RENDEZVOUS WITH IVORY FOREST ALPHA
By Joel T. Whoopy-Cat Illian
He ignored the voice of his copilot for the moment, lost in his thoughts as he was.
“Skip?” the voice came again. “This baby’s got a pretty long range, but...”
The sentence didn’t need to be finished. They were running a bit short on fuel. Lieutenant Colonel Charles McDonough had flown planes of all shapes and sizes in his thirty year career with the US Army Air Corps. He didn’t need to be told that, after nearly eighteen hours in the air, they might be getting just a wee bit low on gas.
“I know, Jimmy,” he feigned nonchalance, “Don’t worry ‘bout it. I think it’s just ahead – not too much farther.”
Surely his (comparatively) young copilot, Captain James Sterling, knew his ‘skipper’ well enough by now to not buy that line of B.S. ...Didn’t he?
“Yeah,” Jimmy allowed a nervous laugh. “I’m sure you’re right, Skip. It’s just that...”
McDonough didn’t look over at his copilot. “It’s just that,” he finished Jimmy’s thought inside his own head, “we were given a vague set of coordinates that correspond with nothing but empty ocean on the charts for hundreds of miles around – coordinates that were explicitly described as ‘approximate’ – and now we’re running low on fuel.” ‘Approximate’ is never a particularly comforting word to find in a set of orders, especially when found in a set of orders directing his plane to an empty blue spot on the map approaching the farthest edge of his plane’s theoretical range.
When he finally decided to say something aloud, McDonough tried to shake these negative thoughts from his mind and put on his ‘confident’ face. “Don’t worry, Jim-boy,” he smiled. “The ole Skipper won’t let you get your feet wet today.”
That brought a reassured look to the copilot’s face and he nodded in silent response.
“Sheesh,” McDonough thought to himself, “after all these years, how can such a cheesy line still work on these youngsters?”
But the words of comfort he gave his copilot did nothing to allay his own internal trepidations. Certainly the situation was far from ‘dire’ at this point – at THIS point. But that wouldn’t be the case in an hour or so. ...Not unless they were able to find this ‘Ivory Forest Alpha’ – whatever that was – before then.
He wondered what on earth Ivory Forest Alpha could possibly be. It was nearly the middle of the twentieth century, for crying out loud! Surely there weren’t still uncharted islands of any size in the middle of the North Pacific, were there?? And it couldn’t be some tiny dot of an island, either. They would need an island of at least modest size to accommodate an airstrip large enough to land the B-29. No, he decided, there’s NO WAY there could possibly be an uncharted island in that area of the sea at this late date. It had to be something else.
At the same time, it was completely unthinkable that the Air Corps brass would send one of the theater’s first Superfortresses on a useless suicide mission. McDonough was old enough, wise enough, and had enough experience in the military that he rarely (if ever!) trusted the brass blindly; but still, he couldn’t imagine his superiors sending him and his crew on a one-way mission with the intended final result being simply to splash down in the middle of the Pacific and be lost.
Furthermore, although he had no delusions of grandeur regarding his own importance to the war effort as a whole, he couldn’t imagine they would send a seasoned pilot such as himself on a certain death-trip. They couldn’t afford to lose ANY B-29-qualified pilots at this point – and certainly not a squadron commander.
He hoped he was right. He wasn’t particularly afraid to die. He was, however, deathly afraid of dying in vain – even more so of dying before he saw the demise of the Japanese Empire that had ambushed his brothers-in-arms at Pearl Harbor back in ’41.
No, he concluded (now trying to comfort himself as he had done for his copilot), there must be something out here upon which the brass intended for him to land this plane. But what? An aircraft carrier?? That seemed more than unlikely. What kind of carrier could land a plane the size of a Superfort, much less accommodate it, even if he could somehow get it aboard safely? No, that can’t be it, he thought, trying to dismiss the notion. But then his mind turned to one possibility he hadn’t previously considered: Habakkuk? Hmmm...
“Skip.” His flight engineer, known to the crew as ‘Bones’, was tapping him on the shoulder. He wore a concerned expression.
“What’s up, Bones?” the Colonel asked, pulling his headset half-way off to better hear him.
“Well...” Bones seemed reluctant to speak. “Some of the boys are getting a little, umm, concerned, Skipper.” Bones knew he needn’t say more.
Col. McDonough nodded at him and Bones returned to his position at once.
McDonough repositioned his headset, pressed a button, and spoke to his radio operator. “Bucky, try again. See if you can raise Ivory Forest Alpha.”
Buck gave a “Roger” and was soon calling out over the radio. “Ivory Forest Alpha, this is Super Four-One, over. Ivory Forest Alpha...”
Personally, McDonough wasn’t big on ‘pep talks’. But he knew that Bones always had a keen sense about the crew and what they were thinking, so he reluctantly opened the channel that allowed him to speak to the entire crew over the ‘com.
“Well, boys...” Now that he’d started talking he realized that (as usual) he had no idea what to say! He wanted to panic, but he had long ago learned to condition himself against any outward signs of panic in the presence of his crew. Thirty years of finding himself in situations every bit as perilous as this one had taught him the futility of panic – not to mention the disastrous results that normally occur when a leader shows signs of indecision or despair. “It’s kinda nice not to have to wear long-underwear and oxygen masks, eh?”
He received several ‘Oh yeah!’s and ‘You betcha!’s from the gunners behind him. Unlike the Flying Forts they had flown together in Europe, the Superfortress was fully pressurized – the trait most airmen agreed was easily the B-29’s best!
“I just thought I’d let you know that we’ve still got quite a bit of fuel left in the ol’ gal,” he lied, which would have been no surprise to anyone on board. “And we have a ways to go before we reach our rendezvous with Ivory Forest Alpha,” he continued. “So I figured there was plenty of time to share a little story with you.”
This news was received with much groaning and laughter over the intercom from various positions throughout the ship. They had flown with Lt. Col. McDonough long enough to know that ‘The Old Man’ didn’t have a “little” story in him. But despite their feigned displeasure at this news, the fact was, they loved the Skipper’s stories, to a man. Not only did they cherish the tradition of the skipper’s stories, they also knew that his legendary stories had broken the tension and shortened long flights on countless previous missions. Each member of the crew had his own favorite story from “the cap’n”. Many of them felt it wasn’t a “real mission” unless Col. McDonough had “bored” them with one of his tales.
“My old buddy Cliff in Intelligence would probably have me hanged if he knew I was telling you this, so it’s just between us, okay?” he said half jokingly. Most of his stories started this way. Major Clifton Clay was one of McDonough’s oldest and closest friends. Most of the crew had never even seen Major Clay, but they all knew him by name from McDonough’s endless stories. Additionally, the crewmembers never knew whether the skipper’s stories were purely fiction or truly ‘Top Secret’ scoop gleaned from Major Clay. That’s exactly what McDonough wanted. It was an effective tactic on his part because this uncertainty forced the crew to keep from repeating the stories later. If the story was truly secret, they didn’t want to get themselves or their skipper in trouble. And even if they ever were tempted to ‘spill the beans’ to a buddy or a girlfriend, their lips were kept in check by the ever-present possibility that Ol’ Skip had been pulling their legs with a bogus “Top Secret” story that existed only in his imagination.
“Any of you guys ever hear of a British chap by the name of Geoffrey Pyke?” The crew unanimously shook their heads even though they knew their captain couldn’t see them from his seat up front.
“Well,” the Colonel continued, now in full story-telling form, “Pyke was a crazy bloke. Kinda looked like Albert Einstein on a bad hair day.” This drew laughter from every corner, which told McDonough that his tactic was working – his crew was finally loosening up a bit. ‘Too loose’ wasn’t a good thing, he knew, but neither was ‘too wound-up.’ And, given their current situation, ‘too loose’ probably couldn’t have been achieved, even if he’d wanted that.
“Pyke was crazy-LOOKING, but he wasn’t crazy. Some of his ideas have been border-line ‘crazy’, it’s true, but the man himself was truly a genius. Lord Louis Mountbatten is the British military’s Chief of Combined Ops. He’s the fellow in charge of collecting new and innovative ideas for the Brits. Mountbatten has long been an admirer of Pyke and his ‘crazy’ ideas; Mountbatten saw Pyke’s ideas for what they were – truly ingenious.
“Well, Pyke had this idea of building ships out of ice!”
“WHAAAAAT???” the crew cried almost in unison.
