Kill or Be Killed

Fiction Contest Week

By Jim Dietz

LIFE Magazine is happy to provide our readers with the following excerpt from Dr. Jason L. Whitney’s history of the Pacific War of 1934. His complete work is part of the Time-Life series of books covering the tumultuous events of that year and the events leading up to it. For interested subscribers, an order form is enclosed at the back of the magazine at a reduced subscriber’s price. 

0911, December 7, 1934, North of Hawaii

Admiral Towers’ conclusion on naval air power became obvious over the course of multiple Fleet Problem exercises and this explained his choice to launch a surprise attack rather than protect Pearl Harbor. At his inquest, Towers explained, “Our world has changed. With airpower involved, it is kill or be killed. We showed there is no defense against a determined attacker. If you achieve surprise, that is your opportunity for a decisive victory.”

Kill or be killed. Japan’s carrier air arm struck Pearl Harbor at 0750, eliminating the American surface threat before it could weigh anchor and threaten Japan’s Pacific interests. But, as noted in Commander Genda’s memoirs, the Imperial Japanese Navy never considered the possibility of a successful American air mission. They only realized it when Falcons and Helldivers suddenly appeared in the sky over the Combined Fleet. Kill or be killed.

The Ranger, Lexington, and Saratoga launched 160 aircraft, hurling 54 Falcons and 106 Helldivers westward, hoping to find the Japanese carriers where the downed P2Y piloted by Amelia Earhart and her Navy co-pilots reported them. The launch was chaos. Rather than circle to assemble, flying en masse, planes headed west in small groups, afraid of decreasing their limited operational range. Planes from the various carrier squadrons became intermingled, and with takeoffs coming with irregular timing, groups lost sight of one another because of distance and the increasing cloud cover across all altitudes.

Because of pilot radio silence, Admiral Towers and the other senior officers were unaware that their strike plan was already a failure. The ability to coordinate such a massive strike was impossible given the range of the Falcon and the state of flight operations and command and control in 1934. Thus, it speaks to the credit of the pilots’ training that all 160 of the launched aircraft pressed on to the target.

The attacking aircraft wound up in five groups. The first consisted of six Falcons and a dozen Helldivers. The second included 20 Falcons from the Ranger and 15 Helldivers from all three carriers. The third consisted of four Falcons from the Lexington escorting 31 Helldivers (25 from the Saratoga). The fourth was 12 Falcons and 11 Helldivers, and the final group was a dozen Falcons flying with 37 Helldivers.

Four groups eventually found the Combined Fleet. The third, primarily the Saratoga’s strike group, never found the Japanese. As they approached what they thought was the correct location, a rain squall reduced visibility. Thinking they flew too far west or southwest, they reversed course, heading northeast and missing the Combined Fleet which was 50 miles to the south. It is obvious the American attack was improvised in contrast with the Japanese attack on Pearl.

At 0911, the first flight spotted the Combined Fleet sailing south.  Lt. Gaylord George, commanding the Lexington’s Helldivers, waggled wings, banked and headed towards the Japanese fleet. Multiple Japanese lookouts spotted the inbound attackers and two flights of Type-90 fighters started climbing to intercept; these six fighters were the entire combat air patrol (CAP) for the Combined Fleet. The Kaga immediately reversed course and the six A2N2s waiting on its flight deck began launching.

Five minutes later, American and Japanese planes engaged in the first air-to-air combat between great powers since the Russian Civil War 15 years prior. Ensign Lance Pederson dropped his ordnance, freeing it from the bombload’s unwieldy extra weight, and immediately moved to confront the Japanese Type-90s. The other five Falcons immediately followed suit.

It was an unfair fight. The Japanese planes’ superior speed and mobility combined with their pilots’ previous combat experience put the Americans at a disadvantage. Within three minutes, every Falcon was shot down. Their loss bought time for the Helldivers, but not enough. The Type-90s caught up with the bombers as they began diving toward their targets below. Two were shot down while six others dropped their loads early, seeking to escape rather than press the attack. The four remaining attackers pressed on, two at the Ryūjō, one at the brand-new heavy cruiser, the IJN Mogami, and one at a different cruiser, the IJN Chōkai. All three targets avoided being struck, although the Mogami’s starboard side took some damage from the concussive force of the near-miss.

As the first wave’s Helldivers finished their runs, the second wave arrived. The time was 0919. The Type-90 fighters climbed again towards the American planes. Caught at low altitude, the fighters had no chance of stopping the American planes’ attack.

Miles Browning, commander of the Ranger’s Fighting 3B, made a command decision, unsure of the status of other planes from the strike force. He wanted to keep the Japanese fighters away from the Helldivers at all costs. He ordered 11 other Falcons to drop their loads and engage the Type-90s, doing likewise himself. Eight Falcons and 15 Helldivers remained to press the attack.

It was impossible for me to know what went on over the next ten minutes. I was too busy engaging the CAP. I’d counted eight, Ensign Smolders reported an even dozen, but we know from the records, we engaged six—the tricks the mind plays in times of stress!

What we learned, we learned fast. Combat is the best instructor, but its lessons are the harshest. One mistake and you are shot down. Of the twelve planes, seven fell, seven good men we never recovered and whom I will never forget: Lts.(j.g.) Franklin and Jackson and Ensigns Townes, Hatt, Paper, Hammerer, and Blackstone. Their deaths were not in vain. We took our enemy back down to the deck and shot two down.

When I got word the bombers were empty, we headed northeast, away from the Combined Fleet. My group came in with 35 planes, we left with 20. Forty percent casualties for little direct result. We learned something though about airstrikes, something borne out within the hour by following waves even as we retreated on our way back to our own fleet.

Nearly two dozen planes dropped bombs, but because they attacked singly rather than in coordinated fashion, anti-aircraft fire could concentrate on each in turn. If we dove in waves I think we would’ve had success. Three planes from the Lex did just that, but they went after a battleship, what wound up being the Kirishima. Coordinating their dives, they put two bombs in her and a near-miss that put a hole in the battlewagon’s waterline. The big thing from those hits—it meant they weren’t invincible. We just didn’t have the right tactics developed yet.

Browning was right (though his memoir offers historical hindsights, which are always 20/20). When the second wave departed it was nearly 0930  and what they did not see as they peeled away to the northeast was the next wave (the fourth, since the third was lost en route) coming from above the cloud cover to the south. This wave was another hodgepodge of 12 Falcons and 11 Helldivers, but they had two advantages Browning’s group did not.

The first was that the Combined Fleet’s combat air patrol was again at low altitude and, having already fought two dogfights, was low on fuel and unable to climb to intercept the latest American wave two miles up and on the far side of the fleet. Thus the Americans maintained formation and cohesion as they approached. Related to this, with two waves already having attacked, the Japanese commanders relaxed, assuming the attacks were beaten off in American failure. Few eyes looked to the south and its heavy cloud cover.

The second advantage caused by Browning’s group was that it had forced the Combined Fleet into unsynchronized evasive maneuvers, and in the case of the Mogami and the light cruiser Kinu, nearly caused a collision at high speed. The Ryūjō and its escorts were now separated from the remainder of the fleet by more than three kilometers while a destroyer and a light cruiser remained with the slowed Kirishima. This left the Akagi and Kaga with the two hybrid battlecruiser-battleships (Haruna and Hiei), eight heavy cruisers, ten light cruisers, and fifteen destroyers. The Japanese were now three groups, each responsible for their own protection; their previous interlocking anti-aircraft fire during the first half-hour of the air attacks no longer possible.

Thus, at 0932, the next wave arrived over the Combined Fleet and began their attack and only three minutes later, the final and largest group of American planes arrived overhead. Though the fourth wave was the second-smallest, the wave was more effective than the larger ones because of its coordination.

None of the 23 aircraft were shot down. Four were damaged, with two jettisoning their bombs before finishing their runs. Eight of the aircraft, all Falcons from the Saratoga, peeled off for the Ryūjō and its four escorting cruisers. The remaining fifteen (which accounted for all of the damaged aircraft) headed for the Kaga and Akagi. The eight Falcons attacking the Ryūjō dove in pairs, approaching the carrier from its portside. The Ryūjō was turning north, attempting to launch its last six fighters. The pilots ignored the escorts, focusing their strike on the smallest of Japan’s three fleet carriers. Ensign Walter Ambrose’s bomb was the first, striking the Ryūjō’s deck amidships, damaging the flight deck. This was minor and could have been repaired before the Pearl Harbor strike force returned.

