by Taylor Anderson
Sometimes, you get something in your head and it just won’t go away; a
tune, a phrase, an image, a story…I have at least a passing interest in
virtually everything, but I suppose I’m most passionately devoted to
history, the outdoors, sailing, flying, cannons (and pretty much
anything that flings a projectile,) and literature of every description.
I enjoy everything from Homer to Patrick O’Brian, but the stories that
stick in my head the most, that I find most enduring and thought
provoking, are science-fiction/fantasy. For pure enjoyment and escape,
that’s what I always turn to.
I spent many years, in a variety of pursuits, forced to deal in historical absolutes: What type of firearm would so-and-so have most likely carried at such-and-such a time? How was it made? What was it capable of? How did he make it work, and what was the jargon he would have used? What type of drill was required to fire a certain type of artillery piece at a given time by a particular army? These are the questions I had to answer.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but my early attempts were always either purely historical, or a variety of carefully researched historical fiction. The question I had was, how can I combine many of my various interests into one, single pursuit? I am a (probably) rare species of historian who will readily admit I sometimes ask myself “What if?” so the answer was obvious: science fiction/fantasy, with a heavy dose of history. Why I chose the time period I did, (early WWII,) is still sort of a mystery to me. It is not the period I am best at. Perhaps it was the lure of more challenging research, or maybe it was the influence of my parents, who remember the period well. Maybe it was the ships.
About a fifteen years ago, a good friend named Tom Postulka, gave me a well-worn copy of United States Destroyer Operations in World War II, by Theodore Roscoe. Ironically, Tom was a submariner, (probably why he was willing to part with the book,) but he used to come in my shop and we would visit for hours, discussing our many shared interests; history, old guns—and science fiction/fantasy. Tom has been gone for about a decade now, and I miss him a lot, but I still have the book he gave me. It is an excellent, inspiring read and I highly recommend it, but the part that resonated most with me was the section concerning the odyssey of the Asiatic Fleet and the old “four-stacker” destroyers that comprised the bulk of its surface component.
The flush-deck four-stacker destroyers depicted in the Destroyermen series were rakish, bold-looking little ships, but they would be virtually unrecognizable as destroyers today. Built during, and shortly after WWI, few were still recognized, or even designated, as destroyers anymore by the time WWII began. The term “destroyer” is actually a derivation of the designation “Torpedo Boat Destroyer,” and that’s what destroyers were originally intended to do: Screen battleships and cruisers and destroy torpedo boats and their “unsportsmanlike” torpedoes, before they could get close enough to harm anything important. It’s ironic then, that the primary armament of the early American destroyers was torpedoes, and the guns they were supposed to destroy torpedo boats with were few, and relatively light. This is testimony to the fact that, even while they were building the first torpedo boat destroyers, the role of the destroyer was already changing.
Even when new, four-stackers were already obsolete and undergunned by the standards of any modern navy, but that didn’t stop almost 300 from being built. Actually, it’s a good thing there were so many because the United States didn’t build nearly enough “modern” destroyers between the wars. Many four-stackers were used-up to the point that they literally wore out. There were still enough left in mothballs for Roosevelt to give/lend/lease fifty to England during WWII to use, primarily, as convoy escorts. Others performed that duty for the United States and Canada throughout the war. Most of these were at least updated to some degree, to carry more and better depth charges and anti-aircraft weapons. Many others were converted into fast transports, seaplane tenders, minelayers, etc.
Typically however, those relegated to the comparative “backwater” of the Asiatic Fleet toiled away with few modifications, if any. They had no anti-aircraft capability to speak of, no radar, and primitive sonar. With the exception of their radios and oil-fired boilers, they were half a century out of date. They were still fast, though—theoretically. If in top condition, they could hold their own in a footrace with any modern destroyer…while delivering their practically useless torpedoes.
After Pearl Harbor, these out-dated relics and a few slightly more modern ships, were all that stood between the Japanese and a quick, decisive victory in the Pacific. They were strategically sacrificed, placed as roadblocks for the Japanese juggernaut, in hopes they might slow it just enough…and as it turned out, they did. Even if all they accomplished was to force the enemy to take time to destroy them, they slowed the Japanese advance ever so slightly—but long enough to let the Allies catch their breath.
Some few made it out, escaping to Australia with the wolves at their heels. Some were sunk, their surviving crews enduring the nightmare of Japanese prison camps for the rest of the war. Some were never heard from again.
