“Weapons more violent, when next we meet.”
March 1, 1942
This was NAP 1/c Nataka’s last chance. Admiral Nagumo, commanding the First Air Fleet, had ordered Nataka’s carrier, Kaga, home for repairs. She’d scraped her bottom in the Palau Strait and developed an annoying leak. Now she’d have to leave the war right when things were going so well. Nataka was seriously concerned the war might even be over before she-and, by extension, he-managed to get back in the fight.
He’d already seen a lot of “action” and sometimes felt as if he’d been in the cockpit of his beloved kanbaku ever since the beginning of this “new” war against the Americans, British, and Dutch. In all that time however, during all the sorties he’d flown, he hadn’t managed to hit anything with one of his 250kg bombs! He’d missed the glorious attack on Pearl Harbor; he’d been too sick to hide something that gave him a raging fever and they hadn’t let him go. He’d flown many missions since, but now heroes, immortals, surrounded him. They’d been his comrades, his peers just a few months before, but they’d accomplished the impossible while he lay sweating in his rack. Somehow, he just hadn’t been able to catch up.
Many times now, Nataka had dived with the others in his Navy Type 99 against lonely freighters, destroyers, and even a pair of cruisers. He’d tried to do as he’d been taught, fearlessly braving the black clouds of antiaircraft shells and tracers that rose to meet him. He’d bored in relentlessly at exactly sixty-five degrees and released his bomb at exactly the proper instant-and somehow, he always missed. He’d even missed at Port Darwin! Granted, he hadn’t gone after a stationary anchored target; he’d attacked a wildly maneuvering, desperately firing destroyer, but his bomb hadn’t even come close! Someone must have finally hit the norou old American destroyer; he’d seen it afire and dead in the water when his flight regrouped after the attack, but his dive-bomber must have been the only one to return to Kaga that hadn’t hit something! Even NAP 1/c Honjo, his navigator-gunner, seemed to be losing faith. The two were close-they had to be-but something just wasn’t working.
Nataka was a good attack pilot; he knew he was. He’d always scored among the very best in practice. Of course, practice targets didn’t twist, turn, and lunge ahead at flank speed, churning the sea with their deceptive wakes. They didn’t make radical, seemingly impossible turns and belch black smoke at the worst possible moment to spoil his aim. He had to remind himself that there were men on his targets now: men who controlled their movements with complete unpredictability. Men who didn’t want to die. Now, unless this final “hunting trip” he and Lieutenant Usa had been allowed bore fruit, Kaga would steam for Japan before Nataka had a chance to prove himself, before he had a chance to break this terrible curse that seemed to hold him in its grasp!
“There is something building in the east!” Honjo said in his earphones.
Nataka glanced left, beyond the gray-green wing, where a squall line was beginning to form. There were always squalls in these strange seas and sometimes they were intense. They didn’t usually form this early in the day, however. “Lieutenant Usa has already seen it,” he replied, watching Usa’s plane bank left, away from the distant coast they’d been approaching so brazenly. Type 99s were slow and fat; easy prey for any good fighter, even if they were surprisingly agile. Regardless, Nataka wasn’t concerned. There were no good enemy fighters in the area. As far as he knew, there were no enemy fighters left at all. Without hesitation, Nataka turned his plane to follow his lieutenant’s.
“Maybe a big tanker or some poor, lonely freighter is trying to hide in that squall,” Honjo speculated predatorily. Nataka nodded. It was certainly possible. The frequent squalls were the only protection left for those desperate ships fleeing Java. “I just hope, if there is, Lieutenant Usa won’t report it,” Honjo continued. “Those greedy bakano in Second Fleet will want us to lead them to it so they can blast it with their battleships, even if it’s a rowboat!”
Nataka nodded again. There’d been a lot of that. Slowly, he eased his plane closer to Usa’s and they approached the squall together. Was it just his imagination, or did the rain already seem closer than it should? They were flying three hundred and fifty kilometers per hour, but either the thing was growing much more quickly than any squall he’d seen, or it was moving toward them in an unprecedented fashion. It was also growing darker, and wasn’t the usual purple-gray that one usually observed, but rather… greenish… and livid with dull pulses of lightning. Strange.
“Nataka!” came Usa’s clipped, terse voice in his ears. “A ship! Two o’clock, low!”
Nataka suppressed an exasperated sigh. Of course it was low if it was a ship! He strained to see over the black-painted cowling of his engine. Yes! All alone on the brilliant purple sea, a lone freighter plodded helplessly along. She looked old, medium-size, with a single stack streaming gray smoke. Perhaps she’d seen them, because she was clearly making for the growing squall.
“We will attack together,” Usa said over the radio. “It seems to be the easiest way,” he added, almost apologetically, it seemed.
Nataka’s face heated, but he made no reply.
“I will approach her port bow,” Usa continued. “You will attack from the port quarter. Whichever direction she turns, one of us should have her entire length for his bomb to fall upon!”
“It will be done!” Nataka said, and banked left again, directly toward the squall. “Beloved ancestors!” he muttered, and immediately wondered if anyone heard. If they had, they probably thought he was calling his ancestors to aid him in the attack, but what prompted his words was the squall itself. The thing was monstrous! Not only had it swiftly grown to encompass the visible horizon, but it was practically opaque, not like a squall at all, but like a huge wall of water! He shook himself and glanced at his altimeter. Soon he would begin his dive.
The altimeter had gone insane! The needle spun erratically with wild fluctuations! Not only that, but his compass was distressed as well. As he banked back right, to the north, his compass told him he was flying east! Even as he veered around behind the still tiny ship below, his compass steadfastly insisted that west was north.
“Yes? What is it?”
“Nothing. Usa has circled around while we positioned ourselves. He is beginning his dive!”
“Good luck, Nataka! Let us sink this bastard quickly and get away from that wrongful storm!”
So, Honjo was nervous too. Nataka couldn’t count on any of his instruments now. Even his horizon and airspeed indicators were malfunctioning. He pushed the stick forward until the ship’s fantail appeared in the telescopic sight in front of his canopy. The target was slow. It couldn’t be making more than ten knots at best. He doubted it was capable of any escape sprint, like those so many of his targets had employed. Nevertheless, he engaged the dive brakes to slow his descent. He wanted plenty of time to react if the ship took evasive maneuvers to avoid Usa’s attack.
Tracers started rising toward him and a single puff of black smoke erupted in his path. This sheep has a few little teeth, he thought, concentrating on his angle of descent. Apparently, the target had managed a feeble burst of speed after all, and he pulled back on the stick just a bit. More tracers came and they seemed brighter than before. Brighter? He risked a quick glance away from the sight. No. The world was darker! The squall was in the west, he knew it was in the west, but out-riding clouds above must have blocked the morning sun. No time. Usa was nearly upon the target, the gray-green of his plane and the bright red circles on its wings still clearly contrasted against