The second hit on the Ryūjō is credited to Lt.(j.g.) Dan ‘Buzz’ Riggle. His bomb struck the flight deck above the carrier’s horizontal smokestack, knocking a chunk of the deck off completely while smashing the stack. Black smoke now engulfed the rear of the carrier. The attacking pilots believed Riggle’s hit was what sank the carrier. It was not. Post-war analysis shows credit belongs to Ensign Jimmy Lund. Lund’s bomb hit the water on the Ryūjō’s portside as it turned. This ripped a gaping hole open in the carrier’s side causing immediate flooding.

With most ships, the flooding would have meant a temporary loss of speed. Counter-flooding would balance the ship until the hole was repaired and then the bilges would pump out the remaining water. The Ryūjō, however, was built to circumvent the Washington Naval Treaty’s restrictions. Because of this, its design proved to be top-heavy and unstable in heavy seas. Riggle’s bomb caused an immediate list and once this started, gravity did the rest, pulling the Ryūjō onto its side. It sank with the loss of all but 19 of its crew (not including the carrier’s pilots inbound from Pearl Harbor). Japan now had two carriers.

The other 15 planes dove at the two remaining carriers and their escort of capital ships. The U.S. Navy indoctrinated its personnel just as Japan did. Pilots were told of the battleship’s primacy, even as they took part in the first large-scale attack launched from a force far beyond gunnery range (showing the new apex-predator of the seas). Because of this indoctrination, only six planes targeted the Kaga while two adjusted to target the Akagi after the others dove for the Kaga. The remainder headed for the battlecruiser-battleship hybrids. The Haruna and Hiei attackers scored no hits but still provided a vital service. The two ships’ anti-aircraft guns focused on self-defense rather than on protecting the carriers.

The two planes that went after the Akagi came in from an angle, making hitting the carrier substantially more difficult. Nevertheless, both Ensigns Russ Bonds and ‘Mo’ Morris scored hits. The Akagi (like its sister ship, Kaga) was an odd design, built with three separate flight decks to speed takeoffs and landings. Bonds’ bomb hit the portside support for the second flight deck, collapsing the deck like a roof covered in too much snow. Morris’ bomb hit further aft on the carrier’s second level, striking the starboard eight-inch gun turret, destroying it and starting a fire in its vicinity which sent black smoke billowing skyward. This damage would take weeks to repair in port, but with the primary flight deck untouched, the Akagi was not yet hors de combat.

Two Falcons and four Helldivers went for the Kaga. Later, Lt.(j.g.) Al Lincoln, part of the USS Lexington’s VS-2 Squadron wrote:

We didn’t have an order to things. The other five guys, they were from the other carriers. Somehow I was the Lady Lex’s only Helldiver here. (We were fortunate, but we got much better coordinating strikes—taking off, assembling, navigating to a target, once everyone realized what a disaster our strike was and how lucky we got.) It meant, for better or worse, I wound up as Tail End Charlie.

Looking back, that’s a good thing. The ships concentrated all their fire on those first planes. I don’t really recall tracers or explosions around me. Honestly, I don’t remember anything other than me breathing. Being left alone, that let me focus on my run. The back of the carrier [Kaga] had paint strips marking the runway’s edge and I headed at those, my plane in a 45-degree dive—it couldn’t handle more than that and still pull out, not at full speed. I was under 1,000 feet and pulled back on the stick, letting the bomb go, and felt the plane jerk up as it lost a quarter-ton of deadweight.            

I pulled out at 100 feet over the carrier, flew low over the deck figuring that was a safe place—the other ships weren’t going to fire at anything where they could miss and hit their own ship. Must have been right since I got out untouched….

Three of the six planes’ bombs struck the Kaga. The first hit the carrier’s starboard side armor as she juked the diving bombers. This bomb took out two heavy anti-aircraft batteries and opened a large hole in the carrier’s side, although this was above the waterline. The second bomb hit on the bow, twisting and devastating the Kaga’s tertiary flight deck, rendering it unusable without repairs in port. Serious damage, but still not enough to prevent the ship from continuing combat operations. And then Lincoln’s bomb hit. His bomb smashed through the top flight deck without exploding immediately. A split-second later, it detonated, an airburst between the top flight deck and the second one below it; this was where it did its greatest damage, killing the entire bridge crew, leaving the carrier command-less at a key moment.

Thus, the ‘fourth wave,’ the smallest of the five American groups, punched far above its weight, sinking one of the three Japanese fleet carriers while damaging the other two for the price of one plane ditching beside the Saratoga on its return, but even with this success, the fourth wave’s success was nothing compared to the final massive group of American planes, which now began their own attack runs on the Japanese ships.

The fifth wave had it even easier than the fourth did, as the maneuvers of the Haruna and Hiei took them and their own escorts away from the two surviving carriers, while the carriers’ evasive maneuvers increased the distance between them as well, so that any chance of a coordinated air defense was now utterly impossible. Just as important, four of the surviving ten fighters were ditching in the ocean at this point (joined a few minutes later by two others) having run out of fuel and with no decks to land on due to the ongoing combat.

The late-arriving planes began their runs at 0935. With no need for radio silence between planes, the fifth group divided themselves into groups. The Falcons went for the Haruna, the nine Saratoga Helldivers headed for the Hiei, the Lexington’s would hit the escorts while the remaining Helldivers, all from the Ranger, aimed for the two IJN carriers [Note: These last planes made no mention of a third carrier, meaning that the Ryūjō had already rolled over and sunk or was in such a predicament that there was no need to mention it in reports.]

There was no hesitation from the American pilots. They were aware of their fuel limit and the need to attack fast so they could get home. No one wanted to ditch in the rough December seas north of Hawaii.

The Falcons came down on the Haruna from multiple directions making it impossible for the light battleship to avoid all 12. The battleship and its cruiser escort shot down two of the Falcons and two others jettisoned loads early because of the fire, leaving eight undeterred. The Haruna was hit by four bombs, two struck the forecastle, though somehow the bridge (and attending officers and crew) was miraculously unscathed. This hit started multiple fires, though these were eventually brought under control. A third bomb hit the forward B-turret’s mount but did not penetrate the magazines. The only real damage was the destruction of the elevator for raising ammunition to the guns, meaning that if the turret was to be used, manually shifting shells and powder bags would be necessary. The fourth bomb took off a portion of the bow, meaning that with every dip into a swell, water entered the forward section. Maneuvering at high speeds exacerbated this, so the Haruna found itself limited to an effective speed of 14 knots. The battlewagon suffered one more hit when its anti-aircraft gunners hit the Falcon of Lt.(j.g.) Bill Apple before he released his bomb. Apple’s Falcon crashed into the ship’s port side aft of the smokestack, cartwheeling as its bomb payload detonated. Fires from Apple’s plane took several hours to put out.

The other massive warship, the Hiei, was attacked by Helldivers. It was more fortunate that the Haruna, suffering only two hits. The first struck the rear C-turret, exploding harmlessly against the turret’s front armor, leaving the guns usable, though the crew manning the turret were killed or injured from the concussive force passing into the confined space within the turret. The other hit struck the mast’s front base, toppling it, and preventing the ship from using radio communications. It also destroyed the battlewagon’s two small launches. In the end, the Hiei became the de facto flagship of the Combined Fleet.

The planes targeting the escorts did their job of keeping anti-aircraft gunners from protecting the carriers. They also hit their targets. Two bombs damaged the heavy cruiser, Atago, one hit the Mikasa, while the Sendai sank from a bomb penetrating to the forward five-inch turrets’ magazine. The explosion tore open the entire bow and the cruiser flooded and sank, bow first, within ten minutes, its four shafts cranking furiously as they disappeared under the waves.

