Part 12: Pattern Entry
Chapter 61 - All For What?
The news of Joshua's crash left me with a most unbearable feeling of sadness and frustration. The tragic events of the previous hours paled in comparison to the loss of my best friend. The cold reality in my soul said seeing a thousand people murdered in cold blood would have been easier to take than losing Josh. At that moment I yearned to be out there in a Valkyrie searching for my friend, even if only to find his remains. I thought of Harriska and the girls, too. They would be even more devastated than I was.
Facing imminent death matters not in such moments. I didn't care about explosions and rocket fire. I only cared that my best friend--the third one, now--was gone. I can't believe this. I just can't mother fucking believe this... I muttered those words over and over and over again as I stared blankly in whatever direction I happened to be facing at the time.
Personally anguishing as it were, Josh's death didn't seem to matter in the grand scheme, and the world turned as it always had. I found it bitterly unjust that such fine people could be erased without a second thought by the cruelties of fate.
My role was limited to that of a grief-stricken-but-brave-faced evacuee and I found myself in the backseat of one of Molokai's VF-1Ds on the way to the nuclear carrier HMS Indomitable which had sailed west to assist in the evacuation of men and equipment. The sting of defeat was but one of many bitter tastes that lingered in my mouth. Touching down on the flight deck was like having salt poured on a gaping wound. All around us men were being ushered below decks and aircraft were being moved about an already crowded parking area to make room for others. Images of the American evacuation from South Vietnam flashed in my mind and I instantly understood the bitterness of that generation--my father among them.
As a young Air Force pilot he had shuttled men and equipment into Vietnam--living, breathing, vibrant men on the way in; maimed, burned, and coffin-encased on the way out. When he spoke of those years it was always with a tear in his eye and a strain in his voice. "I never saw what my friends in the jungle did. It is little wonder they are all so tortured and tormented." As the last plane out of Bien Hoa he was responsible for saving the Marine perimeter guard in a C-141 as mortar fire rained down on his aircraft. In Okinawa that night no Air Force pilot could have bought a beer to save his life--the Jarheads wouldn't allow it. The Marines were happy to be out and the Air Force crews were happy to have gotten them out, but the reality of total loss hit my father hard at that moment. "It was an agonizing feeling of total loss...and 'Why?' A lot of us still ask why."
For the first time in my life I finally understood what he meant. I was so angry and hurt I wanted to literally spit. I stood defiantly on that carrier deck until ushered inside by another pilot. Coupled with Josh's demise it was a pain I had never known before. Little did I know what lay in store for me in just a few short days.
Trouble usually comes in bunches, but once in awhile, life throws you a curve ball. The defeat seemed certain to be written as the awful epitaph for "Operation Southern Cross."
But nobody counted on The Surgeon, for in times of desperation the line between victory and defeat is often quite narrow--one must simply have a feel for how to thread the needle.
Newly assigned as the skipper of the submersible carrier Hyperion and fresh off his brilliance providing air support to withdrawing RDF forces the previous February, Plog began a brilliant air campaign the likes of which are not likely to be seen again. In charge of a fresh vessel in Hyperion--packed to the brim with every spare Valkyrie that could be placed aboard her--and with on-scene tactical command over a fully equipped Vulcan and a conventionally equipped USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77), Plog attacked the rear of the Zentraedi lines with a ferocity unseen to this point. With their focus on our retreating and defeated forces the Zentraedi left themselves open and exposed to an attack right through the heart of their command and supply networks. It was a brilliant assault made more so by its daring.
Plog was neither careless nor reckless--he was purely ruthless. And with three Carrier Air Wings at his disposal, The Surgeon wielded much more than a scalpel this day.
With the last bits of reserve air power available--and our tenuous foothold on the coastline slipping away--the massive, surprise counter offensive was launched before dawn on 15 August 2013. A continual tidal wave of Valkyries--virtually every Valkyrie in the world it seemed--and conventional carrier-based airplanes unleashed a withering assault on the enemy rear. Intelligence had located the alien command center and planes from the George Bush took it out.