“No,” McDonough continued, “seriously: ships made of ICE! But not just regular-old ice; he had invented this stuff he called ‘Pykrete’. It was ice with something like 14% wood-pulp added. This stuff, this ‘Pykrete’, with the wood pulp mixed in, had some peculiar properties. Like ice, it was pretty hard; but, unlike ice, it wasn’t at all brittle. In fact, it was MUCH stronger – more like concrete than ice! Better still, unlike concrete, this Pykrete could be worked much like wood. You could plane it to shape, hammer nails or screw screws into it; almost anything you can do to wood you can do to Pykrete. And, like ice, it was extremely buoyant in water – it floated! So, once he had perfected this Pykrete, Pyke had the wild idea to make ships out of this stuff.”
“But Skipper,” a voice interrupted. It was ‘Little Mikey’, the tail gunner. “What good is a ship made of ice? Wouldn’t it melt in temperatures above freezing?”
“What’s the difference, genius?” the bombardier Sparks quipped. “The Brits do a lot of their fighting far enough north that it wouldn’t be a problem. Haven’t you ever heard of those arctic convoys to Russia? It never gets above freezing up there.”
McDonough came to Mikey’s defense. “You’re right about that, Sparksy, but that’s not what the Brits had in mind. And Li’l Mikey poses a fair question. The thing is, apparently this Pykrete melts v-e-r-y slow compared to regular ice. The wood pulp in the Pykrete makes it that way. This is what really made Pykrete a viable ship-building material. Not only could they build a very strong ship, but, with a system of pipes and conduits running throughout the hull pumping a constant flow of cold air and water, it could be kept from melting – theoretically, forever!”
That caused every member of the crew to sit in stunned silence. Imagining the possibility, someone muttered a curse under his breath.
“Yeah,” McDonough continued. “This was hot stuff! (No pun intended.) So hot that when Pyke presented this idea to Lord Mountbatten, his eyes grew big as saucers! He asked Pyke for a sample of this stuff and went straight to Chequers, Churchill’s official country home. When Mountbatten got there he was informed that the Prime Minister was unavailable; he was taking a hot bath upstairs and wasn’t to be disturbed. Nonplussed, Mountbatten blew right past, bounding up the stairs, and saying, ‘Perfect! That’s exactly where I want him!’
“Mountbatten burst into Churchill’s bathroom, startling the Prime Minister who cried, ‘What’s the meaning of this!’ Instead of answering, Mountbatten simply tossed a chunk of ice into his tub which landed right between Churchill’s legs and, obviously, melted very quickly. Ole Winnie was just about to ask him what on earth he was doing throwing ice into his hot bath when Mountbatten tossed another chunk of ice, about the same size, into the Prime Minister’s bath. But this time the ‘ice’ was actually a piece of Pykrete. Both men stared at the ‘ice’ for a few minutes in silence, waiting for it to melt as it should. But it didn’t. It wasn’t ice. After a few minutes Churchill looked up in wonder and asked why it hadn’t melted.”
There was a lively rumble of laughter and chuckles from the crew as they imagined the scene. When they had finally calmed back down, their captain continued.
“Well, after hearing Pyke’s idea, Churchill apparently approved the project on the spot. They were going to build an aircraft carrier out of the stuff. And they did. Well,” McDonough corrected, “we did, I guess I should say.”
The intercom immediately buzzed with confused comments from the crew like “What??” and “We did?” and “What are you talking about??”
Bones spoke up, “What, boys? You thought you knew about EVERY weapons system we have ever developed? Whaddaya think ‘Top Secret’ means anyway?” With his point made, engineer Bones, along with the rest of the crew, waited to hear the rest of Skip’s story.
“Well, ole Bonesey’s right, of course. It was all kept very hush-hush. But at that point in the war, Britain could hardly keep her citizens fed, let alone undertake a project of this magnitude. So they turned to us...”
“The ‘Arsenal of Democracy’!” someone chimed in, in jest.
“Yup. But first they had to pitch the idea to the Americans. This was to be Mountbatten’s job. Problem was, this time he couldn’t very well rely on being able to coax the entire Joint Chiefs into a hot bathtub together,” McDonough continued through the snickers and yelps of laughter from his crew.
“So, anyway, there was this meeting – all the big-wigs from all the major Western Allies – all branches of service were represented. I think it was at the Chateau Frontenac Hotel in Quebec, sometime in ’43, if I remember correctly. Mountbatten figured this was the best opportunity he was going to get to pitch the Pykrete ship. He walked into the meeting with two similarly-sized blocks of ice. Once again, one was regular ice, one was Pykrete. He set them down where everyone could see, and then pulled out his service revolver! The startled Chiefs watched in wonder as Mountbatten pointed his pistol at the block of ice. Before anyone could object or ask what in Hades this lunatic was doing, he fired at the block of ice from point blank range. Although everyone was surprised by Mountbatten’s seemingly insane actions, no one was surprised that the block of ice exploded upon impact, thoroughly destroying it, and sending shattered pieces of ice all around the room.
“Mountbatten gave his colleagues a look, then promptly turned his revolver on the Pykrete. But when this second block of ‘ice’ was hit, the bullet barely made a dent. In fact, instead the bullet bounced right off, ricocheting around the room, and grazing Fleet Admiral Ernest King, of all people, in the leg! But old Ernie wasn’t bothered at all. When he saw that the second block of ‘ice’ was completely unharmed by the same weapon that had utterly demolished the block of regular ice, he couldn’t have cared less about the hole in the leg of his trousers.”
Once again, scattered chuckles could be heard on the ‘com as the men imagined the scene.
“According to the story I was told,” McDonough went on, “British Air Marshall Sir William Welch was one of the many members of high-level staff waiting outside the conference room where their bosses were meeting. When he heard the shots being fired in the next room, he cried, ‘My God! The Americans are shooting the British!’ ”
This time the crew was entirely unable to restrain themselves. Hysterical laughter filled the bomber from nose to tail for several minutes.
I don’t know if that part is true,” McDonough laughed, “but it’s always been my favorite part of the whole Pykrete story.” From the continued laughter McDonough concluded that his crew agreed.
“Well,” the Colonel finally continued, “as you can imagine, the bulk of Mountbatten’s sales pitch had already been delivered without him even having to open his mouth. Once he went on to explain what the Brits had in mind – a practically unsinkable Pykrete aircraft carrier which could cover the mid-Atlantic air-gap without fear of U-boats or surface raiders – the General Staff quickly approved. We Yanks, in cooperation with the Canadians, set up a series of feasibility tests and all that junk. A team of engineers and physicists worked out the bugs, and construction was begun in a remote location way up north in Canada somewhere I guess.
“From what I was told, it took nearly 10,000 men the better part of a year to build this Pykrete aircraft carrier. God only knows how many millions it must’ve cost. But it turned out to be money well spent! Two thousand feet long, something like three or four hundred feet wide, and some absolutely ridiculous number of feet deep, it made it’s way south past Greenland and took up station right in the middle of the North Atlantic. No escorts were assigned to it. None were needed; this monster carried well over a hundred planes – actually closer to 200, come to think of it – aircraft of all kinds were being cared for in her well-protected hangar decks!”
Scattered expressions of astonishment from the crew filled McDonough’s headset.
“Obviously,” he continued, “upon spotting this behemoth, the U-boat crews licked their chops like a fox in a sleeping hen-house! They stared in disbelief at what looked like a truly un-miss-able target just sitting there all by itself in the middle of the ocean! They gathered in a wolf-pack, as you might expect, and prepared to take advantage of this juicy once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Despite the fatigue of the long flight and the cramped conditions, the crew was unanimously on the edge of their proverbial seats. This is exactly what McDonough had been hoping for. Not a one of them was thinking – at least for now – about the perilous position they were in as their plane slowly began to run out of fuel ...with no conceivable landing site in view or range.
Unfortunately the same could not be said of their skipper. Lt. Col. McDonough could not keep his eyes off the fuel gauge, which was now well past the one-quarter mark and fast approaching the red-zone. And yet, his ever-vigilant gaze couldn’t identify anything even remotely resembling an island outside his cockpit. Just endless tracts of blue-grey-green ocean as far as the eye could see.
Copilot Sterling was having no better luck locating Ivory Forest Alpha through his high-powered binoculars. Sensing his commander’s eyes on the back of his neck, Sterling momentarily lowered the binos and snuck a glance to his left. The pilots’ eyes met each other and both men silently shook their heads confirming what they both feared – Ivory Forest Alpha was nowhere to be found.
Col. McDonough momentarily turned off his plane-wide ‘com and addressed his radio operator. “Bucky, any luck?” The slow shaking of Bucks head was accompanied by a “Now what, Skip?”-look on his face. Buck gave a quick nod and turned to continue sending his unanswered calls over the plane’s radio set.
“So what happened, Colonel?” a voice asked. “Yeah, Skip,” said another, “don’t stop now!”