The planes attacking the carriers in the final wave created the American victory. Until their attack, the exchange of damage and sunk ships between Japan and the United States had gone in favor of Japan (we will ignore the elephant in the room—American industrial might over the long-term). This equal exchange was swept away in less than five minutes as eight Helldivers banked into their dives towards the surviving carriers.

The Kaga steered in a tight circle to the right, unable to change course quickly due to the death of the bridge crew, so that as the Helldivers headed for the carrier, it took no evasive maneuvers. Seven of the eight planes’ bombs hit home with two of the bombs doing critical damage, puncturing the top flight deck and exploding beneath it in the aircraft hangers where they set off aviation fuel fires. These quickly spread out of control, racing forward until smoke billowed from every open space possible under the deck. Warrant Officer Ienaga Soburu, wrote later:

We knew the damage was serious. We knew it even as we fought the fires because they spread even as we did our utmost. If we could get help from a cruiser pulling next to us, it was a matter of time—we would conquer the fire!

When we felt the first shudder of an explosion below us, that changed everything. The fires had reached magazines or armament storage, which we did not know, but we did know that there was no saving the ship now. Still, it was our duty to the Emperor to try, and we continued until Lieutenant Akimano ordered us to the boats and abandon ship. It was my duty to obey and I did so though I know all of the ship’s senior officers chose to go down with the ship. [Note: Ienaga was not aware of the bridge’s destruction when he wrote these words.]

The Kaga did not sink immediately. She burned until early afternoon, at which point the light cruiser Furutaka scuttled her with two torpedoes.

The remaining carrier, the Akagi, was the Combined Fleet’s flagship. It is a fanciful historical dream to wonder at Admiral Suetsugu’s thoughts—only an hour prior, he permitted a cry of ‘Banzai!’ because of the great victory at Pearl Harbor and now in front of his eyes, two-thirds of the Empire’s carrier force was sunk or sinking from wave after wave of American planes. Did he regret sending so many planes to protect his bombers? Did he wonder where the planes came from or why the Combined Fleet’s scout seaplanes spotted nothing?

In any event, eight Helldivers came at the Akagi. She was unable to dodge them all and the response time for maneuvering now lagged from obscured visibility from the thick oily smoke drifting towards the stern from the destroyed turret and the deck collapsed at the front of the carrier. The bombers came from two directions, four from starboard and four from the carrier’s stern. This made evasion even more difficult; if the carrier turned to make targeting more difficult for one set of attackers, the maneuver made it easier for the others.

So the Akagi sailed directly to its fate, struck by three bombs on its top flight deck rendering it unusable. The third of these took off the carrier’s rear exhaust in addition to the flight deck damage. With the Ryūjō sunk and Kaga burning and crippled, the loss of the Akagi’s upper flight deck meant it was now impossible to recover any of the returning planes from the Pearl Harbor strike. This alone would have made the American strikes a decisive victory. Even if nothing else happened, Japan’s carrier power was crippled. This was not the end, however. The last Japanese carrier took four more hits. It was the first of the last batch, dropped by Ensign Cal Stevens, that mattered the most.

Approaching from the rear, Stevens’ bomb struck near the waterline, opened the hull to the ocean and flooded the Akagi’s steering compartment and jammed the rudder in a 25-degree port turn, making it impossible to tow the carrier. When the raid ended, divers were sent overboard to assess the damage. It was irreparable. The carrier could be towed—possibly—but would be unable to make more than five knots, making it and any escorts sitting ducks for further American air attacks. At 1325 after most of the crew was evacuated from the carrier, the light cruiser Tatsuta put four torpedoes into the last Japanese fleet carrier. It sank before the clock struck the hour, taking with it Rear Admiral Takahashi, commander of the 1st Fleet (Japan’s carriers), and the Combined Fleet’s commander, Admiral Suetsugu. Suetsugu performed seppuku, ritual disembowelment, seconded by Takahashi. Takahashi went down with the ship.

In the first hours of morning, it seemed Japan had won a great naval victory to rival Trafalgar or Tsushima Straits. Yet three hours later, it was clear that the victory belonged to the U.S. Navy’s Carrier Force. The U.S. Navy paid a heavy price with the loss of most of its battleships anchored at Ford Island, but by sinking all of Japan’s fleet carriers in the space of minutes, the United States became the sole dominant naval power in the entire Pacific Ocean.

That evening in Washington, D.C. (local time), President Garner walked into the Capitol to address Congress and the American people regarding the day’s events. Most were aware of the attack on Pearl Harbor already but not the remaining news. It is important to note how President Garner shaped events in his narrative, what he includes and what is omitted:

Speaker Rainey and gentlemen of Congress, thank you for permitting me to speak to you here this evening and thank you, Speaker, for permitting this to be broadcast to our nation. There are some in this chamber who already know the full details of today’s events though many are only aware of some, most likely the sad and tragic.

Today, a little more than eight hours ago, without provocation, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise aerial assault against our fleet at anchor in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. This attack was unexpected, and the damage wrought was, I will not hide it, severe. Four battleships have been sunk and six damaged, all active ships, save the Nevada which was on a separate mission at the time. At this point, the casualty total has exceeded 1,000 and I have asked the Navy Secretary, Claude Swanson, to ascertain all of these noble victims so that families may be informed at the soonest possible date.

The Japanese raid, de facto, put us at war, even before I seek your permission as required for me to fully assume my role as commander-in-chief, so that we may prosecute events to their fullest. The question of whether we were at war then is important for what comes next . Though I was unaware and did not countenance actions, as president, I am responsible for the actions of members of the executive branch as well as our armed forces. Congress will need to determine if I have been negligent, but I get ahead of myself.

Because of the rising dispute with the Empire of Japan, as a sign of our seriousness, we transferred our battleship squadrons to Hawaii. Recently, and secretly, I authorized a similar action for our aircraft carriers. They were due to anchor at Pearl Harbor this afternoon. Having heard of the attack and knowing what a grave situation the loss of our battle fleet would mean in this coming conflict, Admiral John Towers, commanding Carrier Squadron One, of his own initiative— and I will add that I support his decisions and that initiative as I believe his instant decision is a great moment in the annals of American naval history—of his own initiative, Admiral Towers launched a retaliatory strike against the Japanese Combined Fleet.

This strike was unexpected. The skulking, immoral leadership of Japan presumed we would not act, could not act. They underestimate the skill and initiative of our officers and our servicemen. We have received word from Carrier Squadron One that our retribution was swift. It was also full and total. Our naval aviators, today, in what is the first naval battle ever fought between fleets who never saw one another, have struck a blow to rival Britain’s in Egypt or at Trafalgar. We have confirmation that all three of Japan’s aircraft carriers now rest at the bottom of the Pacific. Unable to defend themselves from a second strike, the Japanese Combined Fleet is retreating headlong to their Home Islands.

The Japanese ambassador, who says he was unaware of any attack planning, has, within the past hour, contacted our Secretary of State, Mr. Hull, to see about facilitating an end to ‘unfortunate circumstances.’ Gentlemen, I know Speaker Rainey has asked for Congress to sit in session tomorrow to discuss this. I will await the proper vote and I look forward to hearing from our august senators, performing their due diligence to advise and consent in forming a full response to today’s events.

To the American people, I stand here before your representatives, your Congress. None of you voted for me to be president, but you did vote for these men. They are here because you believe in them whether they are Democrat or Republican. I see them and know they are not thinking of politics today. Today, we are all Americans, sworn to protect this nation. God bless you this evening and may He bless these United States of America.

Jim Dietz is a graduate of Iowa State University. He is the former CEO of Jolly Roger Games and is now CEO of the non-profit Dietz Foundation. When not managing the foundation, he is the volleyball coach at Lincoln Land Community College and an author of multiple books, blogs, articles, and stories.

Featured Image: “Pearl Harbor” by Sebastian Hue (via Artstation)

Bilge Pumps Episode 25: Are we Dreaming? Is this just Fantasy?

By Alex Clarke

Welcome because this week the Bilge Pumps crew thinks they have escaped reality as they grapple with the news of the Type 32, Britain increasing its defense spending, and most importantly, the Bilge Pumps Curse.

