Author's note: Hey, everyone! Thanks for reading! This story is another part of my WW2 AU arc of one-shots. I'm afraid this one's not the cheeriest, especially if you haven't read the other stories in this arc and don't know how everything turns out. I think it tells about an important incident in the war. You see, this time around, you're going to get a little history in this historical AU. It's set aboard the USS Princeton during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. I've got a short blurb at the end to give a little more information on the ship. I think stories like that one are important for us to remember. That being said, I'm an expert on neither the Navy nor the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and it's quite possible I've made mistakes in some details. If you see some such mistakes, have mercy on me and don't be too critical, but do point them out. I'd like to know better.
Finally, for any of you who are waiting on my posting the next part of the White Roses series, I want to let you know that The Thirteenth Day is coming along excellently. I think it's for the best that I'm holding off on posting it until I have more done, but depending on how things go, I may move it up into sometime in August. I'll just have to wait and see.
To all the men and women who have fought and died for the United States of America, especially those at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
"We have nothing to fear but fear itself." ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt
October 24, 1944
There hadn't been many chances to rest since the day before with the battle raging, and so Seaman Joe Hardy was glad to be allowed off-duty for a little while. He went straight to his bunk, since, even though it wasn't yet ten hundred hours, he had had no sleep the night before, but the instant he laid his head down, he realized he'd never be able to sleep.
His hand went compulsively to his foot locker and he pulled out a telegram that was inside. It was short and to the point and not at all cheering, but Joe had read it dozens of times in the last couple of months. It was the only way he could bring himself to believe that the horrible news in it was true.
Joe STOP Just received news that Frank was killed in action in France STOP Letter to follow STOP I love you Dad
Joe wiped the tears away from his eyes. He didn't want any of the other men to think that he was afraid of the battle. A morbid part of him almost wished he would be killed in the battle. But no. He didn't let himself entertain those thoughts for long. That's not what his brother would have wanted. Frank would have wanted him to be there for their parents and to keep on living.
He felt someone walking past his bunk and he turned to look. It was another enlisted man, Tom Dorby. Like Joe, he was less than a year past his eighteenth birthday, and unlike Joe, he'd spent a lot of time lately, thinking about how he was too young to die.
"Where are you going, Dorby?" Joe asked, feeling the sudden need to talk to somebody.
"I have to go back on duty in a few minutes," Tom replied, his voice lifeless. He looked around as if afraid somebody was going to overhear what he had to say and then sat down on the edge of Joe's bunk, forcing him to sit up. "Hardy, do…do you think we're going to die?"
"I guess there's a good chance we might," Joe admitted, hiding the telegram behind his back so that Tom wouldn't see. "That's what happens in a war, after all." He realized that this probably wasn't very comforting. "I wouldn't worry too much about it, though. I mean, we're on this big aircraft carrier. It would take a lot to sink her."
Tom looked around him. That was true. The USS Princeton was no small ship. She carried forty-five aircraft, was six hundred twenty-two and a half feet long, and weighed thirteen thousand tons, not to mention the twenty-two Bofors forty millimeter guns and the sixteen Oerlikon twenty millimeter cannons she carried. Besides that, even though the Japanese were putting up a good fight, they were outnumbered between the American and the Australian forces here in Leyte Gulf.
"I know," Tom said, "but some men are going to die here. What if I'm one of them?"
Joe slowly shook his head, not knowing what to say. He didn't want to just give Tom a bunch of platitudes about how he wasn't going to die and everything would be fine, but anything more honest didn't sound very encouraging. "You'd better get on duty."
"Yeah, I guess so."
Tom got up and hurried off. Joe lay back down on his bunk and looked at the telegram again for several minutes. Then he slipped it back into his foot locker, thinking, Rest easy, big brother. I'll make sure you didn't die for nothing.
He had barely finished thinking it when there was an explosion and the ship rocked. Joe and several others were thrown out of their bunks onto the floor. Within moments, they had scrambled to their feet again, many of them shouting, "What was that? What's happening?"
Joe and most of the others rushed up on deck. From there, they could see that where the flight deck had been was engulfed in flames.
"A Japanese bomber hit us!" someone shouted.
"How many casualties?"
"We need to get that fire out!"