With their communications out and an enemy suddenly at their rear, the advancing Zentraedi were thrown into temporary chaos. Unsure of what was happening, many of their troops stopped and then reversed the focus of their efforts. The attack was swift, and for a time utterly overwhelming, but like a burning a pile of straw it's brightness and intensity was short-lived. Though it did not completely eliminate the threat, it diverted its attention long enough to allow our forces to withdraw.
The strategy used was by no means new. In September 1950, U.S. Marines used a similar tactic to great success at Inchon Harbor. The brainchild of Army General Douglas MacArthur, this bold moved took the pressure off the beleaguered Pusan Perimeter and turned the tide of the Korean War in favor of the United Nations forces. Throughout history others had done similar things, some with success and some without. It appeared ours would at least fall somewhere in between.
The Captain of the ship, a tall and lanky Brit with a permanently etched grin on his face and a penchant for mangling Australian, New Zealandian, and British slang into one giant stew, took it upon himself to personally greet every man who came aboard. I was quite taken with his warmth and sincerity as I shook his hand on the hangar deck.
"Framton. I have read about you, good sir. I am quite honored to meet you. You chaps have had a bloody rough go of it, have ya'?" I nodded in the affirmative. "Fair dinkum. Please, if there is anything the Royal Navy can do to make you or your men more comfortable, straight away ask. We'll do our best not to get our bloody arses sunk around here--ridiculous bloody damned mess this is." He then whispered to his aide who ran off on some errand or other. The Captain winked at me as he turned to leave, "I do realize this is a fantasmagorically rotten afternoon for you blokes, but do what you can to relax here, Commander. No worries ol' boy! Leave the bloomin' drivin' to us! If it's our day it's our day. Not much we can do about it. Very good then!" And he was off.
After getting cleaned up and fed, I was shown to my temporary quarters in "Officer Country" below the forward section of the carrier island. There on my rack was a small case of assorted adult beverages compliments of the Admiral. I was moved by the gesture and against my better angels proceeded to tie quite a load on. For one night at least, sleep managed to find its way to me and I counted my blessings in that regard, though I broke my personal vow of sobriety to do it.
Indomitable was not a submersible and as a result we lived in daily fear of being torpedoed--at least I did. Each hour spent evacuating troops diminished the chances of surviving considerably for those aboard the ships in the area, but it had to be done. To leave comrades behind would doom them to certain death, and the life of every man on those beaches and islands counted, for we were anything but overstaffed.
In my paranoia I did what was always a custom for me when traveling by airplane or ship--memorization of an escape route by feel and nothing more. Counting seat rows in an airplane to find the exit, for example, was a ritualistic necessity in an environment where accident-induced smoke or gloom could eliminate one's ability to see his way to safety. Likewise on a ship where darkness or flooding water could cause the same problems. I spent three days on that carrier and traced two escape routes from my quarters to the flight deck, going over them in my mind even as I fitfully slept. This proved to be my salvation.
I had just walked through the hatchway to my cabin when a giant shock reverberated through the ship, rattling everything that wasn't nailed to the floor. Without warning I found myself hurtled through the air and into the bulkhead above my desk. The world turned black at that moment and I lost all sense of feeling, motion, and time. I was unconscious for certain, and the taste of blood and seawater confirmed that I, the new owner of a broken nose, was about to be drowned by a sinking aircraft carrier. The stinging saltwater did its part in rousing me out of my groggy, concussion-induced state. Unsteadily I managed to get to my knees and crawl toward the bulkhead. It proved to be the floor and panic grabbed me with clenched fists as the cold seawater lapped against me.