So without much further ado, in Episode 25 good Jamie is back, bad news is our guest couldn’t make it. Good news is that thanks to Boris Johnson’s latest announcements and recent events we had plenty still to discuss. So sit back, relax, enjoy as poor Jamie does  the work that should actually earn him a paycheck and tries to keep Alex and Drach from disappearing down all sorts of random rabbit holes.

In the past Alex has said that once it reached Episode 25 he could no longer claim that “#Bilgepumps is still a newish series and new avenue…” The crew is actually starting to get the hang of it, although they need to work on their endings…We can still hope you enjoy the easy listening relaxed atmosphere as our three normal crewmembers attempt to make sense of the world around them, all whilst imbibing a lot of Irn Bru and catering to the needs of some rather large fluffy research assistants who seem to only want us for our beds.

Thank you to our audience for staying with us, for those who  it’s a first listen, we hope you enjoy and return. As always we’d very much like any comments, topic suggestions or ideas for artwork to be tweeted to us, the #Bilgepump crew (with #Bilgepumps), at Alex (@AC_NavalHistory), Drach (@Drachinifel), and Jamie (@Armouredcarrier). Or you can comment on our Youtube channels (listed down below).

Download Bilge Pumps Episode 25: Are we Dreaming? Is this just Fantasy?


1. Dr. Alex Clarke’s Youtube Channel
2. Drachinifel’s Youtube Channel
3. Jamie Seidel’s Youtube Channel

Alex Clarke is the producer of The Bilge Pumps podcast.

Contact the CIMSEC podcast team at

In Sight of the Past

Fiction Contest Week

By Captain Patrick Schalk, USMC

The tearing scream of jet engines did not even cause Sergeant Jade Smith to flinch. After years of watching the drones pass over contested island territories, they were all well-equipped to hide from the drones’ sensors in the jungle. That could be through wearing infrared defeating clothing, and some neat tricks she’d developed herself. In true Marine fashion, she would rather shoot the drones down, but that would probably give away her observation post and the five other Reconnaissance Marines in her team. Their mission was to watch for fleet movements through the narrow straits to the north and radio the information back to a strike group 500 miles east. Satellites far above earth would have once provided the data in seconds, but like so many capabilities and conveniences of the past decade, they were gone too. Only the geostationary satellites orbiting over controlled territory survived, and even those were occasionally shot down if the interceptors did not reach the incoming projectile in time. Once a ship-based laser targeted a satellite but in was sunk before any damage could be done.

As a result, old manuals were opened once more and updated to reflect current technology, and Marines were detailed to nearly every ship in the fleet to act as a quick reaction force in the world’s contested waters. This was how Marines once thrived, as naval infantry, as the country’s force in readiness, not as a bastardized second land army searching for a purpose. Providing small elements, scattered over large areas, able to concentrate quickly, hit hard and fast, and hold the door open long enough for the Army and Navy to take over, was the new or maybe old mission set.

Sergeant Smith smiled despite the adverse conditions of her domain. Her island was thick with humidity and nearly impenetrable jungle, and she would likely be elsewhere in another week, but this was her mission. If her team shot down the drone, the compromise would not go well. The nearest support from her platoon was another six-man team ten miles away on another island. As she returned from visiting the two Marines on watch and gave the pass phrase to enter their team’s hide site, Corporal Dick Rodgers threw a cell phone to her.

“Captain is on the phone,” the Corporal said calmly without getting up from his position by the unused radios.

Sergeant Smith frowned. Normally, the Platoon Sergeant, Gunnery Sergeant Adams, made calls to his teams. She wondered where he was but answered, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Corporal Rodgers and his companions Corporal Jessica Wainwright and Lance Corporal Ben Nicholson continued to discuss the team’s Standard Operating Procedures for compromise and link up. They would eventually have to leave their little island, and it was unlikely the locals were not going to be helpful in the process. Normally, Sergeant Smith engaged the local populations for supplies and intelligence, but this particular island was well inside the claimed enemy territory. In a bizarre scene better suited for a movie, the team glided in on a moonless light, travelling nearly 20km under canopy before splashing in the sea and boarding two staged autonomously piloted rubber raiding craft that carried the bulk of their equipment and supplies another 20km to a remote beach. The raiding craft then departed the area, leaving the team alone and unafraid.

By separating the equipment from the personnel, the chance of compromise was reduced. Two boats floating in the ocean are easily discounted as craft adrift or flotsam. The air insert was offset far enough and coincided with specific meteorological conditions in order to limit the chance of audible and visual compromise. The first few times the team practiced the maneuvers they worried about the technology involved, but now they would not have it any other way. They did not have to cache boats or other equipment, and when it was time to leave, the boats would show up and take them away.

Smith threw the phone back to Rodgers, which he deftly caught then looked at his leader. “What unpleasant orders do we have now?”

“Shut up, you know you like this kind of thing.” Smith replied without answering the question. “Go and get Meredith and Jackson, then I’ll explain.”

The Sergeant sat down with the other two and waited for the team to gather. Populated islands had their drawbacks, like having to hide, but they also had their perks. Modified cell phones and wi-fi blended in seamlessly with the local infrastructure. Without satellites, most places were limited to line-of-sight microwave and laser transmissions or undersea cables. This particular island was in the footprint of the enemy’s communications satellites, so the little island maintained communications with the outside world. Her team was still fantastic with directional high frequency radio, but why do things the hard way if it was not necessary? 20 minutes later the team was together again, making their dugout and covered position crowded. No one had taken a shower since they arrived, so the air was rather ripe with the smell of sweat, dirt, and a little blood from Meredith cutting his finger.

This mission was the first time in enemy territory for the three Lance Corporals, but the Corporals and Sergeant had done this type of thing at least a dozen times over the past three years. New or old, shared suffering always brought a team closer together, and this team had reached the point where they were still brothers and sisters without the individual’s little idiosyncrasies causing irritation amongst the group. Now the group would be tested once again, and this time the mission was not going to be quiet observation.

“Staff Sergeant Godric’s team identified the fleet. We are done here and exfil tonight the same way we came.”

“We are going to parachute from the water?” came Corporal Rodger’s ornery remark.

Sergeant Smith glared him back to silence and continued, “Looks like we will link up with a PT boat and then with the USS America, have a few days’ rest, and then prep for something else.”

Corporal Wainwright asked the obvious, “Which is…?”

Sergeant Smith rolled her eyes, “If I knew, I’d tell you. Now, pack your junk up. We have to be ready to time our departure between overflights. The goal is to meet the boats at 2300, so we have eight hours to be on the beach.”

Nothing ever goes according to plan, but for whatever reason, God smiled on the team as they destroyed their hide site and snuck down to the edge of the beach to await darkness. The night was clear, which meant the raiding craft could use their astral navigation instead of Sergeant Smith setting a beacon that would have increased the chances of detection. The raiding craft arrived nearly silently on their electric engines. Three Marines and their equipment went into each craft, and eight hours later were recovered by a patrol boat reminiscent of its World War II ancestor and later rendezvoused with the USS America.


Ten days after the rendezvous, at least three pairs of Americans boarded three commercial flights from three American cites, took three different routes, and landed at three different airports in Vietnam. After debarking, the pairs exchanged their tourist cloths for garb better suited to the jungles and mountains and then faded into the population as best they could. On the second day in country, they abandoned their vehicles and passed into enemy territory, only reuniting on the mountain overlooking their objective.

As far as reconnaissance missions went, this one was unusual. Generally, they kept to actual reconnaissance and avoided going kinetic. On occasion, fate presented an opportunity and the team would exercise its snipers or the platoon conduct a raid, but those occurrences were few. This time the team was part of a larger operation aiming to disable a communications relay’s defense system. The communications center was obviously a static location, but the missile defense and anti-missile defense systems were mobile and randomly moved throughout the area.

Sergeant Smith had no idea how many teams beyond the other two in her platoon were assigned to the mission because she did not have the need to know. If a team was caught and tortured, they would not be able to give away the larger scope of the operation. She was no idiot though. They were lucky the mountainous terrain prevented the mobile systems from ranging inside a 10km square area. Even that limited movement area required more than a single six-man team to locate and report on movements in a highly sensored and wooded mountain area. There would be ground sensors, satellites, and flyovers constantly looking for intruders. Defense systems could not fire from underneath trees though, which meant there were a limited number of sites to park them.

