“Sparks” (Part 3)

by Janice C. Johnson
Here is the third and concluding installment of my 2008-2009 UTA Undergraduate Creative Writing Contest entry. See this week’s previous posts (Sept. 13 and 15) for Parts 1 and 2.
In Part 2, we learned that Captain “Happy” Hansen was not quite as competent as Mr. Tackleberry, his Chief Mate.

But it wasn’t Hansen who presented the next potential danger to the Costigan. One day as the ship steamed along over the Pacific, a conning tower appeared alongside, about a mile and a half away. A submarine had surfaced. Its signal light came on and flashed, hailing the ship. The US Navy gunnery crew jumped into action. One of them switched on the louvered signal light, turned it toward the sub, and asked for identification. By the time this brief message had flashed across the water, the ship’s three-inch and five-inch cannon were both trained on the sub.

The reply flashed from just above water level. “What are they saying, Sparks?” someone asked.

Bob shrugged. “They must not know English. They’re just saying ‘USO; USO.”

“USO? Out here?” “They must want us to think they got dames aboard!” “They must think we’re crazy!” The men joked, but never took their eyes off the craft below.

The young, eager Naval Gunnery Lieutenant approached the Captain and Chief by the rail. “I can knock that conning tower off with the first shot,” he offered.

Tackleberry and Hansen glanced at each other. “I wouldn’t,” the Chief advised, “not unless it turns so the torpedo tubes are facing us. Then you can blast away.” The Captain agreed. The Lieutenant chafed. The sub kept signaling “USO; USO.”

“They’re apparently not after us,” Tackleberry pointed out, “or they’d have done something by now.” Soon the signal stopped. Moments later the sea closed silently over the conning tower as the sub dove.

“Dammit, Tack, I could’ve had a Jap sub!” the Lieutenant was beside himself.

“Yeah,” said Tackleberry, “you could’ve had a hole blown through you too. Remember we’re not a war ship, will you?”

* * * * *

On April 12, 1945, Bob began taking down the longest message of his career. He typed page after page of meaningless numbers as the radio poured out its monotonous, stuttering cadence. After the transmission ended, he spent hours decoding the numbers. At last he was ready to look up the words. He rolled a fresh stack of paper and carbons into the typewriter and reached for the dictionary. Bob froze for a moment as, word by word, the meaning began to take shape: the message was a general bulletin informing all personnel that President Roosevelt had died. The bulk of the message consisted of protocol instructions: how to fly the flag, what to do with the ship’s lights, and other points of etiquette.

Finally, Bob rolled the last sheets out of the typewriter and stood up. He stretched his tense neck and shoulders. His mood was somber as he took the stack of pages to the helm. “Message from Washington, Cap’n,” he said.

The Swede read the news of the President’s death with a serious face. He scanned the rest of that page, then glanced at the next couple of pages of protocol. “Hah!” he said. Bob watched as the Captain tossed the fruit of his labor onto the desk. “Effrybody knows dat. You always do dat when royalty dies.”

Amusement struggled with irritation in Bob’s face, but all he said was, “Aye, Cap’n.”

* * * * *

By now Germany and Italy had given up their dreams of dominating Europe. The Japanese military, however, did not cease hostilities until almost four months later, after the Allies bombed Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Then on August 14, 1945, Emperor Hirohito announced over Japanese radio the decision to surrender unconditionally. He began to make arrangements for his delegates’ historic meeting with Allied representatives led by General MacArthur.

At that time the Edward P. Costigan had just arrived at Cebu, a long, narrow island northwest of Mindanao. She had docked at the Cebu City port, but her entire cargo remained in the holds. Just behind them, deck hands were busy unloading lumber from another ship. Bob watched uneasily as the cranes lifted one bundle after another to the pier – all from the same side of the ship. As each load rose from the deck, the ship tilted a little more toward the harbor. Finally Bob gave up watching and went up to his cabin for a nap.

A deafening racket of whistles and ships’ bells woke him up an hour or so later. His first thought was “Oh, hell, that lumber ship has gone clear over!” and he stumbled outside to investigate. He found seamen cheering, pumping their fists into the air, and dancing. On the deck, on other craft, on the pier, the same scene met his gaze. A deck hand lit several smokescreen pots at the Costigan’s stern and whooped as the acrid smoke rose, mingling with the smoke from other ships. “What the . . .?”