McDonough chuckled silently and shook his head in wonder. They sounded exactly like his kids had when they were little, he mused. Bedtime stories were supposed to make a kid sleepy, weren’t they? The whole point of a bedtime story was to help them fall asleep, right? Not his kids. By mid-story they were always sitting straight up in their beds listening anxiously, rather than lying peacefully as they were supposed to be. And how many times had he heard these same pleas from his kids? “Then what happened, Daddy?” and “Yeah, Dad, don’t stop NOW!” – the same words he was now hearing from his crew all these years later. He smiled, shook his head again, then flipped the ‘com back on...
“Well... The Germans quickly discovered that they were right about one thing: they had no trouble hitting such a huge target with torpedoes. Unfortunately for them, their torpedoes did almost NO damage to the carrier whatsoever. Sure, with each hit a couple feet of Pykrete would be blown off,” McDonough shrugged, “but that left more than 45 feet of hull remaining! And what are the odds of hitting the exact same spot with torpedoes over and over and over again?? Practically zero. If memory serves, that first wolf pack launched at least a couple-three dozen torpedoes or so, almost all of which scored hits. And yet not one of these hits caused any appreciable damage to the carrier.”
“Whoa...” someone pensively said in a soft, distant voice.
“Plus,” McDonough continued, “Any damage the Pykrete ship did incur was quickly and easily repaired. After all, the ship was floating in a vast ocean of the very stuff of which it was made – a limitless source of material for patching up any damage.
“When the U-boats’ torpedoes failed to affect this enormous ship, the Germans surfaced and unleashed their deck guns, hoping the carrier’s top-sides would be a bit more vulnerable to attack. But they soon found that this tactic met with equal frustration. The whole ship was made of Pykrete! And even though the superstructure’s walls weren’t nearly as thick as the hull, they were still something like ten or twenty feet thick! That’s a heckuva lot of Pykrete – a very difficult target to try and damage!
“And frustration wasn’t the only thing the German sub crews felt,” the Colonel continued with a chuckle. “With a flight deck approaching some 2,000-feet long, this bad-boy was able to carry twin-engine bombers – and a hefty number of ‘em at that! Plus she was loaded with dozens of Mosquitoes, Spitfires – they even had a sizeable contingent of American carrier-based models based on this enormous ice-ship.”
“Man, Skip!” a voice pondered through the intercom. “How many bad guys did they bag?”
“Well, I can’t say for certain. I know that they scored several confirmed sinkings in that first attack alone. I also know that conservative estimates – not counting the ‘suspected’ or ‘possible’ sinkings – put the numbers close to twenty U-boats sunk after the first month of service alone!
“Needless to say, the problem of the Mid-Atlantic ‘air-gap’ was forever solved. Convoys began to enjoy unprecedented success in safely reaching Britain and getting back to America without incident. Doenitz continued to throw subs at the carrier for several months, none of which had any better luck than that first group. In fact, as the air crews gained increasingly more experience in sub-hunting and operating from this huge ship, the U-boat losses steadily rose. I don’t know why the Jerries continued to throw U-boats at her when it was clear that sinking this thing was practically impossible... Maybe they just wanted to keep it from redeploying closer to Europe. I dunno.”
“Did it have a name, Skip?” someone asked.
“The ship – this ice carrier – did it have a name?”
“Oh,” McDonough replied, “Yeah. ...Of course it did. Every ship has a name. At first they wanted to name it Habakkuk, but at Churchill’s request they apparently ended up naming it after Geoffrey Pyke: HMS Pyke. A fitting tribute, I suppose...”
“Hubcap-cut??” somebody tried.
“No, you moron,” a buddy rebuked, “It’s Habakkuk, you know? Like in the Bible, right, Skip?”
“Yup,” the Colonel answered, “A minor prophet, I think. Old Testament.”
“Okay...” someone else said. “But why Habakkuk (or whatever you said)?”
Another voice quietly quoted, “Behold, ye among the heathen, and watch; prepare to be utterly amazed, for I am going to work a wonder in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told...”
“Very good, Hicks!” McDonough congratulated. “Didn’t know you were a biblical scholar. Habakkuk 1:5, I think? ...Somp’n like that anyway.”
After a few moments of reflection someone pondered aloud, “How come we haven’t made something like that ice-ship-thing for ourselves, Skip?”
“Ha ha!” the Colonel laughed. “That’s the part of the story that’ll get me strung up from a Pykrete yard arm, Johnson. See, we DID make our own Pykrete ship. Two of ‘em, in fact.”
This revelation was received with complete silence from the stunned crew. Even Captain Sterling felt compelled to drop his binoculars momentarily to look at his commander’s face, searching for the hint of jest he expected to see McDonough wearing, but finding none.
“No,” McDonough answered his copilot’s unasked question. “I’m not kidding: USS Aurora and USS Habakkuk.”
“Habakkuk? Really?” someone inquired.
“Well,” McDonough shrugged, “I guess someone figured it was an appropriate name and; if the Brits weren’t going to use it for their own ice-ship, we might just as well use it for one of our own Pykrete carriers.”
After another moment of silence a voice sheepishly asked what every man aboard wanted to know. “You pullin’ our leg, Colonel?”
McDonough shrugged. Although only Captain Sterling in the copilot’s seat was in a position to witness McDonough’s nonverbal answer, every man, from the bombardier to the tail gunner, knew him well enough by now to know that had been his answer.
Lt. Col. McDonough waited a moment, checked a couple gauges, and then continued as though the question hadn’t been asked.
“The British hadn’t been in any position to pay for the first Pykrete ship. So they really couldn’t object when we decided to pull up stakes on the Canadian northeast coast and move the whole operation to the Yukon. We figured, by this time, we needed these Pykrete ships in the Pacific Theater worse than we needed them in the ETO. Production began immediately on the next one. But Roosevelt was so impressed with HMS Pyke’s performance in the Atlantic that he suggested a major upgrade. He upped the ante four-fold! While the workers in the Yukon began making tons of Pykrete, Engineers frantically worked on a new design. They concluded there was no reason a ship couldn’t be built that was more than twice the size of the Pyke.”
“WHAT?!?” came the incredulous cries over the intercom.
Someone added knowingly, “See? I knew this was all just a bunch of bull,” then a moment later and a bit less confidently, he asked, “...ain’t it, Skip??” No one was surprised that the skipper’s answer was simply silence – and probably a shrug. They couldn’t see it, but they knew. That was always the thing about his stories: you never knew if you were stupid to believe them or stupid NOT to believe them.
That’s exactly what the wily old Lt. Col. McDonough was hoping to achieve.
After yet another pause he continued. “Until now, you’ve known that the largest ship in the world was...” He waited for a reply like a school teacher in front of a class of pupils who were reluctant to guess wrongly.
“Tirpitz?” someone finally ventured.
“Geez, you’re such a bumpkin, Clarence,” another voice chastised. “Them Jap ships’re bigger, right, Kernel? Yam-mato-class?” he guessed, pronouncing the first part of the name like another word for a sweet potato and pronouncing the second half like it rhymed with ‘tomato’.
“Oh yeah!” the first voice chided, “I’m a real bumpkin, aren’t I. It’s ‘Yamato’,” Clarence pronounced slowly, “as in, ‘yum-AH-toe’.”
“Oh, so you’re the big expert in Japanese, are you, Clarence? Why don’t you come down here and I’ll show you how I speak Japanese...”
The skipper broke in, his firm, well-practice tone of voice clearly and simultaneously saying to both men, ‘I don’t mind if you guys give each other a hard time, as long as it’s all in good fun,’ as well as ‘THAT’S ENOUGH, you two!’ Even though he actually said neither of these in so many words, the message in his tone of voice was received loud and clear.
What he did say was, “Come on, you guys. The largest ship in the world is not a warship.” His voice shifted from firm to comical as he mocked a boxing announcer. “Weighing in at 86,000 tons – in the far corner, wearing the Red Coat – the one, the only, the Royal Mail Steamer...”
“Queen Mary!” someone interrupted abruptly over the ‘com.
“Very good, Hicks,” McDonough declared. “You’re two-for-two today!”
“Yeah, Hicksey,” someone else chimed in. “You musta had your Ovaltine today!”
McDonough continued, “RMS Queen Mary displaces something like 86,000 tons, I think. HMS Pyke, the Pykrete carrier, weighs more than two million tons!”
Someone let out a “WHOA!”
“Yeah,” McDonough agreed. “But that’s nothing. With the changes FDR suggested, the two Pykrete carriers we built in the Yukon for use in the Pacific are more than twice the size of the Pyke!”