Her team had its portion of the area to observe. If they found something, they would signal its location back to a raid force floating 200 miles offshore. Regardless of whether or not they spotted the defense systems, the raid was scheduled and coming. Sergeant Smith did not envy the 30-Marine raid force. They would fly in at tree and mountaintop level, at night, infiltrate the facility to upload a virus to the communications system, and then exfiltrate after setting demolition charges. Sergeant Smith would never have thought a computer virus was worth the lives of her brothers and sisters before the conflict began, but the havoc wrought in the United States changed her views. Once the virus spread was confirmed, they would blow the facility and force network traffic to the backup facilities and hopefully increase the virus spread.

Three aircraft and 30 Marines were an acceptable loss for the compromise of the communications relay and everything connected. Sergeant Smith did not know the specifics, but was led to believe the virus would cause a cascade of system failures that facilitated something much larger. Once upon a time, the loss of three aircraft and 30 Marines would have been unthinkable, but times change and the realization that people die in war was finally accepted by the public. Reconciling the death of their sons and daughters took the American public some time, but when your entire country suddenly has zero balances in their bank accounts and no economy or virtually stored records, views quickly change.

Corporal Wainwright removed the thermal optics that would be the key to finding their objectives while Lance Corporal Nicholson assembled two old MK13 and two M107 sniper rifles. The weapons and optics were secured from a dead drop in route to their location. Once the raid force arrived, the reconnaissance teams were supposed to target any defense systems with the antimaterial rifles and cause chaos with the MK13s. With the exception of Sergeant Smith and Corporal Rodgers, the other members of the team grabbed a rifle as they split into pairs and spread out.

Corporal Wainright was trained to use exceedingly small unmanned aerial vehicles, but the risk of compromise from flying a UAV in the highly sensored and observed area was too great. The defense systems would eventually reveal themselves and allow the reconnaissance teams to provide exact positions for targeting purposes. As time continued to pass, Sergeant Smith checked on each pair and ensured the small remote sensors they placed around their position were still active. If anyone snuck up on her team, they would have a few moments notice before bullets started flying.

At first the team thought the low rumble in the distance was the latest unnamed flyover screening for intruders, but a buzz on the team’s incredibly classified black box let them know the raid force was about to arrive. Sergeant Smith did not know how the box worked or why it worked the way it did, but she did know it allowed for simple and undetectable communications.

Without being told, each Marine lay down behind their rifle and optic, screening areas identified as likely for the defense systems to appear. Sure enough, the small clearings in the area began to fill with soldiers and wheeled or tracked missile systems. No one fired yet, each focusing on their target to ensure one-shot, one-kill once the order was given. As the last rays of the sun descended behind the mountains, casting the valley in twilight, the box buzzed a second time. Again, the Marines did not need the order from Sergeant Smith. They knew the plan and would execute it flawlessly. As expected, four reports sounded loudly, and then Sergeant Smith heard a chorus of echoes from the rest of the teams in her platoon. A few seconds after that, even more reports sounded from other platoons assigned the same mission. Then the irregular fire of Marines picking their targets at will was drowned out as the three tilt-rotor aircraft descended.

No one targeted the communications facility itself. Only after the virus was spread into the enemy’s network and beyond the facility could the station fall. Sergeant Smith did not see, but she heard a new voice in the chorus of chaos, stealth jets delivering their payloads onto the missile defense systems highlighted by the reconnaissance teams. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers in each team directed the fire. She looked over to see Corporal Rodger’s performing his duties as a JTAC. Miraculously, the raid force was inside the compound and almost inside the facility. Only two minutes had passed since the beginning of the raid, which meant enemy fighters should be closing in on the raid force. The timeline only gave the raid force fifteen minutes to get in and out.

Five minutes in, the first fighter fell from the sky and crashed into the mountains as a ball of fire. There was no way to tell to whom the fighter belonged. The scene on the ground was now calm, the raid force in control and presumably executing the mission inside. All resistance on the outside was quashed, the reconnaissance teams began to execute their exfiltration plans. The team was leaving the weapons and optics in place and running as fast as possible to a small clearing where another tilt-rotor aircraft was supposed to land.

Sergeant Smith, Corporal Rodgers, Corporal Wainright, Lance Corporal Nicholson, Lance Corporal Jackson, and Lance Corporal Merideth never made it to their landing zone. The rest of their platoon presumably did not make it out of the valley either. If Sergeant Smith had to venture a guess in the moments of fleeting twilight before her soul departed earth, the raid force never completed their mission. The air, the ground, everything, disappeared in a blinding flash and cataclysmic sound. Maybe her senior leaders decided the enemy would never destroy their own facility or maybe it was an acceptable risk. Regardless, a depleted uranium rod dropped from space impacted the communications relay and released the energy of a nuclear bomb. Had the virus spread through the network before the facility’s destruction? Maybe, maybe not.

In modern war against peer competitors, the full spectrum of operations, kinetic, information and cyber, and political, had costs. In this case, the cost was over 30 Marines and six aircraft. At another time in history, the cost would have been unacceptable, but now the country would not even bat an eye. Sadly, the destruction of the communications facility by its owners would garner more news than the loss of Marines. Ever evolving, ever changing, the campaign’s costs were being accepted by the public. And so the war would continue.

Captain Patrick Schalk, USMC, commissioned in 2013. He has served at 8th Communication Battalion at Camp Lejeune, NC from 2015 to 2018 as a Platoon Commander, Training Officer, and Assistant Operations Officer. He served at 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion in Okinawa, Japan as the Battalion Communications Officer from 2018 to 2020. He is currently a student at the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico, VA.

Featured Image: “END MDP” by Mark Kolobaev (via Artstation)


Fiction Contest Week

By Bryan Williams


0538R hours 25 MAY 2028CE

Okay, I’ll be honest. I’m glad this isn’t Alaska. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the training, practicing intercepts, and targeting with the ATFLIR (Advanced Targeting Infrared) pods, but the job was rough. Three years helping build that facility. Three years training in dissimilar combat with VX-33, testing weapon after weapon tirelessly. Three years watching the United States struggle to push back against the turning tides of the Pacific. So, I remember the bright side. I’m not freezing my ass off at NAWS Elmendorf, running through sorties with the Air Force to catch Tu-95s and Sukhois poking their way in the ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).

I wanted more excitement and a change of scenery. I wanted to have some type of career advancement that didn’t involve shadowing flying Russian deathtraps whenever Raptors weren’t available. I’m not the kind of person that sits and waits for opportunity, so maybe I seize the moment, and a transfer to Naval Air Facility Kadena to shadow VFA-113 seemed like a good move at the time. The Department of Defense wanted to try out the AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile, and these guys are the first ones to field them.

“Your duty is to train, get them comfortable, and advise improvements.” I was told. “You know the situation. You know our beyond-visual-range disadvantage. We’re here to correct it, especially if this gets hot.”

Imagine my disdain when I’m jolted awake by missile warheads hitting the city. Buildings shake. Smoke rises. Sirens blare, telling us the Chinese didn’t like our ship transit through the strait and the three fighter jets they lost playing chicken.

They sent more jets, which fired upon the USS Delbert D. Black, and unfortunately sunk it. Tomahawks cleared the launch base of the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force jets, with the ones airborne and on attack runs destroyed by SM-2 missiles from the dying Delbert Black.

For years, our training hyped the potency of the Chinese ballistic missile forces. Late last night, we discovered one important thing about the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF): Well, their missiles do work.

INDOPACOM is in shambles, our satellites either blinded or destroyed. I’m suited up in minutes, escorted out to my aircraft that the Taiwanese staff ingeniously moved to trick the ballistic missiles targeted at the makeshift hangars. Oh, and by ‘makeshift,’ I mean it looks like they stashed three F/A-18s in a Walmart. Hidden “Rhinos” ready to roll.

But it works.

Startup procedures. Bitchin’ Betty and her attitude. Engines up. Canopy locked.

We’re told by command to “Get the hell in the air!”

Yes. We understand, sir. Perhaps it’s the barrage of guided missiles hitting the city behind us that presses the point.