I had no idea which way the ship was oriented and fear of death consumed my being. The cold water and my racing heart pounding in my ears only added to my anxiety. As I floundered around the cabin I found the hatch out of my quarters. It faced the starboard side of the carrier and as pulled myself up through it I quickly deduced that the ship was listing to port. The carrier groaned and creaked hollowly under the strain of fire and ocean water, continuing to roll slowly over as I sloshed about. With my left foot on the deck and my right on the bulkhead I began moving aft along my escape path, counting the knee knockers as I went. There was only one way to ultimately go and that was up and to the starboard side of the carrier. I had to hurry. If the ship capsized before I reached the flight deck there would be no escape.
The sounds of gushing water and rending metal echoed through the ship. An eerie, terror filled sound, it can only be compared to dumping a steady stream of water on a soda can as you drag it down the street behind a bicycle. In a vain hope of findings others I called out, but no sound came forth from my lips. As I continued to move forward I bumped into a body wedged in a hatchway by debris. The poor fellow was moaning quietly and was in considerable pain. As I raised the hunk of twisted metal off his body he slipped down into the room from which he was trying to escape. Suicidally, I clambered down after him and managed to heave him back out of the waterlogged room. I could tell we were losing the race as the water, previously only to my knee, was now at waist level.
"Come on chap, let's get a move on!" I urged my companion. He responded only with more moans, but managed to help support his own weight as we moved along in the darkness.
I did my best to keep my wits and in time reached the escalator to the next level. The hatch above it was sealed tight. As I heaved against it with all my might, my mind returned to that day in the Super Valkyrie when I opened fire on an airlock with a GU-11 and nearly shot myself down. "Come on you mother fucker!" I cursed as I pulled on the hatch wheel but it would not budge. I searched about for something to use as leverage and spied an axe on the bulkhead opposite me. Wedging it in the hatch wheel I leaned into it with all my might. Finally, after an eternity of water dripping and metal twisting hell the hatch unlocked and we clambered up and out. I threw the axe to the side and dragged my companion along with haste leaving the hatch open behind me. No sense sealing it. She's going down any way, I thought.
A few deck levels and knee knockers later I reached my goal. This time, the hatch opened easily and we climbed out to our waists. The bright sunlight blinded me momentarily as I swung the watertight door out. I crawled up and through then made my way around the catwalk to the deck edge. I peered over and saw smoke and fire everywhere. The water had reached nearly all the way up the side of the flight deck and was only yards from the island. The carrier would be under in a matter of minutes.
"We gotta' get going, mate!" I said to my now exhausted comrade. "Come on!"
"Oh...just let me rest a bit here...I'll go...in a bit," he managed to sputter wearily.
My clearly delirious companion had no grasp on his perilous situation. "Like hell!" I yelled dragging him up the railing..
By the dozens other sailors, Marines, soldiers, and airmen were leaping into the water and paddling desperately toward the other ships in the area. The creaking and groaning of the carrier was a reminder not to dawdle and I was not in the mood to argue. "Over the side! Hold your breath! Here goes!" I heaved him over and dropped in behind him.
The salt water stung my eyes as I struggled to find my companion. Fortunately he was close by and I snared his collar. He had swallowed a lot of water and was coughing loudly. I helped support him until he was able to clear his lungs then began towing him toward a destroyer that was motoring around the carrier plucking survivors from the water. As I paddled with all my might I continued to talk to him and encouraged him not to give up.
"We're almost there guy," I paused for breath as I continued to kick toward salvation. "Hang in a little longer."
With strong legs, arms, and lungs honed by months of rehab, I moved through the water at a fair pace toward the salvation of a nearby British destroyer. Its gray steel profile was a beacon to safety. Sadly, my efforts to save my comrade would prove in vain, for he was in deep shock. As I waved up at the sailors on the deck of the ship I had no way of knowing that the man I tried to save would be dead within the hour.
The destroyer sailors hauled him up in a rescue basket then pulled me up by the same method. I was quickly wrapped in a blanket and handed a hot cup of tea. I have no idea how they knew I didn't drink coffee. The British sailors on the ship seemed glad to see us alive, but the shock of losing one of their giant carriers was clearly a shock to their collective psyche. I sympathized.