Once more the Superfortress was filled with stunned silence. And yet again Jimmy Sterling felt compelled to put down his binoculars. He looked to McDonough and furrowed his brows as if administering a lie-detector test. But the captain was busy checking his gauges and didn’t return his copilot’s gaze until he was satisfied that what he was checking was as expected. Only then did he look up at his copilot, but instead of answering the question on Sterling’s face, he gestured with his head toward the array of instruments in front of them. When Jimmy was looking at the instrument panel, Col. McDonough pointed at the fuel indicators and tapped them lightly.
McDonough shrugged as if to say, “Nothing we can do about it,” and returned to his story.
“I honestly don’t know exactly when they were launched. Truth is, I don’t even know for sure that they ever were launched. But I have to assume they were. In fact, I actually got to see them once, up in the Yukon. Major Clay gave me an unauthorized peek at the pair of them while they were still in their slips. They were pretty close to being completed and, to a fly-boy like me, they looked good to go right there and then. But I guess they still had some things to work out internally. Point is, I can’t imagine the Navy spending that kind of money on these two monsters, getting ‘em 90+% completed, and then NOT launching them. That was quite some time ago when I saw them, so I would have to guess they’re being used right now somewhere out here in the PTO.”
Bones stuck his head around the corner from his own instruments for a moment and posed the question, “Cap’n, you think there’s any chance that’s where we’re headed? Could ‘Ivory Forest Alpha’ be one of these – what’d ya call ‘em? – one of these Pykrete aircraft carriers?”
That brought dead silence across the intercom. Excited minds, still reeling from the story of the ‘ice-ships’, now raced at the possibility that they might now actually get the chance to witness these technological wonders in person! Everyone anxiously awaited their skipper’s answer.
McDonough knew the answer. Aurora and Habakkuk did indeed have truly mammoth flight decks – almost a mile long! Unfortunately, even if they had flight decks twice as long as that, it still would have been nearly impossible to land and launch Superfortresses. How ever wonderful USS Habakkuk and Aurora were, there was simply no possible way that McDonough and his crew could land on one of these ships – even with the extremely light load they were carrying this day, there was absolutely no way.
But he couldn’t exactly tell his crew this. It wouldn’t help their situation in the slightest to know details such as this. So the Colonel wracked his brain, trying to figure out how best to answer the question that had been posed to him without lying to his crew and yet without dashing whatever hope they had remaining within them.
Finally McDonough spoke. “I dunno...” he admitted skeptically. “I mean, I don’t think so, Bonesey. I’ve been giving that possibility some thought for quite a while now. I guess maybe that’s why I had the story of the HMS Pyke on my mind.
“On the one hand,” the Colonel explained, “a part of me wants to say yes, that could be it. For example, we weren’t given an exact position. We were given an ‘approximate’ location for our rendezvous with Ivory Forest Alpha, right? That doesn’t sound like an island to me; sounds more like a ship...”
The navigator, Chauncey, now piped in, “And our charts show absolutely nothing at those coordinates. Nothing even close! So it almost can’t be an island, can it?”
Lt. Col. McDonough grimaced silently at his navigator’s words. This wasn’t exactly the message he wanted to convey to the rest of his crew – at least not yet. “Thanks a LOT, Chaunce!” he thought to himself. “That oughtta do wonders for morale.” But he said nothing aloud.
“I dunno,” McDonough admitted. “You’re right that it seems like kind of a stretch to imagine an uncharted island that close to the shipping lanes, it’s true. But, at the same time, I find it difficult to believe that this is some sort of April Fools Day prank being sprung on us.” McDonough forced a laugh. But no one else joined him.
Okay, Charlie, the Colonel thought to himself, now what’re ya gonna do?!
Buck took a break from his radio set, leaned back to tap McDonough on the shoulder. The Colonel answered with a hopeful look. Buck almost felt guilty when he had to shake his head in reply to his captain’s unasked question.
Then Bucky looked up at McDonough. Although he and Bones were in the same pressurized compartment as the pilots, Buck deliberately used the ‘com to address his commander, asking, “So you think there’s any chance that what we’re lookin’ for might be one of these ‘ice-carriers’, Skip?”
McDonough turned an appreciative eye to his radio op, then flipped his ‘com back on. “Well, I suppose it’s possible, Buck...”
“Aw, c’mon, Colonel,” someone sneered, “Do you mean to tell me these ice-carriers are big enough to land a Superfort?”
“Well, I don’t know for sure,” McDonough said (which was the truth), deflecting the question with the skill of a seasoned politician. “What I do know is I’ve never seen anything like those ships I saw up in Canada. They were absolutely enormous!”
“Skip...” Sterling half-whispered, pointing down at an instrument that showed the distance they had flown since taking off the previous evening. McDonough looked down just in time to see the meter roll over from 3999.9 to 4000.0. Four thousand miles – just one hundred miles short of the B-29’s maximum theoretical range, by far the furthest he had ever flown a Supe. Hopefully the lack of a bomb-load and other combat equipment would give them at least a little extra time.
McDonough looked up and met his copilot’s eyes. He could do nothing but shrug and cross his fingers. And maybe his toes too. He decided to resume talking to his crew, although, by now, it was less about putting them at ease and more about keeping his own mind off their predicament.
“Let me see... It’s been quite a while since I saw them, but if I recall correctly both ships had essentially identical hulls. They called them ‘sister ships’, but if that’s true, they were hardly identical twins. Habakkuk was CVI-1, the ‘I’ designating it as an ‘ice-ship’, I think; Aurora was designated CV(T)I-2. The ‘T’ designated her as a ‘transport carrier’...”
McDonough was increasingly being forced to interrupt his story – sometimes for several moments at a time – as he and Capt. Sterling made adjustments in the fuel load, among other things. This ‘dead air space’, as they call it in the radio industry, was not interrupted by banter from the crew as had been the case earlier. During some of the longer periods of interruption, the silence felt almost uncomfortable, sometimes downright eerie; it was clear that everyone on board was starting to get a bit edgy about the fuel situation. No one had to tell them they were low on fuel. Every man wore a wristwatch. They had left Tacoma nearly eighteen hours ago. Even if they were only flying at a relatively leisurely 230 miles per hour, they were obviously near the four thousand-mile mark. You didn’t need a pilot’s license to do that math.
“Anyway... where was I? Oh yeah. The, uh... – what’s that, Jimmy? Yeah, Engine Four. There ya go, bud. Good. – The, uh, Habakkuk was designed as a pure attack carrier. She had two flight decks that ran the whole length of the top-side – almost a mile in length, if you can imagine! It wasn’t quite a mile, but it was close enough for me,” McDonough managed a momentary chuckle at the memory. “Man! It was big! Anyway... The port-side flight deck was divided in two about half-way down the length. The forward section was for launching single-engine planes; the aft section was for landing them. They were actually practicing landing and launching planes when I was there. That, in itself, was amazing to see! The ship wasn’t even in the ocean yet and they were still able to launch and recover planes simultaneously! I’m telling you, it was an incredible sight.
“...What, Jimbo? Yeah, I got it. That’s okay. Good. Good... Anyway, when I saw them, they had the usual assortment of Hellcats and Helldivers, of course. And they were using the new Corsairs extensively. That’s a sweet machine, by the way. Those things will be real Zeke-killers, I think. ...Jimmy. Jim, get that. Thanks. Good... Cliff told me there was even talk of flying T-bolts, ‘Stangs and Lightnings off her. I mean, with a runway that long, it really doesn’t matter if the plane was designed for carrier use or not, now does it? ...Hang on a second, fellas... Yeah? Check it again...”
Bones was busy himself, but he was also intrigued. “Did you say they were launching and recovering planes at the same time, Skip?”
“Yeah, I couldn’t believe it myself. But, really, with a flight-deck that long, it really didn’t appear to be a problem. And these fellows were still learning to do this! I s’pose by now they’re real pro’s at it. They had this huge net-like thing strung up to protect the planes being launched from any landing plane that couldn’t get stopped, but the whole time I was watching I never saw them have to use it.”
“Wow. That’s... wow.”
“Heh, heh,” McDonough laughed, “I know. It was incredible. Thinking back on it I still have to question whether or not what I saw was for real. You should have seen the superstructure these babies had! It was situated smack-dab in the middle of the ship, between the port and starboard flight decks. It was truly massive. Cliff told me that, instead of ‘island’, the Pykrete crews referred to the superstructure on these ships’ as ‘igloos’,” McDonough chuckled to himself. “Of course they didn’t look anything like an igloo. They looked more like a cross between the top of an iceberg and a big metro skyline, I guess. They definitely didn’t look at all conventional, that’s for sure.”
Col. McDonough again stopped for a few moments to work with his copilot before resuming his story.
