By Midshipman Second Class Jack Montgomery
It was freezing cold. Torpedoman’s Mate Chief Cottrell couldn’t stop tapping his foot and rubbing his legs. He had never been in a Navy office building in San Diego whose air conditioning actually worked until then and he felt strangely upset about it. He wasn’t sure if he was upset that they had it and his own workplace on Naval Submarine Base San Diego didn’t, or if he was just unhappy that he was so cold after working in the heat all day. Cottrell glanced at the other chiefs sitting beside him in the 30-year old thin cushion chairs and became self-aware about his foot tapping and stopped. Then he started rubbing his thumb against his pointer finger. He couldn’t help but fidget, he wanted to smoke and he was tired of waiting in the cold.
“Enter” said a disembodied voice. The group of chiefs stood up and filed into the office one by one, their expressions neutral.
Cottrell walked into and stood at attention to the officer who occupied the office.
“At ease,” she said and the chiefs relaxed from their loose interpretation of standing at attention.
“I’d offer y’all chairs but I only have the one,” the officer said. She had a commander’s silver oak leaf on her khaki uniform collar. Her name tag said, ‘Sykes’ but Cottrell didn’t recognize her; she was part of a different command.
“Alright guys, I need to make this quick and these binders have your orders and anything else you might need to know. I’m sorry we couldn’t give you any info ahead of time, but we don’t have a lot of time.”
The group of chiefs stood silently as the commander paused. Cottrell’s gaze wandered over to the seal behind her which said, ‘Naval Munitions Command.’
“We requisitioned all of you from your support commands because we’re forward deploying you to accelerate development of the expeditionary munitions replenishments campaign framework in WESTPAC. We wanted to give you and your teams’ time to train in the kind of conditions we need you in, but with increasing Chinese deployments, we only have days, not months, like we thought.”
Cottrell was stunned. Some of the other chiefs, however, began asking questions. To each of them, Commander Sykes deferred to the binder, until they realized she was not here to answer questions.
“Good luck shipmates, and enjoy Guam, hopefully you’ll all be back soon.”
Several days later, TMC Cottrell and his team were nowhere near Guam.
They had waited around Naval Base Guam, watching as the base transformed itself for conflict when Cottrell and his team were activated and moved out to the Philippines as quickly as they could be.
He felt jet-lagged and blinded by the bright sunshine on the small Filipino airstrip that he stepped out onto, carrying his sea bag on his shoulder. He turned and glanced at the C-17 Globemaster which he had flown on and how its large size seemed far too large to fit on the runway it had landed on.
Cottrell’s arm was grabbed by a nearby marine to keep him moving. He was brought to a bright-faced Marine Corps second lieutenant and saluted lazily. The marine returned a very crisp salute and said, “Welcome to the Philippines, chief. Sorry to rush you off, but we’ve got to move you, your people, and your equipment to the site ASAP before the next C-17 can land and deliver the munitions.”
Cottrell frowned and blinked, trying to get a grip on reality. “Are you attached with us, ma’am?”
The officer chucked, “No, chief. We’re an element of the Marine Littoral Regiment that’s been tasked out here to give you guys some force protection. Headquarters wants you guys unmolested by any onlookers.”
Cottrell nodded and let himself be guided by the group of marines around them.
Within a few hours they were setting up the Third Expeditionary Submarine Logistics Unit on a quiet little pier. People were tired, and things moved slowly in the heat, but he made sure they progressed.
Making the rounds, he grumbled as he noticed TM2 Harris had left the Revised Standard Setup Procedure Checklist on his impromptu crate of a desk filled out and signed, when he could clearly see Harris still setting up the mobile crane that had been requisitioned from one of the construction units. Harris was smart, but rash. He earned second class quickly, but Cottrell would have preferred to get someone a little more experienced in an environment like this.
“You’re not supposed to initial that you’ve done the check until you’ve completed the setup. You know this shit,” Cottrell said, folding his arms.
Harris grunted and turned around. “I didn’t want to be filling out that checklist once I finished this. It’s easier this way. You know I can handle this equipment, Chief.”
“Stop cutting corners, Harris. You’re not as familiar with this equipment as you think you are and we can’t be fucking around right now,” said Cottrell. Then, he handed Harris a new form.
Harris grumbled, but didn’t respond. He knew better than to start something with his chief. Cottrell shook his head and left; he had things to do.
Leaning against the crane, Cottrell’s eyes were fluttering open and close. Even as he sweated in the heat, he felt too warm to stay awake. He still wasn’t sure they’d ever get a submarine coming in. It seemed so silly, sending out a whole magazine of torpedoes out to some backwater pier that seemed far too shallow for any modern attack submarine. Even if a war had started, Cottrell couldn’t imagine Navy brass wanting such an important task being done without the usual support offered in Guam.
“Hey Chief, we’ve got a boat coming in,” one of the TM3s shouted.
Cottrell grumbled. Without any comment, all the sailors in his team slowly congregated to the pier side, and Cottrell felt their eyes upon him. He had not spoken to them since they had arrived.