As a historian, I’ve always been stirred by the epic stand against overwhelming odds. As a Texan, the Alamo probably stands out most in my mind as an indisputable example, but there have been others. The Spartans at Thermopylae, the men who stuck it out at Valley Forge during the darkest days of the American Revolution, the defenders of Hougoumont in the center at Waterloo, the small garrison at Rorke’s Drift, the Battle of Britain, the Marines and civilian contractors on Wake Island, the magnificent defiance of the destroyers attached to Taffy 3, Doolittle’s B-25′s, that flew from the pitching deck of a carrier to drop the first bombs on Tokyo. All these are prime examples.
Perhaps less well known are the nameless men who fought to the last on the Bataan Peninsula, or finally broke through at Omaha beach. The countless thousands over the years who pushed forward in the face of withering anti-aircraft fire, sleeting machine gun bullets, massed musketry, or the shriek of canister and grape. And the crews of the outdated four-stackers who fought and perished alone, surrounded by enemies, overwhelmed and forgotten even by history.
Of the various “stands” I have cited, not all resulted in utter annihilation, and the motives of the participants were not all the same. Some knew they were doomed and chose to stay, others were just following orders, but the ultimate similarity is that they did their duty, as they saw it, regardless of the cost. One such “stand,” largely ignored, is the one made by the U.S. Asiatic Fleet and the ABDAFLOAT Allies.
I was drawn to this footnote of history by the drama, tragedy, and apparent sheer chaos of it all. Picture a wild “mish-mash” of decrepit relics from various countries and another age, armed only with criminally faulty ammunition and torpedoes. Add to the list an almost total lack of air cover, different languages and naval doctrines, no support, few spare parts, and little hope they would ever be relieved. Place this force in the path of the most powerful and modern navy in the world, and you have what almost seems the storyline for a novel, rather than recorded history.
A story began to evolve in my head that just wouldn’t go away. A story that would encompass many of my diverse interests. I had to write it, but I had to write it about the people. Destroyermen in general were often considered some of the most resourceful men in the Navy, and those assigned to the long neglected Asiatic Fleet would have, of necessity, been doubly so. Destroyermen were also fiercely devoted to their “little ships” and again, those in the Asiatic Fleet often formed much longer—and deeper attachments. It might have been a love-hate relationship because of the vessel’s condition, but in many cases, the ships were not just their duty stations, they were their homes.
I imagined the effect something like the ordeal the Asiatic Fleet endured would have on those involved, then imagined what it would be like for them when, or if, they emerged. Particularly if they emerged on another world. In those days, surface actions were mainly line-of-sight affairs. One had to see a target to hit it. Radar existed, but only one ship in the Asiatic Fleet had it, and it had been sent away for repairs. Just as in the days of sail, it was not uncommon for ships to seek refuge from their enemies in a squall. But what is a squall?
I have seen squalls that were simply rainstorms, marching across the sea or countryside. The leading edge might be intense, but after that, it’s only rain. Even that type of squall might aid a ship on the run; spotting planes couldn’t see them through rain-lashed canopies, their outlines would be blurred, at least, in the range-finders and sights of an enemy ship. I’ve seen other squalls however, that when they overwhelm you, you can barely breathe. It’s as if your boat has capsized and you are utterly disoriented…as if you’ve entered another world, where everything you’ve known—sunlight, sky, air—has ceased to exist.
It was only a short leap to associating my fascination with four-stackers and the heroic stand of the Asiatic Fleet, with whatever world might lay beyond such a squall. Such a world had to be at least as frightening and disorienting as the squall itself. Perhaps a different earth—but not completely different. That might be even harder to accept, in a way. Ordinarily, in stories involving an alternate universe, the differences between the “other” world and this one range from subtle: an acquaintance’s eyes are green instead of brown, to overwhelming: magic is commonplace, and laws of physics and nature have no meaning. I find virtually anyone’s vision of an alternate universe, history, or reality, highly entertaining. In this instance, my vision for an alternate earth is exactly the same as ours—except for that cataclysmic event that occurred 65 million years ago. That’s the obvious diversion point. That plus 65 million years of further, un-interrupted evolution (except for natural phenomena) have left a world that is poignantly familiar (in some ways) to the destroyermen who pass through the squall; and traumatically, wildly, different in other ways. How the destroyermen cope with these similarities and differences is the essence of the Destroyermen series.