“Anyway... As I said, the port-side flight deck was broken into two sections, one for landing fighters, the other for launching them. By contrast, the starboard flight deck ran the whole length of the ship, uninterrupted. This was the truly fantastic part, to me. This flight deck was used for the bombers. And when I say, ‘bombers’, I’m not talking about Dauntlesses and Avengers (those, being single-engine planes, would land on the port-side deck); no, I’m talking Mitchells, Marauders, Havocs, Invaders. There was even talk of eventually trying out Liberators and/or Flying Forts. There was some doubt about those possibilities, and it hadn’t even been tried yet when I was there. Don’t even know if they ever did try it.”
The ensuing silence while the skipper tended to his dying bird gave everyone an opportunity to let what McDonough had told them to fully sink in. Even the most nervous and preoccupied among the crew couldn’t help but take a moment to imagine an aircraft carrier capable of handling multi-engine bombers. Even if they were never able to fly ‘Lib’s and ‘Fort’s, just the thought of being able to launch and recover B-25 and B-26 bombers from a carrier fascinated them all.
McDonough switched his ‘com so he could discuss something with his navigator.
Everyone, from Little Mikey in the tail to bombardier Sparks in the nose, could tell from the direction of the sun that their plane was no longer flying in the same direction they had set out in so many hours before. It was impossible to tell, but they might even be circling. But no one said a word. Nobody wanted to be the one chattering when the good news was called out that Bucky had finally raised Ivory Forest Alpha on the radio. Gazing down from the nose, Sparks even found himself unconsciously holding his breath as he scanned the endless sea below and listened to the deafening silence coming through his headset.
Finally a voice interrupted the silence. “SKIP!” Capt. Hall’s voice startled nearly everyone as he called out over the general crew intercom from his radar station. “I have a large contact on the far southeastern edge of my screen!”
“Ship?” McDonough asked.
“Ehhh...,” Hall’s initial reply indicated that he wasn’t exactly sure. But as the return became increasingly more visible in his scope he became increasingly sure of his answer. “Nnnnno... Don’t think so anyway... Wait... No. No way. It’s way too big to be a ship, Colonel.”
Hoots, hollers, and cheers rang out from one end of the ship to the other. Crewmen close enough to another slapped each other on the back. Everyone wiped the beads of sweat from their brow.
The officers in the forward cabin, however, weren’t rejoicing just yet.
“Whaddaya think, Jimbo?” McDonough queried.
Sterling squinted at the gauges in front of him and shook his head. With a little shrug he looked at his commander and said, “I just can’t tell, Skip. The readings are so low now that it hasn’t gone down in the past five minutes. I think it’s as far down as it goes.”
Flight Engineer Bones stuck his head between the pilots and half-whispered, “It may be a bit early to congratulate ourselves, gentlemen...”
McDonough nodded at him, “We were just saying that ourselves, Bonesey. What’s your best guess?”
“My best guess?” Bones shrugged. “I’m hoping the float in the tanks is designed to hit bottom before it’s actually dry. ‘Cause if these readings are actually correct, we’re running on fumes...”
They were still a long ways out. McDonough did some rough calculations in his head, trying to figure out how long a swim it would be if they went down right here... The figure he came up with wasn’t exactly a pretty one.
McDonough gave Buck a look that asked what was happening on the radio. When Bucky shook his head and looked at the floor the Colonel got the answer he already knew even before he had asked. If Bucky had been able to reach Ivory Forest Alpha, he’d have said so by now. Assuming the large mass on Hall’s radar screen was indeed Ivory Forest Alpha, they should already be well within radio range. There was obviously some sort of foul up with the radios. Maybe the island on the radar screen wasn’t Ivory Forest Alpha at all! That would explain why they hadn’t achieved radio contact, wouldn’t it. Maybe it’s just an uninhabited mass of basalt sticking out above the waves. In that case they might as well ditch in the water...
But these thoughts weren’t helping. They weren’t helping McDonough concentrate on the task at hand, and they weren’t helping the crew to relax. So he tried to push these thoughts from his mind.
They flew on in silence for several minutes. The stress was building with each passing moment. The tension was so thick you could sew a button on it. And they still had a long way to go considering how little fuel they probably had left.
McDonough could feel it, perhaps more keenly than anyone. He was more responsible for the plane and its crew than anyone else on board. He tried to think of a way to break the tension, but he didn’t feel much like telling another story. A million thoughts competed for his attention. None of them were particularly helpful given the current situation.
Bucky broke the silence. “Skipper,” he said quietly over the crew ‘com, “What else can you tell us about these, these... ice-ships, or whatever?”
McDonough winced at the thought. Why did he always have to be the one to lift everyone else’s spirits?! Why couldn’t it be someone else for a change?!? But when he turned to look at his radio operator, and saw Buck’s warm, reassuring smile, he realized that’s exactly what Bucky was trying to do right now. Without saying it, his friend Buck was telling him, ‘Skip, you’re our only hope. Whatever your faults, we’re YOUR boys; we know that you’ll do everything you can to get us through this. That’s why we all respect you. That’s why you’re our “skipper”!’
And the Colonel’s single nod of the head told Bucky, ‘Thanks. I needed that.’
“Well,” Col. McDonough said, after taking a deep breath and switching on the crew-wide intercom again, “Let me think. Habakkuk had four enormous elevators on the flight deck level. I mean, these suckers were HUGE! Even if they never do fly a four-engine bomber off those things, the elevators look like they were designed to easily hold one. The port-side lifts were very near the middle of the ship and extended a ways over the port side. They were relatively close together, as I recall; one on each side of that big net-like barricade thing. That way they could bring planes up from the hangar decks below using the forward elevator and the aft lift could be used to simultaneously take recovered planes down below almost as soon as they had landed.
“The starboard-side flight deck also had two elevators, but the arrangement was completely different for the bomber side. The elevators were spread rather far apart, very nearly at the bow and aft. And the purpose of the starboard lifts was reversed from those on the port side: the aft-most starboard lift was for bringing planes up to be launched, the forward lift was for taking recovered planes down below. ...Which makes sense, I guess, since the starboard deck is designed for bombers. Needing a longer runway, they used most of the length of the flight deck for landing, and even more so for taking off. So, I suppose, they can’t launch and recover bombers simultaneously as they can for the smaller planes. When I watched they were taking turns: one bomber would be brought up on the after elevator a couple moments after the previous plane had touched down. Once the plane landed on the deck, it immediately headed for the forward lift as fast as possible so the other plane could take off. They weren’t totally proficient at this when I was watching, but I’m sure they could get it down to clock-work with enough practice.”
Col. McDonough was taking turns peeking first out the Plexiglas window on his left and then out the right side, trying to listen to the four engines that were now running less smoothly than before. In the past his fellow officers on board had teased him about this habit, as if his eyes could help him better hear the engines. But no one was likely to give The Old Man any grief this time. Each of the men on board were listening to the steady thrum of the engines, trying to detect any hiccup or indication that they were no longer receiving fuel from the nearly dry tanks.
The next time he looked to the right to listen to the starboard engines, Captain Sterling’s eyes met his. “Never a gas station around when you need one, is there, Skip,” Sterling said dryly.
McDonough drew a deep breath and nodded in response to his copilot. He looked at his watch and quickly confirmed what time it was. His watch still read Tacoma-time. They had left in the dark early evening hours and now, eighteen hours later, it was almost evening again, the following day – or was it the previous day? McDonough was too tired to try and figure it out. Such was the paradox of flying in the opposite direction of the earth’s rotation.
“We should see China coming up in the west shortly, Jim,” McDonough deadpanned.
Sterling laughed uneasily. They weren’t still heading west, of course. But it surely felt as though they should be shortly passing over the Great Wall. It had been a long flight. Everyone was tired. But no one was sleepy.
“Cap’n?” someone called out from behind. “You told us about that Habakkuk ship – the attack carrier, right? But you said that other one – Aurora? – You said that one was designated a ‘transport carrier’, right?”
By now McDonough would have given his month’s pay not to have to talk any more. But he was the only one who could answer the question. A part of him wished he hadn’t even brought the subject up. He was tired. He was tired of thinking. Tired of talking. Tired of flying this bloody mission! Too bad.
“Yeah,” the Colonel finally answered. “I was a lot closer to the Habakkuk than I was to the Aurora. I didn’t get as much of a look at that one. But I could still see it pretty well, I guess...” He laughed, “It’s kinda hard to miss a mile-long ship, even from a great distance!”
The Skipper checked his instruments again as he continued, “Umm, Lemme see... That Aurora was significantly different. The hull was the same, the island – or ‘igloo’, I should say – that was the same too. And I guess the starboard flight deck was also the same as Habakkuk’s – long, designed for multiple-engine planes. But unlike Habakkuk, the Aurora’s port-side flight deck was exactly like the starboard-side deck, running the length of the ship, from stem to stern. The idea was that Aurora could launch and land multi-engine planes simultaneously, using one flight deck for launching and one for landing.”