Joe at once jumped into action, taking orders to go right up to the fire and man a fire hose. He could smell gasoline and he knew that the fire was only going to spread. Before he could even grab the hose along with several other sailors, there was another explosion.
Several other ships were coming alongside to help. Joe could see the Irwin and the Birmingham, but he didn't stop to think about that too much. He focused on working the fire hose. That was enough to focus on. It was all heat and the smell of burning gasoline and shouts and every now and again, a smaller explosion.
It went on for hours, like some sort of horrible fever dream. Joe was so tired he couldn't even think straight, but there was nothing to do but keep on going. Then all at once, there was an even bigger explosion than there had been yet, like one of the bombs stored about the ship had detonated. The deck where Joe was standing was ripped away, and he found himself falling along with other men and debris.
Joe struck a beam full-force on the chest, and he felt all the air forced out of his lungs. He probably would have lost consciousness if his face hadn't splashed into several inches of water. He forced himself up, every breath hurting.
Someone grabbed him by the shoulder. "Come on! Come on! The water's coming in!"
Joe got up, grasping his chest. He had barely gotten to his feet when the ship rocked again, throwing him from his feet and shifting several beams. There were several cries of pain and someone was shouting that they must have collided with one of the other ships.
Just as Joe was once again starting to try to get somewhere safer, he heard someone call behind him, "Please, don't leave me!"
He turned to see another man sitting in about five inches of water that was rising and his leg pinned underneath a beam. It was none other than Tom Dorby. Joe hurried to his side. He tried to move the beam, but it wouldn't budge.
"Can…can you…move…your leg…at all?" Joe asked.
"No." Tom's face was white with both fear and pain. "It's stuck. I…I think it's broken, too."
Joe looked around him for someone else who could help, but everyone who was not pinned or injured was already working to free someone else. Joe turned back toward Tom.
Tom must have mistaken the look on his face, because he instantly started pleading, "Don't leave me! Please!"
"I'm…not…going to…leave you," Joe wheezed.
He stepped around the beam and saw that some miscellaneous debris had fallen on top of it. He figured it wouldn't make much difference, but he might as well clear it off. Some of it was wood and plaster and other debris from the ship itself, while some of it was belongings of some of the men on board. One of the items was a partially burned Bible. Joe picked it up reverently, but one of the pages fell out. Without thinking, he grabbed the loose page and stuffed it in his pocket and then he pushed the Bible itself to the side. Once again, Joe bent over the wooden beam and tried to move it, while his ribs protested painfully.
"Look out!" Tom shouted.
Joe looked up just in time to see another burning section of the deck falling. He put himself in position to use his own body as a shield for Tom if need be, but fortunately the debris fell a few feet to the right and landed in the water that was now up to Tom's chest with a hiss. Unfortunately, it cut them off from all the other men.
Tom started to sob. "We're going to die, aren't we?"
"No." Trying to talk, combined with the smoke and the steam was too much of a strain on Joe's lungs. He allowed himself the luxury of leaning against a non-burning pile of debris to rest. "Maybe…Yeah…We probably…are. Noth…nothing to…cry about."
"Nothing to cry about?" Tom scoffed. "We're going to die. What could be worse?"
"Being a…coward about it," Joe replied. "Or…being a Nazi…only caring…about yourself…or not…being free."
"Now that it comes down to it, I think I'd rather be any of those things than be dead. What if we die and then they lose the War and it would have all been for nothing? If they wouldn't have made us come and fight, at least we'd still be alive."
For a few seconds, Joe just concentrated on breathing. Despite his brave words only a very few moments earlier, he suddenly found himself gripped by fear. He suddenly found that that morbid little bit of him that had wanted to die was gone. Maybe it had gotten its wish and had been burned or crushed or drowned like Joe was about to be. Whatever had happened to it, Joe found he wanted to live and he felt that if someone offered right now to take him home, he'd do just about anything they asked.
He brushed a sleeve across his damp forehead, whether still damp from water or from sweat, he didn't know. The War had already exacted such a terrible price. It wasn't just him and Frank, either; how many thousands—hundreds of thousands—of men and women and children had died because of it? How many more would? And when the dust settled, would there be anything left? Would the Axis powers win after all? Even if the Allies won, would even that be worth it? Wasn't life more precious than this, than to be sold wholesale so that the survivors might continue to live comfortably?