For the rest of the afternoon survivors were plucked out of the water. Doing my best to stay out of the way, I made my way along the deck of the ship talking to the drenched sailors, aviators, and Marines who managed to survive the sinking. Much to my dismay, not a single face proved familiar and I began to wrestle once more with a guilty conscience. Through no great credit I had been spared while better men had not. I did my best to push it out of my mind, but the thoughts and feelings were persistent.
In the end, I did what I could to help my fellow men, scouring the choppy seawater for the sight of a survivor. More often than not the bodies we found belonged to dead men. Still, new faces were coming aboard at a regular pace and the deck of our vessel became quite crowded. In time our ship moved out of the area and head north, leaving the task of search & rescue to others.
I began checking in from time to time with the ship's X.O. to inquire about survivors from the lost carrier. Details, while fuzzy, were updated with regularity. Much to my relief I learned that Jim Rowlands and Molokai Hagenbrock were safe aboard another ship. The blood spilled in our wake seemed a terrible waste and a perfect lesson in bureaucratic mismanagement.
As the sun set on the final chapter of my direct involvement in Robotech War One and its unseemly aftermath I began to wonder what the point of it had been. People were dying as the always had and always would. We were fighting for a cause that seemed lost long before it began. Though Plog's work was clearly cause for an optimistic outlook, I had been hopeful many times before only to be disappointed and crushed. I had no way of knowing just how cruel life could be. Hope, faith, optimism...all served as bitterly vile and painful as despair, doubt, and pessimism.
Chapter 62 - Discharge
My fact finding mission complete, if not superfluous, Admiral Hughes ordered me to return to the Palace. Plog's jets were savaging the jungle with Napalm and precision munitions. The Zentraedi fought tenaciously, but broken into groups and hounded by invading ground troops, they began to give ground. Cycling his airplanes randomly among carrier decks on both sides of the continent, the Zentraedi forces were not able to readily attack them.
And so it went. My tour was done. It was time to go home. In the Ready Room below deck I squeezed into a flightsuit one size too small then ambled over to a ghost gray Marine VF-1D. The ground crewmen with whom I made eye contact offered polite nods in my direction. They must have known that this was really the last rodeo for me. I appreciated their unspoken support.
My return Stateside was rather unusual given the pressing needs of the situation in this theater of operations. Admiral Hughes had made it clear that my time in uniform was done. With the loss of so many pilots in recent days, he was determined to insure that at least one of his veteran flyers survived the war. "Get him to Macross City in two legs or less--end of discussion." Jim would follow us in another VF-1D in a few days, but I was not to go alone. Another Marine "J" would come along as an escort, and I appreciated the backing.
Molokai, chomping a cigar in his characteristic gruff manner met me at the boarding ladder. I had expected to see him before I left and was not surprised at his appearance. It was only when he handed me a jungle camouflaged helmet cover that I was caught off guard.
I knew the honor of such a gesture even as he briefly explained it to me. Marine aviators wear camouflaged helmet covers as a symbol of their ground-pounding grunt heritage. It represents their bond with the Marines on the ground who slug out the battles in the trenches. "You are a part of this band of brothers now," he said. "Wherever you go from this day forward you have a brother in each and every Marine. Wear it with pride, Commander."
"Semper Fi, sir."
"Semper Fi, sir," he returned, gripping my hand. With that he bade me farewell.
Marine Lieutenant Mike "Stretch" Armstrong was my pilot for this leg on my long journey home. I shook his outstretched hand at the foot of the cockpit boarding ladder. Staring into his eyes I saw the faces of a dozen departed squadron mates. I began to feel I was losing my mind, but kept a lid on it for the sake of those watching. I did not want to embarrass myself.
Armstrong donned his helmet and lowered the tinted visor asking me to do the same, presumably to conceal our identities from bystanders. Then, in one final gesture of respect, he motioned for me to take the front seat of the VF-1D. I politely declined, but before I could move, he was darting up the ladder and landing firmly in the rear ejection seat.