We taxi deep, nose cone to nozzle until we reach the runway, a converted freeway for wartime. Which, if we haven’t noticed, is no longer a misnomer. Then it hits.

This is wartime. I was bored. I was lost. I wanted more.

As I climb full burner into the night sky, it looks as if I will get my wish. Maybe, this was more than I wished for. Space Force and INDOPACOM push our encrypted datalinks, then to a local AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) that patches us to a Mission Operator (MOP). For our surprise attack, we get MOP 2555.

MOPs are always focused, always punctual.

This person is no different, “Halo Flight. MOP 2-5-5-5. Proceed to waypoint Alpha, heading 0-6-0,” he says. “Mission: Defense. Skycap angels 25.” Basically, ‘Defend the sky in this area’ and shoot anything that tries to come into it.’ Then, “Command reports multiple groups inbound ADIZ, origin Putian, BRA,” meaning bearing-range-altitude, “last seen off your 2-4-0 for 1-6-3, angels 38, 950 knots. Potential group of fighter type J-11. Clear to engage at your discretion.”

So they’re behind us, out to the southwest, 163 miles range, at 38,000 feet, and flying at Mach 1.4ish. They’ll pass us eventually, likely within a few minutes at this rate, but Hillard strictly adheres to rules. We stick to mission. Period.

We’re at cruising speed. 570knots. No rush.

Halo Flight flies Vic formation. I, Halo 1-3, take third wing. Captain Hillard, Halo 1-1, flight lead. Lt. Dan, Halo 1-2, second wing.

We head west, ten degrees southward. Tankers are pivotal to any aerial operation. Our best guess is we are to swap babysitting as a flight of Raptors plays high cover. There’s no doubt about it: they are far better interceptors, but we’re all INDOPACOM has right now. I see no other reason to fly angels 20, or twenty-thousand feet elevation when more will do.

It’s night still. There should be no worry about contrails.

“Halo Flight,” says Hillard, “let’s push 0-6-0 for a while and try to pick up contacts to our west. No burners for now.”

“Copy,” both Dan and I say simultaneously.

There is a pause, “950 knots? Damn, they’re bookin’!” Dan says.

“Hopefully someone picks them up,” Hillard says.

“They’ll need a ferry if they want to harass Kadena. J-11s don’t have that range,” I say. “Especially at that speed.”

I peer down at my instruments. My cherished aircraft “Lucy” is my hidden joy. Our relationship goes through up and downs, usually when she throws fits and wants dates with the maintainers. The Environmental Control System and On-Board Oxygen Generation System suck as usual. ATFLIR works when it wants to, but I’m here.

But I need her now. She’s older, one of the last produced models of the 2010s, and one of the first variants of the Block III retrofits that changed her to an X model.

The active electronically scanned array radar is nice. I’ve enjoyed the APG-79. Still, even with it, I don’t see shit.

The tactical electronic warning system is silent too. Nothing on the screen. No one is tracking us.

None of these aircraft are smooth, but the turbulence leftover by Typhoon Noke plays hell on us as we climb.

A few of the jolts show 5g on the heads-up display. Bitchin’ Betty, the attitude-laced avionics computer constantly nags.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

We’ve all learned to live with her. Three more side bursts threaten to rip away the tails.

“Anything?” Hillard asks, seeing little on the scope.

“Negative,” I say.

“Same here,” says Dan.

“Halo Flight to MOP. We’re showing zero contacts, over.”

Then, it gets spooky. MOP gets snarky,

“Halo Flight, be advised, be advised, contacts, pop-up-group of three to five, unknown type, out your 3-0-5, now for 1-1-5, Angels 25. Flanking! 900 knots and reducing.”

Mystery contacts, now maneuvering to our sides.

“MOP we have no contacts.” Hillard grows worried. “Waypoint Alpha 160 miles out.”

“Do we keep this heading?” I ask. “I don’t like this.”

“We can’t leave the tanker.”

“Raptors, sir.” Dan adds. “Tell me they can’t cover it. They have the fuel.”

“Mission is mission,” Hillard hates dissidence. “FOBs (forward operating base) getting hammered, and we got missiles raining up the strait! We can’t lose that tanker. ”

“Sir,” I plead, “we do ourselves no good bunched up like this. We get out to the tanker, if it’s still there?”

“It’ll be there!” he snaps.

“And if not, sir?” I press. I know he hates this.

“Agh, dammit.” Hillard growls. “Halo Flight to MOP, we’re concerned about the lack of contacts this far toward the waypoint. We need your guidance for course correction.”

Nothing. Static.

“Halo Flight to MOP.”

“Halo Flight to MOP.”

“I say again, Halo Flight to MOP.”

“Shit,” Dan says. “Com blackout. Satellites down. Missiles.”

“So China was waiting for this! The whole time!” I exclaim.

“Cool it!” Hillard barks, thinking on his toes. “Three, I think you have a good idea. We’ll have to split. 900 knots, 115 miles, we’ve got five, maybe eight minutes tops until they’re on top of us. Let’s go for 3-0-0 and turn in sharp in three minutes.”

“Good idea to cut that flank off.”

I look over to my right. The sky is dark, lit only by the flickers of lightning in the tall clouds in the expanse. I know what’s next. Hillard only does what makes sense. We have to turn toward them.

“Three,” Hillard says to me, “go pincer right. Keep tight. 50 miles, turn back in, and we’ll meet you in the middle. Anything shows beyond this, it’s hostile. You’re the AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile) Queen.”

“No V-I-D?” I ask. Confirming the change of engagement rules.

Even in wartime, visual identification is necessary. No one wants to be the guy that shoots down a Dreamliner or an Airbus.

“Confirm. No V-I-D. We are at war. This is a no-fly zone.”

“Roger. Pincer right for 3-4-5. Mid-low-high.” I say, confirming out altitude positions relative to each other. “I’ll take high. Aiming for angels 40.”

I look at them, hoping this isn’t the last time. Then, with one subtle move of the joystick, I peel away and pull into the turn, breathing through the g against my stomach. Lucy noses up, and I see the stars fading above me. Over my shoulder, Dan peels away left.

Nautical twilight is near. I hope to use it should I meet something out there that isn’t a Raptor or tanker.

“See you in a few minutes,” says Hillard. “Good luck.”

“Aye, sir.”

The airframe is filled with squeaks, rattles, and buffeting. Over the years, I imagine the test pilots that flew Lucy before me grew as acquainted to those sounds as I am. It’s music when we have none. The one thing that keeps us ticking, should the adrenaline overwhelm me, I listen to the squeaks of rivets flexing in their seams, the wings bouncing along in the air.

I wish for home. Farm fields. Lush air.

There is no time for daydreaming. My thirty seconds is up, and I pop the radar into scan, nose still pointed high as I cross angels 30.

Nothing, but I give it time. The horizon spans to infinity, now flushing with blue with the new day, a bad day, potentially for millions of people should this grow even further out of control.

And it does. And it is now where I feel helpless, when I know deep down there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop a war, when training goes to reality in the time it takes for Hillard to scream,

“Spike! Spike! I got RWR (radar warning receiver) at three-o-clock!”

Dan followed up, “Turning in towards you! Still no contact!”

“Three! Contact?”

Nothing. Nothing. Oh, shit.

The instrument panel lights up.

I get Master Caution, and the RWR’s telling, Bloop!

Then, Deedle! Deedle! Deedle! Deedle!

Radar lock.

Shit. Shit. SHIT. The TEWS (tactical electronic warfare system) screen shows the missile, but the system’s weakness is that it only gives a relative direction of the spike. It isn’t exact, but it’s from 11-o-clock. That’s enough for whereabouts. I breathe, my legs tingling with despair as I must now choose whether to press forward for a counter shot, or dive defensive.

“Three!” I say, the tension clear in my voice. “I have RWR. Spike 11-o-clock. No—wait.” I see a hit on radar. Faint, the little rectangle glowing ominously through the scan. “I have contact! 40 miles! Low RCS! Got him on—” high-g interrupts my speech as I attempt to nose in, “—ugh! Hold on,” the rectangle disappears, instead replaced by a line of six hollow likings, “he’s jamming!”