“So they could use Aurora strictly for bombers then?” Bones asked.
“Well, I suppose,” the Colonel answered. “But if I understood correctly, that wasn’t the plan. The two ships were to head out together, staying fairly close together. The Habakkuk would provide air cover for the both of them. Aurora was simply going to act as a relay station for transport planes.”
“Why not use Aurora for bombers?” Bones asked.
“Well, I’m sure they could use it for bombers if they wanted. But at the time, the plan was to use it in a different way.” The Pilot and Flight Engineer now spoke as if the two of them were having a private conversation, even though they were speaking over the crew ‘com so that all could eavesdrop. McDonough continued, “You remember early in the war how we were going to do that ‘island-hopping’ thing?”
Bones replied in the affirmative, “Bypass strong points of resistance, isolate them, and then skip on to the next island – that kind of thing?”
“Yeah, that’s about right,” McDonough confirmed. “Well, as you know, we never really ended up doing that. We took Guadalcanal, then tried jumping to Bougainville, and ended up getting mauled.”
“Yeah...” Bones said in a far-off voice.
McDonough then remembered Bones’ younger brother, a marine who had been but one of the many tragic casualties of the disastrous assault on the Japanese fortress at Rabaul. Why didn’t I remember that before I opened my big fat mouth?!? McDonough thought to himself. Damn.
“Well,” the Col. tried to continue, “We all know what a lousy deal that was...” Eleven heads nodded slowly as they remembered the difficulties those poor jar-heads had gone through while trying to perfect the practice of amphibious assaults in the Pacific. “Obviously the losses were far too great,” McDonough ventured. “So the whole ‘island-hopping’ deal was reevaluated. Thank God for the Brits. That’s when Pyke and his ice-ships stepped in. Originally there didn’t seem to be any direct correlation to the struggle in the PTO. In fact, the Pyke made that first dramatic stand in the North Atlantic at just about the same time that the plans were being drawn up for a second try at taking Bougainville and the base at Rabaul in the northern Solomons.”
McDonough could almost feel the silence that came from his crew in response to such a dreadful thought, so he hastened to continue. “But, as you know, the second invasion never happened. Someone had come up with another idea. The concept was the same as the original island-hopping notion: with air and sea power, there was no need to capture each and every square inch of land the Japs had taken. We simply needed some stepping stones between where we were and where the Japs live. It was feared that it was too costly to try and take even a few islands from the Japanese; something else would have to serve as the ‘stepping stones,’ so to speak.”
“Pykrete,” Bones exclaimed, obviously thinking along with the Colonel.
“Yup,” McDonough answered. “At least that was what Cliff told me when he showed me the Pykrete carriers Habakkuk and Aurora. Somehow these two ships were supposed to be an integral part of this new approach to island-hopping our way to the Japanese mainland. It will undoubtedly still be a nasty chore to wrestle Japan away from the Japanese, but at least we won’t suffer the losses we would have incurred in taking all those little islands in the Central and Southwest Pacific...” McDonough wasn’t finished, but was abruptly interrupted by Captain Hall.
“Colonel! I have bogeys at three-one-zero! Multiple small returns, moving fast!”
“Mikey,” McDonough called to his tail gunner, “Wake up, bud. They should be coming up on you back there.”
Little Mikey was already frantically search the skies for the tiny black dots that would be the aircraft of unknown origin.
To McDonough it seemed like fifteen minutes later before Li’l Mikey finally called out. “I have eyes on, Skip! I see four, no... five planes at five – almost six o’clock, level!”
“Friendly?” McDonough asked the question everyone wanted to know.
“Can’t say...” Little Mikey tried to say, but he was interrupted by Buck at the radio.
“Shut up, you guys...” Everyone held their breath as Bucky strained to listen to the faint signal he was picking up. “Man, Colonel, it’s almost impossible... I can’t... Here, have a listen.” Buck flipped a switch and the entire crew was able to listen to what he had been trying to decipher over the radio.
“...abe... eve... ree... eade...”
“What the hell?” someone exclaimed.
“Is that Japanese??” someone else wondered aloud.
“That’s right, dufus. It’s probably Tojo, asking us to come on over for a spot of tea!” a buddy quipped in sarcastic reply.
“Okay, pipe down!” McDonough snapped. “Buck,” he then added, “Keep trying. See if you can raise ‘em.”
“Gull wings!” came the cry from Li’l Mikey in the tail. “They’re Corsairs, Colonel!”
At almost the same instant a voice, barely audible at first, came across the radio: “...uper ...or-one, this is Saber Seven-Three Leader. Super Four-One, is that you?”
Everyone onboard the Superfortress heaved a sigh of relief to hear a friendly voice from outside their plane, but no one had the energy to rejoice openly.
“Saber Seven-Three Leader, this is Super Four-One. We have five Corsairs on our tail – that you?” Bucky asked his radio set.
After what seemed like an eternity of silence, the reply came like a gust of fresh air rushing from one end of the ship to the other: “Roger, Super Four-One. That’s us. Where’ve you boys been?”
“That’s a good question, Saber Leader. We’ve been asking ourselves the same thing all day!” Buck replied. Then he added, “Um, we’re running a little short on gas, Saber Leader. Don’t s’pose you fellas know of anyplace ‘round here where a guy can get a fill-up? ...And maybe a bite to eat?”
“Yeah,” came the reply, “I bet you ARE running a little low! We’ve been lookin’ for ya for more than an hour now! Tell you what, you follow us down to Ivory Forest Alpha and we’ll see if we can’t scrounge up a hot beef sandwich and maybe a hot cup o’ joe. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds like Heaven, Saber Leader – absolutely Heaven!”
McDonough was just about to tell Buck to ask why they couldn’t reach Ivory Forest Alpha by radio, but at that very moment he looked to his left and saw the friendly face of an F4U pilot looking back at him. The men waved, smiled, and nodded at each other. Then the Corsairs took up positions to guide the B-29 in for an approach on the airfield that was presumably the tiny dot now barely visible on the distant horizon.
A million questions raced through Col. McDonough’s head as he gazed hypnotically at the tiny dot that must be Ivory Forest Alpha. Why isn’t Ivory Forest Alpha where it was supposed to be? Why haven’t we been able to reach them by radio? What the heck IS Ivory Forest Alpha anyway??
But he never got the chance to ask any of them aloud, for at that very moment he could hear the steady hum of his bird’s four engines turn into the sputtering hiccough he had been expecting to hear. He turned to his left to better hear.
“Yup,” Jim Sterling confirmed. “Four’s gone. Should I try and see if I can get it restarted?”
“No,” the pilot answered. “There’s no point. I can’t believe they’ve continued this long. Let’s just pray that’s the only one we’ll lose between here and there,” McDonough said, nodding at the island ahead.
McDonough looked to his left and his eyes met those of the Corsair pilot’s. An experienced flier, the fighter pilot looked back and to his right, toward the now-dead and feathered propeller of the B-29’s number-four engine. McDonough answered the unasked question with a nod and a shrug. The fighter pilot shook his head in reply and said a quick prayer for the crew of the dying Superfortress that was supposed to be his ward. But that’s all he could do. The ’29 needed fuel – that’s all she needed. And that was the one thing Saber Seven-Three could not provide her.
“Sparksy,” McDonough called out to his bombardier in the nose. “Can you see Ivory Forest Alpha?”
Sparks already had a pair of binoculars trained on the growing dot near the horizon. “Yeah, I can SEE it, but I can’t tell you what the heck it is!”
“Well, what do you see?” Sparks’ commander asked.
“Heh,” Sparks grunted. “I’m not sure, Skip. ...I’m just not sure!”
After another couple moments of studying the odd shape in his binoculars Sparks added, “I guess the best I can tell you is... Hmmm... You ever see an iceberg, Cap’n?” He knew McDonough had seen plenty of them. “Well, it kinda looks like that. It’s sorta whitish, almost shiny-like...” He was clearly having difficulty describing what he was seeing. “...It’s kind of jagged like rocks, but it doesn’t look like rocks. There might be... Yeah! There IS! There’s a runway down there, Skip!” This shouldn’t have been news to anyone – clearly the Corsairs must’ve come from somewhere – but somehow this news seemed to lift everyone’s spirits.
“No. Wait...” Sparks continued. “There’s not a runway, it’s a whole bloomin’ airfield, Colonel! I count at least two... no, THREE – three runways! ...at least three.”
McDonough looked to his copilot and received a big smile and a nod confirming what Sparks was saying. Sterling then returned the binoculars to his eyes for a moment, hesitated, and turned to offer them to his Colonel. McDonough took them eagerly while Jimmy took over flying.
