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  • Even the Gargoyle Is Frightened
  • Karl Taro Greenfeld (bio)

On the eighth day of the third month of the eighteenth year of our Emperor, in incipient dawn, beneath high, frothy clouds like the foam atop whisked tea, we set sail from Yokosuka. The embarkation of a great warship, no matter how depleted and underprovisioned it might be, is a stirring sight. Despite the hour, the wharf was crowded with family members seeing off loved ones: wives, mothers, daughters, sons, a half-dozen Shinto priests in black robes swinging incense lanterns casting sparks, even a few dogs barking in the dim light. From the flight deck I searched the crowd for Lieutenant Urabe but failed to discern him in the dark. [End Page 43]

At the outset of previous fleet operations, this aircraft carrier would leave port with its sixty-four aircraft freshly painted, scrubbed and armed on deck, nearly two thousand sailors, airmen, flight crew and gunners hailing banzai, a dazzling display of firepower and war-making capability. Now the men still made a show of shouting and cheering, but the Gargoyle made the decision to keep the paltry air wing of sixteen planes out of sight on the hangar deck. In campaigns past, the carrier would have sailed in broad daylight; now, wary of American bombers, we slipped dishonorably out of the harbor under cover of near darkness.

We were towed beyond the first anchorage to the channel, and then, as if to reassure the family members who could barely see us anyway, the Gargoyle ordered the turbines to full, and in the calm morning water we were soon making our thirty-four-knots top speed. Fifteen minutes later, knowing he needed to save every precious liter of diesel, he ordered two of the Kanpons shut down so that we cruised at a sluggish seventeen.

I was greeted upon coming aboard by Boatswain Kobayashi, a boy who nodded proudly when I correctly guessed his age. This was the sixteen-year-old's first tour of duty, he reported, and he was enthusiastic about being at sea. Thus far, his career in the Imperial Navy consisted of scrubbing and swabbing a doorway and stairwell connecting the second deck and the third deck—about twenty-five square meters he had so vigorously scoured that he had stripped the paint. Cleaning detail, apparently, was a twice-daily ritual aboard the carrier. And the rations on board, he told me, were terrible. He believed that once we set sail the food would improve.

My berth was a narrow cabin twice my shoulder width with a curtain instead of a door. There was a wooden slab about eight inches off the floor where I was to sleep, and above that a narrow cabinet and a shelf with an aluminum bowl, spoon and chopsticks. I was to eat from this bowl, I already knew, and use it to gather water to shave, wash myself and clean my teeth. We officers were each allotted two liters a day for personal use; we could bathe twice a week. As a Tokkeitai officer, I was entitled to a lieutenant commander's grade of rations and perquisites, though most admirals, I had heard, went out of their way to ensure we were well provided for. I was somewhat surprised, then, that the Gargoyle had not responded to my requests for an audience before setting sail, and there was no recognition from him that an Imperial Japanese Naval Police officer was even on board.

Boatswain Kobayashi saluted and then returned to his cleaning station. I took the opportunity to familiarize myself with the vessel. Aircraft [End Page 44] carriers, I already knew, were essentially vast factories at sea whose product was successfully armed and launched airplanes. Everything on the ship was geared toward this endeavor. The 1,860 men on board were either seamen or members of the aircrew. The ship displaced 32,000 tons and, when fully provisioned, would leave harbor with 16 tons of rice, 3 tons of vegetables and tubers, 500 kilograms of miso paste, 1,000 kilograms of dried fish, 30,000 liters of drinking water, 100 liters of sake, 15 live pigs and 300 chickens...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 42-57
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-21
Open Access
No
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