RWR jingles again. Deedle! Deedle! Deedle!

But it gets worse, the chimes growing frantic, their pulses as fast as my pounding heart.


“Missile!” I call, fighting my instinct to turn away. I feel the heat leaving my body, the blood tensing into my gut, the dryness in my mouth.

I need to press. Just a few more miles to close the distance.


“Oh, come on!” I scream, frantically hitting the queue button, waiting through these agonizing seconds for my saving grace, the one thing that could tell me where my lovely secret bandit hides.

“Two!” says Dan, labored, “I’m completely defensive! I have two tracking me, 15 miles! RWR!”

“Come on!” I scream again, until finally, I see it spelled clearly in my heads up display. There, a little rectangle appears in the lens, levitating in the sky behind towering thunderclouds.


Home on jammer/multi-seek mode. The rectangle highlights his position, still slightly out of visual range. A JATM should sprint toward that area, going ballistic before hitting pitbull mode, where it’ll lock onto the first thing it sees with both a heat signature larger than a car engine and a radar cross section bigger than a cardinal. If all else fails, it looks for visual cues of known adversary aircraft.

I’ve only tested it. Holy hell, I hope it actually works.

It has to work.

His missiles must be close, so I let loose, the master arm already toggled the moment things got hairy.

“Fox-3!” I yell, pressing the launch button.            

A JATM bursts from the rails, its rocket motor streaming orange as it fires away. Panicked, I let two more away.

“Fox-3! —Ugh, Fox-3 again!” before another JATM is off the rail. “Engaging bandit, heading 3-0-2, Angels 24. Pressing!”

“Three, defend!” says Hillard, defending himself. “Descending through Angels 13, countermeasures out!”

“Two!” I say, hoping he’s there. “Two!”

He’s not.

I lose contact with the bandit, flipping the radar into auto acquisition mode. It’s a last ditch effort, hearing the RWR stop blaring in my ears, the sounds of my breath fogging up my mask. This is stupid, and I know it. I should turn cold to him. In fact, I should’ve done that at least 90 seconds ago, but I can’t let him run us down.

Closing at 850 knots, there is no way we can run.

What I can do, and it’s the only thing I hope for, is to force an overshoot only if those missiles don’t jump me. I roll right, pushing Lucy into a brake so hard I feel my guts push deep into the seat. The blood sucks from my head.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

Breathing is the only way through it, if there weren’t 950 pounds atop my chest. It devolves to mere suckles, gasps for life as my vision peters out. I don’t want to drop my tank. It still has 2,000 pounds in it last I checked, but I’m chewing through that sitting on the afterburner like this.

I ease up on the stick. Life comes back to me.

No RWR yet. My goal is to notch the bandit. I need to stay as perpendicular to him as possible,

“Three, defending!” I gasp, hearing the RWR ring again.


Whoop! Whoop! its voice in slow motion, Missile! Missile!

Hillard yells, his voice tearing holes through me, “I see the missile! I see the launch! It’s coming! There’s two!” then, “Agh!”

Flight controls! Flight controls!


And that is the end for him.

I’m heading straight for Hillard and Dan. Twilight blooms in the sky ahead this way, due east where home is, and my safety. I wish for them to save me, if only for this moment, before I see a flash on the horizon. Then flames, fragments of debris falling, the leftovers of what was once an F/A-18E. Captain Justin Hillard. Gone.

“I think One is down!” shouts Dan. “I’m defending!”

“I see One is splashed!” I croak, peering over the shoulder, seeing two contrails above, a kink in their line as they redirect towards me.

“Shit!” Dan screams. “No more RWR!”

“Don’t press!” I say, pointing Lucy’s nose down. The darkened ocean fills my view, the sounds of the aircraft bouncing through heavy turbulence at 870 knots. 910 knots. 960 knots.

I cross Angels 9. I’m running out of altitude at this speed.

This is it. This is where I die.

“I’m pressing!” Dan says defiantly. “Turned back in, I see—two, no, three contacts!” then, “Fox-3!” again, “Fox-3! Agh, oh sh—”

I already see it, one flash ahead of me. Maybe ten miles.

“Nooo!” I only hear myself.

Flames, but there are two contrails flying away from it. Two rocket motors heavy to the north, streaming up until through the breadth of baby blue abyss, I see a small blackened dot, an aircraft, two burners lit as it pulls defensive.

It’s a bandit. Within visual range.

Yes. This is where I die.

I check my six, dropping more chaff in the beeline down. I cross angels 5, pulling back on the stick, looking up to see. The bandit, just as confused and spaced out as me, makes a mistake and flares as he goes cold to Dan’s JATMs.

But AIM-260s don’t give a damn about flares.

He realizes this, but it’s too late. He pulls hard up, just as my vision goes black, the 900+ pounds pushing me into the seat.


Flight controls! Flight controls!

Boom. It bursts into a trail of flames. I pull up to center it, looking back, one missile bursting just behind me. Where’s the other? I saw two! The other one is next, surely here to finish what it’s brother couldn’t: me.

And there, behind the left tail, I see it, its rocket motor extinguished, its guidance computers honing onto me, using its last bit of kinetic energy to close the gap. Oh god. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to go.

I must do something! I can’t just wait for it!

Roll! Roll! And I do, nearly spinning the wings off.

Desperation makes us all stupid, and here I do a stupid thing.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

“Aggggggh!” I’m blind, pulling into the bank so hard that my eyes give way to starvation. I don’t see it. “Aaaaaggggh.” And then I do, slipping beneath me, and then I yank the stick back, nosing up.

Flight controls! Flight controls!

I get lucky. There is no other way to put it. The missile attempts to follow, but it’s spent. Its nose pops up, and it closes to within perhaps a hundred feet of me—shit, maybe even fifty. Shit. SHIT. I think it’s going to hit.


Whoop! Whoop!

I pull back again, hoping the wings don’t detach. Flight controls!

It bursts. I gasp. I hear the shrapnel shoot by me, some of it hitting the canopy, piercing the wing skin, hitting the tails, and then—the engine.

Turbulence. The worst kind.

I hear nasty sounds, much like metal chewing against blown bearings, the compressor and its fans shearing into their housings. Lucy rolls hard to the left. I see the wing flex.

“Aaaaaghhh!” I scream for someone to help me. “Noooo!”

Bitchin’ Betty spells it.

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

It gets worse, ACM failure!

And worse in sequence, Radar failure!

But I don’t need radar for Sidewinders. Maybe, by this point, I either don’t care, or I’ve accepted my fate to the degree that I must maximize it. Lucy is still controllable. I still have hydraulics. Wings still attached. Both tails there. I can still maneuver—for now.

Let’s make the best of this. I put her into Seeker Caged Mode. Slam mode, the mode where the pilot no longer cares about being cordial.

Sidewinders armed. I nose up and bank back to the left.

Boom. There’s a flash in the distance. And then another. Two burning trails of debris falling. What? How could that be?

Holy shit. My JATMs. They both hit someone. There were only two fired in that direction, and it was from me.

“Splash two!” I say, still not accepting my friends are dead. “I think I splashed two! They’re in tight formation. Two groups of two—gaaaah—pincer coverage!”

I look left as I bank. I’m spewing smoke, a large flame reminiscent of Saturn V boosters from the nozzle of my left engine.

Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

Shut up, Betty! I know! I know!

My helmet sight queues. Seeing the two bandits down, I should be more than close enough for IRST [Infrared Search-and-Track]. The scan head sweeps, so I thank God it’s still working.

I reach down and pull the fire handle and shutdown switch for the left engine. Killing the turbine, yet the fire persists. I’m leaking fuel. It’s literally pouring out the wing, but I’m going fast enough to ensure it spews behind the plane in the wind.

Maybe, I’ll have just enough energy for this plan.

The reticle comes up on the HUD. The display shows my little wolves are ready. It’s time to uncage them, but only when the time is right.

There’s the telling hum of old adage.

Hummmmmmmmmm, then, waaaaaaaahhhh

But I can’t fire. I can’t waste this precious missile. The bandit closes, highlighted by the vibrating green circle over him in the visor as he speeds to my flank. He does what I planned minutes ago, doing an easy 700+ knots. The sky is much brighter now, and finally, I see them.