When he finally was able to acquire the island in his binoculars, McDonough could immediately see why it had been so difficult for Sparksy to describe. It did indeed look like an iceberg – a massive iceberg! And yet, at the same time, it didn’t look anything at all like an iceberg. It glistened in the sea like a white jewel as the setting sun reflected off it even more than it did off the B-29’s shiny aluminum skin. The center rose up increasingly, almost like a mountain, ascending to a series of peaks. All around this center system of strange structures was what looked like an enormous system of paved roads. Three separate runways were clearly visible, arranged in a sort of triangle. Although the farthest runway was partially obscured by the mountainous structures in the middle, he could see it clearly now. Oddly enough, although McDonough had to look more than once just to make sure he was seeing correctly, the island appeared to have a multi-layered wake extending out from it in the direction of his B-29. “Couldn’t be...” he muttered to himself, shaking his head in disbelief. Was this island moving??
“Skip?” Buck called out. “Saber Leader’s on the horn.”
McDonough dropped his binoculars and looked to his left, then raised them back up to peer at the pilot in the Corsair to his left. He could just make out the name ‘Major Samuel “Splash” Horton’ written in white paint under the fighter’s canopy. Under the name McDonough counted almost a dozen rising sun icons, indicating the number of confirmed enemy kills Horton had accumulated. He moved the binos up slightly and was met by Major Horton’s smiling face staring back at him. Horton pointed with his finger to his headset.
McDonough lowered his binoculars and flipped a switch. “McDonough,” he said.
“Howdy, Colonel,” came the friendly reply in a distinctly Southern accent. “Splash Horton here – ‘s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
McDonough looked over at Horton’s Corsair again and exchanged a friendly nod with the pilot of his ‘little friend’. “How do?” McDonough replied. “Can’t tell you how happy we are to make YOUR acquaintance, Major.”
“Yeah,” Horton commented, “looks like you’re trying to make this a bit more challenging than it already is, eh? Flying in on only three engines? No need to show off on my account,” Horton joked.
“Yeah, well,” McDonough laughed, “four engines just seemed so redundant. So we shut one down just to make things a little more interesting.”
“Nice!” Horton laughed. “We’re impressed.” Then he added, “I see you were just admiring our nice new hacienda. She’s a sight, ain’t she?”
“That she is, Major,” McDonough admitted. “What...” he started to ask.
“What is she? Good question, Kernel.” Horton said with an exaggerated drawl. “We like to call her our “Zamboni of the High Seas!” Horton laughed.
“They play hockey in Texas??” McDonough queried.
“How’d ya know I’z from The Lone Star State??” Horton puzzled.
“Awwww, C’mon, Major!” McDonough exclaimed. “You think I’ve never heard of ‘Splash’ Horton? A flier of your reputation hardly goes unnoticed, Major. Named ‘Splash’ for the number of Nip planes you’ve splashed, not to mention the number of birds you’ve taken into the drink yourself in the process.”
Obviously somewhat embarrassed, ‘Splash’ Horton was unable to reply.
“That’s okay, Major,” McDonough added. “The way I hear it, you’ve had to ditch three different times, all three of which were well justified. Once, because you were helping a young lost pilot in your squadron to find his way home; another time you refused to land your plane until the rest of the squadron was on solid ground despite your own lack of fuel; and if I recall correctly, the third time was because you refused to give up chasing a Japanese ace until you had cut him down, but, in so doing, you flew your Hellcat well beyond its point of no return. Right? I don’t know if there’s another pilot in the PTO who can say he’s survived three separate splash-downs, Major. You have nothing to be ashamed of,” McDonough concluded. “In fact, you’re something of a legend with the pilots stationed state-side.”
By now McDonough had opened the channel for the crew-wide ‘com so that his fatigued crew could listen in on his conversation with Major Horton.
“So...” McDonough tried to ask again.
But Maj. Horton interrupted again. “You’re wondering what kind of island Ivory Forest Alpha is, aren’t ya, Colonel,” Horton guessed correctly. “Heh, heh, it’s a bit difficult to explain, really. In fact, I doubt you’re gonna believe me. Truth is, it’s not really an island at all. It’s a ship. Sort of a ship... I guess.”
Horton expected McDonough to express shock and amazement. It was Horton who was shocked and amazed by McDonough’s answer. “I kind of figured that, Major. Islands don’t normally trail a wake, do they?”
“Well...” Horton finally managed. “Guess you’ve got a good set of eyes, Colonel McDonough! Yeah, she has a set of fifty electric engines or so that keep her moving at a pretty steady pace. She eats tons of fuel and moves pretty slowly, but with a diameter of more than three miles, it’s quite amazing they can get that thing to move at all!”
“I guess that explains why weren’t given an exact set of coordinates to find you guys,” McDonough realized.
“That’s right,” Major Horton confirmed. “The Japs forced us to move a ways south early this morning. My commander told me to apologize to you on his behalf if and when we found you guys. They threw a bunch of junk at us, but the only real damage was done to our electronics package: radar, radio and such. But that’s another story...” Horton continued his previous thought, “Here’s the amazing thing about Ivory Forest Alpha – you ain’t gonna believe this part at all! Can you guess what she’s made of?”
“Hmmm,” McDonough pretended to wrack his brain. Then, giving a quick wink to Jim Sterling, he ‘guessed’, “Ice? Or, more precisely, a mixture of ice and wood pulp, called Pykrete?”
McDonough looked over at Major Horton and saw him gazing back in disbelief. “Now how in heck did you know that, Colonel??” Splash asked in amazement.
“Oh, you know,” McDonough’s replied with a shrug, “Scuttlebutt.” Added to their fatigue and exhaustion, McDonough’s crew were now simply astonished to here another officer talking about the ice-ships Colonel McDonough had told them about earlier. They sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb the new information Major Horton was providing, while still trying to process the fact that, apparently, Col. McDonough had not been ‘pulling their leg’ with his stories about the Pykrete ships.
“You’re just full o’ surprises, ain’t ya, Colonel!” Horton exclaimed. “Well, they originally designated her as ‘Berg Ship Alpha’, but ‘berg-ship’ shortened is B.S.” Horton laughed aloud. “Not exactly an endearing designation. So they hastily re-designated her as an ‘Ice Field’ ship; and being the first, she’s ‘Alpha’. I.F. Bravo is a few thousand miles behind us, comin’ down from Alaska, or wherever they come from.”
“How long’ve you guys been on station out here?” McDonough asked.
“Hmmm...” Horton thought. “I’ve been with Ivory Forest Alpha almost since she was launched – not more than a couple weeks afterwards anyway – and that was, lemme see... it’s been at least a few months now. Like I said, she’s a pretty slow ol’ gal. Took us quite some time to finally reach an area of the world where we could do some good.”
“You were in the Solomons before coming over to I.F. Alpha, weren’t you?” McDonough asked.
“Yep, at The ‘Canal – Henderson Field,” Horton answered. “Was stationed on that stinking hole for two years! Gawd, I don’t think I’ll ever get that wretched stench outta my nose! Only thing was, that worthless chunk o’ dirt wasn’t nearly so worthless once we finished up the airfield them Japs had started. With an operational air base, Guadalcanal became an unsinkable aircraft carrier, sittin’ right in the middle of the Japs’ axis of advance! Heh, heh...” Horton reminisced.
Then Major Horton added, “I’ve often wondered if that’s where they got the idea for these-here Ice-Field ships: an unsinkable aircraft carrier! But unlike The ‘Canal, Ivory Forest Alpha don’t stink of rotting vegetation, and, better yet, it can be moved! How do ya like them apples?”
McDonough chuckled at Splash’s use of that colloquialism. “Yeah, it’s a pretty amazing concept, Major, no doubt about it!”
Everyone aboard the B-29 nodded to themselves in hearty agreement. Those who were in a position to see the approaching ‘island’ Ivory Forest Alpha were captivated by its shape and construction. Sparks, in the nose, had the best view. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of it. As the pilots now maneuvered their ship in a west-southwesterly direction, lining up with the nearest of the three runways, the still-setting sun shone brightly off the island-ship, causing it to glisten in dozens of different hues and shades of color. When Sparks used his binoculars, he could now see that what had earlier appeared to be a lifeless lump of ice was actually bustling with activity. Although they were still too far out to make out individual humans, planes and vehicles could be seen moving about all over Ivory Forest Alpha.
McDonough spoke to Horton again. “So, you say there’s also an I.F. Bravo?”