"Oh, God, I don't understand," he muttered, for he didn't have enough breath to say it out loud.
Just then, the debris settled again, and Tom was pulled down to his chin in water. He screamed in pain and moaned, "My leg! I'm going to drown! Don't let me drown!"
Joe lurched forward and caught him by the arm. Tom grasped his arm like a child and buried his face against it, sobbing.
"Please. I don't want to die," Tom whimpered.
It flashed into Joe's mind to wonder just how Frank had died. No one seemed to have any details about it. But there was one thing that Joe was certain of: he hadn't died like this. He wouldn't have cried or begged or wondered if it was all worth it. He would have known that it was. He would have known that the fact that some things were worth dying for didn't mean that life wasn't precious, but that there was to it than simply not dying for as long as possible.
"Look, Tom," he said. "We'll…make one more…try…to get…out…of here. But…if we…don't…even if…we lose…we had to…try…we couldn't…just roll over…and let them…take over."
The beam trapping Tom was completely underwater now, and Joe couldn't see it. Without thinking about it—because he would have never tried such a thing if he had given it any thought—he tugged on Tom. Tom gave a ragged gasp of pain, but to both their surprises, his leg came free. When the debris had shifted again, it must have taken the weight of the beam off Tom's leg.
"Now to…get out of here." Joe looked around him. He could see a little patch of daylight up above. At once, he started to climb up toward it. Tom tried to follow, but with his broken leg, he couldn't make it. Joe had to help him. Finally, they reached the spot, and Joe pushed his way through. This didn't work out the way Joe had hoped, for they found themselves falling, not onto any part of the ship, but into the deep water of Leyte Gulf.
Joe had gotten no chance to take in a breath—even if he could have—before he was underwater. He tried to swim toward the surface, but Tom, who was still clinging to him, was panicking and dragging them both downward.
Please, God, he thought, I don't want to die. But, I guess, if I do, You know what You're doing.
He tried one more time to swim upward, and as his reached up, he felt something brush against it. He frantically tried to feel for it again. Then he did. It was a hand. He tried to grab it, but it grasped his wrist before he could. Someone was pulling him up.
"Give me a hand here!" were the first words he heard as his head broke the surface of the water. "I've got two over here!"
More people grasped him and Tom, and a moment later, they had been dragged into a boat. Joe looked around and saw that he was surrounded by sailors who must have come from one of the other ships to rescue any survivors they could find.
"You all right?" one of them asked Joe.
He nodded, unable to speak just yet between his undoubtedly broken ribs and the water that he had swallowed. He tried to wipe the water out of his eyes to see better. Instinctively, he reached for his pocket to take out his handkerchief, even though it would be too soaked to do any good. Yet, he pulled something else out along with the handkerchief. It was a drenched piece of paper, about to fall apart in his hands and with most of the printed words on it running together. But he could make out a few sentences:
"But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?' After they got into the boat, the wind died down."*
Joe looked up at what remained of the Princeton, with smoke belching out of her. Seeing her from here, it was obvious that there wasn't hope of saving her.
"We'll get you to the Irwin," one of the other sailors told him. "You can dry off there."
Joe looked around and spotted the Irwin with her starboard side smashed. "But she's…"
"Yeah, she was damaged when the Princeton hit her," the sailor finished for him. "We couldn't leave all you boys to drown, though."
"Look out!" someone shouted.
Joe looked just in time to see several sailors use a pole to push a piece of debris away that had just been about to ram the boat.
"Hey!" Tom shouted. "Isn't this awfully dangerous for you guys?"
"Sure," the sailor agreed, "but this whole business of being free isn't for cowards."
"Yeah," Joe said, looking up again at the Princeton.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was fought October 23-26, 1944. It was one of the largest naval battles in history and the last to be fought between battleships. The USS Princeton was lost October 24 after being struck by a bomb from a Japanese aircraft, causing fires and explosions which severely damaged her. Four other U.S. ships were damaged in attempting to save her: the Birmingham, the Morrison, the Irwin, and the Reno. Despite being damaged, the Irwin launched a rescue operation, saving nearly 650 crewmen from the sea. Out of a crew of nearly 1,500, 108 men were killed about the Princeton, while the Birmingham lost 233 men.