Holy. Hell. Two Chengdu J-20s. In the flesh.

One moving far faster than the other, half mile separation in altitude.

And I’m this close to them. Now, it all makes sense. The high interdiction speed. The lack of radar pickup. The missiles. I think they carry PL-21s, some bullshit knockoff Russian R-77, but maybe I shouldn’t discount them.

Clearly, they killed Hillard and Dan.

It’s just me, and I pull hard into the bank, just as I see the faster J-20 come to overshoot. I roll, holding the right engine as high as I can, feeling the left shudder and rake Lucy about in the clouds.

There is slow motion, though we pass perpendicular, him over top me. Admittedly, the Chengdu is a beautiful aircraft. It’s long, its wings mounted stern, little canards wiggling off each side just behind the canopy. Whomever is flying, they never realize their mistake.

Very little is known about the J-20, but physics are real.

He has far too much energy, and in his overshoot, he rolls and pulls up, forcing a displacement, attempting to match my turn—at least if he still considers me to be a threat. I’m on fire, but to him, he sees that one missile has missed, and the other as far as he’s concerned did most of its job.

Neither he nor his wingman fire at me.

Either I am lucky, or they are out of missiles.

Will they come back for me? Will they rotate, or will they commit back to their forward track? I focus on the lead. I see his burners on, and a fast, wide turn, and these fleeting seconds I hold my breath, ignoring the repeating warnings from Lucy and her Bitchin’ Betty. I hope. I pray, watching him start his roll.

Left or right? Which way will they try to get me?

Well, I’m not waiting. My indicated airspeed is 384 knots. Smack into the fat of a Super Rhino’s turn speed. With the larger wing area I can pull much higher turn rates in the F/A-18X, but that’s an undamaged one. Considering the holes in my left wing, I can’t pull as hard as I want. Still, I rotate just enough, bouncing aloft, watching and feeling the wings justle, the vortex clouds condensing over the leading edges.

I nose up, just as he crosses around.

I see his burners, still on. Perfect for a sidewinder.

Huuummmmmmm, then, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Fox-2. An AIM-9 leaves the rail.

I pitch down, still pretending to be dead.

He hasn’t turned yet, evidence that he assumed I was done for. With no tanks—or at least he dropped them—he has to be low on fuel, likely not wanting to expend any extra energy fiddling with me. His wingman does the same, covering the sea below as he banks away.

I turn my head upward, bringing the helmet-mounted seeker to him.

Maybe this is cowardice, but this is war. I nose up again.

Huuummmmmmm, then, Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Fox-2. I fire my last AIM-9.

They are clueless at this point, still flying away, their backs turned to me.

I imagine them calling out a ‘splash,’ their temporary victory short lived as a Sidewinder closes in like a German Shepherd, and in just the last moment, I see the lead J-20 flaring, the decoys flying out behind him as, just then, he’s hit by a blast fragmentation warhead.

Fire engulfs him, then his right wing separates. He rolls, tumbling until the forces rip off the tails. I don’t see where he ends up, but it’s at least away from me. He’ll crash somewhere north of here at that heading, in waters we control. His friend meets a similar fate.

So much for your stealth tanker strike, guys. It was okay, until you met me.

Mighty Dragon — that’s what they call them.

Oh, yes, it’s a sight to see, and before I die, I hold in happiness that in my luck, maybe somewhere in history, I’d go down as the first pilot to ever face such an aircraft in surprise combat.

And I killed four of them. Lucky me.

That was for Captain Hillard and Lieutenant Dan. Shit. There’s a searing pain against my back.


Engine fire, LEFT! Engine fire, LEFT!

APU fire! APU fire!

Dammit. Caught up in the Sidewinder uncaging, I forgot how dire my situation was. After losing the airspeed, the wind no longer keeps the spewing fire away. It’s in the aircraft, licking at the inner fuselage. The cockpit fills with smoke, my pants on fire, and the extinguisher only gives temporary respite.

I’m screaming. This hurts so damn bad.

I flip the toggle to jettison the drop tanks, but one catches—the one jammed on the battered left wing. Aerodynamic forces grapple the tanks, just long enough to yank Lucy into a hard left yaw. I’m thrown against the right cockpit fairing, the directional change and load shift more than the trim can adjust to. I nose up and over, the wind catching the bottom of the fuselage, ripping away the right tail, sending it into the left, and finally, the jammed wing tank is free.

Somehow I’m still flying. I use the one rudder I have left to point to heading 2-4-3. This should take me back to Taiwan, assuming that the island hasn’t been overrun. I have no clue what happened to the other two bandits we saw during the engagement. I can’t worry about that now.

There are three ways for me to die:

1) Burning alive in this aircraft.
2) A final hit by the other two bandits.
3) I eject, where I succumb to blunt force trauma from 400 knot winds, or make it down and drown.

Tough choices. But Lucy still has a little life left.

The main fuel dump still works, so I use it, pushing the right engine enough to climb back to Angels 10. Up here, I see Taiwan, and though it isn’t Taipei, I’m somewhere near the coast, at least 80 to 100 miles out. I adjust trim, keeping the nose high enough and the remaining left tail lags enough to hold a reasonably steady cruise. I’m guessing maybe 300 knots. Airspeed sensor failed when the nose cone detached.

Come on, Lucy. Come on sweetheart.

We’ve come too far to go out this way.

This gives me just a moment to see the beauty of the sky, perhaps the last few things I’ll see.

Flight computer hot! Flight computer hot!

The Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System visor quits along with the main avionics displays, but the bingo fuel light still works. So much for that fuel dump.

I’ll have to ditch, but I’ll hold out.

I fumble around, looking down to the com board, remembering to pay attention to the radio again.

I hear a voice in the static. “Halo Flight, this is Eagle Flight.”

Then, the coms die. Now, I get my silence. Minutes pass this way, five, six, or maybe eight.

Something catches my eye in the distance. It’s another bird, one of ours, moving into my three-o-clock. A Kadena Raptor. I recognize the tail number. Must be Eagle Flight, the bastards we were supposed to meet at the waypoint. He gets to within 100 feet of me, playing cautious to not get sucked into my debris stream.

He waves his wings. In the canopy, I see the pilot gesturing.

Oh, sure. Look at that. Lucy’s datalink still works. It’s a separate system from the avionics. I hit turbulence, either the wind, or the plane stalling. Maybe both.

My Raptor friend moves in above me. He’s surveying my plane, likely as shocked as his wingman that I’m still flying. I know, guys, I know. Make sure you get plenty of pictures.

Knocking and screeching startle me.

Engine fire, RIGHT! Engine fire, RIGHT!

I pull the right engine fire handle. Then I lose the lights. APU failure.

Flight controls failure! Flight controls failure!

Uh oh,

Eject! Eject!

I nose down. Oh god. I see nothing but water. My heart races. My stomach knots. Now, I have no more tricks up my sleeve, no more last minute lucky draws from a hat.

Bless their hearts, the Raptors follow me down.

The altimeter winds down, its hand spinning so fast that I can no longer see it. Rather I see dial digits, passing through 8,000.

7,000. I’m picking up speed.

5,800. The hops grow violent, threatening to shatter my spine.



There’s so much water. I can’t eject yet!

Not yet!


“Oh—my god.” I black out, shortly after the left wing separates, the jet rolling starkly to the left. Somehow, before I inevitably pass out, I grab the handle, and I shoot out, my breath taken away by the pain and shock of bursting into the atmosphere.

I freefall until the chute pops, jolting me to a faint descent. Stunned, I can see only a few bits and pieces. Below me, my plane spins, the aerodynamic forces snapping the fuselage in two. There, it tumbles piece by piece into the water.

The same water where I meet my fate.

All I see is darkness.

I never thought that it would be this dark.

Bryan Williams is a Mechanical Engineer working in the automotive field and moonlighting as a novelist. He is a huge aviation fan, particularly interested in the tactics of combat aviation. He has self-published one unrelated novel, The Underground Kings. Further additions to “Bandit” can be found on his website at

Featured Image: “Jet” by Lorenzo de Sanctis (via Artstation)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.