I climbed into the familiar cockpit and glanced around wistfully. I didn't even have a camera to record the event. These Valkyries had been my home and office for so long. In a few short days I wouldn't even be allowed to touch one of these aircraft. I started the engines and ran through my after start flows. "Sand Pebble Team, check-in." I looked to my right, as I had done so many times before, wanting to give a thumbs-up to Josh, realizing with a crushing feeling of despair that he was no longer there.
The words came from the voices of ghosts.
"Thunder One-One, up Button Four, ready for departure."
"Thunder One One, Heading 305, cleared for departure unrestricted climb approved."
I looked at the face in the mirror and asked, "Ready?"
"Roger. Let's do it!"
I brought the thrust levers out of the idle detent and moved them slowly forward. The Valk shuddered briefly then began to rise off the deck of the ship. I kept the thrust at the lowest safe setting to avoid blasting the deckhands as I pirouetted the fighter to the right, looking outside at the men below as they waved in salute. I cycled the stick back and forth to wave at them then moved the thrust levers smoothly into the burner detents. We were pressed firmly into our seats as the Valkyrie accelerated toward the heavens. I selected the Fighter Mode lever and felt the aircraft reshape into the killer hawk. With the nose at a relatively sedate forty-five degrees of pitch we were supersonic in seconds and I pulled back to eighty-seven degrees nose up. The VSI was pegged and the altimeter winding rapidly as we rocketed skyward.
"Thunder One-One, out of fifteen requesting direct to one-two-five thousand."
"One-One approved as requested. Maintain one-two-five-thousand. On course."
And so it went. A plume of white hot fire trailing behind, we rode the screaming fighter up and up and up. Clouds vanished behind and beneath as the fighter climbed.
The sky changed from blue to black...the horizon from a flat line to a gently curving crescent.
The soft hum of avionics in the background was our only companion as we settled back for the flight home. I stared blankly out the canopy and felt a gut-wrenching feeling of sadness. My life had seemingly turned into a tragedy and I wondered what I had done to bring it about. I had no way of knowing that my suffering would soon prove insignificant. Faced with true suffering, wallowing in self-pity would soon humbly prove to be the incredibly immature and childish thing that it was.
Deedle-deedle-deedle-wap-wap-wap-wap. Wap-wap-wap-wap. Deedle-deedle-deedle-wap-wap-wap-wap. Wap-wap-wap-wap.
"Tracking radar spike, five o'clock," Stretch called from the back seat.
"What?" Shifting in my seat I glance over my right shoulder in confusion. The tranquility of the moment has been doused with the cold water of anxiety.
Our "J" escort had aborted earlier due to a mechanical problem and we decided to press on without him. My mind reeled at the realization and the irony held therein as the tracking tone warbled in my headset.
"I've got a tracking radar lock on us from five o'clock. Heavy strength," Stretch's voice was more insistent this time. "ECM's jamming but we're lit up like a Christmas tree, Jake."
"Aw shit, break left!"
In a reaction ingrained through the stress of combat I shove the stick instantly to the left--hard--then pull and feel a shudder rumble through the Valkyrie's frame as a brace of missiles flash past. At this altitude we are slug but for our reaction mass and vernier thrusters. I am careening downward as I reverse course back to where we have come from. Out over the middle of the jungle with nothing below us but man-eating cannibals, snakes, and spiders, this is not the spot to get one's ass shot off.
"He missed! He missed!"
I am still hearing that gawd-forsaken warbling in my headset.
"What the fuck is it?"
"I can't tell yet. I think it's powered armor. Likely Q-Rau."
I am hoping he is wrong. We're heavier than a single-seater, and as Max showed in his first fight with Miriya even the single-seat "A is pushed to its limits against the Quadrono.
My only option is to get away from this guy and get away fast. Powered armor is notorious for its short-ranged weaponry. If I can get out of range then I have a chance.
"Break! Break! Break!"
