor would show up. O’Toole gathered the surviving officers and chief petty officers. The group of seven rolled with the lazy sea, clutching the floater net to stay together. Three wore life jackets; the other four relied on the floater net.
“Someone said there is another group with a floater net south of us.” Pointing to Ensigns Carter and Fitch, O’Toole said, “Swim to the south floater net, if there is one, take a count, and tell them to swim their way to us and lash-in. While you’re at it, round up volunteers to scavenge for debris we can use. The men should also collect all the powder canisters and bring them here. Tell the men to never lose sight of the floater net, it’s damn easy to get lost out here in the dark.”
Turning to Chief Brandon, he said, “Make sure the injured are wearing life jackets, and get those with serious wounds in the floater nets.” Brandon swam off.
To Ensigns Parker and Adbury, he said, “You two make the rounds and get a head count of the healthy, injured, and critically wounded. After you report back, take charge of the injured. Collect the morphine ampules from the crew.” O’Toole reached into his trouser pocket and handed over two morphine ampules. “Bring the wounded together, especially those with bleeding wounds. Get them in the floater nets and get the bleeding stopped; the sharks will show up soon enough.”
To Chief Zeis, O’Toole said, “Chief, make the rounds, talk to everyone, and make sure their heads are on straight. Find anyone who might lose it and buddy them up with someone. We don’t want panic or men going nuts.”
Chief Zeis swam off, and O’Toole reached underwater to remove his shoes. He tied the laces together and draped them over his neck.
Chief Zeis made his rounds and returned to O’Toole’s position.
“You get a head count yet?” O’Toole asked.
“My count is fifty-seven, including you.”
“Just fifty-seven?”
“Lieutenant, the aft two-thirds of the ship sank like a rock. From the time the Japs attacked to the time the stern sank wasn’t more than a minute. I’m surprised we have this many left.”
O’Toole’s chest went hollow, and his mind went blank. Visions of shattered bodies and blood-soaked decks, the sound of dying men flashed through his mind. As the deck officer, he was responsible for the safety of the ship and crew. His gut radiated the hollowness of failure. The dark corners of his mind whispered, “You’ll never be the same.”
“Three-fourths of the crew is missing,” O’Toole said.
“There has to be more out there,” Zeis said.
“Yeah, there has to more out there,” O’Toole said.
He had scanned the horizon, and he had jacked up the lookouts and the bridge crew. It hadn’t been enough. Either way it was his responsibility. It takes three minutes to get a torpedo firing solution, and one zigzag might have destroyed their firing solution and saved the ship. He hadn’t seen his options; his wall had blocked him again. His grandfather’s words stabbed at him.
You’re not adequate.
It was the story of his life; he always fell short of adequacy. There was always one more thing he might have done, but he could never see it until it was too late. His wall was always there to stop him and hide the solution. His wall had damned him to failure again. His wall was always there blocking his way a single step short of success.
Ensign Parker swam over to him. “Got the head count. Fifty-seven men. Twenty-one wounded. Six critical. That includes the south floater net we got lashed-in.”
“We’ll wait till dawn to find the others,” Zeis said. “What the heck happened, sir?”
“Wish I knew,” O’Toole began. “A column of Jap ships were headed to Guadalcanal to counterattack. I suspect they left a destroyer behind to ambush us once the fight off Guadalcanal started.”
“That means they spotted us, but how did that happen without us seeing them?” Zeis asked.
“That part is easy. We weren’t looking, but I still can’t figure out how we missed them once we did start looking. I should have zigzagged despite the captain’s orders.”
Zeis looked at O’Toole for a long minute. “You’re not blaming yourself for this, are you?”
O’Toole didn’t answer.
“Are you?”
The question tore at O’Toole, but he had to look forward, and swore his wall would not stop him. “For now, we’re not losing any more men, Chief. Keep the men together. They’ll start looking for survivors tomorrow; they’ll find us.” O’Toole said.
Voices shouted. Zeis turned. A searchlight from an approaching ship probed the surrounding sea. When it reached the far end of the floater nets, gunfire erupted. Spikes of water shot up around the Green’s survivors.
Both O’Toole and Zeis screamed, “Everyone down!”
O’Toole shed his life jacket, took a deep breath, and dove. He figured five feet would be enough. He pivoted his feet beneath him and tried to maintain his depth. When the burning in his lungs became unbearable, he kicked hard to reach the surface. When his head cleared the water, he sucked in a chest of air, preparing to dive again, but the gunfire stopped.
The searchlight now centered itself on his small group, and a Japanese heavy cruiser loomed over them. With his hand, he blocked the searchlight so he could see the bridge. He studied the bridge and a man with a patch over his left eye. By his position on the bridge wing, his carriage, and the separation between him and the other officers, O’Toole guessed he was the captain.
They locked eyes. Neither man flinched. After several seconds, the Japanese captain walked away. The cruiser picked up speed and disappeared into the night.
Zeis asked O’Toole, “What was going on between you and that Jap with the eye patch?”
“I wanted the bastard to know we weren’t defeated,” O’Toole began. “The Japs won this battle not with equipment but with smarter officers and sharper training. How they pulled it off was brilliant: at night, torpedoes first, guns second, no star shells. They mauled us with their guns, but knew that wouldn’t sink us. Once the Jap ship saw the torpedoes hit, there was no need to continue a gun battle and endanger their ship; they knew they had sunk us, so they vanished into the night.”
He knew there was more to it than that. O’Toole shook his head; he would have to figure it out later. He put it out of his mind.
“Okay, Chief, have the men with life jackets chain up. Make sure they lash in each chain to a floater net. As you make the rounds, make sure everyone is secure for the night. By God, we’re not losing any more men.”
“Aye, sir.” Zeis swam away, yelling, “Everyone chain up and lash in!”
Men formed spiral chains. One man would loop his arm through the hole below the high collar of the next man’s life jacket, burying the arm to the shoulder. The chains provided security, extra buoyancy, and a way to sleep without drifting away.
Larry Laswell served in the US Navy for eight years. In navy parlance, he was a mustang, someone who rose from the enlisted ranks to receive an officer’s commission. While enlisted, he was assigned to the USS John Marshall SSBN-611 (Gold Crew). After earning his commission, he served as main engines officer aboard the USS Intrepid CV-11. His last assignment was as a submarine warfare officer aboard the USS William M. Wood DD-715 while she was home ported in Elefsis, Greece.

In addition to writing, Larry, a retired CEO, fills his spare time with woodworking and furniture design. He continues to work on The Marathon Watch series, an upcoming science fiction series titled The Ethosians, and an anthology of over eighty humorous sea stories titled A Ship-load of Sea Stories & 1 Fairy Tale.

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