A fellow seaman looked up and noticed him staring dazed from the command deck. “Hey, Sparks! The Japs are surrendering!”

Now fully awake, Bob ran down to join the others. The celebration lasted into the night.

As it happened, the Costigan had brought no munitions on that run, but was loaded with food, clothing, blankets, and other basic provisions. Back in the command tower, Bob received and typed up orders dispatching them directly to Yokohama and Tokyo. With the war over, the military had no further need of its many Liberty Ships. The crew was to hand over both the Costigan and her cargo to the Japanese as humanitarian aid. Deck hands weighed anchor and they started away from the Philippine Islands, northeast toward Japan.

The ship had to steam into Tokyo Channel at its lowest speed, threading its way through an eerie forest of masts and smokestacks that stuck up at various angles above the surface; not a single Japanese ship or boat still floated. Thick black oil smoke hung in the chilly autumn air. The Costigan finally made it to the pier and docked; cranes readied to unload the supplies. This ship, along with several others given by the US, would prove to be literally life-saving to the Japanese people. The island nation could neither trade nor survive without ships, and they had none of their own left.

Before going ashore Bob and his buddies stopped in front of the ship’s store. It was stocked with candy, cigarettes, and other basics that crew members could put on their bill, to be charged against their pay when they got home. Now they looked over the brimming shelves, then at each other. Giving blankets and rations to the Japanese was one thing, but cigarettes and candy were a different matter. Each man bought a double armful of stuff and staggered out of the store with it. Less than half an hour later, a single packed lifeboat was lowered quietly over the rail and rowed ashore.

“’Bout time you got here,” said the others to the oarsman as they helped him pile their goods on the dock.

“Yeah? Who got to use the gangplank, and who had to row?” he groused.

“Highest bidder” appeared to be a universal concept, for the men merely had to show their wares to the locals, and within an hour or two they had traded it all away. Each had amassed a pile of yen that would have filled a shoebox.

“We can’t cash all this in for American,” said one. “What are we going to do with it?”

In the end, the Japanese money stayed right there in Tokyo, distributed among several downtown bars, where it had given the weary shipmates a night to remember.

* * * * *

Over the next couple of weeks the Costigan’s former crew lived in Japanese military barracks in Tokyo, enjoying no-frills food and bartering for coal to keep warm. They trained the Japanese seamen who would run and maintain the ship, and waited for the Naval transport that would take them home. Bob learned that decoding a BAMS message, though time-consuming and tedious, was nothing compared with trying to teach radio operation across an absolute language barrier. Bob knew no Japanese at all, and the young Japanese seaman who was to operate the radio understood not a single word of English. He smiled and nodded with excitement as Bob showed him the equipment and demonstrated turning the radio on, using it, and turning it off. Then Bob said, “Now. . . you do it.” He motioned for the young man to repeat the same steps. The smile faded, replaced by a mask of polite bewilderment.

The war, though now behind him, loomed large in my father’s life. In a few days he would be steaming toward home and his old job with the railroad. He had no idea of the long peacetime career he would enjoy, nor of the future marriage that would give him three children. For now, all he could see in the future was the S.S. Edward P. Costigan keeping people and hopes alive in postwar Japan – ultimately, he hoped, with the benefit of radio communication. And so for now, he just did what he could. He gave the seaman all the manuals he had on board, which at least contained illustrations. He continued demonstrating the radio’s functions and encouraging the young man to try the controls for himself.

Finally, the day came when he would embark for the States. After a few hours at the radio Bob looked at the clock and then into his trainee’s dark brown eyes. “Hey, Bud,” he said, “I have to go. My ship is about to leave.” As he stepped out of the radio room for the last time, he paused and said over his shoulder, “Good luck.”

[The End]

Thanks for joining me on this “tour of duty” — I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I have!
–Jan

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One Response to “Sparks” (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: “Sparks” (Part 2) | Joywriting: Everybody Has a Story

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