“Oh, yeah!” Splash exclaimed. “Ivory Forest Bravo is a few thousand miles north of us, slowly making its way down here. From what I hear, Ivory Forest Charlie has already been launched and I.F. Delta is in the works. The plan is to make a chain of these things stretching all the way to Japan. At the moment the plan is for Alpha to be within striking distance of Japan within a few weeks – couple months at the outside. The other Ice Field island-ships will line up at regular intervals to the east. They’re hoping we can make enough of these man-made bergs that each one will eventually be close enough to the one east of it and the one west of it so that even short-ranged planes will be able to leap-frog from one ice-field to the next. It’ll be pretty nifty if they can ever get that much accomplished!”
McDonough agreed. What an ingenious plan! He wondered if Geoffrey Pyke himself had thought of that one, although he had no idea if that was the case. Instead of having to TAKE individual islands from which subsequent invasions could be staged, they were BUILDING islands and placing them wherever they wanted! It was enough to make his head spin.
Just then the steady humming of the starboard engines was interrupted by another set of uneven chops as a second engine began to sputter for lack of fuel.
“Oh, geez!” Captain Sterling cried from the copilot’s seat. “There goes Number-One now!”
“Yup,” McDonough confirmed. The pilots exchanged a nervous look.
NO!!! McDonough silently screamed inside himself. It’s not fair! How can we get this close and still not make it! C’mon, Lord, he prayed, just a few more minutes – please! Just a few more minutes and we’ll be there!
“Colonel McDonough,” Splash Horton called out, “You’ve already impressed me by flying on three engines. There’s no further need to show off by killing another one.”
McDonough wasn’t in the mood to laugh anymore.
“Look,” Horton offered, “I don’t mean to jinx you or anything, but if you have to ditch that thing, put it in the water as close to the port-side runway as possible. We’ve already got a small flotilla of motorized launches deployed for that possibility. They’ll be with ya’ so fast you won’t hardly get yer feet wet, Kernel.”
That really wasn’t all that comforting to McDonough. Eighteen hours of flying, just to ditch his Superfortress in the sea was NOT an acceptable outcome to the Colonel. “Okay,” McDonough managed. “Thanks, Major. But I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”
If what Splash Horton had told him was indeed accurate, Ivory Forest Alpha was going to need every B-29 it could get for the upcoming bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland. McDonough was determined that THIS B-29 wasn’t going to end up ‘in the drink.’
With four powerful engines running at full power, he’d found the B-29 to be a pretty easy bird to handle. That changed considerably when one engine was taken out of the equation. Two engines made flying a life-and-death struggle, even with both pilots’ hands now on the controls.
As the tiny island began, ever so slowly, to grow in their windscreen, the pilots became increasingly hopeful that their Supe could stay in the air just a few more moments. But as salvation grew increasingly closer, their struggle also grew increasingly more desperate. Flying the B-29 on two engines became more and more difficult as the long flight began to take its toll on the pilots’ strength and stamina.
The crew assumed Crash Positions, just in case. The escorting Corsairs peeled off to give the Superfortress additional room to maneuver, should they need it. With a “See you fellas on the ground,” their ‘little friends’ pulled away. The motor launches Horton had referred to were now clearly visible through the Plexiglas nose; they were milling about in the waters near Ivory Forest Alpha, with watchful eyes following the big bomber’s every move. Sailors on the rescue boats and ground crewmen on Ivory Forest Alpha could hear the final two engines as they took turns choking and gasping as the last drops of fuel trickled past their carburetors.
McDonough looked at the waves beneath his feet and continued his silent and simple prayer as he struggled to keep the bird aloft. Sterling was silent except for the occasional grunt or curse as he helped McDonough with every bit of his remaining strength.
As McDonough continued to look through the Plexiglas beneath his feet, the waves were suddenly replaced by a smooth white reflective color as the plane suddenly passed over the aft edge of the ice-ship. As the B-29’s shadow moved off the waves and onto the runway, hope filled the ship like water rushing through a suddenly opened sluice. Eleven men in the plane, and countless others in the air, on the water, and watching from Ivory Forest Alpha, all breathed a heavy sigh of relief when the wing wheels touched down, followed shortly by the nose wheel as Lt. Col. McDonough expertly forced the bomber to kiss the Pykrete runway.
At the radio, Bucky’s tightly clenched eyes opened to find himself alive and on the ground. Bones giggled like a school girl who’d been told she’s just won a beauty contest. Hicks released his tightly clenched rosary and turned his eyes skyward in thanks. Li’l Mikey in the tail-gun position simply dropped his head to the deck and muttered a “Thank You!” under his breath. Captain Hall pulled the picture of his wife and baby boy from its place near his radar screen as tears of joy ran down his cheeks. Chauncey and Sparks silently shook hands as they grinned broadly. The gunners, no longer at their gunnery positions, slapped each other on the back and spoke of buying each other a beer.
Colonel McDonough and Captain Sterling merely sat in their seats long after the plane had come to a halt near the end of the three mile-long runway, staring straight ahead at the sea. Finally Jimmy drew a long, slow breath through pursed lips. He turned to look at Col. McDonough. “Charlie,” he said (he almost never called his commander by his given name) “I don’t EVER want to cut it that close again for as long as I live!”
“Jimbo,” McDonough answered slowly and deliberately, “I’ll drink to that!” They both laughed the laugh of a pardoned convict who had just escaped the hangman’s noose.
They sat in silence for another couple moments. Then McDonough turned to the officers in the forward compartment behind him. “Whaddaya say, boys? Should we just sit here ‘til tomorrow, or shall we go see what a Pykrete ship looks like up-close and personal-like?”
Bones looked one last time at the picture of his family before placing it in his breast pocket. “Boss, that sounds like a fantastic idea!”
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HISTORICAL NOTES from the Author
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Numerous sources widely hail Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke (1894-1948) as being the inventor of Pykrete and originator of Project Habakkuk, the top-secret Allied attempt to create a mammoth aircraft carrier made entirely of ice. Although many sources cite this as fact, it is probably not true. Pyke was, indeed, an exciting (if eccentric) man with a knack for unconventional thinking who contributed countless innovations to the war effort through Lord Mountbatten’s department of Combined Ops. Despite conventional wisdom, Pyke probably did not, however, actually invent the substance we know as Pykrete.
The most reliable sources on the subject suggest that Pyke’s idea was simply to carve a huge chunk of ice from the glaciers and bergs of the far north and to create an aircraft carrier from this ice. It was actually a group of North American engineers and thinkers, tasked with researching the concept, who came up with the notion of adding 14% wood pulp to the water before freezing it. The wood-pulp ice they created was indeed incredibly strong, easily worked with conventional wood-working tools, and highly resistant to damage and to melting. They called this new material Pykrete, naming it after Pyke, even though Pyke does not appear to have ever been involved in the actual invention of Pykrete, as such.
Therefore, the story of Mountbatten in Churchill’s bath, although widely believed and often repeated, is at least dubious since Pyke himself is never known to have even seen Pykrete; and, at the very least, for Mountbatten to be able to show the Prime Minister a piece of Pykrete, the event in question would, logically, have to have taken place long before Pykrete had even been invented in America. The same reasoning also sheds considerable doubt upon the other priceless Pykrete legend – that of Lord Mountbatten’s pistol demonstration before the Joint Chiefs in Quebec.
Despite the many probable myths which continue to surround Pyke, Pykrete, and Project Habakkuk, the project did, in fact, exist and was actively pursued by the Western Allies. Although both Churchill and Roosevelt supported the idea, however, the farthest the project ever got was the construction of a prototype for testing. Sources disagree, but it is probable that construction of the prototype actually predated the invention of Pykrete and, thus, it was constructed of ordinary frozen water. The prototype Habbakuk (a clerical typing error gave the project’s name two B’s instead of a double-K as it should have been spelled) was built on Lake Patricia, outside Jasper, Alberta, Canada. The ice-ship was sixty feet long, thirty feet wide, and displaced about 1,000 tons. Despite being constructed of simple ice rather than Pykrete, the ship was easily kept from melting by a mere one-horsepower electric engine. Today, a simple plaque on the shores of Lake Patricia commemorates the site of this secret W.W.II project.
The concept of ice-ships and construction using Pykrete was never proven to be impossible or even impractical. The reason the project was abandoned was purely a matter of the development of other technologies, such as longer-ranged aircraft, the ingenious Mulberry artificial harbors, and the increased proficiency of anti-submarine weapons and techniques, not to mention the actual success of the island-hopping strategy. Thus, the progression of actual historical events simply rendered Project Habbakuk [sic] as unnecessary.
Pykrete remains a subject of fascination with inventors, scientists and structural engineers; and the wonderful anecdotes surrounding Pyke and Project Habakkuk continue to provide a rich source of amusement for historians to this very day.
© Copyright, 2004, Joel T. Illian, whoopy-cat.com. All rights reserved.
Published with permission on JP’s Panzers.