“Lets get to it.” There was a little unease amongst the group. Until then they had had no knowledge if a conflict had begun or not. The arrival of the boat had put such doubts to rest. They knew their jobs. They knew what they needed to do. No need to waste time messing around talking. Cottrell didn’t like to talk, not like that. It was time to work.
Slowly, the boat came into view and lazily floated into the pier as it was pushed in by a local tug. For a brief moment, Cottrell wondered who manned the tug or how its crew was made to keep secret the nature of their job, but he brushed it off as he needed to focus.
With a little unease, having never done this before without the proper support, and with some assistance from the boat’s crew, the 3rd ELSU and the USS Tang successfully brought her to pier.
No pleasantries were exchanged, and few among the ELSU wanted to ask the crew about their experiences, and none did. Immediately, they set to work with the crew. Cottrell worked with the Tang’s COB as they moved torpedoes off the pier onto the boat faster than he had ever done so before. They used the mobile crane to carry torpedoes off the staging area on the pier onto the deck skid on the boat’s deck. Then, the crane lifted that same deck skid to a high angle, so that the torpedo could slide down into the shipping tray, from there the crew of the Tang took over.
Cottrell wondered how long thought-out this idea of expeditionary logistics really was, because he could recall as a junior sailor aboard the USS Minnesota that the deck above the tray had to be removed in a long and arduous process. Now, that was no longer the case, a design change that would have needed to be made long in advance, and yet Cottrell and his team had been given no notice before being shipped out.
The Navy worked in vague and mysterious ways.
After several hours, Cottrell and his team had done it. The Tang’s CO walked off the top deck of the boat, shook Cottrell’s hand and said, “You are doing God’s work, thank you.” Cottrell smiled, trying to refrain from cringing. He had never felt like being a Torpedoman was much of a holy task, especially not now, but he didn’t let his thoughts ruin the moment.
Within an hour, the boat was gone, and all that was left was the packaging and equipment of the 3rd ELSU strewn across the otherwise deserted pier. Cottrell looked at his team. They were tired. He was tired.
But they had more work to do.
When the first classes came up to ask for time off, Cottrell refused. Who knows when they would be asked to set up for another boat. Cottrell didn’t know enough about anything. They had to clear the pier, before another magazine of torpedoes showed up.
If another magazine of torpedoes showed up.
He looked at them. Maybe they should get some rest. He felt clouded, unsure of what to do. He wanted to smoke, even vape if one of the sailors had one. Cottrell looked at his gaggle of sailors. They were exhausted. Moving munitions was tiring, and they didn’t even get to go home. Cottrell grumbled. He wanted to go home too. He wondered if the nature of the Tang’s need for torpedoes weighed on their minds. He tried not to let it weigh on him. He noticed TM3 Nguyen standing alone to the side of the group which had slowly congregated a few dozen feet away from their chief, waiting on word from the TM1s. He couldn’t recall her interacting with any of the other sailors since leaving for Guam, she had always been quiet and efficient in San Diego, but this seemed different. He took note of that for later. Cottrell had a higher priority.
“Hussy, Guerra, get back here,” Cottrell called his first classes. Slowly, they turned around and heard what Cottrell had to say.
“Tell the sailors to get some rest. Obviously, no liberty, I’m not even sure where anyone could go if we had some, but the marine platoon apparently set up a temporary barracks in one of the small warehouses, ask one of the sergeants and they’ll help us out getting set up. Hussy, set up a duty section to stand watch on the equipment. I’ll take the first watch and set up a watch bill. Once you’re done with that, both of you get some rest. I have no idea when we might be getting another shipment, so be alert,” Cottrell said. Both Hussy and Guerra nodded, and without sounding off, they returned to their sailors to spread the news.
Just like that, they were gone. Within twelve hours of reloading the Tang, Cottrell received communication from a chain of command he was sorely unfamiliar with that after a job well-done, they wanted to move the 3rd ELSU to Australia. Where, Cottrell did not know. He did not even think to ask. After a hurried pack-up, another eight hours later the C-17s had returned to the small airstrip as had the sailors of the 3rd ELSU. There, Cottrell thanked the platoon commander of the escorting marines, which had rotated since his arrival earlier, and stepped aboard.
He wasn’t enthusiastic about boarding the C-17 again, but the cool nature of the cabin was a welcome change to the unconditioned building which was erroneously called a warehouse that had accompanied the pier. But before he could let himself be embraced by the cool air and the steady rhythm of bumps and turbulence; he felt a need to look over his sailors.
Once the aircraft had taken off, he stood up, balancing himself with his hand whenever the plane shook with turbulence, and walked the cabin. It wasn’t difficult, most of the sailors were near the forward part of the cabin, on the jump seats that lined the sides. Already, most had closed their eyes and fallen asleep. Everyone was tired, and their limited time off had done little to change that. Then he noticed Nguyen, wearing wireless headphones, sitting at the end of the right-side line of seats repeatedly tapping her knee. Slowly he made his way over, wondering if she was out of her mind.