I jam the stick into the corner again and feel the thumps of flares and the warbling in my headset. My vision has gone red as I am slammed upward against my shoulder harness in a three negative-G reversal. I am looking all over the sky for a glimpse of this bad guy but I cannot see him. Every attempt to roll level and run is met with another cry to break. We are losing altitude faster and faster now, and with it, my margin of safety from ground-launched SAMs and patrolling fighters.
My adversary, whomever he may be, has all the cards in his hand. Altitude, position, ammunition, initiative. I am purely defensive.
"Thunder One-One engaged defensive. Ramrod 310 for 285."
The response is drowned out by another break call and we spiral down, down, down.
Eighty thousand feet...seventy...sixty thousand and falling. Another missile followed by another break, another lost opportunity to accelerate. I am still at the low end of the speed scale, caught by the competing interests of altitude, energy, turn radius, and time. The bandit is toying with me at will now. He is bleeding me out and it will not be long before he hammers us into dust.
"We have to get away from this asshole!"
"Here comes another one...break!" Stretch is doubtless doing his damnedest to get a Linda Blair look at the guy but we can't see him.
Then a chance glint of light or a movement out of the corner of my eye that I am not sure is really there. I sense him but it is just a hunch.
In an instant I roll inverted, set the tracking system to auto, and disengage the ACS.
We hang by our shoulder straps yet again. "Hold on bud," I warn my backseater. If I am wrong in my gamble we will both die. My reasoning is simple--it seems we are dead any way so what the hell...
I slam the mode selector into VTOL mode and pull the stick all the way back. The world twirls dizzily around and before I even know if the system has locked on I am pressing on the firing button. Stiletto missiles leap forward on plumes of hellfire, corkscrewing crazily into the sky in search of a target. Our Valk tumbles out of control now as the world and the sky swap ends.
I re-engage the ACS, put the mode selector back to Fighter and let go of everything. We tumble twice then we're out of it. A flash of light and a shockwave slam into us but I am unafraid.
Got the bastard.
"You got the bastard!" Stretch is ecstatic reaching up and patting my shoulder.
I allow a brief smile then select maximum afterburner and climb away as fast as I can. Accelerating until she won't go any faster. We are getting the hell out of this place.
Stretch is still slapping me on the back as he checks in with our controller, and in time we are met by a four-ship of Valkyries from a distant carrier. They escort us all the way into "friendly" airspace then break away smartly with a cheerful farewell.
There will be no press for this kill. I won't go into any books as the man who pulled the trigger--I'm not even supposed to be flying. Besides, I have enough scalps. Stretch can have this one. We lived as a team and that's better than the alternative. Dying will have to wait a little longer.
It isn't long before we land at our destination. In our debriefing there is a lot of winking going on. Everyone is in on the fact that I was up front and Stretch could find himself in a pot of boiling hot water. However, Admiral Hughes assures me personally that nothing will come of it--as an old warrior himself he understands and to his credit turns a blind eye. He is glad to have one of "his boys" alive and that's the bottom line.
In a few short days I will be medically retired from the military. A small pension and a thank you are my tangible rewards, but knowing I have fought the good fight and done my best to protect my friends and family is what really matters. There is pain in my life and in the lives of those I love. My obligation now is to them. No more combat missions. No more death. No more killing. Now I am a survivor. A healer. I like it this way...
As I pack the last of my belongings into my car for the drive home I am met with an urgent request to call my father.
"Hi, dad. What's going on?" My query is timid and filled with apprehension. The answer I fear most is imminent.
My dad can barely talk, for this man has compassion in his heart far in excess of any person I have ever known. "There's a problem, son. It's about Josh."
I drop the phone and sprint to my car.
Jason W. Smith
Copyright © 1995 by Jason W. Smith
(Author's Note: This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual events, persons, etc. is coincidental--even if intentionally so! --June 1995)
Based on characters and situations from
Robotech, © 1985 Harmony Gold, USA, Inc.
Robotech (R) is the property of Harmony Gold. This document is in no way intended to infringe upon their rights. The author has not accepted any remuneration for this work.HTML by Robert Morgenstern
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