“Nguyen,” Cottrell said, low but strongly.
Nguyen snapped her head to look at him and stopped tapping, “Yes chief?”
Cottrell opened his mouth, but held his original statement. Nguyen knew better than to have hidden a phone or use Bluetooth headphones. She had never been a problem for him before. He must have been tired, too tired to remember that.
“What are you doing with the headphones?”
“Oh,” she said, taking them out. “They’re off chief, I just like to wear them. I miss my stuff. My music. Helps me…stay calm.”
Cottrell grunted and sat down next to Nguyen. She looked nervous. Cottrell did his best to soften his features.
“Everything, uh, alright?”
“Just nervous, chief,” she said quietly.
“Yeah, me too,” Cottrell responded. He had never flown during a war. He wondered if they were flying through a combat zone as they spoke. Cottrell shook his head. He didn’t want to think about that.
Nguyen pressed her lips together. There wasn’t a simple answer to this.
Cottrell rubbed his knees. Wishing he had a cigarette. That always calmed him.
“Hey, anything you want you think I could get in Australia? I’m certain we could find some, some sort of convenience store somewhere,” Cottrell asked. He couldn’t offer much, but he wanted to do something.
Nguyen’s face brightened. Cottrell broke out a notepad and took her request, then he started taking other sailor’s requests too. He wondered how he was going to get all this, but he liked the little positive impact he could see on every person as he wrote down on his little list something that they would like. After taking each request, he would say, “Thank Nguyen,” and move on.
When they arrived, everyone was patting Nguyen on the shoulder and chatting with her. His influence might have been too strong, she wasn’t extroverted much, but he was certain at least she wouldn’t be left out and taken care of by her fellow sailors, and that was good enough.
This time Australian Defense Force soldiers provided the force protection. It made Cottrell wonder about the involvement of Australia in the conflict, but he didn’t worry about it too much. As they were setting up, he enlisted the help of the officer liaison and gave him the list and explained the situation. He worried that the Australian wouldn’t be interested in an extra task, but the major smiled and responded, “No problem, anything for our American cousins.”
Immediately, they set to work laying out the mobile crane and equipment needed to transfer torpedoes from their containers to whatever submarine that needed to rearm. It took hours, but things seemed to be going well. He could see the exhaustion still on everyone’s faces, but they were going effectively, they were becoming used to this new OPTEMPO, and Cottrell was proud.
A large crash disrupted Cottrell’s thoughts. He ran out to the end of the pier from the impromptu office trailer the Australians had provided him, where a crate had clipped the edge of one of the containers, and one of the sailors sat dazed nearby. A first class had been operating the crane but he could see it wasn’t his fault. He didn’t need anyone to tell him what happened.
While the crane was moving one of the torpedo crates from outside the container to the staging area, the harness slipped and the crate careened back into the container. He wondered if the sailor had just been jumping out of the way of the wood shatter or if she had been nearly hit by the crate. Cottrell checked on the sailor and was relieved to see she was fine.
It also wasn’t hard to figure out the culprit.
TM2 Harris stood sputtering where the torpedo crates were set in the harness. Cottrell didn’t need to ask him what he did wrong. He rushed it. Like always, and this time, his usually expert self fucked up.
Cottrell walked over and Harris quieted. The TM2 recoiled, waiting to be chewed out. Instead, Cottrell patted him on the back. Maybe he would have before, back in San Diego, but not now. Now they just needed to learn.
“Take a break Harris. Don’t cut corners next time. No one got hurt, don’t let it keep you down.” Cottrell said. Harris mumbled something along the lines of, “Aye, chief,” and walked away.
A few days passed but no sub came yet. The Australian major hooked up the 3rd ELSU and delivered on just about everything Cottrell asked for. He was happy. Not only that, but he had a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, an item Cottrell had not expected to get in the commonwealth’s fairly restrictive tobacco market.
Cottrell felt proud of his people. In just a few days, they had managed to do everything asked of them, and still somehow stayed pieced together. He wondered how long this would last, and how long before they could be rotated out. He took note to ask that later.
He sat on a rock a few hundred feet away, on a rocky coastline near the small Australian pier where his people were set up and lit a cigarette, enjoying the little headrush after taking his first drag. Maybe-
An explosion rocked Cottrell and deafened him. He felt pushed onto the ground and stayed there for a moment before struggling to sit up. The pier was covered in smoke, but he couldn’t make anything out in his blurred vision. He was stunned and felt the smushed cigarette slowly drop from his lip despite its stick.
His team was gone.
Jack Montgomery is a Brown University student majoring in history, specializing in naval history. He is a Midshipman Second Class in the Holy Cross NROTC Battalion and wants to commission as Surface Warfare Officer. This piece is a work of fiction. The ideas are the author’s alone and do not reflect the positions of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.
Featured Image: Art created with Midjourney AI.